Sexual activity in Ancient Rome wasn’t the licentious free-for-all we may imagine (especially for women); in fact it was strictly regulated. But author and historian LJ Trafford has unearthed plenty of weird and lurid facts about Ancient Roman sex for her new book, as she tells Historia.
When my publisher suggested to me that I write a book entitled Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome my train of thoughts ran something like this: Rome, wealth, decadence, emperors, Caligula, orgies. At which point I told my publisher, that yes, I would be delighted to write such a book.
I was hoping in the course of my research to uncover a great big dollop of smut, I was not to be disappointed for ancient Rome is positively brimming with it, as the following examples demonstrate.
Sex on a plate (literally)
Upstairs in the British Museum there is a room dedicated to the Roman Empire. It is filled with all the artefacts you’d expect: coins aplenty, amphora, busts of emperors long gone etc. But there’s something else that is important enough to get a glass case of its own, a certain silver drinking vessel.
You approach the case, intrigued by the polished silver. Staring through the glass, you begin to take in the picture expertly carved into the cup and realise you are examining a scene that shows a young man lowering himself onto the erect penis of an older, bearded man. This is the point where you either step back blushing or immediately head down to the gift shop to buy a replica. It can go either way.
It’s known as the Warren Cup and it is far from unique. Thousands of such sexually explicit homeware have been found, from cups, to plates, to oil lamps, to jewellery. It is a world seemingly bombarded with erotic images, which is very perplexing to our modern eyes.
The epitome of this difference in our two cultures is, to my mind, a statue that was found in the garden of a very well-off resident of Herculaneum. It depicts, and there’s no way to sanitise this, the god Pan having sex with a goat. Bestiality as a garden feature!
But looking closer at this statue you will note the tender, loving look being exchanged between god and goat, it’s absurd, deliberately so. The purpose is likely to inspire shock at the act depicted, followed by amusement at how it’s depicted. No doubt it proved quite the talking point over dinner for guests to the villa.
I love you, I love you not, because your vagina is too noisy.
Gaius Valerius Catullus was a nice, well brought up boy from Verona. When he reached adulthood, he headed off to Rome to begin his career in public service where he wrote a poem so filthy, so extreme that it wasn’t translated into English for publication until the 20th century, 2,000 years after it was written. Until that point only those with good Latin and a strong disposition were privy to the secrets of poem 16. And if you think I’m building this up too much, here is the first line of that poem “I will bugger you and fuck your face.” Charming.
Catullus is not alone for being a potty mouthed poet, Rome is full of them, most notably first-century CE poet Martial. Martial covers a wide range of sexual topics, such as older women plucking out grey public hair: ‘Remember what the wise man said, “Don’t pluck the lion’s beard when he’s dead,” large penises: “If from the baths you hear a round of applause, Maron’s giant prick is bound to be the cause,” and his partner’s noisy lady-part: “Whenever I came to you and we were moved about with mingling groins, you were silent – but your vagina wasn’t.”
But he really hits his stride in a poem, which you will struggle to find a translation of, about the looseness of his partner’s entrance which he very unkindly compares to different objects. Lydia’s down below is apparently as wide as bird catching net, the awnings at Pompey’s theatre, the throat of a pelican and, intriguingly, the trousers of a British pauper.
I think we’ll move swiftly on.
With images of sex everywhere it’s not surprising that they should slip into the nocturnal musings of Romans. Handily there was a text you could consult to uncover the meaning behind your saucy dreams. It was compiled by Artemidorus, a Greek dream interpreter who travelled the empire interviewing people about their dreams and what had happened to them afterwards.
Artemidorus dedicates a section specifically to sex dreams which he splits into three categories: intercourse which accords with nature, law and custom, intercourse which is contrary to law, and intercourse which is contrary to nature.
Artemidorus is writing for a male audience and so his first category (sex which accords with nature, law and custom) includes sex with your wife, sex with prostitutes, sex with your own slaves, sex with a woman you know, and masturbation.
The second category includes a section that inspired Sigmund Freud. It covers dreams about having sex with your mother. Apparently, the meaning of such a dream is dependent on what position you were having sex with your mother in, and Artemidorus lists them in a sliding scale of awfulness for the dreamer.
Let us just say that to dream of having sex with your mother in the missionary position has the least bad outcome for the dreamer. But at the very bottom of this depravity scale, to dream of being fellated by your mother signifies the death of your children, the loss of all your assets, and, to cap it all off, a serious illness for yourself. Except that’s not the worst outcome; as Artemidorus cheerfully adds, “I know of someone who was castrated after having this dream.” Yikes!
The examples above demonstrate the lewd, crude nature of Roman culture, but there is another side to Ancient Rome that is equally as interesting; it’s quite a conservative society. Real concerns about a decline in private morals led to state introduced morality laws to enforce what they saw as proper moral and sexual behaviour.
It’s this contradiction that I find fascinating about sex and sexuality in Ancient Rome.
Read about the bizarre everyday lives of Romans in her Historia feature, Gladiator sweat and leech hair dye; how to survive in Ancient Rome.
- Detail from fresco from the bedroom (Cubiculum 43) in the Casa del Centenario in Pompeii: Wikimedia
- Warren Cup (BM GR 1999.4-26.1), British Museum: Wikimedia
- Detail from fresco, Pompeii, AD50–79: Wikimedia
- Index page, The Interpretation of Dreams by Artemidorus, translated and printed for R. Gosling, 1710: Manchester Archives+ via Flickr