How the Ancient Romans F*cked
With NSFW Bacchus (August 5th) nearly upon us we wanted to share a refresher on how the Romans used to get down. Be sure to purchase your access passes early to join us for a little tribute to classic bacchanalias.
Sex is the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of some mucus. —Marcus Aurelius
Later Christians may have exaggerated the degree of their depravity, but it cannot be denied that they had, to say the least, ambivalent attitudes to sex.
In contrast to their women, it was entirely accepted and even expected for freeborn men to have extramarital sex with both female and male partners, especially adolescents, provided that they (1) exercised moderation, (2) adopted the active, or dominating, role, and (3) confined their activities to slaves and prostitutes, or, less commonly, a concubine or ‘kept woman’.
Married or marriageable women who belonged to another freeborn man, and young male citizens, were strictly off limits. The first century Stoic philosopher Musonius, a rare voice at the time, criticized the double standard that granted men much greater sexual freedom than women, arguing that, if men are to presume to exercise control over women, surely they ought to exercise even greater control over themselves.
The Romans sought to control female sexuality to protect the family and, by extension, social order, prosperity, and the state.
The houses and bedrooms of the nobility were often decorated with erotic scenes ranging from elegant dalliance to explicit pornography.
Roman religion very much reflected and regulated sexual mores, with the male-female duality enshrined in the pairings of the 12 Dii Consentes or major deities (the Roman equivalent of the Greek Olympian gods): Jupiter-Juno, Neptune-Minerva, Mars-Venus, Apollo-Diana, Vulcan-Vesta, and Mercury-Ceres.
Many religious festivals, such as the Liberalia, Floralia, and Lupercalia, to say nothing of the banned Bacchanalia, incorporated an important element of sexuality.
During the Liberalia, devotees of the god Liber Pater carted a giant phallus through the countryside to fertilize the land and safeguard the crops—after which a virtuous matron placed a wreath on top of the phallus. Smaller talismans in the form of a penis and testes, often winged, invoked the protection of the god Fascinus against the evil eye. These charms, or fascini, often in the form of a ring or amulet, were most commonly worn by infants, boys, and soldiers.
Most extramarital and same-sex activity took place with slaves and prostitutes.
Prostitution was both legal and common, and often operated out of brothels or the fornices (arcade dens) under the arches of a circus. Most prostitutes were slaves or freedwomen. By becoming a prostitute, a freeborn person suffered infamia, that is, loss of respect or reputation, and became an infamis, losing her or his social and legal standing. Other groups that incurred infamia—a concept that still retains some currency in the Roman Catholic Church—included actors, dancers, gladiators, and other entertainers. Members of these groups, which had in common the pleasuring of others, could be subjected to violence and even killed with relative impunity.
By some twisted Roman logic, a man who was anally penetrated was seen to take on the role of a woman, but a woman who was anally penetrated was seen to take on the role of a boy. In a poem that had long been censored, Martial’s wife catches him with a boy. When she offers him anal intercourse to encourage fidelity, he replies that anal sex with boys cannot compare to anal sex with women: ‘you, my wife, have got no more than two c*nts.’
Since Roman men could and often did indulge in extramarital sex, it might be assumed that Roman marriage was all duty and dour. However, the houses and bedrooms of the nobility were often decorated with erotic scenes ranging from elegant dalliance to explicit pornography. Horace had a mirrored room for sex, and Tiberius, who reigned from 14 to 37, stocked his bedrooms with the sex manuals of Elephantis.
In Ancient Rome as in Victorian England, virtuous restraint often went hand in hand with licentious abandon, the one exposed to the glare of the public arena and the other hidden away in closed rooms and shady nooks.