ROMAN SOCIETY

 SEX

The omnipotent paterfamilias, enforcing chastity on his sons with the threat of death if they did not obey; the formidably pure matron, like the mother of the Gracchi; the censorious Cato the Elder, who held that a husband had the right to kill a man found in his wife’s bed; all were part of Roman legend at the beginning of our age, the time of Augustus, but their image had faded.

The DIY element in Roman justice had been replaced by the courts. The matrona Lucretia might blush in the presence of Brutus on being quoted an epigram of Martial, but she had her own copy in the bedroom, and Cato was said to go to the theatre – smutty music-hall – only so that he could be seen to leave it.

The sexual temper of the age was randy, permissive and tolerant of fairly bad behaviour, but not vicious or orgiastic. The sources for this opinion – the poets Horace, Virgil and Ovid, the writers Martial, Petronius and Juvenal, the historians Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio and, somewhat surprisingly, Cicero, from his lawyer’s addresses and his letters – used by modern scholars, with your author limping behind, describe every variety of sexual activity, but contain no reference to group sex – partouses.

The interested modern eroticist might also be puzzled by Roman indifference to female breasts – boys’, yes – lesbians and masturbation. There is no Latin word for dildo and the constantly self-replenishing pool of slaves in Rome – willing or unwilling, it did not matter – surely made masturbation unnecessary.

In Rome, attitudes and even laws obtained which inhibited sexual excess, but pederasty, prostitution, pimping and pornography were never criminal. Wife-beating is not recorded and rape was more talked about and threatened than prosecuted in either sense.

The free-born Roman constructed for himself a sexual personality, a macho image, derived from the God Priapus,1 who was depicted displaying his organ – his weapon – massive, ensconced in huge balls, as boldly as Jupiter his thunderbolts. Priapus was a potent, talking phallus, celebrated by the poets, who stood in his garden, a potter’s field, threatening expected intruders with his sickle in one hand and – more often employed – his powerful penis in the other. He raped women in the normal way and boys through the arsehole but men were subjected to irrumatio.

Another work2 I have consulted lists 800 Latin words for sexual organs and other orifices and vessels, and the use to which they could be put – for there was no activity unknown to, or beyond, the Roman appetite, except perhaps ‘rimming’. Rimming (the theme of a privately circulated poem by the late W.H. Auden), for which, again, I cannot find a Latin word, is seriously indelicate. I cannot repeat the advice of Dr Johnson, in the same quandary, to a young lady, to ‘ask your mother’, because mother would not know. An open-minded (I nearly said open-mouthed) homosexual who knows Japan, might. In defence of this proclivity one can only say – as the Roman playwright Terence, not Horace, remarked – ‘Homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto’ (‘I am a man so consider nothing human foreign to me’).

Mr Adams states there is no English equivalent to the Latin transitive verb irrumare. It means to fuck someone in the mouth, quite different from fellating them or sucking their cock or clitoris. Penis, by the way, was a four-letter word for the Romans (avoided, for instance, by Cicero), mentula being the acceptable form. Irrumatio was the ultimate humiliation a Roman could inflict on another and to be accused of taking pleasure in being so performed upon was the worst insult available to Roman writers. It was one used by the Emperor Augustus in his famous obscene epigram directed at Antony. The first and last lines of Catullus’ defence on his erotic poetry are thoroughly priapic, viz., ‘Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo’ (‘I will bugger you and fuck your mouths’).

Women were not threatened or abused in this way. Towards women the Roman was loving, tender, generous, persuasive, jealous and possessive but rarely gallant and never chivalrous. The knighty Christian concept of chivalry would have baffled the Romans(vide Julius Caesar’s treatment of the glamorous Gaul Vercingetorix). Their ideal woman had ‘skin as white as wax, sparkling eyes, sweet breath, lustrous dark or auburn hair’ (never yellow or red), ‘a scented sensuous lissome body and a shaved clitoris, glowing like a pearl’. (To be the ultimate ideal, she should be sixteen.) All these attributes are culled from Roman poets. She should also be buxom, in the old English sense of being obliging both round the house and in bed, and sober (Roman gels only drank water), not extravagant or too made-up, with a graceful carriage and able to dance – but not too well.

The Romans had always been, unlike contemporary sophisticated peoples like the Jews, monogamous. However, divorce was easy and the attendant litigation over marriage settlements, dowries, inheritance and custody kept the lawyers rich, happy and popular. The Roman chose his bride for her looks, her consanguinity (she was often a cousin) or her political connections – or for a combination of all three. Marriages therefore, especially in politically dominant and Imperial families, were arranged. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this, they were often happy and endured, but not so often discussed as those which were not, and did not.

The Romans loved gossip. How they would have enjoyed the telephone! Cicero, so different from the ponderous and indignant orator presented by generations of Latin masters, was fascinated by the affairs of his sons’ ex-mistresses. When a Roman marriage ‘broke up’, they used the expression, as we do, in a passive sense, as if a bad-tempered wind had picked up the marriage vessel and smashed it to the ground. The former partners might behave in a ‘civilized’ way towards each other. The poetess Lucretia, prized by Professor Richlin, remarks that her marriage lasted fifteen years and that she was still remarkably fond of her husband. How like an Upper-East-Side New Yorker!

The husband was not expected to be faithful and there is no reference in Roman literature to ‘cheating on the wife’ nor to the ‘scarlet woman’ stealing his affections. In a city packed with prostitutes – and a bored married woman could register as one with the cityaediles – there was no need for such carryings-on. Upon marriage a Roman was expected to put aside his boy and his concubinus but, if he could afford it, it would be normal for him to employ a – traditionally, pretty – cup-bearer. Wives’ comments on this tradition are not recorded.

Horace vises a young unmarried man, with a bob or two, to seek relief with a prostitute and not with a girl of the same class, in order to avoid affronting the matronae. (‘Do you need a gold cup for your thirst?’) He describes the fate of those, forced through lack of means to pursue ‘free’ sex, who are caught in adultery by the master returning unexpectedly to his country house. ‘One throws himself headlong from the roof . . . another is beaten with whips to the point of death . . . another gives money for his bodily safety.’ Not for him, says Horace smugly, the fear of ‘while I’m fucking, the door being broken in, the dog barking and having to beat a retreat barefoot, in an unbuttoned shirt’. It has been said of Horace, as of Virgil, that he could not have been in such danger, his inclinations lying elsewhere. (The curious and successful defence by a man found in a married woman’s bedroom – that he was looking for a slave boy with whom he was in love – is part of Roman history.)

The Romans were not infernal sex machines geared to gratifying lust. They did not treat, like upper-class Victorian and Edwardian English gentlemen, the lower class as their brothel. The six plays of Terence, who died in 159 BC, have been performed for 2,000 years, and still are by the boys, and I suppose now girls, of Westminster School. They are peopled by courtesans, their pimps, eunuchs and maids – Ethiopians being favourite for their fine bones – by the young gentlemen of Athens, loaded with debt and love for a ‘music-girl’, their cheeky servants, ancestors of Figaro, and by grumpy papas, whose bark was always worse than their bite, turning up in the last act to sort things out. Music was the least of the girls’ accomplishments. They were quite young, the idyllic age of sixteen, and their young men were expected to pay for their lessons. The plays of Terence are frothy but full of affection – of brothers and friends for each other, of fathers for their sons, of servants for their masters (and for servants, read slaves) and of a well-born young man for a lowly music-girl, the sort which ends in marriage. That the Romans could delight in the mores of Terence shows surely that they would not have approved the cynicism of Les Liaisons Dangereuses or the ethic of the blockbuster sex novel, put together off Madison Avenue and powered by the Harold Robbins’ formula of money/power/sex/violence/money/ power . . . From this the Romans would have detached sex, for though ‘private’, i.e., sexual, life was very much not a man’s own affair, but was used by anyone who dug up the details for use in character assassination in a trial,3 in graffiti, lampoons, letters to friends or loud remarks at a party, public knowledge of it never destroyed (or made) a career.

Exposure of a Roman’s deviant sexual behaviour did not reflect on his ability to govern nor did it automatically terminate a political career, as has occurred to British politicians caught kerb-crawling, spanking rent-boys or visiting the basement-flat property of a Chancellor of the Exchequer, controlled by a lady flagellant . . . Indeed Julius Caesar, who was known as a young man to have been the toy-boy of an Oriental prince and later to have become a promiscuous ‘bald-pated adulterer’, sung about by his soldiers, went on to be deified. Antony, exhibited as a boy for sale in a woman’s toga, the garb of a prostitute, became a triumvir and would have been, had he not lost the Battle of Actium with Cleopatra, the ruler of the world.

For a Roman to be a known homosexual did not affect his social or political progress provided he was circumspect, did not let his desires appear obsessive, did not behave outrageously in public – did not, in other words, ‘frighten the horses’. Though the ancient Greek patented meeden agan – nothing to excess – they were notorious for ignoring that precept. Diogenes masturbated in public. Phryne, the most powerful courtesan in Athens, accused of orgying at the sacred mysteries of Eleusis, was stripped naked before the Athenian Assembly with the words, ‘You who believe that the good are beautiful must believe that the beautiful are good!’ She got off. Alcibiades, the Athenians’ star, died under a shower of their arrows. They were bored by his umpteenth betrayal. Excess was in fact the characteristic of the Athenian Empire, which lasted only thirty years; moderation that of the Roman, which lasted for centuries.

Further, a Roman homosexual should not pursue his ultimate sexual goal – anal penetration – with a free-born boy, lest it affect his character. The passive role, reinforcing through economic domination the dread and contempt in which it was held, was reserved for slaves. Inevitably the relations between a Roman and his freedmen were made awkward, if they had served him in this way in their past.

Most Romans with leisure and money were bisexual. Of our five Emperors only Claudius was certainly not. Such indifference was unusual. A later Emperor, the goody-goody Marcus Aurelius, was considered unreal for not responding to a compliment on the beauty of his male slaves.

More love poetry was written to and about boys than women or girls. (There is none between male lovers.) Virgil, ‘the supreme poet of the Empire and the Roman people’, told in his most passionate and lyrical lines, in the second Eclogue, the sad tale of Corydon and his love for Alexis, a slave boy, designed for buggery as a Porsche is for speed – and costing as much. Virgil, so rumour had it, was a homosexual but again this did not diminish his prestige among contemporaries nor the admiration of his Emperor, Augustus.

The charm of boys as they advanced towards puberty and on to manhood was vigorously celebrated and enjoyed. Unlike today, when enthusiasts have to check them out dangerously and often illegally, they were freely on view in the baths of Rome. Men’s eyes would fall easily on a ‘cute pair of balls’. The appearance of a spectacularly well-hung young man or a fortiori a boy – the beau ideal – would be greeted with applause. Dragging back could be expensive and there are sad little poems about an erection collapsing when a Roman reflected on the cost of further pursuit. Boys were – and were expected to be – petulant, demanding, indifferent and faithless. Serving at table they should play the Ganymede; epicene, tender and flirtatious, but later that night the Priapus, ‘stuffing the master’s dinner further down his backside’.4

Romans did not allow themselves the gooiness of homosexual sentiment. They did not romance about the Theban ‘army of lovers’. They were practical in this matter as in every other. Boys were lovely but tricky and finally disposable and replaceable like the succession of poodle puppies required by the lady in Aldous Huxley’s novel Point Counter Point. We do not know the extent of loving between men in Rome but we can guess, suspect or (why not) hope. The Dictator Sulla had a satisfactory affair with an actor, synonymous with male prostitute, throughout his explosive career. We can be sure that love between men was thought to be a preference, never a perversion.

In Praise of Older Women would not have sold in Ancient Rome. A nasty niche is reserved in the Roman Chamber of Sexual Horrors for the voracious older woman, rich enough to buy men or employ eunuchs, pathics or slaves to satisfy her ‘itching, desiccated cunt’. (That word by the way has a respectable Latin root.) Women were more generally feared than idolized. Juvenal’s description in his sixth Satire, the most vitriolic piece of misogyny in the ancient – or, one would have thought, any other – world on the behaviour of a Roman wife, is designed to discourage matrimony. If a man wants a chaste wife, says Juvenal, he must be mad, for a woman will try to run his money, friends and slaves, will try to gossip with important men, will, if literary, act superior, will take, as lovers, actors, musicians, even eunuchs and pretend to be jealous to conceal her own adultery. If upper-class, she will refuse to have children, and if rich, will wear too much make-up. (Fards, then as now, cost a fortune.) Juvenal does comment that good women are boring.

No Roman wife behaved as badly as Messalina. She consumed lovers recklessly but also had an appetite for anonymous sex, posing as a prostitute in a brothel. When her husband, the Emperor Claudius, was snoring safely in his bed, she sneaked out into the streets wearing the red or yellow wig of a slave and accompanied only by her maid. (A nostalgie de la boue was frequently indulged in by high and mighty Romans, to the dismay of their security men.) She would stand naked in the doorway of a room in the brothel, her nipples titivated with gold paint, welcoming all until the early hours, when she would creak back to the palace, grimy with lust and dirt. Though spectacularly wicked she was also stupid, and caught in an inept plot against the Emperor, having gone through a form of marriage with her lover, she was finally put down.

Of course, most Roman wives did not have a slave flogged to give them an appetite while they were being dressed for dinner (or while choosing material for a new set of curtains), nor did every well-heeled husband abuse his slave boys, and the prurience of the satirists describing this behaviour surely contains a sliver of disapproval. The ancient world might have considered some twentieth-century activities, like the purveying of ‘snuff movies’, inhuman, though Romans took an unashamed and guiltless pleasure in the display of cruelty, perhaps not understanding how much of their pleasure was sexual.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!