What Ancient Roman Sex Practices Were Actually Like
The Gabinetto Segreto, or "Secret Cabinet," is a tiny, windowless alcove in the Naples National Archaeological Museum in Italy. Off-limits to women, children and anyone without a special entry permit for nearly two centuries, the mysterious nook houses a 250-artifact collection of sex art from the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, including dozens of stone penises, erotic frescoes and terracotta figurines dwarfed by their epically proportioned sexual body parts.
Two decades after the Secret Cabinet was reopened to the general public, it still feels naughty to look at these intricate carvings of ancient, interspecies sexual acts, detailed depictions of cunnilingus and penis-shaped wind chimes.
The provocative artwork and erotic poetry—which waxes on topics such as anal sex, pederasty and incest—were viewed through the judgmental Christian lens in the centuries that followed and contributed to the Romans' earned reputation of being wanton and obsessed with sexuality.
But the reality is much more complex, said Aven McMaster, Ph.D., an Ontario, Canada-based classicist who studies Latin poetry and Roman social history and co-hosts the podcast "The Endless Knot."
"When it comes to sexuality, the Romans were both much less conservative and much more conservative than we think," McMaster said. (We'll explain.)
How sexuality was thought of during the ancient Roman Empire
"Broadly speaking, people in the ancient world—including the Romans—didn't have our concept of homosexuality," said Thomas McGinn, Ph.D., professor of history as well as classical and Mediterranean studies at Vanderbilt University.
"It was considered completely normal for men to have sexual desire for boys and other men, as well as a sexual desire for women," McMaster agreed. "At the same time, there were very rigid rules about types of sexuality."
Specifically, Romans had very clear, defined rules about whether participants should take an active or passive role—that is, who played the role of the penetrator versus penetrated during sex.
Free to penetrate other men, women and enslaved children, an adult male Roman was expected to play the dominant role. Under Lex Scantinia, a Roman law regulating sexual behavior, a respected, upper-class male citizen was penalized for playing a submissive role in penetrative sex.
Romans' disdain for sexual passivity among freeborn men was emphasized by Roman satirist Gaius Lucilius, who described free male citizens who let themselves be penetrated as a scultimidonus or "assh--- offerer."
Lupanars: ancient sex brothels in Rome
A discussion of ancient Roman sexuality would be incomplete without touching on prostitution, an enterprise that was accepted, legal and usually taxed. Prostitution thrived in ancient Rome, where you could find scortum—prostitutes, many of whom were slaves—on street corners, taverns or brothels known as lupanarium.
"Romans saw prostitution as kind of a resource against adultery," McGinn said. "To give you a concrete example of how this worked, when Emperor Augustus passed a law defining adultery as a criminal act, he exempted sex with prostitutes."
Indeed, the only time prostitution was stigmatized among ancient Romans was when it became excessive, McMaster noted. She recounted an ancient Roman parable where an elder spotted a younger man emerging from a brothel and congratulated him for finding an appropriate outlet for his desires, meaning he wasn't being adulterous or doing something he shouldn't do. But after meeting the young man emerging from the brothel several more times that week, the old man chastised the younger man for being indulgent. The Romans told this story to highlight the importance of moderation and sexual restraint.
"Everybody assumed men had sexual desires, so it was important to use them in a controlled fashion," she said. "But to do it too often showed he was wasting his money, time and energy, and he wasn't in control of himself."
Ultimately, the pillar of Roman manliness was control—both over others and himself, according to McMaster. Control over others was displayed by penetrating them, but control over oneself was shown through exercising restraint. In other words, while it was considered masculine to have sex with other men, women and kids, it was unmasculine to have too much sex with them, she explained.
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Female sexuality in ancient Rome
Unsurprisingly, the Roman rules governing women were more stringent. Roman society demanded women embody characteristics of pudicitia, or sexual modesty and restraint, which for an unmarried woman meant being a virgin and for a married woman meant limiting sexual interactions to her husband.
Both McGinn and McMaster noted there is little mention in ancient records of women having relationships with other women, likely because literary sources are almost all upper-class males, McGinn added.
In the rare instances when woman-to-woman relationships were mentioned in Roman sources, a kind of phallic alternative was always involved, McMaster said. Roman texts sharply juxtapose the silent, still compliance of a respectable married woman with the stigmatized sexual acts and wide range of sexual positions offered by a prostitute. There are even medical records of how a woman's orgasms might inhibit her from getting pregnant.
"We do have some poetry and a few other places where they talk about women having sex together—it's always in a scurrilous way," McMaster said. "Usually, it's suggested that one woman uses a dildo on the other."
She cited one comedic story by a male philosopher where a woman had a "monstrous organ like a man"—effectively, an enlarged clitoris—that she would use to have sex with other women. McMaster said, "Even here, we see that the Roman male imagination cannot imagine two women having sex in a way where one of them isn't acting like a man."