“Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians had erotic preferences and sexual taboos we’ve seldom heard about,” says California author and historical detective Vicki León in her new book The Joy of Sexus: Lust, Love, & Longing in the Ancient World. Her book’s topics range from orgasm to the long-ago fear of hermaphrodites, from circumcision to the wide acceptance of a variety of gay relationships. With Tip Sheet, she shared some carnal curiosities and extraordinary stories of sex and love, encountered while researching The Joy of Sexus.
1. Most sexually twisted ruler: Emperor Nero? Or Caligula? Mere runners-up. Emperor Tiberius (reigned A.D. 4 – 37) holds that dubious honor. According to his biographer Suetonius, in later life, Tiberius built himself a porn central on Capri. There, youngsters performed elaborate daisy-chains of sexual acts, the emperor by turns voyeur and participant. Even grosser activities took place in his bathing pools, where toddlers were trained to nibble and fellate him underwater. The old perv called them “his little fishes.”
2. Wandering wombs and other private parts: Relaxed about nudity, Greeks and Romans adored the human form. where Greeks especially admired beautiful buttocks, male and female; gorgeous rear ends even had their own goddess cult. Nevertheless, no one tinkered with human bodies after death. Result of this taboo? Human anatomy, largely unexplored, was guesswork.
One of the most bizarre beliefs held that women’s wombs vagabonded about the body, causing hysteria. Thus, doctors applied bad smells and loud noises to scare wombs back into position. Medicos (and intimidated husbands) also had dire opinions about the female clitoris. Diminutive was dandy; anything larger called for (gulp) surgery.
3. The curious role of kissing: Male-female public kissing was frowned upon among Greek and Roman aristocrats, although husbands did routinely kiss their wives upon returning home after a hard night of male partying. Their goal? (Female) wine detection, not affection. But kissing’s innocent pleasures really lost popularity after the bathroom habits of Roman citizens from Spain became common knowledge: a great many brushed their teeth with human urine.
4. The popularity index of anal sex: Few towns win infamy by giving their names to a class-A felony. In Biblical times, a burg we know as Sodom near the Dead Sea did just that. As told in Genesis 19: 5-8, God was fed up, about to destroy it and neighbor cities when Abraham pointed out some decent folks worth saving–his own nephew Lot and family. God sent two male angels down to investigate, who immediately attracted a large mob of sodomy-loving locals. To “protect” his angelic guests, Lot threw his two young daughters to the mob, adding, “They’re virgins, too!” At that point, God had had it with Sodom–and you know the rest.
In later Greco-Roman times, sodomy lost its standing as an abomination. Called pedico, it was practiced by men and women, the latter largely for contraception. When it came to adultery, however, the law took the practice of pedico in another direction: the guilty party could be sodomized by the injured party. Or, if he chose a stand-in, with a large radish!
5. Erotic salads, pro and con: To maintain their manly wellbeing, males around the ancient Med had to watch what they ate. The Greeks believed that anti-aphrodisiac lettuce instantly withered an erection. In Egypt, men were equally certain that lascivious lettuce gave their organs vim and vigor, serving romaine at their orgiastic festivals for the fertility god Min. Romans and Greeks also put their aphrodisiac faith in other vegetables, from tubers to a remedy called “the deadly carrot.” When salad supplies ran low, olive oil (with or without herbal additives) was the everyday erotic helper–applied topically by female partners.
6. Gladiators’ sex lives: Since 3 out of 4 were slaves, you’d think gladiators had few opportunities. But they were hit on by female groupies from all walks of life, as the hard-breathing graffiti still visible in Pompeii show.
Not all gladiators were enslaved. Meet history’s most deranged fighter: a wingnut named Commodus, who preferred gladiating to being emperor. Although athletic, he cheated extensively–slaughtering countless bears, lions, and humans from a terrace above the sands of the arena. In his spare time, Commodus dutifully pursued sexual degradation, trying to outdo feats by earlier rulers.
His parents, Faustina and Emperor Marcus Aurelius, also faced a gladiator dilemma. She became aroused over one combatant; after confessing her passion to her husband, he consulted with soothsayers. Their solution? Faustina was ordered to have sex with the gladiator in question, who would then be murdered while on top of her. Afterwards, she was obliged to bathe in his blood, do a quick cleanup, and then make love to her husband Marcus.
7. Most long-ago men and women believed in a joyous polysexuality, one where lust, love, and longing were fluid, and not always confined to one gender. Such as the bittersweet story of a love triangle made in heaven. Like other royal matches, Sabina and Hadrian had an arranged marriage. The empress traveled with Emperor Hadrian on his years-long circuits of the sprawling Roman Empire. Although he dallied with women and men alike outside the marriage bed, they treated each other with courtesy.
Near his 50th year, Hadrian met his true love: Antinoos, a sultry, teenaged nobody from Bithynia. They became inseparable; and Sabina, their unwilling witness. On yet another grand tour, they reached Egypt in A.D. 130. One October evening, the 18-year-old disappeared. After a frantic search on land and in the waters of the Nile, Hadrian went berserk with grief. Neither the body nor the motive was ever discovered.
Within weeks, he deified the boy, turning his lost love into a god. Hadrian founded in a city in his name, had thousands of statues made of Antinoos, and ordered his worship throughout the empire.
As if to make amends, a few years later Hadrian also deified Sabina when she died, making his longsuffering empress into a goddess. But his apotheosis of a commoner, a sexual playmate, was a first. Today, the museums of our world are still crowded with statues and busts of that beautiful lost boy, often misidentified as Ganymede or Dionysus.