8 Weird Sex Facts about the Romans

by | Apr 6, 2021 | Libido, Uncategorized | 22 comments

8 Weird Sex Facts about Roman Times
Merchandise is Here!

How did different eras in time treat sex?

I’d like to spend April doing some romps through history looking at how we’ve seen libido, the role of sex in marriage and culture, women’s sexuality, and more. Sometimes we get to assuming that our way of thinking about sex is just “the way things are”, and just “that’s the way our bodies are made.”

But when we see from other points  in history that it actually wasn’t assumed to be that way, then we can understand how much our culture has also played a role in shaping how we see sex!

We’re going to start this series looking at sex in Roman times.

I picked that time period because that was the culture into which Paul was writing, and in which Jesus was living (though Jesus focused more on the Jewish culture of His day than the Roman side of it). That can help illuminate what Paul may have meant by different passages that he wrote about sex, too!

I asked Connor to comb through the history sites and books on hand and find out a few facts that we may not realize about how the Romans saw sex! Now, Connor wants you all to know that he’s not a historian, but he only including stuff here if he found it from multiple sources! So let’s take a look at 8 things he discovered, and then I have a big overarching thought I want to share.

But first, here are my girls in front of the colosseum several years ago!

Italy Colisseum

#1. Prostitution was common

In certain periods of Roman history, visiting a prostitute was considered normative for men, even if they were married, so long as it was a legitimate establishment. Brothels would often be located near upper class residences for convenience.

#2. Prostitution shared a stigma with other professions

While prostitution was common, it was not prestigious. Being a prostitute carried a negative stigma with it, but prostitutes were not alone in this. Any profession where one made a living by using their body to entertain was in the same category as prostitution. This included stage actors and gladiators.

#3. Sex was considered one-sided

Sexual gratification was considered to be reserved for the husband in a relationship. For wives, their consolation prize was the opportunity to produce offspring. Wives were also expected to remain faithful while allowing their husbands to philander with any unmarried and agreeing women or boys they desired.

#4. Same sex intercourse was common, but not considered homosexual

The Romans did not look at people in terms of sexuality, but in terms of sexual roles. So long as a man was only ever the penetrator, and never the penetrated, he was still considered strong and masculine. But in the eyes of the Romans, if a man was on the receiving end he was adopting the role of the woman, and was reviled as effeminate.

#5. Sex was about power

Because sex was generally framed in this dynamic of dominant and submissive roles, which carried social implications and ramifications, power differentials were baked into the fabric of sexual life. A man with status had a lot of license to engage in sexual liaisons outside of his marriage with anyone who held a lower place in society. In fact it is generally the most powerful people in Roman society who have the longest list of varied exploits and specific fetishes. Even wealthy women are reported to have had sexual appetites for lower-order men like dancers and gladiators.

Our family in the stadium in Ephesus in 2012.

#6. Romans may not have been as debauched as it seems

Most of the knowledge we have about sex in Roman culture is from the viewpoint of wealthier, upper-class citizens, since they were more likely to be literate, to have the time and inclination to write, and to have other people care enough to preserve their writings. The image we sometimes get from these accounts is that everyone was having sex with everything all the time right out in the streets. But there is historical evidence suggesting that many of the common people looked down on the sexual debauchery of the higher classes, and that the non-wealthy majority had far more reserved sexual practices. Which makes a kind of sense. If extramarital sex is reserved mostly for using those far below you in social status, then people at the bottom of the hierarchy would not have the same array of sexual outlets.

#7. Rape was taken very seriously. For some.

As much as sex involved power differentials, rape was strictly prohibited, and victims (either male or female) were found blameless, and received no stigma. In fact, rape was one of the few things automatically punishable by execution, with no statute of limitations. All of this being said, of course, with one major caveat: It only applied to the rape of Roman citizens in good standing. If a slave was raped, it was charged as property damage, with reparations paid to the slave-owner.

#8. Sex toys existed

There are plenty of rumors and myths about ancient sex toys, including the idea that Cleopatra would fill a vessel with bees and use it as a vibrator, but the source of these stories are often iffy (and Rebecca says–“I seriously hope that’s not true, because that is one part of my anatomy I would not want anywhere near bees!”). With the Greco-Romans, though, there are plenty of illustrations and literary mentions of–how shall we put this?–things which mimic the male anatomy 🙂 . They could be made a number of ways, including stuffed leather, stone, and even carefully shaped bread! Since the culture only conceived of sex as a penetrative act, the expectation was still that whoever assumed the female role was going to at some point need to have something penetrating them.

If we could sum up what all of this means, it would be this: In Roman times, there wasn’t an expectation that sex and intimacy would be linked. 

Sex was about power, and about animal appetites, and even about spirituality or attaining a new state of being. But it wasn’t about cementing intimacy in the way that we would think today.

It isn’t only that upper class Romans were promiscuous (we know less about the lower classes!), but that this idea of an intimate marriage is somehow missing. Marriage was a contract of convenience that allowed property rights and status, but not relationship. 

And when intimacy is divorced from sex, then ideas like power take over.

That’s a good reminder to us of the gift that we have in our heritage–that sex is an ultimate “knowing”, as it’s talked about in Genesis 4. Sure, we may have gotten that really messed up, and the Old Testament patriarchs certainly were not great examples of real intimacy. But we see in the Bible these glimpses of how things were supposed to be. 

When sex is focused on power, ugly things happen and intimacy flees. That’s a good lesson from the Romans. And tomorrow, let’s see how Paul’s words about sex, written to this culture, would have rocked them!

8 Weird Things about Sex in Roman Times

Does anything stand out to you? What do you think our biggest similarities are? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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22 Comments

  1. Long time listener, first time caller

    Rome is definitely all about power. I’d just like to share/add:
    A typical Roman man would have had three women in his life. His wife was for producing heirs. His mistress was for intellectual conversations and hosting duties. The prostitute was for sex.
    Also, a man with smaller… equipment was considered more desirable and attractive (which is reflected in their art and poetry).

    Reply
  2. Bethany#2

    Looking forward to reading this month! Read it right before work, so if I have a slow moment, I can think about how the bible played into it.

    Reply
    • NL

      I feel like a lot of modern advice expects us to be all three, plus the housekeeper.

      Reply
      • Larisa

        As a student of history I was excited to hear about this series! I love your work and podcasts, especially the recent calling out of harmful books. However, I was disappointed not to see sources for this article!

        Reply
  3. Alison

    “For wives, their consolation prize was the opportunity to produce offspring.” Yeah, ‘cuz we all know how good pregnancy and labor feel! 😂 Seriously though, having children is *such* a blessing, but it sure isn’t pleasant to bring them into this world.

    Reply
  4. Anon

    History, sex and God?!
    As a history teacher I am going to love this series! While I haven’t specialized in Roman history I have of course read a lot about it when studying and nothing that Connor has found here is wrong.

    Reply
  5. Chris

    A similar pattern of the middle class being revolted bu the sexuality of the upper classes occurs in the renaissance era as well. History repeats itself.

    Reply
  6. Emmy

    What an interesting series! I’m going to devour every part of it, I’m sure!

    Reply
  7. Becky

    This series looks like it’s going to be quite interesting!
    Also, I agree 100% with Rebecca about the bees.

    Reply
  8. Andrea

    Prostitution continued to be common and I would stay still is today in the form of online porn. In 19th cen. Russia (I’m not sure about other European countries and I can’t wait for this series to get to the Victorian era) prostitution was legal and the most common way for an aristocrat boy to lose his virginity. Tolstoy wrote about it openly and devastatingly in The Kreutzer Sonata. He was 14 years old, taken to the brothel by his older brothers, and said he wept by the prostitute’s bed after it was over.
    But the reason that prostitution was legal is one that might sound familiar to today’s evangelicals in its rhetoric: masturbation was considered harmful and boys need their release! The result was that syphilis (which WILL actually cause you to go blind) spread like wildfire. The typical marriage, as was Tolstoy’s, was between a young woman between the ages of 16-18 and a debauched diseased bachelor in his 30s. The marriage manuals of the day instructed men (and they were only meant for men to read) not to treat their wife like a prostitute, reminding them that “those women” are paid to tell them they’re the best they ever had, while their new virgin bride might find the whole thing repelling.
    When I read an article a few years ago about how comprehensive sex education programs in the U.S. now include “porn literacy,” which instructs young boys that the women they sleep with some day in real life are not going to like it if they try any of the stuff they’ve seen in porn, I realized that things actually haven’t improved that much, they’ve just gone digital.

    Reply
  9. Wild Honey

    Tangentially related is that the concept of authority and submission back then was much more tied to social standing (and socio-economic status) than it was to gender. A patrician woman, for example, wouldn’t think twice about ordering around a male plebeian or slave. Within their own class, authority became more gender biased, but the idea that every single woman owes intrinsic submission to every single man is a very modern idea.
    I mean, Cleopatra was a pharaoh, for goodness sake. And the only men we ever read about her submitting to were those who held political, military, or religious influence or power that she wanted on her side.

    Reply
  10. Sarah

    As someone who has a degree in classics, these are totally on point for Rome. And not surprising at all.
    What is surprising is how much it honestly sounds like today’s culture. I mean “don’t be a pu**y” is an insult these days (number 4), the so called higher classes are definitely more into weird stuff than the average person (Epstine and Co. Etc.), and porn is really just socially accepted prostitution. Sadly one of the only stark changes is in the view of rape….and I can tell you, if your worse than an ancient Roman you’re not doing that great because it’s not a high bar (unless you’re a road….they did those pretty well).
    On a side note to add to your post, the Roman’s put ducks on EVERYTHING! And I mean, everything. (I can link to some examples if need be) Kinda like living in a frat house but it’s everywhere. And also, their graffiti when it’s been preserved (like in Pompeii) is exactly the sort of thing you’d find in bathroom stalls today.
    Nothing really changes.

    Reply
  11. Hannah H

    This series looks like so much fun! Thank you so much for taking time to delve into the history of sex and see it in a more healthy way.
    I’m currently in pre-marital counseling with my fiance and I wish they’d stop treating sexual intimacy like this taboo topic that shouldn’t be discussed much before marriage. My pastor and his wife are very much into submission of the wife to the husband in all things, especially when it comes to sex. I’m extremely overwhelmed at how heavily they emphasize complementarian gender roles and the importance of the wife initiating sex – primarily, “not depriving the husband”. Thankfully I’ve been a follower of the blog for a while so I know this isn’t right! I’m still very intimidated by hearing these teachings and not being able to gently push back (they leave no time for discussion during counseling). But I can’t wait to see what this series has to add to the ongoing conversation about healthy marriage and sex.

    Reply
    • Marcia Ferris

      Can I recommend that you introduce your fiance to this web site? That way you both can discuss these ideas together, even if the pastor won’t.

      Reply
    • Hannah

      Could you take your copy of the Great Sex Rescue to the next meeting? Then at the start, say it’s been recommended to you (I’ve read it, I’m single, and I definitely recommend it). Ask for them to read it and give you their take on it. And less confrontational than ‘you’re wrong, and here’s how to fix it.’ If they’re teaching this to all couples, that’s potentially a lot of damage, so future couples would benefit too. I’d suggest reading it before you hand it over.

      Reply
      • Hannah H

        That’s a good idea, Hannah! Unfortunately my fiancé and I are doing counseling over Zoom due to being in a different state from my pastor (I’m finishing a degree, my fiancé is working at a job an hour from me). I will absolutely recommend The Great Sex Rescue to them – can’t exactly give them my copy of the book at this time though!

        Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, that’s a sad situation, Hannah! Does your fiance agree with you, or is he more in agreement with the pastor, because that’s a big thing to sort out before marriage. Also, we have a Honeymoon Prep Course that helps you get ready for the honeymoon! You can take it as a couple if you’re interested!

      Reply
      • Hannah H

        I have shown him this blog and he loves it! We are definitely in agreement on this subject and we both feel uncomfortable about how the pastor and his wife are handling this. But, this pastor is supposed to be officiating our wedding so we’re a little stuck.
        I’m a young Christian and so is my fiancé – we’re far from seasoned veterans of the faith. My pastor and his wife seem very entrenched in their beliefs so I’m hesitant to “contradict” them because I’m not sure that it would be a fruitful conversation. But I’m feeling a lot of anxiety and conviction over what they’re teaching us, so I may end up bringing it up anyway.

        Reply
        • Rebecca Lindenbach

          Hi, Hannah–I just want to say one thing about the whole “young Christian” thing, as someone who grew up Christian who married a man who had been a Christian for less than 2 years at the point we got married. Just don’t let anyone look down on you or question your faith, wisdom, discernment, or understanding because you’re “young.” You have the Spirit, you love Jesus, and you’re seeking truth. Of course, I’m not saying you have to talk to your pastor about this, but in general just don’t let yourself be looked down on because you haven’t been a Christian for long. My husband taught me so much about faith and God because his perspective is so different than mine (and in many ways, much healthier actually).

          Reply
      • Angela

        Hi Hannah!
        I just wanted to say, if you are feeling anxiety and not peace, then perhaps some of what you are hearing isn’t from God. Let Peace lead you. Also, if you are anxious, you are probably not feeling conviction from the Holy Spirit. You are probably discerning that the teachings/viewpoints you are hearing are not lining up with what you already know to be true.
        I don’t know how much time you have before the wedding, or the area you’re in. I think, though, you could do a search for counseling that offers John Gottman’s methods, so to speak; also I’ve heard of something called prepare and enrich marriage counseling. Some counselors and even churches offer that. That might be okay to look into if you have time.
        Also, I echo what Rebecca said And also what Sheila said in regards to being on the same page.

        Reply
  12. Headless Unicorn Guy

    As I would describe Upper-Class Roman Sex:
    An ANIMAL FORCED DOMINANCE DISPLAY.
    ANIMAL.

    Reply
  13. Jacey

    I’ve been having a really hard time finding much good things about sex for woman or sex in general! And this even further proves it. The Bible gives psalms maybe as an example of a wife enjoying sex and her husband. And Corinthians says a wife should enjoy it. But there are very few real life times when this actually happens. I swear sex has done more damage in this world than good. Even your studies show how little woman enjoy sex. I still think it’s weird how God designed sex so hard for woman to climax and how it’s hard to actually climate during intercourse which is how cutler defines sex so we feel that we are broken when it doesn’t happen or that it takes so long to get there manually and feel bad for our husband the amount of time it takes for us to get there. Sure woman can have multiple orgasms but what’s the point it is so much work to get there or it’s too hard to even get there. I don’t know what God was thinking when he designed the female anatomy. We can say sin has gotten in the way but even looking at history it’s never been great for woman. Men having prostitutes, multiple wife’s and what not. Sex as long as I have know it and too this day still seems as though it’s always about the man finishing. There is never not seems as if it has ever been about the woman’s pleasure or as you have said in your book an after thought. If she gets it good if she doesn’t oh well. I’m also so saddened in this world with molestation and rape of children and woman. I donate to a Christian ministry in Pakistan and they give food and share the gospel but the stories I hear from them are horrific selling their children as child brides to provide food. They have modern day slaves even. I honestly get so mad someday because I feel like what would this world be like if there was no sex can’t woman just be self producers of children. How much better our Society would be without sex. How many marriages it would save. No Afairs, no multiple wifes/ prostitutes. Woman wouldn’t have to worry or be frustrated with not orgasming. No child molestation/rape. Why did God create something that turned out way worse than I feel like anything else He created. Sometimes I wish I could just ask Him. This has just been on my mind for a while. I just really see very little good that sex has brought to our world. And just don’t feel like it was worth creating. But I’m not God and one day I can ask Him.

    Reply

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