Sex in ancient Greece and Rome

NOTE: This is an article about sexual practices in ancient Greece and Rome. We have a separate page with the definition of greek sex and other escort terms for sex. We have yet another article on the subject of sex in ancient Rome in times of Nero.

Ever wonder how those huge warriors in 300 got it on before Astroglide and KY Jelly? Or what all those women did when their men were off in battle for years at a time? How did they make it all work? The men and women of ancient Greek and Roman societies are notorious for their procreation, homoeroticism and battle-time shenanigans as much as they’re remembered for democracy and urns.

Ancient erotic cowgirl sculpture

Ancient erotic cowgirl sculpture

In the Greco-Roman world sex was bountiful. As women were the guardians of citizenship they were comparatively more independent than their descendents and played an influential part in marriage and society. In some societies they would be encouraged to bear children even if their husbands could not provide his end of the parentage. Women as bearers of children were just as much considered property of the state in some regions as they were to their husbands, so their sexuality was highly valued (though to clarify, women were definitely property and sex outside of marriage for women was more complicated).

The power women had sexually for such an ancient era was admirable. It was important in these societies that women have sex, as a lack of sperm was thought to trigger hysteria. This was the subject highlighted in a stage play dated back to the 3rd century. Another depiction of women’s sexual power on the stage was Aristophanes’ immortal Lysistrata, staged in Athens in 411 BCE. It told the tale of women withholding sex from their husbands in order to force them into talks of peace during the Peloponnesian war. Aristophanes, in his typically comic manner, was commenting both on tension between the genders as well as the Athenian loss during the war in Sicily two years prior.

Sex between married couples was sacred, but sex itself did not signify a specifically intimate relationship between two people. Sex outside the marriage bed was only seen as adultery if it was not with a slave, someone of the same sex or with an exchange of money. Concubines and prostitutes spent time with married men just as escorts do in contemporary society. Similarly, some societies respected the profession while others looked down on prostitutes (since they were literally owned by their pimps but not married). Either way, having a relationship with an escort was not legally condemnable. Our modern faux pas on sex outside of marriage just simply did not exist in ancient times.

In Greece, there was also no limit on age nor gender. Pederasty (sex between adult men and boys just past puberty), while considered vicious, was common, with the emphasis placed more on who was on top in the sexual act (considered the more masculine and higher in society) and on bottom (lower social status or younger age). They had no term for homosexuality, with practices happening constantly and without comment during times of war that proponents of Don’t ask don’t tell in our Western society might never fully comprehend.

So how did all these men and women get off, especially when they were separated by miles and years? How did they not tear their bodies apart with all this sex?

Stone age antler dildo

Stone age antler dildo

First off, dildos were extremely common and unashamedly given as gifts (often to a woman from her man went he off to war, or when he didn’t come home from one). A brothel in Ancient Greece, recently dated to about 2,000 years ago, unearthed dildos, vaginal and anal probes and forms of lubrication. Dildos were so socially accepted that many were buried with theirs. These stones were smoothed just enough for ease of penetration, kept just rough enough for pleasure.

The lubrication of choice was the oil that was common in cooking and for burning as fuel—olive oil. Olive oil was readily available, taken on long journeys for various uses and stored in droves in ancient brothels and personal rooms apportioned for sex alone. Though (mistakenly) been thought to be a contraceptive and used almost always with women, it also made an easeful lubricant for anal sex between men during times of stressful battle, when the practice often employed.

Ancient sex fresco

Ancient sex fresco

Olive oil is lubricant that can still be used safely today. The lighter the better, evidently.

Circumcision, or the lack thereof, was also considered in these ancient civilizations. Herodotus (485-420BCE) deplored circumcision, noting that other cultures utilized the “practice circumcision for the sake of cleanliness, considering it better to be clean than handsome”. An uncircumcised penis was also thought to need less lubrication than a circumcised one (though it would later be thought that a circumcised penis enjoyed greater pleasure).

What did religion say about everyone getting it on in such a loose manner? Especially as women’s land ownership and place in society increased, sex was considered a gift from the gods, and they worshiped Venus, Cupid and Dionysus (the god of wine and merriment) with gusto.

This liberation of women and sexuality was not to last, though, as a new religion was on the horizon when the sexually conservative Christians started tearing down ancient temples and put sexual independence to rest. Ancient escorting eventually became socially questionable as it is today, and pornography — a word derived from the Greek “writing of harlots” — is now illegal in some states in the U.S.

Yet we can thank our predecessors for the balance between social civility and sexuality that we, in some ways, have inherited and an understanding we are working toward. The Roman Empire was renown for significant advances in politics, literature, science and religion as well as strength during times of war. If they could contribute so much to history whilst being so sexually liberated, so can we.