Sexuality and Gender

21 Same Sex Desire: Men


The Roman world is very different from the one which we inhabit and thus, we should try not to impose our understandings of sexuality or the terms we use onto the ancients as we try to understand sexuality in antiquity. For example, in Latin, there is no equivalent for the terms, ‘homosexual,’ ‘bisexual,’ or ‘heterosexual.’

To a Roman, sexual activity took place between a ‘penetrator’ and a ‘penetrated’ and in an ideal situation, sexual roles and activity were supposed to reflect ones social status and gender. The ‘active’ role was to be played by someone with social and political power over the one who played the ‘passive’ role. For a Roman citizen man, there was no stigma attached with being sexually attracted to a man or to a woman. There was, however, stigma directed towards men who took pleasure in playing the passive role in sexual activities. Thus, a Roman citizen man who enjoyed playing the passive role faced stigma by Roman society. These men were referred to as pathici (singular pathicus). For more on the pathicus, see the section on pathici.


The following passage includes references to activities where the consent for sexual interactions are dubious at best due to the nature of sex work and the age of the individuals involved. Pederasty, or the sexual relationship between an adult male and a younger male (who were underage by modern definition and also often enslaved), did take place in Rome.


Issues also arose when situations grew to be considered ‘excessive’ by Roman standards. What was upsetting about the situation in the passage below was not sexual desire between men but the excess.

For some of them had abandoned themselves to love affairs with boys and others to the society of escorts, and many to musical entertainments and banquets, and the extravagance they involve, having in the course of the war with Perseus[1] been speedily infected by the Greek lack of boundaries[2] in these respects. So great in fact was the lack of restraint among the young men in such matters, that many paid a talent for a male favourite and many three hundred drachmas for a jar of fish eggs. This aroused the indignation of Cato [the Elder], who said once in a public speech that it was the surest sign of deterioration in the republic when pretty boys fetch more than fields, and jars of fish eggs more than ploughmen.

Polybius, Book 31


File:Warren Cup BM GR 1999.4-26.1 n1.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

A bearded man having anal sex with a beardless youth, side A of the so-called Warren Cup. Roman artwork, Circa, mid 1st century, CE.

The cinaedus (plural cinaedi) described a man who was considered effeminate by Roman society. It was originally a Greek term (kinaidos)[3] which described an effeminate dancer from lands further east. What differentiated a cinaedus from a ‘proper’ Roman was their hairstyle, way of dress, gait, and their love of dance at parties. Although the implication that a cinaedus enjoyed being a passive partner was part of the term, people who were described as cinaedus were not necessarily men who enjoyed anal penetration. Many descriptions of cinaedi include their passions with women.

What the Romans found uncomfortable with individuals they labeled as cinnaedi was not their preference in sexual partners but their lack of self-control in their excessive sexual activity and their lack of interest in conforming with the Roman ideals of masculinity.


The passages below, while not originally meant to be homophobic, can feel as such to the modern reader. The misogyny, however, is as present then as it is now.


“Whenever a cinaedus is kept he taints the household. Folks let these people eat and drink with them, and merely have the vessels washed, not smashed to pieces as they should be when such lips have touched them. So even the lanista‘s establishment is better ordered than yours, for he separates the vile from the decent, and sequesters even from their fellow-retiarii [4] the wearers of the ill-famed tunic[5] in the training-school, and even in prison, such creatures herd apart; but your wife condemns you to drink out of the same cup as these gentry, with whom the poorest pleb[6] would refuse to sip the finest wine. Women them consult about marriage and divorce, with their society do they relieve boredom or business, from them do they learn lascivious moves and whatever else the teacher knows. But beware! that teacher is not always what he seems: true, he darkens his eyes and dresses like a woman, but adultery is his design. Mistrust him the more for his show of effeminacy; he is a brave man in the sheets; there Triphallus[7] drops the mask of Thais[8][9]. Who are you fooling? Not me! Play this farce to those who cannot see through the mask. I bet you are every inch a man; do you admit it, or must we wring the truth out of the female slaves[10]?”

Juvenal, Satire 6

This nicely suits the disgusting cinaedi, Mamurra[11] and pathicus [Julius] Caesar. It’s no wonder: they have similar stains —the one from the City[12], the other, Formian [13]—which stay deep-marked and can not be washed off. Diseased twins, both learned, both in one bed, equally voracious adulterers, allied rivals of girls. This nicely suits the disgusting cinaedi.

Catullus, Poem 57

I did not call you, Coracinus, a cinaedus; I am not so rash nor bold, nor am I a person to utter lies willingly. If I did call you a cinaedus, Coracinus, may I find the bottle of Pontia and the goblet of Metilus [14] hostile to me; I swear to you by the Syrian swellings and Phrygian madness[15]. What have I said? It was light and silly: but you yourself will not deny this well known fact: , I said, Coracinus, that you go down on women[16].

Martial 4.43


Sources and Further Reading:

Ripat, P., Nikolic, M., & Gibbs, M. (2014). Themes in Roman society and culture: An introduction to ancient Rome. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press.

  1. This is referring to Third Macedonian War (171–168 BCE) between Rome and Macedon. Perseus was the king of Macedon at the time.
  2. A Roman stereotype.
  3. Interesting enough, there has been debate on whether or not this term actually reflected on reality.
  4. Two types of gladiators.
  5. There is uncertainty, but as this sentence appears to rank the different statuses of gladiator, we can assume that the ones who wore the tunic in question are ranked lower than the former.
  6. In early Roman history, this term refers to anyone who was not of an aristocratic family line. Later, its definition expands to cover citizens who did not hold a certain amount of wealth.
  7. Another name of the deity Priapus, a god known for his large penis.
  8. Most likely refers to the mistress of Ptolemy I Soter (367 BCE–282 BCE), one of Alexander the Great's generals and founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt.
  9. The cinaedus is being compared to an actor in pantomime play
  10. Slaves were tortured for their testimonies in court as the Romans believed that those enslaved will only give the truth under torture
  11. Mamurra was praefectus fabrum under Julius Caesar in Spain 60-61 BCE; he became extremely wealthy which obviously sent Catullus over the edge as he wrote several poems like this about him; he may have been related to Vitruvius.
  12. i.e. Rome
  13. A city which lies between Rome and the coastal Naples
  14. Two types of poisons.
  15. He is referring to the religious rites of worshipers of the goddesses Isis and Cybele, respectively.
  16. Taking enjoyment in giving oral sex was looked down on by Roman society.


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