Roman Culture/Homosexuality

Homosexuality in ancient Rome was a large part of society and of sexuality in general. Sex in the ancient world was considered a casual day-to-day practice with no emotional attachment, which is very different from the views of sex in modern day society. Despite its commonality, sex was something that was kept under wraps in ancient Rome and seldom spoken of. The ancient Romans also had a very different understanding of homosexuality than we do in modern society. There was no real concept of homosexuality or of heterosexuality.

Male with male relations were the most common and prevalent type of homosexuality in ancient Rome. Older men taking a young male lover was very common. For example the emperor Hadrian took a young lover named Antinous despite being married. Most scholars assume they were lovers because when Antinous died tragically Hadrian had a large of amount of deified statues made of him and placed all over the Empire. The emperor Nero also had a male lover who he eventually married. The dynamic between two male lovers was simple. First of all, one was usually of upper class and the other was either a slave or of lower class. The older and richer man was never the receiving party with regards to penetration. This was an unspoken rule among these couples and was in place because if a man was on the receiving end of a sexual relationship he was no longer considered masculine by society’s standards. If a man was the dominant one in a male on male sexual relationship it was just another way for him to assert his place of power in society. A place that was common for random male on male intercourse was the Roman bathhouse. It has been discovered that as a sign that a man was looking for sexual activity a man would scratch his head with one finger to signal that he was sexually available.

The homosexuality of women was viewed in a completely different light then that of men in ancient Rome. First of all, the views of sexuality in ancient Rome were very focused among one figure in the relationship being masculine and deriving pleasure from the activity. This was because it was considered taboo and unheard of for women to have an active role in sexual activity in ancient Rome. As a result of this women who engaged in homosexual activity were usually portrayed as participating in masculine activities such as bodybuilding and drinking and eating excessive amounts. Overall the view of homosexual women was a negative one in the ancient world. It has even been recorded that some husbands would murder their wives for homosexual affairs.

Historians have based a majority of what they know about Roman sexual practices on art and sculpture from the ancient world. One extremely popular example of this type of art is the Warren cup. Edward Perry Warren, for whom it is now named, first owned this cup and it currently resides in the British Museum. There are two main depictions on the Warren cup, both of male on male sexual activity. One side shows a young adult male and boy couple engaging in sexual acts. And the other side portrays a bearded man and a young adult male engaging in similar sexual acts. Historians interpret this cup to show the same lovers in two different times during their affair. This cup has been a valuable resource to historians and is the most valuable of its kind, despite that fact that its validity has been questioned.