Non-Standard Roman Male Sexuality

Learning About Roman Sexual Mores From the Poets

House of Vettii - Priapus Weighs His Phallus
House of Vettii - Priapus Weighs His Phallus. CC Flickr User get directly down
" Romans did have a complex set of moral strictures designed to protect children from abuse or any citizen from force or duress in sexual relations. Romans were, like other people, sensitive to issues of love and caring, but individual sexual (i.e. gender) choice was completely unlimited. Male prostitution (directed toward other males), for instance, was so common that the taxes on it constituted a major source of revenue for the imperial treasury. It was so profitable that even in later periods when a certain intolerance crept in, the emperors could not bring themselves to end the practice and its attendant revenue."

John Boswell: The Church and the Homosexual: An Historical Perspective, 1979

It doesn't take a structuralist to see dichotomies everywhere in Rome, from the social hierarchy of plebeian vs patrician, client vs patron, female vs male, to the sexual arena of passive vs active, shunned vs fêted, and mollis vs virile. One might add, Greek and Roman.

As I said before, it's misleading to look at Roman sexuality through a prism of homosexuality/heterosexuality, but there is a correlation between certain homosexual behaviors and despised social standing [source:*.

"... [S]ince the concepts "heterosexual" and "homosexual" did not exist, but there does seem to be a high degree of correlation between the conduct of men identified as cinaedi and that of some men now labeled "homosexuals," though it must be appreciated that the modern term is clinical while the ancient one is emotional and even hostile, and that both have been imposed from outside."
- Bryn Mawr Classical Review of The Priapus Poems, by Richard W. Hooper, Reviewed by James L. Butrica
There is also an association between what we today think of as homosexual and what to the Romans seemed alien, risible, and Greek. Pedico, pathicus, cinaedus, catamitus, and malacus are all Greek-borrowed Latin terms related to either passive or anal sex. Williams adds that the Greek love of youths, pederasty, also involved a disgrace (the general term is stuprum), but only if the boy were freeborn.
[See Slave vs. Freeborn.]

Two terms in particular crop up repeatedly in literature dealing with less approved sexual conduct:




Malacus: Hoplites and Cinaedi

In [ - January 15, 2000] "Malakos as Soft," Christopher Lee traces the history of the Greek word on which the Latin malacus is based:

  • In Homer, malakos usually means soft, as in a tangibly soft meadow.
  • By Herodotus (484?-425 B.C.), it had come to mean 'soft' as in neither strong nor masculine -- in other words, 'effeminate'.
  • Aristophanes (448?-385 B.C.) plays on the double meaning, but uses the term pejoratively. In Wasps (1455), according to Lee, Aristophanes describes a man who was once a hoplite (here, signifying that he was a virile warrior), as now a degenerate malakos.


    In other passages of Aristophanes, as well as in [ - January 15, 2000] Aeschines' (390-322 B.C.) attempt to discredit Demosthenes (383-322 B.C.) [Against Timarchus 131], malakos not only means soft and effeminate, but sexually submissive.

  • Malacus, a term of Greek origin, was used by the Roman playwright Plautus (254?-184 B.C.) in conjunction with other disparaging terms to denigrate effeminate Greek males (see Miles Gloriosus 668; Stichus, 227).
    " Plautus creates a close rapport with his Roman audience ... so that the spectators achieve what we might call a sense of solidarity as Romans, laughing with the scheming rogues at the victims of their acting skills, a set of fools who are aliens, caricatures developed from Greek theatre and, accordingly ... representative of Greek weaknesses Romans wanted to believe in."
    [ - January 15, 2000] Malakos as Soft


    " ...[T]hey highlight a flamboyant repertory of distinctive dress, hair styles, and other easily recognized mannerisms, as well as customary cruising grounds, occupational clustering, and... even intra-group support."
    [ - January 15, 2000] Williams, Roman Homosexuality

    In Catullus (84?-54?

    B.C.), the appellation cinaedus is coupled with other words of reproach: improbis (morally bad)

    [URL =] cinaedis [Catullus LVII],
    impudicus (unchaste)
    [Catullus XXIX]  [ - January 15, 2000]

    The whole of Catllus Carmen XVI contrasts the cinaedus Furius with the pius poeta 'dutiful poet' who should not be judged to share the characteristics of his poetry, his versiculi (diminutive lines/verses), which are molliculi (diminutive of mollis, a sometime synonym for malacus).
    Instead, Catullus, as a pius poeta, and to show how manly he is, threatens to satisfy any effete sexual longings Furius and his partner in vice, Aurelius, may have had. Improbus, impudicus, and impious define Furius; while their opposites, the virile Catullus appears to claim for himself. To be more virtuous than a cinaedus, you might say a male need do no more than penetrate.

    The objects of Catullus' derision are the cinaedi, a sub-culture of urban Rome that has been described variously as
    (1) the epitome of the un-male:

    " [A] necessary negative" to the standard Roman concept of masculinity, illustrating, almost in comic book fashion, "what a real man must not be...."
    (2) social pariahs like flamboyant contemporary transvestites:
    " The kinaedos ... is not a 'homosexual' but neither is he just an ordinary guy who now and then decided to commit a kinaidic act. The conception of a kinaidos was of a man socially deviant in his entire being, principally observable in behavior that flagrantly violated or contravened the dominant social definition of masculinity. To this extent, kinaidos was a category of person, not just of acts" ....
    (3) passive partners in sexual intercourse:
    Gleason's definition provides a good compromise on this issue and is the one this study shall use: "The word cinaedus ... describes sexual deviant, in its most specific sense referring to males who prefer to play a passive role in intercourse with other men" .
    [ - January 15, 2000] untitled
    *[ - January 15, 2000]Jim Miller says Martial's epigram 12.13 is about Juvenal's attraction to a slave boy. This is significant because Juvenal (without being a hypocrite) rails repeatedly against effeminate sexuality.

    Resources on Sexuality

    "Greek Love at Rome" Craig A. Williams
    The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 45, No. 2 (1995), pp. 517-539