Love and Sex in Ancient Rome

Brother-sister unions, same sex marriages, brothels and strip tease. These twentieth century taboos were commonplace in Ancient Rome. Here we explore the literal ins and outs of the Roman world, from seductive women to phallic bird baths...

Love and Sex in Ancient Rome

Women in Ancient Rome

Women's roles were clearly defined in Ancient Rome. They were mothers, wives, daughters and sisters, all of whom were to bring up the children and to meet all expectations of the male. Girls were often married by 12 and encouraged to have as many babies as possible. The emperor Augustus imposed penalties on those who remained celibate or unmarried, and a woman's infertility was secure grounds for divorce, despite the common allowance of men to sleep with other women.

A Wife's Tale

It was not acceptable for women to write or be educated; we do know though that they wore make-up and were allowed to attend public baths, dinner parties and religious festivals, although they were not allowed to drink alcohol in public! Juvenal in his Satires stated women should never drink lest they "lose control, become ugly, shameless and open to adultery"!

Venus, Goddess of Love

Similar to the Greek's Aphrodite, Venus was the Roman goddess of love, beauty, fertility and sex. In art and sculpture she was featured nude, reflecting her beauty and sexuality – often in an erotic manner. The Vinalia festival, celebrated on 23 April each year, was the festival of wine, and the day prostitutes made dedications (including a strip-tease!) to Venus.

Queen of Kings

Cleopatra VII married several times over; to her brothers, to Julius Caesar, and finally to Mark Anthony. Having become joint heir to the throne with her brother/husband Ptolemy XII, she had him executed and became the last ruling Pharaoh of Egypt, marking the start of the Roman empire in the Mediterranean. Cutting a long story short, Cleopatra seduced Julius Caesar after he unrolled her in his palace from a Persian Carpet, and soon bore him an illegitimate child, Caesarion. By having her sister killed, she secured the future for both herself and Caesarion following Caesar's death.

She then charmed Mark Anthony, to whom she bore twins, and they eventually married. Later, having been told she was dead, Anthony committed suicide. Cleopatra also died from a snakebite just a few days later.


Males in ancient Rome had to be dominant, whether they were in relations with a female or another male. The man had to be in control, while the 'female' submissive, and so despite male same-sex relationships being rife in the ancient world, the penetrated male was seen as the female or slave, i.e. weak and subservient. Despite laws (such as the Lex Iulia and Lex Scantinia) banning same-sex relations with those who were freeborn, they were often ignored, and only the passive were occasionally punished. Slaves, however, were not covered by these laws, and were used in whatever way the dominant male wished.

Same sex-relations were also common with almost all the emperors; Nero being the first to marry another male. Despite this male homosexual tolerance, lesbianism was not accepted.

Phalluses and Brothels

After the famous eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD, Pompeii and Herculaneum were engulfed in a thick layer of volcanic lava and ash, perfectly preserving the Roman world for archaeologists to uncover many years later. Every discovery reveals a new untold secret of how the ancient people led their lives, with their virtually unharmed market stalls, houses, temples, and many large brothels!

As more and more areas were being uncovered, large numbers of erotic art and frescoes were found in bathhouses, shops, houses, and even on outside walls for people advertising their 'services'. Phallic shaped household objects were also discovered, in the form of oil lamps, bird baths, and a life-size statue of the god Priapus weighing his own phallus!