Greco-Roman Sexuality

First the simple part: Ancient Greco-Roman sexuality is not a good model for the modern world to imitate! But that probably sounds a bit random coming out of the blue like that, and it occurs to me you might want to know exactly what the problem is. So let me start by backing up a bit.

First of all, let me, as we say in academia, establish my ethos. I do not do primary research into Greco-Roman sexuality, but one of my professors from my undergraduate days, Amy Richlin, Ph.D., is one of the world’s leading experts on the subject. Because of a current research project, I’ve currently got a half dozen books on the subject (including hers) in my office. I have a B.A. in Classics from the University of Southern California, and I therefore consider myself to be much better versed in Greek and Roman language, art, and culture than the average NAMBLA member.

Yes, I said NAMBLA. That’s because in the wake of the allegations of sexual abuse that emerged recently against Marion Zimmer Bradley, there was a side discussion that sprang up regarding another prominent, living SF author who once wrote that people need to read the North American Man/Boy Love Association’s arguments before dismissing them outright.

Now, I need to be clear that if evidence emerges of said author himself advocating for sexual abuse of minors or if someone that said author has sexually abused comes forward, I will withdraw my support of said author immediately. But he’s right that one must look at the intellectual position of someone advocating that which we do not like before we dismiss it.

Here’s the deal, though: I have. Admittedly, not in any great depth. Just enough to determine that what I was seeing presented was highly specious. I can’t address many of their points from a position of expertise, but I can speak to one that comes up over and over again, the one that claims that ancient Greek and Roman men had sex with young boys all the time and, you know, the world didn’t end. This is then usually extrapolated to a belief that the boys enjoyed it, that it was good for them, etc.

Now, I would love to be able to use Greco-Roman sexuality as an argument in favor of broadening our society’s views of what’s O.K.  After all, same-sex relationships are a common subject of Greco-Roman art and poetry. Several Roman emperors had same-sex preferences, and same-sex royal marriages are well attested. My belief that marriage should not be limited based on the genders of the participants gets quite a boost if I cite ancient Rome as part of my case.

But I cannot, in good academic faith, do so. And the reason why not is simple:

Greco-Roman sexuality was property-based, not consent based.

That’s right. An ancient Greek or Roman citizen could have sex with a woman, a man, a child, a donkey, whatever, so long as the person he was having sex with was his property (or he had the permission of the property owner).

A wife? She was property. And, no, she couldn’t legally say no to her husband. Nor did she get to pick her husband. Her first owner — her father — had that right. And if her father or her husband decided to loan her to his friend Cassius Septimus? She couldn’t say no to him, either. Rape was illegal, of course, but not because it was wrong to have sex with a non-consenting woman. The crime was failing to get her owner’s permission first. The victim wasn’t the woman, it was her husband or father.

This gets to be even more complicated with same-sex relationships. There was no concept of an equal relationship in ancient Greece and Rome. There was a man, and he owned his wife. So if there was to be a same-sex relationship, good manners (if not always the law) insisted that one of them needed to be the other one’s slave. (And, to get more graphic, the citizen was expected to be the “top” and the slave the “bottom.”) There is evidence of relationships that more closely resemble what we would call a marriage of equals today, but the Romans saw that as an adoptive sibling relationship (with privileges, apparently).

And it gets more complicated than that with children. The young boys in these relationships — and, yes, they were extremely common — never asked to be used sexually. They were handed over for those purposes by their parents or their owners. Parents who do that today go to jail, and for good reason. The child had absolutely no say in the relationship, no power to end it, and no voice to tell us if and how they were damaged by it.

Consent is a relatively recent concept. The idea that partners in a relationship are equals even more recent than that (as in, 20th century). So looking fondly back on the ancient Greeks is, unfortunately, not a helpful model.

But to take it a step further, that “the Greeks and Romans did it and the world didn’t end” concept is also wrong. The world did end. At least for the Romans.

One of the fascinating correlations in Roman history is that during the century or so that the Roman Empire was in decline before Rome finally fell to the barbarian invaders, there was a marked increase in the number of laws passed trying to regulate sexuality. And one of the first laws passed was an anti-pedophilia ordinance. People don’t generally pass laws against things they think are perfectly OK. Initially, the law only covered relationships without the parents’ permission, but over the years it expanded to an out-and-out ban on adult-child sexual relations.

And as the empire actually collapsed, laws banning other forms of Greco-Roman sexuality appeared almost immediately in the newly non-Roman kingdoms.

Scholars don’t know exactly why this occurred. Some speculate it’s the influence of Christianity (though that theory is undermined by the fact that the Christian theology that was in vogue at the time was very sexually permissive — people like Augustine and Chrysostom only came into vogue centuries after their deaths). Others have said that it’s a function of “rural” individuals coming to power over the “urban” elite.

I think it’s simpler than that.

People don’t like to be raped.

Remember that when we talk about Greco-Roman culture and law, we’re not talking about everyone who lived in the empire. We’re looking at the writing of a wealthy, privileged, male upper class. Trying to determine what all Greeks and Romans thought by looking at what is extant would be like trying to figure out what Americans think about sexuality by looking exclusively at episodes of The Kardashians and flipping through one random volume of the federal penal code. Not likely to give you a comprehensive picture.

So, as the Roman oligarchy faltered and failed, the people gained more influence. After all, if the people hadn’t accepted the barbarians, the sack of Rome would have been an unfortunate footnote in the reign of Julius Nepos or Romulus Augustus (depending on which side of the uprising the Eastern Empire ultimately sided with). We can only assume that the average guy in the street was, at the very least, apathetic about who was in charge. More likely, he was relieved to see the Emperor lose control.

So, when the people — the ones who have been property, the ones who have not been allowed to say no to a powerful citizen and therefore have been forced to have sex against their will — get power, what do they ask the new government to do, right away? Pass laws that will prevent them ever having to have sex against their wills again. I won’t go so far as to say that non-consent-based sex caused the fall of the Roman empire, but in the matrix of factors, I think it should be included.

I’ll leave debunking the rest of the NAMBLA arguments to those with expertise in other areas. (Psychologists, I’d love to hear from you.) But on the simple argument that “The Greeks did it,” please, don’t buy into it. Ancient Greece and Rome were radically different societies with radically different views of right and wrong. Something that was once O.K. is not automatically O.K. now. I’m a big fan of our consent-based system today, and I don’t want to go reverting to one where I don’t get to refuse someone who is wealthier and more powerful than I am.

And we certainly don’t want that for our children.

2 thoughts on “Greco-Roman Sexuality

  1. Interesting article. I’ve only recently begun exploring the issue of Greco-Roman sexuality. I agree in part with your point about a man’s sexual rights over his property in that culture, but I’d like to take it a step further and suggest that sexuality was more based on the power dynamics of each individual relationship.

    Now of course, if one has ownership over another human being, one also has power over them. But what of sexual relations between free individuals? It is interesting to note how rare it was to see a homosexual relationship between two men of equal socio-economic status. Such a situation was virtually unknown because, as you point out, the social mores dictated the need for a top and a bottom in each relationship. It might even be considered scandalous for two landowning men of similar age to be in a relationship. So while homosexuality was accepted, it was more typically in the form of pederasty or at the very least, some other type of skewed power dynamic where there existed a weaker party. A sexual relationship between two free men could exist without the need for ownership of one over the other, but there would always be one man that was older or wealthier than the other.

    • Among the ruling class, I think you’ve got the right of it. Even relationships between two adults followed the pederastic model. But there are some interesting hints that the merchant class did have rituals in place whereby two men could establish what today we would call community property, which implies that the notion of equal partners in a relationship may have cropped up independently at various points in history, if not under the moniker of marriage. Unfortunately, we’re really hampered in our understanding by whose words survived across the millennia, which, of course, is all the more reason why we shouldn’t be basing modern-day morality on Greco-Roman norms.

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