Roman Sexuality in Paul's World
By Bruce L. Gerig

Growing up in Tarsus.  We know little about Paul’s schooling as a youth in Tarsus (today in SE Turkey, on the coast), although he received a typical Jewish Hellenistic education (given to Jewish boys whose families lived outside of Palestine).    Such an education would have given him both a broad knowledge of his Jewish faith and traditions as well as a grounding in Greek rhetoric (how to speak and write persuasively) and secular philosophy (especially Stoicism and Cynicism).1 Sarah Ruden notes that Paul, brought up in a Jewish household, would not have had an accepting view toward homosexual behavior (cf. Lev 18:22, 20:13), even though he later sets aside various Jewish requirements in his Gentile mission (cf. Gal 2:11-21, 5:1-6).    Yet the young Paul was probably most affected by scenes he witnessed on the streets of Tarsus, as in any large city in the Roman Empire—of prostitutes of both sexes who offered themselves on the street or from windows or doorways of brothels (the males usually much younger than the females), of public slave auctions where boys probably no older than Paul himself were sold into slavery, and of pedophiles who pestered him and his friends on their way to school, offering them money or gifts (no doubt his parents warned him not to show any interest in such men, since this could ruin a young man’s reputation and get a boy labeled a prostitute).2

Sexual life in Pompeii and Herculaneum.    Peter Oakes notes that looking at life in Pompeii and Herculaneum, those ill-fated cities that were buried under the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, can help one better understand Paul’s letter to the Romans.3    For example, these ruins reveal that prostitution was notoriously common in first-century bars (or ‘cafes,’ since food was also served) and that most households probably owned 3-5 slaves.4    With regards to Paul’s describing “impurity” and “shameless acts” in Rom 1:24, 27, it can be noted that the most prominent examples in Pompeii of homosexual behavior (as well as free-wheeling heterosexual behavior) appeared related to the prostitution trade, to house party orgies, and to the sexual use of slaves.    Furthermore, given the widespread sexual use of slaves, there certainly would have been a “tension” when a slave joined one of Paul’s congregations—between Paul’s teaching against “sexual immorality” (cf. 1 Cor 6:2, NRSV) and the sexual service which a slave was duty-bound to give his or her master upon demand.    What Paul can do and does do is to bestow upon any slave who joins his community a new dignity, envisioning him or her “a freed person belonging to the Lord” (1 Cor 7:21-22, cf. Gal 3:28).5

Phalluses, Priapus figures, and male nudity.    In Roman cities phalluses (erect penises) were displayed everywhere—carved on pavement stones, sticking out from or depicted in plaques on buildings, and pictured inside establishments.6    Since the ancient Mediterranean world believed that this symbol of male fertility could avert evil, Paul would have seen the phalluses everywhere he looked, in homes as well as businesses.    And since noise was also believed to dispel evil spirits, inside the front door of every home hung a tintinnabulum (a bronze wind-chime), where bells hung down from one or more swinging phalluses.7 Boys sometimes wore phalluses as protective amulets.8    Meanwhile, an image of Priapus, the male fertility god who was always depicted with a huge erect phallus, would have greeted Paul or any other visitor who entered a Roman home.    For example, the large fresco painting of Priapus in entranceway of the Vettii brothers’ home in Pompeii (two freedmen who had made it good financially) shows the god weighing his huge penis against a bag of coins, with a fruit basket placed nearby—suggesting that the master’s large organ would bring protection, prosperity and fertility to his home.9   A Priapus statue often also stood in the household garden, to serve as a warning to any unwanted intruder.     The intention, as expressed in one poem, was:  “This scepter [Priapus’s phallus], which was cut from a tree . . . will go into the guts of a thief all the way up to my crotch and the hilt of my balls” (Carmina Priapea 25).10    While the Greeks were satisfied with a sleek, muscular boy with a tiny penis, Priapus promoted the idea of a Roman male asserting his masculinity by penetrating others with his impressive member—and the bigger the better, so to speak.11    Moreover, it was the privilege of a Roman male to wield his phallic power with females and males, with his wife and slaves, and with prostitutes of both sexes.12   Although some researchers hold that these phallic symbols had lost all erotic meaning (Varone)13, some viewers still may have found them sexually suggestive (Clarke).14    Yet, for Paul, whose Jewish background found any genital exposure shameful15, such images as these added to Paul’s impression of Roman “impurity,” mentioned in Rom 1:24.    Also, sculptures of handsome nude male figures, often life-size (but also sometimes larger and smaller), were on display everywhere (without erections), depicting gods, heroes, warriors, athletes, and youths.16  Usually they are depicted just standing at ease, but also sometimes they wave their huge phallus in dance17or engage in sex scenes.18 Deiss notes that residences at Herculaneum show that even the middle class, who lived in rented apartments or rooms, sought to decorate their walls with erotic paintings, to own statues of male (nude) divinities, and to display graffiti on their walls, like, “Let love burn here.”19    Other homes, however, belonged to very conservative people.20  

Erotic scenes on walls and objects.    Even the Roman Sextus Propertius (50?-15? BC) complained that erotic pictures were found in houses everywhere.21  These erotic wall paintings illustrating a wide diversity of sexual scenes and acts (both heterosexual and homosexual), were displayed in bedrooms (used for sex) and also dining areas.    Scenes of heavy drinking and hot love-making also decorated dishes and cups used at meals, which could easily stimulate the libido of the guests invited to dinner (the most important meal of the day, to which guests were often invited), leading them eventually to engage in sexual encounters and even group orgies.22  Not only were these erotic pictures the pride of the wealthy, but poor folk desired them as well.23   In other words, ‘every home had to have one.’24   The Romans had no concept of ‘pornography,’ but worshipped deities whom they believed gave them the gifts of sexual pleasure;25 and nudity was not shocking at all, for men.26   Also, the Romans viewed these erotic pictures in the home as a good way to teach children, women, the unmarried, and even the married lessons about to have sex.27    And as William Countryman notes, it is hard to make a case that Paul would have demanded that these images on the walls be covered or that erotically decorated household objects be removed when he visited a Gentile home.28   Wall paintings and pots, cups, oil lamps, medallions, and other objects unashamedly displayed scenes of erotic games29, vaginal intercourse30, heterosexual anal penetration31, fellatio32, bisexual multiple penetration at the same time33, and pederastic sex34.    As the Roman statesman Pliny the Elder (23-79) once explained: “It is the fashion to portray lust on cups and objects to drink from, of an obscene form” (Natural History 33.1).35

Public cafes, public baths, and public latrines.    After Paul finished his tent-making which he did as a livelihood in Corinth (Acts 18:1) or after teaching his daily Christian catechism class in a rented hall in Ephesus (Acts 19:9-10), he might have stopped by, with others, at a tavern (or café),36 to get a bite to eat (and some wine) and engage in more discussion with people, or before he continued his public witnessing elsewhere (cf. Acts 17:17ff).    However, both lowly and more elegant eating-places often displayed erotic pictures on the walls, while the waiters of both sexes were available for sex in a small back room.37   Two scenes decorating the wall in the Mercury Street Tavern in Pompeii showed nude mime scenes, like those commonly sandwiched in between acts of comedy or tragedy at the local theatre.    In one scene, a nude sexually-aroused man chases a woman, while in the next scene, having caught her, he penetrates her, while both hold up a celebratory glass of wine.38    At the theatre, audiences (slaves were not allowed to attend) watched free comedy, farce, and dancing on stage, which included nude chorus girls, nude males who portrayed Apollo, and ‘satyrs’ who wore artificial erect phalluses.    Erotic gags and gestures were essential.39     It is hard to imagine that Paul ever went to the theater.  

But what about bathing?    For this, Romans went to the public baths, where men usually bathed apart from the women and completely nude.    Although circumcision was practiced in certain parts of the East (in Syria, as well as Palestine), the Greeks and Romans abhorred it; and Martial (c.40–104) in some of his epigrams ridicules it and makes coarse jokes about it.    So, when Paul went to the public baths, as everyone did, he probably did not escape lewd jokes about his circumcised organ.40  Some very wealthy families had private baths at home, which Paul on the road sometimes had the luxury of enjoying; yet at other times he would have had no choice but to go the public baths.    And since the body was an object of admiration and veneration among the Greeks and Romans, they kept it clean by usually visiting the public bath every day.    If men and women bathed together (which was sometimes done in rare cases), the former wore a brief loincloth and the latter a light garment; but mostly the genders bathed apart and nude, in separate sections41 or at different times.  Yet, pimps and (male) prostitutes also often frequented the baths,42 advertising their wares43; and at the end of a corridor in the Suburban Baths in Herculaneum was located a room where sexual trysts could take place.    Here one surviving graffiti message reads: “Apelles the Mouse with his brother [a same-sex partner] lovingly screwed each other twice.”44   And of the baths MARTIAL once wrote, “Whatever bath you hear applause in, Flaccus, know that Maro’s dick is there” (Epigrams 9.33).45   Or Martial remarked about a friend with whom he went to the Baths, noting that “he looks at nothing higher up, but devours the studs with his eyes, staring at their dicks with lips hard at work” (Epigrams  1.96.11-13).46

Paul was happy also to avoid using the public latrine when he could, which lacked private stalls and allowed men to view each other and ‘expose themselves,’ and partner up or pick up prostitutes who hung around outside. 

Roman sexual views in general.    Roman views on sex were very different than today.    For example, falling in love was commonly thought to be a misfortune, a kind of “insanity,” because decent people were not supposed to let such emotions take over their lives.47   Also, even at home, in the bedroom it was considered immodest for a woman to show herself completely nude to her husband; and so sexual consummation usually went on in the dark.48    No wonder, then, that men often sought out prostitutes (of both sexes), who were not bound by such inhibitions; or they turned to household slaves for full and free sexual enjoyment.    For the Roman male, the ideal was virtus (masculinity), which displayed itself in governing the world and dominating others; and for the male sexually this meant penetration; and it didn’t matter with whom (a woman, a youth or another man) as long as he took the active role.49    It was not gender but social status of the partner that was of concern, for a free Roman citizen was not to have sex with another male citizen or with a married woman.    Sexual play with slaves of either gender was considered a master’s right, while his wife was expected to confine her sexual activity to marriage.50    Homosexual behavior was generally not condemned for the male, unless a free citizen became a prostitute or took on the effeminate, passive role—both of which were looked upon with contempt.51   Not conflicted by notions of “sin” or “lewdness,” the Romans practiced sex with simplicity and spontaneity, if often also crudeness; and in spite of certain ‘official’ judgments that existed against certain sexual behaviors, few males refrained from these in their pursuit of a full erotic life.52   The attitude of many Roman men is exemplified in the text that appears on an exquisitely incised gemstone (in a royal cabinet in Leiden), which pictures two nude horny males going at it, while the text at the top reads: “Leopard [one partner’s pet name]—drink, / Live in luxury, / Embrace! / You must die, for time is short. / May you live life to the full, O Greek!”    Or put another way, Carpe diem (“Seize the day”).53  Sexual acts like performing fellatio or cunnilingus or indulging in lesbian or group sex were all viewed as taboo; and yet all these activities went on anyway, as illustrated frankly in various scenes displayed in the Suburban Baths in Pompeii.54   

Pederasty.    Roman audiences found something especially appealing about the supreme Greek god Zeus (renamed Jupiter in Latin) who fell in love with the beautiful Trojan prince Ganymede (renamed Catamitus in Latin) and carried him off to become his cupbearer and bed partner.55   Likewise, the male usually viewed as the ideal sexual partner by older Roman males was an adolescent youth (although not always).56   As the Romans came into contact with Greek culture, in the several centuries preceding the birth of Christ, it became chic in certain circles to adopt Greek ways, which led to an overall loosening of Roman morals—which included some women turning to adultery.57   The difference between Greek homosexuality and Roman homosexuality was that in the former case a man usually had sex with a free youth, while in the latter case sex usually occurred between a master and a slave.58    A Roman law was passed penalizing any man who had homosexual relations with a freeborn Roman youth, although this did not fully suppress such action, as poems from the first century BC and onward bear witness.59    In fact, the danger of molestation was so great that Roman parents, if they could afford it, hired a special slave to walk their young sons to and from school to protect them from pederasts.60   However, no blame was attached to the man who had sex with a male slave,61 although the Roman statesman CATO THE ELDER (234-149) BC) complained that in Rome “pretty boys now fetch more than fields” (noted in Polybius 31.25.2),62 and he worried about men who impoverished themselves in the process.63    Sarah Ruden notes that Plato (c.429–c.347 BC) had earlier “whitewashed” pederasty in philosophical and religious terms by viewing a good-looking boy as leading his admirer to think of an ultimate beauty which had been forgotten in mortal life.    Therefore the suitor wanted to impart his spirituality to his beloved boy, to educate and improve him; and in return the boy would view him as his benefactor and give in to his suitor’s sexual desires.    However, these views were far removed from mainstream (everyday) thought and action; and later authors simply called themselves pedophiles or ‘lovers of children,’ although some of them preferred older teenagers.   Still, most boys were rejected when they began to grow a beard.64

Sexual use of slaves.    It is hard to grasp how widespread slavery was in the Roman Empire, but Scott Bratchy estimates that as many as one-third of the inhabitants of the large cities at the time—including Rome, Ephesus, Corinth, and Antioch in Syria—were slaves.65   And as the Roman statesman-philosopher SENECA THE ELDER (55 BC–AD 39) noted, “Sexual servicing is a crime for the freeborn, a necessity for the slave, and a duty for the freeman” (Controversiae 4, preface 10), i.e., a slave even after he had been freed could be called upon by his former master to perform sexual service.66    The Roman poet HORACE (65-8 BC) explained, fulfilling sexual urges for a free Roman citizen should be like eating when you’re hungry, for: “When your crotch is throbbing and there is a slave-girl or home-grown slave-boy ready at hand whom you could jump on right away, you don’t prefer to burst with your hard-on, do you?    I certainly don’t.    I like sex that is easy and obtainable” (Satires 1.2.114–119).67   Craig Williams writes that since slaves were property, their bodies belonged to their master, who might call upon them at any time, day or night, to satisfy his sexual desires.    In fact, it was assumed that a master would make sexual use of his slaves; and the most desirable male slave was a boy, with whom the master generally took the active sexual role (but not always).    In fact, a complete list of all of the references to sex with slaves in literary classical sources would be “massive,” since the practice was so widespread.68    Having sex with slaves was one of the privileges of ownership and of Roman manhood;69 and a married man could have sex with them as long as he showed a certain discretion and moderation, even though his wife often objected.70   Sarah Ruden notes that in many cases these boys were the children of slaves who belonged to their master; and so he could exploit these youngsters’ loneliness and humiliation again and again, without recrimination.71   In fact, for some beautiful slave boys, called delicati (“pets”), their main duty was to present themselves for anal sex whenever their master desired it.72     Antonio Varone notes that masters and mistresses considered their slaves little more than domesticated animals.73    Also, slaves could be called to be present when the master had sex with someone else (as seen in various erotic house scenes), since the master’s awareness of his slave’s sexual arousal increased his own sexual pleasure even more.74    Martti Nissinen notes how Roman males often practiced sex with young slaves, as a sexual outlet, before they got married; and even when some slaves were freed (as a reward), they stayed with their masters as ‘concubines.’75    John Boswell notes how some masters sometimes loaned their slaves out, although MARTIAL (2.43) complained about a friend of his who would not lend him one of his male slaves to whom he was greatly attracted.76   The exquisite silver Warren Cup in the British Museum77  shows a bearded male on one side and a beardless youth on the other side, both having sex with young slave-boys, the latter identified by having an extended lock of hair hanging down the back of his neck.    In one scene, the slave boy lies on his side while the older youth penetrates him; and in the other scene the slave boy lowers himself down onto his master’s phallus while he holds onto a strap hanging down from the ceiling—while, at the far right, a still younger slave-boy peeks in through a crack in the doorway, to see ‘how the big boys do it.’78  

Prostitution.    Roman law sanctioned another kind of sex between males, homosexual prostitution, shown by the fact that both female and male prostitutes paid taxes on their earnings and were granted a holiday off every year.    However, while female prostitutes usually came from the lower class and sold their services quite cheaply, many male prostitutes were young and sold themselves for high prices, some of them even becoming quite rich.79  Usually no stigma attached to visiting prostitutes, and even slaves visited them.80   The prostitutes themselves were usually slaves, part of a brutal institution which viewed them not as persons but as things.81    It was widely held that prior to marriage young men should be allowed to sow their wild oats, in ‘appropriate fields’ of course82, and as long as they did so in moderation, did not squander their inheritance, and did not bring disgrace on another household (by having sex with a freeborn Roman youth).    The Roman statesman CICERO (106-43 BC) argued, in defense of prostitution: “But if there is someone who thinks that young men should be forbidden even from engaging in affairs with prostitutes . . . when was this not commonly done? . . .  When was it not permitted?” (On Behalf of Caelius 48).83   Rome also had adult male prostitutes, called exoleti (from the verb exolescere, “to grow up”), who assumed both active and passive roles and who serviced both men and women.84   Prostitutes advertised their services in graffiti on walls, e.g., one ad in Pompeii read, “Felix will fellate for one as” (not a lot of money).    A character in a play (470-483) by PLAUTUS (c.254–184 BC), a Roman writer of comedic plays, mentions that prostitutes of both sexes frequented the Roman Forum85 —that plaza in the center of Rome, which was the center of Roman public life and was surrounded by government buildings and temples and shrines.86   Also, actors at the public theaters were assumed to be usually available for hire as prostitutes.87

Related to terminology, John Younger points out that the Greek pornē (“female prostitute,” Strong G4204) and pornos (“male prostitute,” G4205) derived from the verb permēni (“to sell”), and these terms applied to prostitutes who worked alone or in a brothel.    Porneia (G4202) became a word in the NT that was generally modified to refer to “sexual sin” of any kind (Strong G4202); yet in some NT references the term may retain its older meaning of “prostitution.”    Hetairae (“higher class female prostitutes”) cost more and were expected to be educated, witty, and politically astute.    Pallake (female) and pallakos (male) referred to prostitutes who became kind of live-in spouses.88 Most prostitutes were slaves owned by brothel managers, and sometimes (but not always) they were foreigners.89    Rome had thousands of young male prostitutes called cinaedi, who adopted effeminate ways and wore female attire.    The Roman historian TACITUS (c.56-120) uses two special terms for young male prostitutes, sellarii (derived from sellarium = “public latrine,” where they often gathered) and spintriae (a spintria was a small Roman coin, which depicted sexual acts or symbols and was probably used in brothels) (Annales 6.1).90   In Ephesus the brothel was located near the public latrine.91    Still, while prostitutes may have been everywhere available in the classical world, surprisingly few brothels have been excavated; instead the prostitutes gathered mostly in public places, clustered near the baths and city gates—although in Rome prostitutes were found around the Colosseum arches and in central Rome.92    Some writers considered prostitutes ‘dirty’ (Aristophanes, Knights 1397-1401), while others viewed them as better than wives because they had to be “amenable” to one’s wishes.93   Graffiti in Pompeii advertised fellatio and cunnilingus, by male or female prostitutes, for between 1-4 asses, although to acquire a male for anal sex might cost up to 10 asses.94    Some bath attendants and chamber servants offered sexual services on the side.    In general, prostitutes could not refuse a prospective client, and they worked long hours, day and night.95  At Herculaneum it can be seen where prostitutes listed their name, address, and prices for various services on building walls.96

Effeminate males.    A cinaedus (Greek: kinaidos) was often viewed as an effeminate, passive ‘queer’ (Ruden)97, yet ancient sources (cf. Martial 7.58, Episetus 3.3.3) also suggest that many of them were heterosexual (Boswell)98.   The cinaedus was primarily an effeminate dancer who often wiggled his buttocks in a suggestive way, and so it was assumed that they preferred anal intercourse (Williams).99   They were sometimes described as having a “disease” or an “affliction.”100   Still, the lucky cinaedi found their sexual desires satisfied by “real men,” to both parties’ satisfaction.101    Sarah Ruden notes that both eunuchs (castrated males) and cinaedi were viewed as having lost their manhood, and so they were viewed as lower than women.    Most cinaedi were young boys, which is what most grown-up males wanted—although the glabri (“smoothies”) were older Roman slaves who had all of their body hair plucked out, wore young-looking clothes, and continued to serve their masters sexually.102   SENECA especially detested and condemned this practice of maintaining glabri.103   Yet, the Roman poet HORACE (65-8 BC) praised beautiful boys with long, wavy hair, calling them mollis (girlish), a word very close in meaning to malakos in 1 Cor 6:10.104   Rome had thousands of cinaedi, or young male prostitutes (Younger);105 and one of the things Roman parents feared most was that their son might become a cinaedus, or even an adult who preferred being the receptive sexual partner and who adopted effeminate mannerisms (Nissinen).106   The cinaedi were scorned for their effeminate walk, gestures, dressing, and cosmetics, because such practices so opposed the Roman ideal of masculinity.107   Instead, unkempt beauty befitted a man, although he was expected to keep his fingernails trimmed and to avoid body odor.108

Yet, Craig Williams warns that effeminacy needs to be kept distinct from sexual roles.    Numerous men who were known for their effeminate ways were, in fact, “womanizers,” e.g., the historian VELLEIUS PATERCULUS criticizes Maecenas, a long-time friend of Augustus, who “practically surpasses a woman in his leisurely softness” (2.88.2, p. 323).    The Roman philosopher SENECA THE ELDER (55 BC–AD 39) speaks the same famous Maecenas, “dripping with foreign perfumes, crippled by his lust, walking more softly than a woman in order to please women—and all other things show not judgment but disorder” (Controversiae 2.1.6, italics added).    Maecenas was even reputed to have irregular relations with his wife.109    SENECA THE YOUNGER (4 BC–AD 65) also noted how “delicate he [Maecenas] was,” as he walked “around the city with his tunic unbelted” or “appeared on the public tribunal . . . with his head veiled, . . . accompanied in public by two eunuchs who were . . . more manly than he himself was” (Epistulae morales 114.4-6).110   Yet, males who liked anal penetration were often called pathici or cinaedi, and they were represented in Roman texts as being effeminate.    MARTIAL contrasted cinaedi with “real men” (veri viri), the former frequently described with terms denoting “softness” (e.g., mollitia).111   SENECA THE ELDER harshly criticized the young men in his time who indulged in uncontrolled lust with both female and male partners, saying: “Consider today’s lazy young men: . . . The revolting pursuits of singing and dancing have taken hold of these effeminates; braiding their hair and thinning their voices to a feminine lilt, competing with women in bodily softness, beautifying themselves with disgusting finery—this is the pattern of our young men.”    Then in complete exasperation, he asks, Where is the dedicated student today, or the gifted orator? (Controversiae 1, pr. 9-10).112    As Marilyn Skinner explains, for males to act like females was considered appalling because such expressions weakened the framework of manliness.    Yet, also it seemed sometimes that only way a Roman male could feel secure in his own masculinity was to degender (attack) another male’s character (as not being manly enough).113    And the greatest fear was directed toward the secret cinaedi, men who showed all the hallmarks of masculinity on the outside, but in the bedroom he turned to become the passive partner.114    Such was the case with Gracchus, a priest of Mars, who paraded as a man in public, but then wed a horn-player, bringing with him a considerable wifely dowry and becoming his passive sexual partner (Juvenal, Satire 2, 117-136).115

Bisexuality.    Against Michel Foucault, Amy Richlin argued (1993) that there were men in antiquity who may be identified as “homosexual” and who were victims of “homophobia,” and Rabun Taylor (1997) saw a “homosexual subculture” in Rome, or at least a group of men (cinaedi) who “openly flaunt[ed] their homosexuality” and confessed “their homosexual inclination”—even though there was no word for “homosexual” in Greek or Latin.116   Jeffrey Weeks (1977) wrote: “Homosexuality has existed throughout history.    But what have varied enormously are the ways in which various societies have regarded homosexuality, the meanings they attached to it, and how those who were engaged in homosexual activity viewed themselves. . . . As a starting point we have to distinguish between homosexual behavior, which is universal, and a homosexual identity, which is historically specific.”117 Yet Craig Williams notes that while there seem to have been some men in ancient Roman times who only desired and sought sexual pleasure with other men, they were in the minority and unusual.    Most men then were more like bisexuals today, although they did not pigeon-hole each other.118  Charles Hupperts points out that many sources show that it was common for Roman men to have open sexual relations with both sexes, and certainly nobody opposed a man having sex with his slaves of both sexes.    In fact, in the latter case, a Roman male could satisfy any desire he had, even to be the passive partner.119   Literary writers believed that most Roman men would openly seek sexual relations with persons of both sexes;120 and in fact there was a kind of interchangeability between a girl and a boy that is exhibited in ancient Roman poetry.121   Williams notes that the Romans like Greeks assumed that the smooth bodies of young boys would be attractive to both men and women, although the Romans lacked the Greek tradition of courting freeborn adolescent youths.    Instead, the Roman male, with Priapus as his guide, was ready to dominate any woman, boy or man available.122     Even Augustus, who was known as an avid womanizer, kept some male slaves as his deliciae (“darlings”).123  The Romans did not think about “sexual orientation,” but rather gender choice, which was viewed as a matter of taste, like preferring blonds over brunettes.124   Obviously some individuals existed in antiquity who, if alive today, could rightfully be called “homosexuals”—but the Romans rather focused on various sexual roles, such as: fellator (“penis sucker”), a cunnilingus (“butt sucker”), a futator (“inserter in the vagina”), a pedico (“inserter in the [male or female] anus”), or cinaedus (“effeminate dancer”), moechus (“pursuer of other man’s wives”), or pullo (“pursuer of boys”), etc.125        


Homoerotic Art Museum - Europa

Erotic art of ancient Rome (photo gallery)


FOOTNOTES:    1. Roetzel 2009, pp. 405-406.    2. Ruden Paul 2010, p. 48 .   3. Oakes Reading 2009, p. xi.   4. Oakes Reading 2009, pp. 36, 83     5. Oakes Reading 2009, pp. 135, 143-145      6. Clarke 2003, pp. 98–99     7. Clarke 2003, p. 97      8. Williams 1999, p. 93     9.Clarke 2003, p. 21      10. Clarke 2003, pp. 104-105     11. Williams 1999, p. 86     12. Williams 1999, p. 95      13 .e.g., Varone 2001, p. 15     14. Clarke 2003, p. 132, S12-59    15. Hornsby 2007, p. 92     16. Deiss 1989, passim     17. Grant 1997, pp. 122-123     18. Grant 1997, pp. 87, 88-89    19. Deiss 1989, pp. 83, 85, 104    20. Deiss 1989, p. 90    21. Varone 2001, p. 59     22. Varone 2001, pp. 56, 41-47     23. Clarke 2003, p. 33      24. Clarke 2003, p. 35      25. Clarke 2003:15    26. Deiss 1989, p. 38     27. Clarke 2003, p. 33; Varone 2001, p. 16     28. Countryman 2007, p. 237      29. Varone 2001, p. 66     30. Ibid., p. 58    31. Ibid., p. 77    32. Ibid., p. 59    33. Ibid., pp. 36, 68     34. Ibid., pp. 45, 47      35. Grant 1997, pp. 164-165     36. Deiss 1989, pp. 119, 121     37. Clarke 2003, pp. 68-70      38. Clarke 2003, pp. 68-69    39. Deiss 1989, p. 170    40. Witherington, Galations 1998, p. 455     41. Deiss 1989, p. 133    42. Deiss 1989, p. 133     43. Varone 2001, pp. 37-41    44. Deiss 1989, p. 147     45. Skinner 2005, p. 214     46. Williams 1999, p. 89       47. Ruden, Paul 2010, p. 13      48. Varone 2001, p. 81    49. Hupperts 2006, p. 49     50. Countryman 2007, p. 236    51. Nissinen 1997, p. 87.      52. Varone 2001, pp. 9-10     53. Clarke 2003, pp. 91-93      54. Clarke 2003, pp. 116-117      55. Williams 1999, p. 57      56. Williams 1999, pp. 19, 183      57. Hupperts 2006, p. 52      58. Nissinen 1998, pp. 70-71    59. Hupperts 2006, p. 52       60. Ruden Paul 2010, p. 55       61. Skinner 2005, p. 200     62. Skinner 2005, p. 198    63. Clarke 2003, p. 88     64. Ruden Paul 2010, pp. 58-60      65. Bartchy 1988, p. 543-544      66. Jewett, in Balch 2000, p. 239    67. Williams 1999, p. 32      68. Williams 1999, pp. 30-31    69. Williams 1999, pp. 47-48    70. Williams 1999, pp. 50-51    71. Ruden, Paul 2010, p. 65     72. Ruden, Paul 2010, p. 55; Skinner 2005, p. 200       73. Varone 2001, p. 74      74. Varone 2001, p. 75      75. Nissinen 1998, pp. 70-71     76. Boswell 1980, p. 78      77. Cf. Clarke 2003, pp. 79-80     78. Clarke 2003, p. 84     79. Clarke 2003, p. 88      80. Ruden Paul 2010, p. 12     81. Ruden Paul pp. 16-18    82. Williams 1999, p. 46       83. Williams 1999, p. 47      84. Williams 1999, pp. 83-84     85. Williams 1999, p. 39       86. Wikipedia, “Roman Forum”      87. Williams 1999, p. 41      88. Younger 2005, p. 106     89. Younger 2005, p. 107         90. Younger 2005, p. 108; Wikipedia, “spintria”    91. Younger 2005, p. 27     92. Younger 2005, p. 108        93. Madeleine Henry 1992, p. 262; in Younger 2005, p. 109          94. Younger 2005, p. 110-111     95. Younger 2005, p. 111      96. Deiss 1989, p. 147     97. Ruden Paul 2010, p. 51    98. Boswell 1980, p. 76    99. Williams 1999, p. 175     100. Williams 1999, p. 180     101. Williams 1999, p. 181      102. Ruden Paul 2010, p. 51     103. Furnish 1985, p. 80       104. Nissinen 1998, p. 72    105. Younger 2005, p. 108    106. Nissinen 1998, p. 72      107. Nissinen 1998, p. 83      108. Williams 1999, pp. 131-132    109. Williams 1999, p. 148    110. Williams 1999, p. 147      111. Williams 1999, pp. 142-143     112. Williams 1999, pp. 148-149    113. Skinner 2005, p. 248    114. Skinner 2005, p. 250    115. Skinner 2005, p. 251      116. Williams 1999, pp. 5-6, T6-25     117. Quoted in Williams 1999, p. 7      118. Williams 1999, p. 228     119. Hupperts 2006, p. 50      120. Williams 1999, p. 27    121. Clarke 2003, p. 87      122. Williams 1999, p. 77      123. Williams 1999, p. 34      124. Williams 1999, p. 172     125. Williams 1999, pp. 218, 161, 330    



Bartchy, S. Scott, “Slavery,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4 1988, pp. 539-546.

Boswell, John, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, 1980.

Clarke, John R., Roman Sex, 100 BC–AD 250, photographs by Michael Larvey, 2003.

Countryman, L. William, Dirt, Greed, & Sex, 2007.

Deiss, Joseph D., Herculaneum: Italy’s Buried Treasure, 1989.

Furnish, Victor Paul, The Moral Teaching of Paul, 2nd ed., 1985.

Grant, Michael, Eros in Pompeii: The Secret Rooms of the National Museum of Naples, photographs by Antonia Mulas. 1997. 

Hornsby, Teresa J., Sex Texts from the Bible, 2007.

Hupperts, Charles, “Homosexuality in Greece and Rome,” in Robert Aldrich, ed., Gay Life and Culture: A World History, 2006, pp. 28-55. 

Jewett, Robert, “The Social Context and Implications of Homoerotic References in Paul,” in David Balch, ed., Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture, 2000, pp. 223-241.

Nissinen, Martti, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World, 1997.

Oakes, Peter, Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul’s Letter at Ground Level, 2009.

Roetzel, Calvin J., “Paul the Apostle,” New Interpreters’ Dictionary of the Bible, 4 2009, pp. 405-406.

Ruden, Sarah, Paul among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, 2010.

Skinner, Marilyn B., Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture, 2005.  

Varone, Antonio, Eroticism in Pompeii, 2001.

Williams, Craig A., Roman Homosexuality, 1999.

Witherington, Ben, III, Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, 1998.

Younger, John G., Sex in the Ancient World, from A to Z, 2005.


BIBLE TRANSLATION: New Revised Standard Version, 1989.


© 2012 Bruce L. Gerig

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