Ideals of Sexuality in Rome and Their Impact on America
A Brief History
It is undeniable that we owe a major thanks to the Romans for their contribution to our notions of modern medicine, road systems, mathematics, and many more. But an area that gets overlooked is their impact on our ideas of sexuality. Most of the credit is often given to the Greeks, when in reality, they held a more refined beliefs, especially about homosexuality, compared to Romans. The concept of sexuality as being fluid is a concept that was derived from the times of Ancient Rome. In this blog, I will be diving into the relationship between Roman ideals on sexuality compared to those of modern day America.
Pursuit of Pleasure
Statue of Bacchus in Villa Vizcaya taken by Hayden Anderson
A common image of Roman history is its emphasis on hedonism. Founded by Aristippus, hedonism is referred to as the theory that pleasure comes before all else. This is exemplified in the decadence of the Roman lifestyle which is commonly depicted in paintings from the time era. While hedonism was created in Greece, the Greeks often looked down upon the Romans for their outward pursuit of pleasure and described their erotic practices as “gross” (1). The shame around sex and the removal of hedonistic ideals grew even more apparent as Catholicism rose in Rome. This transition was a major turning point, and began to shape Roman culture as it is better known today.
While the majority of our culture aligns with Catholic Rome, hedonism can still be seen through those who enjoy the finer things in life. In an attempt to create an atmosphere that embraced this luxurious Roman lifestyle, the Italian-inspired Villa Vizcaya features a statue of Bacchus, the god of wine and pleasure, in the front entrance. Bacchus represents the erotic, pleasure driven, eccentric atmosphere of ancient Rome which is exactly what the villa was trying to bring back to life. The workaholic obsessed mindset that has taken over the U.S could not be farther from that of the hedonistic era.
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. (1888). The Roses of Heliogabalus.
Deeming the Greeks as the main influencers on modern queer identities does an injustice to the Romans and the true impact they had. While Greece was known for openly accepting gay relationships, it did very little to empower them. Instead, it was said that the Greeks looked down upon the Romans for their decadence and sexual activities. Homosexuality was not just something Romans accepted or tolerated, it was embraced and celebrated. Self expression, at-least amongst gay men, knew no bounds and allowed the queer community to flourish. This is not to say the Roman ideals on homosexuality were without flaw. Lesbians were not afforded praise to the same extent that gay men were, which is just one of the ways sexism was imbedded in society . During this time, some Roman authors, especially Juvenal, referred to the queer female desire in a very negative ways in their literature (2). This selective inclusion has translated into our modern day society. An example of this is how queer female relationships are sexualized in rap music, but are discriminated against in real life. The fetishization of queer women goes to show how the LGBTQ+ community is praised only when it’s convenient and on contingent terms, which parallels the Greek ideals.
The general tone around homosexuality in the U.S differs greatly from that of ancient Rome in a number of ways. For instance, gay marriage was a normal practice in Rome, many emperors and leaders, including the famous Emperor Nero who was married to both women and men; but was not made legal in the US until 2015. Even after it’s legalization, same-sex marriages were still not afforded the same rights, or treatment, as straight couples. Homophobia is still expressed in all kinds of ways in our society despite how much we think we have progressed. The recent “Don’t Say Gay” bill is a perfect example of how the queer community is being oppressed through the continuous cycle of learned homophobia. We have regressed in our ideals surrounding queer identity and expression since the times of ancient Rome significantly.
Another model that Rome affords for the queer community is on transgender identities. Eglabulus was one of, if not the first, transgender rulers in Rome. Despite the controversy surrounding her actions as a ruler, she paved the way for inclusivity in leadership we have today (3). The infamous Julius Caesar was also known to have cross-dressed on occasion and was sometimes referred to as the Queen of Bithynia (4). This goes to show that sex reassignment and trans identity has been around for centuries.. The normalization of all queer identities and sexualities is rooted in ancient Roman culture.
The Catholic Revolution
When Rome converted from Polytheism to Catholicism in 313 AD, the social climate altered significantly . This change brought about a new value system and ideals that went against the hedonistic culture Rome previously held. Sex went from being celebrated to a sacred act only to be done between a man and his wife. Throughout the decade after Catholicism was adopted, it slowly became the dominant religion taking over Rome. This shift created the controversy around pre-martial sex making it a matter of morality instead of a pleasure driven desire. The norms and rules of society were now dictated by Catholic principles and those who broke these new rules were sinners. It was a major change from the free-spirited lifestyles during the period before the Catholic revolution. The culture of post-Catholic Rome shares more similarities to modern day America than the Roman polytheistic era. In Kyle Harper’s book, “From Shame to Sin”, he discusses in depth how the rise of Catholicism permanently transformed the hedonistic Roman mindset. Harper highlights a few of the major ways in which the previous concept of sexuality was diminished by the newly adopted ideals(5).
Having derived so much of our society from Roman culture, the adoption of Catholicism truly shaped the American view on sexuality. Even though Catholics only make up about 1/5 of the U.S. population, the morals and beliefs of the Catholic religion are more prevalent than any other religion (6). The fact that it is 2022, and queer couples still have to fear for their lives when showing affection in public, directly proves how the Roman Catholic belief system is still in act.
- Ingleheart , Jennifer. “Romosexuality – Embracing Queer Sex and Love in Ancient Times.” The Conversation, 2 Feb. 2022, https://theconversation.com/romosexuality-embracing-queer-sex-and-love-in-ancient-times-130420.
- Ingleheart , Jennifer. “What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us? LGBT Identities and Ancient Rome.” OUPblog, 28 Oct. 2015, https://blog.oup.com/2015/11/lgbt-identities-ancient-rome/
- Mijatovic, Alexis. “A Brief Biography of Elagabalus: The Transgender Ruler of Rome · Challenging Gender Boundaries: A Trans Biography Project by Students of Dr. Catherine Jacquet · OutHistory: It’s about Time.” Outhistory.org, https://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/tgi-bios/elagabalus
- Mason, Emma. “In Bed with the Romans: A Brief History of Sex in Ancient Rome.” In Bed With The Romans: A Brief History Of Sex In Ancient Rome | History Extra, History Extra, 7 Apr. 2022, https://www.historyextra.com/period/roman/in-bed-with-the-romans-a-brief-history-of-sex-in-ancient-rome/.
- Harvey, Katherine. “From Shame to Sin: Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity.” NOTCHES, 6 June 2020, https://notchesblog.com/2016/09/01/from-shame-to-sin-the-christian-transformation-of-sexual-morality-in-late-antiquity/.
- Masci, David, and Gregory A. Smith. “7 Facts about American Catholics.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 30 May 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/10/10/7-facts-about-american-catholics/#:~:text=1%20There%20are%20roughly%2051,2007%20to%2021%25%20in%202014.