Friday, February 13, 2009

Sexual Customs in Ancient Rome and the Origins of Valentine's Day

Naked woman playing harp for young adoring man swimming below
The Siren by J. W. Waterhouse

When in Rome do as the Romans do. This is one of the famous sayings concerning Rome that evolved from a comment made by St. Ambrose to St. Augustine regarding differences in church practices. But what about differences in sexuality? How did Romans do it? Did their religion condemn sexuality?

Roman sexuality is an interesting phenomenon, not only because part of their beliefs may seem strange and bizarre to our tastes, yet also because they represent a crossroad or transition between an ancient civilization and our modern conception of a Judeo-Christian lifestyle and morality. In fact, we would find Roman ideas about sex at least somewhat more compatible with our belief system compared with the iconographic lifestyle of the ancient Greeks.

Although the Romans heavily borrowed from Greek culture, literature and religion, even using the Greek language in their aristocratic elite circles, they shunned some of the sexual beliefs that came with them. The idea that the most revered form of love ought to be between two males, mostly an older man with a youth, was not the general consensus among the Romans.

It does not mean that homosexuality was not accepted or frowned upon; quite to the contrary, male prostitution was very common and a major source of tax revenue for the Roman treasury; it is even said that many of the emperors could not resist these temptations.

Yet it is important to note that Romans did not have our dichotomous notion of hetero- versus homosexual practices. They made another type of distinction, namely between the “penetrator” versus the “penetrated.”

The latter was frowned upon because it implied passive or submissive sex, whereas the “penetrator” fit more closely with the aggressive masculine image. To the Romans masculinity was a highly sought-after virtue, and as long as the male was on the giving, and not the receiving, end, his masculinity was salvaged.

Although virility was usually a positive characteristic and denoted manhood, it ought to be practiced in good measure. In fact, and this has a strange ring by today's standards of masculinity, if anyone practiced too much sex, it was seen as soft and effeminate.

In our world, we tend to believe that constant, persistent, and promiscuous lovers, like Don Juan or Casanova are the emblem of masculine behavior, but Romans considered it a flaw because it showed a certain lack of restraint. If a Roman male had trouble controlling himself and his urgent needs, he lacked discipline, and consequently, he was seen as being led and swayed by his emotions; in other words, he was not a free man of reason but a mindless slave to his needs and passions.

When considering this, let us keep in mind that in Roman times, sex was not given as much importance as has been the case in our post-Victorian sex-obsessed society. Sex was regarded as an every-day necessity, such as food and drink. Therefore, in many cases, sexual acts may have been committed at plain daylight or within the view of servants. It is only much later, and the previously mentioned St. Augustine had a major say in such matters, that sex was seen as something dirty, shameful and sinful, that ought to be practiced - if at all - within the confines of holy matrimony and the darkly lit private bedroom.

In those times, Romans were still not as traumatized or guilt-ridden concerning sexual practices and sexually derived pleasure. Interestingly, marriage was not the only vehicle for sexual catharsis. Marriage was considered an unbinding license or contract between man and woman and was practiced mostly by the elite citizens - in some cases by imperial permission it may have been applied to certain outstanding soldiers - while the rest of the populace did not have the right to marry under Roman law. Plebeians, free men who were not citizens, had their own form of matrimony, which resembled our common-law marriages.

Often enough, love had little or nothing to do with matrimony. Marriages were undertaken between families to increase or improve wealth or status and had the purpose of procreation. The “disadvantage” or “inconvenience” of love, especially for the Roman male, was that it might negatively affect or interfere with rational decision-making.

A Roman had to keep his masculinity intact at all times, which meant that any kinds of affectionate displays in public would often harm his standing among his fellow Romans. No one was exempt from this fact, no matter what the standing or whatever the previous accomplishments. Even Marc Anthony who was certainly not regarded a coward had become an object of ridicule due to his unwavering love and devotion for Cleopatra.

A curious fact about adultery was that there were cases where it was permitted by Roman society. For example, slaves were seen as possession and property, and having sex with a slave was not equated with adultery. In a similar vein, sex with anyone from a lower status was not considered adultery, which conveniently included sex with prostitutes. As long as they were paid for the sexual act, it was not considered to be adulterous. Therefore such behavior, unlike today, was not always hidden from the eyes of the wife since it did not carry the weight of betrayal or deception.

One must keep in mind that sex as such was an animal instinct, something that emanated from natural bodily functions, and hence, to the Romans, it did not create any kind of obligation or bond between two people. Sharing a meal with another person had much more value and commitment than having sex.

Nonetheless, there seems to be an unspoken rule that sex was not something to be discussed and talked about openly. That constitutes one of the main differences between the Greeks and the Romans. The former saw sex as a pleasurable art, whereas the latter may have seen it as a pleasure-giving act that, however, had to be controlled, kept to a minimum and not be publicly exposed and commented upon.

Most of the more conservative elements crept up during the reign of the emperor Augustus. Although he brought peace and stability to the empire, it also meant that more conservative principles would be in place. To him public decency came to the forefront and lewd behavior was strongly discouraged. However, some traditions continued on despite proposed conservative principles. One of them was the forerunner of what ought to become the most celebrated romantic days of the year, Valentine's Day. It started as rituals involving sacrifices to one of the gods of fertility called Lupercus.

In February, which was the month of purification for the Romans, young boys would randomly pick a girl's name from a jar of ballots. Whoever was chosen would become this youth's lover for a year. These traditions were indeed quite popular with the common people, and it is an early version of matchmaking for lonely singles. During the same festivities, a goat would be sacrificed, and the hinds were converted into whips with which the priests, and perhaps other males, would randomly inflict lashes on the willing women. That practice, painful as it may seem, was in fact quite welcomed by the female populace as it was considered to enhance their fertility.

When the emperor Claudius decided to outlaw marriages of soldiers, which he believed demoralized them and interfered with the efficacy of their military services, a priest by the name of Valentine decided to defy the decree and continued to secretly marry the young lovers. When this came to light, Valentine was sentenced to death.

During his prison time he met a jailer's blind daughter and fell in love with her. As legend would have it that on the evening of his death sentence, he passed a note to his beloved which stated “from your Valentine” and the rest is history. This note-writing practice gained notoriety among the Romans, especially on February 14, so much so that it had to be somehow incorporated and later christianized by the Church.

Our society and our attitude towards sex have changed drastically over the centuries. Women today do not wear phallic symbols around their neck as a luck charm in the honor of the god of marital fertility nor do we have temples with giant penis statues crowned with flowers.

We have abolished any forms of sex lottery during Valentine's and instead send inoffensive cards and give chocolate and roses to our romantic interest. Obviously our ideas about sexuality - whether it involves adultery or sexual practices - are quite different from the customs in ancient Rome.

However, we cannot deny that there seems to be an invisible, unspoken link that connects us with the ancient past, especially when it comes to an empire that lasted for centuries and had conquered and influenced most of the world. In the end, as another saying goes, all roads lead back to Rome.


Jason said...

Thank you, full of knowledge, full or wisdom and a joy to read. Thank you again!

Geri Ohara said...

I loved this article as i find I so often do with your posts..they are so interesting and enlightening thanks

The Prince of Centraxis said...

Thanks for this erudite and well-reasoned article, which so clearly describes the matrix in which the Valentine legend was embedded.

All imperialistic cultures promulgate the virtues of stoic discipline and eschew the femininine aspects of humankind. Similarly, Tantra and explorations of the sensual arts is seen as secondary to 'hard' sciences and economically-oriented subjects in today's global empire.

Attempts to suppress sexuality are always doomed to failure, but channeling the sensual birthrightof humans - which allows individuals to evolve beyond the strictures and parameters of their acculturated societies - into social ends can help preserve and empire.

The schism between woman and man is older than the schism between humanity and the divine - and gave rise to it. As long as sex is deemed to be nothing more than competitive Darwinistic striving for reproduction - and not the greatest capacity for regeneration experienced by humans - sex will be a travesty of what it can be.

Our so-called 'generative' organs are actually REgenerative organs - for the extension of the life of an individual, race, culture or species. Rome lasted for quite some time after it had slaughtered or otherwise neutralised all comers.

The population of (matriarchal) Britain did not regain its pre-Roman numbers until the 1800s. Rome killed everything and everyone that wouldn't submit, but in the end its self-adulatory rigidity spelled its destruction.

Sex and sexuality releases us from such doom narcissism on individual and collective scales.


Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Really interesting read! I love the examination of the structure of social mores of a different time...especially since often people hold onto their conceptions of what is and is not moral as if it is set in stone.

Also, somehow I feel like the Romans had a much healthier attitude towards sex, which really is just a naturalistic function, than we do.

Arashmania said...

Thank you, tinadot!

Yes, morals and attitudes change. The Roman belief system is quite fascinating and their ideas about sex much more natural and healthier, as you say.

I think our times have suffered from post-traumatic Victorian disorder when it comes to sex.

Anonymous said...

How much time had passed from the period where people would only marry for convenience up to the time that Valentine married young lovers in defiance of the law. What changed this ideology? I understand that different emperors took power, however I would like to know what changed in the populace's idea that marriage was no longer about economic welfare and rather should be about love. Thanks.

Arashmania said...

Thank you for your comment and interest, Anonymous!

Well, our modern idea of love found its expression mainly through the Middle Ages and what is known as courtly love. Yet when it came to the nobility and royalty, marriage was more often used as a strategic form of alliance and was rarely based on love.

Yet again in Roman ideology, to fall in love in the sense of losing one's head was seen as both limiting and debilitating. The notion of chivalry changed the conception of man and turned him into a "gentleman" and, in a way, turned religious fervor into an expression of passionate love. Hope this answers your question somewhat.