Sexuality in ancient Rome and Greece
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TM, ®, Copyright © 2010 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Demystifying Graecoroman Sexuality

Especially now that the West is on a mission to convert the world to gay marriage, there is a lot of discussion about the origins of the Christian puritan ideology (often forgetting that equally puritan practices have prevailed in the Islamic world, in India and in China, to name just the big ones) comparing it with a more promiscuous world in ancient Rome and Greece. Wikipedia articles are particularly misleading about Roman and Greek sexuality (allow me to suspect that they have been edited by people with a political agenda). And it's not only Wikipedia. Frequently, biased readers interpret any "deep emotional bond between adult men" as a homosexual relationship. The truth is that "deep emotional bonds between adult men" were a lot more frequent in the past than today until very recently, and they still are in the developing world.

First things first. As far as one can tell from widely public documents, homosexuality in Greece and Rome was mostly practiced between an older man and a much younger boy (typically, 12-14 years old). Today this is considered a terrible crime, but then homosexuality in general was considered a terrible crime when i was a child and now gay marriage is being legalized in the very same places, so i wouldn't be too surprised if in the future sex between and adult man and a teenage boy will become legal and even commonplace again. Attitudes change. For the ancient Greeks and Romans it was normal that an older man would make love to a teenage boy, and the boy would get an education and mentorship for the rest of his life. Whether this was also happening between older women and teenage girls is more controversial because the lives of women are not as well documented.

There was certainly a lot of tolerance for homosexuality in ancient Greece and ancient Rome. Sparta even encouraged homosexual relationships among its soldiers to increase the chances that one would be willing to die for the other (at least this is the most widely used explanation, which i never found very convincing: what about the abandoned lovers or the jealous lover? usually love comes with a lot of drama and turmoil). There was tolerance but not as much as some want us to believe: in 390 male prostitutes were burned at the stakes, female prostitutes were not.

I also always suspected that Greeks and Romans preferred their boys to engage in sex with older man (which brings advantages and few disadvantages) than sex with girls of the same age (which brings pregnancy). Today we think that a boy who has sex with an older man suffers a lifelong trauma, but they obviously didn't think so back then.

Coming to heterosexuality, in the last centuries of the Roman Empire erotic images of men and women are very common and popular. This has led many to posit that Roman society was promiscuous, despite little evidence of premarital sex or of people having sex with other people's spouses. I suspect that most of the women depicted in those sexual acts were slaves. A vast number of Romans were slaves, and subject to sexual duties. Most slaves were Christians (and viceversa). When the Roman empire converted to Christianity, they introduced the puritan view of sex that (officially) dominated the Christian world for centuries, and the simplest explanation for such a dramatic change in sexual habits is that the Christians thought of out-of-wedlock sex the same way that, say, African-Americans think of cotton plantations.

Some bibliography:

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TM, ®, Copyright © 2010 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.