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Homosexuality in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

During the time of the Republic, Roman citizens had the right (libertas) to protect their bodies from physical coercion, including both corporal punishment and sexual violence. Roman society was typically patriarchal and masculinity was based on the principle of governing not only oneself but also other persons, especially those from the lower class.

Roman cup showing a homosexual sex scene.

It was socially acceptable for a free-born Roman to have sex with a woman or a man assuming a dominant role. Both women and young men were perceived as natural objects of desire. Outside of marriage, a man could have sex with slaves (or slaves), prostitutes (who were usually slaves) and the so-called infames (the restricted man). It did not matter with which gender the Roman indulged in until he did not exceed certain social norms. For example, it was immoral to have sex with another citizen’s free-born wife, his daughter by marriage, his underage son, or the man himself.

During imperial times, the fear of losing political freedom and submitting to power to the emperor led to an increase in the frequency of free-born men assuming a passive position during sex. This is evidenced by the sources that mention a greater number of executions and corporal punishment imposed on free citizens of Rome.

Generally speaking, in civilian life, homosexuality was rather rare and treated reluctantly (as evidenced by references in source texts, which noted outrageous, characteristic and infrequent things), and such relations were tolerated, as I mentioned if the Roman citizen was an active party (in otherwise, Roman blood was contaminated. It is worth presenting a controversial excerpt from Caesar’s life. In 80 BCE a young Gaius Julius Caesar arrived at the court of Nicomedes IV, king of Bithynia (North-West Asia Minor), Caesar was sent there on the orders of praetor Marcus Minucius Termus from Asia to get the Bithynian fleet to help with the siege of the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. even closer to befriending the king. It has often been suggested – probably rightly – that they were lovers. From this it can be inferred that Caesar was bisexual, in the late period known for his high-profile romances with numerous women; bisexuality was common among the Roman aristocracy at that time. The episode in Bithynia was repeatedly the subject of satirical comments, but it did not affect Caesar’s political career. The attack on Caesar resulted from the fact that was supposed to be a passive party during intercourse.
It was also important that the Romans had sex with a man in some way socially inferior (younger, inferior, slave). In this way, the stereotype of a Roman, commander and conqueror was preserved. Homosexuality among men was tolerated and accepted but was definitely not the rule.

So if any high-ranking free-born Roman allowed himself to be passive during intercourse, he risked mockery. Their victim was, among others Mark Antony, who had a long relationship with Publius Clodius. Cicero ridiculed this account in fourteen malicious Philipics, mentioning, inter alia, the escape of the future triumvir over the roofs from the angry father of his lover. Cicero had to pay his head for this mockery – when Marcus Antony came to power, he ordered his head to be cut off with a blunt knife, and the triumvir’s wife Fulwia additionally pierced the orator’s tongue with a nail.

Loud – because very unusual – was also the relationship between Marcus Antony and his peer, Scribonia Kourion. The lovers were not separated by the age difference, and they indulged in sex so passionately that Scriboni’s father placed his son under house arrest. It was to no avail, Marcus Antony broke in, because through the roof, only to satisfy the need to meet his lover.

A fresco from a suburban bathhouse in Pompeii showing sex in a triangle.

Not only Marcus Antony was famous for male lovers. Emperor Vitellius always prepared an exclusive menu for his young lovers, aimed at stimulating the imagination and potency: wild boar liver, pheasant brain, flamingo tongues and dandelion moray. Known for his extremely audacious – not only sexual – practitioners of Caligula his first official lover Lepidus married his sister (with whom he also remained in an active erotic relationship). However, Lepidus joined a group of conspirators who planned to deprive the emperor of power, for which he sentenced him to be beheaded. He then anointed Valenius Catullus as his official lover, who – whether out of his innate bragging rights or to lick his ruler – bragged all over the city that he was insanely sore after making love with Caligula. However, Caligula, with the consistent characteristic of the mentally ill, although he himself is strongly bisexual, ordered all homosexuals to be sent to hard labour in Sardinia one day.
Roman dictator Lucius Sulla was not free from homosexuality, too, he always took with him, for every war and expedition, a host of his young lover.

A man or boy who had a passive role in sex was defined in various ways: cinaedus (derogatory term for a deviant), pathicus (“dumbass”), exoletus, concubinus (“male concubin”), spintria, puer (“boy”), pullus (“chick”), pusio, delicatus (especially the phrase puer delicatus, meaning “filigree boy” was used), mollis (“soft”), tener (“gentle”), debilis (“weak” or “disabled”), effeminatus, discinctus (“scantily clad”), morbosus (“sick”).

Despite the fact that the Romans viewed marriage as a heterosexual relationship for procreation, in the early Empire, some homosexual couples managed to get married in the company of friends. Marcjalis and Juwenalis mention such weddings. Roman law naturally did not recognize such a relationship as legally binding, but Juvenal in one of his satires notes that publicizing such events could eventually legalize them.

Some historical sources say that Emperor Nero was married three times: twice as a bride (with the liberated Pythagoras and with an unknown person), and the third as the groom (with Sporus). Sporus was a Roman boy who liked Emperor Nero because he reminded him of his late wife Poppaea Sabina. Nero ordered Sporus to be castrated and in the fall of 66 CE, during the emperor’s journey through Greece, he married him. No sources say whether Sporus reciprocated Nero’s feelings. Wedding ceremonies reportedly included dowry and the wearing of a wedding veil. Despite the fact that Roman sources were hostile to the issue of Nero’s marriages, Cassius Dio mentions that society saw the emperor’s artistic performances as worse than weddings.
In the 3rd century CE, Emperor Elagabalus was to stand on a wedding carpet as a bride with a Greek slave – Hierocles. Officially, their relationship naturally had no legal force. Hierocles became the emperor’s favourite when he fell from the chariot in front of the imperial lodge during the Games, and his helmet slipped off his head, revealing the face of the coachman. The teenage emperor was to be delighted with his beautiful blonde hair and he immediately ordered him to be brought to the palace, bestowing his favours. The emperor was to say then: “I am glad to be called the mistress, wife, queen of Hierocles.”

Rape and regulation

Greco-Roman phallus-shaped amulets – the so-called fascinus.

Generally, any coercion or rape was severely punished under Roman law. The first lex dates back to the 2nd century BCE and applies to both same-sex and bisexual acts. The law applied to free people as well as the so-called infamis or suspiciosus – a term for people with lower status and rights. Lex Julia de vi publica, a law adopted in the 3rd century CE but dating back to the times of Julius Caesar’s dictatorship, unequivocally defines rape as a forced rapprochement on “a boy, woman and anyone “. The punishment that Lex provided was the death penalty. In turn, sex with a slave of another citizen was considered a form of theft or illegal appropriation of property.

Seneca the Elder cites a hypothetical case of a teenager (adulescens) being raped by his 10 peers. The writer and scholar, however, emphasize the effectiveness of Rome’s legislative bodies and the possibility of enforcing legal norms. Another crime is the rape of a free Roman citizen (ingenuus), which led a disgraced Roman to suicide. Such a crime was considered one of the worst crimes that could be committed alongside patricide, rape of a virgin and sacking of a temple.

The lack of self-control, especially in managing his own sex life, indicated that the man was unable to properly control other people. In turn, succumbing to a too-low level of pleasure threatened to erode a citizen’s personal culture.

Homosexuality in the legions

A Roman soldier, like every free and self-respecting Roman, was socially obligated to discipline, also in matters of sexuality. In the Roman military of the Republic period, any manifestations of homosexuality were severely exterminated. The “active” person most often exposed himself to flogging and expulsion from the legions, while the “passive” person was sentenced to death – according to Polybius by beating (fustuarium).

Emperor Octavian Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE) introduced a legionary marriage ban – a law that was in force for almost two centuries. In return, the soldiers could enjoy prostitutes of both sexes, slaves, prisoners and homosexual sex. The work “On the Spanish War” describes the events of a front in Spain where an officer had a male concubine (concubinus) during the campaign. Sex between the soldiers disturbed the order and moral framework of camp life. In the simplest terms, a man retained his masculinity until he was forced into the act. The aspect of homosexuality cannot be ruled out with certainty among the legionaries, who spent a great deal of time in their company. Naturally, there were cases of using the power and dominant position of superiors over privates. Such behaviour is also mentioned in Plutarch in “The Parallel Lives” in the part devoted to Gaius Marius.

Lesbian love

Fresco from Pompeii showing lesbian love
Fresco from Pompeii showing lesbian love.

References to lesbian love in the literature of the Republic and Empire are extremely rare. There are small mentions in the works of Ovid, who advocates for heterosexual love, and in the writer Lucian of Samosata (2nd century CE). In Pompeii, wall frescoes depicting a couple of women during the act and graffiti emphasizing same-sex desire have been found. In Rome, various terms were used for lesbian: hetairistria, tribas, lesbia, tribas, fricatrix and virago.

Lesbian love was unacceptable because it was read as a usurpation by one of the women of the role of a man, which was an attack on the social structure. According to the Romans, the necessary attribute for sexual intercourse was the phallus, which lesbians had to replace with accessories in the form of today’s dildos. Moreover, the Romans emphasized that during a love affair between two women, only one could feel pleasure. It was also emphasized that lesbians were distinguished by larger genitalia.

The time of Christianity

The situation of homosexuals in ancient Rome began to change at the beginning of the 3rd century CE when Emperor Philip the Arab banned male prostitution. In this century, further steps were taken to end homosexuality, including an absolute ban on gay marriage. With the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the state, homosexuality has become a socially unacceptable element for good. In 326 CE, Constantine the Great introduced the death penalty for homosexual acts, leading to persecution and the disappearance of sexual freedom. The policy of Constantine the Great in this matter was continued by the later Byzantine emperor Justinian I.

  • Fijałkowski Paweł, Seksualność, psyche, kultura. Homoerotyzm w świecie starożytnym, Warszawa 2007
  • Foucault Michel, Historia seksualności, Warszawa 1995

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