Bisexuality in the Ancient World

Marijke Renate Xenia van Kempen – MSc (Leiden University)

Sexual fluidity during the Roman Principate (27 BC – 284 AD)

Since the end of the last century, academic studies on sexuality have been thriving, especially in the field of history. [1] Many of these historical studies mainly focus on male homosexuality. Regarding female homosexuality, literature is sparse or female homosexuality is not the main focus. [2] Regarding antiquity, much research is still mainly focused on whether people were either mainly heterosexual or homosexual, missing out the opportunity to address bisexuality. Eva Cantarella’s book, Bisexuality in the Ancient World, is the only book that mentions bisexuality. Yet even this publication is problematic as she makes no clear definition of what bisexuality is, does not use modern theories, steers more or less clear of ancient terminology, and interprets her findings on a surface level. For example, she uses examples where men display bisexuality and generalizes her findings by writing that power was the most important influencer in the way one experienced sexuality.[3]

In my research, I studied why Roman sexuality can be understood better when using modern vocabulary and theories on sexuality: whether sexual attraction is steered by external factors, or whether it lies in the nature of a person. Moreover, Romans themselves used terms to define, or even steer, the sexuality of individuals.[4] By including modern and ancient terminologies or theories, one might gain a better idea of sexuality in the ancient world. Due to the fact that bisexuality has not been thoroughly studied, I used bisexuality as a case study in order to gain more knowledge of ancient sexual orientation. I have analysed the period of the Roman Principate, as this period yields the most sources. This does not mean that there are no problems in the source material. Unfortunately, many texts are written from the perspective of an elite man. Another limitation is that historians can only study sources from an etic perspective: we can never be sure what an author thought or what his reasons were for writing a specific piece of literature. The fact that only literary sources have been used is because this article focuses on the available historical sources which focus on Roman sexuality.

The most important modern theories that are useful in understanding bisexuality in the ancient world are the theories of Alfred Kinsey and Fritz Klein. In comparison to earlier researchers, they both concluded that bisexuality occurs on a scale: sexuality is not static but can change during one’s lifetime.[5] Klein expanded Kinsey’s theory by noting that not only one factor influences sexuality but that other factors, like sexual fantasies and emotional and social preferences, need to be taken into account as well. Bisexuality can also be understood as an individual only being sexually active with one sex or gender, but being attracted to more than one.[6] Therefore, bisexuality has not one definition or identity.[7] This might bethe reason why bisexuality often goes unmentioned in studies about Roman sexuality.

Before we can analyse sexuality in our ancient literary sources, it is important to understand Roman terminology that influenced how Romans experienced their sex life. Virtus, Roman ‘manliness’, was a term used to describe the established norms that a freeborn male citizen was supposed to possess.[8] Roman men were supposed to assert absolute control over themselves, but also over others. This was illustrated by a man needing to have an active, penetrating role in sex. This is what Michel Foucault calls the symbiosis of sexual acts and power. [9] When a man would voluntarily have the passive role, he would be called a cinaedus, an effeminate man. Virtus was not limited by the roles performed in sexual acts, as it also included the need to perform rhetoric in public. However, this does not mean that if a man did not possess all the norms, that he was ‘feminine’. It was not a question of gender: the way a person acted, for example in sex, was more important. This makes virtus a difficult term to understand as it encompasses many aspects of ‘manliness’.[10]

Stuprum is frequently mentioned in ancient literature and was used to describe convicted sexual offences. [11] It is however unclear to which group the term stuprum was most important. Stuprum was, for example, the case when a man had sex with someone else’s slave, as the slavewas someone’s property and not his own. Stuprum, therefore, meantthat groups of freeborn citizens and individuals without citizenship, such as freedmen and slaves, were segregated from each other.[12] A slave could not have stuprum, because as an unfree individual he had no virtus that needed protection.Stuprum was also a way to prevent women having sex with other men than their husbands, though it is unclear whether this was to ensure fidelity to their husbands or to preserve pure Roman lineages. Freeborn women and men were also forbidden to carry out any type of sex work, as this would also cause stuprum and could impact their reputation. [13] If someone did perform stuprum, he or she had to pay a fine up to 10.000 sestertiae or could even be banished to an island if the person was unable to pay the fine, as was stated in the lex Scatinia and the Digeste.[14]In short, many things encompassed stuprum, and society punished people accordingly if they performed it.

As it would influence their manliness in a bad way, freeborn men who wanted to have a relationship aside from the woman they were married to, had relationships with younger people that were beneath their own class, such as freeborn youth, slaves, or prostitutes. This is because when a man hadsex with a man from the same class or age group, it would impact his virtus. The poet Horace accordingly mentions in one of his Epodes that he is struck with love from both boys and girls, instead of calling them men and women. [15] By contrast, there is a famous example in the works of Catullus where he is interested in a man from a higher class and the same age group called Juventius. When Catullusis mocked by his friends, he states that he will sodomize his gay friend Furius and cinaedus Aurelius, and makes them perform fellatio. [16] This is contradictory to the sweet language that he uses in his poems about Juventius. By showing that he can also be aggressive, Catullus asserts his dominance –virtus– over his friends, whom he calls effeminate.[17] Since Catullus uses the same tone in his Carmina towards a muse named Lesbia, it might be that Catullus can be seen as a bisexual figure. Yet, it is unknown whether the characters Aurelius, Furius, Lesbia and Juventius really existed, or whether the characters were used as literary devices.[18]

Men and women married within their own elite class at quite a young age, as stated in marital laws. Because of this, women were supposed to stay loyal to their husbands and were not allowed to share the bed with other people.[19] When this occured, children of a married woman might not be of a freeborn status, depending on the status of the father. Cheating by women was considered to be a criminal offence, where a husband could even kill the homewrecker and divorce his wife.[20] Moreover, when women would bed people of their own sex, there would be no clear active (penetrative) or passive (receiving) role. This is why women were only allowed to have their husband as a sexual partner.

There are, however, literaryexamples where women sleep with women, such as in Lucian’s Dialogues of the courtesans. Here, a prostitute is invited to the home of two married women. When in the bedroom, one of the two women drops her wig and reveals that she has a shaven head, stating that she is not a manly woman, but a man.[21] This would imply that the roles that needed to be played were important.Yet, this does not reflect that the three parties in question might be bisexual, or that this work, written by a male author, is based on reality. Whatit does show isthat women that did pursue other women were seen as manly.

This behaviour was unwanted, as this could influence the balance of power in Roman society. The fact that people feared this can be illustrated by Seneca the Elder. In a fictive case in one of his Controversiae, a woman cheats on her husband with another woman and is caught by her husband. The man in question is advised to publicly say about this adultery as little as possible to protect his virtus and saveembarrassment.[22] The fact that Seneca makes a woman sleep with another woman might be because he wanted to show the most extreme case of stuprum, or that he wanted this example to defend the actions of the wife too. This is, again, difficult to conclude as historians can only study ancient societies from an outsider’s point of view. The fact that the man is advised not to even talk about what he saw strengthens the idea that women who played a ‘masculine’ role were subconsciously feared as they entered the sphere of what a Roman freeborn man ought to behave as or do. It might be because of this that evidence regarding female same-sex relationships was hidden or heavily censored, and that it is because of this that no bisexual women are found in ancient literature.[23] Thus, even if there is no evidence, it does not mean that no women ever went to bed with someone of the same sex.

So, was Roman sexuality character-driven or steered by society? Due to marital laws, elite women married young, often to older men. These men could establish relationships with younger girls and boys, to which Roman authors often refer. For women, this was not the case: because they married young, it appears they did not get the chance to explore their sexuality. Affairs between men and men were frowned upon, as it would harm their virtus if they did not have an active role. Men who would fulfil passive roles in sexual affairs were often mocked as effeminate. When modern theories are used, it seems that Roman sexuality could have been fluid, yet only in men. It seems that theycould have younger male and female lovers, but when these individuals became old, they lost interest.[24] Exactly when a man would stop having these relationships is difficult to study. Another problem is that mainly sources from elite men have survived, which is only a part of the population. We therefore have no clue what the plebian mass thought about sexuality or if they also abided by the imposed laws.

Yet, as many regulations on the sex life of individuals were imposed, it is likely that the sexual orientation of people was mostly steered by the prevailing rules and norms of Roman society. The fact that rules existed and were followed might contribute to the understanding that a real ‘bisexuality’ likely did not exist in the private spheres of Roman society. Individuals may have been in bisexual relationships nonetheless but as they had to carry these out in secret, we have no way of knowing whether this was the case or whether people adhered strictly to the law. Given Roman society greatly valued the upkeep of a good public image, especially in the upper circles, it is likely that most people abided by the (marital) laws that were imposed upon them. As for the lower classes, it might be that they experienced more freedom, as for example prostitutes were thought to share the bed with partners of different sexes. Yet, here an important concern is whether they did so freely. Sources on this are unfortunately nonexistent. Bisexuality as a ‘real’ sexuality might have been temporary at the least, and only a sexuality that existed in men from the elite classes. However, it is not unlikely to think that some Pyramusses and Pyramusses, or Thisbes and Thisbes secretly whispered loving words to each other through cracks in the walls of the houses they lived in.


[1] Wayne R. Dynes ed., Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (New York 1990) 539-542.
[2] Eva Stehle, ‘Polymorphic Sexuality’, Scholia: Studies in Classical Antiquity 5 (1996) 120-125, 121.
[3] Eva Cantarella, Bisexuality in the Ancient World (New Haven and London 2002); Brent D. Shaw, ‘Reviews’, Social History of Medicine 7:1 (1994) 143–145, 143, 144; Beert Verstraete, ‘Recent Scholarship on Homosexuality in the Greco-Roman World’, Journal of Homosexuality 40:1 (2000) 145-162, 146.
[4] Jennifer L. Larson, Greek and Roman Sexualities: a sourcebook (London, New York 2012).
[5] Alfred C. Kinsey, Wardell R. Pomeroy and Clyde E. Martin, ‘Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. 1948.’, American Journal of Public Health 93:6 (2003) 894–898, 898; Mary Z. Stange, Carol K. Oyster and Jane E. Sloan eds., Encyclopedia of Women in Today’s World (Los Angeles 2011) 158.
[6] David M. Halperin, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Bisexual’, Journal of Bisexuality 9 (2009) 451-455, 452.
[7] Michael W. Ross, Kristian Daneback and Sven-Axel Månsson, ‘Fluid Versus Fixed: A New Perspective on Bisexuality as a Fluid Sexual Orientation Beyond Gender’, Journal of Bisexuality 12:4 (2012) 449-460, 450.
[8] Craig A. Williams, Roman Homosexuality (Second edition; Oxford 2010) 139.
[9] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Vol. 1: An Introduction (New York 1990); Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure (New York 1990).
[10] Williams, Roman Homosexuality, 150.
[11] Cantarella, Bisexuality, 103; Kirk Ormand, Controlling Desires Sexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome (Austin 2018) 239; Elaine Fantham, Roman Readings: Roman Response to Greek Literature from Plautus to Statius and Quintilian (Berlin and Boston 2011) 118.
[12] Cantarella, Bisexuality, 103; Ormand, Controlling Desires, 240.
[13]Williams, Roman Homosexuality, 114.
[14]Williams, Roman Homosexuality, 132; Cantarella, Bisexuality, 113.
[15] Horace, Epodes II.11, 1-4. Translation Niall Rudd, Loeb Classical Library 33: Horace Odes and Epodes (DOI: 10.4159 /DLCL.horace-epodes.2004).
[16] Catullus, Carmen 16. Translation Ype De Jong, Catullus: complete gedichten (Leiden 2018) 41.
[17] Ormand, Controlling Desires, 277.
[18] Jan-Wilhelm Beck, “Lesbia” und “Juventius”: zwei “libelli” im Corpus Catullianum : Untersuchungen zur Publikationsform und Authentizität der überlieferten Gedichtfolge (Göttingen 1996) 113.
[19] Cantarella, Bisexuality, 165; Rebecca Flemming, ‘Sexuality’, in: Alessandro Barchiesi and Walter Scheidel eds., The Oxford Handbook of Roman Studies (Oxford 2010). DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199211524.013.0051.
[20] Treggiari 1991, Saller 1987, Shaw 1987; Shaw and Saller 1984A in Allison Glazebrook and Kelly Olson, ‘Greek and Roman Marriage’ in: Thomas K. Hubbard ed., A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities (Cichester 2013) 72-86, 79; Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, whores, wives, and slaves women in classical antiquity (New York 1995) 157; Glazebrook et al., ‘Greek and Roman Marriage’, 83; Ormand, Controlling Desires, 240-241; Pál Csillag, The Augustan Laws on Family Relations (Budapest 1976) 187.
[21] Lucian, Dialogue of the Courtisans 5. Translation Marguerite Johnson and Terry Ryan, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Society and Literature a Sourcebook (Londen 2005) 143-145.
[22] Seneca the Elder, Controversiae 1.2.23. Translation Michael Winterbottom, Loeb Classical Library 463: Seneca the Elder Declamations, Volume I: Controversiae, Books 1-6 (DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.seneca_elder-controversiae.1974).
[23] Judith P. Hallett, ‘Female Homoeroticism and the Denial of Roman Reality in Latin Literature’, Yale Journal of Criticism 3 (1989) 209-227.
[24] Cantarella, Bisexuality, 140-141.

Marijke’s paper was one of several submissions we accepted from our Call For Participation at the start of the 2019-20 academic year. We received some fantastic responses for both seminars/sessions and blog posts – keep an eye out for these across the rest of the year! And, if you would like to put forward an idea, keep an eye out for future Calls For Participation or email us directly:

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