- Craig Williams
The textual and visual material surviving from ancient Greece and Rome is informed by systems for categorizing and evaluating sexual desires and acts in which, rather than the question of whether partners are of the same or opposite sex, various gendered criteria are of fundamental importance. Masculinity is associated with the penetrative role, regardless of the sex of the partner; the penetrated role is coded as feminine; performing oral sex, whether with female or male partners, is seen as disreputable. The assumption that men, as a group, will naturally and normally experience desire for beautiful and preferentially young people of both sexes goes unquestioned. While a handful of philosophical texts urge that sexual acts be limited to the procreative, no surviving text condemns desire of male for male as such.
Specifically characteristic of Greek culture are pederastic relationships joining bearded men and younger, beardless males; allusions to other kinds of male-male relationship represent them as scandalous or exotic departures from a norm. A Roman code of sexual behaviour protecting the integrity of freeborn citizens means that pederastic relationships on the Greek model can be described as disgraceful, but this is not because they involved sexual desire or acts between males. Even in the quintessentially masculine sphere of the military, it was taken for granted that soldiers might experience and act on sexual desire for males as well as females, and Roman writers of the classical period assume that these understandings of masculine desire were shared by their venerated ancestors.
- Gender Studies
Updated in this version
Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship.
Of the many possible ways of categorizing and evaluating sexual desires and acts, to assign decisive significance to the question of whether the subject and object of desire, or the partners in a sexual act, are of the same or different sexes is characteristic of modern Western culture; today, references to an individual’s “sexuality” are typically shorthand for whether they are attracted to men, women, or both. The textual and visual material surviving from ancient Greece and Rome shows a significantly different linguistic and conceptual system. The fact that there are no Greek and Latin words signifying “homosexual(ity),” “heterosexual(ity),” or “bisexual(ity)” is neither coincidental nor trivial.
Gendered distinctions are fundamental. Masculinity is associated with concepts of domination, control, and restraint of the self and others, hardness and roughness, bravery, and the penetrating role in sexual acts, whether with female or male partners; femininity, frequently coded as “softness” (Gk. mal(th)akia, Lat. mollitia), is associated with concepts of submissiveness, lack of control or restraint over the self or others, cowardice, luxury, sensual self-indulgence, and the penetrated role in sexual acts, whether with female or male partners. While many texts imagine feminine men as seeking to be penetrated by men, others make use of the stereotype of the effeminate womanizer (e.g. Sen. Controv. 2.1.6, a young man “drenched in foreign perfumes, walking more delicately than a woman in order to attract women”), and many references to effeminacy in men have nothing to do with sexual acts or desires.
The distinction between desires and acts is of equally fundamental importance. Men, as a group, are assumed to naturally and normally experience sexual desire for human beings of both sexes and, in view of a widespread privileging of youthful beauty, the phrases “girls and boys” or “women and boys” are common linguistic expressions of the normative objects of male desire. In this context, the term “boys” (Gk. paides, Lat. pueri) typically refers to males in a transitional life phase understood as beginning with the onset of sexual maturation in the early teens (the same life phase at which females were generally considered first to be marriageable) and ending with the growth of the full beard and body hair in the late teens or early twenties. There are signs of an idealization of the age of 16 as the peak of desirability (Anth. Pal. 12.4, 12.22; Ov. Met. 3.351–352, 5.50; Petron. Sat. 97.2): no longer children but not yet fully adult, 16-year-old males are portrayed as simultaneously desirable to women and men, girls and other boys, and actively desiring others.
Men’s desire for boys is not thought to be incompatible with their desire for women. On the linguistic level, to describe a man as a lover of boys is not to signify that he has no sexual interest in women (cf. Ar. Ach. 263–279, where the deity Phales is invoked as paiderastēs and moichos—respectively, lover of boys and seducer of protected women such as other men’s wives). Some texts make reference to men who observably prefer one sex over the other, but this is typically presented as a matter of taste (e.g. Anth. Pal. 5.65), and it is always taken for granted that even a man who observably prefers one sex may occasionally be attracted to the other. A handful of texts (Suet. Claud. 33, Mart. 11.87, Firm. Mat. 7.15.2) refer to men who show an exclusive preference for one sex or the other but, by emphasizing these men’s complete rejection of one sex, the texts underscore how unusual such tastes were. Even the sometimes charged debates on love in which the respective pleasures and drawbacks of loving women and boys are compared have the nature of leisurely disputes or “erotic entertainment” amongst men (Ach. Tat. 2.33; other examples include Plut. Amat. and [Lucian] Am.; briefly at Plaut. Truc. 149–157), and the proponent of the love of women in one of these debates tellingly remarks in passing that “if we consider the truth of the matter,” sexual desire for boys and for women is ultimately the same thing (Plut. Amat. 751E–F).
A range of Greek and Latin texts suggest that this view of masculine desire was assumed to characterize other cultures as well. Men were thought to express desire for women and boys openly among, for example, the Persians and Medians (Hdt. 1.135, Xen. Cyr. 1.4.27–28), Celts (Arist. Pol. 2.6.1269b26–29), and Thracians (Ov. Met. 10.83–85). As for the Etruscans, Theopompus (quoted at Ath. 12.517d–518a) describes a culture in which sexual desire and acts in both male-female or male-male configurations were celebrated in ways that from Greek and Roman perspectives were surprisingly open. Whether or not Theopompus is misinterpreting, exoticizing, or exaggerating, surviving frescoes in two tombs at Tarquinia (those of the Chariots and the Bulls) include scenes of both male-male and male-female copulation. However we interpret the presence of such scenes in tomb paintings, the parallelism between male-male and male-female couplings is significant.
Nor was this understanding of masculine desire restricted to human behaviours. Male gods, whose erotic pursuit of human beings was a recurring theme of mythic narratives, were imagined to be interested in both women and boys. Zeus’s erotic embrace and abduction of Ganymede in the form of an eagle is a motif found in works of literature and art across time, place, and medium, often paralleled to the same god’s embrace of Leda in the form of a swan. Comparable stories were told of Apollo (lover of Hyacinthus and Cyparissus), Poseidon (lover of Pelops), and other gods as well.
The same assumptions were made about animals. A handful of texts make the easily disproven claim that animals do not engage in same-sex copulation, but in its immediate contexts the claim functions as a prop in a philosophical argument in favour of restricting sexual acts to the necessary minimum (Pl. Leg. 836c–e), as an attempt to score points in a heated debate on animal rationality (Plut. Gryll. 990D–E), or as the melodramatic expostulations of a woman despairing over her desire for another woman (Ov. Met. 9.728–734). Otherwise, it seems to have been taken for granted that male and female animals sometimes do copulate with others of the same sex (Arist. Hist. an. 6.8.564a24, 9.7–8, 9.49.631b5–18; Plin. HN 10.100, 10.166; Ael. NA 3.16, 15.11, VH 1.15; Anth. Pal. 12.238; Isid. Etym. 12.7.63). About thirty surviving anecdotes, some of them well known in antiquity (Arist. Hist. an. 8.631a9–11, Plut. De soll. an. 972F, Plin. HN 9.24, Gell. NA 6.8, Ael. NA 6.15), tell of male animals of a range of species falling in love with women and boys. There is no implication that the homoerotic desire displayed by some of these animals is unusual; what draws attention is the cross-species nature of desire.1
A few philosophical texts propose an ideal standard of human behaviour limiting sexual acts to a necessary minimum of the procreative, thus rejecting same-sex acts as “unnatural” (e.g. Pl. Leg. 636a–b, 836e–841e, Muson. pp. 84–89 Lutz [Stob. Flor. 3.6.23]). This proscription seems to derive from a philosophical commitment to restraining the passions in general and sexual desire in particular, and it is decidedly at odds with prevailing belief systems and culturally encouraged practices, just as are two other views expressed by Musonius Rufus in the same passage: his condemnation of all non-procreative sexual acts, even within marriage, and his suggestion that, if men expect their wives to refrain from sex with other partners, men must hold themselves to the same standard. Just as importantly, these are precepts regarding behaviour: none of these texts rejects, as “unnatural” or otherwise, male desire for male as such. Condemnations of male desire for male as such, or of sexual acts between males per se, regardless of questions of penetrative role, are only found in post-Classical texts (e.g., Inst. Just. 4.18.4, a sixth-century ce update to the lex Julia de adulteriis coercendis) or in texts from other cultural spheres (e.g. Jewish texts such as Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, or Oracula Sibyllina 3.596–600, for which, see sibylline oracles). When, how, and why this stance came to be widely characteristic of Western culture and the extent to which Christianity played a role in the process (which was by no means linear or ubiquitous) are questions which continue to be debated.
In the visual arts, depictions of intimacy and copulation in both male-male and male-female configurations are generally treated in parallel fashion and sometimes juxtaposed in the same work of art, in media ranging from the costly and rare to the inexpensive and mass-produced, from the publicly displayed to the privately commissioned. Such scenes are found in frescoes on the walls of private homes, semi-public bath complexes, and Etruscan tombs, and in the decorative programmes of the widely marketed Attic pottery of the 6th and 5th centuries bce, the mass-produced Arretine ceramic ware in Italy from the 1st centuries bce and ce, moulded medallions decorating pots produced in the Rhone Valley in the first two centuries ce, as well as silver drinking vessels, perfume bottles, gemstones, and jewellery.
Textual references to sexual acts (Gk. ta aphrodisia, Lat. res veneriae) typically assume phallic penetration, and the distinction between the penetrating and penetrated roles is of widespread significance. Both in ancient texts and in modern scholarship, this distinction is linguistically coded as that between the “active” and “passive” role, between “doing” and “undergoing” (Gk. prattō vs paschō, Lat. facio vs patior), and it is consistently gendered: the penetrating role is implicitly masculine, the penetrated role implicitly feminine. The penetrating role is coded as masculine regardless of the sex of the penetrated partner; indeed, a man’s penetration of male partners can function as a sign or proof of his masculinity. Aristotle’s claim that among warlike peoples men have strong sexual appetites for both females and males (Ar. Pol. 2.6.1269b26–29) speaks volumes, as does Tacitus’ report of how a man accused of effeminacy (mollitia corporis) retorted in self-defence that he had penetrated his accuser’s sons (Tac. Ann. 11.2; a comparable strategy contributes to the complexities of Catull. 16).
Men who take pleasure in being penetrated are regularly the objects of teasing, insult, or abuse. Terms for such men include Gk. katapugōn and euruprōktos and Lat. pathicus, all of whose etymologies point to the penetrated role in anal intercourse. An especially common insult is kinaidos/cinaedus. Of unknown etymology (though one ancient explanation was that it derived from Gk. kinein ta aidoia, “stimulating the private parts”), the noun’s primary referent is an Asian dancer given to suggestive movements of the hips and buttocks. To describe a man as a kinaidos/cinaedus is to portray him as effeminate and sensual, with the strong implication that he takes pleasure in being penetrated, although that is not the only sexual role he might be imagined to enjoy.
The use of the English phrase “passive homosexual” as a gloss for any of these terms is inaccurate, both because of the false implication that such men are not “actively” experiencing or doing anything and because such men can be represented as sometimes engaging in sexual practices with women too (Lucil. 1058 Marx; Catull. 57; [Verg.] Catal. 13; Mart. 2.47, 2.51, 2.60, 6.39; Suet. Aug. 68–69; Cael. Aurel. Morb. chron. 4.9.131–137). One need only consider the phrase “passive heterosexual” as a label for a woman who takes pleasure in being penetrated by a man in order to perceive the problems with the terminology.
A few ancient texts propose explanations of why some men experience pleasure in being penetrated (and sometimes also why some women experience pleasure in penetrating others): it may be a matter of physiological predisposition and of habit becoming “second nature” ([Arist.] Pr. 4.26, Cael. Aurel. Morb. chron. 4.9.131–137, paraphrasing Soranos), a result of astrological influences (Firm. Mat. 6.31), or the outcome of a drunken error by Prometheus when he created the first human beings from clay (Phaed. 4.16). These are not attempts to explain “homosexuality”; none of these texts attempts to explain the pleasure experienced by such men’s male partners, something which evidently needed no explanation. More fundamentally, all the evidence suggests that men who enjoyed being penetrated were assigned to a different category of gendered identity from that of their male partners. And a few texts allude to masculine women who penetrate apparently willing men or boys (Sen. Ep. 95.21, Mart. 7.67), thereby reminding us that male pleasure in being penetrated is not necessarily homoerotic.
The evidence also suggests that male-male and female-female acts and desires were categorized distinctly from each other, rather than as two subsets of “homosexuality.” Whereas sexual acts between men are almost always represented in such a way as to imply phallic penetration, surviving representations of sexual acts between women are more complex. On the one hand, the etymology of Gk. tribas, borrowed into Lat., draws attention to non-penetrative acts (cf. Gk. tribō, “to rub”); on the other hand, most surviving allusions to tribades assume that they penetrate their male or female partners, and this has aroused prurient interest, both in ancient texts (e.g. Sen. Controv. 1.2.23, Luc. Dial. meret. 5) and in scholarship, in the question of how exactly the act was done. In his text on the interpretation of dreams, Artemidorus categorizes the various sexual acts that occur in dreams as either “natural” or “unnatural,” subdividing “natural” acts into “conventional” and “unconventional” (Artem. 1.78–81). He includes penetrative acts between males among the “natural” acts, but penetrative acts between females (along with copulation between gods and humans or humans and animals) among the “unnatural” acts. The distinction seems to reflect views common in Artemidorus’ readership.
A characteristic feature of ancient Greek culture that has drawn attention over the centuries—whether to censor or condemn it, to celebrate it, or to describe and interpret it—is paiderastia, the erotic constellation of an older, typically bearded male “lover” (erastēs) and a younger, typically beardless male “beloved” (erōmenos, also called paidika, “boyfriend”).
Signs of the full integration of pederasty into Greek cultural traditions from the Archaic period (and perhaps earlier) through late antiquity include the following: the celebration of youthful male beauty embodied by the nude kouroi of the Archaic period (see sculpture, greek) or the “pin-up boys” of Attic vase painting (see pottery, greek), who display certain features—broad shoulders and chest, smooth and muscular buttocks and thighs, discreetly small penis—described as desirable in a scene from Aristophanic comedy (Nub. 1009–1023); the common practice of writing graffiti in praise of beautiful young men and boasting of copulation with them, including some of the earliest surviving examples of alphabetic writing (IG 12.3.536–601, from Thera);2 the celebration of young men’s beauty and the pleasures and pains of affairs with them in the poetry of Mimnermus, Anacreon, Ibycus, Pindar, Theognis, and others; Athenian reverence for the pederastic couple Harmodius and Aristogiton, honoured in song, literature, and the visual arts as the “tyrannicides” of 514 bce;3 the assumption that soldiers might have erōmenoi or fall in love with young men while on campaign (e.g. Xen. An. 7.4.7–8, Hell. 4.8.39; for the Sacred Band of Thebes, a battalion of soldiers consisting of pairs of erastai and their erōmenoi set up c. 378 bce, see Xen. Symp. 8.34, Plut. Pel. 18–19, along with the probable allusions at Pl. Symp. 178D–9B, Xen. Symp. 4.15–16, Anth. Pal. 13.22).
In its most prestigious form, Greek pederasty was a matter for freeborn citizens only, a feature which accounts for many of its hallmarks, such as its association with the education of future citizens (e.g. Xen. Lac. 2.12) and stereotyped courtship and gift-giving practices linked with athletics in general and the gymnasium in particular, the locus par excellence of the young citizen’s socialization.4 A set of social and artistic protocols were aimed at protecting the masculine reputation of erōmenoi as future citizens. These included the conventional wisdom that respectable boys will not actively pursue lovers (the ideal is that the man is the one who actively desires and pursues, while the boy allows himself to be courted; linguistically, boys are typically the objects, almost never the subjects of verbs like eramai [‘I desire’] in a pederastic configuration) or take pleasure in being penetrated (a polite assumption which could be exploded to hilarious or shocking effect, e.g. Ar. Plut. 153–159, Petron. Sat. 87), and an iconographic convention in Attic vase painting which prohibited the open portrayal of bearded men anally penetrating beardless youths. (Such couples are typically depicted in the so-called intercrural position, in which the two partners stand facing each other and the older thrusts his penis between the thighs of the younger; anal intercourse appears in scenes of beardless youths copulating with each other, of satyrs amongst themselves, and of men copulating with women.)
In addition to mythological narratives of male gods falling in love with beautiful boys, many told of human or semidivine heroes as lovers of boys as well. Prominent examples include Laius and Chrysippus (the central theme of Euripides’ fragmentarily surviving Chrysippus) and Hercules and Hylas (cf. Verg. G. 3.6). Among the male couples of myth, Achilles and Patroclus are a uniquely complex case. Texts from the classical period onwards speak of them as a pederastic couple (Pl. Symp. 180a–b, referring to disagreements over which of the two was older; Aeschin. In Tim. 133, 141–150; in a surviving fragment of Aeschylus’ Myrmidons, Achilles laments the “sweet intercourse of thighs” he had shared with Patroclus); and an obscene epigram by Martial (11.43) tells of the sexual pleasures they shared. But the earliest surviving telling of their story in the Iliad, while portraying Achilles’ love for Patroclus as the most intense and most valuable of his human relationships, neither explicitly narrates nor categorically excludes an erotic bond. Suggestive parallels to this pattern of male bonding, not easily mapped onto an age-differentiated pederastic model and arguably located on a continuum between the homosocial and the homoerotic, have been described in ancient Near Eastern and biblical narratives of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Jonathan and David.
Allusions to regional variations in pederasty (Pl. Symp. 182A-C, Xen. Symp. 8.32–36, Xen. Lac. 2.12, Plut. Amat. 760E-761C, Plut. Lyc. 17–18, Cic. Rep. 4.4) have to do with terminology for the partners, local cultic practices, or the acceptable degree of openness regarding sexual acts; nowhere do we find the suggestion that in certain regions of the Greek-speaking world men’s desire for beautiful young men was in itself unacceptable. A detailed description of a traditional set of pederastic practices on Crete by Ephorus (FGrH 149; see also Pl. Leg. 636ab, 836b, Timaeus FGrhH 144, Arist. Pol. 127a23–26) has given rise to a cluster of related arguments: that either specifically in Crete or more generally across the Greek world, pederasty can justifiably be called a rite of male initiation; that pederasty in the historical period was derived from such a rite which had existed prehistorically; or that comparisons with initiatory practices in cultures worldwide can sharpen our understanding of Greek pederasty by highlighting some of its characteristic features, such as the differentiation in the partners’ ages, the freeborn status of both, and various symbolic markers of the younger partner’s transition from adolescence to adulthood. The issue remains debated.5
Also a matter of debate is the claim that pederasty was specifically characteristic of the leisured upper classes. In its most plausible form, the claim concerns the social practices stereotypically associated with the courtship of freeborn youth—the assumption being that only men of a certain socio-economic standing had the financial resources and free time needed for potentially lengthy and expensive affairs—but not men’s desire for boys or male-male sexual practices as such. Comedies staged at dramatic festivals, which aimed to appeal to wide audiences, and graffiti carved on boulders, walls, and other surfaces around the Greek-speaking world, consistently assume the normality across class difference of men’s erotic desire for beardless youths (e.g. Ar. Eq. 417–428, 730–740, Av. 127–142, Plut. 149–159).
An important implication of the pederastic model is worth noting. Every such relationship theoretically came with a built-in time limit: once the younger partner grows a full beard, he is no longer desirable, the erotic bond dissolves, and the younger partner transitions from being the object to being the subject of desire, from sometimes playing the penetrated to always playing the penetrating role. A passage from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (8.4.1157a1–16) suggests that the social realities familiar to the philosopher and his readership included instances of male friendship (philia) which had begun as pederastic relationships (erōs) and which had lasted after the younger partner matured and the erotic quality of the relationship was presumed to have faded.
But we may reasonably doubt that practice inevitably followed theory. In Plato’s Symposium, Pausanias alludes to pederastic lovers who do not stop loving their boyfriends even after they have matured (Pl. Symp. 184A), and Aristophanes assumes that there are some pederastic couples whose relationship is lifelong (Pl. Symp. 192C). In the same text, Aristophanes politely implies that Pausanias himself and his erōmenos, the poet Agathon, are one such couple (193C), and Pausanias and Agathon show up elsewhere in the textual tradition as a couple over the span of at least fifteen years, in other words well past Agathon’s adolescence (Pl. Prt. 315D–E, Ael. VH 2.21). Yet Aristophanic comedy ridicules the adult Agathon as an effeminate man who keeps his beard from growing and enjoys being anally penetrated (Ar. Thesm. 1–279). One implication is that long-term couples like Pausanias and Agathon who remained differentiated in age as long as they lived were liable to being represented with the language of penetrative models in ways that were meant to insult the younger partner or question his masculinity.
Pederastic couplings of bearded and beardless freeborn citizens are the most prevalent and the most prestigious, but not the only erotic configuration of male partners appearing in the surviving Greek material. For example, we find references to men’s use of male prostitutes who were typically not citizens (though male citizens who had prostituted themselves could be penalized by the loss of certain rights). We read of contracts for the sexual “companionship” of boys (paides hētairēkotes), comparable to those made for the services of female “companions” (hetairai), and we read of male prostitutes (pornoi) who worked in brothels and were subject to taxation (see especially Aeschin. In Tim., Lys. 3, and prostitution, secular, male).
In addition to the most common configuration of bearded lover and beardless beloved, Attic vase painting depicts scenes of beardless youths courting and having sex with each other (cf. Theopompus 30 PCG; Anth. Pal. 12.238), and a handful of texts allude to bearded men as the object of men’s desire, although these texts imply the unusual quality of this configuration. These include Aristophanic jokes about oversexed men seeking to penetrate not just women and boys but bearded men as well (Ar. Ran. 52–70, Thesm. 1123–1124), Theopompus’ narrative (quoted at Polyb. 8.11.5–13) of disreputable behaviour at the Macedonian king Philip’s court, where bearded men gave each other sexual pleasures, and Xenophon’s words on the Thessalian Meno, who, while still beardless, took as his paidika a bearded man with the decidedly non-Greek name of Tharypas (Xen. An. 2.6.28). It is risky to draw larger conclusions about Macedonian or Thessalian sexual culture on the basis of these texts, but what all of the texts suggest is of value in itself. While the age-differentiated configuration of bearded lover and beardless freeborn beloved was the idealized norm, other possibilities not only existed, but were talked about, albeit as scandalous or exotic exceptions to the norm.
Roman texts of all periods and genres share the assumption that, as a group, men normatively and naturally experience desire for both males and females. The god Priapus is emblematic of a characteristically Roman model of masculinity. In texts such as the Corpus Priapeorum (see priape(i)a) as well as in statuary and wall painting, the god is portrayed as endowed with a prodigiously large, often erect penis which he is ready, willing, and able to use in penetrative acts with anyone, male or female, young or old, and especially, in his role as protector of gardens, thieves of either sex and any age.6
In graffiti carved and painted on walls from around the Latin-speaking world, men boastingly or threateningly cast themselves in the role of penetrating both female and male partners or meditate on loving “boys and girls” (cf. Buecheler, Carm. Epigr. 2153 and AE 1981.28, the same elegiac couplet found carved on walls in Remagen, Germany, and the Domus Aurea in Rome respectively), while insulting others as cinaedi, pathici, fellatores, and cunnilingi.7 Martial’s epigrams celebrate the beauties of boys and the pleasures of sex with them, or lament the torments they can cause their lovers (Mart. 1.58, 2.43, 3.65, 5.46, 5.48, 11.26, 11.58). While elegiac poetry is best known for its complex explorations of heteroerotic desire, neither the personae of the poet-lovers nor the worldview the poetry presents is what today would be called heteronormative or homophobic (cf. Prop. 1.20, 2.4.17–22, 2.30.27–32; Ov. Am. 1.1.19–20, Ars am. 2.683–684, Tib. 1.4, 1.8, 1.9). Bucolic poetry (Verg. Ecl. 2, Nemes. Ecl. 4) as well as Horatian epodic and lyric poetry (Hor. Epod. 11, Carm. 4.1, 4.10) sing of men’s joys and sufferings in their affairs with both women and boys, and Lucretius’ De rerum natura assumes a Roman readership in which men are struck by desire for women or boys (Lucr. 5.1052–1056). Virgil’s Aeneid tells in passing of pederastic couples among ancient Italian warriors (Verg. Aen. 10.188–189, 324–330) and portrays the Trojans Nisus and Euryalus as an age-differentiated, erotically bonded couple who are united in death, a “blessed pair” (fortunati ambo) whose names will live as long as Virgil’s own poetry and the Roman empire itself (Verg. Aen. 9.446–449). The relationship between the Emperor Hadrian and the young Bithynian Antinous (2) was widely assumed to be sexual in nature, and Antinous was celebrated in poetry (no longer extant) and the visual arts (many sculptures survive). Because Antinous was not a freeborn Roman, the relationship was not open to condemnation as stuprum (“disgrace”); the only criticism we find is directed at Hadrian’s extravagant expressions of grief upon Antinous’ death at about the age of 20.8
Roman writers of the Classical period consistently assume that these understandings of masculine desire were shared by their venerated ancestors (maiores). Valerius Maximus’ collection of historical anecdotes illustrating the high value which Romans traditionally placed on pudicitia (Val. Max. 6.1) is typical in its mingling of incidents with both male-female and male-male configurations without making any significant distinctions between these categories as such.
Roman military culture was and is renowned for its cultivation of traditional masculine ideals. Prostitutes both male and female seem to have travelled with some armies (Lucil. 398–399 Marx, Val. Max. 2.7.1, Livy, Per. 57, Plut. Apophth. Scip. Min. 201B), soldiers on campaign could be imagined to have affairs with local boys (Plut. Sert. 26), allusions to wartime rape by Roman soldiers regularly assume that their victims were both female and male (Sall. Cat. 51.9, Cic. Phil. 3.31, Livy 26.13.15, Tac. Hist. 3.33, 4.14), and the so-called glandes Perusinae, phallically shaped lead sling bullets used in the siege of Perusia (modern Perugia) in 41–40 bce, are inscribed with messages symbolically threatening to rape both male and female opponents (CIL 11.6721).
In an incident that later became a standard theme for rhetorical exercises, a soldier in C. Marius’s army killed Marius’s nephew, claiming that the nephew had attempted to rape him; Marius concluded that this was a case of justifiable homicide (Val. Max. 6.1.12, Plut. Mar. 14, Calp. Flacc. 3, [Quint.] Decl. maior. 3). No telling of this story, or of other stories of soldiers accused of inappropriate sexual relations with freeborn males (e.g. Val. Max. 6.1.10, 6.1.11), suggests that the soldiers’ homoerotic desires were in themselves unnatural, perverse, unmasculine, or even a rare exception. According to Plutarch, the soldier claimed not only that he had resisted his officer’s advances but that he had never sold his body to anyone, even though he had received impressive offers. And the pseudo-Quintilianic rhetorical exercise makes the argument that, if the soldier were to be punished for killing his superior, an attempted rape would go unpunished, which would mean that more officers would feel free to make advances on their men. In short, a Plautine slave’s joke at the expense of a soldier’s adjutant (“Did his sword fit into your sheath?” Plaut. Pseud. 1180–1181) was neither outlandish nor breaking any taboos.
The evidence thus contradicts a claim that was until fairly recently commonly made in the scholarship: that Roman culture traditionally condemned homosexuality as a Greek vice, coming over time to accept and even celebrate it under the influence of Greek culture. Instead, what is demonstrably Roman is a code of propriety which discouraged men from pursuing sexual relations with freeborn citizens of either sex, behaviour typically described with the term stuprum. Married women’s sexual relations with anyone other than their husbands (adulterium) are thus instances of stuprum, as are men’s sexual relations with freeborn young men. The latter erotic configuration, with its accompanying set of social practices associated with the gymnasium in particular, could be represented as characteristically Greek (Nep. pr. 4, Alcib. 2.2; Cic. Tusc. 4.70, 5.58, Rep. 4.4; Plut. Quaest. Rom. 40.274D), but not male homoerotic desire or male-male sexual acts in themselves.
In the absence of the courtship of freeborn youth as a prestigious ideal, other constellations of male-male desire and copulation are somewhat more visible in the Roman material, such as sexual relations with slaves and prostitutes. Slaves were not only ubiquitous, but their owners’ rights to do with them what they wished were rarely challenged, and we find references to both male and female prostitutes throughout the surviving evidence.9 Horace’s advice to male readers in Sat. 1.2 is typical: it is better to go to a brothel (31–35, citing an anecdote regarding Cato the Elder) or make use of your own male or female slave (114–119) than to risk an affair with a married woman. Martial’s epigrams celebrate the beauty of slave boys and the delights of sexual relationships with them (1.31, 1.58, 3.65, 5.46, 5.48, 11.26), but also the ways they can erotically torment or even dominate their masters (8.46, 11.58), prompting the poet to paradoxically describe some slave boys as their masters’ masters (domini 11.70, 12.66). In short, numerous jokes in Plautine comedy about men’s sexual relations with male slaves and prostitutes (Asin. 703, Capt. 867, Cas. 362, 455, Curc. 35–38, Mostell. 894–895, Pers. 284–286, Pseud. 767–787, 1177–1178, Rud. 1073–1075, Truc. 149–157) are anchored in Roman social realities, not poking fun at peculiar foreign ways.
While traditional codes of behaviour discouraged Roman men from engaging in sexual relations with freeborn Romans other than their wives, prohibitions usually imply their violation, however scandalous. Gossip regarding the private lives of public figures, such as that included by Suetonius in his biographies of the twelve Caesars, told of their sexual relations with freeborn partners, male and female, whether as seducer or seduced, penetrator or penetrated. Catullus’s poetry celebrates the poetic persona’s affairs both with a married woman whom he calls Lesbia and a freeborn boy named Juventius, and a poem by Tibullus imagines Priapus giving a married man advice on how to seduce freeborn boys (Tib. 1.4).
As in the Greek material, there are occasional allusions to mature, bearded men as objects of men’s desire as the stuff of humour (Plaut. Cas. 451–466, Merc. 203–204, Mil. 1102–1114) or cause for gossip (Suet. Galb. 22; Plut. Sull. 36.1; Cass. Dio 61.10.4 on Seneca). But the very fact that the term exoletus (“grown up, mature”) could signify a male prostitute whose services were sought by male customers is suggestive. While Roman men’s use of exoleti may suggest excessive lustfulness, the usual assumption in Greek texts is that male prostitutes who have passed the prime of youth (exōroi) will simply find no customers (Aeschin. In Tim. 95, Ach. Tat. 8.9.1–6).
A handful of texts make scandalized or mocking reference to wedding ceremonies joining male partners. Cicero’s assertion that Curio made Antony his bride (Phil. 2.44) is almost certainly sarcastically metonymic, but two epigrams by Martial (Mart. 1.24, 12.42) and a Juvenalian satire (Juv. 2.117–142) imply a belief that some men were indeed marrying men, and there are reports of actual ceremonies performed by the emperors Nero (Mart. 11.6.10, Suet. Ner. 28–29, Tac. Ann. 15.37, Cass. Dio 62.28, 63.13, 63.22, Aur. Vict. Caes. 5.5) and Elagabalus as well as some of his courtiers (SHA Heliogab. 10.5, 11.7; Cass. Dio 79.5, 14–16). Significantly, all of these texts assume that there must be a “groom” and a “bride,” and consistently aim ridicule at the figure of the male bride (a comic trope hilariously exploited in Plautus’s Casina) but not at his husband. All of this could be a matter of hyperbolic invention, but it seems likely that some men were indeed performing such ceremonies. If so, however, the marriages were not recognized by Roman law. In this respect they would be comparable to marriages between slaves. The law did not recognize such unions as fully legitimate marriage (iustum matrimonium; see marriage law, roman); yet numerous surviving epitaphs show that many slaves lived as married couples and called each other husband and wife.
Trends in the Early 21st Century
Some studies have sought to qualify or contextualize the commonly accepted paradigms described in this article, emphasizing that, while penetrative paradigms of masculinity were undeniably prevalent and influential, they were not the only ones available.10 Others have applied the concept of the homosocial to patterns of male intimacy which confound or avoid the binary language of penetrative paradigms, whether in triangular configurations with women or in male pairs whose relationship is described with the language of brotherly love or friendship, for example in the poetry of Propertius or in Roman burial practices and accompanying epitaphs.11 In the area of reception studies, scholars have begun to explore the role played by images of ancient Greece and Rome in the rise of modern discourses of sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular.12
- Cantarella, Eva. Bisexuality in the Ancient World. 2nd ed. Translated by Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.
- Clarke, John. Roman Sex 100 bc–ad 250. New York: Harry Abrams, 2003.
- Davidson, James. The Greeks and Greek Love. New York: Random House, 2007.
- Dover, Kenneth. Greek Homosexuality. 2nd ed. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.
- Hallett, Judith, and Marilyn Skinner, eds. Roman Sexualities. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.
- Halperin, David. One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, and Other Essays on Greek Love. New York: Routledge, 1990.
- Halperin, David. How to Do the History of Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
- Hubbard, Thomas, ed. Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents. Chichester: University of California Press, 2003.
- Hubbard, Thomas, ed. A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2014.
- Ingleheart, Jennifer, ed. Ancient Rome and the Construction of Modern Homosexual Identities. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
- Johns, Catherine. Sex or Symbol: Erotic Images of Greece and Rome. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982.
- Lear, Andrew, and Eva Cantarella. Images of Ancient Greek Pederasty: Boys Were Their Gods. London: Routledge, 2008.
- Masterson, Mark, Nancy Rabinowitz, and James Robson, eds. Sex in Antiquity: Exploring Gender and Sexuality in the Ancient World. London: Routledge, 2015.
- Ormand, Kirk. Controlling Desires: Sexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Rev. ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018.
- Richlin, Amy. The Garden of Priapus: Sexuality and Aggression in Roman Humor. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
- Sissa, Giulia. Sex and Sensuality in the Ancient World. Translated by George Staunton. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.
- Skinner, Marilyn. Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture. 2nd ed. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.
- Williams, Craig. Roman Homosexuality. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
- Williams, Craig. Reading Roman Friendship. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- Winkler, John. The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece. New York: Routledge, 1990.
1. See Craig Williams, “When a Dolphin Loves a Boy: Some Greco-Roman and Native American Love Stories,” Classical Antiquity 32 (2013): 200–242, and for a richly detailed discussion of animal homosexuality, see Bruce Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999).
2. For an overview of these and other relevant graffiti, see Craig Williams, “Sexual Themes in Greek and Latin Graffiti,” in A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities, ed. Thomas K. Hubbard (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), 493–508.
3. See Vincent Azoulay, The Tyrant-Slayers of Ancient Athens: A Tale of Two Statues, trans. Janet Lloyd (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
4. In Athens and elsewhere, male slaves were excluded from the gymnasia and prohibited from being the lovers of freeborn boys: Aeschin. In Tim. 137–140, Plut. Amat. 751B, Sol. 1.4, SEG 27.261. See Thomas Scanlon, Eros and Greek Athletics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), esp. 199–273.
5. See, for example, Harald Patzer, Die griechische Knabenliebe (Wiesbaden: F. Steiner, 1982); Bernard Sergent, Homosexuality in Greek Myth, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1986); Kenneth J. Dover, The Greeks and Their Legacy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), 115–134; and Thomas Scanlon, Eros and Greek Athletics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 64–97.
6. Instead of the idealization of the small tidy penis associated with Greek pederastic traditions, in the Roman material we find expressions of admiration and desire for unusually large penises across a variety of textual genres (SHA Comm. 10.9, Heliogab. 8.7, 12.2; Juv. 1.37–41, 9.33–37, 92, Sen. QNat. 1.16.2–3, Petron. Sat. 92.9–10, Mart. 2.51, 3.73, 6.36, 9.33, 11.51, 11.63, 11.72).
7. Surviving graffiti from Pompeii include a significantly higher number of insulting references to men and women performing oral sex (126) than to cinaedi (30) or pathici (2). Some epigrams by Martial (2.28, 2.84, 4.43, 6.56) imply that performing fellatio and especially cunnilingus can be even more damaging to a man’s masculine reputation than being anally penetrated. For detailed analysis of sex between males in Martial’s epigrams, see Hans Peter Obermayer, Martial und der Diskurs über männliche “Homosexualität” in der Literatur der frühen Kaiserzeit (Tübingen, Germany: Narr, 1998).
8. SHA Hadr. 11–14, Aur. Vict. Caes. 14. See Royston Lambert, Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinous (New York: Viking Press, 1984); Carolyn Vout and Penelope Curtis, Antinous: The Face of the Antique (Leeds, UK: Henry Moore Institute, 2006); R. R. R. Smith et al., Antinous: Boy Made God (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2018); and more generally Caroli Vout, Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
9. A 1st-century bce inscription on a bronze tablet found in Heraclea which records legal provisions, most likely including some from the *lex Julia municipalis*, excludes from municipal councils men who have prostituted themselves, along with thieves, debtors, actors, and pimps (CIL I2 593, lines 122–123); the 1st-century bce calendar known as the fasti Praenestini lists holidays for female prostitutes (meretrices) and boy prostitutes (pueri lenonii) on 24 and 25 April respectively (CIL I2 236); a typical pair of Pompeiian graffiti announce the availability for two asses of a Felicla and a Menander (CIL 4.4023–4024).
10. e.g., Rebecca Langlands, Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006); James Davidson, The Greeks and Greek Love (New York: Random House, 2007); and Giulia Sissa, Sex and Sensuality in the Ancient World, trans. George Staunton (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).
11. e.g., Erik Gunderson, Staging Masculinity: The Rhetoric of Performance in the Roman World (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000), esp. 187–222; Paul Allen Miller, Subjecting Verses: Latin Love Elegy and the Emergence of the Real (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004); Alison Keith, Propertius: Poet of Love and Desire (London: Duckworth, 2008); Craig Williams, Reading Roman Friendship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); and Mark Masterson, Man to Man: Desire, Homosociality, and Authority in Late-Roman Manhood (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2014).
12. e.g., Alastair Blanshard, Sex: Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010); Daniel Orrells, Classical Culture and Modern Masculinity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Kate Fisher and Rebecca Langlands, eds., Sex, Knowledge, and Receptions of the Past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); and Jennifer Ingleheart, ed., Ancient Rome and the Construction of Modern Homosexual Identities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).