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Roman Sexual Behaviours

Sexual behaviours are difficult to write about. Even in modern societies, what people do in the bedroom and with whom is notoriously difficult to understand as a sociological phenomenon. People tend not to tell the truth when asked. Anecdotes tend to record the sensational rather then normal. Moral panics tend to make a lot of noise, but whether they worry about normal or abnormal behaviour is never clear: if Romans complain about adultery, is it because so many Romans think that adultery is terrible or is it because so many Romans are engaged in adulterous behaviour?

There is another complexity. Much of Roman literature based itself on Greek models. If someone writes a love poem, is the sentiment a literary one or a real one? How can we tell?

Female Sexuality

We can take a test case. The Roman poet Juvenal wrote a long poem, Satire 6, on the behavior of women. The text is intended to persuade a friend not to marry. It offers a whole series of reasons why marrying is a terrible idea. Life with a wife is portrayed as terrible: the woman rules the household. She throws tantrums. She demands. But worse is the sexual misconduct.

The Satire is a long, long complaint about female sexual behaviour, from women who wish to be gladiators, to women who desire gladiators, to women who desire actors, to women who desire promiscuously. Potential fathers are mocked for having sons that look like their biological fathers. Women caught in adultery are supposedly shameless in claiming a moral equivalence between their dalliances and those of their husbands. Marriage seems to result inevitably in shame for men.

So how true is this? Juvenal fills his account with names and instances and this gives a realistic feel for his instances. But how true? Messalina’s sexual misdemeanours were legendary, but in the original sense of being the stuff of myth. That Juvenal embroiders salacious stories hardly makes his stories or the original story true. Julia was rumoured to have had multiple lovers. Her daughter supposedly repeated her mistakes, though on a less spectacular scale. Behind these stories was the myth of Cleopatra. In all these instances, politics was reduced to uncontrolled sexual desire.

Female Gladiators Halicarnassus BM

Female Gladiators from a Relief from Halicarnassus (British Museum)

There were female gladiators, but these were likely lower class or servile individuals, forced to fight to make a living.

Roman poetry of the period has a strand which is sexually explicit (notably the poetry of Catullus, Propertius, and, especially, Ovid). From the age of Domitian, we have the epigrams of Martial, which very often turn on sexual misdemeanours explored in great detail. And we have the ‘novel’ of Petronius, The Satyricon, the story of the misadventures of a group of frauds, competing for the love of a young boy, Giton, and seeking to make money in Neronian Campania. The novel recounts multiple, implausible sexual encounters.

This literary material often depicts a violent sexuality. Women are seen as promiscuous and their behaviour often problematic and certainly non-traditional. There is a gap between the representations of women in statuary and the representation of women in literature. The women depicted by Pliny in his letters are models of respectability and conjugal and familial affection. They are miles away from Tacitus’ discussion of the women of the imperial court.

It is tempting to turn the more explicit critiques of female sexual behaviour around.

  • What do these male writers’ depictions of female sexuality allow them to do in terms of their male behaviours?
  • If women have an aggressive, uncontrolled sexuality, what does that allow men to do?
    • One might argue that such views would make normal an aggressive expression of male sexuality. They might allow men to think that the women really want sex, whatever they say and do that might suggest that the opposite.
    • One might argue that they generate a culture in which predatory male sexual behaviour becomes a game in which are participants urging on their seducers.
    • One might argue that they generate a culture of control. The male would seek to control his females so that the latent sexuality did not escape the disciplines of the family and husband.

If we read the texts this way, they seem not so much reports of behaviour, as symptoms of male angst. They reflect social concerns. They represent an attempt, if only in the moral climate generated in the texts, at justifying the control of women.

It would be naive to think that such attitudes were not widely shared in Roman society. But it would be equally naive to see them as reporting real behaviour.

In reporting behaviours that they regard as less than ideal, there is also underlying that perception a view of what behaviours would be ideal. What is the ideal from which these literary women depart? Once one thinks of the texts in this way, the gap between these representations of female behaviour and the sculptural representations suddenly vanishes. Both texts and images are ideological states that have within them an ideal of female behaviour. It is just that the statues are much more focused on the ideal and the literary more focused on the less than ideal.

Female Behaviour

So how do we get to how women actually lived?

Women must have been aware of and have shared to some extent the ideals and norms for female behaviour expressed in our literary material. That material established possible modes of behaviour: ideal and less than ideal. One presumes that there was plenty of space in between those two extremes.

Is it possible that Livia might represent one code of behaviour and Cleopatra another? When Augustus’ daughter Julia chose how to behave, might she have contrasting codes of behaviour to which she might adhere. There is some evidence to suggest code-switching. She could appear as the good wife and daughter, or the woman about town.

What do we know?

We know that:

  • Women could divorce unsatisfactory husbands.
  • Elite women might control substantial wealth.
  • Women inherited property alongside their brothers and so could be financially independent.
  • Women were powerful within their husband’s households and made a significant contribution.
  • If their menfolk were away, the women could represent the family interests.
  • Women were socially active. They went with their husbands on social events, such as dinner parties.
  • Women often set up tombstones to their late husbands as the most bereaved and possibly as main heirs.

There was a level of everyday independence for women, which was a very long way from equality, but it would have allowed women to have a measure of their own social lives. Would that limited level of freedom have allowed women to follow their hearts rather than their husbands?

At this point, we do move towards guesswork.

Rome had a system of arranged marriages in which older men married younger women. Amor, love, was an important emotion, valued by the poets and in literature. Love was not necessarily related to marriage. So how was love pursued? The suggestion must be that romance was extra-marital.

In Catullus, Propertius and Ovid, women, or girls as they call them, met men in the streets and public spaces of Rome. The poetry engages not with a literary world in which lovers meet, but the material world of Rome. It seems possible, even probable, that the social situation envisaged was realistic. This is in the context in which the lex Iulia de adulteriis was passed.

Was adultery socially acceptable?

We have to remember that having sex outside marriage was not a sin. It was a social crime. The ideals of behaviour and the moral society advanced by Augustus would disapprove. But one wonders whether in the wealthy and fashionable circles of Rome, in the households of the great, so long as there was no social embarrassment, did anyone really care? Even Augustus was thought of as a serial adulterer.

There were limits which appear to have caused concern. Adultery with a slave was a more serious issue, for both parties. The social crime became a crime against status. Such an example might lead us to believe that if the lovers were of the same status, the crime was lessened.

Women and Sexuality

It is very difficult to be certain, but the evidence seems to point to

  • societal concerns about female sexuality.
  • consistent attempts to regulate female sexual behaviour.
  • a consistent language of modesty as an ideal of female sexual behaviour
  • differing codes of behaviour in Roman society.
  • behaviours that were, at least in the earlier part of our period, relatively relaxed and which failed to conform to strict moral norms.


Households, Families, Men and Women                 An Ideal Wife               Pliny in Love             Moral Reforms             Poetry and the Augustan Age             Conjugal Affections


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