Ok, so, after last night’s Doctor Who I’ve seen a bit of a fuss on the internet about Roman perceptions of sexuality, so I thought I’d make up a post on the subject, somewhat at the prompting of @tillthenexttimedoctor. Much of what will follow is actually based on research I did for a paper I presented this past February at the University of Tennessee, so some of it is my original interpretation, but the good folks at the University of Tennessee found it compelling enough, so I hope it shall also be compelling here. I should also note that some of the language in this post will be very frank and graphic, because the Romans were very frank and graphic.
1. Traditional Norms
Most people who seem to know a thing or two about Roman sexual attitudes are familiar with the traditional paradigm of masculine penetration we know from literary sources – Craig Williams, who literally wrote the book on Roman Homosexuality, is something of an expert on the subject. Among the Roman elite, it was perfectly ordinary for Roman males to penetrate younger men: what mattered was not the gender of one’s partner, but that the free Roman man was functioning in the penetrative role (Williams 17-18). These younger men were often slaves, and were probably often unwilling partners – that said, many of them may well have been free. The descriptions we have of male anal sex in Roman literature “evoke the physical realities of anal
penetration” in such a way as to suggest that those writing may have had
firsthand experience with being penetrated (Williams 31).
This suggests that many of our elite Roman authors – Martial, Petronius, Catullus – may have found themselves on the receiving end of sex as youths.
As far as female homosexuality, we don’t have so much information. The Romans seemed keen to pretend that female
homoeroticism simply didn’t exist. When they are forced to admit that it does
occur, they quickly dismiss it as a Greek aberration or as a monstrous relic of
the ancient past and denigrate its participants as not being “real” women (Brooten
43-44, 49). Plautus’s Truculentus is
an early source for such ideas: Plautus makes a pun about the possibility of
two women having intercourse, and masculinizes them in doing so. We also have
one of the elder Seneca’s Controversiae
which dwells on a case of adultery wherein a man catches his wife in bed with a
woman – as Bernadette Brooten notes, the way Seneca portrays the affair masculinizes
and Hellenizes the women involved, and treats the act itself as inherently
monstrous and shocking (Brooten 44). From these and other examples it seems
clear that, while male homoeroticism was accepted in certain forms, love
between women was taboo in an official sense.
2. The Reality - Male Homosexuality
While the above is probably true for Rome’s upper classes, we actually have a decent amount of evidence from graffiti which suggests that for the average person on the street, there wasn’t much stigma associated with the gender and role of one’s sexual partners. I’ll focus on two examples, primarily, which serve to hopefully demonstrate my point. This first is a short graffito found along the wall of the palaestra, or public gymnasium, in Pompeii – not so different from a lot of modern graffiti, this would have been more public than the sharpied phrases we’re used to seeing on the insides of bathroom stalls, and probably more equivalent to something scrawled on the wall outside a locker room.
It reads, in Latin: VII Idus Septembres Q[uintus] Postumius
rogavit A[ulum] Attium pedicarim. My own translation of the graffito is: “On September 7, Quintus Postumius asked if I could fuck Aulus Attiusin the ass” (CIL 4.8805).
There are a few things we can tell, right off, from this example: first, “Attius” and “Postumius” are the sorts of names which Roman citizens tend to have. We can’t necessarily prove this definitively, but at this time, in this place, I would be surprised if both of these men were not Roman citizens – one or both may have been freedmen, who were expected to participate in slightly more gauche behavior, but they would have been citizens nonetheless. Accordingly, for Postumius to fuck Attius – one Roman, citizen male having anal sex with another Roman, citizen male – would have actually constituted the crime of stuprum (Williams 130-131). It seems quite bold to not only proclaim a crime on a public wall like this, but also to name yourself and the object of your affections, if this is a crime that presented any serious danger to Attius and Postumius. The obvious takeaway, then, is that most of the people passing by would not have cared.
3. The Reality - Female Homosexuality
The second example I have is actually our only expressed example of female homoeroticism in graffiti at all, positive or negative. It is, in fact, a love poem between two women (Milnor 202). Because it is rather long, I will only include my translation, which reads as follows:
“Oh, if only I could embrace with my neck
your little arms and to your tender lips little kisses bear.
Come now, darling, trust your joys to the winds:
believe you me, it’s the nature of men to be fickle.
When often in the middle of the night I, forlorn, lie awake,
reflect on this with me: many are those Fortune’s lifted up;
these, cast down suddenly and head first, she overwhelms.
Thus, as Venus suddenly joins the bodies of lovers,
daylight divides them and…” (CIL 4.5296)
The grammar of the Latin in this poem makes it exceedingly clear that its author is a woman writing to her female lover (Levin-Richardson 321-326): Latin, like Spanish, French, or German, features grammatical gender, meaning certain nouns are inherently gendered one way or another, and adjectives change form to match the gender of the noun to which they apply, and the author genders both herself and her addressee as feminine. It’s also, as a poem, just a little bit sexy: “Venus” is often a metonym for sex in Latin poetry, and the specific Latin word in line 3 which I have translated as “joys” is often a euphemism for the female orgasm.
So we have this kinda sexy lesbian love poem, and there are two really important things about it: first, where it is. It is actually found neatly inscribed in very nice handwriting on a panel in the doorway of an upper-working-class house in Pompeii. Much like the above example, if this sort of racy lesbian love poetry would have been condemned in strong terms, it seems kind of radical to put it in your doorway as casually as a “Live, Laugh, Love” sign.
Secondly, we actually have an ancient reaction to this graffito: in a clearly different hand, someone has written “paries quid ama” below it. This seems to be
truncation of a line from Ovid, “paries,
quid amantibus obstas”, or “wall, why do you obstruct the lovers?”
The obvious takeaway is that this is an expression of sympathy – this is a quote from the story of Pyramus & Thisbe, a Greco-Roman version of Romeo & Juliet. The reality, though, is probably actually better: it’s a meme. There were so many love poems being written on walls in Pompeii that certain individuals may have taken it upon themselves to write such things as jokes, as if to groan and say, “Oh, not another love poem on another wall!”, something between a snarky Facebook comment and “Kilroy was here” (Milnor 198-99).
So, then, to the point of this post: Doctor Who. Season 10 episode 10, “The Eaters of Light”, featured Roman soldiers displaying a very casual attitude towards bisexuality and homosexuality, and actually seeing homosexuality as a bit narrow-minded, because it limits you to one gender. This does indeed contradict the norms displayed by the literary elite, but those are the norms of the elite, not the masses. For the kinds of average people who would have been ordinary Roman foot soldiers, like the characters in the episode, the evidence we have from their own hands suggests that what we saw in Doctor Who last night was probably pretty on the nose. Then as now, same-sex attraction was a reality encountered by the average Roman fairly regularly in daily life, and while they did have stigmas and prejudices associated with sexuality, they weren’t the same as ours, and, just like us, were probably not necessarily universal, anyway.
Bernadette J. Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female
Homoeroticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. Accessed
September 14, 2016. ProQuest ebrary.
Sarah. “Fututa Sum Hic: Female Subjectivity and Agency in Pompeian
Sexual Graffiti.” The Classical Journal 108, no. 3 (2013): 319-45.
Kristina. Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2014.
Craig A. Roman Homosexuality. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press,
Shields exist in D&D 5e. That’s about it. You can bash with em and get +2 AC with em, but that’s all that they do. That’s all the customization that they have. But what about the differences in wood and metal shields? What if I carry a buckler? What about my shield breaking? What if I am a simple weapons guy? Shields were hands-down the best options for soldiers in the middle ages fighting with one-handed weapons so they really should have more mechanics dealing with them. Here are some homebrew rules for shields to let more people use them and make using them more fun!
Some notes I couldn’t fit in any section: Shields went out of style as armor improved. People started using two-handed weapons around the same time full plate armor became widely used. The kite shield was used in a time when leg armor was weak or not worn because it was too heavy and unwieldy. The kite shield’s shape could protect their legs without exposing themselves to attack. Also those shields with holes for lances were largely ceremonial or for jousting tournaments only, not adventuring. Bucklers were the most common for someone who needed to be ready for combat at a moment’s notice, as carrying a shield was really tiring unless you were going specifically to battle. But hey, this is a fantasy RPG so we can do whatever looks badass.
Wooden Shield: +1 AC.
Metal Shield: +2 AC. Only creatures proficient with Medium or Heavy Armor can comfortably use a metal shield. Druids are typically forbidden from using a metal shield.
Wooden Buckler: No AC bonus. Creatures proficient with Light Armor can wear bucklers.
Does not provide an AC bonus against ranged attacks.
You can use your reaction to deflect an incoming melee weapon attack that beats your armor class, reducing the damage by 1d4. The buckler has a 50% chance to break when used in such a way.
A metal buckler
Metal Buckler: +1 AC.
Creatures proficient with Light Armor can wear bucklers.
Does not provide an AC bonus against ranged attacks. Druids are typically forbidden from using a metal buckler.
Wooden Tower Shield: +1 AC. You must be proficient in Heavy Armor and have a STR score of at least 13 to comfortably wield a tower shield. You can plant the shield on the ground to gain partial cover (+2 AC). When using the shield in this way, you only move at half your regular movement speed. The bonus provided by the shield does not grant cover against spell attacks. You have a -1 penalty to attacks while using your tower shield for cover.
Metal Tower Shield: +2 AC. You must be proficient in Heavy Armor and have a STR score of at least 15 to comfortably wield a tower shield. You can plant the shield on the ground to gain partial cover (+2 AC). When using the shield in this way, you only move at half your regular movement speed. The bonus provided by the shield does not grant cover against spell attacks. You have a -1 penalty to attacks while using your tower shield for cover. Druids are typically forbidden from using a metal tower shield.
Sticky Shield: When a creature misses you with a melee weapon attack, this sticky shield coated in alchemical slime can catch the weapon. The attacker must succeed on a DC 11 Strength saving throw, or the weapon becomes stuck to your shield. If the weapon’s wielder can’t or won’t let go of the weapon, the wielder is grappled while the weapon is stuck. While stuck, the weapon can’t be used. A creature can pull the weapon free by taking an action to make a DC 11 Strength check and succeeding
Spiked Shield: When you succeed at a Shove attempt when wielding a spiked shield, you deal 1d6 piercing damage to the target. Improvised weapon attacks made using the spiked shield deal 1d6 damage instead of 1d4.
A dhal shield (Indian spiked shield)
Mirrored Shield: Any metal shield treated with alchemical silver. When a ranged spell attack is rolled against the shield’s wielder and the attack misses, the wielder may use their reaction to reflect the spell back at its caster. To do so, the wielder makes an attack roll against the caster using their DEX modifier at disadvantage. If the new attack beats the caster’s AC, the spell affects the caster instead.
Pavise Shield: A tower shield meant for archers to use as cover. It has either a spike on the bottom to be driven into dirt, or a hinged rod to prop it up. Creatures can prop up the pavise shield as an item interaction, or stow it as a bonus action. Once set up, it provides partial cover (+2 AC) for those standing behind it, and it does not move unless hit with a melee attack. You do not need proficiency in Heavy Armor to set up a pavise shield and use it for cover, but using it as a regular tower shield does have this requirement.
Tanglevine Buckler: A wooden buckler intricately grown out of vines by wood elves that can be used to deflect ranged attacks as well as melee attacks in the way described above.
Stonemountain Shield: A dwarven stone tower shield that requires a STR score of 18 or higher to wield. It can be used to provide ¾ cover (+5 AC) when planted on the ground. In addition, it is resistant to being sundered (see below). It has one additional point of durability.
Iron Shield: A metal shield resistant to sundering (see below). It has one additional point of durability.
Sundering: You can sunder an enemy’s shield with repeated bashing. You can attempt to hit a creature’s AC minus the bonus provided by their shield to target their shield directly. Each time you hit their shield, roll for damage. For every 7 damage dealt to it, it loses one point of durability. When the last point of its durability is lost, the shield breaks. This also makes it easier for creatures who deal more damage to sunder shields more easily. A magical shield cannot be sundered except by a magical weapon. Use the table below:
Wooden Buckler: 1 durability
Iron Shield: 4 durability
Wooden Tower Shield:
Metal Tower Shield:
Stonemountain Shield: 5 durability
Group Tactics: Shields for the Romans and Greeks were all about group formations. Greek hoplon shields were held in the left hand and the hoplites would sometimes use their righthand neighbor’s shield to block attacks (leading the right flank to often win battles). Roman scutum shields were sometimes used in a tortoise formation to protect everyone from incoming arrows. Give shield-carrying characters adjacent to one another +1 AC against attacks if they opt to halve their speed and always move together to simulate this.
Example of a Roman scutum shield and javelin
Javelins: So another point on Roman scuta: the legionaries would usually throw a few javelins as they made their initial charge. The purpose was not necessarily to kill the enemies (although I am sure that would be perfectly welcome). The intent was to get the cheap-to-make pointed sticks to impale themselves in the enemies’ scuta. Have you ever tried to hold up a 6-foot javelin sticking straight out from your forearm? Me neither but I would imagine it’s unwieldy. You have to either spend time snapping it or ripping it out or just ditch the shield altogether. Javelins in D&D, however, always have felt stupid. It’s just a basic ranged attack for orcs and goblins. Instead, have creatures just carry a few javelins and let them try to disable the PC’s shields! And let them do the same! To do so, make a sundering attempt (see above). If you remove at least 1 point of durability, the javelin sticks and the unlucky creature either has to drop the shield, spend an action making a STR check to break the javelin, or else live with a -10 move speed reduction and no shield bonus.
Prompt: You’ve always had a crush on the guy that comes into your cafe. One day Bill finally asks you out.
Hope you all enjoy the trash I have created. Tell me if I should make a part two and please request.
You put your pen behind your ear straightened your apron. It was three in the afternoon and would come in any second now and order a caramel latte. You always loved the way he licked his lips when ordering as if drinking coffee was a life-threatening decision.
He strode into the coffee shop and held the door for a pair of giggling girls behind him. You felt heat rise in your cheeks and you swore they were on fire.
" Hello Y/N,“ he sighed. His cheeks were pink from the cold air outside. His green eyes met yours making your heart flutter.You started thinking about the poems you would write about how his white sweater brought out his eyes.
“The usual I presume?” you asked coolly. It was so hard to breathe around him. You ventured behind the counter and he followed you.
“ You’re the only woman that knows me best,” he beamed. It was so pathetic how easily he added color to your cheeks.
He leaned over the counter, his hands hanging off the other edge. He was only two inches from touching you.
“ I come in here every day Y/N,” he whispered. With any other person, the whispering would have been creepy and invasive. You didn’t mind that he was invading your space, it was his for the taking. He smelled sweet like expensive cologne and the fresh outside air. It was appalling that someone wore cologne to get coffee.
” I know and it brings me joy,“ you hummed. You glanced and saw a line starting to build up behind him.
” I think you’re extremely beautiful Y/N,“ with every word he leaned closer. “I come here to see your beautiful face and I want to know everything about you,” he continued. How could you focus on your job when you really wanted to kiss his perfectly shaped lips?
” Thanks,“ you mumbled. The lady behind him was complaining about how long he was taking to order. There were too many words and you couldn’t express it all at once.
” What are you doing tonight?“ Bill asked. You shrugged and debated whether to tell him the truth.
” Well you know,“ you said, “thinking about you.” He blushed and turned away. He started searching and digging around in his pockets.
He frowned, “I forgot my phone. Do you have a pen?“You nodded and took the pen from behind your ear.
” Is it alright if I write on you?“ you asked.
He nodded, ‘'You can do whatever you want to me.” You sighed, this was really all too much. Three months of giving him coffee finally paid off.You wrote your number on his pale arm, even putting a small heart at the end.
” I’ll call you as soon as your break starts which is?“
” At three,“ you interjected. He nodded and looked at the line behind him.
“ They’re all dying to taste your lattes I better go,” he smirked. He waved goodbye before he left. You could barely concentrate on the next order. The thought of being with Bill tonight swirled in your mind and your thoughts became tumultuous.
So. Who broke it? I’m not mad. I just want to know.
I did. I broke it…
No. No, you didn't. Roman?
Don't look at me. Look at Anxiety.
What?! I didn’t break it.
Huh. That’s weird. How did you even know it was broken?
Because it’s sitting right in front of us and it’s broken!
No, it’s not!
If it matters, probably not… Terrance was the last one to use it.
Liar! I don’t even drink that crap!
Oh really? Then what were you doing by the coffee cart earlier?
I use the wooden stirrers to push back my cuticles. Everyone knows that, Thomas!
Alright let’s not fight. I broke it, let me pay for it, Logan.
No. Who broke it?
*whispering* Logan, Talyn's been awfully quiet…
I broke it. I burned my hand so I punched it. I predict ten minutes from now, they’ll be at each other’s throats with warpaint on their faces and a pig head on a stick. Good. It was getting a little chummy around here.