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FORVM`s Classical Numismatics Discussion Board  |  Numismatic and History Discussions  |  History and Archeology (Moderator: David Atherton)  |  Topic: Sex and Ancient Rome 0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic. « previous next »
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Author Topic: Sex and Ancient Rome  (Read 12760 times)
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« on: March 03, 2012, 08:17:39 pm »

From a lot of the shows I have seen on various channels, reading I have done and other general depictions of Rome, there is the sense that there was a lot of Sex, orgies, and prostitution throughout Ancient Rome.  Just tonight I was reading a book on Rome titled Ancient Rome by Nigel Rodgers. It is a large reference type book but it describes the amount of sex and debauchery as basically overblown. 

I quote "The Roman reputation for widespread sexual debauchery is hardly merited. It derives more from Suetonius racy portraits of the 12 Caesars, reinforced by Hollywood films and discoveries of "shocking" pictures at Pompeii, than from the reality of life for most people in the Roman world, who seldom had the opportunity for sexual depravity."

Thoughts about the debauchery of ancient Rome, overblown, or more on par with today's society than many might think??

Andrew McCabe
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« Reply #1 on: March 04, 2012, 01:58:27 am »

Thoughts at several levels -

1. Much of the written material that has come down to us from ancient Rome was intended as defamatory. For example Suetonius' 12 Caesars or Cicero's prosecutions. That means their bias was intended to cast goings-on's in a less good light. But usually it wasn't the sex per-se that was cast in a negative light but related bad behavior.

2. The Romans were more relaxed about matters of desire. And why not? The puritan-ship of the early 21st century is the real anomaly. So what's wrong with the Pompeii wall paintings? They depict cuddling and other stuff many of us would really like to be involved in. It might do us some good. And what's wrong with that? Nothing.

3. Much of current puritan attitudes is shaped by religious influences. I was intrigued recently to visit a country that is at the same time highly religious and highly relaxed about cuddling: Thailand. There's absolute reverence paid to monks and a temple on every corner, with sacrifices at all sorts of small shrines. And there's also absolute reverence to libertarian attitudes: be free and enjoy yourself and each other in whatever ways are possible. I think some of this comes close to Roman attitudes to religion and sex.

4. Th institution of marriage in Rome was as much a political act as anything else. For that reason the alliance between families required on the surface, no cheating with other upper-class women and no cheating by the political wife. But this was nothing to do with sex - just about managing party alliances. It didn't stop one fondling one's slaves.

I wish I had a slave to fondle. Or at least to cook my dinner. (NB don't let my partner know I wrote this  Wink )

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« Reply #2 on: March 04, 2012, 02:54:07 am »

It's interesting that so much is made of Roman sexual orgies as an excuse to sell the movies/depictions/etc in the modern world.

The ideal of Rome was one of chastity. Tombstones and eulogies emphasise chastity. Pudicia is part of the catalog of virtues. Augustus' legislation sought to enforce this ideal, albeit largely in the upper classes where, as Andrew has noted, marriages tended to be political, but the Julian Laws carry a large cultural baggage on what is considered to be right morally. Sexual excesses and perversions were frowned upon and actively fustigated, which is where so much of the remaining literature survives, be they attacks against specific people (Cicero against Clodia, Suetonius against the 12 Caesars, Martial and Juvenal against society in general).

That literature has survived because then, as now, and even during the christian middle ages (were it not for the monks, little would have survived) sex sells. Few people are interested in a lengthy description of a virtuous life. That's why Dante's Inferno is more famous and more read than his Paradiso, and why hardly anyone touches Milton's Paradise Regain'd. That's also why modern TV shows (Rome, Spartacus, etc) prefer to include largely gratuitous sex scenes rather than other elements of Roman society - how many people would listen to a philosophic evening at Fronto's place, or an antiquarian debate at Varro's, or - worst of all - an in-depth discussion about archaic Latin grammar as you find in Aulus Gellius (the man who once amused himself on a journey by listing the synonyms or near-synonyms for "ship" he knew)? Somehow, these Roman entertainments don't make it into too many shows - though the opening scene of I, Claudius comes close.

Add to this the major discoveries of apparently sexual objects in Pompeii. This was a time when antiquity was being seriously rediscovered, and it shocked people to find so many scenes of erotica and, largely, so many representations of phalli. If archaeologists discovered a large quantity of Playboy issues in 2000 years time or got access to some of the stuff on the internet, they'd also see our culture as hopelessly orgiastic and you can imagine what 30th century mass entertainment will show of our society. True: Romans had a tendency to put erotic scenes on everyday objects, but for many we don't have the actual context, and for others we know that phalli on a stone plaque in front of a house or as an elaborate tintinnabulum, for instance, indicate not that this was a house of ill repute (some people have assumed this, and came up with staggering ratios of brothels:inhabitants), but were in fact a luck charm designed to bring growth and wealth on the house and ward of the evil eye. Many of the items which were hidden in the "Secret Cabinet" in Naples were not sexual in nature.

That's not to say that Rome was averse to sexuality. Not even the Victorian Age was, in that you did have red-light districts, after all. I'd say that their attitude to sexuality was "healthy" (apart from the helplessness against sexual diseases, of course - and some issues, such as age at marriage or slave-prostitutes, would be considered absolutely abject today), neither excessively shunned nor overly indulged in. There were notorious cases, or allegedly notorious cases (Clodia, Messalina, Julia Augusti, Theodora), but you'd find them in any culture and have to strip them (if I'm allowed the pun) of their political baggage. Most people in Rome would probably be too occupied looking where the next meal came from (in the lower and middle classes) and who was about to stab them in the back (actually or figuratively, in politics) to spent their days in nothing but orgies. The opportunities were there, but no more and no less than at other times in history, including today. It just sells better to include them in modern entertainment, which says as much, if not more, about us than it does about the Romans.  

Anyway, that's my take on this.


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« Reply #3 on: October 12, 2012, 03:33:33 pm »

an interesting book...
'Sexual Life in Ancient Rome' by Otto Kiefer (1993)

~ Peter

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