For the Romans, homosexuality wasn’t seen as something bad or sinful – but it was also not a cause for admiration and pride. Gay sex in ancient Rome was accepted even among the military. History suggests that Roman society did not even see sexuality as a spectrum as we do today; in Rome people were essentially indifferent to sexual orientation.
Although there was no punishment for homosexuality, it was not well regarded who played the bottom role. There was a lot of prejudice in the submissive and the feminine. It was perfectly acceptable for a Roman man to have sex with another man, as long as he was the top of the relationship. Domination was at the heart of what it meant to be a Roman.
Rome take over the world for centuries of relentless wars. Friedrich Nietzsche refers to the Roman spirit as “the seat of power”. This obsession with power fed all parts of Roman society, including sex.
Part of the power was linked to the slavery life; Romans acquired and bought slaves to increase their status. An equivalent for nowadays is how we judge a person’s power and influence: by the number of followers he has on a social network. The Romans did the same, but with the difference that the followers (the Roman slaves) followed the orders of their masters. Being a slave consisted of the legal obligation to do what “owner” ordered …..
Therefore, the “top” was seen as the powerful Roman man, while being bottom was a slave function. The slave’s sexual disire was not widely considered.
Louis Crompton suggests in his book “Homosexuality and Civilization” that the roman homosexual relations were completely focused onn this dinamic between master versus slave. If you had been ‘born’ bottom without being a slave, it was not necessarily considered a disgrace, but it was not well regarded.
The Roman army was peculiarly intimate
The Romans often behaved in ways that we would think it is unusual or embarrassing today. An example is the way they used the bathroom. The army shared common spaces in the bathroom; there weren’t individual cabins.
Roman baths were another opportunity to show dominance – and no, it wasn’t just about showing how many centimeters of penis you had.
Community bathrooms were used as social venues to hold meetings and close deals, whether you were undressing, bathing, sweating, getting a massage or simply dolce far niente.
The bathroom wasn’t just a luxury ‘room’, but a necessity for Roman society. And that is why even the forts of the Roman army often had very sophisticated bathrooms.
The Romans were enthusiastic about the desire for love and passion, as well as power. The poet Catulo romanticizes stealing kisses from the “good eyes of Juventus” in his poem ‘Insatiable’, addressing the longing of a young man and not a slave.
Tibullus takes a similar approach, placing personality and intellect above beauty and sexuality. In the poem ‘The Love of Boys’ , he talks about getting a kiss from his lover in the countryside and winning his affections
Emperor Hadrian challenged society with his gay love
A gay Roman relationship of great notoriety was that of an emperor. ‘Emperor Hadrian’ was very open about his sexuality. The Emperor had a relationship with a young man named Antoninus, with whom he traveled throughout the empire. When Antoninus died on a trip to Egypt, Hadrian was so overwhelmed by suffering that he built several monuments in his honor.
The scandal of this historic relationship was not because someone was opposed to them having sex, but because Hadrian fell in love with Antoninus. The mere fact that a man in power was in love (with a man or woman) suggested weakness.
Attitudes towards gay sex changed as the Roman empire declined
Religion had an influence on cultivating the homophobia that spread in Roman society. The religious did this by promoting disgust for bottom and effeminate men; thus introducing homophobic philosophies. This is seen when the Jewish philosopher Philo (30 – 40 AD) wrote:
“Much more serious than [o adultério] is another evil … it is a matter of boasting not only about top but bottom partners, who are used to enduring the disease of effemination, allowing the body and soul to run towards the trash and don’t eliminate your male sexual nature. “
The crucial point for realizing the philosophy of heteronormative relationship was when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 337 BC. This decision forever changed the religious identity of the Roman Empire, concretized the idea that sexual and romantic union should be between a man and a woman.
In general, the duty of a Roman man was to create soldiers to strengthen the borders conquered by the Empire. So, if you did your duty, who you took to bed was nobody’s business – as long as you were the top, of course.
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