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.