history 12 Works of Sexually-Charged Literature From Ancient Rome  

Laura Allan
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Everyone knows the ancient Romans were brilliant thinkers, though a little on the weird end of the behavior spectrum. What you might not know is there's a lot of pervy ancient literature kicking around that shows the Romans were downright bizarre in their sexual habits. Their naughty-time practices ranged from garden variety orgies in ancient Rome to far more horrifying acts involving animals and young children. While some of the over-the-top perversity in ancient Roman literature can be seen as a sign of open-mindedness and sexual liberation, the most fiendish material shows a morally questionable perversion in the true sense of that word.

These works portray homosexuality, bondage, and other sexual behavior your snake-handling pastor might tell you sends practitioners straight to the fiery pits of Christian hell, but which the level-headed among you knows are totally fine and normal. Adultery is in there too, and while that can lead to broken hearts and crimes of passion, is totally justifiable under certain Roman circumstances. 

Other items on this list are violent, disgusting, and morally reprehensible. If you know even a teensy bit about Caligula or Nero, you know incest was just the tip of the iceberg with uber-pervs of the ancient world. It's important to draw a line between the two. Don't conflate homosexuality with pedophilia or bestiality just because they both happened in ancient Rome. That's like thinking the guys on the Bruins teach at MIT in the offseason. 

It's hard to deny that ancient Romans were pretty sexually charged people, and that times have changed a lot since then. You only need to take a quick look at any of this sexually explicit Roman literature to know that for sure. Come on, who doesn't like ancient books with graphic sex? 

The Golden Ass is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list 12 Works of Sexually-Charged Literature From Ancient Rome
Photo: Freebase/Public domain

Also called Metamorphosis, The Golden Ass is the only ancient Roman novel written in Latin that still exists in its entirety. And boy, does it paint an interesting portrait of how ancient Romans approached sexuality.

In the novel, a young man named Lucius gets into trouble while staying in Thessaly, Greece, and is turned into a donkey by a witch. It's like The Emperor's New Groove, only kinkier. Throughout the story, lovers cheat on each other, homosexual fantasies abound, women are wantonly seductive, and sexual violence occurs. What's interesting is, much of this sexuality is viewed as normal, or commonplace. More often than not, Lucius just shakes his head and moves along when he comes across scenes of fornication.  

Despite Lucius's general acceptance of all walks of sexual life, there's one bit in which he feels uncomfortable. In the scene, he's taken, as a donkey, to the chambers of a beautiful, lustful young woman, who declares without hesitation her desire to ride the ass. Though Lucius is aroused, he's also concerned; as a donkey, he could hurt or kill her, given the size of his equipment. Though he eventually engages her with his donkey dizz, he muses:

"But I was greatly troubled by no small fear, thinking in what manner should I be able, with legs so many and of such a size, to mount a tender and highborn lady; or, encircle with hard hooves her limbs softened with milk and honey and so white and delicate; or how, deformed, with teeth like stones and a mouth so enormous and gaping, to kiss her daintily-shaped lips, purpled with ambrosial dew; finally, in what manner my gentlewoman could support so gigantic a genital, though itching all over from her fingertips."

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Satyricon is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list 12 Works of Sexually-Charged Literature From Ancient Rome
Photo: Georges-Antoine Rochegrosse/Public Domain

Satyricon, attributed to Titus Petronius (and thought to be written by Gaius Petronius, a contemporary of Nero), is an odd little piece of literature that employs verse and prose to achieve a uniquely Roman form of satire. It's erotic, comedic, and dramatic, and told in an episodic manner, as can be seen in Federico Fellini's bacchanal film Fellini Satyricon, which is based on the book (which we unfortunately only have in fragments).  

The story follows the adventures of Encolpius and his lover Giton, a teenage servant boy whose name translates as "Cuddles." Various people try to lure Giton away from his lover throughout the novel, and Encolpius pursues hella women on the side. The book has gay marriages, pirates, orgies with unwilling participants, and dark humor throughout. 

What's really fascinating in Satyricon is that sexuality between adults and youths of the same gender is acceptable and commonplace. It also shows group sex, such as orgies, as fairly commonplace, though not always consensual. As history shows us, orgies weren't happening every day, everywhere, for everyone in ancient Rome, but they did pop off from time to time. 

Because of its fragmented nature, Satyricon jumps between scenes. One such fragment goes into detail on a rather rapey orgy:

"We should have cried out for help in our unhappy plight, but there was no one to hear us and besides Psyche pricked my cheeks with her hair pin every time I tried to call upon my fellow countrymen for succor, while at the same time the other girl threatened Ascyltos with a brush dipped in satyrion. Finally there entered a catamite, tricked out in a coat of chestnut frieze, and wearing a sash, who would alternately writhe his buttocks and bump against us, and beslaver us with the most evil-smelling kisses, until Quartilla, holding a whalebone wand in her hand and with skirts tucked up, ordered him to give the poor fellows quarter. Then we all three swore the most solemn oaths the horrid secret should die with us."

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One hundred and twenty epigram... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list 12 Works of Sexually-Charged Literature From Ancient Rome
Photo: Artist Unknown/Public Domain

Martial wasn't scared of ruffling feathers. He published 12 books of poetry, or Epigrams.  Some of his work was silly, some of it was romantic, and a lot a lot of it was really, really dirty. The dirty stuff involved poop fetishes, anal, and pederasty. Even more amusing and horrifying, some of these dirty poems written as odes. For instance:

"I had this really horny broad all night,
A girl whose naughty tricks are unsurpassed.
We did it in a thousand different ways.
Tired of the same old thing, I asked to buttf*ck--
Before I finished speaking, she said Yes.
Emboldened, I then blushed a bit, and laughed,
And asked for something even dirtier.
The lusty wench agreed without a blink.

Still, that girl was pure in my eyes, Aeschylus--
But she won't be for you. To get the same,
You'll have to grant a nasty stipulation."

Wouldn't you know it, Martial's poems were incredibly popular. He was well loved and well known in his lifetime, though faced some serious criticism for his social life and the obscenity of his work. 

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satires is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list 12 Works of Sexually-Charged Literature From Ancient Rome
Photo:  Chico/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain Mark 1.0

Male and female prostitutes were ubiquitous in ancient Rome. Author Juvenal took on prostitution and sexual slavery in his social satire. As was common in Rome, Juvenal had complex views of homosexuality. He condemned effeminate men and those who didn't reproduce, but wrote at length about male prostitutes and young men bought and used solely for sexual acts by other men. Such men are not uniformly portrayed as weak or effeminate, which shows men could be on the receiving end of anal and not disparaged for such. Of course, being that they were slaves, it's unlikely they were willing parties.

As with any satire, Juvenal's work can't be taken as indicative of society in a literal sense. Some modern scholars argue Juvenal assumed a literary mask, meaning he wrote from the perspective of the people he satirized. It's probably impossible to discern whether this is true thousands of years after the author died, so what Juvenal was satirizing remains subject to debate. 

Juvenal also wrote about lesbianism, in particular frenzied sex parties with slaves and their owners at which girl-on-girl activity went down. In the sixth of his satires, he wrote:

"Well known to all are the mysteries of the Good Goddess, when the flute stirs the loins and the Maenads of Priapus sweep along, frenzied alike by the horn-blowing and the wine, whirling their locks and howling. What foul longings burn within their breasts! What cries they utter as the passion palpitates within! How drenched their limbs in torrents of old wine! Saufeia challenges the slave-girls to a contest. Her agility wins the prize, but she has herself in turn to bow the knee to Medullina. And so the palm remains with the mistress, whose exploits match her birth!"

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The Sex Manuals Of Elephantis ... is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list 12 Works of Sexually-Charged Literature From Ancient Rome
Photo: Artist Unknown/Public Domain

The Sex Manuals of Elephantis are unique on this list because there are no extant copies in the 21st century. Elephantis was a well-know Greek writer, active during the days of ancient Rome, who produced graphically illustrated sex position manuals. She was adored by those kinky Romans.

If there are no surviving copies of her naughty little manuals, how do we know all this? Because Roman authors and playwrights wrote of Elephantis and the value of her work. Martial mentioned her work as helpful to inexperienced lovers looking to try new positions. Suetonius touched upon how widespread the works were in Rome. Tiberius was said to own a full set of her erotic manuals. Her name also comes up in the works of Pliny and Galen.

Ars Amatoria is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list 12 Works of Sexually-Charged Literature From Ancient Rome
Photo: Kempffer/Public Domain

If you're curious about wooin' and screwin' in ancient Rome, Ovid is happy to help. His Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love) is a series of three books, the first of which explains how to find a woman, the second of which explains how to keep her, the third of which explains, for women, how to keep a man. In other words, this is one of the earliest self-help books, and it was full of sexual discussion. 

There are sections on how not to forget a woman's birthday and not asking her overly personal questions, as you might see in many self-help books. There are also kinky sex details. Ovid writes about how men can achieve their most intense orgasm and which sexual positions work best. In the third book, you'll find a sex manual for women, which tells them to play to their strengths:

"She who’s known for her face, lie there face upwards:let her back be seen, she who’s back delights. Milanion bore Atalanta’s legs on his shoulders: if they’re good looking, that mode’s acceptable. Let the small be carried by a horse: Andromache, his Theban bride, was too tall to straddle Hector’s horse. Let a woman noted for her length of body, press the bed with her knees, arch her neck slightly. She who has youthful thighs, and faultless breasts, the man might stand, she spread, with her body downwards."

In other words: make sure you look your best when it's time to hop on the D-train to Bonetown. The sex will be better that way. 

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The Elegies of Propertius Spea... is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list 12 Works of Sexually-Charged Literature From Ancient Rome
Photo: Auguste Vinchon/Public Domain

Sextus Propertius wrote quite a bit about love and sex, often taking a female point of view. Even when assuming the female gaze, however, his sex writing was violent. Where there's shagging in his elegies, there are bruises, torn clothing, pulled hair, and domination. The poetry is desperate, vicious, and portrays domination and submission in the bedroom

What's more, the man is not always dominant in these relationships. In some stories, the mistress is very forceful, and causes her man great suffering. This suffering is part and parcel of sexual desire.

"There is no constant faithfulness that won’t turn to quarreling: let cold women be my enemies’ lot. Let my friends see the wounds in my bitten neck: let the bruises show my girl has been with me. I want to suffer with love, or hear of suffering: I’d rather see your tears or else my own, whenever your eyebrows send me hidden messages, or you write with your fingers words that can’t be spoken. I hate those sighs that never shatter sleep: I’d always wish to turn pale at an angry girl."

The Poems Of The Priapeia Are ... is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list 12 Works of Sexually-Charged Literature From Ancient Rome
Photo:  Fer.filol/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain Mark 1.0

The Priapeia is a collection of 95 poems, by various authors, all about Priapus, god of penises. The poems were found, not on paper, but on a series of statues of the god of d*cks. Some contain monologues in which Priapus congratulates himself on his sexual prowess, delivered to no one in particular in massive orchard, of which he was the guardian. 

Martial, Virgil, and Ovid all offered their two inches in different sections of these poems. Some of the poems are as eloquent as the following:

"Darkly might I to thee say: Oh give me for ever and ever
What thou may'st constantly give while of it nothing be lost:
Give me what vainly thou'lt long to bestow in the days that are coming
When that invidious beard either soft cheek shall invade;
What unto Jove gave he who, borne by the worshipful flyer,
Mixes the gratefullest cups, ever his leman's delight;
What on the primal night maid gives to her love-longing bridegroom
Dreading ineptly the hurt dealt to a different part.
Simpler far to declare in our Latin, Lend me thy buttocks;
What shall I say to thee else? Dull's the Minerva of me."

Other subjects addressed in the Priapeia include sodomy, bestiality, and masturbation.