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You've probably seen some sort of televised version of what sex was like in ancient Rome, since every film or TV series set in that era seems to give us gore and nudity by the plenty. But that hardly means that the erotic practices we've seen on our screens are accurate representations of how the Roman's got busy—and maybe, like us, you've found yourself wondering from time to time what sex was like in times gone by.
Well, that's why we've pulled together some of the most interesting information that we can find about Roman sex lives. Just a word of warning, though, before we get started; if the TV got it right at all, it's in their depiction of just how unpleasant the Romans could be. Sex in ancient Rome could be an unpleasant and murky thing.
Homosexuality was Accepted—But Only for Some Men
The gay lifestyle was seen as broadly acceptable, but only if you enjoyed penetrating other men; To be on the receiving end was viewed as a sign of weakness. Interestingly enough, this was an idea shared by other ancient civilizations, and was related to a desire for power and dominance—not just as individuals, but as a society. This led to what they considered "passive" homosexuality being outlawed, and made punishable by death.
Unfortunately for women, there was no acceptable way to be out as a lesbian in Roman times; Women were expected to engage in heterosexual sexual activity. And, as with homosexual male relationships, this came down to ideas about power rather than about sex; To engage in a lesbian relationship was seen as asserting a dominance that was utterly frowned upon for all women.
Women Also Drew the Short Straw When it Came to Infidelity
Another example of Roman gender inequality was their reaction to cheaters. "Stepping out" (to use a pretty dainty expression) on your partner was a normal and expected part of life—if you were a man. But for women, cheating on a partner would result in a whole host of nasty consequences that would probably make a lot of women wonder if any orgasm was really worth the trouble.
In fact, it could lead to severe beatings and even death for any woman unlucky enough to get caught, making sexual activity something of an unequal playing field.
Gladiators Were Used for Prostitution as Well as Entertainment
For a hefty fee, both men and women could pay to enjoy the company of a handsome gladiator—and many did! This means that prostitution was an accepted part of having sex as a Roman, although many such interactions were kept somewhat secretive, to avoid embarrassment for the wealthy clients.
And if that isn't scandalous enough for you, then you might want to hear about the story of Faustina, the wife of emperor Marcus Aurelius. It seems that rules on infidelity could be stretched a little for the rich woman, since rather than being punished for her desire to seek pleasure with gladiators, she was given advice about it by a soothsayer. And what did they suggest? That she should had sex with a gladiator, have him murdered while still atop her, and then wash away her temptations—in his blood. More surprising than the advice itself, was the fact that Faustina was more than happy to oblige.
Rome was Built on the Rape of Its Neighbours
In 750 B.C., the Romans were facing something of a crisis—they didn't have a large enough population to expand their empire as quickly as they wanted to. Their incredibly unsavory solution was to take women from nearby Sabine tribes, rape and forcibly impregnate them, and therefore have them bare the next generation of Roman warriors and wives.
The Roman civilization is sometimes described as multicultural, but in this case it seems that it happened through force rather than choice, making for a very unpleasant society indeed.
Everybody Loved Anal
After the darkness of the last item on the list, we needed something a little more light-hearted, and the Roman love of anal sex certainly seems to fit the bill. Just like the ancient Greeks, having sex as a Roman meant enjoying anal and vaginal intercourse alike although, as you'll remember from our section on homosexuality, that didn't mean that everybody got to join in on the fun.
Still, the apparent existence of "analists"—people considered experts on anal—shows just how commonly adored the back passage really was. Even more fascinating was the fact that it was considered a legitimate punishment for some crimes.
Polygamy was a Popular Lifestyle Choice
While modern society can still be unaccepting of polygamy, the Romans had no such qualms about inviting multiple people into the marital bedroom. They were expected to produce children and create a family unit, but with that condition met, any number of Roman lovers could share a bed without judgement.
Fans of polysexual sex can count Emperor Hadrian among their midst; when one of his lovers a teenager named Antinous went missing (some say on the order of Hadrian's wife), he was heartbroken enough to declare the young man a Roman god.
Porn was Everywhere
No need to keep a stash of porn mags hidden under the bed when you're a Roman, since you'll find sexual imagery pretty much anywhere you go. This includes on the streets, where pornographic graffiti abounded, in the statues and artworks that you may well be familiar with, and, of course, in the home.
Bedroom walls would often be decorated with pornographic displays, including sex acts that would be considered somewhat extreme by today's standards! There were even pornographic mosaics, for anybody who wanted a more cultured pornographic display.
The Emperors Were the Absolute Worst
At the top of the deviant pile were the Roman emperors, who indulged in pretty much their every desire—whether their partners liked it or not. So you have emperor Nero, who murdered his pregnant wife, then turned a chap into a eunuch and married him because he looked like Nero's wife. Oh, and he forced another slave to marry him, and became the "lady" of that relationship. Then you've got emperor Elagabalus, who made himself look like a woman and became a prostitute (all that, and he still had time to post soldiers on assignments based on the size of their genitalia).
Meanwhile the totally insane Caligula had a major hard-on for orgies and sex with his sister. The worst, though, was Emperor Tiberius, a twisted pedophile.
Romans Were Addicted to Dangerous Orgies
Orgies probably weren't as common as you might think—usually a polite dinner party would be exactly that, without anyone tearing off their clothes and going at it. Orgies were generally thrown by the emperors we just discussed. For them, orgies were an integral part of what sex was like in ancient Rome.
Of course, most could barely keep up with the frenzied sexual energy of the emperors (and some didn't even fancy it in the first place). Trouble is, given that we;re talking about violent and power-mad men, it turns out that those orgies could be wildly and dangerously unpredictable.
They Pretty Much Made Kissing a Thing
The Ancient Romans could be a sappy bunch—they absolutely loved kissing, and it spread like a wet-lipped wildfire across the Empire. Some Roman men even became addicted to it, creating customs that dictated how a kiss should happen and who it should happen to.
Christians, on the other hand, weren't so keen, and they seriously frowned upon the Roman tradition of over-the-top public displays of affection. Despite that, those big ol' smooches you see at weddings was a tradition started by the Romans.
Imperial Palace = Brothel
It was always going to happen, right? With the sort of emperors Rome had, it seems inevitable that eventually they'd turn the royal household into a whorehouse. Probably the most famous—and most famously sexual—emperor to open up a brothel was Caligula.
He transformed part of the imperial palace into a brothel, because how else do you make money to replace the public funds you've wasted? So he gave his lusty visitors a line of credit—and then forced them repay after enjoying themselves with those ladies of leisure.
And all of this information seems to point to just one thing sex in ancient Rome was pretty much like everything else back then: decadent and over-the-top.