What have the Romans ever done for us? Ancient Rome is well known for its contribution to the modern world in areas such as sanitation, aqueducts, and roads, but the extent to which it has shaped modern thinking about sexual identity is not nearly so widely recognized.
Although LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people owe a lot to the Romans, the importance of Rome in this respect has been largely overlooked by historians. Attention has focused instead on ancient Greece as a model of a society in which same-sex relationships were accepted and even celebrated. Oscar Wilde famously defended himself while on trial for his sexual behaviour by making reference to the Greek philosopher Plato, who had made the “affection of an elder for a younger man … the very basis of his philosophy.” Early gay activists of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as John Addington Symonds, George Cecil Ives, and Edward Carpenter also downplayed the sexual element in homosexual relations by promoting a similarly noble ideal of Greece, where love between males played an important role in the education of young citizens.
These activists saw Rome as a corrupt copy of Greece. It was the playground of sexually incontinent emperors such as Nero and Heliogabalus (or Elagabalus), who took decadence to new heights and outraged public opinion by openly marrying men. Roman poets such as Catullus and Martial wrote graphically about sex, while the novelist Petronius had conjured up a riotous world of orgies, cross-dressing, and bathhouses where spectators applauded at the sight of an enormous penis. Apologists for homosexual relations wanted to distance themselves from excesses of this kind in order to gain acceptance for their own desires and therefore used Roman ‘vice’ as a contrast to Greek ‘virtue’.
This vision of Rome as a decadent society was appalling to some, but it is also easy to see why it was appealing to others. Wilde talked of Plato in public, but he also had his hair cut in the style of a decadent emperor, and privately referred to the days before his downfall as his ‘Neronian hours.’ The anonymously published 1893 pornographic novel Teleny (which has sometimes been attributed to Wilde) makes clear links between its own fascination with large penises and Rome’s priapic preoccupations. The ancient Greeks, in contrast, had depicted boys with small penises as a vision of perfect male beauty in their art. Teleny also features an all-male orgy at which the participants (some of whom are cross-dressed) are aroused by images that recreate sexually explicit Roman wall-paintings. The star-crossed yet devoted male lovers at the heart of this novel are cast as the emperor Hadrian and his doomed beloved, Antinoüs, the beautiful young man who was commemorated by Hadrian in statues and images all around the empire. To this day, the figures of the emperor and his slave, the Roman gladiator, and the legionary, remain staples of gay pornography, eroticizing differences in power between men and fitting well into a modern gay aesthetic that places a high value on hyper-masculinity.
Lesbian desire and the women who feel it are repeatedly referred to in hostile terms in Roman literature. The satirical poet Juvenal is particularly scathing about women who have sex with each other, but his disapproval didn’t prevent Anne Lister (1791-1840) of Shibden Hall, near Halifax from finding his poetry on the theme arousing. She also used his poetry and references to other Roman poets who had discussed lesbian desire to sound out other women’s tendencies.
Rome also offers models for transgendered identities, sexual fluidity, and a range of sexual configurations and possibilities. Poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, for example, plays on the poet Ovid’s portrait of one of the many gender-bending characters from his Metamorphoses, in her 1999 poem “From Mrs Tiresias” (in the collection The World’s Wife). Ovid’s Tiresias was transformed from being a man into a woman, and then back again, and clearly made the most of this gender fluidity, since he reveals that sex is more pleasurable as a woman.
Rome, then, has offered LGBT people throughout history a model of a society in which same-sex desires were highly visible and openly discussed, as well as a number of authors who were very frank indeed about sex and sexuality, and who wrote about taboo topics in many other traditions, such as transvestism, transgendered individuals, and sex changes.
Today, Rome offers us a sex-positive and multi-faceted vision of sexual possibilities and permutations that challenges the more famous, but also more limited, version of Greek homosexuality that has played such an important role in LGBT history.
Featured image credit: The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1888. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.