Sexual Relations and Behaviors
In Latin, coitus, ‘sexual intercourse,’ and concubitus, ‘lying together,’ are used as positive or neutral terms for sexual relations, while stuprum is perceived negatively. The goddess of love, Venus, gives her name to parts of speech denoting sexual intercourse.
‘Gripped by a strange new love [novae Veneris], unknown to any?’ (5.7; Ovid Metamorphoses 9.726-8)
For the ancients, the gender of the partner was less important than the roles taken by the respective partners. The ‘active’ role was taken by the penetrator, who was the masculine, dominant, and powerful partner, while the ‘passive’ role belonged to the weaker, submissive, and/or feminine partner.
When it came to sexual behavior, the most admired virtue was self-control and moderation. Since Rome was patriarchal, freeborn men possessed economic and political privileges and the ability to control one’s bodily urges and to enjoy physical pleasures in moderation, which demonstrated one’s worthiness to exercise power. The virtue of moderation was highly valued in antiquity and the restriction of sexual activity applied to various individuals. For a virgin daughter, chastity meant no sex, for a wife, it meant sex only with her husband, and for a husband, it only meant sex in moderation, and only with partners sanctioned by society.
The Romans associated ideas of purity and pollution with sexual activity. The gods often required that worshippers approach them in a ‘pure’ state, having abstained from sex for a certain period. Vestal Virgins were priestesses of Vesta, who had to dedicate 30 years to chastity while in service to the goddess:
The king ordained thirty years of purity for the sacred virgins. (7.13; Plutarch Life of Numa 10.1)
Especially in Roman culture, there was a strong element of disgust and moral condemnation connected to the concept of physical impurity, in particular when it came to anything that touched the mouth. Providing oral sex was considered demeaning to those who practiced it, and a source of defilement to anyone they might have kissed.
Pederasty, or sexual attraction of adult men for youths, first displayed in Greece in post-Homeric aristocratic cultures. It was institutionalized as an educational practice by which a powerful, older male mentors a boy in order to enhance his prospects for social and political advancement. The institution of pederasty is not consistent with modern concepts of ‘gay’ because while the relationship was affectionate, it was also celibate. The boys were also expected to be passive, receive the attentions of their lovers with warm affection rather than erotic response, and not be greedy in their demands, lest they appear to prostitute themselves. Older lovers, meanwhile, were not to take advantage of their superior experience.
In the Roman context, sexual activity between males possessed little or no educational function and was typically a transaction between master and slave. The elites of Roman society of the Republic and early empire disapproved of erotic relations between males of equal of civic status, under pretext that one of the lovers would be made effeminate and thus disqualified from the privileges of citizenship. Roman men were free to have sex with those of lower status with no fear of lost masculinity. Acceptance of pederastic love homosexual relationship relations remained ingrained in Greco-Roman culture until the Christian period, when Judeo-Christian condemnation of same-sex love became part of mainstream culture.
Virginity, Chastity, and Modesty:
In the language of myth, female virginity indicates purity and freedom from subjugation to a husband. This freedom was essential to goddesses like Minerva and Diana, for they saw no man above them but Jupiter, and Vesta’s virginity relates to the integrity of the home and purity of the fire. However, permanent virginity was rarely considered desirable for either men or women in Greco-Roman culture. Citizen males were expected to be sexually active, but were raised to observe ideals of self-control in furtherance of their gender roles.
Romans associated the virtue of chastity with the safety and security of the state. A standard of virginity before marriage and chastity afterward were used to control female sexuality. In ancient Greece, women were weak and passive, a notion that was adopted by the Romans. Women were a potential threat to the status and honor of the family, therefore, women of citizen status had to be continuously controlled and guarded.
When a woman married, it was typically to increase family wealth and social status. The main purpose of marriage was to procreate legitimate heirs and build economic and social capital. Besides bearing children and seeing to their welfare, a wife was expected to oversee management of the household.