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Rome: Ancient  
 
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When Romans write about love, they normally are even-handed: For Ovid (43 B.C.E.-17 C.E.) love can be inspired by "a boy or a girl" (aut puer aut ... puella) and Lucretius (94-55 B.C.E.) sees no difference "whether boy or women" (sive puer ... seu mulier).

Musonius Rufus (ca 30-102 C.E.) taught Stoic moral philosophy at Rome during the reigns of Nero and Vespasian. He stressed that sexual intercourse is just and lawful only when it occurs in marriage and for the purpose of begetting children. For a man to have sex with boys or other men is unjust and shameful--and also "contrary to nature."

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The contrast will alert us at the outset to the variety of Roman attitudes to same-sex eros.

The Roman Sexual Code

No religious or ethical principle made male-male sex, as such, immoral or illegal. At the same time, a recognizable code of permissions and constraints attempted to regulate sexual relations among males as closely as it regulated sexual relations between men and women.

The sex of one's partner could be a matter of surprising indifference. Horace, who never married, "burned with desire, sometimes for tender boys, sometimes for girls." Martial writes, in the (fictive) first person singular, of penetrating males anally, penetrating females vaginally and anally, and being fellated by both male and female partners.

What mattered more was role, age, and status. The freeborn adult Roman who liked to copulate with males penetrated slave boys, eunuchs, and male prostitutes with as little reproach as he penetrated his female slaves, his female concubine, or female prostitutes.

In contrast, seducing a puer praetextatus, a freeborn male Roman who had not yet put on the toga virilis (this rite of passage happened at about age fifteen), was a serious offense; and fathers tried hard to protect the pudicitia (sexual modesty, chastity) of their sons. No easy task: "A handsome son," notes Juvenal, "keeps his parents in constant fear and misery, so rarely do pudicitia and good looks go together."

Nor did citizens who valued their reputations have sex with each other. For a free adult male to be penetrated anally or orally by another free adult male, by a freedman, by a boy, by a male prostitute, or by a slave was a disgrace. Roman male homosexuality was predominantly a form of that did not exclude relationships with women and was governed by a firm distinction of role that stigmatized adult male passivity as servile and effeminate.

Servilis Patientia

The contrast between Roman and Greek homosexuality is most striking in how the two societies tried to regulate the sexual relations of adult citizens and freeborn boys. In Athens, ideally, both parties were freeborn and social equals; the tie between them was consensual; and (in some instances) educational as well as sexual. At Rome, the typical same-sex relationship was between a citizen (active) and his adolescent slave (passive).

The slave had no rights, while the rights of the master included unrestricted sexual access to the slave's body. So radical an inequality created a realm of compliant submission (servilis patientia) that shaped profoundly the sexual behavior and attitudes of Romans.

One obvious result was the easy availability of same-sex pleasure to the slave owner. Another was the freedom to enjoy himself without self-reproach or fear of criticism from the neighbors. Not even the "Romans of old," records Plutarch, "thought it shameful for a man to love male slaves who were in their season of youthful beauty."

According to the poets, the male slave bought and kept for sexual purposes was young and tender. His face should be white as milk. He has sparkling eyes. Soft, sweet-smelling locks tumble down to his shoulders. His nose is slightly aquiline, his lips as red as roses from Paestum. His skin is smooth as a girl's. Just the faintest fuzz may disfigure his adolescent cheeks. His kisses are delicious, and his breath when he wakes up in the morning smells like ripening apples, a leafy field after spring rain, or a flower garden humming with Sicilian bees. He has honeyed thighs and a soft anus. When his boy grants the master love's true joys, he is as happy as Jupiter with Ganymede.

Pederastic romance, however, cannot obscure the assimilation of sexual receptivity with a slave's submission to his master.

Muliebris Patientia

For a freeborn male to be penetrated by another male was shameful for a second reason: to consent was to let himself be used as a woman and a wife.

Male anxieties about effeminacy have been in Western culture since the Greeks a perennial source of misogyny and bigotry. In so patriarchal a society as Rome, any comparison of a man to a woman was thought to humiliate the man.

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