I recently read Robin Lane Fox’s epic history of Greece and Rome. It’s a great, accessible read from a learned scholar. Along the way, though, I noticed there seemed to be an interesting set of ideological agendas just below the surface. In particular, his desire to present Athenian democracy as an ideal combines with his assumption that an ideal society would tolerate and encourage hetero- and homo-sexuality… so there are speculations peppered throughout, to the tune of “presumably the young men would have been able to enjoy sex with one another” etc.
One sees the same thing in the great book Roman Sex, by another important scholar, John R. Clarke. Although the book itself is carefully nuanced, the introduction and conclusion seem to express a desire to view the Roman period of 100BCE to 250CE as an ideal society, before “puritan guilt” came and ruined everything:
Until the Emperor Constantine paved the way for Christianity to become the state religion, Roman attitudes toward sex remained relatively stable. Most people saw sex as a wonderful pleasure to be pursued. Ecstatic sex with a beautiful partner – whether male or female, adolescent or adult – was a gift of the gods, one of life’s most important moments…. The great majority experienced no legal or moral restrictions on sex. (p157, from the conclusion)
This sweeping conclusion does not fairly represent the bulk of the material in the book – but rather picks up certain assumptions or speculations that are peppered throughout – such as the speculation that the apparently homosexual image on the “Warren cup” (below) is a defiant representation of “real” sexuality, as opposed to most images, which represent more “official” sexual ideals.
It’s bad enough when an ideology of moral supercession drives Christians to present ancient Corinth or Rome as a wretched hive of scum and villainy, full of nothing but uncontrolled sexaholics. But it doesn’t help things when an ideology of moral regression drives others to present ancient Athens or Rome as a guilt-free homosexual paradise. This really requires some twisting of the evidence.
If you want to investigate these things, Marilyn B Skinner’s summary of the Roman sex/gender system is a helpful starting point:
Its conceptual blueprint of sexual relations, like that of classical Athens, corresponded to social patterns of dominance and submission, reproducing power differentials between partners in configuring gender roles and assigning them by criteria not always coterminous with biological sex. Intercourse was construed solely as bodily penetration of an inferior, a scenario that automatically reduced the penetrated individual – woman, boy, or even adult male – to a “feminized” state. Insertive and receptive modes of pleasure were consequently polarized, each considered appropriate to only one sex, with desire for cross-sex gratifications stigmatized as “diseased” (morbosus) and with mutual interchange of gender roles often vilified as the nadir of corruption in freaks like the emperor Caligula” (Roman Sexualities, p4)