The Greeks and Romans of old could really be negative about innocent pleasures. Kissing, for example. As Greek historian Plutarch fiercely noted in his essay called Precepts for Conjugal Life, “It is shameful to embrace and kiss and caress each other in the presence of others.”
Crusty old Senator Cato of Rome, the one who continually shrilled, “Carthage must be destroyed!” was quite a cold fish as well, when it came to marital relations. One day in the Roman senate, he ejected the man who was due to become the city’s next consul—simply because the fellow had kissed his wife in broad daylight.
Not all men or women were that reserved or frigid. After Athens’ famed leader Pericles got divorced, he and his philosophy-spouting girlfriend Aspasia began to live together, and their behavior scandalized the city. The scandal wasn’t the presumed sex they were having. To the utter horror of the neighbors, Pericles ardently kissed Aspasia on the lips when he left each morning to attend to business. When he returned, he warmly smooched her again. And the two of them misbehaved in this revolting way, year after year! Twenty, to be exact.
Another reason for kiss phobia? An old wives’ tale that suggested that old Greek wives (and possibly young ones) also imbibed to excess. Playwrights from Euripides to Aristophanes deplored the female propensity to take a nip: “O feverish women, ever ready for a drink, inventors of all kinds of schemes to get at the bottle! O great blessing for the wine merchants, and a curse in turn for us!”
Maybe those matrons had cause. Their Athenian husbands often spent a hard day socializing at the agora marketplace, followed by a lively evening at an all-male symposium, with plenty of tipple and titillation from the female entertainment. Invariably, they did kiss their wives when they finally got home. Instead of affection, however, the kiss was a breathalyzer test.
In later centuries, societal restrictions on kissing (but not on wifely wine consumption) may have eased. By good fortune, we still possess Achilles Tatius’s wonderfully trashy novel Leucippe and Clitophon, which describes long-ago kissing in vivid, juicy detail. His novel, written in the second century A.D., was very popular.
In this excerpt, one character defends the joys of male-female kissing. “A woman’s body is moist in the clinch, and her lips are soft in response to kisses. On account of this she holds the man’s body in her arms, with it completely joined to her flesh, and he is surrounded with pleasure when he has intercourse with her. She stamps her kisses on his lips like seals on wax … and when she has experience, she can make her kisses sweeter by not only wishing to use her lips, but also her teeth, grazing round her lover’s mouth and biting his kisses … At the height of orgasm she goes mad with pleasure and opens her mouth in passion. At this time tongues keep company with each other, and so far as possible they also make love to one another; you can make your pleasure greater by opening your mouth to her kisses.”
Famed writer Ovid, a fervid lover of women, employed lots of osculation in his Art of Love and other poems, as in this line: “What wise man would not mingle kisses with coaxing words of endearment?”
Poets and writers also sang the praises of male-to-male kisses and, more rarely, female to female. Here is an excerpt from Lucian’s Dialogue of the Courtesans, with two call girls discussing the party the night before.
[Clonarium]: “Did you sleep? What happened?”
In Greco-Roman times, kissing wasn’t always an innocent greeting. Upper-crust folks were phobic about “impure mouths” since oral sex was looked upon with loathing.
[Leaena]: “At first they [two women] were kissing me just like men, not only pressing their lips but opening their mouths a little, and they were embracing me and feeling my breasts. Demonassa was also biting me while she was kissing me. I didn’t know what to do with it all.”
As noted in the prior entry, Romans tend to greet each other, males as well as females, with a brief kiss on the lips. That may be why they were so paranoid about foul breath—fastidious about where mouths had been, and doing what to whom. For example, after 201 B.C., when the Hispanic peninsula became a Roman province, the larger world learned about the favorite dentifrice and mouthwash of many a Spaniard: human urine. That practice provoked an Eeeeeeeeeeoooouuuuuw! heard around the Mediterranean Sea.
Anthropologists have long suggested that kissing evolved from earlier primate behavior—either because human lips look and behave a bit like female labia when aroused; or because human mothers used to premasticate food for their young, then feed the infant mouth-to-mouth (just as birds and many animals still do).