CLAS 1000 Chapter 8, 12 &13: CLAS 1000 Ancient Rome Chapter 8, 12 &13: 8: Roman Sexuality and Gender; 12: Entertainment in the Roman World; 13: The Roman Army

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March 10th-16th, 2015
Textbook Readings – Chapters 8, 12, & 13:
Chapter #8: Roman Sexuality and Gender – page #164-188:
The Romans lived in a society where men were free to pursue sexual contacts outside of
marriage (as long as they kept away form citizen women), where it was always possible to go
out and purchase a sexual partner in the form of a male or female slave from the slave
market, where adultery generally raised more concerns the pederasty, where a man whose
masculinity had been impugned could cite as proof of his manhood the fact that he had
engaged in sexual relations with his accuser’s sons, where images of penises were placed on
walls and carved into paving stones, and where males and females of all ages could look on
explicit images of sexual intercourse
Sexual pleasure had a positive social value in Roman antiquity
The ancients had a g-ddess of sexual pleasure (Venus or Aphrodite), and erotica was
displayed openly as an indication of high status and luxury
Sex was a blessing from the g-ds, in whatever form it took
Literary Sources:
The study of Roman sexuality and sexual attitudes is made difficult by the limitations of the
ancient evidence
We find pertinent information about Roman sexual matters in all sorts of ancient literature:
legal texts, history, poetry, and political discourse
Because the majority of our authors are elite males and information about sexuality is rarely
central to their primary concerns of politics, war, and the battlefield, they present only a
certain (very limited) viewpoint
While some literary sources may give us more information, each literary genre has its own
specific caveats
Love poets look more favorably on sexual practices than do the moralists
The ancient literary evidence that talks about sex is often discursive or idealizing, that is, it
encapsulates a set of sexual standards that the authors, and probably society in general,
wished to see upheld in Roman antiquity
The reality was much more complex, and there was a multiplicity of ancient practices and
notions regarding what was “right” and “wrong” in terms of sex
There are also many artistic representations of sex, including wall paintings, vases, lamps,
and mosaics that depict sexual scenes
Art embellishes, omits, or highlights aspects of the visual for its own purposes
Prudery and Expurgation:
Until as late as 1970, scholars of antiquity had a habit of whitewashing Greece and Rome,
choosing to ignore or suppress those aspects of the ancient civilizations that they found
disturbing, immoral, or unpleasant
Concern with “pornography” became especially pronounced in 19th century Britain with the
onset of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle classes, who had to be protected
from depraved material that might inflame the sexual passions
The male establishment felt that exposing women to the sexual culture of the ancient world
might provoke an imbalance in the relationships between men and women and hence a
breakdown in the social order
“Indecent” objects were separated from the objects on public display and hidden away in a
cabinet or small room
Sexually explicit material was not confined to the visual arts but was in the literary sources as
well and occasionally erotic or disturbing parts were left out of translations
These strategies successfully hid the meaning of the less common obscenities from even
professional scholars while allowing the curious reader to locate confidently the passages in
which they occurred
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March 10th-16th, 2015
Since 1970, however, the field of classical studies has witnessed a scholarly explosion of
interests in erotic art and artistic objects, sexual literature and language previously thought
too “indelicate” to be discussed or published, as well as the development with sophisticated
studies of related topics
Scholarly excitement over erotic ideologies in antiquity began
Sex may be characterized as an individual’s biological status as male or female, or a a sexual
Sexuality is the sexual knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, values and behaviour of individuals
Its dimensions include the anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry of the sexual response
system; identity, orientation, roles, and personality; and thoughts, feelings, and relationships
The expression of sexuality is influenced by ethical, spiritual, cultural, and moral concerns
For modern thinkers, sexuality is thought to provide a key to unlocking the mysteries of the
self: sexual activity is considered in a psychological and self-reflexive way
Sexual orientation a characteristic determined by the preferred gender of one’s sexual
Essentialism in the context of ancient sexuality, the belief that any given human is innately
heterosexual or homosexual, in orientation and that this “essential” behaviour is uninfluenced
by social values or norms
Constructivism the theory that person’s sexual identity is the result of social influences,
including a society’s norms and values
Determinism holds that a person has no power to control his or her sexuality and that sexual
orientation cannot be changes
Voluntarism holds that one can choose one’s sexual orientation or choose to change it
without great difficulty
Biological constants concern physiological factors; other assertions deal with questions of
sexual identity and cause
Gender Identity vs. Sexual Orientation:
Roman culture did not assign an identity to individuals based on their sexual orientation,
something underlined by linguistic differences
In fact, Latin had no words for the terms heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual
A man’s desire for a woman, girl, or beautiful boy was considered quite normal, and both
sexes exerted a powerful erotic appeal
The important sexual categories at that time were “penetrated” and “penetrator
The penetrator, or “active” partner, was perceived as manly and dominant; the penetrated, or
“passive” partner, was emasculated and placed on par with women and slaves
Sexual roles and sexual activity were ideally supposed to correspond to a person’s gender
and social status
Gender identity identification of oneself as male or female through observation of the
socially accepted behaviours associated with either gender
The Romans were such a phallocentric society that many of their sexual terms presuppose
In fact, the Romans used different verbs according to whether or not the subject was inserting
of receiving the penis and which orifice was penetrated
The Phallus:
The terminology used to describe sexual intercourse underlies the fact that ancient Rome
was a male-dominated society; that is, men had most of the direct or formal power and
influence, and Rome supported institutions of male rule and privilege
Women could not vote, hold public office, or have highly visible careers
The male organ was spoken of more freely than the female in Roman antiquity, and there
existed more jokes and metaphors concerning it
The phallus excited fear, admiration, and pride and was a symbol of power
Size was a preoccupation
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The patriarchal nature of Roman society may also be detected on statuses
While penises are carved in loving detail, female genitilia are often given no definition at all,
remaining a smooth, blank, wedge-shaped plane
Apotropaic having a protective quality, particularly against unseen but malignant forces
such as envy, the Evil Eye, and demons
The phallus, along with other apotropaic objects was thought to attract this harmful (Evil Eye)
gaze and deflect it from its intended victim
Female Sexuality:
Women were not denied sexuality
Ancient authors provide several different impressions of female sexuality, many of them
Sexually active women are portrayed as nymphomaniacs, unfaithful, frigid, or sexually
transgressive in some way
Citizen men, even if they were married, could have sex with whomever they liked, whenever
they liked, but were supposed to keep away from married of marriageable citizen women and
citizen boys
Sex with foreigners, slaves, and prostitutes of either sex, however, was normal and
uncensored, unless indulged in excessively
Citizen women and girls, on the other hand, were not supposed to have sex outside of the
confines of marriage, and when married, were restricted to sex with their husbands only
This is not to say that illicit female sexual activity never occurred, it was just not condoned by
social convention
Female orgasm was recognized and encouraged, and many medical writers thought that it
was necessary for a woman to conceive
Authors offer no instructions on how to bring a woman to orgasm; it was simply supposed to
happy during intercourse
It was also thought that conception means that the woman had had an orgasm, which in turn
meant that she had enjoyed the sexual act
Unfortunately, this line of thinking was applied even in instances of rape
The ideal female body was soft, plump, smooth, and completely hairless women were
encouraged to depilate even their public hair
Breasts were not supposed to be large but small and well shaped large breasts were
possibly considered ungainly and barbaric
Erotic poets considered large hips very desirable, an ideal borne out by depictions of women
in wall paintings
The modern erotic ideal of full breasts, small waists, and rounded hips, had therefore, not
been a cultural constant
Roman men were held up to a physical ideal that began in Classical Greece and is still with
Western culture today: slender and long-legged, with well-defined chests and pectoral
muscles and a handsome face
Sexual Scenes:
Private Houses:
Sexual positions for a heteroerotic couple: woman on her back, on top, on all fours, or
kneeling at the edge of the bed, with her legs over her lover’s shoulders many of these
positions are shown in Roman art
Sexual scenes of varying explicitness are often found painted on the alls of private houses in
a technique called fresco
o Fresco a painting technique in which pigment is applied to wet plaster
Many erotic paintings are found in bedrooms perhaps reflecting the real-life activity of the
room, but many are also found in dining rooms and hallways
Such paintings may have functions as didactic paradigms, aphrodisiacs, or sexual aids
Such paintings were likely meant to be “high art”, signifying elite status and refined taste
They are, in fact, depictions of lovely and well-fed young people enjoying the blessings of
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