Sex was a common theme in Roman art and literature. Ovid once wrote, "Offered a sexless heaven, I's say no thank you, women are such sweet hell." The poet Propertius wrote in great detail about his sexual relations with his girlfriend Hostia. One fresco in Pompeii shows a guy with a penis so big it is held up by a string. An erotic stucco mosaic from Pompeii features a couple having sexual intercourse sitting down.

Men often boasted of their love-making adventures on the walls of baths and other public buildings. Graffiti scrawled on the wall of a Pompeii bar claimed: 'I fucked the landlady.' Graffiti was often filled with bawdy and graphic details. The writers were not shy about naming names and even saying the time and place that encounters took place. Men who preferred men seemed just as emboldened to list their conquests and as men who preferred women.

The Roman God Priapus had an enormous penis. He is sometimes pictured chasing after vestal virgins. There was secret cult that worshipped him. In classical Latin the word "vagina" means "sheath for a sword." There is oen story that when Caesar put his sword into its scabbard he said he was putting it into its vagina. In the “Natural History of Love,” Diane Ackerman said that Aeneas put his sword in “his” vagina in the Aeneid. Some scholars have said that “vagina’ here meant a wound. And, there were two Latin words for large breasts: mammosa and mammeata.

Claudine Dauphin of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris wrote: “Graeco-Roman domestic sexuality rested on a triad: the wife, the concubine and the courtesan. The fourth century B.C. Athenian orator Apollodoros made it very clear in his speech Against Neaira quoted by Demosthenes that 'we have courtesans for pleasure, and concubines for the daily service of our bodies, but wives for the production of legitimate offspring and to have reliable guardians of our household property'. Whatever the reality of this domestic set-up in daily life in ancient Greece, this peculiar type of 'ménage à trois' pursued its course unhindered into the Roman period: monogamy de jure appears to have been very much a façade for polygamy de facto. [Source: “Prostitution in the Byzantine Holy Land” by Claudine Dauphin, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris, Classics Ireland ,University College Dublin, Ireland, 1996 Volume 3 ~]

Christianized Rome was not as tolerant about sex for sex sake as Republican and Imperial Rome. Dauphin wrote: “The advent of Christianity upset this delicate equilibrium. By forbidding married men to have concubines on pain of corporal punishment, canon law elaborated at Church councils took away from this triangular system one of its three components. Henceforth, there remained only the wife and the courtesan... Besides the sin of lust punished by illness with which prostitutes contaminated all those who approached them physically, harlots embodied also the sin of sexual pleasure amalgamated with that of non-procreative sex condemned by the Church Fathers. The Apostolic Constitutions (dated from A.D. 375 to 380) forbade all non-procreative genital acts, including anal sex and oral intercourse. The art displayed by prostitutes consisted precisely in making full use of sexual techniques which increased their clients' pleasure. Not surprisingly therefore, Lactantius (A.D. 240-320) condemned together sodomy, oral intercourse and prostitution (Divin. Inst. 5.9.17).” ~

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Book: “Roman Sex: 100 B.C. to A.D. 250" by John R. Clarke (Harry N. Abrams, 2003).

Marital Sex in Ancient Rome

Describing a Roman wedding night, social historian Paul Veyne wrote: "The wedding night took the form of a legal rape from which the woman emerged “ ”offended with her husband” who, accustomed to using his slave women as he pleased, found it difficult to distinguish between raping a woman and taking the initiative in sexual relations. It was customary for the groom to forego deflowering his wife on the first night, out of concern for her timidity; but he made up for his forbearance by sodomizing her."

Jana Louise Smit wrote for Listverse: “Things in the Roman bedroom weren’t exactly even. While women were expected to produce sons, uphold chastity, and remain loyal to their husbands, married men were allowed to wander. He even had a rule book. It was fine to have extramarital sex with partners of both genders, but it had to be with slaves, prostitutes, or a concubine/mistress. Wives could do nothing about it since it was socially acceptable and even expected from a man. [Source: Jana Louise Smit, Listverse, August 5, 2016]

“While undoubtedly there were married couples who used passion as an expression of affection for one another, the general unsympathetic view was that women tied the knot to have children and not to enjoy a great sex life. That was for the husband to savor, and some savored it a little too much—slaves had no rights over their own bodies, so the rape of a slave was not legally recognized.”

Birth Control and Contraceptives in the Greco-Roman World

There is some evidence that the Romans used oiled animal bladders as condom-like sheaths. Roman women were told sperm could be expelled by coughing, jumping and sneezing after intercourse, and repeated abortions produced sterility.

According to historians, demographic studies suggest the ancients attempted to limit family size. Greek historians wrote that urban families in the first and second centuries B.C. tried to have only one or two children. Between A.D. 1 and 500, it was estimated the population within the bounds of the Roman Empire declined from 32.8 million to 27.5 million (but there can be all sorts of reason for this excluding birth control).

Birth control methods in ancient Greece included avoiding deep penetration when menstruation was "ending and abating" (the time Greeks thought a woman was most fertile); sneezing and drinking something cold after having sex; and wiping the cervix with a lock of fine wool or smearing it with salves and oils made from aged olive oil, honey, cedar resin, white lead and balsam tree oil. Before intercourse women tried applying a perceived spermicidal oil made from juniper trees or blocking their cervix with a block of wood. Women also ate dates and pomegranates to avoid pregnancy (modern studies have shown that the fertility of rats decreases when they ingest these foods).

dates were consumed to avoid pregnancy

Women in Greece and the Mediterranean were told that scooped out pomegranates halves could be used as cervical caps and sea sponges rinsed in acidic lemon juice could serve as contraceptives. The Greek physician Soranus wrote in the 2nd century A.D. : "the woman ought, in the moment during coitus when the man ejaculates his sperm, to hold her breath, draw her body back a little so the semen cannot penetrate into the uteri, then immediately get up and sit down with bent knees, and this position provoke sneezes."

Claudine Dauphin of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris wrote: “One technique perfected by prostitutes both increased the pleasure of their partners and was contraceptive. Lucretius (99-55 B.C.)' description of prostitutes twisting themselves during coitus was echoed by the Babylonian Talmud: 'Rabbi Yose is of the opinion that a woman who prostitutes herself turns round to prevent conception'... In the sermons of the Church Fathers, contraception and prostitution formed a couple that could only engender death. St John Chrysostom (died A.D. 407) cried out in Homily 24 on the Epistle to the Romans 4: 'For you, a courtesan is not only a courtesan; you also make her into a murderess. Can you not see the link: after drunkenness, fornication; after fornication, adultery; after adultery, murder?'. [Source: “Prostitution in the Byzantine Holy Land” by Claudine Dauphin, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris, Classics Ireland ,University College Dublin, Ireland, 1996 Volume 3 ~]

Valuable Contraceptive Plant

In the seventh century B.C., Greek colonists in Libya discovered a plant called silphion , a member of the fennel family which also includes asafoetida , one of the important flavorings in Worcester sauce. The pungent sap from silphion, the ancient Greeks found, helped relieve coughs and tasted good on food, but more importantly it proved to be an effective after-intercourse contraceptive. A substance from a similar plant called ferujol has been shown in modern clinical studies to be 100 percent successful in preventing pregnancy in female rats up to three days after coitus. [Source: John Riddle, J. Worth Estes and Josiah Russell, Archaeology magazine, March/April 1994]

Known to the Greeks as silphion and to the Romans as silphium, the plant brought prosperity to the Greek city-state of Cyrene. Worth more than is weight on silver, it was described by Hippocrates, Diosorides and a play by Aristophanes.

Sixth century B.C. coins depicted women touching the silphion plant with one hand and pointing at their genitals with the other. The plant was so much in demand in ancient Greece it eventually became scarce, and attempts to grow it outside of the 125-mile-long mountainous region it grew in Libya failed. By the 5th century B.C., Aristophanes wrote in his play The Knights , "Do you remember when a stalk of silphion sold so cheap?" By the third or forth century A.D., the contraceptive plant was extinct.

Abortions in the Greco-Roman World


Abortions were performed in ancient times, says North Carolina State history professor John Riddle, and discussions about featured many of the same arguments we hear today. The Greeks and Romans made a distinction between a fetus with features and one without features. The latter could be aborted without having to worry about legal or religious reprisals. Plato advocated population control in the ideal city state and Aristotle suggested that "if conception occurs in excess...have abortion induced before sense and life have begun in the embryo."

The Stoics believed the human soul appeared when first exposed to cool air, and the potential for a soul existed at conception. Hippocrates warned physicians in his oath not to use one kind of abortive suppository, but the statement was misinterpreted as a blanket condemnation of all of abortion. John Chrystom, the Byzantine bishop of Constantinople compared abortion to murder in A.D. 390, but a few years earlier Bishop Gregory of Nyssa said the unformed embryo could not be considered a human being. [Riddle has written a book called “Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance”]

Claudine Dauphin of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris wrote: According to Plautus (died 185 B.C.) , abortion was a likely action for a pregnant prostitute to take, either -Ovid (born 43 B.C.) suggested - by drinking poisons or by puncturing with a sharp instrument called the foeticide, the amniotic membrane which surrounds the foetus. Procopius of Caesarea (A.D. 500-554) states emphatically that when she was a prostitute, Empress Theodora knew all the methods which would immediately provoke an abortion (Anecd. 9.20). [Source: “Prostitution in the Byzantine Holy Land” by Claudine Dauphin, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris, Classics Ireland ,University College Dublin, Ireland, 1996 Volume 3]

silphion symbol

“Didascalia Apostolorum (around A.D. 230) condemned both abortion and infanticide: 'You will not kill the child by abortion and you will not murder it once it is born'. In 374, a decree of Emperors Valentinian I and Valens forbade infanticide on pain of death (Cod. Theod. 9.14.1). Nevertheless, the practice which had been common in the Roman period, continued. That is why the Tosephta (Oholoth 18.8) repeated in the fourth century the warning made by the Mishna in the second century: 'The dwelling places of Gentiles are unclean... What do they [the rabbis] examine? The deep drains and the foul water'. This implied that the Gentiles disposed of their aborted foetuses in the drains of their own houses.” ~

Aphrodisiacs in Ancient Rome

The Romans and Greeks regarded garlic and leeks as aphrodisiacs. Truffles, artichokes and oysters were also associated with sexuality. Anise-tasting fennel was popular with Greeks who thought it made a man strong. The Romans thought it improved eyesight.

Liquamen, a sauce was made from rotting fish guts, vinegar, oil, and pepper, was said to be an aphrodisiac. Variants of the sauce were used on fish and fowl as far back as 300 B.C. Among the recipes discovered at Pompeii were mushrooms with honey-and-liquamen sauce, soft-boiled eggs with pine kernels and liquamen sauce, and venison with caraway seeds, honey and liquamen sauce.

Mark Oliver wrote for Listverse: “The gladiators who lost became medicine for epileptics while the winners became aphrodisiacs. In Roman times, soap was hard to come by, so athletes cleaned themselves by covering their bodies in oil and scraping the dead skin cells off with a tool called a strigil. “Usually, the dead skin cells were just discarded—but not if you were a gladiator. Their sweat and skin scrapings were put into a bottle and sold to women as an aphrodisiac. Often, this was worked into a facial cream. Women would rub the cream all over their faces, hoping the dead skin cells of a gladiator would make them irresistible to men.”[Source: Mark Oliver, Listverse, August 23, 2016]

Erotic Writers in Antiquity

Leonard C. Smithers and Sir Richard Burton wrote in the notes of “Sportive Epigrams on Priapus”: “Elephantis was a licentious Greek poetess who wrote on the different modes of coition. In her work (which has perished) it is supposed that she enumerated nine postures of venery. Astyanassa, the maid of Helen of Troy, was, according to Suidas, the first writer on erotic postures, and Philaenis and Elephantis (both Greek maidens) followed up the subject. Aeschrion however ascribes the work attributed to Philaenis to Polycrates, the Athenian sophist, who, it is said, placed the name of Philaenis on his volume for the purpose of blasting her reputation. [Source: “Sportive Epigrams on Priapus” translation by Leonard C. Smithers and Sir Richard Burton, 1890,]

“This subject occupied the pens of many Greek and Latin authors, amongst whom may be mentioned: Aedituus, an erotic poet noticed by Apuleius in his Apology: Annianus (in Ausonius); Anser, an erotic poet cited by Ovid; Aristides, the Milesian poet; Astyanassa, above mentioned; Bassus; Callistrate, a Lesbian poetess, noted for obscene verses; Cicero, in his amorous letters to Cerellia; Cinna (Helvius), a Latin amatory poet; Cyrene, the artist of amatory tabellae or ex-votos offered to Priapus, and who enumerated twelve postures; Elephantis, the writer on Varia concubitis genera, above mentioned; Eubius, the doubtful author of a work on Pleasure; Everemus, a Messenian writer, whose works were translated into Latin by Ennius; Hemitheon of Sybaris, author of the Sybaritic books cited by Martial and Lucian for their lubricity. Hortensius, a lascivious writer; Laevius, who composed the poem Io, and wrote several books on love bearing the title of Erotopaegnia; Memmius, of whom Pliny the Younger speaks; Mimnermus, a Smyrnian erotic poet who flourished about the time of Solon; Musaeus; Myonia, an Aelian author; Naevius, a licentious poet; Nico, a Samian maiden, said by Xenophon to be the writer of lewd books.”

Others include: “Paxamus, who wrote the Dodecatechnon, a volume treating of twelve erotic postures; Philaenis, cited above; Pliny the Younger, whose amatory work is not extant, but which he mentions in his letters; Proculus, the writer of amorous elegies; Protagorides, Amatory Conversations, Sabellus, contemporary with Martial, whose poem on the various modes of congress is lost; Sappho, the celebrated Greek poetess, equally renowned as the queen of tribades; Sisenna, who translated the works of Aristides into Latin; Sotades, the Mantinean poet; Sphodrias, who composed an Art of Love; Sulpitia, an erotic, but modest, poetess, who wrote on conjugal love; Sulpitius (Servius), an author of amatory songs; Ticida; and Trepsicles, Amatory Pleasures. Sotades was the first to treat of Greek love or dishonest and unnatural love. He wrote in the Ionian dialect and according to Suidas he was the author of a poem entitled Cinaedica.

Sexual Poems by Martial

On the three poems by Marcus Valerius Martialis (Martial), poet and translator Joseph S. Salemi wrote: They all deal with sex in some way or another. The first is about a lesbian named Bassa; the second is about a speaker's desire for a young boy (the eromenos of Graeco-Roman sexual practice); and the third is about some rather obscure but kinky sexual acts. In each case, the poem shows Martial exactly as he was: a Roman male who disliked homosexuality, but who had a proclivity for underage boys, and who appears to have favored a somewhat rough and exploitative sex. [Source: Joseph S. Salemi, “The Barefoot Muse, A Journal of Formal & Metrical Verse]

“Making love to an eromenos (a young make) was not considered abnormal at that time; indeed, if we are to believe Martial, it seems to have been a preferred sexual outlet for many adult Roman males. Epigram III.65 is a love lyric addressed to such a boy. The other two poems are satiric, making fun of lesbian sex and kinky heterosexual practices. There are other poems among Martial's Epigrams that make these three look like exemplars of Victorian reticence. Martial wrote many of his Epigrams during the reign of the tyrant emperor Domitian. It was a time of political repression, fear, and cowed speech. Nevertheless, he was allowed to ridicule whatever sexual practices or personality types he pleased. I trust that right now, in the United States, I have at least as much freedom of speech as Martial had under Domitian.”

scene from a fresco
in a Pompeii bath
“Epigram I.90:
Bassa, I never saw you hang with guys —
Nobody whispered that you had a beau.
Girls surrounded you at every turn;
They did your errands, with no attendant males.
And so, I guess I naturally assumed
That you were what you seemed: a chaste Lucretia.
But hell no. Why, you shameless little tramp,
You were an active humper all the time.

“You improvised, by rubbing cunts together,
And using that bionic clit of yours
To counterfeit the thrusting of a male.
Unbelievable. You've managed to create
A real conundrum, worthy of the Sphinx:
Adultery without a co-respondent.

Notes: 1) Lucretia: the legendary avatar of chastity among the Romans. She was a high-born matron who was raped by the evil king Tarquinius Superbus, and who committed suicide rather than bear the dishonor. 2) fututor: literally "fucker," but with the male suffix of agency. The oxymoronic fututrix would, if it existed, be the proper term for a woman, but that is Martial's comic point. 3) mentiturque virum prodigiosa Venus: literally "and your unnatural lust counterfeits a male." I have taken the liberty of translating somewhat freely here, using "bionic clit" and "the thrusting of a male" to capture Martial's meaning. 4) Thebano aenigmate: the Theban enigma was the riddle of the Sphinx, posed to Oedipus at the gates of that city. 5) ubi vir non est: literally "where there isn't a man." Adultery in ancient Rome could only be committed by a married woman and a lover of the opposite sex. Martial's joke here is that Bassa has turned herself into an ersatz man, thus making an action for divorce possible.

Epigram III.65:
The breath of a young girl, biting an apple,
The scent that wafts from Corycian saffron,
The smell of the white vine, flowering with first clusters,
The odor of fresh grass, where sheep have grazed,
Fragrance of myrtle, spice-reaping Arab, rubbed amber,
A fire glowing pale with eastern incense,
The earth just lightly touched with summer rain,
A garland that has circled someone's hair
Wet with spikenard. Diadumenus, cruel child,
All these things breathe forth from your perfect kisses:
Can you not give them freely, unbegrudging?

“Notes: 1) Corycio...croco: Corycos in the province of Cilicia was noted for its production of saffron, a highly prized seasoning and aromatic. 2) messor Arabs: literally "the Arabian reaper." A great many spices came to Rome via traders in Arabia, and as a result Arabia was sometimes thought of as the actual source of many spices, rather than as a transit point. 2) saeve puer: literally "savage boy." Martial often writes of the lovely young eromenos who is sexually desirable, but whose boyish fickleness and petulance frustrate an adult male lover. See Epigrams VIII.46, XII.75. 20120227-Pompeii_-_Casa_del_Centenario_-_Love_scene.jpg
from the Casa del Centenario in Pompeii
Epigram IX.67:
I had this really horny broad all night,
A girl whose naughty tricks are unsurpassed.
We did it in a thousand different ways.
Tired of the same old thing, I asked to buttfuck —
Before I finished speaking, she said Yes.
Emboldened, I then blushed a bit, and laughed,
And asked for something even dirtier.
The lusty wench agreed without a blink.
Still, that girl was pure in my eyes, Aeschylus —
But she won't be for you. To get the same,
You'll have to grant a nasty stipulation.

One Martial sex epigram goes:
“There is no glory in outstripping donkeys.
Conceal a flaw, and the world will imagine the worst.
Fortune gives too much to many, enough to none.
There is no living with thee, nor without thee.”

Another Martial sex epigram goes:
“Wife, leave my house or adopt my ways!
I am not a Curius, a Numa or a Tatius.
Nights made happy with drink please me:
But you hurry to leave with water to drink.
You love the shadows, but I’m happy to play
With a lamp as witness or with light let in on my ‘bulge’.
Tunics and obscuring robes must cover you:
But no girl could ever be naked enough for me!
Kisses to mimic eager doves delight me;
But you give those from a grandmother’s ‘good morning’.

“It is beneath you to help out with movement or voice,
Not even fingers, as if you were readying incense and wine.
Phrygian slaves used to masturbate outside the door
Whenever the wife sat atop her Hectorean ‘horse’;
Chaste Penelope always used to keep her hand down there,
Even when the Ithacan was snoring!
You won’t abide anal sex! Cornelia permitted this to Gracchus!
Julia allowed Pompey; Porcia bent for you, Brutus!
When the Dardanian was not yet his servant mixing sweet wine,
Juno was Jupiter’s Ganymede.
If you want to be grave, then be Lucretia all day
But at night I want a Lais.”

Erotic Art in Ancient Rome

Much of what we know about sex in the Roman era is based on images that have been found in brothels and villas, various objects of art, and erotic ceramic medallions from Gaul. Erotic ceramic medallions from Gaul show sex scenes with captions incised directly into the clay. One that shows a soldier making love with woman and crowning her with laurel wreath reads: “You alone conquer me."

Brothel pictures depicted couples in flagrante and with , apostrophic penises. In Ashkelon in present-day Israel archaeologists found scores of palm-size ceramic oil lamps with mythical and sexual themes in a villa in wealthy part of town. Because the lamps had not been lit it is thought they were part of collection.

The first archaeologists to excavate Pompeii were surprised by some of the obscene things they found and hid them from public view. Mark Oliver wrote for Listverse: “ “Pompeii was filled with art that was so filthy that it was locked in a secret room for hundreds of years before anyone was allowed to look at it. The town was full of the craziest erotic artwork you’ll ever see—for example, the statue of Pan sexually assaulting a goat. On top of that, the town was filled with prostitutes, which gave even the street tiles their own special little touch of obscenity. To this day, you can walk through Pompeii and see a sight Romans would enjoy every day—a penis carved into the road with the tip pointing the way to the nearest brothel.” [Source: Mark Oliver, Listverse, August 23, 2016]

Steve Coates wrote in the New York Times, “Much of the art” in Pompeii is “highly eroticized, even when not bluntly pornographic. Much else can striker the modern viewer as bizarre — something out of Petronius or Apuleius rather than Cicero or Horace — like a fresco of the judgment of Solomon story enacted by pygmies."

fresco from a Pompeii ristorante

Leonard C. Smithers and Sir Richard Burton wrote in the notes of “Sportive Epigrams on Priapus”: “The Roman voluptuaries were accustomed to ornament their chambers with licentious paintings, the subjects of which were chiefly taken from the works of Philaenis,Elephantis and other erotic writers. Thus Lalage lays a series of tablets, representing different postures in copulation, as ex-votos on the altar of Priapus. [Source: “Sportive Epigrams on Priapus” translation by Leonard C. Smithers and Sir Richard Burton, 1890,]

“Propertius censures the custom of hanging these obscene pictures on the walls of rooms. Suetonius says of Tiberius, 'He had several chambers set round with pictures and statues in the most lascivious attitudes, and furnished with the books of Elephantis, that none might lack a pattern for the execution of any lewd project that was prescribed him.' Ovid writes, 'They join in venery in a thousand forms; no tablet could suggest more modes.' And Apuleius, 'And, having imitated in their every mode the joyous tablets, let her change posture, and herself hang o'er me on the couch.”

David Silverman of Reed College asked his students to ponder these questions: “What does the evidence about the Roman predilection for erotic paintings tell us about Roman sexuality? Evidence here includes not only the preserved paintings themselves, but also their locations and intended viewers, as well as what contemporary writers had to say about them. Where were these paintings? Were they only for men to see, or only for men and female prostitutes, or for married women as well? Was the purpose of the paintings to kindle sexual desire? To function as erotodidaxis, instructional media? Or something else? For the Romans, what made the distinction between the erotic and the obscene? [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ^*^]

Phalluses in Ancient Rome

Romans found nothing particularly lewd about the penis. Phalluses commonly showed up in art and religious ceremonies as symbols of power; the word "fascination" is derived from the phallic god Fascinus; and parents hung penis-shaped amulets around the neck of their child's to ward off the evil eye. Some people collected bronze amulets shaped like erect penises with bird or bat wings and human legs. Phallic symbols called faccinum were hung in kitchens and bedrooms.

bronze Roman phallic pendant

Steve Coates wrote in the New York Times, “There seems to be phalluses everywhere. Enormous ones, tiny ones, doubles, singles; attached to men, gods or satyrs in every medium or in dismembered splendor; over doors, carved into the pavement, on chains and serving trays, turned into lamps, winged like birds, with bells on. Even some of the phalluses have phalluses. If they were good luck charms, as is sometimes thought, it obviously didn't work."

One of the first temples in Rome was dedicated to the god Mutanus Tutunis, who was represented by a penis-like form that newlywed kept in their bedroom on their wedding night and the bride sat on before sex to symbolize the loss of her virginity. In Roman mythology, Venus's son Pripaus maintained his eternal erection by consuming heaps of the herb rocket cress. The custom of Roman men to coddle their testicles may have to led to high rates of sterility.

Mark Oliver wrote for Listverse: “Penises were pretty popular in Rome. They didn’t share our skittishness toward the male member. Instead, they displayed them proudly. Sometimes, they even wore them around their necks. It was a fairly common Roman fashion choice for boys to walk around wearing copper penises on necklaces. This was about more than looking good. According to Roman writings, these would “prevent harm from coming” to the people who wore them. They didn’t stop there, either. Good luck penises were also drawn on dangerous places to keep travelers safe. Sharp curves and rickety bridges in Rome often had a penis drawn on them to grant good luck to every passerby. [Source: Mark Oliver, Listverse, August 23, 2016]

Romans wore phalluses as good luck charms. Andrew Handley wrote in for Listverse: “One of the good luck charms of ancient Rome was the phallus—a very Latin way to say erect penis. “There’s evidence that the phallic symbolism was a very integral part of Roman life. They wore phallus charms as necklaces, hung them in their doorways, and even made wind chimes to ward off evil spirits. Sometimes the phallus was embellished as well—those wind chimes have been found with the feet of a lion, the wings of a bird, and the head of, well, a penis. If someone hung that up in their house today, they’d probably be arrested as a sex offender.” [Source: Andrew Handley, Listverse, February 8, 2013]

Mooning and Syphilis in Ancient Rome

Mark Oliver wrote for Listverse: “Rome holds the unique distinction of recording the first mooning in history”. According to Josephus: During Passover, Roman soldiers were sent to stand outside of Jerusalem to keep watch in case the people revolted. They were meant to keep the peace, but one soldier did a little bit more: he lifted “up the back of his garments, turned his face away, and with his bottom to them, crouched in a shameless way and released at them a foul-smelling sound where they were offering sacrifice.” The Jews were furious. First, they demanded that the soldier be punished, and then they started hurtling rocks at the Roman soldiers. Soon a full-on riot broke out in Jerusalem—and a gesture that would live on for thousands of years was born. [Source: Mark Oliver, Listverse, August 23, 2016]

Claudine Dauphin of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris wrote: “According to the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 33a), Rabbi Hoshaia of Caesarea also threatened with syphilis 'he who fornicates'. He will get 'mucous and syphilous wounds' and moreover will catch the hydrocon - an acute swelling of the penis. These are precisely the symptoms of the primary phase of venereal syphilis. [Source: “Prostitution in the Byzantine Holy Land” by Claudine Dauphin, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris, Classics Ireland ,University College Dublin, Ireland, 1996 Volume 3 ~]

“There are, of course, two conflicting theories concerning syphilis. According to the Colombian or American theory, syphilis (Treponema pallidum) appeared for the first time in Barcelona in 1493, brought back from the West Indies by the sailors who had accompanied Christopher Columbus. On the other hand, the unicist theory claims that the pale treponema has existed since prehistoric times and has spread under four different guises: pinta on the American continent, pian in Africa, bejel in the Sahel, and lastly venereal syphilis which is the final form of a treponema with an impressive gift for mutation and adaptation. ~

“The latter hypothesis is supported by a recent discovery of great importance made by the Laboratoire d'anthropologie et de préhistoire des pays de la Méditerranée occidentale of the CNRS at Aix-en-Provence. Lesions characteristic of syphilis have been detected on a foetus gestating in a pregnant woman who had been buried between the third and the fifth centuries A.D. in the necropolis of Costobelle in the Var district. Bejel is still endemic amongst some peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean. A few cases have been recorded archaeologically on skeletons of Bedouins and settled Arabs of Ottoman Palestine. Contracted in childhood, bejel spreads by physical but not necessarily sexual contact, whereas syphilis which is an illness of adults, is transmitted only sexually. In both cases, the deterioration of the bones as well as the symptoms and the progress of the illness are identical. However, only venereal syphilis is able to go through the placenta and to infect the embryo. The mother of the Costobelle foetus must therefore have suffered from venereal syphilis. This would confirm the view held by modern pathologists that venereal syphilis already existed in Ancient Greece and Rome. ~

Did Erotic, Roman-Era Spanish Dancing Girls Do the Fandango?

Juvenal wrote in in Satire 11: “You may look perhaps for a troop of Spanish maidens to win applause by immodest dance and song, sinking down with quivering thighs to the floor — such sights as brides behold seated beside their husbands, though it were a shame to speak of such things in their presence. . . . My humble home has no place for follies such as these. The clatter of castanets, words too foul for the strumpet that stands naked in a reeking archway, with all the arts and language of lust, may be left to him who spits wine upon floors of Lacedaemonian marble; such men we pardon because of their high station. In men of moderate position gaming and adultery are shameful; but when those others do these same things, they are called gay fellows and fine gentlemen. My feast to-day will provide other performances than these. The bard of the Iliad will be sung, and the lays of the lofty-toned Maro that contest the palm with his. What matters it with what voice strains like these are read?

“Leonard C. Smithers and Sir Richard Burton wrote in the notes of “Sportive Epigrams on Priapus”: “Gifford, commenting on the passage in Juvenal, remarks that the dance alluded to is neither more nor less than the Fandango, which still forms the delight of all ranks in Spain, and which, though somewhat chastised in the neighbourhood of the capital, exhibits at this day, in the remote provinces, a perfect counterpart (actors and spectators) of the too free but faithful representation before us. In a subsequent line, Juvenal mentions the testarum crepitus, the clicking of the castanets, which accompanies this dance. The testae were small oblong pieces of polished wood or bone which the dancers held between their fingers and clashed in measure, with inconceivable agility and address. The Spaniards of the present day are very curious in the choice of their castanets; some have been shown to me that cost five-and-twenty or thirty dollars a pair; these were made of the beautifully variegated woods of South America. [Source: “Sportive Epigrams on Priapus” translation by Leonard C. Smithers and Sir Richard Burton, 1890,]


“Pollux notes, 'The ekláktismata were dances for women: they had to throw their feet higher than their shoulders.' This kind of dance is not unknown in more modern times. J. C. Scaliger writes, 'Still, nowadays, the Spaniards touch the occiput and other parts of the body with their feet.' Bulenger mentions the Bactriasmus, a lascivious dance, with undulations of the loins.

“Julius Caesar Scaliger says, 'One of the infamous dances was the díknpma or díknoûothai, meaning wriggling the haunches and thighs, the crissare of the Romans. In Spain this abominable practice is still performed in public.' Martial also states that these dances were sometimes accompanied by the cymbal — 'For my page wantons with Lampsacian [Priapeian] verse, and strikes the cymbal with the hand of a Spanish dancer.' Again he speaks of the wanton dancers from Cadiz who were skilled in the art of licentiously undulating their loins; and of Telethusa's lascivious gestures and agile posturing in the Gaditanian fashion to the sound of the castanets.1 Vergil also alludes to this kind of dancing with castanets. The Thesaurus Eroticus, under 'comessationes', describes them as naked dancing-girls who with tremulous loins and obscene movements provoked the lust of their spectators, whilst the tractatrices were softly kneading and pressing the limbs of their masters and soliciting an erection with their apt touches. Martial and Juvenal make copious reference to this subject. These tractatrices were female slaves whose business was to knead and make supple by manual pressure all the joints of their master's body after his bath. The effeminate refinement of the Roman voluptuaries is well shown by the fist of attendants given in the Erotika Biblion, which includes as 'toilet accessories' jatraliptae (youths who wiped the bather with swansdown); unctares (perfumers); fricatores (rubbers); fractatrices (massage-girls); dropacistae (corn extractors); alipilarii (those who plucked the hair from the armpits and other parts of the body); paratiltriae (children entrusted with the cleansing of all the orifices of the body, the ears, anus, vulva, &c.); :and picatrices (young girls who attended to the symmetrical arrangement of the pubic hair). [1. Joan Baptista Suarez de Salazar mentions the fashion amongst the Roman nobles of obtaining harlots from Cadiz for their guests' entertainment.]

Inscriptions from Pompeii About Love and Sex

William Stearns Davis wrote: “There are almost no literary remains from Antiquity possessing greater human interest than these inscriptions scratched on the walls of Pompeii (destroyed 79 A.D.). Their character is extremely varied, and they illustrate in a keen and vital way the life of a busy, luxurious, and, withal, tolerably typical, city of some 25,000 inhabitants in the days of the Flavian Caesars. Most of these inscriptions carry their own message with little need of a commentary. Perhaps those of the greatest importance are the ones relating to local politics. It is very evident that the so-called "monarchy" of the Emperors had not involved the destruction of political life, at least in the provincial towns. [Source: William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, pp. 260-265]

1) “Here slept Vibius Restitutus all by himself his heart filled with longings for his Urbana.” 2) “He who has never been in love can be no gentleman.” 3) “Health to you, Victoria, and wherever you are may you sneeze sweetly.”

4) “Restitutus has many times deceived many girls.” 5) “Romula keep tryst here with Staphylus.” 6) “If any man seek /My girl from me to turn, /On far-off mountains bleak, /May Love the scoundrel burn! 7) “If you a man would be, /If you know what love can do, /Have pity and suffer me /With welcome to come to you.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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