"The single most startling conclusion that I came to after studying sexuality in the Roman world is that the Romans were not at all like us in their attitudes toward sex." So writes John R. Clarke in his very visual survey of Roman sexual attitudes and practices from the late Republic to the early Roman Empire.
Clarke points out that many of our modern assumptions about sexuality only developed in the last century or two. They are the product of the social sciences and humanities trying to grapple with the subject of sexuality, a subject not easily discussed in Judeo-Christian Europe. When we use recently invented terms like "heterosexual" or “homosexual” we must realize they would have little meaning to the Romans.
What then did the Romans believe about sexuality? That is a fairly loaded question as Roman society evolved considerably over time. The early Republic was noted for its austerity. An obsession with sex was considered unhealthy, and Julius Caesar was derided by social conservatives for his legendary promiscuity with both genders. Later Christian society would place human sexuality in a dim light. Sandwiched between the two eras was the early empire, and it is here that Clarke conducts his survey. Thus readers have to keep in mind that while Clarke’s conclusions about Romans sexuality may be true for this era, they may not be true for earlier and certainly later epochs.
Clarke uses the visual artifacts from Pompeii to fuel his study. This is appropriate. The graphic nature of these artifacts prompted a German archaeologist by the name of Muller to find a new word for visual displays of sexuality. After looking in a Greek dictionary, he discovered pornographein – “to write about prostitutes.” Thus the word “pornography” entered the Western vocabulary.
In the town of Pompeii, thoughtfully left to us damaged but intact by the fury of a nearby Volcano, we find visual evidence of Roman sexuality everywhere. Upper class Roman houses are filled with frescos and artwork depicting people unabashedly engaged in sexual theatrics. Gardens are filled with statues of fertility gods with giant phalluses. Lower class taverns and bordellos possess their own distinct and frank explorations of Romans sexuality. Everywhere in town talismans and amulets of phalluses are erected (no pun intended) to ward off evil spirits.
The ubiquitous nature of sexuality shocked the archaeologists who first discovered it. How could Romans be so frank about sex, leaving these obscene items around where even children could see them? How could Roman women be so forthright about enjoying sex? And most disturbing of all, how could Romans engage in same-sex or group sex activities?
The “pornography” of Pompeii has to be placed into the context of early imperial society. The wealth of Rome’s increasing empire has made some people very rich, and given rise to what social scientists call “conspicuous consumption.” The well-to-do wanted to advertise their financial situation, and in imperial Pompeii having sexually explicit frescos in one’s house was considered a mark of luxury and refinement. That explains the wealth of displays. Even local plebian taverns tried to lend themselves an air of elegance with crude sexual frescoes.
Imperial society also coincided with what can only be called a “feminist revolution.” As many elite males were killed by war and politics in the Republican era, elite women came to inherit the family finances and run affairs on their own. Their new-found power and confidence spilled over into the sexual arena. The ideal of the docile and chaste woman of the Republican era took a heavy blow. We can see in the visual displays the phenomenon of women enjoying and seeking sexual pleasure as much as men.
As the Romans were a religious people, many came to see sexual ecstasy as a gift from Venus and Cupid, or cultic deities like Dionysus. Who could begrudge the gods their influence? The idea that phalluses and displays of fertility gods could ward off evil spirits also reached its height. Every street corner and doorway seems to have had a representation of a penis.
Same-sex relations always existed in Rome among males. But there were certain taboos associated with it – the man of superior social rank had to take the superior sexual position. A man who became the submissive partner of a social inferior was derided. Some of these taboos seem to break down in early imperial society, judging by the visual evidence. Women, also, come to know same-sex relations, a phenomenon that no doubt coincided with the feminist revolution. Many Romans were scandalized, as women of the Republican era were expected to sleep with their husbands and no one else.
Oral sex was considered a taboo for both genders. The Romans considered it unclean. Judging by the visual evidence of the artifacts at Pompei, this no doubt happened though, even if there were always some impurity attached to it. (Clarke quips about what the Romans would think of the Clinton-Lewinski scandal).
Social conservatives preferred the tighter restrictions of human sexuality that were in effect during the early Republic. Augustus drafted legislation to discourage loosening sexual practices. However, he could not influence anyone outside of his own narrow circle of sycophants, and even there his influence had limits if we take his own daughter into account.
Only the Christian society waiting in the winds would put a damper on Imperial Rome’s sexual theatrics. But even Christian society loosened its belt after a time. Clarke recounts how the artifacts of Pompeii were once off limits to most people. They were considered “obscene.” Only after Europe experienced a “sexual revolution” in the last thirty years were women and the general public allowed to study the frescoes of Pompeii. Clarke tries to connect the West’s recent sexual revolution with the one that occurred in imperial Rome. But, he admits, he can’t – Roman society and its ideas of sex are simply incongruous with what we Moderns have been conditioned to believe, sexual revolution notwithstanding.