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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Ancient Rome: Roman Sexuality

Ancient Romans have a reputation, somewhat exaggerated by Hollywood, of being, shall we say, sexually unrestrained. Made for television series like Rome and Spartacus paint a picture of the upper class of Romans living lives characterized by excess and engaging in perverse unrestrained sexuality. In terms of sex, though shocking to many in this day and age, the ancient Romans were simply following the rules, norms and mores prevalent at the time.

JR Clarke, a professor of Art History and an expert on Roman sexual iconography, opens for us a view of pre-Christian Rome, where sex was more than just an act of procreation, was never a sin but more a sport, an art, a source of pleasure, and a blessing from the gods, and as such was engaged in with variety as well as humor. In his books Roman Sex and Looking at Lovemaking, he puts forward what sex meant to the ancient Romans as depicted by their erotic art, something he has studied for over 30 years.

Ancient Roman erotic art is explicit but more humorous than pornographic. (This may be because when these were first discovered in Pompeii, a lot of the more “risqué” were destroyed. Reminiscent of the Vatican’s attempt to “castrate” the nude male statues in and around Rome at one time) My very correct and dignified mother recounted her seeing, on a visit to Pompeii, many years ago, a mosaic of a man with an enormous erection, requiring the use of a wheelbarrow to carry it. Art of this nature, exaggerating the girth and length of the penis may be attributed to the ancient Roman’s belief that the erect penis or the fascinum was the symbol of Priapus, the Roman fertility god, dispenser of fertility and prosperity. In addition, it was also believed to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. It’s no wonder then, that to this day you will see wooden, marble or stone, painted or unpainted fascinum in souvenir shops.

If the fascinum was the symbol of fertility and thus venerated, sex for the ancient Romans was a gift from the gods, specifically the goddess, Venus and as such enjoying it was one of life’s pleasures. So correct was this that they believed both partners should be good at and derive pleasure from the act in order to have healthy children.

Man encouraging new wife fresco found in Agrippa's Villa 

Notwithstanding sex being a gift from the gods, there were, however, rules as to how one was to indulge in this. From the beginnings of Roman society, the father, pater familias, was the center of everything. He was the absolute head and literally had the power of life and death over his entire household. From this stems the first rule: the free Roman man must always be the dominant partner in the act of intercourse. He is free to have sex with whomsoever he wishes as long as they were his social inferiors i.e. any woman, any man, a female slave, a male slave, (young or old). Adultery was committed only if he had sex with someone of the same status. As for the slaves, they had no rights under Roman law and were considered property of their masters and as such were all potential sexual “toys” according to the will of their domus or domina. (Note the fresco above where the slave is witness to the encounter between the master and mistress of the house).

The second rule flows from this first rule: The Roman man must “take pleasure” and not “give pleasure”. In terms of oral sex then, it was ok for the Romans to have it performed on them, but for them to perform it on another was considered so vile, the act of which dirtied his most important social instrument (the mouth). So abhorrent was this, that to be accused of performing oral sex was equivalent to being accused of treason.

The ancient Romans perception of beauty and pleasure was not limited to the opposite sex. There must have been homosexuals, bisexuals and gays in ancient Rome, but they were not singled out or noticed since all forms of sexual activity was “normal”. They did not even have a term for these categories.  A Roman citizen was free to find beauty and pleasure in a man’s body as well as in a woman’s, as long as the rules are followed. These are: first, the Roman citizen must have the “active” rather than the “passive” role, and second, the object of his desire must be of an inferior social rank. Those who are known to have had the “passive” role in these relationships were called pathicus and had the same status as the prostitutes, gladiators and actors.

                                          Perception of Beauty
The dominance of the male, the worship of the fascinum also led the Romans to treat some traditionally marginalised segments of society (the third sex) in different ways. I speak of the hermaphrodites and the eunuchs. By virtue of the presence of the male genitalia in the hermaphrodites, they were granted “male status” and allowed some participation in society. On the other hand, by virtue of the absence of the male genitalia, the eunuchs were treated uneasily by Roman society. Castration was outlawed and anyone guilty of this could be prosecuted for assault including men who castrated themselves. Penalties attached to this offense were severe.

Statue of a Hermaphrodite in the Terme Museum

 Because Romans considered sex as something that happens between two people of unequal rank or between the master and an object of his desire, pedophilia was something that was not frowned on or condemned. On the contrary, it was accepted that a wealthy man will have a young boy or young girl (usually a slave) in his household with whom he will have sex with.

The women of Imperial Rome were beneficiaries of what can be called a feminist revolution. Because of the many wars during the republican era, many men were killed and the women inherited the family’s wealth and began to run things on their own. This autonomy bred confidence which led women to take control of all aspects of their lives, including their sexual lives. They expressed their sexual preferences and took their pleasures where and with whom they wanted, provided that the partner was of an inferior social standing.

Woman as initiator fresco in Agrippa's Villa

In the middle of the third century, when barbarian invasions ushered in an era of uncertainty, instability and economic crisis, changes in all areas of Roman life including the sexual sphere began to take effect. A new conjugal code is forged. Fidelity is imposed, homosexuality was condemned, and the main reason for sexual intercourse was to have children. Women were recognized as having important roles in the family and society but were expected to remain virgins until marriage, and to remain faithful to her husband till death. This new morality paved the way for the coming of Christianity.  

But before then, the fascinum accompanied the Roman even to the grave.

a tombstone

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