Roman Sex, Sexuality, Slaves and Lex Scantinia

In ancient Rome, Latin has no equivalent translation for defining homosexuality, nor heterosexuality as an individual’s sexual nature. Gay or straight, there would be no distinction.

Image Credit : Marie-Lan Nguyen

In ancient Rome, Latin has no equivalent translation for defining homosexuality, nor heterosexuality as an individual’s sexual nature. Gay or straight, there would be no distinction.

Sexuality instead is determined by behavioral mannerisms, whether masculine or passive in both male and female roles. Roman society had a patriarchal system in which the gender role of the male is the primary authority, emphasized by the “active” masculinity as a premise of governance, power and status.

In the case of the freeborn women of Rome, they were sometimes described as “tribas fricatrix”, meaning “she who rubs” and “virago”, from the latin word vir (virile ‘man), a term used to describe a woman who demonstrates exemplary and heroic qualities.

Roman religion supported acceptance of sexuality, as an aspect that prospered religious practice for improving erotic lifestyle as well as defining an individual’s power through the procreative force of the male. Such traditions were a sign of active masculinity, but whether the religious tolerance can be applicable to homosexual acts is unknown.

Men were free to have intercourse with men, but generally only acceptable in instances where the masculinity of the freeborn Roman citizen wasn’t subject to the law of Lex Scantinia, otherwise bringing his name and family reputation into dis-repute or infamia (infamia – A loss of legal or social standing).

Lex Scantinia was a Roman law that historians believe was created to penalise any male citizen of high standing that took a willing role in passive sexual behaviour. From a societal perspective, to be “passive” or “submissive”, threatened the very fabric of masculinity, with feminine traits, submission and passive mannerisms being an act of the lower class and slaves.

Same sex intercourse with prostitutes or slaves was actually acceptable, not vitiating on a freeborn’s masculinity as long as the freeborn citizen took the active role in penetration. In rare cases, freeborns who bestowed their anal orifice or “scultima”, was in florid slang a “Scultimidonus.” Translated as “asshole bestower,” mentioned in text from  the Roman Satirist, Gaius Lucilius (c.160s – 103/2 BC).

In the legions, the act of homosexuality amongst soldiers was considered a violation of military discipline and subject to harsh penalties. Polybius (ca. 200–118 BC), a Greek Historian reported in his journals that same sex activity amongst soldiers was punishable by the fustuarium, (clubbing to death).

As with any freeborn, Soldiers were allowed to engage in same-sex relations with slaves, prostitutes and captives as a sign of inserting their sexual authority and their (active) masculinity.  An incident related by Plutarch in his biography of Marius, illustrates the soldier’s right to maintain his sexual integrity. In this instance, a legionary named Trebonius was the object of sexual assaults by his superior officer, Gaius Luscius. Trebonius was brought before a tribunal for killing Luscius, but later acquitted and awarded a crown of bravery for defending his masculinity and freeborn male purity.

In another case of same sex in the army, “De Bello Hispaniensi,” a book believed to have been written by Julius Caesar (Although the authorship is heavily disputed) details Caesar’s campaigns on the Iberian Peninsula and mentions a Roman officer who engages in regular sexual acts with his concubine (concubinus).

Although the Lex Scantinia and the enforcement of the law is mentioned in several ancient sources, such as  227 BC where Gaius Scantinius Capitolinus was put on a Lex trial for sexually molesting the son of Marcus Claudius Marcellus; the full legality and provisions of the law are still unclear. Lex Scantinia has never been proven as a direct assault on homosexuality, nor penalising the general act within ancient Rome as a crime. Instead, it was essentially a rule to police the masculine nature of a Roman citizen by enforcing that a freeborn takes the “top” or “active” role in sex.

Same-Sex Rape and Slavery

Lex Scantinia exempted freeborn men from infamia and prosecution in the case of rape or forced passive intercourse. According to the jurist Pomponius, “whatever man has been raped by the force of robbers or the enemy in wartime (vi praedonum vel hostium)” ought to bear no stigma.

However, it was considered a capital crime for one freeborn to rape another, such an act carrying a sentence of death. To prevent the rape of minors, boys would wear a toga praetexta garment, a mark of “inviolable status” and a bulla to turn away the wandering eye of men.

A Roman Citizen was allowed to exploit his own slaves for sex, no matter the age or circumstances of birth. A freeborn Roman could even rape, torture and abuse their property without charge or prosecution. A slave had no civil protection or authority pertaining to their body; in essence the body of a slave was to be used to appease the sexual appetites of their Dominus.

Emperor Hadrian (117 to 138), builder of Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland England, was documented as having a relationship with a beautifully depicted Bithynian boy named Antinous, a relationship that was rumoured to also be a of a sexual nature.

During a fateful journey down the Nile, Antinous drowned (130 AD) in circumstances some historians believe was of a sacrificial nature (Disputed).  In his memory,  Hadrian founded the city of Antinopolis in Egypt and deified the name of Antinous, an honour not normally associated with members outside a ruling family.

Colossal statue of Antinous as Dionysos-Osiris (ivy crown, head band, cistus and pine cone)

In contrast to Antinous, boys born or sold into slavery, captured as spoils of war, or freeman (freed slaves) were often exploited and sexually preyed upon. It was actually considered socially acceptable to abuse young male slaves, in sordid acts of pederasty by the elite class of elder Roman men.

The term, puer delicatus or deliciae (meaning sweet, dainty) is often applied to child slaves used specifically for sexual gratification and companionship. This practise is pictured on The Warren Cup, a silver roman vassal from the time of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, 1st century AD (Although the authenticity of the cup is in dispute). The cup is decorated with ornate reliefs of same sex acts, one side of which depicts a young adult male penetrating a young slave boy or puer delicatus.

Puer delicatus or deliciae : Warren Cup : Marie-Lan Nguyen

The Warren Cup Abstract : The cup is an ancient Roman silver drinking cup decorated in relief with two images of male same-sex acts. The cup is named after its first modern owner, the collector and writer Edward Perry Warren, and was acquired by the British Museum in 1999. It is usually dated to the time of the Julio-Claudian dynasty (1st century AD), but doubts have been raised about its authenticity.

One side of the Warren Cup depicts a mature bearded man (the active participant or in Greek terms the erastes) engaging in anal sex with a young man (the eromenos, “beloved”), who lowers himself onto the erastes using a rope or support from the ceiling in roughly the modern sexual position of reverse cowgirl. Meanwhile a boy, perhaps a slave, watches surreptitiously from behind a door — the inferior status of a slave in Roman eyes would make him suitable to this role of voyeur

The other side depicts a younger adult male holding a boy for intercourse. The boy’s hairstyle is typical of the puer delicatus, a slave-boy chosen for his good looks to serve as his master’s favorite. The adult wears a wreath, perhaps indicating his role as “erotic conquerer.” Roman same-sex practice differed from that of the Greeks, among whom pederasty was a socially acknowledged relationship between freeborn males of equal social status. Roman men, however, were free to engage in same-sex relations without a perceived loss of masculinity only as long as they took the penetrative role and their partner was a social inferior such as a slave or male prostitute: the paradigm of “correct” male sexuality was one of conquest and domination. – WikiPedia 

In more extreme cases, a puer delicatus would be castrated and dressed with feminine attire. This was a peculiar and sordid attempt to preserve youthful qualities and prolong feminine and passive attractiveness in children and young males.

The growing trade in slaves for sexual gratification, in particular the trade in Eunuch slaves and puer delicatus during the early Empire prompted the senate to approve a motion of legislation that eventually prohibited the castration of a slave against his will “for lust of gain.”

Such was the trend, that even the famous Emperor Nero (54 to 68AD) had a puer delicatus named Sporus. A young man of notable feminine charm, who he castrated and supposedly dressed wearing the regalia, customary only for Roman empresses. Sources believe he later married Sporus after the death of his wife Poppaea Sabina.

Bust of Nero at the Musei Capitolini, Rome : Wiki Commons

Same-Sex Marriage

Roman law never officially recognised marriage between same sex couples, but during the early imperial years, same sex weddings were actually common place.

Marcus Valerius Martialis refers to marriage between men as “something that occurs not infrequently, although they disapprove of it” Despite having no legal bond in same sex marriage, this didn’t deter freeborn romans, nor the Emperors from taking vows.

Such an example was in the early 3rd century AD, the Emperor Elagabalus (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus : 218 to 222 CE), an eccentric and decadent ruler was described in the Augustan History (A late Roman collection of biographies) as even having married a male athlete, called Zoticus in a public wedding ceremony in Rome.

As with time, attitudes towards same sex acts began to change, as did the religious identity of the Empire. The polytheistic pagan gods, such as Jupiter and Mars were replaced by the monotheistic new religion of Christianity and its influence spread across the classical world.

By the 4th century AD, legal prohibitions against the practise of gay marriage were being criminalised by the Christian Emperors as part of the Codex Theodosianus (Compilation of Roman Laws). In the year 390, the three Christian Emperors, Valentinian II, Theodosius I and Arcadius declared homosexuality illegal throughout the empire for any freeborn Romans under condemnation of burning.

Under the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I, (527 to 565 AD), it was decreed that any form of homosexual behaviour was “contrary to nature” and outlawed across the Eastern Empire.… By this point, the influence of Christianity was the dominant faith of the Byzantine Empire and its ideals, common law in the cultural views of society.

Header Image : Warren Cup : Wiki Commons

Written by Markus Milligan


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Roman Sex, Sexuality, Slaves and Lex Scantinia
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