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social sciences

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Rome: Ancient  
page: 1  2  3  4  

Men have two testicles and two seminal vesicles. The testicle on the right side of the body contains male seed, the one on the left side female seed. (In the bodies of both sexes the right side is masculine and the left feminine.) Likewise in women, the uterus is divided into two parts, the right side masculine, the left feminine.

Both parents contribute seeds to conceive the child. The nature (natura) and sex of the child are determined by the proportion of paternal and maternal seeds in the mix that triggers conception, by whether the father's seed has come from his right or left testicle, and by the part of the uterus (left or right) in which the male parent's seed has fallen.

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If male seed from the father flows into the left or female part of the mother's uterus, a male is conceived, but feminine characteristics will dim its "masculine splendor." The male child will have beautiful features, too white skin, delicate limbs, short stature, a soft voice, a weak mind, or several of these.

Vice versa, if female seed from the father lodges in the right or masculine part of the uterus, a female results, but the child will exhibit more masculine traits than normal sexual differentiation allows, to wit, strong limbs, excessive height, facial hair, a low voice, an unlovely countenance, a daring spirit, or several of these.

But when the father's male seed flows into the right half of the mother's uterus and his female seed into the left, the two fetuses will be normal, the one possessing the beauty proper to the nature of women and the other the manly strength (robur virile) of mind and body proper to males.

The Astrologers

To explain sexual preference, the Romans relied as much on their astrologers as on their physicians.

The permutations of the starry map make us chaste or unchaste, faithful or promiscuous, libidinous or frigid, sterile or fertile, attractive or off-putting, unbridled or moderate in our sexual practice, active or passive, inclined to sex only with women, or only with boys, or with both women and boys, or only with young men, or with males of any age, or with slaves, or with our nearest relatives, or with prostitutes.

The most comprehensive surviving Latin astrological treatise is the Matheseos libri octo of Firmicus Maternus. When he began it in 334 C.E. he was a wealthy retired lawyer of the senatorial class. His sources range from Hellenistic times to the recent past. We may safely take his views to represent a conceptualization and explanation of sexual variation widely shared both in his own day and in earlier centuries.

Firmicus pays almost no attention to men who desire only women nor to women who desire only men; these inclinations of desire are too ordinary, in his view, to require explanation. He concentrates on the non-procreative sexual drives.

His taxonomy of sexual types includes a class of adult males who are exclusive pederasts. Such men are sterile, they never marry, and they are incapable of sexual acts with women, even when they are randiest. They are always (semper) lovers of boys. They are furiously and unnaturally (Firmicus signals his disapproval) given to anal intercourse.

Corresponding to the men who have sex exclusively with boys is a class of women who love and have sex exclusively with women. He calls them "mannish women" (viragines, mulieres viragines). They never (numquam) couple sexually with men, for if "the Sun and Moon are in masculine signs and Venus is also in a masculine sign in a woman's chart, women will be born who take on a man's character and desire intercourse with women in the manner of men."

Firmicus, like Ptolemy before him, recognizes all the commoner inflections of sexual taste. For example: "If Mercury and Venus are in conjunction in the 19th degree of Aries, they make the natives impure of mouth" (inpuros ore=fellators). Saturn in aspect with Venus in any way "will make the natives molles, cinaedos, men who give themselves to slavish acts." It is the celestial ambient that produces professional and amateur prostitutes, even lesbian prostitutes (mulieres vero viragines meretrices).

But what is most useful for us to retain from the ancient theorists is a renewed sense of the range of sexual categories available to Romans, of the elasticity and variety their sexual tastes, and of the candor with which they report and picture their sexual acts.

Eugene Rice

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social sciences >> Overview:  Pederasty

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literature >> Virgil

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Adams, J. N. The Latin Sexual Vocabulary. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Brooten, Bernadette J. Love between Women. Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Cantarella, Eva. Secondo natura. La bisessualità nel mondo antico. Rome: Editori Reuniti, 1988. English trans. Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Clarke, John R. Looking at Lovemaking. Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art 100 B.C.- A.D. 250. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998.

Courouve, Claude. Tableau synoptique de références à l'amour masculin: auteurs grecs et latins. Paris: Courouve, 1986.

Dalla, Danilo. "Ubi Venus mutatur." Omosessualità e diritto nel mondo romano. Seminario Giuridico della Università di Bologna 119. Milan: Dott. A. Giuffrè, 1987.

Edwards, Catharine. The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Foucault, Michel. Histoire de la sexualité. 3 vols. Paris: Gallimard, 1976-1984. English trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Random House, 1978-1986.

Gleason, Maude W. Making Men. Sophists and Self-presentation in Ancient Rome. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Gonfroy, Françoise. "Homosexualité et ideologie esclavagiste chez Ciceron." Dialogues d'histoire ancienne 4 (1978): 219-265.

Griffin, Jasper. "Augustan Poetry and the Life of Luxury." Journal of Roman Studies 66 (1976): 84-104.

Hallett, Judith P., and Marilyn B. Skinner, eds. Roman Sexualities. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Hubbard, Thomas K. Homosexuality in Greece and Rome. A Sourcebook of Basic Documents. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003.

Krenkel, Werner. "Masturbation in der Antike." "Pueri meritorii." "Fellatio and Irrumatio." "Tonguing." and "Tribaden." Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Wilhelm-Pieck-Universität Rostock 28 (1979): 159-89; 29 (1980):77-88; 30 (1981): 37-54; 38 (1989):45-58.

Lilja, Saara. Homosexuality in Republican and Augustan Rome. Commentationes Humanarum Litterarum 74. Helsinki: Societas Scientiarum Fennica, 1983.

Richlin, Amy. The Garden of Priapus: Sexuality and Aggression in Roman Humor. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

____. "Not Before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the cinaedus and the Roman Law against Love between Men." Journal of the History of Sexuality 3 (1993): 523-73.

Round, Martin. Norms of Masculinity: The Significance of Masculine Appearance in Roman Society from Cicero to the Death of Hadrian. Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1994.

Schrijvers, P.H. Eine medizinische Erklärung der männlichen Homosexualität aus der Antike (Caelius Aurelianus De morbis chronicis IV.9). Amsterdam: B.R. Grüner, 1985.

Veyne, Paul. "La famille et l'amour à Rome. " Annales 33 (1978): 35-62.

Vorberg, Gaston. Glossarium eroticum. Stuttgart, 1932.

Williams, Craig A. Roman Homosexuality. Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.


    Citation Information
    Author: Rice, Eugene  
    Entry Title: Rome: Ancient  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated September 4, 2008  
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