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There were no gays in ancient Rome (and no heterosexuals). Maybe.

July 5, 2011


“No civilization that tolerated homosexuality has survived.”

So claimed the notorious televangelist Pat Robertson, referring to the supposed homosexual predilections of ancient Greece and Rome. But the Romans might well have agreed with the televangelist: they explicitly banned gay marriage, specifying the death penalty for two men attempting to enter into a union, and the idea of two people of the same gender in a relationship elicited feelings of disgust. However, the Romans and Pat Robertson would not see eye to eye, for our modern idea of homosexuality – and indeed, of heterosexuality – may not have made a great deal of sense to the Romans. Sex between men was considered perfectly acceptable in certain situations (women were not considered to have an active sexuality, and thus references to what we would call lesbianism are few and far between, and unremittingly negative), but the gradations of acceptability relied upon circumstances that make little sense to us in the 21st century. For the Romans, sexuality was not necessarily about gender – and indeed, gender was not necessarily about sex – both were flexible categories dependent on power, status and conceptions of masculinity: a phallocentric view of sexuality where, for certain categories of men, penetration was seen as normative and being penetrated deviant. As with many areas in the study of the personal lives of people in the ancient world, we are restricted to a few artefacts, such as the first century AD Warren Cup, pictured above, and to the literary accounts of a small aristocratic class, whose views may have differed greatly to the general population. However, from the glimpses that we can catch, the Romans (or at least those whose writing has been preserved) seem to have had a very different idea of sexuality to our own.

There is one notable literary reference to female homosexuality, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where we see a girl called Iphis, smitten with desire for another girl. However, this is ultimately condemned. Within the sphere of men, however, we find many homoerotic pairings. There are the typically-Greek pairings of Apollo and Hyacinth and of Zeus and Ganymede. Outside of myth, Ovid describes both poetry and his own sexual preferences in terms that allow for homoeroticism: in his book “The Art of Love”, he says that he prefers sex with women to sex with boys (women are apparently more responsive), and in “The Amores” he says that the appropriate subject for love poetry is either a boy or a woman. Martial claims that anal intercourse with boys was more pleasurable than with women. Lucretius, writing on love, says that both boys and women can stir up desire in a man. Of course, given the creation of personas in Latin literature, we cannot know whether Ovid is actually expressing his own sexual preferences. The same might be said of Catullus, who explicitly notes the dichotomy between poetic sexual bravado and actual sex life in poem 16. This poem provides a startling view of the seemingly-contradictory (to modern sensibilities) nature of the Roman understanding of sexuality:

I will bugger you and face-fuck you,
Pussy Aurelius and poofter Furius,
Because you think that because my little poems
Are sensitive, I must be indecent.
The true poet should be chaste, yes
But his verses needn’t be.
In point of fact, these have wit and charm,
Even if they are sensitive and a little shameless,
And can arouse an itch,
I don’t mean in boys, but in those hairy old men,
The ones who can’t get it up.
Because you’ve read of my thousand
Kisses you doubt my virility?
I’ll bugger you and fuck your faces.

However, whether these poets were or were not engaging in the acts they claim in their poetry, it was clearly not implausible for them to express them, even if they were fictional. Ancient historians describing the love-lives of the Roman emperors feature boys as well as women: Augustus kept good-looking young male slaves for his personal pleasure, although he was also a famous womanizer, as did Trajan (who we fined condemned for having an affair with his niece, but not for any homoerotic activity). Suetonius reports that the emperor Vitellius had an affair with a slave who he subsequently honoured as a freedman. Domitian was said to have a favourite eunuch called Earinos, who Martial praises and, revealingly, compares to Ganymede.  Propertius justifies sexual indulgence with both genders by referencing the conquests of Jupiter: Io, Semele and Ganymede. Perhaps the most famous example of Roman homoeroticism would be the relationship between the emperor Hadrian and the handsome young Bithynian Antinous. The relationship between Hadrian and Antinous is criticised by the ancient historians, but not for the reasons that the modern reader, imbued with modern notions of homosexuality, might expect. Hadrian is criticised for the intensity of his relationship with Antinous: weeping like a woman at his death, naming an Egyptian city after him, erecting statues of him across the empire, and ultimately making him a god. Emperors are certainly criticised for their deviant sexual behaviour, but when the criticisms of Hadrian are compared to the diatribes directed towards emperors practicing morally outrageous behaviours like incest, oral sex, or being penetrated, it becomes apparent that Hadrian is being criticised for over-indulgence. Of course, Antinous was not a freeborn Roman citizen, and Hadrian clearly the lover rather than the beloved. As such, it escaped criticism of the sort applied to the likes of the political rebel Catiline’s affairs with his young aristocratic male followers. Overall, it is clear that there was a milieu of acceptability for homoerotic acts – but what was this?

The Romans seem to have ascribed to a “Priapic model of masculinity” – a hyper-masculine, phallocentric identity in which the only permissible sexual act for a proper man was to penetrate either a man or a woman. However, who could be penetrated and by whom seems to have been fairly strictly delineated. Freeborn men and women were off-limits. Sexuality was bound up with other social categories. Language defined not only masculinity but also sexual activity – the words for active penetration, and for being penetrated, conflate the passive sexual role of women and boys, while the word for a ‘proper’ man, “vir”, applies both to a man of status (slaves and low status men are not “viri” but “homines” – males – or even “pueri” – boys) and to a man who takes the active sexual role. The latter is emphasised by a description by Seneca of the castration of a slave: “he will never be a man [“vir”], so that he may be able to endure penetration by a man [“vir”] for a long time.” Given that not all males are men, as it were, some are acceptably penetratable, despite a general ideology of phallocentricism. A slave was not a person, but a piece of property, and much as it was not a moral concern what a man did with his chair or plate or sandal, nor was it a moral concern what he did with his slave. A freedman too might have certain obligations. The hierarchy of impenetrability is summed up by the lawyer Haterius, defending a freed slave accused of sexual impropriety: “a lack of chastity in a freeborn man is a matter of reproach, in a slave a matter of necessity, in a freedman, a matter of duty.” This semi-conflation of status, sexuality and gender could at times create problematic ambiguities: what about a young citizen man, not yet a “vir”, but soon to become one? Unlike the ancient Greeks, the Romans did not practice institutionalised educational pederasty, but both societies shared anxieties about how to reconcile homoerotic practices with cultural anxieties about the freeborn male and penetration. Essentially, viri, potential-viri, and their dependents were off-limits – anyone else, however, was fair game for penetration. Viri did not penetrate each other, and those who did were described scathingly: Ovid writes of men seeking men as “scarcely men at all” and Sallust of “men who take it like women.” It is such a dichotomy that allows Catullus to simultaneously write love poetry to a boy, while ridiculing men for being passives, and similarly, why the poet Tibullus can attempt to win back his youthful male lover by suggesting that he is dangerously close to the unacceptable-for-homoeroticism transition from boy to young man.

How did the Romans themselves construe these gradations of acceptable and unacceptable? One confusing category by which to understand the Roman’s idea of what was problematic in sexual behaviour is stuprum. Loosely, stuprum means both the act of and the disgrace stemming from sexual behaviour that violated traditional standards of propriety. This seems to correlate not with gender, but social status, encompassing sexual relations with freeborn Romans of either gender – the symbolic ornamentation of freeborn boys and women (the bulla, an amulet, and stola, a special over-dress) were designed to safeguard their chastity, and the jurist Ulpian said that the only people permissible to use for sex were “those against whom stuprum is not committed.” It is condemnation of stuprum that lies beneath the accusations levelled at emperors for homoerotic liasons, not the fact that they were homoerotic in nature. Indeed, the only suggestion that such acts might be different to acts involving women appears in a discussion of rape cases, where it is noted that men (in light, one would imagine, of the phallocentric conceptualization of their sexuality) might be more embarrassed to admit to being raped. The Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus condemned homoerotic acts as unnatural, but claimed that adultery – an act of stuprum too – was far worse, and that any sex between a man and a woman not explicitly intended to conceive children was shameful. Legally, the same laws seem to have applied to stuprum, whether it involved men or women – the Romans were more concerned with the implications that a sexual act had with regard to social status than with regard to gender.

Although who one might engage in a homoerotic act with, under what circumstances, and in what way were strictly limited, some degree of ‘bisexuality’ seems to have been taken for granted for Roman men. Indeed, the Roman seem to have lacked the conceptual framework to describe someone as what we would now consider to be ‘heterosexual’ or ‘homosexual’. For example, Suetonius seems bemused by what to a modern reader might seem the heterosexual predilictions of the emperor Claudius, describing his “extravagant desire for women,” and adding that he had “no experience with men whatsoever.” This qualifier only makes sense in a context where it is not taken for granted that most people will be attracted to only one gender – periphrasis is required to explain the nature of this anomaly. Similarly, Pliny describes how the genitals of a female hyena will stimulate a desire for women, even in men who “hate intercourse with women”, which seems similar to the terminology used in other cultures, such as the “woman-haters” of 17th century Japan, who expressed a predilection for boys. This expression of sexual preference in terms of what is declined, rather than what is sought, again suggests that the Romans did not conceptualise strict categories of sexual preference, but based classification on rather different criteria. Without realising this, it is all too easy to interpret Roman evidence in light of our own classifications, for example, assuming that the term cinaedus refers to a homosexual, rather than to a man who did not adhere to the general conception of masculinity, and was therefore considered likely to not adhere to it in sexual terms as well as in general effeminacy. In fact, a cinaedus, a sort of Roman meterosexual, was considered just as likely to seduce your wife as to sleep with your son. In both cases, it was his refusal to adhere to acceptable standards of masculinity that was the problem, not his sexual orientation. Indeed, the only context in which sexual orientation seems to have bothered the Romans was the fact of having one at all, like Claudius. It is in the same context that a man accused of effeminacy might try to acquit himself by implying that he had engaged in sexual relations with his accusers’ sons – although stuprum, it would constitute a demonstration of phallocentric masculinity.

However, there is still one curious area of evidence which may suggest that despite the ideas so far put forward about Roman conceptions of homoeroticism, there may have existed something more broadly like our own definition of homosexuality. Not only, of course, that those described by perplexed commentators as hating the opposite gender may not have so-expressed their own sexuality, but also the presence of several descriptions of marriages between men. The emperors Nero and Elagabalus are both described as having married other men – Nero on at least two occasions, wearing a veil and receiving a dowry on one occasion, and the often-married Elagabalus as having a favourite husband. However, in both of these instances, the marriages are described as part of a catalogue of sexual excesses and broadly condemned. Beyond the predictable depiction of unpopular emperors as sexually-depraved, the Codex Theodosianus prescribes the death penalty for men who “marry in the manner of women”, suggesting the presence of some kind of social phenomenon against which to legislate. Juvenal decries marriage between men, but his grounds appear to be that the marriages are pointless because two men cannot reproduce – this tells us a great deal about Roman views about marriage, but not much about the motivations of the men nevertheless marrying (if indeed they are marrying, for we find no evidence of men living together in the manner of a male and female couple).Broadly, the objections to the idea of two men marrying seem to have more to do with Roman conceptions of masculinity (which problematized the sexual passivity of a man to another man of equal status – Juvenal, for example, seems to find the status of the two grooms more problematic than their marriage) than with a fundamental problem with homoerotic acts. Indeed, the fact that these descriptions always take pains to identify one of the pair as the ‘bride’ also highlight how both marriage and sexuality were conceptualised. The problem is that all of our evidence comes from men writing in public to other men, in a cultural milieu with very specific ideas of acceptable masculinity. The feelings and practices that may have lain beneath these ideas are uncertain, making it difficult, if not impossible, to ever really  know how the Romans actually conceptualised homosexuality, let alone how those that we would now identify as gay or lesbian actually functioned in society. The survival of collections of popular sayings suggest that the acceptance of even socially-codified vir/non-vir relationships was a feature only of elite culture, regarded my most people  as a peculiar excess of rich people and foreigners. The average Roman in the street in the first century AD might have been rather inclined to agree with Pat Robertson, were he not a representative of a cult that in the first century AD was regarded as a sort of cannibalistic, orgiastic version of the Moonies. Indeed, to the average Roman, the later Christian redefinitions of heterosexual sexuality, encompassing continence and virginity, were probably considered much more radical than anything that St. Paul had to say about homosexuality (although it has been somewhat controversially argued that gay marriage was  feature of Christian liturgy until comparatively recently.)

It would seem, then, that to enter into some kind of understanding of Roman sexual behaviours, especially homoerotic sexual behaviours, we must reorient our conceptual framework for sexuality. In the Roman world, the model of masculinity was not some kind of muscle-bound action-hero, but the virile god Priapus, who threatened wrong-doers, male and female, with violent anal violation with his supersized phallus. A man was a pervert for being the receiving partner of a man of a lower or similar social status, but not for engaging in a sexual act that we would now consider paedophilia or rape. Our evidence is so scanty: even seemingly intimate poems were designed for public consumption, and we have no diaries, nor personal accounts of how any actual Romans really understood or privately acted on their own sexuality. With what seems to be a radically different set of cultural tools for understanding one’s own sexuality, how were they actually employed by people trying to conceptualise their own desires? The closest to a personal expression we can find is in folk magic, where spells scratched on lead tablets show men seeking men and women seeking women. But we have no indication of the age or status of these people or, beyond an excitation of desire, what they sought to achieve through such magic. Essentially, reconstructing Roman sexuality is a process akin to trying to reconstruct modern sexuality from a 1950s medical textbook, a few articles by Ted Haggard, and the graffiti from the wall of a gay nightclub – we would certainly learn something about modern categories and perceptions, but they would hardly reflect the reality of broader societal views and the lives and loves of many actual people.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 18, 2011 6:16 am

    “The survival of collections of popular sayings suggest that the acceptance of even socially-codified vir/non-vir relationships was a feature only of elite culture, regarded my most people as a peculiar excess of rich people and foreigners.”

    Huh? There are homosexually explicit graffiti in Pompeii, in addition to the threesome illustration in the article and another foursome, both at the Suburban Baths. And even some graffiti that refer to crucifixion get into the act. I will cite just four examples:

    1. There are graffiti of the sort: “So-and-so penetrated Such-and-such” (both males).
    2. The graffito “IN CRUCE FIGARUS” was inscribed at the Stabian Baths and given its location could very well mean something more on the order of “up yours!” or “fist you!”
    3. The famous (in Europe) Pozzuoli Graffito shows what appears to me to be a man in a very high state of sexual arousal riding his execution cross that is equipped with an impaling stake, which is being used of course. He is named “Alcimilla” which is a further humiliation.
    4. The famous Vivat Crux Graffito shows that crosses back then were equipped with similar stakes, apparently modelled after the enormously-endowed domestic, navigational and roadside God Priapus.

    • October 20, 2011 7:39 pm

      I’m not denying that homoerotic graffiti and images abound in non-elite ancient culture. But your examples actually do further the social dichotomy I mentioned. The crucifixion images in particular. The central element of the active-passive understanding of sexuality applied to the entire construction of masculinity. In short, a vir was inviolable. Not just by phalluses, but by weapons. He was a person with bodily integrity. This is one of the reasons why Christianity was initially regarded as so peculiar: in an age of hero-cults, they had a saviour who had been humiliatingly killed. Crucifixion was in many ways like penetration, in that it rendered one less male, as it were, in ancient understanding. Thus, the combination of crucifixion and penetration imagery is hardly surprising, but certainly not intended to be positive.

      • April 23, 2012 2:09 am

        Exactly. You are precisely right about a vir being inviolable. That’s why in a same-sex relationship, the vir was always the “top” (at least supposed to be). When he was, nobody cared. If he was the bottom, on the other hand, the shaming never stopped. Maybe that was the reason why Julius Caesar was such a womanizer; for it was rumoured he was “Queen of Bithynia.”

        And the early Christians were derided for worshiping “a criminal and his cross,” which, according to some of the Early Church Fathers (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen in the frankest language, others by more discreet language), was equipped with such a stake. It really did NOT make for easy recruiting for the new religion.


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