Roman sex

Sex and the Romans

What is the most important decision we make in our lives? It is surely the decision of marriage — whom do we marry? And the big question is, who decides who you are going to marry: you or your mother? Or the tribe, or the family? This is surely the most important decision anyone can make, and marks the difference between barbarism and civilisation: in a civilised society, you decide, for better or for worse. In a kinship-based society, your kin decides. And the Romans come out on the right side. As we as we shall see, this right, the ius matrimonii, is one of the earliest parts of Rome’s magic formula.

Rome’s attitude to sex and love is encapsulated in one of the most notorious Roman poems, Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, the Art of Love.

Beneath the staid covers of the Loeb edition of Ovid, there lurks a lurid manual of sex and love

Written in the closing years BC, this is a comparatively short epic poem in just three books providing an instruction manual on how to catch your girl: or rather the first two books tell you how to catch your girl and the third book, turns round and is addressed to the ladies and tells them how to catch their man. Throughout there is a slightly scandalous and indeed very modern feel: it is very like women’s magazines such as Cosmopolitan.

Cosmopolitan, one of the more sucessful women’s magazines of the late 20th century, seems to thrive on a formula that would have been very much at home in ancient Rome

On the rare occasions that I peruse Cosmopolitan, I always feel that the writers must have taken a good look at Ovid before rewriting their advice to the modern reader.

It is of course questionable how far one should take the Ars Amatoria seriously; did the Romans really behave like this? indeed in one passage much quoted by puritanical modern scholars, Ovid says that of course his advice does not apply to the well bred Roman lady. Perhaps so: equally, I am sure that Cosmopolitan does not truly reflect the mores of the average bourgeois English couple. Nevertheless it was read and admired: it may have been exaggerated, but it would not have made sense at all had it been wholly unrealistic.

The poem was not altogether a success: shortly after it was published, Ovid was banished from Rome to the Black Sea, a punishment which he spent the rest of his life lamenting. Whether or not it was the Ars Amatoria that caused the banishment is uncertain: it is possible that he had a secret love affair with the emperor’s daughter which did not help. In any case Augustus had recently introduced legislation to promote family life, so the poem was perhaps ill-timed.

Of course there were still dynastic marriages in Rome, particularly among the upper classes, though I think these are always regarded as being somewhat unusual perhaps even somewhat scandalous; look at what these wretched aristocrats are prepared to put up with to further their political careers! The average Roman marriage was something far more sensible, decided between the man and the woman, for themselves.

Admittedly it appears, at least among the upper classes that there tended to be a disparity in the ages: men married in their mid 20s, whereas most girls were married off in their early teens, and it is difficult to know how much choice a girl of 14 has when wooed by man of 23. But this disparity is not apparent in the love literature, so perhaps it was not as common as is sometimes made out.


Fresco from a house in Herculaneum

Indeed the poems of Catullus (84 – 54 BC) also tell the same story. In his most famous poem, he urges his girl to give him a thousand kisses, then a hundred, then another thousand then another hundred — and then let us tear up the reckoning and start all over again so that nobody can know just how many kisses we have had.

It is a hot piece of work and is widely admired for its poetry and its sex. However in this inquisition into Roman society, let us put aside all ideas of poetry and sex and look instead at the sociology. Here we have a case where man and woman are equal: the man besieges the girl to give him kisses but the girl presumably is in a position to say no and reject his advances. Critics allege that these poems addressed to Lesbia were in fact addressed to Clodia, a married woman. The point is irrelevant: the poems are simply addressed from one lover to another, and again this gives us a fascinating insight into the social life of ancient Rome. It is one where men can chat up girls freely, can kiss them and pet them and thoroughly get to know them before, presumably getting down to the serious business of marriage. It is all very modern, very unchristian, and very civilised.

There is none of the segregation of the sexes which even today we see in many parts of the world where there is huge frustration that men are not even allowed to talk to girls, and where women must remain veiled and where the young couple do not even meet until the marriage ceremony, unless perhaps they are cousins – which is why cousin marriage is so common and so undesirable. One might almost say – not altogether flippantly – that chatting up girls and kissing them ardently, before marriage, is the very essence of civilisation. And as Ovid and Catullus demonstrate, Rome was very civilised.



But how far does Ovid’s account of The Art of Love apply  to marriage?

Click here for an account of Roman marriage