What homosexuality is like in ancient Rome?

Things have changed a lot since ancient Rome, and the same thing can apply to same-sex relationships. Here are a few facts about homosexuality in Rome you might have missed. We will discuss how common it was, what some of the “rules” were, and how they changed over the years. 

Historical Rome

It is rather interesting to take a look at the past and see how different it was compared to today. One of the first things to address is that the term homosexuality didn’t exist in ancient Rome. Instead, they had a word for dominant, active, or masculine role and the one for the opposite. While the society was still patriarchal, no one was against same-sex relationships. In fact, Roman citizens at the time had a conquest mentality. 


In this term, conquering had a huge impact on the relationships as well. Roman men were able to enjoy homosexual relationships without any problems. The only catch was that they had to play the dominant role. If a male is having sex with another male, the one that is in the dominant position won’t have their masculinity affected. 


And if you are wondering what the dominant role was, it usually referred to the penetrative role in the sexual relationship. It begs the question of who their partners were. Since being in the passive role meant loss of masculinity or social status, men often went to prostitutes or entertainers.

Evidence of Homosexuality

If we take a look at literature and art, we can notice that homosexuality was quite common in Roman society. One of the most common themes in literature was love or even desire between two men. Furthermore, analyzing the poems from this period, we can notice that there is a similar number of men-to-men poems as there are heterosexual ones. 


It only shows how homosexuality in ancient Rome was nothing new. But it is far from being the only clue we have. Needless to say, the topic raises many questions. Some claim that Romans were sophisticated and against homosexuality before they were introduced to Greek culture and art. And as always, there are those that oppose these theories. 


When it comes to visual art, we can find examples of male-to-male relationships on paintings, vessels, lamps, and many more. The percentage here is a lot different, and the majority of drawings and paintings are dedicated to heterosexual relationships


One of the most popular examples is the Warren Cup, which is a silver cup decorated with male-to-male sex acts. In the majority of cases, homosexual couples share the scene with heterosexual couples, probably to emphasize the idea that all relationships are equal. 

Women to Women Relationships

Now, if we look at the other side of the coin, the situation is almost quite the opposite. There aren’t many records of women in same-sex relationships. While the practice itself wasn’t forbidden, it was not as common as relationships between two men. 


One of few examples of female homoeroticism was found in Pompeii. There were many wall paintings depicting sex scenes, and a couple of them showed women-to-women relationships. In addition, you could find paintings of threesomes, orgies, and many other sexual acts. 


A location at Pompeii shows a total of sixteen pictures, and it is a delight. You can see examples of a foursome, bisexual threesome, and even a woman using a strap-on. But at the same time, there are cases in Roman literature where writers claimed how female-to-female relationships are impossible. 


It is more than obvious that they were mistaken. There are many signs and evidence that women-to-women relationships existed among ancient Romans. And while the references are rare, it doesn’t negate their existence. 

Reflection of Homosexuality in Other Beliefs

The entire approach to sexuality is strange from our perspective. And it’s even stranger when it comes to homosexuality. Those that desired to have sex with men would often visit slaves or prostitutes. As we mentioned, being in the penetrative role was perfectly fine. But those on the receiving end might suffer. So, the only options were those with nothing to lose. 


When it comes to marriages, Romans believed that marriage is something between a man and a woman with the goal of having children. There are several cases of homosexual marriages, and while they were allowed to have the ceremony and the wedding, others disapproved of it. 

It is worth mentioning that same-sex relationships between two freeborn males were allowed. However, as you can probably guess by now, a freeborn person playing a passive role was a no-no. As a result, sex in the army between soldiers was not allowed. A soldier who would willingly accept to be penetrated had to be punished, and the punishment was clubbing to death. 

It’s rather strange how quickly Romans went from being perfectly fine with homosexual relationships to going nuts about it. With Christianity, male-to-male intercourses and male prostitution were all banned. As time went on, Romans reached the moment where all types of homosexual behavior were punishable by death. 

What Happened Today

Today, Rome is a bit different compared to what it used to be. Of course, we can take a look at the entire country and see their stance on same-sex marriages. In Italy, same-sex activities have been legal since 1890. Italians have been working on ways to improve the position of LGBT members, and while the process is slow, they are making a difference. 


In fact, same-sex couples have numerous rights of marriage. However, they still might struggle with stepchild adoption. If we take a look at modern Rome, it is one of the most gay-friendly locations you can visit in Italy. 


Needless to say, no one is being clubbed to death today, and we can safely say that Rome is taking steps in the right direction. The number of people who are in favor (and have a positive attitude) of homosexuality continues to grow with each year, and we can assume that the situation will be better with each day.