When it comes to queer behavior in ancient civilizations, Ancient Greece usually takes all the credit, but more attention ought to be paid to its sister civilization: Ancient Rome. What began as a small town in the 8th Century BCE, the Roman Empire eventually spanned several continents through militaristic conquest. These principles of power, domination, and aggression, which were key to the success and expansion of the empire, were also reflected in their views of sexuality. Romans’ virtue (or virtus) was defined by their sexual dominance and masculinity. The act of penetration, in Ancient Rome, made you a “real man.”
Evidence for this ‘penetration paradigm’ can be found in the Romans' worship of the god Priapus. The god of fertility, Priapus had a massive, constantly erect phallus that could protect citizens from evil. Families would hang depictions of Priapus in their doorways to signal that a “real man” lived in the house, a man who would protect his family no matter what.
The Romans were not as flexible about sex outside of marriage as the Greeks. Adultery was considered stuprum, an act that brought dishonor onto a Roman family, especially if committed by a woman. Pederasty was also considered stuprum by many Roman writers, and it was noticeably less common than in Greek society.
That’s not to say that pederasty did not occur in Ancient Rome. Hadrian, one of the most influential emperors from the 2nd century CE, was in a pederastic relationship. After almost two decades in a loveless marriage, he met a young, handsome Bithynian boy named Antinous while traveling abroad. Though he was only a teenager at the time, Antinous quickly became Hadrian’s “favorite.” The Emperor brought him along on many of his travels, and the two enjoyed their shared love of hunting together, but their relationship came to an end around 130 CE when Antinous drowned––suspiciously––in the Nile River.
Another fascinating exception to the “uniquely macho style” of Roman tradition is Emperor Elagabalus, who came into power in 218 CE at only fourteen years old. Accounts of their (I use they/them pronouns considering the emperor’s ambiguous gender presentation) reign have been so mired in historical controversy that it’s almost impossible to determine fact from fiction. For starters, he was probably never called Elagabalus in his lifetime, but according to the emperor’s contemporary biographer, Cassius Dio, Elagabulus engaged in behavior that suggests that if they lived today, we might identify them as transgender or non-binary.
Dio alleges that the young emperor preferred to spend their time at brothels––wearing wigs, make-up, and impersonating female sex workers. Not only did they enjoy the passive role in intercourse, something considered abominable for a free Roman citizen, but they married a formerly enslaved man named Hierocles. The emperor may have also made one of the first recorded requests for a gender affirmation procedure. Some modern scholars have dismissed these claims as biased, unverifiable slander, but others, especially in the 60s and 70s, have chosen to view Elagabalus as a “queer icon.”
If these rumors are true, the gender-bending emperor would likely have been classified as a cinaedus, a heavily stigmatized term for men who enjoyed the penetrative act of sexual intercourse. That said, our written historical record primarily comes from elite men, leaving around 98% of the population (non-elite men, women, slaves, former slaves, and cinaedi) in “silence.” So even if there were a subculture of rebellious same-sex lovers at the time, it would be difficult to find any concrete record of it.
There are several other examples of cinaedi, however, among the social elite, especially emperors. In The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies, James Neill claims that “virtually all the major political and military leaders of the late Republic and early Empire were known for their homosexual loves and affairs.” This includes Julius Caesar who, in addition to being a prolific seducer of women, was accused of assuming the passive role in his relationship with the king of Bithynia, Nicomedes. His alleged affair even earned him the nickname ‘the queen of Bithynia’. Nero, the notoriously hedonistic emperor, was known to marry both men and women, alternating his role at the weddings as the husband and the bride.
Once again, these examples may not be completely reliable, as much of the palace intrigue was the result of defamatory slander similar to how we gossip about celebrities or politicians today. They do, however, imply a certain level of hypocrisy in the sexual norms of Ancient Rome: the rules could be flexible, at least among those who had the power and privilege to bend them.
The desire to be passive or effeminate in Ancient Rome may have been stigmatized or evoked public scorn, but it was not illegal. For the bulk of its history, Roman law and religion made no distinctions between homosexual and heterosexual eroticism, and there is evidence of same-sex couples living together harmoniously. This began to change in 342 CE, however, when co-emperors Constantius II and Constans I passed a law that imposed the death penalty for same-sex marriage. In 390 CE, Theodosius I passed a law that dictated that passively-inclined sex workers should be burned alive; he later extended the law to all men who assumed passive sexual roles.
This growing condemnation of queer activity coincided with the rise of Christianity, as sexuality increasingly began to be viewed solely for the purposes of procreation, and anything else was considered a sin. Gradually, as the power and censorship of the church grew, the relative sexual tolerance of our Ancient predecessors faded into antiquity.
What aspect of Roman sexuality do you find most surprising? Most challenging?
Do you think it’s possible that Roman cinaedi may have behaved in ways similar to modern homosexual subcultures?
Were you previously aware that emperors like Julius Caesar and Nero were rumored to engage in queer relationships? Does this change your perception of them?
Craig A. Williams, Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity In Classical Antiquity. E-book, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999
Robert Aldrich, Gay Life and Culture: A World History New York, NY: Universe, 2006
Jennifer Ingleheart, “Romosexuality – Embracing Queer Sex and Love in Ancient Times.” The Conversation, 29 July, 2021
M. Masterson, N. Rabinowitz, and J. Robson, S. Levin-Richardson “Revisiting Roman Sexuality: Agency and the Conceptualization of Penetrated Males,” Sex in Antiquity: Exploring Gender and Sexuality in the Ancient World, Routledge, 2015
A.R. Birley, Hadrian: The Restless Emperor (1st ed.), Routledge, 1977
Sarah Waters, "The Most Famous Fairy in History": Antinous and Homosexual Fantasy, Journal of the History of Sexuality, University of Texas Press Oct., 1995.
Leonardo de Arrizabalaga, Leonardo de. Varian Studies Volume One: Varius. United Kingdom, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017.
Leonardo de Arrizabalaga, The Emperor Elagabalus: Fact Or Fiction?, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Mark Nugent, From 'Filthy Catamite' to 'Queer Icon': Elagabalus and the Politics of Sexuality (1960–1975), Helios, 2009.
John R. Clarke, Representations of the Cinaedus in Roman Art, Journal of Homosexuality, 22 Sep 2008
James Neill, The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies, McFarland, Incorporated, Publishers, 2011.
Timothy Murphy, Reader's Guide to Lesbian and Gay Studies, Taylor & Francis, 18 Oct, 2013.
J. Osgood, “Caesar and Nicomedes,” The Classical Quarterly, The Classic Association, 2008.
John Boswell, Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, Villard Books, 1994.