You’ve read the clichés about platonic love, heard about Sappho and lesbian relationships, seen the Roman orgy movies. But what was sexuality really like in ancient times? Did the Greeks and Romans get married only to have procreative sex, or was erotic pleasure part of the bargain? What about romantic love, and who shared it? Did anyone call themselves transgendered? And what was the true status of gays?
Scientists, wildlife researchers, and religious leaders have declared for centuries that human homosexuality must be an aberration or a choice, because it does not occur in the natural world. Wrong. In our times, to the surprise and delight of many, biologists and researchers in the field have observed more than 450 different species engaging in same-gender mating activities, including bighorn sheep, albatrosses, beetles, bison, bonobos, ostriches, guppies, warthogs, flamingos, and various species of butterflies.
Orgies might look chaotic but an emcee directed activities. No last-minute walk-ins, either; members only.
Their hijinks have been noted in the New York Times and elsewhere, with piquant details such as these: “A female koala might force another female against a tree and mount her … releasing what one scientist described as ‘exhalated belchlike sounds.’ ” And further: “Male Amazon river dolphins have been known to penetrate each other in the blowhole.”
With these discoveries, the whole paradigm of sexuality has changed. Instead of just the Darwinian imperative to pass on our genes, it appears that a certain saucy broad called Mother Nature might also just like to have fun. As yet, we don’t know how these same-sex activities among creatures other than humans impact reproductive strategies. Who knows—we may find they create indirect ways of survival in a whole host of species, including our own.
Another factor besides evolution is in play here: biological exuberance. The jaw-dropping variety of animal and plant life covering this planet carries out its sexual mission in countless complex ways. None of it is aberrant. All of it demonstrates the lavish way in which life exhibits its rainbow of options.
As author Bruce Bagemihl argues in his book Biological Exuberance, given the apparent “purposelessness” of so much mating activity in the wild, scientists have had to rethink their basic models of what sex is all about. His take on it? “Sex is life’s celebration of its own gaudy excess. It’s an affirmation of life’s vitality and infinite possibilities; a worldview that is at once primordial and futuristic, in which gender is kaleidoscopic, sexualities are multiple, and the categories of male and female are fluid and transmutable.”
Most centaurs were half-male, half-horse, but who’s to say there weren’t mythical chick centaurs among them?
In countless ways, the ancient Greeks and Romans would agree with his theory—and confirm it. Although some were sophisticated thinkers, most were plainspoken, earthy folk. They treasured physicality. Knowing early death too well, they lived in the moment. They absorbed life through their pores.
Although Greek and Latin words and roots were used to create such terms as heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, and lesbian, both cultures would have looked askance at these labels. To them, all manifestations of love and erotic behavior were somehow connected, all part of a whole. Men and women alike craved love but also feared its power; they called it the thunderbolt, that love-at-first-look feeling. To them, love could have claws. Passion—fulfilled or unrequited—could be as bitter as myrrh.
With trepidation, they entered the game with joy nonetheless. And they played it in a dizzying variety of ways—female-to-female relationships, male-to-younger-male courtships, same-sex wedded couples, male-female marriages, short-term liaisons, dynastic incest, bonded military lovers, and still other combinations you’ll get to know in this book.
As in today’s world, love took many forms, from maternal to altruistic, from hard-hearted to passionate. No one has a definitive answer as to why the Greeks and Romans of both genders handled their sexual urges and love imperatives in the complex way they did, but several aspects of those cultures offer provocative clues.
As the Greeks knew, Cupid’s arrows stung, often randomly scoring a bull’s-eye.
First of all, neither the Greeks nor the Romans thought about sinfulness and guilt in the Judeo-Christian sense. The idea of mankind’s fall from grace never occurred to them. Even women, despite having to endure a lifetime of domineering males, would laugh incredulously at the thought of sex being a sin. Adultery could be a crime, as could rape, but for reasons other than sinfulness. A tangle of laws eventually would seek—not always successfully—to control some sexual behaviors and criminalize others.
In their polytheistic societies that we call pagan, there were no churches or congregations as we know them, no priests to lecture or act as middlemen to a deity. They believed in a celestial place, jam-packed with gods and goddesses who were divine yet flawed. In them, Greeks and Romans saw themselves, at once perfect and imperfect. Some of their supreme beings were lifelong virgins: Artemis, Athena, and Vesta. Other deities were sex addicts, troublemakers who rarely paid a penalty for their misbehavior. Sex, love, jealousy, and revenge were integral parts of the gods’ lives, and thus it seemed right that human lives should echo them.
As John Clarke, author of Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Rome Art, says: “The Romans are not at all like us in their sexuality … Here was a world before Christianity, before the Puritan ethic, before the association of shame and guilt with sexual acts. And it is a world that had many more voices than the ones we hear in the ancient texts that have survived.”
She’s awfully short, but I could still get aroused.
Both Greeks and Romans felt the urgent need to have more than one deity on the job to handle the myriad aspects of love and sexual activity. Not only that, but both cultures freely borrowed deities from one another or created parallel ones: the Greek Aphrodite and Eros paralleled the Roman Venus and Cupid, for instance. Since marriage therapists, daytime television, chat rooms, and self-help books were not yet on tap, the love deities eventually amassed an entourage of minor gods devoted to different aspects of passion, from seduction to unrequited love. The same applied to deities of sexuality, fertility, marriage, and childbirth. They were equally important in the everyday lives of long-ago people, who routinely sought their advice and asked them to intercede in their personal lives.
Diane Ackerman, author of A Natural History of Love and many other books, has recently written about interpersonal neurobiology and the discovery that the brain is constantly rewiring itself based on daily life. As she eloquently puts it, “as a wealth of imaging studies highlight, the neural alchemy continues throughout life as we mature and forge friendships, dabble in affairs, succumb to romantic love, choose a soul mate.”
That continual growth and flexibility was something that the Greeks and Romans came by organically. They expressed it through ecstatic and transformative experiences, such as being initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries or the Bacchic rites; or by taking part in females-only retreats, such as the Thesmophoria festivals held in fifty parts of Greece. They sought it through all-night symposium sessions with the guys, arguing over the meanings of love and its relation to goodness; or by watching and weeping at Greek dramas or at ceremonies conducted by Rome’s vestal virgins. In their ardent drive to feel love and achieve sexual connection, the Greeks and Romans were irrepressible. Unstoppable. But realistic. With a smile, they said in Latin, Amantes sunt amentes—lovers are lunatics.
The love goddess is in; please take a number.
Within these pages, you’ll meet a wildly diverse crowd, whose outspoken and at times baldly X-rated language and actions may shock you. These are men and women in the raw. In the flesh. Some in love, hotly glowing. Others in longing or betrayal, darkly poisonous. Most are Greeks and Romans, but entries also incorporate other cultures and nationalities who became part of the Roman Empire. To add richness, Greco-Roman views and customs are compared with those of Persians, Jews, ancient Egyptians, Etruscans, and more. You’ll meet familiar faces—including Socrates and the men and women who adored him; Ankhesenamun, Egyptian pharaoh Tut’s young wife, a serial victim of incest, although she wouldn’t have called herself a victim; and the outrageous sister-in-law of famed poet Sappho. And unfamiliar faces as well, including the busy women and men who produced the first porn books and the first Joy of Sex how-to manuals—some of them illustrated! Plus the sex-addicted daughter of emperor Octavian Augustus, who single-handedly shattered his plans for a more moralistic Roman society.
You’ll explore other love fixations and sexual obsessions, from dolphin adoration to beautiful buttocks, from fears about hermaphrodites to fears about garden thievery. Plus examples of selfless love, one being the unusual tale of the real-life Amazon who loved and fought alongside Mithradates, the rebellious king who defied the Romans for decades.
In addition, I’ve included the best myths and legendary tales of love and sexual surrender within these pages, from Helen of Troy’s real career to the musical love story of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Mark Antony went wild on Lupercalia but didn’t do badly the rest of the year, either. He had five marriages and countless liaisons.
The mechanics and body parts of biology and love also get their due, from long-ago kissing to the important role played by masturbation in ancient myth; from foreskin meddling to Hymen, the god of maidenheads. Since much of Greco-Roman sexuality was celebrated through traditional festivals, you’ll eavesdrop on snake handlers, follow the phallic processions, and attend Lupercalia, the wild and wolfish celebration that preceded our Valentine’s Day.
Over the decades that I’ve spent in the sunburnt corners of Greece and Italy and the lands circling the Mediterranean Sea, I’ve searched for clues about the flesh-and-blood people who once lived and loved there. And I’ve studied those who live and love there still.
Over time, I’ve come to understand what mattered to them: Their rootedness to their family homes, to their village or city. Philoxenia, their hospitable love of strangers. Their sensual awareness, their way of living in the moment. Their rough, bawdy humor. The way in which they lived their music in their bones. Their awareness of posterity, procreation, and the importance of their children. Above all, their fearlessness when it came to expressing emotion and to boldly courting that which gives life meaning.
I’ve also glimpsed the casual brutality of those long-ago times—the darkly punitive aspects of enslaved societies, and how sharply they contrasted with the desperate lengths to which the privileged sometimes went to stave off sexual boredom. To feel truly alive.
To help you see, feel, and grasp what I’ve found, I’ve drawn from a huge well of often contradictory pieces of evidence, written and pictorial, highbrow and lowbrow, from philosophical musings to lewd graffiti, from love charms to personal letters, from secondhand gossip to respected archaeological sources.
Since earliest times, humans have admired the fecund female and worshipped her miraculous ability to bring new life.
Countless people, places, events, and topics in this book intertwine in interesting ways, so you’ll find them cross-referenced within entries and also in the index.
As the Greeks would urge: drink deeply!
Let’s get this drunken revel on the road— I’m getting goosebumps!