Ancient History What Sex Was Like in Ancient Rome  

Aaron Edwards
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If one were to base knowledge of Roman history on film and television, it's easy to think the entire civilization was a giant orgy interrupted by the occasional gladiatorial match. 

But sex 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 prostitutes of various classes, there were homosexual relationships, and people really loved porn. 

But, like diving too far on even one's most trusted porn site, there was also a dark side.

The civilization's use of slavery meant millions were sexually abused 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 sex. It was a view that would change drastically as the Empire embraced Christianity, and headed into the Middle Ages. Read on to learn what sex was like in ancient Rome, and pick up a few Roman sex facts to impress your friends. 

Rape Played a Major Role in Founding Rome

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Photo: Jacques Stella/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 was the rape of the Sabine women, an incident that occurred in 750 BCE, after Romans decided they needed a population boost. 

Their solution? Abduct and impregnate women from the neighboring Sabine tribes.  And thus began the cultural melting pot that was Rome. 

See what other crazy things they did here.

Being Gay Was Cool, Being a Lesbian Was Not

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Photo: Gustave Courbet/Public Domain

In ancient Rome, men were completely free to have homosexual 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 have sex with whomever you pleased. This included slaves, prostitutes, even actors.

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

Infidelity Could Mean Death for Women

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Photo: Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée/Public Domain

Rome had a pretty bad double standard when it came to cheating on your spouse. Women were expected to let husbands go philandering, but the minute a woman cheated, she had hell to pay.

Wives were seen as the dutiful family servants who existed to make babies. Women had few rights, and the minute they became unfaithful in male-dominated society, they were beaten or, in some cases, killed.

Inbreeding Was Relatively Common

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Photo: Artist Unknown/Public Domain

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. As in, powerful political figures or some of the more unhinged emperors, such as Nero.

Nero was known to have sex with his mother, Agrippina ("...he had incestuous relations with her, which were betrayed by the stains on his clothing."), and Caligula... well, there's a category about him in this article called "Sister-F*cking."