Homosexuality in Ancient Rome

Homosexuality In Ancient Rome

Same-sex attitudes and behaviors in ancient Rome often differ markedly from those of the contemporary West. Latin lacks words that would precisely translate "homosexual" and "heterosexual." The primary dichotomy of ancient Roman sexuality was active/dominant/masculine and passive/submissive/"feminized". Roman society was patriarchal, and the freeborn male citizen possessed political liberty (libertas) and the right to rule both himself and those of his household (familia).

"Virtue" (virtus) was seen as an active quality through which a man (vir) defined himself. The conquest mentality and "cult of virility" shaped same-sex relations. Roman men were free to enjoy sex with other males without a perceived loss of masculinity or social status, as long as they took the dominant or penetrative role. Acceptable male partners were slaves, prostitutes, and entertainers, whose lifestyle placed them in the nebulous social realm of infamia, excluded from the normal protections accorded a citizen even if they were technically free. Although Roman men in general seem to have preferred youths between the ages of 12 and 20 as sexual partners, freeborn male minors were strictly off-limits, and professional prostitutes and entertainers might be considerably older.

Same-sex relations among women are less documented. Although Roman women of the upperclasses were educated, and are known to have written poetry and corresponded with male relatives, very few fragments of anything that might have been written by women survive. Male writers took little interest in how women experienced sexuality in general; the Augustan poet Ovid takes an exceptionally keen interest, but advocates for a heterosexual lifestyle contrary to Roman sexual norms. During the Republic and early Principate, little is recorded of sexual relations among women, but better and more varied evidence, though scattered, exists for the later Imperial period.

Read more about Homosexuality In Ancient Rome:  Background, Homoerotic Literature and Art, Female-female Sexuality, Under Christian Rule

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