Promiscuity in Antiquity: Sex in Ancient Rome | History Hit

Promiscuity in Antiquity: Sex in Ancient Rome

Colin Ricketts

20 Jan 2021

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, in reality, 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.

In 1578, a same-sex community that performed marriages between men was discovered in Rome.
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.

Erotic priapic fresco from Pompeii

Erotic priapic fresco from Pompeii. Image Credit: CC

Marriage itself was, in reality, a lopsided affair. Women who married weren’t expected to attain any pleasure or enjoyment form it – they simply wedded in order to abide by the moral code and procreate. Moreover, the subservient wife was expected to turn a blind eye to her husband’s sexual infidelity. Males were allowed to sleep around as much as they liked so long as their mistress was unmarried, or, if they were with a boy, he was over a certain age.

Brothels, prostitutes and dancing girls were all considered to be ‘fair game’, as were older males – on the condition that he was to be submissive. Being passive was considered women’s work: men who submitted were considered deficient in vir and in virtus – they were denounced and reviled as effeminate.

An example of this moral code was seen with Julius Caesar’s long and public affair with Cleopatra. Due to the fact that Cleopatra was not with a Roman citizen, Caesar’s actions were not considered adulterous.

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.

Moreover, divorce and other such legal proceedings were as easy for women to undertake as men. In this sense, women were, in many cases, more sexually liberated than they are in many nations to this day.

Tristan Hughes is joined by Peta Greenfield to talk through the history of the Vestal Virgins.
Listen Now

Homosexuality was also 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 in sexual terms as they were economically.

Evidence of sexual practises

Photo by Kim Traynor via Wikimedia Commons

“Pan copulating with goat” – one of the best known objects in the Naples Museum collection. Image Credit: CC

We can quite accurately measure the Romans’ laissez-faire attitude toward sex because we know so much about their sex lives. A similar survey of, say, British writing in the 19th century wouldn’t provide nearly so clear 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.


Fresco from the House of the Centurion, Pompeii, 1st century BCE. Image Credit: Public Domain

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).

From luring in unicorns to protecting the Roman Empire, myths have surrounded virginity for centuries. But is virginity itself a myth? In this episode, Kate speaks to Anke Bernau about where the so-called cherry comes from, what it stands for and why it has been important throughout history. *WARNING there are mentions of rape and assault in this episode*
Listen Now

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