Both Greeks and Romans divided sexual behaviour into active/passive as well as (some say, ‘but not’) homosexual/heterosexual. The normative role for adult males was penetrative (‘active’); penetrated (‘passive’) partners were normally women, and boys aged 12 to 17. Texts generally convey the experience of penetrators, and evaluate passivity negatively, at worst (oral) as contaminating.
Philosophers debated the merits of intercourse—different for men and women—and regulated sexual desire along with other bodily appetites. Medical writers catalogued the human body, comprehending gynaecology, embryology, and obstetrics, as well as male physiology. Greek scientists, notably Aristotle, defined the female body as physiologically inferior to the male, even repellent, and sometimes justified sexual hierarchy thereby. Childbirth, and to some extent intercourse, conveyed pollution; Roman menstrual revulsion is likely to have had Greek parallels. Sexual categories in astrology, physiognomy, and dream‐interpretation tally with their social valences (see dreams).
Sex with men for free women was defined in terms of marriage; girls married, often soon after puberty, and commonly remarried after divorce or widowhood. Virtue for women meant fidelity, though texts stereotype women as promiscuous. Their access to extramarital sex was always more or less controlled, adultery being defined as sex with a married woman. Yet Sulpicia voices her desire. Free men married later, and extramarital sex between male and (subordinate) female is again widely attested. Rape of woman or boy dishonoured the victim and was punished by law. Questions of sexuality within marriage include contraception, affection between husband and wife, fertility, pregnancy, and childbirth.
Class greatly affected sexual realities: slaves were by definition penetrable, and at Rome freed slaves bore a concomitant stigma. Non‐marital alliances were available to non‐élite classes. Prostitution flourished, and many prostitutes were slaves; free Roman prostitutes were infāmēs (see infamia), along with pimps and theatrical performers. Slaves' access to procreation was closely controlled. Graffiti suggest that slaves' own sexual norms matched those of free people; inscriptions commemorate freed slave marriages and families. Race figures in hegemonic sexual discourse. Asia Minor was often associated in ancient texts with sexual luxury and effeminacy, and Roman texts express a preference for boys from Asia. Although some early and many late sources are available for Egypt and the near east, the sexual experience of indigenous peoples, esp. in northern Europe and Africa, is largely lost to us.
See asceticism; heterosexuality; homosexuality; love and friendship; pornography; women.