While the average high school World History curriculum may have you intent on remembering dates, names, and who won what battle, facts about everyday culture and social contradictions to modern day developed society are frequently ignored in the textbooks. I've noticed that school curricula in general take the inside-out approach: record the legacies that a culture left, instead of recording what kind of a culture made those legacies. So of course, when a famed anthropologist digs up a nugget about say, a contradictory social or even sexual practice, the information is kept hush-hush, and a new generation of kids remain blissfully ignorant the wonders of the ancient world. The time is now for learning to be less about propaganda and more about reality. What better outlet to do so than everything2... and what better subject to start on than sex? With an open mind and a cache of information to peruse at hand, my quest for the sexual Holy Grail did not come fruitless.

Sex in the Ancient World

The aftermath of our Puritan ancestors has led most references to genitalia to be light-hearted and joking in nature, and sex to be considered unsuitable dinner conversation. However this was not the case for most of the ancient world. Sex was a thing to be celebrated and triumphed! The genitals were not considered to be obscene, and in some countries they were barely covered. The Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians all left depictions of this sexual culture leaving little to the imagination.

The decorations on Greek pottery have left us with what amounts to a film show of what life was like. Much of it is highly sexual in content: satyrs and nymphs cavort naked under the olive trees, young men and women pass by, bathing, dancing, and making love, drawn from life as the artists saw it happen. The Greeks fought their battles either naked or nearly so and saw nothing strange in it. Interestingly enough, these pictures have been conveniently omitted from most cultural references due to the idea that the Greeks are good, so they must never have done it.

The Romans were less inclined to nudity but still had their festivals at which all pretence to modesty and shyness were abandoned. In fact their Bacchanalian festivals became so bad, so obscene and violent, that finally they were banned.

Meanwhile in Egypt, under the fierce heat, the women wore little more than a shift of transparent linen, while female slaves seldom wore anything more than beads and the men of the household wore a brief pleated kilt of the same material. A woolen cloak might be added at night if it grew chilly.

Sexual practices in different nations


I consider the reverence of the polytheistic societies torwards the phallus to be interesting, as this focus became integrated in monotheistic culture as well. Consider the Phoenicians-they called their chief god Asshur, or Asher, meaning "the penis, the happy one". According to the Torah, Yahweh (God) refers to Moses as Eheieh Asher Eheieh- see the similarity? Another of their Gods was Dagon. Represented as half-fish and half-man, he was a teacher of mankind who came up out of the sea each day and returned at night. The fish was worshipped as a fertility symbol because of the female fish's ability to lay many thousands of eggs and because it lived in the live-giving ocean. The practice of young women impaling themselves on the stone phallus of Asshur prior to their wedding night was commonplace


The Greek deity Zeus was the head honcho of Mount Olympus, and he made his sexual power known by appearing to goddesses and mortals alike in the form of a bull, swan, or golden shower (okay, stop laughing- read Edith Hamilton's Mythology and you'll get the correct connotation). Zeus didn't go after women alone- his abduction of the beautiful youth, Ganymede, in the form of an eagle has been the subject of many paintings. Zeus was known as the Aegis-Bearer, and this may have some sexual significance; the aegis was a ritual goat pelt worn by a chieftain or ruler and was the totem of the Aegidae, a tribe that moved into Greece in its early history. The goat, like Zeus himself, was exceptionally prolific and this may have accounted for the aegis being part of his symbology. Consequently the goat was considered an agent of fertility according to any sea-faring culture that the Greeks came in to contact with. His son, Hermes, was quite the player himself, often wooing and seducing many mortal women with his charm and trickery.

However, the most directly sexual god was Dionysus, the god of wine, theater, and debauchery in general. Dionysus was the patron of passion and sensuality, and all Greek theaters, dramas, and comedies were built, written, and performed in his honor. His Roman counterpart, Bacchus, even had a subculture of people called the Bacchantes who would have wild, frenzied orgies in his honor.


Rome was a civilization where the prostitution trade flourished, and celebrations of the phallus and vulva were commonplace. While the sexual atmosphere was healthy at first, it gradually became more decadent to the point of collapsing along with every other aspect of Roman civilization, just another step to usher in the Dark Ages. There were many different grades and degrees of prostitution, almost to the point of there being a sort of sexual caste system. The highest grade was that of the Delicatue, the kept women of the wealthy and prominent men. Next were the Famosae, usually the daughters and even the wives of wealthy families who simply enjoyed sex for its own sake. Then there were the Dorae who habitually went naked even in the town and by contrast the Lupae, or she-wolves, who plied their trade under the fornices or arches of the old temples, bridges, and the Colosseum. It is from this word that we get 'fornication' as an expression of debased sex. It was one of these lupae, called Laurentia, who found the twins Romulus and Remus and fed them saving their lives. The Elicariae were the bakers' girls who sold the phallus-shaped cakes in the markets and earned a little extra on the side. Copae were the serving girls in taverns and inns who could be hired as bedmates for the night by travelers, and the Noctiliae were the nightwalkers. Add to these the Bustuariae, Blitidae, Forariae and Gallinae, and you will get some idea of how low Rome sank.


The Indians (as indicated by the Kama Sutra, tehe) considered sex to be the highest form of spiritual worship to their Gods. The Triple God of India (the Trimurti) each had their own consort: Brahmin (the creator), Vishnu (the protector, and Shiva (the destroyer) each had a partner for their own sexual pleasure. Six was considered a magic, sexual number to the early Hindus.


If you've read and believed in the works of Sigmund Freud, and even if you haven't, you probably realize that our subconscious desire is to have sex and propagate our own species. Getting upset every time you pass up a chance for nookie would seriously hinder our lifestyles- so we channel this energy into other passions and talents. If it wasn't for the human sexual nature and the pursuit of sex, many things wouldn't get accomplished (as contradictory as that sounds). Sex and sexuality are the foundations of a healthy culture and the meter by which we can evaluate a society's ways and mores. Studying sexual practices not only is a learning tool, but helps us understand what our viewpoints as well.

Oh dear. When I saw the title of this node I experienced a wave of pleasant expectation, seeing in my mind's eye a solid and well-documented study of sexual customs and mores of ancient cultures - from priestesses dedicated to the plasuring of worshippers to the domestic sexual practices of the nobility and common folk. Alas! Although I do not by any means disagree with either the introduction or the conclusion of the above writeup, I'm afraid that the meat of it does not live up to my expectations.

Firslty it must be noted and, indeed, stressed, that religious worship, attitudes towards nudity and the proliferation of prostitution do not sexual morality make. Neither do they necessarily reflect a concrete behavioural pattern in any said culture.

True, the ancient Greeks, during a large portion of the Classical age, were fond of depictions of nude figures. However, they themselves no more went naked than the 19th century Parisians admiring Rodin's sculptures or the readers of Loaded magazine today. In fact the Athenian matrons were strictly guarded and secreted creatures who lived in separate quarters to the men and were subject to quite strict decency laws (as were their Roman counterparts). To extrapolate on the sexual attitude of the Greek as a society from the pictures on their vases is to do what the writer so rightly decries: judging the culture by the artifacts it left behind.

Moreover, many of the facts presented in the above article are simply incorrect. Ashur was an Assyrian and not a Phoenicean god, whose name had little to do with phallic potency and much more to do with actual physical and mystical might. God, in the burning bush episode, was not referring to Moses but describing himself as "ehye asher ehye" - I am what I am. There is certainly a linguistic connection to Ashur there, but it is a complex and remote one as we are dealing with very different branches of Semitic languages (Eastern Semitic vs. Western Semitic), both geographically and chronologically.

Prostitution in ancient Rome may have been rife, but it was by no means taken for granted - throughout Roman history there have been countless efforts to legislate, regulate and even ban it entirely. The Romans had what might be described as a quite Puritan attitude to sex - traditionally, it was a pleasurable but essentially functional way of producing more Romans. A man finding his wife in bed with another was legally entitled to slay them both, whereas a man and a woman having sex out of wedlock were liable to fine and imprisonment under the Decency Laws. The largely apocryphal stories involving mind boggling debauchery at parties are to be taken with a grain of salt and were in any case limited to the very narrow layer of upper aristocratic classes. Incidentally, the Bacchantes were originally a religious sect of Greek women who went into violent trances, probably induced by alcohol, on the annual festival of Bacchus, not Roman party goers.

I don't know much about the ancient cultures of India, but I do know for a fact that the notorious Kama Sutra, so famous world over for its explicit sexual guidance, is in fact a social document outlining the proper and fashionable pursuits of the well bred courtier, of which the advice about sex is but a part. Neither its existence nor its contents are any kind of evidence of a free and easy sexual morality in everyday common life. Complete nudity, by the way, is one of the ultimate sins in Hinduism.

So. I've gone on and on about what sex in antiquity was not. But what was it really like? I rather imagine it was not much different from what it is today. Most people had sex sparingly, or with a small number of partners, and usually inside the marriage institution. They were perfectly familiar with the full range of positions and orifices, as is evidenced by even the earliest Sumerian clay figurines, but were perhaps glad to leave the everyday excecution of such to paid professionals. Some temporal and religious authorities railed against the wantonness of the young much as they do today, while other powers were fast at work producing titillating imagery, literature and stage preformances. To quote a venerable old lady speaking about the early twenties in the US in the excellent movie Reds: "people back then had sex just as much as today, we just didn't talk about it so much".

In the cultures of Greece and Rome, attitudes to sex differed from time to time, and also from place to place. In the first instance it must be remembered that Greece was originally composed of city states, each with its own set of laws, and like all individual societies, with its own set of mores and morals. Rome was not much different at the beginning, when various tribes inhabited the Italian peninsula, and which only much later, probably during the eighth or ninth century BCE started to form the nucleus of what was to become the queen of the mediterranean world, Rome, and even later still, the capital of a vast empire.


Furthermore, attitudes toward sex and sexuality would also have differed from one class to another, the nobility not necessarily sharing the morals of the lower classes in a world where everything was structured around the rigid seperation of the classes. It was only in 445 BCE that a lex Canuleia abolished the prohibition on patricians marrying plebeians in Rome, at the same time instituting other marital prohibitions based on class differentiation. The fact that legislation regulated these prohibitions must mean that the current morality and sexuality at the time demanded such measures. A certain type of marriage, confarreatio, a highly formal and ritualistic procedure during which the spouses exchanged sacred spelt cakes, was concluded only between persons of patrician class, and was not available to the lesser classes.


At the same time, the attitude to marriage in Rome was not so puritan that bigamy was prohibited. It merely gave rise to infamia attaching itself to the person engaging in such conduct, which entailed a loss of civic standing in the eyes of the law, which precluded the individual from participating in certain functions or rituals of society for as long as the situation obtained.


Necessarily in any society where slavery was one of the foundations on which the entire system functioned, the status of a person as free or in bondage would also have had some effect on how sexuality and sexual relations were viewed. As can be gathered from Roman poetry and prose (especially the erotic poetry of Catullus and prose such as PetroniusSatyricon), there were certainly some classes who viewed sexuality and sex with a more relaxed attitude than others. It would seem that there was no distinction drawn on a rigid basis between homosexuality and heterosexuality. The distinction that did matter, and this it seems is true of both Greece and Rome, was the function performed during sexual intercourse, being either passive (receiving) or active (penetrating). Thus it was the function of the male to penetrate, and in this regard it was not regarded as improper for unmarried men to have sexual intercourse with other men, provided that the passive partner was not a free born or freedman. It was regarded as being unworthy of a man to be the passive partner, unless he was a slave or perhaps even a non-Roman or non-Greek. It was not unusual for boys during puberty to be presented with a slave which had to see to the sexual needs of his master, obviously being at the receiving end. Upon marriage (or earlier, if the master succeeded in obtaining the necessary relief from a female lover or even prostitutes), all such relations would cease. Similarly it was the function of the woman to be the passive partner in the act.


Adultery was severly frowned upon (while it nevertheless remained, as it still does, a remarkably popular pastime), especially when “committed” by women. Compare for instance the famous story of Caesar’s wife whom he divorced simply as a result of the rumour of her infidelity, while Caesar by several accounts was always up for it, regardless of whether the other was male or female. It is more than probable that the attitude was far more relaxed where men were concerned. For this reason (and also due to various other considerations of the Roman law of persons and succession which are not important in this discussion) Roman law developed an extensive system of adoption, in order to allow especially sons from even loose liasons to be adopted into the father’s family, usually when there were no legitimate male heirs (only men could inherit, the women falling under the patriapotestas of the family head, who was responsible for their wellbeing and care).


So, in the ancient world, sexuality was defined more by virtue of one’s status, than by the choice of the sex of the partner, provided that where the partner in the case of men, was also male, it was more than preferable that he be in bondage, or at the very least, a non-citizen. Of female sexuality, less is known, because writing was the province of men, and besides, it was not very manly to involve yourself with what women did in their quarters. It seems that in Rome at least, lesbian relationships, while hardly approved of, were not as rigidly discounted as relationships between men, and therefore seemingly such relationships were accepted to a point.


Further reading: The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization.

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