The Oldest Obsession: Sex Lives in Ancient Rome

Colin Ricketts

Ancient and Classical Ancient Rome
HISTORYHIT.TV A new online only channel for history lovers

The civilisation of Ancient Rome spanned over 1,000 years, from the founding of the Republic to the fall of the Empire in the West. That’s a long time in sexual morality – compare the mores of the UK today with those of 1015.

The idea that Rome was an extremely promiscuous and licentious society is if nothing else a massive over-simplification of a complex picture. It’s a simplification that has served erotic artists – often unable to portray their own times as genuinely sexual – well in every medium from oils to digital video.

There may be an element of religious propaganda to this image of Rome too. The Catholic Church took hold in the last centuries of the Empire. It was in the Church’s interests to portray the pre-Christian, pagan Roman world as one of out-of-control desires, orgies and endemic rape that they had brought under control.

GlobalXplorer is the citizen science platform that archaeologist Sarah Parcak built with the 2016 TED Prize, to train a 21st century virtual army to help look for signs of archaeological looting, urban encroachment and sites that haven’t been excavated yet.Listen Now

The moral code of Rome

The Romans did have an abiding set of moral guidelines called the mos maiorum (“the way of the elders”), a largely accepted and unwritten code of good conduct. These customs did consider sexual excess outside the bounds of ideal behaviour defined by virtus, an ideal state of masculinity that included self-control. Women too were expected to be chaste (pudicitia).

The written laws also included sexual offences, including rape, which could carry a death sentence. Prostitutes (and sometimes entertainers and actors) were not given this legal protection and the rape of a slave would only be considered a crime of property damage against the slave’s owner.

Romans married in order to have children. A man was not expected to remain faithful to his wife for long, if at all, and he wouldn’t be considered an adulterer unless he chose a partner he should not have.

Erotic priapic fresco from Pompeii
Photo by “get directly down” via Wikimedia Commons.

For example, because Julius Caesar’s long and public affair with Cleopatra was not with a Roman citizen, it was not considered adulterous. Divorce was relatively easy and women had as much freedom as men to remarry.

A matter of licence

The Romans were, in many ways, more sexually liberated than we are.

There was a strong sexual element in much of Roman religion. The Vestal Virgins were celibate in order to keep them independent of male control, but other religious ceremonies celebrated prostitution.

Homosexuality was considered unremarkable, certainly among men – in fact, there were no Latin words to differentiate between same-sex and different-sex desire.

Children were protected from sexual activity, but only if they were freeborn Roman citizens.

Prostitution was legal and endemic. Slaves were considered as much their master’s property sexually as they were economically.

How do we know?

Photo by Kim Traynor via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Kim Traynor via Wikimedia Commons.

A measure of the Romans’ openness about sex is that we know so much about their sex lives. A similar survey of, say, British writing in the 19th century wouldn’t provide nearly so open a picture.

The Romans wrote about sex in their literature, comedy, letters, speeches and poetry. There seems to have been no low-culture taboo attached to writing – or otherwise depicting – sex frankly. The finest writers and artists were happy to indulge.

Roman art is filled with images that would today be regarded as pornographic. In Pompeii, erotic mosaics, statues and frescoes (used to illustrate this piece) are found not only in known brothels and bath houses which may have been places of business for prostitutes, but also in private residences, where they are given pride of place.

There are erotically-charged objects almost everywhere in the suffocated city. This was something that the Romans could cope with, but not modern Europeans – many such discoveries were kept largely under lock and key in a Naples museum until 2005.


A twisted picture

At the start of this brief survey, a possible posthumous sexual smear against the whole of Roman society was mentioned.

If such a smear was attempted, the Romans supplied their critics with plenty of damaging material, most of it very dubious.

The idea that no Roman day was complete without an orgy or two is largely formed from after-the-fact condemnations of bad Emperors like Nero (the first Emperor to commit suicide to escape his fate) and Caligula (the first Emperor to be assassinated).

This harping on their lax sexual morality might indicate that rather than regarding such matters as of very little importance, they were absolutely vital to the Ancient Romans.

Colin Ricketts