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Good Sex in Ancient Rome

by Beth Divine 30 Apr 2019

The Romans are often depicted as clean-shaven, civilised men, marching in square blocks and straight lines to integrate and merge with primitive and pagan peoples, absorbing them and remaking them in their own image. This, as almost always, is not quite true and is certainly not the whole truth.

The Roman empire, like so many other successful empires wrote their own histories. In the case of the Romans this was quite unique as few other societies had written language, and certainly nothing as organised as Latin.

One thing that they tended not record for posterity is their honest attitude to sex. The records seem to indicate that they were very heteronormative (certainly more so than the ancient Greeks) and that women were pure and good and honest – all saints and Madonnas – while men were sober, caring and attentive husbands, bringing home the bacon while she stayed home, tended house and had babies.

It is, of all things, a natural disaster that has massively aided our understanding of the truth. Pompeii and Herculaneum, both towns devastated by the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius. The towns were devastated and the people mostly killed (the only survivors those who had fled upon seeing the massive smoke and ash plume) but the lava and ash had an unusual effect on the town itself, its buildings and even some of the bodies. It preserved them. The lava flowed so quickly that it took people and animals by surprise, flooding over them and instantly incinerating them in place. The lava then preserved the features and expressions on their faces, and some of the details of their clothing and jewellery.

While this is fascinating (and tragic) enough, there is an enormous store of knowledge preserved on the walls of an ancient brothel. Not only does this prove that the Romans were actually quite adventurous when it came to sex, they were also quite liberal with services offered to women as well as men. Oral, anal and vaginal sex were listed, as were same-sex offerings all with a clear cut pricing structure that presumably reflected the popularity of each service with both clientele and service provider.

While, of course, slavery is wrong, with sexual slavery being up there as one of the worst possible crimes that could be committed, the brothels in Rome could be a way for a slave to gain their emancipation – a portion of the fee paid to the brothel was given to the prostitute, Some of them saved a considerable sum, enough to buy their own freedom and set themselves up in a little business of their own choosing.