What Sex Was Like In Ancient Rome

If one were to base knowledge of Roman history on film and television, it'd be easy to think the entire civilization was a giant "adult get-together" interrupted by the occasional gladiator match. But sexuality in ancient Rome was actually far more complicated than lustful parties. It played an important part in culture, as pleasure and a fundamental tenet of society. 

In many ways, Rome wasn't so different from today's world: It had "professionals" of various classes, there were same-gender relationships, and people really loved seeing depictions of "the act." 

But there was also a dark side.

The civilization's use of slavery meant millions were oppressed on a constant basis. Everyone from soldiers to political figures was responsible, as power extended far beyond dominion over slaves. 

Still, it's hard not to be impressed with the progressive outlook many Romans had regarding the subject. It was a view that would change drastically as the empire embraced Christianity and headed into the Middle Ages. Read on to learn how sexuality was viewed in ancient Rome, and pick up a few Roman sex facts to impress your friends. 

  • Sexual Assault Played A Major Role In Founding Rome

    Sexual Assault Played A Major Role In Founding Rome
    Photo: Djkeddie / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In most history books, there isn't much talk about Rome in the days before it became a republic. You could consider pre-republic Rome a nation of thugs. Because of their vast power, Romans expanded their territory (and numbers) by targeting neighboring city-states, and simply taking what they wanted, including people. One of the most infamous examples of this occurred in 750 BCE, after Romans decided they needed a population boost. 

    They abducted and impregnated women from the neighboring Sabine tribes, and thus began the cultural melting pot that was Rome. 

  • Being Gay Was Cool, Being A Lesbian Was Not

    In ancient Rome, men were completely free to have same-gender relations, but there were a few catches. First, the only way to do it openly (and not lose one's social standing) was to be the dominant partner in the relationship. In which case, you could freely engage with whomever you pleased, including slaves, working girls, even actors.

    However, men and women were certainly not of equal standing in ancient Rome. Because of strict gender roles, Romans frowned upon women taking on any kind of dominant role in society. Thus, these kinds of acts between women typically involved a man as well, as the act of penetration was a symbol of power.

  • The Stoics Preferred Lovemaking For Social Stability

    The Stoics of Rome didn't really like the idea of having relations for the sake of pleasure. To them, it was an act of affection that bonded people together and kept family units stable. According to Stoic philosophers, it was a natural, but unnecessary, desire. In their eyes, sexuality was to be approached with a clear, rational mind, so as not to cloud judgment or reason. 

    The Stoics also emphasized the equality of all people, including slaves and women. Therefore, according to Stoics, "the deed" was not to infringe upon the freedom or will of an individual. 

  • Gladiators Performed In More Places Than The Arena

    Outside of slaves, entertainers were the lowest rung of Roman society, and were occasionally treated as such. Since gladiators were, relatively speaking, top-tier entertainers of Rome, it's no surprise plenty of men and women wanted to indulge their desires by sleeping with the performers. Such lascivious dalliances included discreet encounters in which the wives of prominent figures paid to be pleasured by the champions of the arena. And, like any type of high-profile celebrity relationship, they were not without their scandals. 

    Faustina, the wife of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, was supposedly so aroused by gladiators her husband consulted a soothsayer about the situation. This oracle suggested Faustina have relations with a gladiator (she did), that the gladiator in question be executed on top of her, and that she bathe in his blood to satisfy, and cleanse herself of, her lust (this happened). She then did it with Marcus Aurelius immediately afterward.

  • The Romans Helped Spread Kissing Throughout The World

    According to an article in The Daily Beast, ancient Romans loved kissing, so much so that they spread the tradition throughout their empire, and, therefore, around the world. Kissing was such a big part of ancient Roman life it became codified in law and social custom, and Roman men reportedly developed an oral fixation - they were obsessed with how kissing was done, who should be kissed, and under what circumstances someone should be kissed.

    Romans also kissed passionately in front of a large group of people as part of their wedding ceremony, a tradition that continues today. 

  • Inbreeding Was Relatively Common

    Inbreeding Was Relatively Common
    Photo: 白拍子花子 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    While it wasn't particularly widespread (and was frowned upon), incest did exist in ancient Rome. Typically, those involved were ones who could get away with it, like powerful political figures.

    One of the most famous myths of incest involves Nero, who was said to have had relations with his mother. However, this myth has been sufficiently busted.