It’s a running theme in my blog posts that the Ancient Romans were pretty much like we were, just in funny clothes and sandals. But when we get to some topics, they were very different indeed. Today we’re tackling one of those topics – sexuality.
Roman sexuality, broadly, was hierarchical. By this, we mean that men were seen as being above women in every way. This was of course a societal construct, but it also extended into Roman ideas of sexuality. To put it simply, when men and women had sex, men penetrated, and women were penetrated. When it came to male/male couples, one partner penetrated (and held all the power) and one was penetrated (and took on the feminine or submissive role).
Put simply, a Roman man would not have identified as gay. Sexual identity wasn’t about attraction, it was about the role you took in the sexual act. Therefore, the emperor Hadrian having sex with his beloved slave Antinous was acceptable, because Antinous, being a slave, was already in the submissive role and had no status to lose in the way a Roman citizen would. (The Latin word is pudicitia and refers to sexual modesty and integrity, which was considered a core civic virtue. Slaves and foreigners were impudicitia by default.) Personally, I like to think that Hadrian and Antinous switched it up in the bedroom, but, if they did, they certainly wouldn’t have told anyone about it, because it was unthinkable that a Roman patrician (and an emperor!) would take on the "lesser" role during sex.
Hadrian and Antinous
The presumed sexual relationship between Mark Antony and Scribonius Curio when they were youths, on the other hand, was scandalous because both Antony and Curio were patricians. Later in his life, when Antony had the statesman Cicero killed, he also had him beheaded and his hands nailed to the senate doors. Antony certainly had a lot of enemies, and not a lot of mercy for them, but Cicero’s death stands out as particularly gruesome. It’s worth noting that in the Second Philippic, Cicero attacked Antony’s morals and his masculinity (both of those things inextricably linked in the ideal of Roman manhood), by calling him puer, which translates as boy—in context, a toy-boy and male prostitute—and referred back to his youthful relationship with Curio. Antony certainly repaid him for the insult.
And then we have Nero. When Nero castrated and “married” the slave boy Sporus, that was a little bit scandalous—not because he was having sex with a boy, but because he insisted that Sporus be address as Poppaea (the name of his dead wife... who he possibly killed) and treated as an empress. What was more scandalous, however, was that Nero had also “married” a freedman called Pythagoras—and very enthusiastically took on the role of the bride. And consummated the marriage in front of the guests.
So when it comes to Ancient Rome and the Ancient Romans, modern concepts of sexuality don’t fit easily. Of course there were gay Romans—just as there have and always will be been LGBTQI+ people in every part of human history—but those gay Romans wouldn’t have had the terminology to consider themselves gay. The Romans had plenty of words to describe men who took on the role of the bottom in male/male sex—but these were slurs, not identifiers. The Romans did not have a word for homosexual.
It's also worth noting that the Roman Empire was vast, and encompassed a lot of different cultural groups over a lengthy period of time. Not all of these groups shared the same ideas about sexuality.
I’ve talked mostly about male/male sexual relationships in this post, because that’s going to be relevant to my characters, but it’s interesting to note what the Romans considered the most reviled and depraved sexual act: cunnilingus, because the woman was on top.
It’s all comes back to the hierarchy.
Sexuality can be a sensitive topic to address, even in history, and of course my own opinions—and yours, I hope—are nothing like those of the Ancient Romans. If you want to learn more about sexuality in Ancient Rome, here’s a list of books I’ve read so far:
UnRoman Romans, by Siobhán McElduff
Roman Homosexuality: Second Edition, by Craig A. Williams
Bisexuality in the Ancient World, by Eva Cantarella
Roman Sex: 100 B.C. to A.D. 250, by John R. Clarke
The Extraordinary Effeminate: The Characterization of Marcus Antonius in Cicero’s Second Philippic, by David William Andersen