Sexuality in Julius Caesar’s time

We tend to fall prey to what can be called ‘presentism’, to think that the way things are now are somehow ‘natural’ and the way things always were. But as Aven McMaster writes, when we examine ideas about sexuality in the times of ancient Rome using Julius Caesar as a case study, we find things were quite different.

Like many premodern societies, the Romans rarely if ever identified people by their sexuality, at least not in terms of what gender their sexual partners were. To be sure, they had categories for types of sexual activities, but not for the sexual identities we use today. The terms ‘homosexual’, ‘heterosexual’, ‘bisexual’ and so on are modern inventions. There is no evidence for the existence of the concepts themselves, and Romans didn’t define people by the gender of their sexual partners.

But that doesn’t mean the kinds of sex we’d label with those words didn’t exist – far from it. The common pairings we read about and see depicted in art are men with men, men with boys (who are often adolescents, but could also be younger), and men with women. We also see and read about a range of sex acts within those pairings, using all possible orifices. And in all these combinations and activities, we see again and again that it isn’t the genders involved or the acts themselves that the Romans cared about, but the question of who’s doing it, and who’s being done to. That’s where gender and status suddenly mattered – a lot.

The key thing, for a Roman, was that your sexual participation lined up with your perceived gender. The essence of masculinity was to be the penetrator, while to be vulnerable to penetration was to mark yourself as nonmale. And yes, penetration specifically refers to the penis, though it could be extended metaphorically in various ways. By the way, this focus on penetration with a penis seems to explain the notable omission in the pairings listed above: women with women are hardly ever mentioned or depicted in Roman sources, except when they are said to use some sort of penis substitute to achieve penetration. It seems that, for Romans, if no one was getting penetrated, it didn’t count as sex.

There is much about Roman sexuality that isn’t admirable and certainly shouldn’t be emulated. But few things provide as powerful a tool to fight tendencies to naturalise any one view of sexuality as the broad and deep cultural history of sex and gender in human life. It shows that many common assumptions about sexuality and power are indeed just assumptions – that heterosexuality and military prowess don’t automatically go together, and that hypersexuality doesn’t necessarily make someone manly and powerful. What we are too often taught to think of as ‘natural’ is, in fact, dependent on the societal values of a particular time and place, and what is obviously ‘true’ in one culture is just as obviously unthinkable in another. This can be a liberating realisation: if these basic connections between sexuality, masculinity and power aren’t inherent, then they can be changed – we can, in fact, choose for ourselves how we shape our ideas about gender and sexuality, today and in the future.



  1. brucegee1962 says

    I’ve heard this argument before--that modern attitudes about sexuality are purely culturally dependent, and thus, presumably, can and should be considered suggestions rather than immutable truths.
    Some of the people who have advanced such theories have had…questionable…motives. Either NAMBLA or NAMBLA-adjacent motives.
    The thing is, some of our modern attitudes I agree with — particularly the idea that it is psychologically damaging for children to be used sexually by adults, in any culture.
    One of Neil Gaiman’s standalone Sandman stories has the interesting premise that part of the reason why Augustus was kind of messed up was that he was used sexually while a teenager by his famous uncle Julius while they were on campaign together.

  2. mnb0 says

    “There is much about Roman sexuality that isn’t admirable”
    Indeed, they were terrible machos. Basically sex was all about (male) dominance.

  3. cartomancer says

    It’s rather important, too, to recognise that ideas and beliefs about sexuality varied widely within “Roman” society. Particularly given that “Roman” society can refer to pretty much anywhere from northern England to Yemen and anywhen from maybe 1000 BC to 500, or even 1400 AD. Even within the aristocratic elite of old Roman families in the 1st Century BC (Julius Caesar’s time) there were debates, disagreements and divergences from what might be considered the norm.

    It would be going altogether too far to suggest that there was no opprobrium attached to same-sex encounters, even for the penetrative partner. Suetonius considers it somewhat sordid and inappropriate for powerful men, especially emperors, in his Lives of the Caesars. Galba comes in for particular scorn here, since it is suggested he was infatuated by his freedman lover Icelus and this clouded his judgment in Imperial governance to the extremely unseemly extent of granting Icelus -- a mere freedman -- important jobs and honours. Even the well-liked Hadrian was considered to have gone too far in celebrating his deceased boyfriend Antinous as a divinity after his tragic death. Some of this residual suspicion of those who preferred or indulged frequently in same-sex sexual activity can be attributed to a cultural suspicion of immoderacy in one’s emotional commitments -- being obsessed with sex, wanting to do it all the time and arranging one’s life around it marked you out as lacking in self-control, swayed by the passions, and unfit to do the rational work required of a male citizen. This condition was considered more common when sex you so desperately tried to have was with other men, because boring old man-woman sex was considered a part of marriage, a traditional duty, and not something people tended to get immoderately excited about).

    Hadrian’s case is interesting, given that he himself, perhaps the most powerful and influential influencer of taste, style and culture of the entire Principate, clearly saw no issues with his rather Hellenic tastes in sexual partners. Hellenism and the lure of Greek models of culture and comportment had been a big issue in Roman society from the beginning, attracting both champions and detractors. Egyptian ideas about sexuality also became more widely spread (Cleopatra, who was as much Greek as she was Egyptian, was reviled by many old-fashioned Romans for leading great men astray in a sexual way). Many Romans also originated from Celtic, Germanic, Berber, Arab, Hebrew and many other cultures, and had their own distinctive views.

    But we have evidence that there was even more diversity among the lower orders, whose attitudes and opinions rarely make our literary sources. One famous tombstone to a woman called Alia Potestas (2nd Century AD) elaborates on how she lived for decades in threesome with two men, who got together to erect her monument, then went their separate ways afterwards. That this was memorialised suggests the people involved felt no shame in advertising it, even though such a non-monogamous arrangement would be considered inappropriate in traditional Roman eyes.

  4. brucegee1962 says

    It is somewhat refreshing to look at a society where they looked at sexuality in terms of what was best for the civis, rather than what some priest claims some sky-god expects you to do. Especially since their sky-gods tended to misbehave on an epic scale.

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