Pompeii – A City Swimming in Sex Sex is an all-consuming subject for some, so let’s not pretend all anyone wants to know about Rome is that it had cool art, and cooler architecture. The reality is people are curious about sex in the times before AIDS and birth control pills, long before restrictive cultures made sex less fun and even illegal. Never fear, if you have lived your whole life not knowing what a Roman pimp is called and that he plied his trade with impunity, you’re about to find out.
First, ideas about sex and sexuality were similar in many ways. It’s not rocket science Tab A still goes into Slot B, but there were some key differences. The world’s oldest profession was entirely legal, but prostitutes had to register with the state each year. There was no real shame to this act and sometimes even noble women had their names added to the rolls to avoid being forced to marry. A Roman pimp was a leno and the female version was called a lena. Prostitutes were divided into classes with the lowest sort being unregistered women or slaves. The unregistered prostitutes were subject to all manner of abuse, including arrest by the magistrate. Most lenos were legitimate businessmen, if they can be called such, who operated brothels stocked with slaves, registered prostitutes and upper classed party girls exempt from the registration rules. For female slaves, being forced into prostitution was a terrible fate; there were clauses in the sale contracts of many slaves granting their freedom if they should be forced into prostitution.
As for sexuality itself, it was broken down into a giver and a receiver, to put it as delicately as possible. The receivers could be male or female and there was no shame in homosexuality as long as you were not the receiver. For a male to assume the submissive role during sex was seen as supreme weakness, the worst thing to be in a culture that thrives on strength. People frowned on it and it was a source of amusement and ridicule in politics. Many a senator or consul was plagued by rumors of passive acceptance of male advances. Caesar himself was called the Queen of Bithynia because of whispers of an affair with King Nicomedes in his youth. Whether they were true or not, Caesar fought the gossip all his life and even went so far as to deny it under oath at least once.
While prostitution was legal, adultery was illegal unless the sex was with a slave you owned. A husband, as the Paterfamilias or male head of the family, could divorce or murder an unfaithful wife as well as their children without penalty. In a society so dominated by class, status, and gender it’s no wonder sex was handled as an everyday course of business with only its so-called abuses subjected to close inspection. As long as a man was not a complete degenerate prone to public displays of debauchery, the state left him alone to sort out his own affairs.
As for other forms of sexuality, they were less taboo as well. Bacchanalia rituals were the original orgies and that’s exactly how it went down inside hidden rooms in the grand homes of the city. The rituals were to honor Dionysus, the Greek god of wine but had their basis in an even older, more primitive Thracian cult. The rituals were frowned upon in polite Roman society, but more than a few senators and senator’s wives were known to indulge. Officially Romans were pious and beyond reproach despite their penchant for murder, and enslavement. These parts of society were relegated to hidden clubs which operated with impunity so long as they remained in the shadows. Sex in the city of Rome was as clandestine and yet openly hypocritical as any modern society without modern medicine and with consequences that reached far beyond anything a shot of penicillin could fix.