Sexuality and Gender

22 Pathicus

Keith Warner-Harder


Pathicus (Plural: Pathici)

There were several terms the Romans used to describe the behaviour of men who experienced same-sex desire in what they felt were inappropriate ways. These include: mollis (plural: molles, soft), cinaedus (plural: cinaedi, originally a term for a Greek dancer), scortum (plural: scorta, a general word for sex workers, but frequently used for males), exsoletus (plural: exsoleti, specifically for male sex workers, literally means “grown-up man”). When applying these terms to men, Roman authors implied or explicitly stated that these men were the passive partners in their relations with other men. Most often these terms were used contemptuously by the Romans, with few examples such as the Satyricon by Petronius Arbiter having empathetic portrayals of male same-sex desire. [1]

Passive partners in male-male sexual relationships were called pathici (singular pathicus). The word is apparently derived from the Greek pathikos, a word which does not exist in any surviving ancient Greek texts, and paskhein, a greek verb which means “to submit” in sexual contexts.[2] As a general, but not all-encompassing statement, Roman sexuality was concerned with a penetrator/passive binary. Passive partners in sexual relationships were viewed as lesser and weaker and were the object of much scorn in surviving literature. People who did not fit into this rigid view of sexuality faced both social and legal discrimination.


In the Late Republic in particular, Roman politicians would call each other pathici as an insult and as an attempt at discrediting each other. While these insults are hard to read as anything but homophobic, they do shed light on how the Roman elite felt about pathici. Even though these men were tolerated, they offended the Roman concept of manly excellence: virtus. To the male Roman majority, being anally penetrated meant being labelled as “other” or “unRoman”. Being designated a pathicus by the state had legal consequences, which will be discussed below. These men existed and may have represented a counterculture which deeply troubled the hegemony.



The following section includes descriptions of sexual violence.


Here, Seneca the Younger is describing how one can spot certain kinds of people by their body language. A man touching his finger to his head was thought by the Romans to be a sign that he is pathicus.

If you mark them carefully, all acts are always significant, and you can gauge character by even the slightest signs. The lecherous man is revealed by his walk, by a movement of the hand, sometimes by a single answer, by his touching his head with a finger, by the shifting of his eye.

Seneca the Younger, Moral Letters.52.12 Loeb Classical library

Here is Juvenal, a particularly hateful man, making a similar point. Note that Seneca was writing mid-1st century CE and Juvenal was writing late 1st century/early 2nd century CE, so aroound 50 years later. Men were not supposed to care too much about the way they looked; if a man had carefully constructed hair, he might only use a finger to scratch his head, thereby not ruining his hairdo. The Romans thought that men who cared for their looks too much must be pathici.

Fear not, you will never lack a pathicus friend as long as these seven hills[3] stand and are safe; from every direction they will flock to those hills in carts and ships, scratching their head with one finger.

Juvenal, Satire 9.130-3

Plutarch echoes the same sentiment here. In 56 BCE, Publius Clodius went after the famous Roman general Pompey the Great for scratching his head with one finger.

And finally, when Pompey appeared at a public trial, Clodius, having at his beck and call a rabble of the lewdest and most arrogant thugs, stood in a conspicuous place and put to them such questions as these: “Who is a lustful general?” “Who is the man looking for a man?” “Who scratches his head with one finger?” And they, like a chorus trained in responsive song would answer each question by shouting out “Pompey” every time he shook his toga.

Plutarch, Life of Pompey 48.7

Pompey’s enemy, Julius Caesar was also attacked for similar reasons, something Suetonius reports in his biography:

45.2 [Julius Caesar] took too-good care of his person, being not only carefully trimmed and shaved, but even having extra hair plucked out, as some have charged. while his baldness was a disfigurement which troubled him greatly, since he found that it was often the subject of his detractors’ insults. Because of it he used to comb forward his thin locks from the crown of his head, and of all the honours voted him by the senate and people there was none which he received or made use of more gladly than the privilege of wearing a laurel wreath at all times. They say, too, that he was remarkable in his dress; that he wore a senator’s tunic with fringed sleeves reaching to the wrist, [4]and always had a belt over it, though rather a loose one; and this, they say, was the occasion of Sulla’s witticism, when he often warned the nobles to keep an eye on the badly-belted boy.

Suetonius, Julius Caesar 45.2




The following passages make reference to victims of sexual assault and contains examples of raging homophobia.


In his Satire Two, Juvenal mentions the Lex Scantinia, a Republican law of uncertain date, which outlined stuprum (the Latin word for sexual dishonour, which had legal consequences). The law itself was not preserved so we can only infer its contents through other written sources. Here, Juvenal is disgusted that effeminate (mollis) men associate together. This is perhaps evidence that men who experienced same-sex desire associated with each other in Rome, forming their own social circles. Since Juvenal was writing anonymously, some scholars believe that he was using fake names in the place of real people so that he would not be found out. These people likely would have been well-known in Rome; possibly making up some the elites of the late first century CE.

But if it’s a matter of waking up laws and statutes, it’s the Scantinian law which should be summoned before all the rest. Look at men (viri) first, subject them to scrutiny. They behave worse, but they’ve got safety in numbers and in their phalanxes, with shield overlapping shield. The solidarity between effeminates (molles) is enormous. You won’t find any example so revolting in our sex. Tedia doesn’t tongue (lambit) Cluvia, nor Flora Catulla, but Hispo submits to young men and turns pale from both diseases.

Juvenal, Satire 2.44-47 Taylor (Pathici associate with each other)

Here is a part of the Praetorian Edict that outlines who could bring cases to court. The Romans wanted to limit the amount of court cases and prevented “dishonourable” people from bringing forth lawsuits. The law bars men “who submitted his own body to womanly things” (i.e. have been the receptive partner during anal intercourse) from bringing cases to court on behalf of others. However, these men could still bring cases to court for themselves. This portion of the law exempts men who have been sexually assaulted in battle or by bandits. We are not sure how a magistrate or judge would determine if a man was a pathicus; it most likely would have been left up to accusations from others or a judgement of a man’s appearance and reputation.

Ulpian, Edict, book 6: The praetor issued this title for the sake of taking into account and protecting his position and for the sake of his own dignity, to prevent applications being made before him without restriction by all and sundry. 1. For this purpose he distinguished three classes. Some people he refused to make applications at all, others he permitted to do so only on their own behalf… 6   He also forbids a man who submitted his own body to womanly things make applications on behalf of others. However, anyone raped by the violence of robbers or the enemy ought not to be blacklisted, as Pomponius   also says.

Justinian, Digest

Juvenal describes that a man named Gracchus.[5] is giving a dowry to a trumpeter who is marrying a man. Marriages between two members of the same sex would never have been officially recognized by the Roman state. However, the ceremony for these two men is implied to be the same as a Roman state approved marriage. The dowry was supposed to be given for the maintenance of the bride and here it is given to the trumpeter who supposedly plays a bride’s role. Juvenal is outraged and fears that same-sex marriage will be more widespread. Juvenal’s fear implies that men marrying each other was happening frequently and Gracchus’ non-chalance demonstrates that at least some Roman elites approved and participated in these ceremonies. This may be further evidence of a subculture of Roman men who experience same-sex desire.

Gracchus gave a dowry of four hundred thousand sesterces to a trumpeter—or maybe he performed on a horn that was straight. The marriage contract has been witnessed, felicitations offered, a huge company invited to the feast, and the new bride reclines in her husband’s lap. O nobles! Is it a censor or a soothsayer that we need? Would you be more horrified, would you think it more monstrous still, if a woman gave birth to a calf or a cow to a lamb? He’s wearing the bride’s flounces, long dress, and veil—the man who carried the sacred objects swaying from the mystic thong and who sweated under the weight of the sacred shields. O father of Rome, where has it come from, this appalling outrage that afflicts the shepherds of Latium? Where has it come from, this itch that taints your descendants, Gradivus?[6] Look: a man illustrious in family and fortune is handed over in marriage to another man—and you’re not shaking your helmet, or striking the ground with your spear, or complaining to your father? Off with you, then—withdraw from the acres of the stern Campus[7] which you don’t care about. “Tomorrow at sunrise I have a ceremony to attend in the valley of Quirinus.” “What’s the occasion?” “Oh, just a friend of mine marrying a man, and he’s invited a few guests.” If we are allowed to live just a little longer, those marriages will take place, they’ll take place openly, they’ll even want to be reported in the news. Meanwhile, the fact that they can’t give birth and use their babies to hang on to their husbands is a huge torment which these brides cannot escape. But it’s better that nature grants their minds no power over their bodies: they die infertile, and swollen Lyde[8] with her secret medicine box is no use to them, no more than holding out their palms to running Lupercus.[9] Yet even this outrage is surpassed by Gracchus, wearing a tunic and with a trident in his hand, who as a gladiator traversed the arena as he ran away, a man of nobler birth than the Capitolini and Marcelli, than the descendants of Catulus and Paulus, than the Fabii, than all the spectators in the front row, even if you include the very man who staged that net-throwing show.[10]

Juvenal 2.117-148 Loeb


The following section involves depictions of sexual assault involving a minor and domestic violence.

In this passage from the Satyricon[11], Encolpius finds his 16 year-old slave, Giton, on the side of the road after having been raped. Portrayals of rape in Roman literature are highly problematic and the Satyricon is no exception. There is little understanding of or compassion for the physical and psychological trauma incurred from sexual violence. Men who are raped in Roman stories are treated as a joke or shamed by authors. However, in the passage below, the character of Giton’s sexual assault is treated seriously. Later in the Satyricon sexual assault is treated lightly and is highly sexualized.

I saw through a sort of murk Giton standing on the curb of the road in the dark, and hurried towards him…. I was asking my brother whether he had procured anything for us to eat, when the boy sat down at the head of the bed, and there upon proceeded to rub away the trickling tears with his thumb. My brother’s looks made me uneasy, and I asked what had happened. The boy was unwilling to tell, but I added threats to entreaties, and at last he said, “That brother or friend of yours ran into our lodgings a little while ago and next wanted to rob me of my modesty. I shouted out, and he drew his sword and said, ‘If you are a Lucretia, you have found your Tarquin.’”[12]

Petronius Satyricon 9 Loeb Classical Library

Any man could be accused of being a pathicus. Here, Martial[13] is writing about Charidemus, who is apparently acting too masculine (whatever Roman masculinity meant at the time, the concept was quite mutable). Roman men were expected to act masculine, but not too masculine. Men acting too masculine were thought by writers like Martial to be overcompensating for their desire to be a pathicus.

Do you think you cheat gossip, Charidemus, because your shanks are stiff with bristles and your chest with hair? Be advised by me, extirpate the hairs from your whole body, take your oath that you depilate your buttocks. “What for?” you say. You know that many folk say many things. Make them think you are sodomized, Charidemus.

Martial, Epigrams 6.56 Loeb

This Pompeiian inscription insults passersby, calling pathici and people who have oral sex. Oral sex was highly stigmatized by Romans; they believed that any genital contact with the mouth caused it to be unclean and caused bad breath. The Romans believed that the person performing oral sex was the passive partner, further stigmatizing the act.

He who writes this is in love; he who reads it is fucked; he who listens is horny, he who passes by is a pathicus. May bears eat me, and may I who read this eat dick .

Corpus Inscriptorum Latinorum 4.2360 Williams


Sources and Further Reading:



Roman Homosexuality by Craig A. Williams: This book is a great starting point for looking into same-sex desire in the Roman world. Williams covers a wide range of topics and the book is generally accessible to all. However, there are a few moments where even a seasoned Romanist will be confused and require further research/googling. The book goes into various terms for same-sex desire, as well as the socio-political contexts of such behaviours. It should be noted that this book only covers male same-sex desire and rarely discusses female desires. Williams uses lots of ancient sources to back up and explain his points and all could be used in future versions of this course reader.

I also highly recommended these two articles: Two Pathic Subcultures in Ancient Rome by Taylor and Not Before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the Cinaedus and the Roman Law Against Love Between Men by Richlin. Both are less accessible to newcomers but have a wealth of great sources and ideas about Roman same-sex desire.

Arbiter, Petronius, and Sarah Ruden. 2000. satyricon. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.

Geue, Tom. 2017. Juvenal and the Poetics of Anonymity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Richlin, Amy. 1993. “Not before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the Cinaedus and the Roman Law Against Love between Men.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 3 (4): 523-573.

salii 2005. 3 rev. ed. Oxford University Press.

Taylor, Rabun. 1997. “Two Pathic Subcultures in Ancient Rome.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 7 (3): 319-371.

Williams, Craig A. 2010. Roman Homosexuality. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


  1. I say empathetic; however, the relationship is between a master, Encolpius, and his sixteen-year-old slave Giton, whose agency and ability to consent are murky at best. The reality for enslaved persons often meant having no control over what happens to their bodies. The relationship is highly problematic, but written with far less contempt than most other Roman authors would portray.
  2. It is not surprising that the Romans thought this word was Greek in origin; many distrusted contemporary Greeks and there is much Roman literature devoted to othering them. Roman elites would have also been exposed to a great deal of Athenian literature, some of which praised male same-sex relationships within certain social frameworks, such as institutionalized pederasty.
  3. Ancient Rome had seven hills within the city's walls: the Aventine hill, the Caelian hill, the Capitoline hill, the Esquiline hill, the Palatine hill, the Quirinal hill, and the Viminal hill.
  4. This was a tunic with a broad purple stripe on it. This was not an unusual thing to wear; what was unusual was the fringed sleeves which would have made his gestures very dramatic.
  5. Possibly Sempronius Gracchus, a Salian priest. The Salian priests (the Salii) were priests for Mars, and took part in a ritual called sodalitas.
  6. Another name for Mars, Roman god of war.
  7. The Campus Martius
  8. A Greek name, perhaps a reference to a woman who sells fertility medicines. As she is “swollen” i.e. pregnant, her medicines would be believed to work.
  9. Reference to the Lupercalia, a Roman festival for fertility.
  10. Juvenal goes on to disparage Gracchus for performing as a gladiator in the arena.
  11. A Roman novel written by Petronius Arbiter during the reign of Nero.
  12. This is reference to a foundational Roman story about a woman name Lucretia who is assaulted by a prince of Rome. She committed suicide afterwords, which supposedly caused an uprising against the Etruscan kings who ruled Rome and led to the formation of the Roman Republic.
  13. Martial had a lot to say about “Romanness” despite coming from Spain.


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