Marguerite Johnson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment. Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence. In our series on sexual histories, authors explore changing sexual mores from antiquity to today.
Sexual attitudes and behaviors in ancient Rome are indicated by artliterature and inscriptionsand to a lesser extent by archaeological remains such as erotic artifacts and architecture. It has sometimes been assumed that "unlimited sexual license" was characteristic of ancient Rome. In the popular imagination and culture, it is synonymous with sexual license and abuse.
Rarely does L. Erotic images and depictions of genitalia, the phallus in particular, were incredibly popular motifs across a wide range of media in ancient Greece and Rome. Simply put, sex is everywhere in Greek and Roman art.
The lure of these dark arts is strong for any scholar who approaches Catullus; the voice and emotional candor of this twenty-something writer—he died at age 30—are as alive as anything from ancient Rome. I vividly recall my first encounter, more than three decades ago, with the two dozen odes in which he charted a passionate and ultimately agonized love affair with the woman he called Lesbia, a name that evoked in his day the lyric genius of the Lesbos-born poetess, Sappho. Just as his Lesbia poems course with lust and anguish, the verses Catullus addressed to male rivals, or to friends who he felt had let him down, often pullulate with rage and obscenity. The saltiness of these poems has thrilled many a beginning Latin class, but their power extends beyond mere shock value.
Humble slave to the Roman empire Tristan knows his place in society. To survive the day, he must eat. To eat, he must earn money.
For decades, ancient Rome has been associated in the popular imagination with orgies. The problem is that there is no good evidence that orgies were ever at all common in ancient Rome. In fact, we do not even have a single reliable, first-hand, nonfiction account of one; all we have are salacious rumors, propaganda, and works of erotic fiction.
The ancient Romans viewed sex and sexual behavior somewhat differently than many present-day Americans. Throughout the Roman Empire, prostitution and brothels were widespread: they were governed by laws and taxed by the Emperor Caligula CE. Much of our present understanding of daily life in ancient Roman civilization comes from the archaeological discoveries in Pompeii. Pompeii began as a settlement of small fishing and agricultural communities.
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Sex was a common theme in Roman art and literature. Ovid once wrote, "Offered a sexless heaven, I's say no thank you, women are such sweet hell. One fresco in Pompeii shows a guy with a penis so big it is held up by a string. An erotic stucco mosaic from Pompeii features a couple having sexual intercourse sitting down.