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Impearls: 2004-07-25 Archive

Earthdate 2004-07-30

Sex in Antiquity

People nowadays have a conception of the pre-Christian era as free from the hangups about sensuality and especially sexuality that we're familiar with today, that we think began as a result of the advent of Christianity and the sexual strictures that it brought.  Little could be farther from the truth in terms of attitudes during Classical Greek and Roman times towards these subjects.

We return again to that fascinating multi-volume historical series A History of Private Life, which we have had occasion to refer to here at Impearls in the past.  From the title one might be inclined to think that the series is just a light-hearted, ribald catalog of sexual escapades from the past.  The series scope extends across much more than that, however.  Volume I, for example, titled From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, edited by Paul Veyne, includes a terrific chapter, almost 100 pages in length, delving into manifold aspects of the Roman home or domus, including detailed analysis of the architecture of various Roman homes, how the domus functioned as house and economic unit, and the manner in which “private” and “public” spaces were laid out both within it and the Roman city as a whole.

The book also considers deeply how and why the concept of the “private life” of individuals came to be distinguished from their “public life” and the consequences of that fateful division; and later on, how the barbarian invasions of the West scrambled these hard-won distinctions, turning the entire state — a res publica or “public thing,” an incomprehensible concept to the barbarians — in effect into a private estate to be exploited mercilessly by the invaders.  Despite their significance and interest, we will not consider these important matters at this point; see the volumes of the series for much more on the distinguishing of “private” versus “public” in history.

In this series we will delve into that other vital aspect of “private life,” sex and, later on, its institutionalized companions, marriage and “the couple,” in classical antiquity.  As Paul Veyne writes in his chapter “The Roman Empire” in Volume I: 1

[I]ncoherences and baffling limitations are found in every century.  In Greco-Roman culture we find them associated with another pleasure: love.  If any aspect of ancient life has been distorted by legend, this is it.  It is widely but mistakenly believed that antiquity was a Garden of Eden from which repression was banished, Christianity having yet to insinuate the worm of sin into the forbidden fruit.  Actually, the pagans were paralyzed by prohibitions.  The legend of pagan sensuality stems from a number of traditional misinterpretations.  The famous tale of the debauches of Emperor Heliogabalus is nothing but a hoax perpetrated by the literati who authored that late forgery, the Historia Augusta.  The legend also stems from the crudeness of the interdictions:  “Latin words are an affront to decency,” people used to say.  For such naive souls, merely uttering a “bad word” provoked a shiver of perverse imagination or a gale of embarrassed laughter.  Schoolboy daring.

What were the marks of the true libertine?  A libertine was a man who violated three taboos: he made love before nightfall (daytime lovemaking was a privilege accorded to newlyweds on the day after the wedding); he made love without first darkening the room (the erotic poets called to witness the lamp that had shone on their pleasures); and he made love to a woman from whom he had removed every stitch of clothing (only fallen women made love without their brassieres, and paintings in Pompeii's bordellos showed even prostitutes wearing this ultimate veil).  Libertines permitted themselves to touch rather than caress, though with the left hand only.  The one chance a decent man had of seeing a little of his beloved's naked skin was if the moon happened to fall upon the open window at just the right moment.  About libertine tyrants such as Heliogabalus, Nero, Caligula, and Domitian it was whispered that they had violated other taboos and made love with married women, well-bred maidens, freeborn adolescents, vestal virgins, or even their own sisters.

This puritanism went hand in hand with an attitude of superiority toward the love object, who was often treated like a slave.  The attitude emblematic of the Roman lover was not holding his beloved by the hand or around the waist or, as in the Middle Ages, putting his arm around her neck; the woman was a servant, and the lover sprawled on top of her as though she were a sofa.  The Roman way was the way of the seraglio.  A small amount of sadism was permissible: a slave, for example, could be beaten in her bed, on the pretext of making her obey.  The woman served her lord's pleasure and, if necessary, did all the work herself.  If she straddled her passive lover, it was to serve him.

Machismo was a factor.  Young men challenged one another in a macho fashion.  To be active was to be a male, regardless of the sex of the passive partner.  Hence there were two supreme forms of infamy: to use one's mouth to give a woman pleasure was considered servile and weak, and to allow oneself to be buggered was, for a free man, the height of passivity (impudicitia) and lack of self-respect.  Pederasty was a minor sin so long as it involved relations between a free man and a slave or person of no account.  Jokes about it were common among the people and in the theater, and people boasted of it in good society.  Nearly anyone can enjoy sensual pleasure with a member of the same sex, and pederasty was not at all uncommon in tolerant antiquity.  Many men of basically heterosexual bent used boys for sexual purposes.  It was proverbially held that sex with boys procures a tranquil pleasure unruffling to the soul, whereas passion for a woman plunges a free man into unendurable slavery.

Thus, Roman love was defined by macho domination and refusal to become a slave of passion.  The amorous excesses attributed to various tyrants were excesses of domination, described with misleading Sadian boldness.  Nero, a tyrant who was weak more than cruel, kept a harem to serve his passive needs.  Tiberius arranged for young slave boys to indulge his whims, and Messalina staged a pantomime of her own servility, usurping the male privilege of equating strength with frequency of intercourse.  These acts were not so much violations as distortions of the taboos.  They reflect a dreadful weakness, a need for planned pleasure.  Like alcohol, lust is dangerous to virility and must not be abused.  But gastronomy scarcely encourages moderation at table. 

Amorous passion, the Romans believed, was particularly to be feared because it could make a free man the slave of a woman.  He will call her “mistress” and, like a servant, hold her mirror or her parasol.  Love was not the playground of individualists, the would-be refuge from society that it is today.  Rome rejected the Greek tradition of “courtly love” of ephebes, which Romans saw as an exaltation of pure passion (in both senses of “pure,” for the Greeks pretended to believe that a man's love for a freeborn ephebe was Platonic).  When a Roman fell madly in love, his friends and he himself believed either that he had lost his head from overindulgence in sensuality or that he had fallen into a state of moral slavery.  The lover, like a good slave, docilely offered to die if his mistress wished it.  Such excesses bore the dark magnificence of shame, and even erotic poets did not dare to glorify them openly.  They chose the roundabout means of describing such behavior as an amusing reversal of the normal state of affairs, a humorous paradox.

Petrarch's praise of passion would have scandalized the ancients or made them smile.  The Romans were strangers to the medieval exaltation of the beloved, an object so sublime that it remained inaccessible.  They were strangers, too, to modern subjectivism, to our thirst for experience.  Standing apart from the world, we choose to experience something in order to see what effect it has, not because it is intrinsically valuable or required by duty.  Finally, the Romans were strangers to the real paganism, the at times graceful and beautiful paganism of the Renaissance.  Tender indulgence in pleasures of the senses that became, also, delights of the soul was not the way of the ancients.  The most Bacchic scenes of the Romans have nothing of the audacity of some modern writers.  The Romans knew but one variety of individualism, which confirmed the rule by seeming to contradict it: energetic indolence.  With secret delight they discussed senators such as Scipio, Sulla, Caesar, Petronius, and even Catiline, men scandalously indolent in private yet extraordinarily energetic in public.  It was an open secret among insiders that these men were privately lazy, and such knowledge gave the senatorial elite an air of royalty and of being above the common law while confirming its authentic spirit.  Although the charge of energetic indolence was a reproach, it was also somehow a compliment.  Romans found this compliment reassuring.  Their brand of individualism sought not real experience, self-indulgence, or private devotion, but tranquilization.


1 Paul Veyne, Chapter 1: “The Roman Empire,” Volume I: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, edited by Paul Veyne, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, A History of Private Life, the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1987; pp. 202-205.

UPDATE:  2009-09-08 17:50 UT:  Sex in Antiquity II – Moral hypochondria” and a preliminary piece “Jerangdu theories of male potency” were posted on 2005-11-05.

UPDATE:  2009-09-08 17:50 UT:  Sex in Antiquity III – the Wages of Adultery” was posted on 2009-09-06.

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