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Kiss in antiquity

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman clay fragment with relief decoration depicting a couple kissing.
Roman clay fragment with relief decoration depicting a couple kissing.

The kiss plays an important role in many cultures to this day. It was no different in ancient times. Ancient Romans used it as a sign of friendship, respect or even greetings (salutatio) of the client’s patron.

Different forms of kiss were distinguished i.e. so-called “pot” – kissing another person by the ears. On the other hand, the Romans distinguish, for example, “pigeon kiss”, modeled on the entwined beaks of pigeons, birds that were dedicated to the goddess Venus.

The ancient Romans had different kiss names:

  • osculum – a kiss parents give to children; delicate e.g. in the hand or cheek
  • basium – a kiss a husband gives his wife; with mouth closed
  • savium – a kiss a client gives to a prostitute; passionate

Plutarch also mentions in his Moralia, that returning men kissed their wives on the lips to see if they were drinking wine – which was also banned. The kiss on the lips was largely in the family, between relatives or people closely related, and was not always sexual.

Interestingly, the Romans also practiced giving “kisses” in the neck or eyes. This type of affection was also more common in the family circle. Another form – kisses on the cheeks – used since the times of the ancient Persians was usually used in social life.

There were also kisses in the hand, which were a sign of submission and submission. Kisses of this type could be given, for example, to sons, father, soldiers to the commander, officials to voters (in gratitude for votes). Another variation was to kiss on the foot, which was already begging for mercy or a successful decision (e.g. accused to the judges).

The following account of Catullus illustrates the importance of kisses in the ancient world.

Let us live, my Lesbia, and love,
and the rumors of rather stern old men
let us value all at just one penny!
Suns may set and rise again;
for us, when once the brief light has set,
an eternal night must be slept.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
then another thousand, then a second hundred,
then yet another thousand, then a hundred;
then, when we have performed many thousands,
we shall shake them into confusion, in order for us to lose the count,
and in order not to let any evil person envy us,
as no one will be aware of how many kisses have there been.

Catullus, V

  • Christian Laes, Children and Everyday Life in the Roman and Late Antique World
  • Mikołaj Szymański, Ab ovo. Antyk, Biblia etc., Warszawa 2004

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