The issue of sexual excesses in ancient Rome has undoubtedly become a legendary one. We have reliable sources about sexual practices of the third wife of Emperor Claudius, Valeria Messalina. This fun-loving nymphomaniac has undoubtedly put Roman public opinion on its feet.
Pliny the Elder in “Natural History” wrote:
Other animals have had enough of having sex at one point – people never. Messalina, Emperor Klaudius’s wife, believed that it was worthy of the emperor to call for competition one of the most infamous women in paid prostitution; and the empress won with her 25th lover, after a sexy night and day1.
This is not the only disgraceful achievement of the empress, for, as a Roman satyr poet Juvenal says, Messalina escaped the imperial palace at night in order to be able to freely indulge in the pleasures of the flesh in the Roman lupanar.
Listen to what Claudius had to endure. When his wife saw him fall asleep – this noble whore was so shameless that she preferred an ordinary carpet to a bed in an imperial palace – with only a companion serving, she was leaving her home with a cap on her head. Hiding her black hair under a blonde wig, she entered a burgher room, smelling of still used, warm duvets, and occupied a room reserved for her; there, under the name of Lycisca, she gave herself with bare breasts and gold-painted nipples and showed her belly, which once carried you, a noble Britannicus. She accepted the insiders tenderly and demanded payment from everyone. And when the owner of the lupanar sent the girls home, she left sad, after the last cell had been closed, and in her vulva the desire was still burning. She returned tired of men, but still not satisfied, with dirty cheeks, dug in with lamp soot, and carried the smell of brothel into caesarean pillows2.
Scandalous behaviour has undoubtedly left a deep mark on Messalina. However, the end of her life was sealed by a conspiracy for Claudius’s life. The emperor was not his direct initiator. Unfortunately, Messalina, blinded by her love for Gajus Silius (consul in 48), first consented to the marriage, thus committing bigamy, and then agreed to Silius’ proposal for the removal of the emperor. When the conspiracy saw the light of day, there was no rescue for the empress. She was murdered in front of her mother, the Domitia Lepida in the gardens of Lucullus. It is worth to add that Messalina’s image has been removed from all public and private places. This made her the first Roman empress to be condemned to oblivion(damnatio memoriae)3.
The evaluation of the posterity also turned out to be not very kind to Emperor Tiberius. The last years of his life are considered particularly controversial. The emperor spent it on Capri, where the remains of his villa are still on the highest rock cliff. There, according to rumours, numerous erotic deportations took place. In “Caesar’s life”, Suetonius described in detail the most refined sexual practices taking place in the caesarean suite.
In the privacy of the island of Capri, he invented the arrangement of an apartment full of sofas as a place of mysterious love, where the indulgent boys and girls, attracted from everywhere, practiced a horrible relationship he invented, called spintriae, in which the intertwined in a triple embrace gave each other up in order to excite his dull senses with this view. Bedrooms located in many places of the palace were decorated with paintings, sculptures with the most vague themes and figures, and supplied with books of Elefantides, so that no one would miss the pattern of the figure ordered by Tiberius in carrying out his activities. Also in the forests and groves he arranged in various places districts dedicated to Venera and placed in grottos and hollow caves young people of both sexes wearing the costumes of little men and nymphs. For this reason, it was already openly and commonly called Capriceus, exploiting the name of the island for this ambiguity. He became even more libellous by his indulgent and disgusting actions, which he did not even agree to take up or listen to, what only to believe in their truth. Namely, he supposed to teach boys, striplings barely, whom he called fish, to circulate between thighs during his bathing and to slightly swim, excite him with their tongue or bite4.
The reliability of the description is undoubtedly questionable. There is no doubt about the negative attitude of the public towards the emperor, which is compounded by circulating rumours, which have become a tool for spreading public reluctance. The extent to which they have distorted the emperor’s image remains a great unknown.
The issue of degenerated sexual practices is also addressed in one of the chapters “Natural Issues” by Seneca the Younger. While the chapter devoted to the description of mirrors’ functioning is rather unattractive, the aversion towards the actions of someone called Hostius Quadra arouses interest.
His deviations were not limited to one sex, he desired men as well as women. He ordered himself to make mirrors such as I described as the first type, which show everything bigger than in reality, in which the finger is large and thick as a hand. He told them to hang them so that when he was with a man, he could see all the movements of the stallion at his back and could enjoy the false size of his partner’s birth as if it were really so great. He recruited the favourites in public thermal baths and chose well-equipped men, but his disgusting liking was additionally filled with an exaggerated view. Admit that the mirror for this purpose was invented to look better! The things that this monster said and did (one would like to take it as a mouthpiece and tear it apart) are too awful to talk about. He ordered the mirrors to be placed from all sides, so that he could see himself better during all his disgraceful deeds. This was also true of the mysterious actions that human beings had to take on their consciences and that everyone denied, and they presented them not only to their lips, but even to their eyes. (…) He watched the men whom he ordered to do various things with him. Sometimes he gave himself up to a man and a woman at the same time and put up his whole body for them to observe afterwards the indescribable activities. (…) What embarrassing behaviour! Perhaps he was murdered so quickly that he did not notice it at all; it would be better if he had to see in his own mirror how he was murdered5.
While homosexual anal relations has been practised by many people, confessing to such disgraceful acts is, according to the philosopher, unforgivable. Therefore, he did not condemn the act of crime against Hostius Quadra. This was to prevent the demoralising actions of a man.
In ancient Rome, where sexual morality was subject to strict standards, sex was the domain of marriage and procreation. Unfaithfulness and promiscuity, on the other hand, were often treated as an unquestionable argument that invalidated marriage. This fate was shared by many empires, who lost not only their reputation, but even their lives.
Prodigality, venom, and also dissolved sex – this is what we very often associate with a Roman feast. However, how much truth is there in this? Were perverse sexual practices really a cyclical process of every Roman feast? Undoubtedly, we have a somewhat overestimated idea of this event. Australian researcher Alastair Blanshard blames Hollywood film reproductions for this, which, in his opinion, showed us more orgies than those that took place in ancient Rome.