Norms of Sexuality in Ancient Rome
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 Attius in 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 a 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.
Brooten, Bernadette J. Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. Accessed September 14, 2016. ProQuest ebrary.
Levin-Richardson, Sarah. “Fututa Sum Hic: Female Subjectivity and Agency in Pompeian Sexual Graffiti.” The Classical Journal 108, no. 3 (2013): 319-45.
Milnor, Kristina. Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Williams, Craig A. Roman Homosexuality. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.