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Impearls: 2009-09-06 Archive

Earthdate 2009-09-06

Sex in Antiquity III – the Wages of Adultery

I've been watching the first couple seasons of the BBC series Rome, checked out from the library.  Covering the period of Caesar and Octavian, it's pretty entertaining, especially considering the various antics and tribulations that Vorenus and Pullo, two non-historical characters whose supposed lives we follow through the history, get into (I won't spoil it for folks by detailing them).

Rome as a production does appear to go to some effort trying to get its portrait of classical history and civilization basically correct, but can be seen to fail on occasion.  I was amused by a scene in season two where a high-status woman who is having an affair with a man is quite offended when he attempts to offer her money, rejecting it as portraying her as a prostitute — which it turns out is quite ahistoric, merely projecting modern attitudes onto a very different antique society.

As Paul Veyne writes in his chapter “The Roman Empire” in Volume I of A History of Private Life: 1

The social and institutional character of the Roman economy was so different from that of our own that it is tempting to call it archaic.  It sustained, nevertheless, a high level of production and was as dynamic and ruthless as capitalism.  For, if Roman aristocrats distinguished themselves by their culture and their interest in philosophy, they were still avid for profit.

The greatest nobles talked business.  Pliny, a senator, in letters intended to be specimens of the finest in the genre, held up his behavior as a wealthy landlord as an example for others to follow.  When a noble wished to get rid of old furniture or building materials, he held a public auction.  (Auctions were the normal way for private individuals to sell their used belongings; the emperors themselves auctioned off unwanted palace furniture.)

Money was not supposed to lie idle.  Even loans to friends and relatives earned interest (not charging interest on such loans was considered a mark of special virtue).  A woman's father had to pay interest to her husband if transfer of her dowry was delayed.

Usury was a part of daily life; modern anti-Semites might have made ancient Rome the object of their obsession instead of the Jews.  In Rome commerce and money-lending were not left exclusively to professionals or to any one class of society.  Any toil, no matter how pleasurable, merited payment.

One picturesque aspect of amorous customs among the Romans was that the female partner in a high-society affair was paid for her trouble.  A matron who deceived her husband received a large sum or, in some cases, an annual income from her lover.  Some cads reclaimed these gifts when affairs were broken off, and on occasion the courts became involved.

The practice of accepting gifts from lovers was considered not prostitution but work for hire.  The woman did not give herself because she was paid, the jurists held; she was rewarded for giving herself of her own free will.  She who loved best was most handsomely paid.  Women sought the wages of adultery as eagerly as men sought dowries.


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.  146-147.  Originally published as Volume I: De l'Empire romain à l'an mil, of Histoire de la vie Privée, Editions du Seuil, 1985.  Additional paragraph breaks added to the quoted text.

UPDATE:  2009-09-08 17:40 UT:  See also the earlier posted “Sex in Antiquity I” and “Sex in Antiquity II – Moral hypochondria.”

UPDATE:  2009-09-06 16:00 UT:  University of Wisconsin law professor Ann Althouse had a posting this last week “From an expert on ‘the etiquette of open marriages’,” quoting that “expert” as saying, “I'm a class act in infidelity.”  Note that I have no reason to think that Althouse (who was only just married herself a few weeks back) supports this “class act's” position in this regard (quite the contrary, I think), but a poster on that Althouse thread made a comment which enhances my point above concerning the profound differences between cultures, ancient and modern, in this connection.

As “cubanbob” put it in that thread (emphasis added):

Years ago when I traveled to Taiwan extensively on business it was expected that a successful man have a mistress.  Indeed if he did not have one it would almost [be] a loss of face.  However the rules were very clear:

1 — never be seen in public with the mistress, especially with by people who know the wife.  Under no circumstances can the wife be subject to embarrassment.

2 — no outside children or STD's.

3 — home every day at a reasonable hour and on weekends [to] spend time with the kids.  The wife must be able to maintain the fiction that there is no affair indeed it is the desired goal that [she] should not even be aware there is a mistress.  Only the close circle of the boys at the club can know.

4 — money is always left on the night stand by the bed after sex with the mistress.  If she refuses to take the money the affair is to be ended immediately.  Even if she loves him, she must take the money otherwise he must end it.  As long as she takes the money she has no claim on him.

5 — If the wife is publicly humiliated by the husband due to his having an affair, the punishment for the husband is to be left essentially penniless as she can never remarry (or at least in socially acceptable circles) and the money is her compensation.

It's been a while since I [have] last been there, I wonder if those unwritten rules are still in effect.  As for the woman in the article, she should know that discretion is the only way something like that can be made to work.  So why openly comment on your marriage and embarrass your husband?  She will find her herself divorced soon enough.

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