Homosexuality in Ancient Rome

The Sleeping Hermaphrodite
PaoloGaetano / Getty Images

Although sexual practices are often left out of discussions of history, the fact remains that homosexuality in ancient Rome did exist. However, it's not quite as cut and dried as a question of "gay versus straight." Instead, it's a much more complex cultural perspective, in which the approval—or disapproval—of sexual activity was based upon the social status of the people performing various acts.

Did You Know?

  • The ancient Romans didn't have a word for homosexual. Instead, they based their terminology upon the role that the participants played.
  • Because Roman society was so patriarchal, those who took on a "submissive" role were seen as feminine, and thus looked down upon.
  • Although there is little documentation of female same-sex relationships in Rome, scholars have discovered love spells and letters written from one woman to another.

The Roman Patriarchal Society

Augustus of Prima Porta Ancient Roman Statue
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The society of ancient Rome was extremely patriarchal. For men, the determination of masculinity was directly tied to how one displayed the Roman concept of virtus. This was one of several ideals that all freeborn Romans tried to follow. Virtus was partly about virtue, but also about self-discipline and the ability to govern oneself and others. To take that a step further, the active role of imperialism and conquest found in ancient Rome was often discussed in terms of sexual metaphor.

Because masculinity was predicated on one's ability to conquer, homosexual activity was viewed in terms of domination. A man taking on the perceived dominant, or penetrative, role would fall under far less public scrutiny than a man who was being penetrated, or "submissive"; to the Romans, the action of being "conquered" implied that a man was weak and willing to give up his liberty as a free citizen. It also brought into question his sexual integrity as a whole.

"Bodily autonomy was one of the regulatory norms of sex which helped define one’s status within society... an elite Roman male demonstrated his status because he was not allowed to be beaten, or penetrated."

Interestingly, the Romans didn't have specific words that meant homosexual or heterosexual. It wasn't gender that determined whether a sexual partner was acceptable, but their social status. The Roman censors were a committee of officials who determined where in the social hierarchy someone's family belonged, and occasionally removed individuals from the upper ranks of society for sexual misconduct; again, this was based on status rather than gender. In general, same-sex relationships among partners of the appropriate social status were considered normal and acceptable.

Freeborn Roman men were permitted, and even expected, to be interested in sex with partners of both genders. Even once married, a Roman man might continue to maintain relationships with partners other than his spouse. However, it was understood that he was only to have sex with prostitutes, slaves, or people who were considered infamia. This was a lower social status assigned by the censors to individuals whose legal and social standing had been formally reduced or removed. This group also included entertainers such as gladiators and actors. An infamis could not provide testimony in legal proceedings, and could be subjected to the same sorts of corporal punishments usually reserved for slaves.

"Instead of today's gender orientation, ancient Roman... sexuality can be dichotomized as passive and active. The socially preferred behavior of a male was active; the passive part aligned with the female."

While a free Roman man was permitted to have sex with slaves, prostitutes, and infames, it was only acceptable if he took the dominant, or penetrative role. He was not allowed to have sex with other freeborn Roman men, or the wives or children of other free men. In addition, he couldn't have sex with another man's slave; this is because slaves were property, and sex with someone else's slave required the owner's explicit permission.

Although not extensively documented, there were homosexual romantic relationships between Roman men. Most scholars agree that same sex relationships between men of the same class existed; however, because there were so many rigid social constructs applied to such relationship, they were kept private.

While same-sex marriage was not legally permitted, there are writings that indicate some men did participate in public "marriage ceremonies" with other men; the emperor Nero did this at least twice, as did the emperor Elagabalus. In addition, at one point during his ongoing dispute with Mark Antony, Cicero attempted to discredit his opponent by claiming Antony had been given a stola by another man; the stola was the traditional garment worn by married women.

Homosexual Relationships in Roman Women

Sappho
UIG via Getty Images / Getty Images

There is little information available about same-sex relationships between Roman women. Although they probably happened, the Romans didn't write about it, because to them, sex involved penetration. It's likely that the Romans didn't consider sexual acts between women to actually be sex, unlike the penetrative activities between two men.

Interestingly, among Roman women there are a number of sources that indicate not sexual activity but romance. Bernadette Brooten writes in Love Between Women of love spells commissioned by women to attract other women. Scholars agree that these spells provide written evidence that women from the time period were interested in romantic attachments with other women, and that they were comfortable expressing their desires. Brooten says:

[The spells] do not reveal the internal dynamics of these women's relationships. Nevertheless, the spells do ... raise intriguing, although ultimately unanswerable, questions about the nature of women's erotic desires.

Gender-Bending Deities

Apollo statue
LordRunar / Getty Images

As in other ancient cultures, Roman deities were reflection of the social and cultural mores of the realm of men, and vice versa. Like their neighbors in Greece, Roman mythology does include instances of same-sex relationships between the gods, or between gods and mortal men.

The Roman Cupid was often seen as a patron deity of passionate love between two men, and for a long time was associated with male/male lust. The word erotic comes from the name of Cupid's Greek counterpart, Eros.

The goddess Venus was honored by some women as a goddess of female-to-female love. The Greek poet Sappho of Lesbos wrote about her in her guise as Aphrodite. The virgin goddess Diana preferred the company of women, according to legend; she and her companions hunted in the woods, danced with each other, and swore of men completely. In one legend, the god Jupiter presented himself as the princess Callisto, and seduced Diana while in disguise. When King Minos pursued a nymph named Britomaris, she escaped him by jumping into the ocean. Diana rescued Britomaris from the sea, and fell in love with her.

Jupiter, much like the Greek Zeus, was the king of all the gods, and regularly had flings with mortals of both genders. He changed his appearance frequently, sometimes appearing male and other times female. In one myth, he fell in love with the beautiful youth Ganymede, and stole him away to Olympus to be his cup-bearer.

Sources

  • Brooten, Bernadette J. Love between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Cytko, Elizabeth. Of Androgynes and Men: Gender Fluidity in Republican Rome ...University of Alberta, 2017, https://era.library.ualberta.ca/items/71cf0e15-5a9b-4256-a37c-085e1c4b6777/view/7c4fe250-eae8-408d-a8e3-858a6070c194/Cytko_Elizabeth_VJ_201705_MA.pdf.
  • Hubbard, Thomas K. Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents. 1st ed., University of California Press, 2003. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pp7g1.
  • Schrader, Kyle W. Virtus in the Roman World: Generality, Specificity, and ...The Gettysburg Historical Journal, 2016, cupola.gettysburg.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1154&context=ghj.