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date: 08 December 2022

sexuality, textual representation offree

sexuality, textual representation offree

  • Marilyn B. Skinner


The basic dominance-submission model of sexual relations, involving a hierarchical distinction between the active and passive roles, was the same in Greek and Roman cultures and remained unchanged throughout classical antiquity. However, we find subtle modifications reflected in the literary tradition from the Homeric age to imperial Rome. In Homer and Hesiod, heterosexual relations are the only recognized form of sexual congress, and consensual sex is mutually pleasurable. Forced sex, in the form of abduction and rape, also occurs in epic narrative. Pederasty became a literary theme in Greek lyric poetry of the archaic age. In classical Athens, discourses of sexuality were tied to political ideology, because self-control was a civic virtue enabling the free adult male householder to manage his estate correctly and serve the city-state in war and peace. Tragedy illustrates the dire impact of unbridled erōs, while comedy mocks those who trespass against moderation or violate gender norms, and forensic oratory seeks to disqualify such offenders from participating in government. Philosophical schools disagreed over the proper place of erōs in a virtuous life. While pederastic relations dominated discussions of love in philosophic works, romantic affairs between men and women received greater attention in Hellenistic poetry, in keeping with an increased emphasis on shared pleasure and reciprocal emotional satisfaction. During the late Republic and the Augustan age, Roman authors incorporated erotic motifs from archaic lyric and Hellenistic epigram into their own first-person love poems. The genre of love elegy, in which the poet-lover professes himself enslaved to a harsh mistress, became widely popular during Augustus’ reign but disappeared shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, Lucretius’ didactic epic On the Nature of Things, and Vergil’s Aeneid, a heroic account of the founding of Rome, both treat erotic obsession as destructive. In the Imperial period, elite anxieties were displaced onto concerns about gender deviance on the part of males and females alike: the figures of the cinaedus and the tribas were castigated in moralizing poetry, especially satire and satiric epigram. Roman novels focused upon the sexual escapades of marginal displaced types. Under Roman rule, on the other hand, Greek literature saw a new flowering in the Second Sophistic movement. While pederasty remained a favorite subject, hotly championed against heterosexual relations in prose treatises, the Greek novel explored a new model of heterosexuality in which premarital chastity and mutual fidelity appear to anticipate later Christian values.


  • Gender Studies
  • Greek Literature
  • Latin Literature

The basic dominance-submission model of sexual relations, involving a hierarchical distinction between the active (penetrative) role, gendered male, and the passive role, gendered female but applicable to any penetrated partner (see homosexuality), was the same in Greek and Roman cultures and remained unchanged throughout classical antiquity.1 However, subtle modifications of that scheme are reflected in the literary tradition from the Homeric age to imperial Rome.

Greek Literature

Epic Sexuality

Compiled in the 8th and 7th centuries bce, but containing earlier oral elements, the Iliad and the Odyssey, two lengthy heroic epics ascribed to Homer, are the earliest Greek texts to address sexual matters. Each one treats erotic desire in the context of its own thematic parameters: the Iliad as a poem about aspiration to honor in the face of death, the Odyssey as a template for behaving properly, according to rank and gender, within household and society. Ten years after the elopement of Paris and Helen, the Iliad offers an intimate glimpse of the adulterous couple, whose joint passion is troubled by Helen’s guilt and disapproval of her partner’s unheroic insouciance (Hom. Il. 3.389–447). Hera’s calculated seduction of her husband Zeus (Hom. Il. 14.292–351) burlesques the gravity with which the prior episode of lovemaking between Paris and Helen was handled. Both scenes portray intercourse between consenting heterosexual parties as reciprocally pleasurable, a model also found in the Odyssey.

During his wanderings, Odysseus encounters other females, divine and mortal, who act as foils for his wife Penelope. The contemporaneous advent of polis society in Greece introduced a new configuration of household roles, one which assigned man and wife separate but complementary duties while requiring agreement in setting goals and managing possessions. Contrasts with such characters as Clytemnestra, Helen, Calypso, Nausicaa, Circe, and Arete emphasize Penelope’s superior qualities as a faithful and intelligent spouse while demonstrating the negative consequences of women’s unrestrained appetites. The goddesses Calypso and Circe live apart from civilization on remote islands; each, because of her sexual autonomy, presents a threat to male potency. Repeated references to Agamemnon’s murderous consort Clytemnestra underscore the danger posed by the adulterous wife. On the divine plane, the tale of Aphrodite’s affair with Ares sung by the bard Demodocus (Hom. Od. 8.266–366) is a bawdy variation upon the Odyssey’s overriding concern with female fidelity. Lastly, Penelope’s tricking of Odysseus into revealing the secret of their bed, which enables her to confirm his identity, epitomizes the fundamental role of marital sexuality in stabilizing the household (see heterosexuality) and may point to an awareness of how much it played in defining a personal self.

Many Homeric heroes trace their origins to mixed divine-human unions; epic accounts of divine rape normally disregard the suffering of the female victim. Despite widespread belief in classical Athens that Achilles and his friend Patroclus were lovers, there is no undisputed representation of homoerotic relations in either of the Homeric epics, or in any other surviving Greek text before 600 bce (for the rise of pederasty as a literary motif, see “The Archaic Age”).

Slightly later in date than Homeric epic, two didactic poems by Hesiod, the Theogony and the Works and Days, explore the human consequences of living in a biologically structured universe (see Cosmogonies and Theogonies). The first poem recounts the origins of natural phenomena and the gods. In the Greek mythic cosmos, supreme power is procreative because all being, including inorganic objects such as heavenly bodies as well as sentient organisms and plant life, is envisioned as animate and originating from sexual congress. This cosmos possesses an inherent drive towards proliferation and differentiation. Chaos (“Void”), the elemental abyss, comes-to-be of its own accord, and from it successively emerge Earth; Tartarus, the underworld; and Desire (Erōs), the impetus to mate. While the process starts spontaneously with the appearance of Chaos, Erōs must then induce Earth to produce her consort, Uranus or Sky, from her own depths, couple with him, engendering Cronus, and so begin a cycle of divine successions. Cronus displaces and castrates Uranus, and Cronus’ son Zeus, in turn, overthrows him. To break the chain, Zeus must avoid having a son greater than he is; his first child, accordingly, is the goddess Athena, born from his head. After that Zeus consolidates his power by siring children who embody subordinate elements of his rule while defeating other offspring of Earth, such as the Giants and Titans, in pitched battle.

Though Hesiod does not say how mankind originated, he does relate, both in the Theogony (Hes. Th. 535–612) and in the Works and Days (Hes. WD 42–105), how the Titan Prometheus first instituted animal sacrifice and then stole fire as a gift for men, and how Zeus in retaliation created Pandora, the first woman. Like drones in beehives, who stay home and consume the labor of others, women themselves do no work, but the children they bear are necessary to tend fathers in old age. In the Works and Days, Hesiod adds (Hes. WD 90–105) that Pandora came equipped with a storage jar (pithos) containing all diseases and other evils, which she let loose upon mankind. Underlying this apparent misogyny is an economy of human sexual and reproductive resources. Physiologically, males are hot and dry while females are colder and wetter: this postulate later becomes the basis of Hippocratic gynecology (see Medicine; Gynaecology). Male vital fluid (menos), which transmits seed, is diminished by various external conditions such as summer heat as well as by the sexual act; excessive depletion causes the subject to age prematurely. Because of their different constitutions, women are at their lustiest in the summer and have no physiological need to curb passion, as their capacity for receiving sex is boundless.2 Their wombs, symbolized by Pandora’s jar, are vast containers into which a man pours his limited amount of menos in the hope of begetting a child. Consequently, Hesiod can describe a bad wife as a “parasite who singes a man without fire, no matter how stalwart he is, and gives him over to raw old age” (Hes. WD. 704–5). Since the same word means both “womb” and “belly,” her sexual rapacity can be figured as gluttony, her appetite as heat drying out her husband. Lack of reciprocity is inscribed into the sexual act in which male energy goes to nourish female fecundity.

The origin of the love-goddess Aphrodite, also recounted in the Theogony (Hes. Th. 188–206), offers further insight into how Greeks conceived of human sexuality. She is born of the foam (aphros) that surrounded Uranus’ lopped-off genitals when Cronus, after castrating his father, threw them into the sea. Aphrodite is older than the other Olympians, who are either children or grandchildren of Cronus, and her placement outside the genealogical scheme of the Theogony indicates she is not bound by the same rules they are. Homer, on the other hand, makes her a daughter of Zeus and Dione (Hom. Il. 5.370–417), thus subjecting her to paternal authority. While Hesiod’s goddess is a cosmic entity, Homer limits her scope of activity to erotic matters and exhibits, through her threats to Helen (Hom. Il. 3.383–420), that there is a negative side to being her favorite.

Composed by an anonymous oral poet around the same time as Hesiod’s epics, the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite recounts the goddess’ affair with the Trojan prince Anchises, by whom she conceived Aeneas, the founder of the Roman people. To punish her, Zeus makes Aphrodite fall in love with the young man as he tends his herds on Mount Ida. Disguised as a maiden, she appears to Anchises and tells him she is a kidnapped Phrygian princess, carried off by Hermes to be Anchises’ wife. Although she asks him to present her, still a virgin, to his family before their marriage, Anchises heedlessly takes her to bed at once. When she afterward reveals her identity, he begs her, terrified, not to leave him powerless by sapping his vigor. Aphrodite reassures him but asks that he spare her mortification by keeping the parentage of their son a secret. The Hymn does not add, though listeners would know, that Anchises was later crippled by Zeus’ thunderbolt for boasting of the encounter. The poem glorifies the goddess by illustrating the irresistible power of her allure while teaching an object lesson in human hubris.

The Archaic Age: Symposium and Chorus

Evidence for Greek notions of sexuality in the archaic age (c. 700–500 bce) comes almost exclusively from song lyrics preserved as quotations in later authors or on papyrus scraps from Egypt. Songs were performed in two major venues: privately in symposia (see symposium and symposium literature), and publicly by choruses at religious festivals.

Sympotic poetry includes elegiac and iambic verse as well as lyric monody. Its most striking departure is the introduction of pederastic themes. Beloved boys can be instructed in proper social and ethical behavior, as in the elegiac corpus attributed to Theognis of Megara, or they can be portrayed as objects of the speaker’s frustrated desire. Erōs, in the latter case, is shown as a cruel, capricious god or an invasive force crippling a victim physically and mentally. In this case, the hierarchical configuration of pederastic relations is reversed and the beloved is said to occupy the dominant role (see, for example, Anac. PMG 360), but this is a seduction strategy. Like the reasons for the Greek institutionalization of pederasty itself, explanations of why boy-love suddenly appears in archaic age literature are debated. The most likely cause is the expansion of aristocratic symposium culture and its preoccupation with the socialization of elite youth as reactions to perceived economic challenges from rising middle-class citizens of the polis.

Heterosexual relations are not neglected in sympotic compositions, but they are represented by male poets in contrasting ways. Girls, like boys, appear in first-person lyric contexts as desirable love objects. In contrast to those romantic depictions, iambic verse treats sexual matters with caustic frankness. Archaic iambographers such as Archilochus and Hipponax narrate vivid tales of their own erotic conquests and slander males and females with allegations of gross debauchery. The connection, if any, between iambic obscenity and ritual aischrologia (“shameful talk”) is greatly debated, as is the degree to which real persons, as opposed to stock figures, are targeted.3 Discovered in 1976, the so-called First Cologne Epode of Archilochus (frr. 196 and 196A West2) gives us a sample of the mockery that supposedly drove the daughters of Lycambes to suicide: Neobule, the speaker’s onetime fiancée, is castigated as overripe; lacking her virginal bloom and grace; sex-mad and, by implication, faithless and deceitful. The account concludes with a detailed but equivocal description of a sexual act performed by the speaker upon Neobule’s younger sister.

Composed for female audiences, the monodies of Sappho employ the same language and imagery of desire used by male counterparts. However, different erotic conventions are at work. Among women, reciprocity of erotic feeling, as opposed to simple conquest, is the preferred goal; the speaker often emphatically consoles a companion yearning for an absent beloved (fr. 96 V); and Aphrodite is shown dealing familiarly with Sappho and taking an active part in the rites performed by the poet and her friends (frr. 1 and 2 V). Celebration of homoerotic attachments among young female choristers is also a feature of the partheneia, or maiden-songs, composed by Alcman for Spartan religious festivals. Praising the physical beauty and desirability of a chorus leader in fervently charged metaphors, girls in these poems confess their longing for her attention and favor (PMG frr. 1 and 3). Promotion of same-sex bonding among chorus members may have been an initiatory mechanism preparing them emotionally for intimacy within marriage, although that hypothesis has been questioned (see homosexuality, female).

Sex and the Classical Athenian Polis

Since the majority of surviving Classical Greek texts are products of 5th- and 4th-century Athens, it is easy to suppose that patterns of gender relations and sexual protocols found in Athenian literature reflect those of Greek culture as a whole. We know, however, that gender roles were not the same in militaristic Sparta, where girls married at a later age and wives enjoyed more autonomy than their Athenian counterparts because the fighting men were regularly away at war. In the Symposium of Plato, a speaker calls attention to the differing attitudes toward pederasty found among various Greek populations, ranging from casual tolerance to condemnation, and notes that the Athenian code of proper behavior in such affairs is exceptionally complex (Plat. Sym. 182a–184b).

Athenian discourses of sexuality were closely tied to political ideology. Self-control (enkrateia; see body), a core ethical virtue, enabled the free adult citizen male to manage his household properly, defend the city-state courageously, and deliberate sensibly in the public realm. The radical democracy not only put all heads of household on the same egalitarian footing notionally but also established stricter divisions of gender roles and aligned sexual dominance with social hegemony over subordinates.4 Private lives of wealthy elites who aspired to play a leading role as speakers in the popular assembly were open to scrutiny. If it was proved in court that an individual had prostituted himself as a youth (or abused his parents, mismanaged his inheritance, or shown cowardice in battle), he lost certain basic rights. The antithesis of the ideal citizen prepared to wage war as a heavily armed infantryman (see hoplites) was the kinaidos, a man “socially deviant in his entire being, principally observable in behavior that flagrantly violated or contravened the dominant social definition of masculinity.”5 According to some scholars, the term kinaidos is specifically associated with a preference for the passive role in sex, while others connect it to a broader idea of insatiability, but the two definitions do not exclude each other. Against that pervasive anxiety over being perceived as effeminate, the courtship of freeborn youth, offering both lover and beloved opportunities to exercise rational judgment and moderation, was justified as a test for each (Plat. Symp. 184a).

Staged at yearly festivals of Dionysus, productions of tragedy (see tragedy, Greek) and comedy (see comedy, Greek, Old) were state-sponsored communal events addressing issues of fundamental importance to the citizen body. In tragedy, which deals with transgressions within the family unit, sexual passion is normally portrayed as disruptive and directly implicated in the final catastrophe. Symbolic use of gender to encapsulate abstract oppositions, like those between society and the self, insures that almost every tragedy pits the masculine against the feminine sphere, at least conceptually.

According to the Old Oligarch (Ps. Xen. Const. Ath. 2.18), the poets of Old Comedy avoided mocking the dēmos. If comic ideology conforms to mass opinion, its handling of sexual themes should reflect collective popular values. On this assumption, the negative depictions of pederasty by Aristophanes in plays such as Clouds and Knights and his running jokes associating politicians with boyhood prostitution have been cited as evidence for general moral disapproval of an exclusively elite practice.6 Yet the playwright may have singled out boy-love to typify aristocratic depravity because it reinforced alliances among the powerful while also offering opportunities for particularly graphic obscenity; pejorative references, in other words, would have been motivated by class tensions, not ethical opposition. Heterosexual activity is always represented as a positive good, accompanying such desired outcomes as peace, prosperity, and divine favor, in keeping with the celebration of a fertility festival honoring Dionysus. Aristophanes’ classic farce Lysistrata, in which Greek wives join in a sex-strike to end the Peloponnesian War, affirms that marital sexuality is fundamental to the survival of both household and community.

Forensic speeches theoretically offer two kinds of information about Athenian sexuality. First, they give anecdotal data on alleged sexual misconduct such as adultery (e.g., Lys. 1). Since they were delivered before panels of several hundred jurors, mostly ordinary citizens, they may also cast light on popular morality, although, as in the case of Old Comedy, this postulate requires cautious application. While several criminal trials involve disputes over boys (Lys. 3, Dem. 45), censure is directed against accompanying bad behavior (e.g., prodigality), not pederasty itself. The forensic speech Against Timarchus, which uses allegations of youthful prostitution to attack a prominent politician, appears to confirm that socially proper pederasty was approved, since the plaintiff Aeschines distinguishes firmly between the conduct of a decent beloved and the sluttishness of his opponent. Aeschines won the case, which suggests that institutionalized pederasty was thought to have a purpose in the democratic state. However, a prosecution of a wealthy citizen for battery by a young soldier of lesser means features insinuations of shameful homoerotic practices among the defendant and his associates at their symposia (Dem. 54.17, Dem. 54.34), a charge easily leveled against elites because of their exclusivity. One speech preserving some credible information about the careers of hetairai is Against Neaira (Dem. 59), in which a former prostitute is arraigned for illegally posing as an Athenian citizen wife. Absence of a written register of births and marriages meant that legal proof depended solely on the testimony of witnesses, while female family members’ lack of visibility outside the home permitted such a sensational charge to be brought.


Erotic and spousal relations receive considerable attention in the teachings of various philosophic schools (see Love and friendship in Greek philosophy). As early as the 6th century bce, Pythagoras of Croton (see Pythagoras) advocated strict monogamy for both husband and wife, and subsequent followers restricted sexual intercourse to procreation within marriage. Plato shows the influence of Pythagoreanism in his late works. In his middle dialogue Symposium, he had promulgated an innovative theory of erōs whereby sublimation of sexual desire leads the lover to a grasp of the highest philosophical truths, and in Phaedrus he posited the reciprocal enlightenment of the beloved and allowed for some spiritual growth on the part of devoted but weaker couples unable to maintain total abstinence (see Plato, soul and the cosmos). In his final treatise the Laws, though, he condemns homoerotic acts across the board (Plat. Laws 636b–c), together with all other forms of non-reproductive sex (Plat. Laws 835c–841d). However, he still maintains that homoerotic affect, guided by reason, can lead to virtue (Plat. Laws 837c).

Aristotle takes a pragmatic position on sexual relations. He recognizes the role habituation can play in creating unorthodox sexual appetites, exempting from moral reproach men whose disposition to passivity arose from childhood abuse (Aristot. Nic. Eth. 7.5 1148b15–1149a4). In his ethical works he closely examines transactions marked by reciprocal goodwill, a disposition that for him characterizes friendship (philia). However, he does not focus much attention on erotic desire, defined at one point (Aristot. Nic. Eth. 9.10 1171a12–13) as “an excess (hyperbolē) of philia” directed toward one person and so a deviation from the desired mean. The most positive outcome of a love affair is the formation of an enduring bond of philia, but this is rare. When the original basis for the association was mutual utility or pleasure instead of virtue, the friendship is readily dissolved (Aristot. Nic.Eth. 8.3 1156a6–b25). Inequality is a particular problem in erotic relationships, where quarrels arise because lover and beloved may not have the same motives for affection (Aristot. Eud. Eth. 7.3 1238b32–39; Aristot. Eud. Eth. 7.10 1243b15–21). Yet Aristotle also allows for friendships between unequals, citing as one example that between husband and wife: in performing different functions, partners contribute to a common good by raising children (Aristot. Nic. Eth. 8.12 1162a16–30). While pederastic relationships are at the core of Aristotle’s discussion, many remarks easily apply to heterosexual affairs as well; in analyzing erotic love he pays little attention to gender.7

The two great Hellenistic philosophical schools, the Epicureans and the Stoics, disagreed over the proper place of sexual love in a virtuous life. Epicurus regarded sexual pleasure as one of the chief goods (Cic. Tusc. 3.41–42) but vigorously warned against the consequences of indulgence (Sent. Vat. 51). Although the wise man will not marry or have children except under unusual circumstances, he will cultivate friendship (philia), which is essential to happiness, and endure pain and hardship for a friend’s sake. In the Epicurean system, relationships of philia conceivably might include a sexual component if it enhanced mutual affection. Erōs, though, was wholly to be avoided. From the Cynics, early Stoicism adopted the principle of living according to nature. Sexual pleasure was morally unproblematic as long as it accompanied behavior conforming to the natural inclination of the human being. The sexual experience, furthermore, was not merely corporeal, because the genital function, like that of other sense organs, was among the parts of the human soul presided over by reason (Gal. PHP 3.1.9–15, SVF 2.885). Thus Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, could envision in his Republic a community of the wise in which pederastic relations promoted the development of moral virtue in the young. Since sages could be female, homoerotic pair-bonding of women and girls was doubtless allowed. Like the Cynics, Zeno advocated that wives and children be held in common and taught that sexual union should be by mutual consent. The erōs informing such reasoned civic relationships was not a passion (pathos), as that resulted from mistaken judgment and was contrary to nature (SVF 3.378). Later generations of Stoics repudiated Zeno’s ideas about sex, finally arriving, under the influence of Roman morality, at a position similar to that of Plato in his Laws.

Hellenistic Literature

In the classical era relations between the sexes, whether for pleasure or procreation, generated little concern in most Greek literature, except in the case of the threat posed by a wife’s infidelity. Old Comedy constitutes an exception (see Lysistrata, discussed in “Sex and the Classical Athenian Polis”). Starting in the early Hellenistic age, heterosexual erōs assumed a more urgent role in Athenian civic discourse, particularly drama. During the 4th century bce, notorious courtesans achieved celebrity status: renowned for their wit in widely circulated anecdotes, they were caricatured on the comic stage as predatory maneaters. The hetaira character plays a more supportive part in the domestic plots of New Comedy (see Comedy, Greek, New), which turn on the young hero’s infatuation for a girl and end with the removal of obstacles to their union. Romantic love also becomes a dominant theme of 3rd-century bce Alexandrian poetry. Under the sponsorship of Ptolemaic queens such as Arsinoë II Philadelphus and Berenice II, court poets composed encomia in which the mutual devotion of the ruling couple, identified with the Egyptian divine pair Isis and Osiris, brings prosperity to their people. Other writers experimented with the tropes of amatory epigram in which the first-person speaker addresses himself or his beloved; his recollections of his experience effectively recreate transitory emotional states.

One surprising shift in the Hellenistic representation of sexuality is its positive treatment of heterosexual female desire and its concomitant denigration of women’s homoerotic attachments. Portrayals of young women in love, such as Simaetha in Idyll 2 of Theocritus or Medea in the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius, describe the sudden onset of erōs sympathetically and encourage empathy with the complex psychological response of its victim. Meanwhile, women’s attraction to each other, previously little remarked, was now regarded negatively. Sappho was normalized by being given a fatal attraction to the handsome ferryman Phaon; the epigrammatist Asclepiades condemns an affair between two courtesans as a violation of Aphrodite’s laws (Anth. Pal. 5.207, Gow-Page, GP 7); and the mimiambist Herodas mocks the intensity of women’s friendships reflected in the epigrams of Nossis.8

Pederastic themes were introduced early into two Hellenistic genres, epigram and pastoral. Asclepiades, the inventor of the erotic epigram, his successor Dioscorides, and the late 2nd‑century bce anthologist Meleager all address poems to boys as well as women. The short love poems of Callimachus are wholly pederastic, evoking the sympotic ambiance of Theognidean elegy while reflecting wryly upon broader matters such as aesthetics (Anth. Pal. 12.43, Gow-Page, GP 2). Theocritean pastoral transfers homoerotic desire to the countryside: in the comic Idyll 6 two shepherds, once lovers but now estranged, trade barbs before engaging in an acerbic singing match, while Idyll 12, in contrast, is an eloquent paean to an enduring same-sex union.

Roman Literature

Although their conceptual framework of sexual relations is much the same, several cultural factors combine to make Roman authors take different positions from their Greek counterparts when dealing with eroticism. While an ideological pretense of equality among adult citizen males prevailed in classical Athens, in republican and imperial Rome acknowledged hierarchies of rank, status, wealth, and reputation produced finely calibrated, often conflicting, lattices of superiority. Personal patronage, frowned upon by the Athenian radical democracy, was taken for granted among Romans and permeated all levels of society. Women who controlled their own property participated in patronage systems (see patronage, non-literary) to the same degree as men. Social standing was so closely linked to sexual privilege in the Roman imaginary that phallic imagery was regularly employed in literature and art as a concrete metaphor for the exercise of power.

Other areas of Roman cultural dissimilarity include the legal protection of freeborn citizen boys, the greater social visibility of respectable matrons, and the public display of ritualized violence. Although sexual attraction to male adolescents was recognized as normal, violation of the physical integrity of a citizen youth was a criminal act punished as stuprum, making the Greek civic institution of pederasty unthinkable. As representatives of their natal and marital families, elite women took a prominent role in state religious ceremonies, which involved the conspicuous display of wealth in public processions (Polyb. 31.26.3–5). Because of their freedom to interact socially with men, women’s potential for sexual misbehavior generated widespread unease. Violence, as epitomized in the spectacle of gladiatorial games, was linked with sexuality because the gladiator, though usually a slave or condemned criminal, was erotically appealing (Juv. 6.82–113) and because daily exposure to other forms of brutality, such as harsh punishments for slaves and criminal executions, may have stimulated a collective bloodlust, to which the philosopher Seneca bears witness (Ep. 7.2-4).

Republican and Augustan Rome

Adapted loosely from Greek models, the 2nd-century bce farces of Plautus use the standard love scenarios of New Comedy (see “Hellenistic Literature”) as frameworks for the extravagant plotting of clever slaves and their accomplices, which inverts normal hierarchies of age, gender, and rank. Whenever slaves are onstage, rapid-fire dialogue is likely to be laced with references to torture and crucifixion and risqué insults, directed at both sexes, targeting vulnerability to sexual subjugation. Current scholarly debate centers upon the audience for these fantasies of role reversal and the gratification such verbal exchanges may have provided: did the plays cater to members of the ruling class, perhaps relieving their anxieties as slave owners, or did the comic business reflect the actual experience of spectators who, like the all-male cast, were or had been slaves themselves?9 As character-driven studies, the slightly later fabulae palliatae of Terence reproduce the genteel tone and ethos of their Greek originals more closely. Two plays, Eunuchus and Hecyra, handle rape as a plot device matter-of-factly, without attention to its violence, thus posing dilemmas in the contemporary classroom.

As encountered in Cicero’s orations (see Tullius Cicero, Marcus, speeches) and reported in anecdotes by Suetonius, political invective regularly called the morality of opponents into question through accusations of adultery, incest, effeminacy, and unnatural sexual practices.10 Lampoons and graffiti, circulating anonymously, allege the same vices, and so does the iambic verse of Catullus, whose obscene denunciations caused Julius Caesar to complain of the “lasting blemishes” (perpetua stigmata, Suet. Iul. 73) put upon him. While an orator wants listeners to believe his shocking charges are factual, or at least plausible, Catullus deploys coarse expressions metaphorically, using them to drive home the disgust aroused by politicians’ brazen mishandling of power.

Horace, however, claims priority in Latin iambic for his Epodes, which, he states, follow the meters and spirit (animos) of Archilochus, though not his subject matter or abusive language (Ep. 1.19.23–25). It is true that the epode collection employs Archilochean meters throughout and attacks only stock figures like the witch Canidia, but there is political urgency (reminiscent of Catullus’ responses to topical issues) too, apparent in the civil war poems 1, 7, 9, and 16. Their overt political slant suggests that Horace’s blame poetry—including the graphic obscenities in Epodes 8 and 12, two vitriolic attacks on aging female sexual partners—can be taken allegorically, though the import is disputed.

With few but striking exceptions, the register of Catullus’ erotic lyric and epigram is high despite his grievances. When he protests his mistress Lesbia’s infidelities, he employs a language of ethical obligation to convey his sense of betrayal. Coarse insults are reserved for his rivals. Where he does at last resort to obscenity in describing her conduct (cc. 11, 37, and 58), its rawness sounds the depths of his own folly as it measures the gap between his fantasies and present reality. Obscenity in the pederastic Juventius cycle (cc. 15 and 21, along with the scatological c. 24) is also directed at rivals and is probably facetious.

As Augustus was consolidating his power, Tibullus and Propertius popularized the genre of erotic elegy (see elegiac poetry, Latin), in which the first-person poet-lover follows Catullus’ lead in relating the vagaries of an affair with an imperious mistress (puella) or, in Tibullus’ Marathus cycle (cc. 1.4, 1.8, 1.9), a greedy boy (puer). Within her short collection Sulpicia, the only female elegist, assumes the subject positions of both poet-lover and puella, responding to the unclear status of the latter by professing herself nobly born. Ovid, a generation later, rings final changes on the elegiac scenario in his three books of Amores, which take the posturing of the speaker to witty extremes, and his Art of Love and Remedies for Love, purportedly instructing men and women in proper amatory tactics. Elegy perpetually defers erotic consummation: total possession of the beloved is the poet-lover’s single aim, but frustration is the obligatory premise of elegiac discourse.11 Absence of resolution allows scope for complex play with alternatives to the male gender role. Mollitia (“softness”) is a trait of both the poet-lover, whose rejection of ordinary masculine pursuits may be deemed unmanly, and his verse, which, in contrast to virile epic, is tender and affecting. Through the trope of servitium amoris (“love as slavery”), elegy inverts gender hierarchy, giving the mistress the whip hand; the equally popular militia amoris (“love as war”) conceit equates the lover’s travails with the hardships of military campaigning. Because its fulfillment is always postponed, elegiac desire may substitute for more nebulous aspirations: resistance to an increasingly oppressive political and moral order and the elegiac poet’s defense of his “lesser” genre over against the cultural authority of epic.

Venus is a key figure in two major epics of this era: On the Nature of Things, Lucretius’ summary of Epicurean science and moral teaching, and Vergil’s Aeneid (see Virgil. In his opening lines, Lucretius invokes the goddess as mother of the Roman race, embodiment of pleasure, the highest good, and supreme procreative force, asking her to endow his poetry with charm and to seek peace for the Roman people by interceding with her lover Mars. Since Epicurus taught that divinities do not intervene in human affairs, this prayer may be understood in figurative terms as homage to the generative instinct. In book 4, however, Lucretius denounces romantic love (1037–1287) as a perversion of that instinct caused by a delusion that the beloved is necessary to the lover’s happiness. Sexual arousal is a physical response to the visual perception of an attractive body. That mechanistic process is what we call “Venus” or love (haec Venus est nobis; hinc autemst nomen amoris, 1058). Passionate love is insatiable, since it cannot be assuaged by taking in any corporeal substance, and has ruinous consequences for health, resources, and reputation. As an alternative to romantic obsession, Lucretius advocates the mutual pleasure of sex with a willing partner and the intimate familiarity (consuetudo, 1283) of a longstanding relationship.

In the Aeneid, Venus triangulates the conflict between the divine agents Jupiter and Juno, respective avatars of order and madness (furor). Unlike Lucretius’ nurturing goddess conferring benefits often warped by human error, she is portrayed as an amoral, capricious power whose fondness for her son Aeneas, though genuine, precipitates the tragedy of Dido. By cold-bloodedly inflaming the Carthaginian queen with passion for her guest and then helping Juno to bring about their ill-fated marriage, Venus sets up the crisis that terminates in Dido’s suicide after being abandoned. Once Aeneas has arrived in Italy, the goddess seduces her husband Vulcan into manufacturing a set of weapons for his stepson (Aen. 8.370–406)—a programmatic vignette, suffused with eroticism, that crystallizes the association between sexuality and violence permeating the last six books of the poem, which manifests itself in the disturbingly sensual deaths of young warriors.12 Venus’ final appearances in book 12, ostensibly in the guise of a divine helper, are likewise ethically ambiguous. By presenting her in such a dubious light, Vergil comments allegorically on the arbitrary and equivocal workings of passion in human life, a phenomenon more aligned with the destructive potential of madness than the sound and lucid operations of reason.

Though erotic desire is the precipitating force behind many of the transformations in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Venus herself is only a bit player. She appears as the bereft lover of the mortal Adonis (Ov. Met. 10.515–739) and as the audience for Jupiter’s prophecies regarding Augustus and the vehicle of Julius Caesar’s apotheosis (Ov. Met. 15.807–848). Amatory encounters in the poem are predominantly heterosexual, but one tale, that of Iphis and Ianthe (Ov. Met. 9.666–797), offers an unusually sympathetic story of mutual infatuation between two girls, one disguised as male. The ubiquity of rape throughout the epic has generated ongoing debate. While the overt sadism of the Philomela episode (Ov. Met. 6.424–674) repels most present-day readers, the preceding tale of Arachne’s weaving contest with the goddess Pallas appears to defend the use of sexual violence as a plot element. In contrast to Pallas, who depicts the gods in majesty, Arachne’s tapestry shows a chaotic series of divine assaults on mortal women. Her rival can find no fault in the work but destroys it anyway. Programmatic implications for the Metamorphoses itself are hard to deny.

The Roman Empire

Although historical and biographical sources for the Imperial period (see Tacitus, Suetonius, Cassius Dio, and the Historia Augusta) preserve scandalous reports of imperial debauchery that have shaped modern popular-culture representations of such emperors as Gaius Caligula, Nero, and Commodus, such stories may be exaggerated or wholly fictitious. Debased practices ascribed to the ruler are those found in the traditional literary stereotype of the tyrant and attributed by Republican orators to political opponents. Correspondingly, women of the imperial household are maligned as adulterous and power hungry. In reality, such accounts tell us only that propaganda hostile to the regime was in circulation.

One likely cause of hostility may have been the steady expansion of authoritarian rule. Coercive measures would arguably have produced increasing resentment, as well as a social anxiety taking the form of alarm over lapses in gender protocols. Elite male observers attributed to a perceived spread of mollitia all sorts of undesirable consequences. In his recollections of famous declaimers, Seneca opines that rhetorical skills are in decline because present-day students of eloquence are lazy, shiftless, and effeminate, in contrast to the manly orators of earlier days (Sen. Con. 1 pref. 8–10). His son Seneca, Stoic philosopher and advisor to Nero, goes further (Ep. 114) in claiming that stylistic extravagance is the hallmark of a dissolute age and citing Augustus’ associate Maecenas as an example of a lax, self-indulgent personality whose writing, infused with the softness of his character, was no less affected and pretentious. Elsewhere (QNat. 1.16) Seneca castigates the notorious voluptuary Hostius Quadra not just for his acknowledged perversions involving sex, active and passive, with multiple partners, but likewise for putting mirrors to improper use as visual stimulants to pleasure. In this Hostius, like other offenders, violates the precept of living according to nature. Movement outside the boundaries of proper masculinity is just one among many ways to violate natural law (Ep. 122.18).13

Though influenced by Greek travel romances (see novel, Greek and “Greek Literature Under Rome”), the prose fictions of Petronius and Apuleius (see novel, Latin) are quite unlike them in subject matter and tone. Both are picaresque novels centered upon the random escapades of socially marginal characters. Bawdy or sadistic humor and graphic sexual encounters are salient features of each narrative. In Satyrica, Petronius’ lacunose novel, the protagonist and narrator Encolpius is physically impotent during much of the surviving text. He and his companion and former lover Ascyltus are rivals for the boy Giton, a storyline generally thought to parody the heterosexual love scenario of the Greek novel. All three, including Giton, are sexually polymorphous. The most explicit sexual episode (Petr. Sat. 19–26) makes the trio victims of humiliating abuse at the hands of women and a cinaedus.

The longest fragment of the Satyrica is the “Cena Trimalchionis,” describing a banquet hosted by the prodigiously rich freedman Trimalchio. Though childless, the host, his friend Habinnas, and another freedman guest, Echion, openly keep delicia, slave boys, as concubines and protégés. Trimalchio himself is the product of such an arrangement: sold as a long-haired boy (capillatus, 29.3), he became his new master’s darling and ultimate heir. His attraction to a young waiter provokes a violent quarrel with his wife Fortunata that forms the climax of the episode (Petr. 74–77). The actual custom of nurturing delicia for entertainment is corroborated by occasional poems commemorating them: see Statius, Silv. 2.1, 2.6, 5.5; Martialis 6.28, 29, on Glaucius, and 5.34 and 37, 10.61; on Erotion.

Finally, the Metamorphoses (Golden Ass) of Apuleius, based upon a Greek Milesian tale (see Aristides), concerns the misadventures of Lucius, a well-born youth transformed by magic into an ass. The novel also contains many inset tales, some fantastical, dealing with witches and supernatural powers, others ribald, the grittiest a series concerned with adulterous wives. The fairy-tale story of Cupid and Psyche, in which Psyche’s naïve curiosity replicates Lucius’ desire for forbidden knowledge, is the longest and most allegorical of these digressions. The protagonist’s erotic experiences, first in human and then in animal form, bookend the plot, which concludes with an enigmatic account of religious conversion perhaps responding to contemporary spiritual currents.

One of the collection of fables versified by Phaedrus blames the existence of molles mares (“soft men”) and tribades upon Prometheus, who, when molding the human race, got drunk and attached the wrong sets of genitalia to the wrong bodies. This just-so story accounts for sexual types who break fundamental rules of gender: women by desiring to penetrate men and other women, men by craving to be penetrated.

Martial’s epigrams rank males addicted to certain abnormal practices. Worse than the pathicus who wants to be penetrated anally is the fellator who performs oral sex on a man and, worse still, the cunnilingus who obliges women.14 These specific identities are all subsumed under the stereotype of the cinaedus, who transgresses gender norms in every respect and may even be a womanizer as well as a pathic.15 To this distasteful nexus Martial adds hypocrisy: the objects of his sanctimony are often covert cinaedi whom he delights in unmasking. Three epigrams, Mart. 1.90, Mart. 7.67, and Mart. 7.70, target the tribas, whose monstrously large clitoris allows her to enter boys and men as well as women (a flight of prurient fancy in which Seneca also indulges at Ep. 95.21). It is likely that the invention of this biological freak reflects the social realities of women’s growing financial freedom and their assumption of some quasi-public, formerly male, responsibilities; it may also mirror the cultural importance of the phallus in Roman life. In the person of the hyper-masculine Megilla, Lucian’s fifth Dialogue of the Courtesans seems to offer the most detailed picture of a tribas, although the term itself is not used. However, the author may be humorously manipulating discursive clichés instead of attempting to depict a specific sexual identity.16

Juvenal, in contrast, alludes to female homoerotic activity only once, as a blasphemous outrage committed by two drunken wives heading home from a dinner party (Sat. 6.306–312). The catalogue of women’s failings in this satire may burlesque the heightened valuation of spousal affection in the writings of Seneca (2) and his fellow Stoic Musonius Rufus. Elsewhere, a female speaker denies (Juv. Sat. 2.47–49) that women engage in oral sex with each other. Her assertion is tendentious, however, as its context is a tirade against cinaedi, whose faults are purportedly greater. Like Martial, Juvenal’s spokeswoman censures their hypocrisy: closeted at first, they pose as Stoic moralists prosecuting female vice, then gradually reveal themselves by joining secret associations of their kind and eventually come out by marrying other men and parading their effeminacy openly. Hence the satirist appears more exercised by male homoeroticism. In Satire 9, conversely, the interlocutor feigns sympathy for Naevolus, a kept man about to lose his rich male patron, and snidely reassures him that he will always have a clientele at Rome.

Priapus, a minor ithyphallic fertility god from Asia Minor, was adopted into the Roman pantheon as protector of gardens and made the subject of versified jokes about his huge member. The Carmina Priapea present the god warning off thieves with threats of anal, oral, and vaginal rape; puns, riddles, and literary allusions abound, indicating that the subject matter is secondary to the ingenious changes being rung on the theme. An early modification is Horace’s Satire 1.8 in which the god recounts his fortuitous success in saving Maecenas’ Esquiline gardens from the predations of the nasty witch Canidia.

Greek Literature under Rome

Under Roman rule, the Greek cities of the Eastern Mediterranean prospered, and literature aimed at the educated population reflected a new sense of Greek identity. Pederasty still operated as a means of socializing adolescents in the elite gymnasium culture of Greek-speaking communities. The epigrammatist Straton compiled a collection of poems dealing with boy-love, among them several expressing preference for pederastic affairs over relations with women (Anth. Pal. 12.7; 17; 197; 245). Comparison of boys and women as erotic objects is also a prose topos. The Erotes attributed to Lucian features a prolonged debate (19–51) between advocates for the two types of love. Marriage is pronounced a useful relationship, into which all men should enter, but chaste pederastic unions are the only ones suited to a philosopher. Conversely, Plutarch’s Dialogue on Love exalts marriage above pederasty because the mutual pleasure of conjugal intercourse produces trust and concord lacking in the unequal relationship of man and boy. In Second Sophistic writings, though, longstanding behavioral arguments are presented with self-conscious playfulness and irony. Extracting definitive conclusions from these slippery texts is not easy.

Prose fiction experiments with a seemingly innovative type of erōs between male and female. In four of the five extant specimens of this genre, a nobly-born boy and girl fall ardently in love but are soon separated. Carried off to foreign realms and enduring physical and emotional tribulations, each tries to remain faithful to the other despite solicitations from wealthier suitors. They are finally reunited and resume their destined place in society. Several unprecedented features of the relationship intrigue students of ancient sexuality: emphasis on mutual desire as an incentive to marriage and voluntary preservation of female virginity up to that point; expectations of sexual exclusivity for both partners (although that convention is sometimes violated); parallelism in gender roles and behaviors, extending to tears and suicide attempts by the male in distress and female violence in defense of chastity.17

Discussion of the Literature

Under the influence of second-wave feminism, classicists in the 1970s and 1980s began to investigate textual representations of female desire, usually transgressive, as stereotypes with real effects upon conditions of existence for Greek and Roman women.18 Starting from those pioneering analyses, feminists have continued to make substantial contributions to our understanding of ancient sexual protocols (see feminism and ancient literature).19 Approaches that treat sexuality as a cultural construct and emphasize the gap between modern Western categories of personal identity and the ancient hierarchical distinction of active and passive roles began with the publication of two foundational works, Dover’s Greek Homosexuality and the English translation of Foucault’s La Volonté de savoir, the first part of his projected multi-volume History of Sexuality.20 This initial volume made little overt mention of antiquity, tracing instead the rise in the 18th and 19th centuries of present-day sexual discourses and the deployment of sexuality as a state regulatory mechanism. In the second and third parts (English translations 1985, 1986, respectively), Foucault turned his attention to investigating how Western man became aware of himself as a desiring subject and consequently how Greco-Roman philosophical, medical, and prescriptive texts problematized bodily pleasure and induced ethical self-reflection in elite male readers. Insights contained in those two volumes were almost immediately taken up by classicists and elaborated in a group of publications whose appearance in and around 1990 marked the birth of ancient sexuality as a subfield of classical studies.21 Like the acceptance of “Women in Antiquity” as a recognized sphere of inquiry twenty years earlier, academic legitimation quickly generated conferences and dedicated journal issues, followed over the next quarter-century by undergraduate courses, sourcebooks, textbooks, general-reader surveys, and at last a Blackwell Companion.

Despite such immediate favorable reception, though, objections to Foucault’s own readings of ancient texts and the investigative projects of his followers soon materialized. Feminist classicists critiqued Foucault’s views as male-biased, inattentive both to gender and to a wide range of evidence that contradicted his concentration upon ethical self-fashioning, and indifferent to Rome’s cultural specificities.22 In common with gay historians, they likewise argued that a constructionist approach to sexuality, evidenced in the studies of Halperin and Winkler, makes investigation of Greek and Roman homophobia and misogyny pointless for the modern world.23 On traditional historical and philological grounds, other classicists pronounced Foucault’s sensitivity to cultural contexts deficient and his exegesis of Second Sophistic narrative discourses overly simplistic.24 Davidson mounted the most sustained attack on the methods of Foucault and his disciples, contending that their now largely canonical “penetration model,” which emphasizes the dichotomy of active and passive roles and correlates social hegemony with sexual dominance, displays an unhealthy preoccupation with sodomy and leaves no room for the possibility of the kind of reciprocal affection that ideally characterizes contemporary same-sex unions.25 Often referred to in the discipline as the “sexuality wars,” these debates, though unfortunately acrimonious, ultimately produced overall consensus that Foucault’s model of ancient sexual ethics based upon male self-control, or enkrateia, was a useful paradigm if applied with proper caution.26

Recent work considers that controversy calcified and urges researchers to move on to further questions. If we accept Foucault’s premise that sexuality is a correlative of discourse, one collection asks, how did ancient discourses about sex function within their specific cultures?27 Other studies, heavily influenced by queer theory, probe the multiple intersections of sexuality and gender.28 Cultural ideals of masculinity and male practices of self-fashioning have come under intense scrutiny.29 The same is true for investigative trajectories based upon polar oppositions, such as the active/passive dichotomy; researchers now point to cases that straddle binaries formerly taken for granted.30 Through their radical otherness, ancient sexual representations continue to cast light on present-day sexual presuppositions.


  • Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
  • Davidson, James N. The Greeks and Greek Love: A Radical Reappraisal of Homosexuality in Ancient Greece. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007.
  • Dover, Kenneth J. Greek Homosexuality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989 [1978].
  • Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1, An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. (Originally published as La Volonté de savoir. Paris: Gallimard, 1976.)
  • Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 2, The Use of Pleasure. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1986. (Originally published as L’Usage des plaisirs. Paris: Gallimard, 1984.)
  • Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 3, The Care of the Self. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1988. (Originally published as Le Souci de soi. Paris: Gallimard, 1984.)
  • Gleason, Maud. Making Men: Sophists and Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.
  • Hallett, Judith P., and Marilyn B. Skinner, eds. Roman Sexualities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.
  • Halperin, David M. One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love. New York: Routledge, 1990.
  • Halperin, David M., John J. Winkler, and Froma I. Zeitlin, eds. Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.
  • Holmes, Brooke. Gender: Antiquity and its Legacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Hubbard, Thomas K., ed. A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.
  • Larmour, David H. J., Paul Allen Miller, and Charles Platter, eds. Rethinking Sexuality: Foucault and Classical Antiquity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.
  • Nussbaum, Martha C., and Juha Sihvola, eds. The Sleep of Reason: Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
  • Ormand, Kirk. Controlling Desires: Sexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.
  • Richlin, Amy. The Garden of Priapus: Sexuality and Aggression in Roman Humor. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983.
  • Richlin, Amy. “Zeus and Metis: Foucault, Feminism, Classics.” Helios 18, no. 2 (1991): 160–180.
  • Richlin, Amy. “Not before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the Cinaedus and the Roman Law against Love between Men.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 3, no. 4 (1993): 523–573.
  • Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
  • Skinner, Marilyn B. “Zeus and Leda: The Sexuality Wars in Contemporary Classical Scholarship.” Thamyris 3, no. 1 (1996): 103–123.
  • Skinner, Marilyn B. Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.
  • Williams, Craig. Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Winkler, John J. The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece. London: Routledge, 1990.