Last week I wrote about the sex life of prehistoric man. This week I was going to look at what happened to sex when God blew the whistle. But in the interests of continuity let's first see what kind of nookie was available to the ancients of classical civilization.
Now, I know what you're thinking. Boy, those were the days. Naked slave girls fanning your nether regions, orgies every weekend; life was one big toga party, right? I mean, hey, there's a reason why these guys never wore pants. Well, before you start investing in the latest time machine venture you'd be well advised to read on.
To begin with, there was a perennial shortage of women. It's been estimated that in ancient Rome there were 117 men for every 100 women, a discrepancy that would have been even greater were it not for the high mortality rate among the young bucks of the ancient world. Most of the discrepancy was the result of female infanticide. The laws of Romulus stipulated that all male children and the first daughter were to be raised. Subsequent daughters were permitted to be, and often were, left to die of exposure or starvation. In Sparta they were tossed off a cliff. It's been claimed that this situation led ultimately to the downfall of Rome. Contrary to popular conception, Rome didn't fall because the barbarians destroyed it. The barbarians loved Rome. Rome fell because it slowly became depopulated.
In ancient times, as now, how much nookie you got depended largely on how much you had. But whereas previously a rich man could afford multiple wives, in the Greek and Roman world, monogamy was the norm. This wasn't monogamy as we know of it today where the ideal (as represented by Hollywood) is for the couple to fall in love and live happily ever after. Back then marriage was a business venture with the explicit purpose of producing children – male children. If the man was rich the wife worked the slaves. If he was poorer she just worked. There was little expectation of romance or fidelity, at least on the man's part. In larger homes, husband and wife slept in separate rooms. In Sparta they didn't even sleep in the same village (men slept in a separate martial compound).
There were still conjugal obligations, however. A man could demand sex from his wife. He could legally rape her for that matter. But for the most part men didn't seek to have sex with their wives. Such was the level of neglect that Greek and Roman women were forced to use other means of achieving sexual satisfaction. While the dildo was probably invented sometime in the upper Paleolithic, the first recorded usage is a depiction on a Grecian vase from the fifth century B.C. Women also reportedly turned to homosexuality. The word "lesbian" after all is derived from the Greek Island of Lesbos. They also took lovers, though this was considered adultery, a crime punishable by death.
But if the guys weren't doing it with their wives, who were they doing it with? That depended on who, and where, they were. In Sparta or Athens, the ideal sexual partner was a good-looking pubescent boy. That's right. In ancient Greece, the most virtuous social and sexual relationship was what Boston priests are currently doing jail time for. The relationship wasn't exclusively sexual. In fact, it was seen primarily as a mentoring relationship. And the sex was normally limited to fondling; anal intercourse was rare, although a popular alternative was to insert one's penis through the young lad's greased thighs. The lads in question weren't exactly being abused. They sought the relationship as eagerly as their prospective mentors.
If this seems grossly messed up it's worth noting that pederasty was merely the cultural "ideal." Not every guy signed on. In fact, most probably just paid lip service to the idea much like the later day Soviets paid lip service to the idea of egalitarianism. Heterosexual sex was alive and well in ancient Greece. Which brings us back to our original question: Who were they having sex with?
Mostly, it depended on how rich you were. If you were a slave you didn't get to have sex. If you were a poor citizen you would visit any of the numerous brothels where you would lie with ordinary prostitutes, known as the pornai, from which we get the word pornography (meaning, literally, pictures of prostitutes). The pornai were usually slave girls, although they could also be homeless waifs who had no other means of support. The pornai also gravitated to port cities where some wore sandals with souls that imprinted the message "akolouthei" (follow me) in the sand. The pornai were cheap enough that most Greek freemen and foreign sailors could afford their services. They were also probably infected with any number of venereal diseases.
Rich Greek men favored a higher class of prostitute called Hetaira. The hetaira were the ancient equivalent of call-girls and were required to wear distinctive dresses and pay taxes. They were mostly free foreigners or Greek women from outside Athens. Many were highly educated and accomplished. Indeed, they may have been the most liberated women the world would see until the late 20th century. Some were even allowed to take part in the symposia, where their opinions were heard and respected. The Hetaira charged fees as much as 100-times more than the pornai. To avoid pregnancy they would often insist on anal intercourse. Unlike many of the pornai they were clean and often beautiful. But like the pornai, they also likely carried the clap.
So what about the Romans? Well, for a start we can forget about pederasty, at least as the Greeks practiced it. Sex between free men was illegal (although a free man was allowed to have sex with a slave). It wasn't so much that the Romans detested homosexuality. What they detested was any man who was a passive partner in a homosexual act. It was okay to be a fucker of a man, but not the fuckee.
What of basic heterosexual boy on girl action? As in Greece, most sex didn't happen in the marital bed. It was had with prostitutes and slaves (which didn't count as adultery). The richer the man, the more slaves and prostitutes he could afford. The Romans were famously unsentimental about sex. Sex wasn't about love, it was about animal lust. As such it was seen as a weakness. Self-control and restraint were the sought-after virtues in ancient Rome.
So what about the famous Roman orgies? According to Professor Alistair Blanchard from the University of Sydney, Roman orgies are a myth largely invented in the 18th century by reactionaries and liberals, who for reasons unstated "fed us myths of sexually voracious, uninhibited Romans." There's no doubt that orgies happened, the cult of Bacchus was famous for them. But the Bacchanalian orgies were less about sex than excessive indulgence of every kind which often ended in a orgy of vomiting. In one instance, the excesses included murder. These were the sort of orgies you were better off being a wallflower at.
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