Ancient History & Civilisation

The stinging price of ancient hanky-panky

Adultery was a ferociously big issue in ancient times. Merely the word adulterer was an insult among Greek men, and a favorite one-liner in the comedies of Aristophanes. Roman men had equally strong feelings about adultery— and many laws to prevent the act or punish it.

The most important element of Greco-Roman marriages was the legitimacy of offspring. Married men wanted to have children, particularly sons, to inherit and carry on the family name. They needed to know: Is that kid really mine? (If not, the injured party, since he considered his wife “property,” felt righteous rage over property theft as well.)

Most gals, even teens whose husbands did not meet their needs or dreams, remained faithful. But some did not. If a woman slept with someone other than her husband, it was adultery—regardless of her partner’s rank or marital status. Predictably, a married man who cheated only got into trouble if his co-conspirator was a freeborn married woman. Or someone else’s unmarried daughter, for example. Otherwise, Greek and Roman husbands had a free pass to get intimate with slaves, concubines, prostitutes, and even sexually available adult men.

Adultery was a very dangerous game long ago. Don’t judge it by the films you’ve seen about the ancient world; think in modern terms. Contraception and protection against STDs were a roll of the dice. There were no condoms; no diaphragms; no “morning after” tablets. Nor were affairs easy. There were no motels; no vehicles available by the hour; few if any convenient apartments to be borrowed from obliging friends. The houses of the guilty parties, where such naughty deeds would likely take place, were swarming with slaves and household members. Privacy? Forget about it. Furthermore, husbands didn’t commute to work or spend long hours at the office. Adultery was even trickier for women, whose freedom of movement was often curtailed.

In the earlier era of the Roman republic, husbands sometimes claimed the “right” to kill wives caught in the act. Most of the time, though, adultery was grounds for divorce but not justification for homicide. Beginning around 18 B.C., however, Rome’s first emperor made a strong attempt to legislate morality. To cut down on sexual hijinks and hanky-panky, Octavian Augustus introduced laws to punish married women who had extramarital affairs. Ironically this put the spotlight on several flagrant examples in his own family, namedly his daughter and his granddaughter, both named Julia.

Another decree gave a cuckolded husband the right to legally slaughter the male adulterer as long as his rank was lowly: a slave, a freedman, or someone with a job labeled “infamous,” such as a gladiator or an actor. On the other hand, prostitutes could legally have sex with married men—and that exemption encouraged some randy, quick-thinking patrician women to register themselves as hookers to avoid prosecution!


Greek playwright Aristophanes gained stardom for his ribald comedies, which often involved adultery and the adulterer’s punishment: sodomy!

The Augustan laws also affected the huge numbers of men in Roman military forces. Men convicted of adultery could not enlist; furthermore, if a soldier was caught in an adulterous situation, he received a dishonorable discharge.

Over in Greece, societal rules and laws against adultery remained draco-nian—a word that derives from Draco, the legislator whose laws included one that enraged husbands who caught adulterous wives and lovers in the act could carry out justifiable and legal homicide on both. The laws enacted by early Athenian leaders Solon and Draco were literally set in stone, word for word, upon plaques installed in public settings for anyone to consult. Furthermore, the same laws applied to men who had long-term relationships with mistresses who were free women—such as concubines or heterae, the highest-ranking sexual companions. Fathers whose daughters were unfaithful could kill both lovers with impunity.

All of this sounds rather grim, since humans have always been prey to temptation and sexual misadventures. But not all scenarios ended in bloodshed or murder of the in flagrante couple. For a male caught trifling with someone’s wife or exclusive mate, the Greeks (and later the Romans) came up with a most humiliating punishment. The sinned-against husband was legally allowed to sodomize the adulterer! Many times, this took symbolic form. For example, in Greek comedy, the adulterer is often punished by having a radish inserted into his rear end—at times, with witnesses guffawing at the act. You might call it an ancient sting operation, since Greek radishes evidently grew to a healthy size and had a good “bite” to them.

In one bizarre, possibly jocular case mentioned by Roman writer Juvenal, a wronged husband in Rome chose to sodomize the adulterer using a fish instead of his own member.

Adultery carried other penalties. The unfaithful wife or mistress could be exiled from her home and could not be buried in the family tomb. All parties had responsibilities, even the betrayed husband; if a Roman failed to report the crime of adultery, he was guilty of being a procurer or pimp.

Given the extreme secrecy with which affairs must have been conducted, the adultery statutes must have been equally hard to enforce. In later, more lax centuries, when sexually louche emperors and empresses set the tone, attitudes softened. Infidelity—at least among the patrician smart set— became at times amusing, the subject of piquant murals, ribald poetry, and jests in plays.

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