Greek and Roman mythology can be disheartening. What terrible role models most of the ancient deities were! Whether goddess or mortal, the women in those early soap operas were often subjected to bestiality, rape, infidelity, and incest, with little say-so about their own bodies.
But then we encounter Teiresias the Greek soothsayer (more on him in a prior entry), who becomes a woman as well as a man during the course of his mythical life. As such, he learns firsthand that mortal females have been granted an extraordinary gift: the lion’s share of sensual pleasure, so potent that it measures nine times that which mortal males feel.
As we now know, this lovely tale is no myth. Scientists in the twenty-first century have discovered that female orgasms have shock-and-awe Olympian powers. Besides the ability to reach the heights multiple times, a woman with the right partner may experience what’s called sustained orgasm, her body contracting pleasurably for many seconds.
Despite the encouraging example of Teiresias, at first glance it appears that neither Greek nor Roman mortals got the message about fully pleasuring their women. As the entries in this book reveal, most females had restricted freedom, zero sexual initiation, and romance-free arranged marriages. Other entries reveal the mind-boggling male ignorance of female biology—plus masculine insistence on penetrative intercourse as the only road to satisfying sex.
This brutish trend was exacerbated by any number of Greek and Roman writers who specialized in invective and sexual aggression to engage their readers, a gratuitous nastiness that reduced the private parts of men and women to acts of degradation.
But there are clues to the more satisfying, loving side of Greco-Roman life if we look carefully enough.
In researching this book, I’ve found evidence of abiding adoration in countless marriages. I’ve stumbled on the fierce fidelity and passion that kindled many a relationship between males, and learned of lesbian couples who bonded and loved long-term, just as they do today.
Good fortune has left us with written evidence as to how certain men felt about their wives, from the touching inscriptions on the tombs of long-wedded partners to the words of ones cruelly separated by a mate’s early death.
For instance, the words of Pliny the Younger, an aristocratic orator and author, in a letter to his wife, Cornelia: “I am seized by an unbelievable longing for you. The reason is above all my love, but secondarily the fact that we are not used to being apart.”
Another example, a humble graffito left on a Pompeian wall: “Methe of Atella, slave of Cominia, is in love with Chrestus. May Venus of Pompeii [patron goddess of the city] be propitious to them with all her heart, and may they live in concord.”
Males in cultures around the Mediterranean had (and still have) a sensual appreciation for life. At times they erotically admired masculine youth, the epitome of what they used to be. They also had a special gleam in their eyes for that glorious creature, the female of the species.
Thus love and orgasmic fulfillment could be found in other relationships besides marriage. Take the example of Ovid, often called the last and greatest of Roman love poets. He pursued erotic rapport as wholeheartedly as he pursued poetry. And wrote about the happy result. Married three times while giving the conquest-a-night playboys of Rome a run for their money, he put the highest priority on the feminine right to derive pleasure from acts of intimacy.
He knew, as did the ancient Egyptians, that orgasm was the source of life, a sacred act that also allowed men and women to experience life, and love, in a more stunning and complete way. As he put it, “Let the woman feel the sexual urgency, released from the very depths of her marrow, and let that be equally pleasing to both.”
Another clue I’ve run across regarding long-ago beliefs in sexual completion comes from the Latin language itself. Rather than one word, the Romans had two beautiful terms for orgasm. They called it delecto for the pleasure a woman experienced when her lover delivered that gift to her. And they used the word voluptas (from which comes our word voluptuous) to describe the explosion of joy felt by the man at his climax.
Ovid also had bisexual relationships but evidently preferred women, as his extant writings show. His loving advice about sharing the joy of orgasm, however, could just as easily been aimed at same-sex couples. Being a man of his time—that is, a regular at the circus racetrack and athletic competitions—he couched his words in sports metaphors: “But don’t you fail your lady, hoisting bigger sails, and don’t let her get ahead of you on the track either. Race to the finish together; that’s when pleasure is full, when man and woman lie there, equally vanquished.”
The Romans had a Latin word for it: delecto, the pleasure that a woman reached when her lover delivered sweet release to her.