Amare et amari: Masculinity and gay sex in ancient Rome by JP Kenwood

Graffiti from the brothel in Pompeii: Scordopordonicus hic bene fu(tu)it quem voluit. “Scordopordonicus had a good fuck here with whomever he wanted.”

The restrictions of language and cultural inheritance have made it difficult to discuss heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality in ancient Rome. There are no Latin terms for these rigid concepts, and Roman ideas about sex differ greatly from Western and other cultures’ compartmentalized systems of classification. To put it plainly, there simply was no concept of gay or straight or bi in ancient Rome. A free Roman man, married or not, could have sex with his male and female slaves without fear of ridicule or criticism. He could have sex with people of either gender as long as they were not freeborn citizens. Ironically, cheating on one’s wife with another freeborn woman—or worse, flagrant womanizing within one’s peer group—was considered dishonorable and effeminate. Luckily, divorce for either party was easy to obtain.

220px-Pompeya_erótica6Another significant difference between modern attitudes and Roman norms revolved around the glorious penis. Cocks were everywhere in ancient Roman life, depicted with exquisite detail in art and discussed without censure in literature and in the graffiti scratched on the walls of both public and private buildings. The human cock was worshipped for its regenerative powers, most often understood as apotropaic in nature. Both boys and men wore penis pendants and other phallic imagery as they meandered about town. Rome was a phallo-centric world. There is Seneca’s story about a Roman man named Hostius Quadra who had specially crafted mirrors placed in his bedroom that would reflect disproportionately large images of his cock and any other phalli that might be in his chamber… but I’ll save that for another post. It’s a long story.

Like most societies, Rome did not develop in isolation. True or not, or maybe somewhat true or not, many early Roman writers and statesmen considered Greek culture a corrupting force, a danger to traditional Roman values. Since the history of Greek pederasty is well published, I won’t discuss ancient Greek institutions here. But there were significant differences in attitudes and acceptance of same-sex relationships between Greece and Rome. What is most important to keep in mind is that in Rome, a man’s sexual behavior, or any behavior for that matter, was judged based on what it ‘appeared’ to be in public, not on what actually took place behind closed doors. All Roman men (and women) were indeed actors on life’s stage performing for posterity. It didn’t matter how often they did or did not enjoy posteriors as long as they behaved with dignity and propriety in the forum. For example, kissing one’s wife in public or, gods forbid, kissing one’s wife in front of one’s children in public, was seen as unseemly and worthy of expulsion from the senate. Yes, this actually happened to a poor chap named Manlius.

While there was no concept of or terminology for gay, straight or bi, there were two basic rules for ‘proper’ male sexuality in ancient Rome. First, a man must always appear to be the penetrator, not the receptor. To maintain one’s dignity in Roman society meant that a man must convince his peers that he was always the ‘top’ in any sexual relationship. He fucked; he did not get fucked. Penetration was considered subjugation; masculinity was domination. Oral sex, on the other hand, was considered dirty no matter the gender of the recipient. Both fellatio and cunnilingus were considered acts that devalued a man’s virility. That said, many traditional Roman taboos were undoubtedly ignored.

640px-Warren_Cup_BM_GR_1999.4-26.1_n2Second, a man’s status in society was the primary factor as to whether he topped or bottomed, not the gender or sex of his partner. Versatile, as we sometimes use the term today, was not a publicly acknowledged disposition in Rome. Male peers were expected to refrain from engaging in mutually pleasurable activities. No doubt romantic relationships happened between men of similar rank; one just didn’t flaunt such intimacies in public. Decorum, above all, had to be maintained. Male lovers of equal status, whether they were soldiers, priests or senators, kept their relationships hidden from public view if they wished to maintain their authority, dignity, and privilege.

Moreover, Roman art and literary sources make it clear that Roman men idealized smooth, young bodies for both sexes. The elderly were considered sexually unappealing; engaging in sex with an older person was considered unmanly, whether the Roman man was fucking another man or a woman. Gender didn’t matter. Big surprise—Roman cock culture had a preference for young ass. The ideal age range for a sexual partner of either gender was between 14 and 20 years of age, which has caused many an author of an m/m romance novel set in ancient Rome (or Greece) to ‘age-up’ our love interests to conform to modern sensibilities. And by doing so, we have already turned history into fantasy.

In sum, a Roman man could fall in love and/or fuck any orifice of any person as long as the hole penetrated by his mighty purple prick belonged to a person of lower rank and status and preferably of the desirable age. Of course, slaves and prostitutes were always available for sex; the former was most preferable since they had no rights whatsoever. When we encounter ridicule in the ancient sources, it is not due to a man’s ‘orientation’ but for his supposed womanly behavior—vanity, inappropriate dress, excessive cosmetics, and public displays of affection with lovers, male or female. A man who publicly acted effeminate according to Roman cultural norms found himself the butt of many a joke. When the emperor Nero, who publicly celebrated at least two weddings with men, was chastised for his marriages, it wasn’t because he married another male but rather because he played the part of the bride, not the groom, during the ceremony. In fact, there are several instances of marriage between men in Roman history; they weren’t common, but same-sex marriages are attested. And, although Rome’s most famous gay couple, Hadrian and Antinous, were never married as far as the surviving texts record, Hadrian was never derided for his sexual and romantic relationship with the youth, Antinous. He was, however, mocked for “weeping like a woman” when Antinous died tragically during a boat trip down the Nile River. Being “woman-like” was one of the worst insults to lob at a man in this patriarchal, misogynistic society.


JP’s Queer Romance Recommendations

This is obviously a huge topic and I’ve only skimmed a few points related to masculinity and sex in ancient Rome. For further reading and gobs of examples and images, I suggest these excellent scholarly books on the subject:

C. Williams, Roman Homosexuality (Oxford 2010)
T. Hubbard, Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: a sourcebook of basic documents (Berkeley 2003)
E. Cantarella, Bisexuality in the ancient world (New Haven 1992)
J. Clarke, Roman Sex (New York 2003)


About JP Kenwood

JP Kenwood is a historian by day, a writer of m/m fiction whenever she can. Her m/m novel, Dominus, is the first book in a plot-packed, erotic historical fantasy series set in imperial Rome.


 

 About Dominus

DOMINUS thumbnail GR versionIn AD 107, after a grueling campaign against Rome’s fierce enemy, the kingdom of Dacia, Gaius Fabius returns home in triumph. With the bloody battles over, the commander of the Lucky IV Legion now craves life’s simple pleasures: leisurely soaks in fragrant baths, over-flowing cups of wine, and a long holiday at his seaside villa to savor his pleasure slaves. On a whim, he purchases a spirited young Dacian captive and unwittingly sparks a fresh outbreak of the Dacian war; an intimate struggle between two sworn enemies with love and honor at stake.

Allerix survived the wars against Rome, but now he is a sex slave rather than a victor. Worse, the handsome general who led the destruction of his people now commands his body. When escape appears impossible, Alle struggles to find a way to preserve his dignity and exact vengeance upon the hated Romans. Revenge will be his, that is, if he doesn’t lose his heart to his lusty Roman master.

Dominus is a plot-packed erotic m/m fantasy that transports readers back to ancient Rome during the reign of the Emperor Trajan (98-117). This is the first book in an alternate history series—a tumultuous journey filled with forbidden love, humor, sex, friendship, political intrigue, deception and murder.

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13 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Fascinating. It is interesting to me that what you’ve described is basically the same attitude toward feminine ‘qualities’ that survives to this day.

    From the modern and long standing name-calling and camp portrayals implying that gay men are less than ‘real men’ to wondering what role each man takes in sex. “Are you the man or the woman” is what inquiring (and short sighted) minds want to know.

    It seems to me that the lack of a dictionary of labels at least partially helped with the attitude in Rome, in that sex was just sex, and their lawful parameters regarding sex weren’t firmly based in religion—but based in their own concept of propriety.

    It also fascinates me how modern peoples have picked through the Roman experience as we know it and selected things we praise, and completely ignore anything that doesn’t suit us. Like… the engineering feats and gladiator games are the coolest things ever, but let’s virtually hide anything about their erotic art and their distinct lack of horror at the concept of gay sex.

  • Very interesting to learn what other cultures found acceptable or not in regards to sex and masculinity. Some things seem to be true for many different people/places but there are always some odd distinctions too.

  • Terrific post, thank you! Always fascinating to see how our assumptions about what some people imagine to be universal human “values” are so regularly shown not to be universal at all in other cultures or eras. Great stuff!

  • Wow, this was utterly fascinating! I find myself kind of flabbergasted by degree of Roman antipathy toward demonstration of affection, in contrast to their greater degree of sexual freedom.

    Interesting that there are several patriarchal traits that seem to have carried forward to our society; the penetration/top=dominance model for example. Yet others seem like something made up for a story about an alternate universe! This: “cheating on one’s wife with another freeborn woman—or worse, flagrant womanizing within one’s peer group—was considered dishonorable and effeminate.” OK, dishonorable I get – but, *effeminate*?!

    Though when I try to consider from their perspective, I guess I can see a strange, flawed logic in that: Man who has sex with social peers = not dominant. Female = not dominant, therefore not-dominant male = female, i.e. “effeminate” 😛

  • The Vikings were much the same. I tend to get all snippy about the idolization of ancient societies in terms of their acceptance of homosexuality because those weren’t the mutually respectful relationships of equals we hope for nowadays either. A poisonous mix of patriarchy and misogyny is not really anything to aspire to.

    • I was just about to leave this exact same comment 😛 There’s tonnes of Old Norse flyting that is basically along the lines of “and you were bummed by a troll”. And I seem to recall the Old Norse word for … sorcerer has a feminine / receptive partner undertone to it, but it’s been ages since I’ve poked at this.

      Also, cough, people should read The Reluctant Berserker because it’s all about this stuff as well, and it’s awesome :)

      • *g* Thank you! And yes, The Reluctant Berserker was all about exploring what life would be like in that kind of a world when you didn’t fit those boxes either. Most models of how sexuality should work are absolutely fine for those who fit inside them, but I hope we all know enough to be concerned for the people who don’t.

        Everything you need to know about Viking homosexuality and sorcery (and Loki’s position among the gods): http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/gayvik.shtml

  • I found this article very interesting and have to agree with Alex Beechcroft. The common image of the Greeks and Romans being accepting of same sex relationships is wrong, as they were still built upon power, public appearance and subjugation. Patriarchal societies cannot by their premise cannot include equality.

  • Wonderful comments! I’m glad you found this essay interesting and thought-provoking, folks.

    And you are absolutely correct. There was no equality in patriarchal ancient Rome. Everyone had a dominus (lord, master), unless one was the top dog… and the emperor’s position of supreme authority was always a tad tenuous at best. Roman concepts of hierarchical power, public decorum, and social obligation are some of the themes explored in my m/m saga, Dominus. I hope you’ll give the wicked tale a try. Book 2, Games of Rome, coming soon. :)

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