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Ancient Sex: An Intimate History of How the Romans Did It

Silphium was used by the ancient Romans as a contraceptive. (Photo Credit: Starz / Yaut / MovieStillsDB)
Silphium was used by the ancient Romans as a contraceptive. (Photo Credit: Starz / Yaut / MovieStillsDB)

Most movies or TV shows about the ancient Romans don’t shy away from sex, often depicting a society that approached it in a casual and carefree manner. Indeed, sex was important and essential to the Romans, but was it really like what is shown on screen? Discover the real and often surprising history of ancient sex.

Ancient sex and marriage

In ancient Rome, marriage was seen as a duty. This means that it was often more of an arrangement between families than it was based on romance, although there were undoubtedly some partnerships based on love. Marriage is usually considered one of the foundations of Roman society, and the fathers most commonly arranged it. They would find a match for their child, who was generally expected to accept no matter whether they wanted to or not.

Wall carving of a bride and groom shaking hands.
Wall carving showing an ancient Roman bride and groom shaking hands at their wedding ceremony. (Photo Credit: DEA / A. Dagli Orti / De Agostini / Getty Images)

Once married, the purpose of sex was to produce offspring. That isn’t to say there was no enjoyment, but sources indicate that this was more for men than women. The wife was expected to engage in the act to produce a long line of offspring for her husband. All the while, he might have has as many extramarital affairs as he wanted, so long as they adhered to the accepted societal standards.

One extremely public example of these distinctions at play was the relationship between Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. Although Caesar was married, Cleopatra wasn’t a Roman citizen, so his actions were completely acceptable.

On the other hand, the woman was supposed to remain loyal to her husband. There are some references in ancient works to the husband even having the right to kill his wife if he caught her cheating, although it’s unclear whether this was a formal law.

Gay was okay

It was entirely acceptable for men to engage in gay relationships in ancient Rome, even when married. It was almost an expected part of the arrangement. Young boys, other men, and infamis – actors and gladiators – were on the table so long as they weren’t freeborn citizens, an important class distinction.

In all of these instances, the man was expected to perform any act of penetration, an act linked to power.

Painting of a group wearing robes sitting around, drinking and participating in ancient sex.
Depiction of the Roman Emperor Nero participating in a bacchanal. (Photo Credit: Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group/ Getty Images)

This isn’t to say that married and unmarried men had no relationship with those of the same social class. They certainly did. It just wasn’t something that was encouraged by society. This may sound like the ancient Romans were very liberal about homosexuality, and they were to a degree, but these standards didn’t apply to women. Lesbians certainly experienced more prejudice and discrimination than men in same-sex relationships.

Ancient sex work

Another area where extramarital affairs were okay was in the ancient profession of sex work. This wasn’t reserved only for husbands. Men of any social class were also able to engage in this behavior. Both male and female workers were employed at brothels but could also be found at many upper-class parties where fornication was almost a form of entertainment.

Ruined building with many pillars.
Ruins of an ancient Roman brothel in present-day Turkey. (Photo Credit: PHAS / Universal Images Group / Getty Images)

Typically the workers were enslaved people or freedwomen, so it isn’t easy to know how many were there by choice. Although not formally working in brothers, this also extends to enslaved people who were forced into sexual acts with their masters who, under Roman law, could exploit them no matter their age, as they were considered their property.

While sex work was common in ancient Roman society, it was still considered something lower-class individuals, such as the infamis, were employed to do. This was because there was a general stigma surrounding those who used their body to entertain others, whether through sex, acting, or fighting as gladiators. Owning a business of this kind was also unacceptable, so upper-class Romans would often pass off the day-to-day management to their slaves.

Completely accepted

Unlike many in modern society, the Romans were very open about their sexuality. Not only was there no word to differentiate between homosexual and heterosexual intercourse, but they were also highly public about their relationships. Ancient sex is a topic that historians know a lot about as it was discussed and recorded at great length by their society. Writers would include sex in their speeches, poetry, or literature without it being taboo.

Woman sitting across a man's lap while they kiss.
Roman wall painting of Amor and Psyche kissing. (Photo Credit: Fine Art Images/ Heritage Images/ Getty Images)

Works of visual art are perhaps an even better example of this, as they regularly included extremely detailed sexual scenes in mosaics, frescoes, and statues. This art has been found not just in brothers, but also in villas and other homes where it wasn’t hidden away. Even phallic objects were believed to have been commonly kept in public spaces as a form of good luck charm.

This openness also extended to the use of various toys. There are many well-documented examples of sexual objects made of stone, stuffed leather, or even carefully sculpted bread.

Strict laws

While views of ancient sex were often very open-minded compared to today’s standards, the Romans also ensured strict legal protections were in place, meaning that there were still rules to follow. One of these was the use of the death sentence for committing rape or nonconsensual sexual acts. The problem with this was that rape only applied to certain citizen classes. If a man did this to his slave, it was not considered a crime. If he raped the slave of another man, however, it was.

Mosaic depicting a scene of ancient sex: a woman lying on a bed while two men stand looking at her.
Romantic scene from an ancient Roman mosaic found in a Villa. (Photo Credit: Unknown Author/ Kunsthistorisches Museum/ Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 2.5)

Typically, the state only got involved in sexual affairs when they went against how Roman society was supposed to function. In addition to the rules on rape, this included when a woman who had declared herself chaste wanted to change her mind, engaging in any sexual act with a freeborn citizen, chaste individual, or family member, and kidnapping a person with sexual intent.

More from us: Poena Cullei Was Ancient Rome’s Cruellest Punishment

In Rome, the approach to ancient sex was open-minded in some way, but it was primarily something that men would engage with at the detriment of the women and enslaved people surrounding them.

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Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.