Latin had no concept of or even word for heterosexuality or homosexuality. Thus, while you can say Vergil prefers men, or has a distate for women, you can't in Latin call him a homosexual. Likewise, you can't call Claudius, who had an abnormal preference for women, a heterosexual. The Romans divided sexuality between the passive and the active, or the penetrated and the penetrator. Women and boys beneath the age of political responsibility were expected to take a passive role in sex, while men, especially those above the age of 30, were expected to take an active role. This was a social norm, and certainly not a definite rule. Even so, there are examples of men being mocked for their passive sexual role; some of the most insulting epithets were 'cinaedus' and 'pathicus', or 'cock sucker' and...ummm, English words always fail me here...'sufferer', literally, someone who submits to anal sex. Similarly, there are two verbs to describe a blowjob, 'irumare' and 'fellare', the former meaning to put your dick in someone's mouth, the latter to suck dick. Likewise, Cunnilingus was seen as the penetration of the man, and so a passive act. Women who enjoyed sex too much, such as Clodia Metella of Cicero's Pro Caelio and Catullan fame, then took on the male role as well.

This works as well for the initiation of a sexual act. A woman or young boy was expected to be pursued, while the man courted him/her. Tiberius was inherently masculine despite his piscii, young boys he hired to swim naked for him in his pool.

This gets rather more complicated when it comes to prostitution. Prostitutes by their very nature take an active role in sex, if only by the implication of its enjoyment and active procurement. A prostitute thus assumed a male sexual role; she was allowed to wear the toga virilis, and most regulars were enrolled at the end of the Augustan age on a register. One of the great scandals was the self-registration of Julia, Augustus' daughter, on the list to avoid the adultery laws. Nevertheless, their acts were feminine; it was only by the nature of their business and the implied pleasure that they assumed a masculine sexuality.

Sex was a rather developed art. Transgenderism was rampant; certainly it was implicit in the Bona Dea affair, and the later imperial antics of Ellagabalus. The Warren Cup offers us a decent example of voyeurism. Pompeiian Grafitti gives us both bawdy jokes about dick sizes and vivid illustrations of positions, while Martial is an endless source of jokes on vaginal smells, dick jokes, and the typically Roman sense of humour.

Final Revision: (i think)(4/29/02)

There is a common notion today that homosexuality was both prevalent and commonly accepted in ancient Rome. This is both true and untrue. It is true because the practice of engaging in sexual activities by members of the same sex was commonplace, especially for men. It is untrue because the term "homosexual" does not fit into the Roman cultural system of sexuality. Roman ideas of sexual roles were based on an entirely different paradigm from ours. Their sexual roles were based on the relationship of active to passive, dominating to submissive, and, consequently penetrator to penetrated, as they relate to the Roman system of honor and shame.

The basic structure of Roman sexual identity was based on the system of domination and submission set up by Roman culture and law. A person’s position in life dictated their sexual role. Essentially at the top of the domination ladder was the free-born, adult male, referred to in Latin as "viri." These viri were, in the Roman paradigm, the impenetrable penetrators. The Roman man was Rome’s leader and defender, so it was necessary within their culture for the full-fledged man to be impenetrable sexually, as a symbol of general impenetrability.

This reflects Roman law regarding citizenship, in that free-born, adult men were the dominant group. Directly below them were the adult, free-born, married women. Further down the chain are free male children, followed by free female children, followed by slaves.

It was common practice among viri to have vaginal, oral, or anal intercourse with either a man, or a woman. No vir in any existing Roman literature is ever written of as strictly one who has sex with either men or women, only preferences are expressed. For example, Parker claims that Galba is said to have been "more inclined to males"(56), but not only to males.

There were, however, limitations on the sexual objects of viri. A vir could not have sex with widows, married women, or free-born boys, and sex with unmarried, but "virtuous" and free-born women and girls was frowned upon. A vir having sex with another vir was nearly unheard of, as it would result in shame for the penetrated man. The man in the dominant, manly, penetrative role was seen as acting perfectly normally. In fact, a common punishment inflicted on men caught having sex with married women was for the woman’s husband to anally penetrate the man.

For a vir to fuck a male was acceptable, so long as the male was someone who he could dominate in social rank. It was fine for a vir to fuck any slave, whether they be male, female, young, or old. Any male who was not classified as vir was referred to as pueri, and they were all fair game. It was considered normal for a vir to enjoy anally fucking a young boy. The only exception to this was among free-born boys. Since they must grow up to be viri, they had to remain unused as women (Walters, 31).

As stated above, men regarding boys and other men as sexual objects was commonly accepted. It was this attitude, and its absence in modern days, which cause ancient Roman art not be able to be copied by modern artists. The dynamic wherein Roman art--especially sculpture of young male subjects--was created is described by Davis:

"As the boys in the gymnasium strive to imitate the god like Diagoras, winner of the boy’s boxing match in the Olympic Games of 464 B.C.E. and praised in Pindar’s seventh Olympic Ode, so the artists strive to imitate the 'strong and manly contours' that are being formed precisely for this regard--that is, for poetic and pictorial praise"(267)

That is to say that there was a sort of feedback loop between artists and their subjects. The culture allowed for romantic and even erotic interchange between artists and any human subject, so artists strived to find all that was beauty in their subjects, which largely took on a sexual flavor as, indeed, any art must in order to convey physical beauty. The subjects, in turn, worked toward shaping themselves into the Roman conception of beauty, an aesthetic largely created by artists of the culture.

This is even further apparent when the main Roman institution promoting physical fitness--the gymnasium--is taken into account. Quoting Winckelmann, Davis notes two prominent Roman figures, Socrates and Phidias, who go to the gymnasium, where exercises are conducted in the nude, for the sake of the boys attending there. Socrates goes in order to teach three of his pupils, Charmides, Autolycus, and Lysias; and Phidias goes "to enrich his art by watching these handsome young men"(266). The connection with Phidias’ art is self-explanatory, but the Socrates angle requires some explaining. Charmides, according to Plato, was one of Socrates’ beloveds, and Autolycus was considered by Xenophon to be “Socrates’ paragon of young virtue in a courtship”(Davis, 267). So both of these young men were objects of at least romantic attention from Socrates, if not sexual.

In light of this synergism between artists and their subjects in ancient Rome, one can understand why Roman art cannot be duplicated by today’s artists. The subjects of ancient Roman art strove to become the kinds of people that Roman artists, as well as any other Roman would find suitable as subjects for art. The sexual dynamic of Rome is what gave birth to its art, and no such dynamic exists in the modern world, so the artistic style cannot be replicated.

The female role in this was to be submissive. A normal woman, one who engaged in vaginal sex, was referred to as a femina. Women who received anal or oral sex were known as either pathica or fellatrix, respectively. These latter two distinctions were considered of lower respect that femina, but a pathica or fellatrix was still fulfilling her female role (Parker, 49). In the section of his essay entitled "The Normal Female," Parker quotes Plutarch’s Conjugal Precepts, asserting that "the good wife doesn’t move." Women were to be penetrated. Whether orally, anally, or vaginally was up to the person having sex with them. Neither were considered immoral or degrading for women, it was simply their proper role to be penetrated, and it didn’t matter where.

Women were subject to the honor/shame system as it related to sexuality, as McGinn explains, "Any individual in the family group may compromise this honor, but women are regarded as especially vulnerable because of certain assumptions about their sexual nature. The link between personal and familial honor extends beyond the family unit, to the extent that female chastity tends to serve as the prime indicator of social worth. As such, it assumes an aspect that is almost material, something to be counted among the family’s assets or liabilities as viewed by the community" (10). Thus, a femina is the most honorable, and therefore most desirable (read: valuable) kind of wife. A pathica or fellatrix was also acceptable, so long as the woman remained faithful to her husband and in the submissive role. McGinn continues, "the integrity and solidarity of the family are threatened or even destroyed when a female member compromises her honor"(10).

Prostitutes fall into an interesting duality within this system. On the one hand, they fit the role of a slave, as one who sells their body, making the body property. Their role is generally submissive in sex, unless they are hired by some other sexual deviant. On the other hand, as a result of their breaking from the culturally appropriate role for women, they are seen as masculine. They are forced to wear the toga of a man. Interestingly, any woman who is in a deviant sexual category is classified this way. Parker states that "the monstrous sexuality of the active woman is built on the model of aggressive male sexuality." This classification applies to adulteresses, prostitutes, and any other type of sexually aggressive woman.

Cunnilingus is also an anomaly within this system. Parker says, on this subject, that "it is clear from Roman sources that cunnilingus was viewed as a man being used by a woman, and therefore used vaginally" (51). Men who perform fellatio are expected to perform cunnilingus as well, a disgraceful and unmanly distinction for any vir. It is the mark of a passive, and therefore monstrous man to perform any oral sex, and it is the mark of an active, and therefore monstrous woman to receive it.




Works Cited

Davis, Whitney. “Winckelmann’s ‘Homosexual’ Teleology.” Sexuality in Ancient Art. Ed. Natalie Boymel Kampen. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.

Fiero, Gloria K. The Humanistic Tradition, book 1: The First Civilizations and the Classical Legacy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998.

McGinn, Thomas A. J. Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.

Parker, Holt N. “The Teratogenic Grid.” Roman Sexualities. Eds. Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997. 47-65.

Walters, Jonathan. “Invading the Roman Body: Manliness and Impenetrability in Roman Thought.” Roman Sexualities. Eds. Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997. 29-43.

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