Ancient Rome is often seen as a time full of sexual liberation, exploration and depravity. But a new book questions whether it really was the ‘sexual free-for-all’ so often depicted in pop culture.
In Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome, British author LJ Trafford explores topics ranging from the attitude towards body hair to what made a ‘perfect penis’ as she dissects the rules and expectations that governed sexual activity.
‘There is a certain image of ancient Rome that prevails in the modern mind: one of a city soaked in depravity and decadence; a sexual free-for-all whereanyone could do anything to anyone they wanted; an empire whose lack of morality was the catalyst for its decline and ultimately its fall,’ she writes.
‘This sinful city picture is somewhat ratified by what the surviving sources and archaeological artefacts have to say: there is biographer Suetonius’ frankly eye-popping account of what the Emperor Tiberius got up to on the island of Capri; the first-century CE poet Martial, whose subject matters include a rant on his girlfriend refusing to let him sodomise her, grey pubic hair, and a claim that an acquaintance is handing out dinner party invitations based solely on penis size.’
But there were also rules and restrictions, both social and legal, on what was and was not allowed and accepted. In Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome, published on September 30, Trafford offers a nuanced look at some of these governing forces in fascinating detail.
However on other occasions the Romans really were as shocking as we think, as these insights from the book prove…
Men through the ages have been affected by erectile dysfunction, and the Romans were no different.
The poet Ovid and the emperor Tiberius were among those who documented their struggles, although they blamed everything from witchcraft to unattractive partners, rather than acknowledging it was a personal condition.
Fortunately the Romans were creative in the ways it could be treated. Pliny the Elder suggested ‘plunging an ass’s penis seven times in hot oil’ and rubbing it on the affected member.
Another suggestion reads: ‘The right lobe of a vulture’s lungs, attached to the body in the skin of a crane, acts powerfully as a stimulant upon males’.
Trafford continues: ‘If you can’t find a vulture to dismember, an easier version is available in the shape of a cock’s testicle (make sure it is the right-sided one) which should be attached to the body in the skin of a ram. There are no details on how a woman’s libido is affected by her partner wanting to make love while accessorised by bird testicles.
‘Probably the least disturbing of Pliny’s erection-boosting suggestions is to mix the yolks of six pigeon eggs with hog’s lard, positively appetising compared with vulture lungs and ass penises.’
ROME’S ‘WICKEDEST WOMAN’ WHO BED ‘HUNDREDS’ OF MEN
Dubbed the ‘wickedest woman in Rome’, Valeria Messalina was born into the imperial family and went on to become an infamous adulteress who is said to have bedded hundreds of men.
In 38AD, at the age of 20, Messalina married her 47-year-old cousin, Claudius. The couple went on to have a son, Britannicus, and a daughter, Octavia. Claudius became Emperor following the assassination of Caligula in 41AD.
By all accounts Messalina had a voracious sexual appetite and was unafraid to punish men who denied her.
Among them was a freeman, Silanus, and Marcus Vinicius, who was married to a member of the imperial family named Julia. The actor Mnester, who had previously been a lover to Caligua, also resisted the Empress’s advances until her own husband stepped in to tell him to obey her, unaware that it was sex she was after.
However over time Messalina grew tired of straightforward affairs and turned to ‘unfamiliar vices’ to satisfy her, according to Tacitus.
Trafford writes: ‘Cassius Dio reports that the empress compelled other women to commit adultery while their husbands looked on. Pliny the Elder tells us Messalina once competed against a famous prostitute for how many men they could sleep with in a single day: the empress won with a tally of twenty-five different men.
‘Juvenal claims she set herself up as a prostitute with the nickname “The Wolf Girl” in a local brothel, and was still unsated at the end of the day.’
But while the stories about Messalina bedding lovers have some support in historical sources, the same are not true of the ones involving prostitution, which are more likely nothing more than a gossipy invention.
One story that is more likely to be true is that of Messalina marrying a second man, Gaius Silius, who was known as the ‘best-looking man in ancient Rome’.
The decision to cuckold her emperor husband by marrying another man while he was away led to Messalina, Silius and her attendants being executed.
WITCHES AND COMPLEX LOVE POTIONS
Romans desperate for help in their love lives could turn to the gods – or simply brew up a potion. Pictured, Roman Emperor Maximian and his wife Eutropia looking loved-up
Romans desperate for help in their love lives could turn to the gods – or simply brew up a potion.
The concoctions ranged from the basic – such as eating hare, which would give the consumer ‘extra appeal for nine days – to the complicated brewing of a mixture made from olive branches, beet plant and olive oil that was presented to the full moon and accompanied by a incantation.
An even more complicated spell for binding a lover to another required making two wax figures of a man and a woman that were inscribed with word and pierced with needles.
‘After that you must write down all the words you have spoken on a lead tablet, “And tie the lead leaf to the figures with thread from the loom after making 365 knots while saying as you have learned, “ABRASAX, hold her fast!”,’ continues Trafford.
‘You place it, as the sun is setting, beside the grave of one who has died untimely or violently, placing beside it also the seasonal flowers.’
Finally, the person performing the spell must recite an incantation of over 1,000 words.
As the spells and potions were so time-consuming, some Romans turned to witches for help seducing the object of their desires. Among them was Tibullus, who wanted to prevent a man from discovering an affair with his wife.
SIZE DID MATTER (… AND EVERYONE LOOKED)
Size definitely mattered to the Romans and the baths gave them plenty of opportunity to check out each other’s penises. Pictured, a mosaic depicting a scene of dressing in the baths
Size definitely mattered to the Romans, as reflected in the fact that one politician Marcus Aurelius Cotta handed out dinner party invitations based solely on how well-endowed the men were.
The baths gave the Romans plenty of opportunity to check out each other’s penises.
One man who was ‘obsessed’ with doing so was Hostius Quadra, who used it as an opportunity to pick out ‘favourites’ with whom to have sex.
‘So obsessed by size was Quadra that he had mirrors constructed that magnified the reflection, so that he might enjoy looking at an exaggerated form of his partners’ penis,’ writes Trafford.
However his fixation on large penises led to him being painted as ‘the very worst, most depraved of men’ because his ‘obsession with big penises is firmly tied to their sexual deviances.
‘They like big penises because they are submitting to anal sex, a most un-Roman position.’