Ancient Rome has always had a reputation for being a time and a place of sexual liberty, both in the cultural view of the act and the performance of it. Think about it! When someone says the words “Ancient Rome” and “Sex” in the same sentence what do you think of? For me, it’s a bunch of people in togas sprawled on a marble floor with throw pillows and wine; men and women alike, all in a seemingly endless knot of flesh. Turns out, it’s actually not far off from the real thing. 

One part of Roman culture that embraced sex was the streets; and no I don’t mean the streets as in modern slang, I mean the literal street. The Roman Empire, which, at the time, was a hub of trade and export, as well as huge, was a place where prostitution was fully legal. Because of its physical and economic size, language barriers were a constant on the streets of Rome, however, the streets were the solution to this; cobblestone markers throughout the streets or “road signs” had engravings of penises on them pointing towards the nearest brothel. A foreigner or someone from a distant part of the Empire could follow these road markers to the nearest brother and even pay for sexual exploits with special brothel tokens (spintriae), again made to combat the language barrier many faced during these expansive times. These tokens were special in that they had sexual positions embossed in them so that the prostitute would know what the patron wanted without the exchange of words. 

However, this isn’t the only intriguing thing about Roman-era sex culture. Romans, like many civilizations at the time, viewed marriage as a largely one-sided endeavor. Women were seen as deficits to the family system-they were expensive to raise and couldn’t carry on the family name or keep familial wealth or property, and at some point would need a dowry paid to their future husband. During a marriage, they had one role: The center of the household. Before their marriage, they were expected to remain “pure” or in other words, they needed their virtue intact. After marriage, they were expected to pump out as many male offspring as possible. Men on the other hand were expected to have extramarital affairs; while their wives turned a blind eye to this, men frequented brothels rather publically. This however was limited by laws and social stigma. Men who slept with married women often face beatings or even castration at the hands of the offending woman’s husband, and sometimes the addition of his compatriots or his family. Men could also have affairs with older men, and while homosexual marriage was not legal in the Roman Empire, homosexual relationships weren’t seen as strange, though men who were penetrated (often referred to as a “bottom”) during intercourse were viewed as emasculated and effeminate. However, just as in marriage, homosexuality was not extended to women at the time and was very publically (and outwardly) loathed. Women who were caught with other women were often reprimanded, and just as with homosexual males, dominant women were seen to have taken “the man’s role” and were no longer effeminate. 

However, all things must come to an end (much like the Empire did) and at the tail end of the Republic, during Augustus’s rule (Rome’s first emperor), extramarital affairs were shunned. Augustus himself even politically railed against the illicit sexual promiscuity of his subjects, and eventually tried to restore family values via legislation, which as history has shown time and time again, did not work out as well as he had hoped. Rome eventually fell and to this day is known for its liberal and extravagant and sexually charged histories, such as the 24-hour orgy competition held between a prostitute and the Queen of the Roman Empire (no really, Google it). However, this is just the surface of Rome’s incredible history of sex and sexuality; after all, “romance” does mean “of the Roman style”. — Haley Berger

Photo by Saph Photography from Pexels

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Haley Berger
Columnist | + posts
Haley Berger is a Pacific Sophomore and public health major. She enjoys painting, listening to 1970’s R&B, and spending time with her beloved cat, Moose.

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