This page cannot be viewed in frames

Go to page

If you have found a spelling error, please, notify us by selecting that text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

Purity of Roman blood

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Fresco from Pompeii showing a bed scene
Fresco from Pompeii showing a bed scene

In the world of ancient Romans, we can meet the concept of “blood stigma” or its contamination. The de facto love morality of those times was based on it. It was also important when getting married. No one would marry a “contaminated” person.

Admittedly, visits by young men to brothels or jumping aside by unfaithful husbands were tolerated; because they did not threaten the honour of women (married women or daughters). If, however, a respected Roman lady happened to “forget”, she could be accused of the so-called stuprum, that is blood contamination, by voluntarily submitting to the act of love. A woman, coexisting with a man who is not her husband, tarnished law and morals. She did not deserve the status of wife and mother. Cato firmly states “If you had caught your wife in the act of adultery, with impunity you could have put her to death without a trial; but if you were committing adultery whether you were penetrating or being penetrated, she would not dare to lay a finger on you, nor would the right have been hers”1.

A man could not be defiled in the course of a corporeal act, as long as he was an active party. Therefore, he was not denied amusement, as long as he did not endanger the dignity of a free woman. Known for his strict censorship, Cato recounts the story of a young man whom he spotted leaving a brothel. The young man, seeing the severe censor, tried to hide somehow. Instead of rebuking him, Cato allegedly exclaimed: “Well done, for when shameful lust has swollen the veins, it is suitable that young men should come down here, rather than fool around with other men’s wives”2. The next day, the young man leaves the brothel again. This time he strides proudly and meets Cato again. To which he says, “Young man, I praised you for going there, not for living there”3.

The blood stigma rule did not apply to slaves or liberated women, as long as they could support themselves. Even free-born women, i.e. Roman citizens who were involved in prostitution, could not be accused of adultery.

A man may have been accused of blood contamination when he indulged in carnal rapture with an individual of the same sex. But he had to assume female roles in this case. Ancient Romans tolerated homosexual behaviour to some extent. For example, no one was offended if a master was physically attracted to his slave. As long as the slave took the female role. There is a story of a favourite Roman gentleman who wanted to roast beef. Unfortunately, in the village where the men were, they could not get this beef anywhere. The Lord, to please his lover, ordered to kill the working ox (which was prohibited by law). The case of these lovers ended in court. But they were not accused of homosexual relations, only accused of killing a working animal.

A Roman could therefore maintain a homosexual relationship without “blemish” only with a slave or liberator. It was worse if the beloved slave also had Roman blood. This is the story of Plotius and Weturius who lived in the 4th century BCE – an official who fell into debts and had to surrender himself to Plotius in order to pay them back. The owner had an affection for his servant. This one, in turn, resisted all the time. So Plotius had him flogged as a punishment. But it did not help and even did harm.  Veturius submitted the case to the consul, who handed it over to the senate. There, the senators ruled that there had been an offence against the purity of Roman blood and that Plotius was thrown in prison.

In the 3rd century BCE, the so-called lex scantinia which punished the seduction or harassment of a free-born minor. It happened after a court case in which Gaius Scantinius Capitoline was accused of molesting the son of commander Marcellus.

Homosexual relationships, if they could contribute to blood contamination, were strictly fought, especially in the military. Often they even ended in death. Plutarch tells the story of the nephew of the famous Marius – Gaius Lusius, who served as an officer in his uncle’s military staff. Unfortunately, he could not resist the charm of the young soldiers. Once he fell in love with Trebonius. At every turn, he showed his interest in him, which was either flatly rejected or ignored. Lust continued to grow in the officer. He ordered the young Trebonius to be brought to his tent. When he appeared before him, Lusius attempted to rape him. Defending his honour and his blood, the young man drew his sword and killed Lusius. The soldier who committed the crime was brought before the commander-in-chief, Marius. Nobody wanted to defend him, so Trebonius gave a speech about his constant resistance to Lusius, who at every step tried to seduce him. He named witnesses who could confirm this. The commander-in-chief, instead of punishing his nephew’s killer, decorated him with a wreath and stated that Trebonius with his behaviour set an example to other men how they should behave and should follow his example.

The military careers of many distinguished soldiers ended in a similar scandalous fashion. There was no consideration of merit or rank. A person who was proved such scandalous behaviour could count, in the slightest case, on imprisonment. Centurion Marcus Letorius Mergus brought the tribune of Cominius to court for seducing a young standard-bearer. The accused did not even wait for the verdict. He went into exile voluntarily and committed suicide.

Of course, such relationships were still practised after all. They were carefully concealed or the objects of affection were not soldiers, but slaves, who were taken for a known purpose. Such favourites were carried by the famous Sulla or other famous generals. There were often intricate intrigues between the favourites.

Plutarch accused the Romans of inconsistency. He asked: why did free-born boys wear a golden bull (a leather or gold medallion worn around their necks by children of aristocratic families) around their necks until the toga praetexta was worn? “Perhaps the ancient Romans, who did not flinch from making love with young slaves and did not find it unworthy, as the comedies attested, but refrained from touching free-born boys, ordered their children to wear these bulls to avoid the risk of even harassing them. when they were not dressed”.

The problem of blood contamination comes down to whether it affects a person who is not de facto contaminated (i.e. a slave, prostitute) or a person who should be clean. The sexual act itself was seen as satisfying the drive. It was neither good nor bad. But it could have serious consequences. The contamination of the blood was an irreversible act for those who experienced it. That’s why the legendary Lucretia, the daughter of a Roman patrician after being raped by Sextus Tarquini, decided to commit suicide. Even though the family and spouse excused her that she was not guilty of anything, she felt disgraced forever and unworthy of being a wife.

“Lucretia and Sextus” – a painting by Titian

In late Roman times, adultery was punished with particular severity. If it was committed by a woman, she was sentenced to death; at best she could count on exile or imprisonment. Also, the woman’s lover, if caught, had to take severe punishment. There are accounts of how a betrayed husband whipped his wife’s lover to death. There have been cases where such a “delinquent” was castrated so that he could no longer insult any woman. There is a story of a miller told by Apuleius. The man caught his wife cheating. The husband did not kill his wife’s lover, but he raped, then whipped and freed him, deprived of dignity and honour forever. Such a person was demoted in the light of public opinion.

In the classical era, insulted spouses try not to publicize their disgrace. They are content with divorce, the expulsion of the unfaithful wife with the preservation of her dowry, and most often the lover can only embarrass herself.

If an aggrieved party wants to take more revenge, it cannot always count on positive public opinion. Petronius tells a story: one time a rich lady was caught playing with her slave. The husband did not have the courage to accuse his wife of treason because her father was an influential official. So he sentenced a slave to fight with wild animals. There were few who supported the rightness in the behaviour of the betrayed spouse. Most condemned his act, considering that the slave had unjustly suffered such a severe punishment. He had to be encouraged to act by a woman who had power over him. Society recognized that a husband who takes revenge in a public, and in addition unjust, man is being ridiculous.

Probably most of the betrayed spouses thought the same, considering that Augustus forced betrayed men to expel their wives on pain of infamy (loss of honour and good name).

Adultery was punished – sometimes severely, sometimes indulgently. But when it came to the honour of a free-born girl, the punishments were ruthless.  Publius Menius was friends with the freedman, who additionally taught his daughter. Once a liberator, for some reason he kissed his friend’s daughter. My father went berserk and murdered him. “For he believed that his daughter should be devoted to her future husband, not only flawless in her virginity, but even undefiled with a kiss”.

Another father caught his daughter playing with his teacher. Without much thought, he killed the teacher and his daughter.

Today, we are surprised by such strict punishment for treason. But it should be remembered that in ancient Rome there was a cult of honour and the preservation of the purity of blood. A kind of inconsistency is also surprising. They turned a blind eye to all kinds of affairs to keep the blood of free girls and boys pure. Brief visits to the brothels were perfectly allowed. As the ancient Romans used to say, “a satisfied body protects the heart against unlawful desires”.

Author: Roger Rytter (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • P. Grimal, Miłość w Rzymie
  • A.Węgłowski, Wieki bezwstydu. Seks i Erotyka w Starożytności

IMPERIUM ROMANUM needs your support!

If you like the content that I collect on the website and that I share on social media channels I will be grateful for the support. Even the smallest amounts will allow me to pay for further corrections, improvements on the site and pay the server.



Find out more!

Check your curiosity and learn something new about the ancient world of the Romans. By clicking on the link below, you will be redirected to a random entry.

Random curiosity

Random curiosity

Discover secrets of ancient Rome!

If you want to be up to date with newest articles on website and discoveries from the world of ancient Rome, subscribe to the newsletter, which is sent each Saturday.

Subscribe to newsletter!

Subscribe to newsletter

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: