Rome’s Not So Sexy History

Published in The Concordian 33.5 on September 29, 2015

Quick, imagine ancient Romans having sex. Do you see orgies, tanned women and men frolicking, free of judgement, full of lust, revelling in sexual freedom? Do you wish you were there?

I hope not. Roman sexual culture was more terrifying than terrific. It’s easy to get it wrong, given the inequity of voices that remain from back then. Two thousand years of male historians rehashing what male Romans wrote about male sexuality has perpetuated a rosy picture of what went down. That’s because if you were a privileged man—which was every Roman historian (google “female Roman historians” and see what happens)—Rome was very permissive. If not? You were fucked.

See, Roman men weren’t bound by sexuality. According to historian Craig Williams, author of the ironically titled Roman Homosexuality, “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” didn’t apply to what these men did at all. Not to say that their sex wasn’t scrutinized. “A man is only a man if he is gloriously active,” Williams quotes from Juvenal, a Roman writer. Those men were pretty free to be active with whoever they wanted, without judgement.

Theirs was an environment where they could have sex with anyone so long as they were seen to be dominating a lesser. Rome had patriarchal system called paterfamilias, in which A Casebook on Roman Family Law by Bruce W. Friar, outlines the oldest man in the family as being more or less infallible. Paterfamilias extended into broader Roman life, though, so a “lesser” could be an unmarried woman, a man of lower status, a girl, a boy, a prostitute of either gender, a slave of either gender, etc. And as long as the man was penetrating his partner in sex, he was showing his masculinity and enforcing the patriarchy, a win-win for him. A lose-lose for everyone else.

Just look at how feminist classicist Amy Richlin describes the female sexual experience in Rome. In her book The Garden of Priapus, she shows scores of Roman poets warning women away from erotic poems because Roman women shouldn’t express their sexuality even by reading about sex—only by getting fucked by their husbands. That is, when the poems aren’t slut-shaming the very women they’re already prude-shaming. It’s messed up, and very indicative, that some of the clearest descriptions of a Roman woman’s place came from men being dismissive and offensive.

Historian Kyle Harper’s book From Shame to Sin goes on to say that in Rome, if female sexuality was based on modesty, then male sexuality was based on dominance. That double-standard relied on complex terms that are hard to translate from Latin. But what it was, really, was rape culture. On steroids. And we’ve romanticized it in The Gladiator and Spartacus and Insert Roman Period Film. Homosexuality as an exclusive male privilege in a regressive patriarchy has been misconstrued as liberal, and that’s bad. We can look into history for good models, but Rome ain’t one.

I know this is supposed to be a sex column. But I can’t talk about sex (baby) without contextualizing it. It’s important to me. It’s how I learn. The Priapus that Amy Richlin mentions, the god with the enormous and permanent erection, the ultimate fuckboy, the rape culture mascot, he’s helping me learn. We’re still grappling with his shadow on college campuses, board rooms, and bedrooms, two thousand years later. Aren’t there enough entitled dicks in this world without adding all of history’s?