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social sciences

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Rome: Ancient  
 
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Romans relied on stereotypical tokens of effeminacy to identify men willing to be receptive partners in same-sex acts. Such men were known as cinaedi or molles. The cinaedus signals he is ready to be used sexually as a woman by letting his hair grow long, wearing see-through silk togas of green or saffron, perfuming himself with balsam, plucking his eyebrows and painting his eyes, mincing when he walks, and worst of all, shaving his legs and buttocks. Men, said the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, are hairy by nature; if they shave their body hair or pluck it out, it means they want to be women.

The deep-seated prejudice against adult male passives distilled in formulas like servilis patientia (slave-like submission) and muliebris patientia (woman-like passivity) helps explain the provisions of the much debated lex Scantinia (mid-second century B.C.E.), the only Roman law directed against same-sex acts before the legislation of the Christian emperors in the fourth century C.E. Scraps of good evidence from Juvenal and Suetonius suggest that the law criminalized the two main prohibitions of the sexual code: the seduction of an underage freeborn boy and the anal and oral submission of a Roman citizen to penetration by another male.

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The law was almost never enforced, though it was still on the books and remembered in the fourth and fifth centuries C.E. If the boy was willing, the penalty was very likely a fine; if the boy was forced, the penalty could be capital, as it was in several instances during the early Republic.

The Fraternity of Cinaedi

When we look at the Roman sexual landscape from the perspective of the receptive partner, two important facts emerge: first, that the cinaedus and his partner represent a pattern of desire, erotic object choice, and sexual pleasure different from the unexclusive pederasty of the majority of Roman males; and, second, that there existed at Rome recognizable cohorts of men whose preponderant erotic interest was in adult partners (androphilia).

The many charges of adult passivity in political slander and character assassination and the very many disobliging references to pathics in satire, histories, graffiti, lampoons, essays in moral philosophy, in legal, scientific and medical writings, and in the apologetic works of Jews and Christians, constitute a formidable body of evidence showing that passive androphilia was a widely observed fact of Roman social and sexual life, deviant and reprehensible in the opinion of many citizens, but present, threatening to masculine self-esteem, and in its visibility and incidence commensurate with the alarm and reprobation it aroused.

Every cinaedus abused for passivity by hostile observers had active androphile partners. Who were they?

Some were slaves. For when we look for exceptions to predominant sexual patterns, we can be sure that it was in the private space where the desire of the master defined the necessity of the slave.

Some were professional male prostitutes who took the active role in anal and oral intercourse. Some were amateur hustlers able and willing to give pleasure in exchange for maintenance, gifts, and a leg up in the world, or to gratify their own taste for sex with passive adults.

In the ninth satire of Juvenal we meet a rich man named Virro who is an adult passive and impotent with women. His client Naevolus penetrates both him and his wife. Virro now has a little son and daughter and silences gossip by showing them off as proof of his manhood. Virro writes Naevolus love letters and drools over his naked charms. Naevolus complains that the stingy Virro pays him too little for his loyalty and exertion: "The slave who ploughs a field has it easier than the one who ploughs its owner."

But there also existed at Rome active androphiles who desired and willingly chose to have sex with other adult males, played the active role, and were not slaves, freedmen, or prostitutes. Latin-speakers had a name for this variety of homosexual desire: adultorum amor. And they had names for the men who felt and acted on it: libidinis in mares proniores, "men inclined to sex with males," as distinct from men "whose desire is for boys" (libidinis in pueros proniores).

P. Sulpicius Gallus, for example, was a homo delicatus, a receptive bottom "mad for men" (virosus); his lover was adult, rich, and freeborn. According to Cicero in a private letter to his friend Atticus, hostile gossip accused L. Afranius, consul in 60 B.C.E., of daily fellating L. Lollius Palicanus, a Roman citizen. Catiline was powerfully built, a brave and reckless soldier and unscrupulous conspirator, but Cicero assumed no necessary skepticism in his audience when he called him the lover (amator) and the husband of Gabinius. Verres, who was also a notorious womanizer, was the passive partner of a social equal, the senator Aemilius Alba, whom Cicero describes as Verres's long-time friend and amator. The emperor Titus preferred men to boys and was the active sexual partner of adult prostitutes and eunuchs. The emperor Galba was "inclined to sex with males, but only with those muscular and fully adult."

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