By Eoin Molloy
(A wall-painting from a brothel in Pompeii)
The ancient Greeks and Romans left some incredible legacies: organised democracy, advanced mathematics and a how-to manual on empire maintenance.
In modern times, it’s easy to see where these ancient innovations fit into our everyday life. Basic principles of Greek and Roman architecture are still widely in use. Domes are everywhere and the Coliseum is pretty much the blueprint for the modern stadium. Our democratic processes also resemble their Greek and Roman fore-runners.
That being said, however, the ancients had a pretty funky style when it came to sex that clearly hasn’t translated as fluidly into modern society.
After Constantine the Great became the first Roman emperor to formally convert to Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church became the ultimate moral authority in Europe. They were extremely successful in stamping out the perceived decadence that they believed was weakening the empire. Church-enforced mores still dominate our thinking on sex. For this reason, Roman sexuality has become synonymous with over-indulgence and abuse.
Roman art and literature indicates that when it came to sex, Roman citizens enjoyed unlimited freedom. Evidence of the ancient Roman’s undeniable kinkiness can be gleaned from artwork: the best of which was found smothered (and miraculously well-preserved) under layers of volcanic ash at Pompeii.
The numerous frescoes and murals found at Pompeii show that our cultural ancestors did not have our same squeamishness when it came to human dangly bits. Nowadays, a minor must be accompanied by an adult to visit the museums where these depictions are housed. This is because they all portray sexual acts, ranging from a male-male-female threesome to some vintage cowgirl.
There are two famous myths of bestiality that have filtered down through the ages from ancient Greece and Rome. That is not to say that the average Greek or Roman citizen engaged in bestiality, however, the fact that these myths were popular shows the liberal sexual attitudes of the ancients.
The story of Leda and the Swan comes from Greek mythology. As the tale goes, the god of thunder and all-round badass, Zeus, assumes the form of a swan and seduces Leda, the wife of the king of Sparta. She then bears Helen and Polydeuces, children of Zeus. It seems that Jesus wasn’t the only immaculately-conceived child ever. I want to know where Helen and Polydeuces religion is at?
Similar tales exist in Roman myth. Pan (who is half-goat half-man, by the by) was a god of nature. He was the god of shepherds and flocks, but he was equally famous for his irrefutable sexual prowess. So much so that he is often depicted with an erect phallus. In his spare time, he liked to get down and dirty with goats. No, seriously, look.
Pederasty is the name given to the special kind of male-on-male paedophilic relationship that was pretty commonplace in ancient Greece and Rome around about 600 BC. Pederasty was essentially a socially-acknowledged erotic relationship between an adult male (the erastes) and a younger male (the eromenos). The relationship was an erotic initiation into adult life for pubescent males.
The main difference between pederasty and paedophilia is that it the former is a male-only affair. It also involved an older mentor who would openly court an adolescent boy. It was most frequently practiced in Crete as a form of social institution. It began with a ritual abduction of one lucky youth by an older man. The youth was showered in gifts and taught manly skills like hunting, all the while gratifying his older companion sexually.
From a purely modern perspective, this is completely indefensible, but we must remember that we have no basis for comparison, save perhaps the recent abuse scandals within the Catholic Church. Even still, that would not be a fair comparison because those priests knew they were breaking the law. In ancient Crete, it would be abnormal for a middle-aged man not to have an erotic younger companion. Nowadays, one would rightly go to jail for this sort of carry-on. For the ancients, however, pederasty was a routine part of life.
(A fresco depicting pederasty)
The Romans in particular adopted quite a laissez-faire attitude to adultery. Sex was viewed as recreational, so it was not considered adultery for a married citizen to engage in sexual activity with his/her slaves. However, having sex with a free person constituted adultery and was viewed as a crime. It was less common for women to seek out sexual relationships outside of the marriage because of the risk of pregnancy and disgrace.
One issue they definitely handled a lot more smoothly than us was homosexuality. In ancient Greece and Rome, people were not asked to self-identify as either gay or straight. They didn’t even have specific words for people who only fancied others of the same sex. In essence, there were no homosexuals, only homosexual acts. Greek and Roman men and women were free to have sexual relations with members of their own sex without judgement.
The Sacred Band of Thebes was a Greek army unit with a difference. It consisted of 150 highly-trained, hand-picked pairs of male lovers. They were no slouches, either. They are documented as playing an instrumental role in defeating the Spartans at the battle of Leuctra in 371 AD. This shows that homosexuals were certainly not discriminated against in ancient Greece and Rome, which bears much contrast to the twentieth century.
While the Roman Empire had a marked conservative streak, homosexuality was still pretty commonplace amongst men, married and unmarried alike. Julius Caesar was said to have struck up with a homosexual relationship with the King of Bithnya, Nicomedes IV. Caesar’s detractors never let him live it down, referring to him as the Queen of Bithnya.
Roman society was patriarchal. Masculinity was based on the ability to govern oneself and others of lower social status. This was not only true in war and politics, but also in the bedroom. For Romans, the only shame in committing a homosexual act lay in being the receiver, and for that reason the man of lower social status would always assume the dominated position.
In Rome, at least, it was seen as prudent to not indulge one’s desires fully. Men and women alike were supposed to be virtuous. Public officials in particular had to be discreet. Modesty was a regulating factor in behaviour. Censors (public officials who determined the status of others) had the power to remove citizens from the senatorial order for sexual misconduct, thus birthing the political sex scandals.
In an era of liberal sexual attitudes, the challenge was to manage one’s desires. Sex was therefore governed by the limits of personal restraint, and not by social customs. It was up to the individual not to indulge every depraved whim that entered their head.
Western society has undoubtedly borrowed heavily from the legacy of the ancient Greeks and Romans. They are famous for giving us mathematics, philosophy and democracy. They also seem to have given us the blow-job, the threesome and a whole load of other things we don’t give them credit for.
They were also far more liberal and open-minded when it came to accommodating people of different sexual persuasions. While things are certainly getting better for homosexuals in the twenty-first century, it is a sad fact that a gay man had more rights two thousand years ago in Rome than he would in modern-day Uganda.
If his detractors are to be believed, Julius Caesar had homosexual inclinations. Nowadays, it would be near impossible for a man with known homosexual tendencies to become, say, the President of the United States. For some reason or another, this tolerance was not brought forward into the twenty-first century in the same way that stoic philosophy or representative democracy were, and that is a shame.