When you think of sexual freedom, the ideas of gay marriage, women’s reproductive rights, gender equality, and freedom of expression may enter your mind. At a glance, Ancient Rome was a paradise for the open-minded and progressive people of today. The Roman’s acceptance of sexual orientation and marriage rights for all citizens – including the right to a divorce – and stringent laws against sexual misconduct, all make Ancient Rome one of the greatest empire’s in history. However, the cost of sexual freedom may have been worth more than the Romans bargained for.
Sexual orientation has historically been dichotomized as gay or straight, with the embrace of bisexuality and pansexuality in the last quarter century. Newer terms such as androsexual (attraction to masculinity) and gynesexual (attraction to femininity) have surfaced much more recently in the past few years. Today, our strong willingness to deepen our understanding of sexual orientation is both impressive and virtuous.
In contrast, the Ancient Romans didn’t use labels like ‘gay’ or ‘straight’—these are terms they would have been completely unfamiliar with. Romans, especially males, were encouraged to bed both sexes, and it was considered odd when one was abstinent towards either gender; however, just because they were accepting of sexual orientation didn’t mean they were accepting of gender nonconformity. Trans or effeminate men were considered immoral and labelled as perverts, often losing citizenship.
Prostitution and sex trafficking
Today, prostitution has a different reputation depending on your locale. In highly regulated countries like Switzerland, sex work can be considered a relatively safe occupation; with minimal risk to all parties involved. In the United States, Canada, and Western Australia, prostitution is criminalised or unregulated, making it very risky for the sex workers. Sex trafficking, on the other hand, is wholly illegal and will hopefully stay that way. Currently, there are 40.3 million people held in sex slavery—more than the entire population of Canada.
The Ancient Romans were familiar with prostitution and sex trafficking. Most sex workers and slaves who were denied citizenship didn’t have basic human rights. Many of these slaves were children, and since the men of Rome were indiscriminate with gender, neither of the genders were spared. While the female citizens of Ancient Rome were protected from unwanted sexual advances by law, it was common for upper-class, aristocratic men to assault women and lie or bribe their way out of punishment.
In 2005, Canada was the first non-European country to legalise same-sex marriage, with the United States and Australia legalising gay marriage several years thereafter. Some of us may have a hard time believing that the Ancient Romans were thousands of years ahead of us when it came to gay rights; but what about heterosexual marriage? In short, men had a good time, and women usually didn’t. Marriage in ancient Rome was mostly loveless and political. Sex was usually reserved exclusively for reproduction, and husbands would sleep with other women while their wives were pregnant with their children. Famously, the wife of the Roman poet Martial once tried winning her husband’s affections by getting a little risqué in the bedroom, only to be taunted in return—not cool, Martial.
Today, ‘love potions’ are sometimes a euphemism for alcoholic beverages like wine or spirits. For men, vasodilators like Viagra and Cialis, and some over-the-counter performance boosters, may act as modern sex potions. Today we know there’s no such thing as a love potion, but the Ancient Romans clearly didn’t. Instead of using candy, chocolates or red wine as signs of romance, the men of Rome would slip garlic, butter, fish oils, or other aphrodisiacs into your drink, hoping you’d instantly fawn over them after sipping on that nastiness. Ancient Romans didn’t stop at potions though; sometimes love rituals were performed too. This included rubbing the bloodied tail of a lizard on a woman’s privates to ward off infidelity, or consuming hemp oil to lower sperm count. Thank goodness Valentine’s day was AFTER the fall of Rome—I can’t imagine how poorly that would have gone for all the Roman men!
The laws of ancient Rome weren’t all too bad if you were a citizen; protection from unwanted sexual advances, woman’s reproductive rights, gay marriage—so far so good. Non-citizens had it a bit rougher though since they were completely unprotected by any laws, and Roman men often took advantage of that. Today we might think immigrating is hard, but the only way to gain citizenship in Ancient Rome was to risk your life by joining the army. Between slavery and military service, both options leave much to be desired. Roman women also had it just a tad worse than men since at some point there was a rule – “if you didn’t scream, you’re just as guilty as the rapist”.
In spite of its many flaws, the Roman judicial system was still years ahead of its time. They paved the foundation for the legal systems we still use and continue to build upon today. Ancient Rome did many things right regarding sexual freedoms, but in a patriarchal, aristocratic society with almost no checks and balances; it was ultimately spoiled. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a thing or two to learn from the Romans; and we’ll continue looking back at their successes and failures to lead way to a better future.