Lovers. Herculaneum Fresco. Public Domain
Lovers. Herculaneum Fresco. Public Domain
Italian version

As we have said in the first post regarding Sex and the city of Rome the ancient Greco-Romans had a totally different attitude towards sex and enjoyed a sensuality open to possibilities whose variety can confuse contemporary people (in spite of what we Westerners think of our sexual liberation) to the extent that what we are about to narrate could offend people’s feelings. We therefore ask for pardon but we also make known to minors and prudish people to please not read any further.

God Priapus' weighing his phallus. House of the Vettii, Pompeii
God Priapus ‘weighing himself’. Fresco from the House of the Vettii, Pompeii. Click for credits and to enlarge

Open sensuality? Yes, since for example the sacred poet Virgil probably sighed for Alexis, a beautiful boy; Horace celebrated incest, adultery and sex with female slaves; Ovid, Petronius and Catullus went a lot further (we might see later); not to mention the Roman phallic festivals like the Liberalia, held on the 17th of March …

“… where a monstrous phallus was carried in procession in a car… and the most respectable of the matrons ceremoniously crowned the head of the phallus with a garland”, or festivals like the Bacchanalia where similarly a huge phallus was carried and “as in the Liberalia, the festivities being carried on into the night, as the celebrators became heated with wine, they degenerated into the extreme of licentiousness, in which people indulged without a blush in the most infamous vices.”

This is Victorian Thomas Wright‘s opinion (1810-1877, English antiquarian and writer), not Man of Roma’s (see the Wright’s original text where our two quotes are from.)

Auguste (Maurice François Giuslain) Léveque (1864-1921). Bacchanalia. Public Domain
Auguste (Maurice François Giuslain) Léveque (1864-1921). Bacchanalia. Public Domain

Before trying to understand what is left today of these distant habits (the post title actually refers to survivals of ancient behaviours in today’s world, we’ll see why), we are going to provide a few detailed illustrations of this freer (or different, in any case) attitude .

So we’ll start by mentioning a Roman goddess, Dea Bona (‘Good Goddess’) and a scandal occurred at the time of great Julius Caesar.

Roman Dea Bona

Roman Bona Dea (Good Goddess)
Roman Bona Dea (Good Goddess)

In Roman religion Dea Bona (Latin for ‘Good Goddess’) was a “deity of fruitfulness, both in the earth and in women … The dedication day of her temple on the Aventine was celebrated May 1. Her temple was cared for and attended by women only, and the same was the case at a second celebration, at the beginning of December, in the house of the Pontifex Maximus [the chief Roman Priest, today’s Pope being still the Pontifex Maximus of Rome], where the Pontifex’s wife and the Vestal Virgins ran the ceremony.” (Bona Dea. 2007. In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved December 9, 2007, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online.)

I wonder if the online Britannica is exact here, since the December celebration was conducted “by the wife of the senior magistrate present in Rome in his home” (any senior magistrate then: Pontifex, consul etc.). In fact, according to Plutarch (2nd cent. A.D., Life of Cicero 19.3, 20.1-2) when Cicero was consul, the day he made the famous speech which is known as his third Catiline oration, he was escorted in the night “to the house of a friend and neighbour; his own being occupied by women who were celebrating the secret rites of the goddess whom the Romans call Bona.”

Dea Bona’s Image
Roman Bona Dea

The December festival was more interesting than the May one since “it was not held in the goddess’ temple … it was an invitation-only affair and pretty exclusive”. The wife of the magistrate managed the whole thing during the night, all was secret and occurred in a context of classy luxury (quote from here.)

What was happening during these secret-sacred rites from which men were strictly excluded? Surely it was something like a mystery cult, hence little we know about it (maybe you can find something in Macrobius’ Saturnalia). According to the Latin poet Juvenal, who wrote his satires many generations later (but who was also probably a bit of a misogynist), the Bona rites included drunken orgies among women (Juvenalis Sat. vi, l. 314):

“Well known to all are the mysteries
of the Good Goddess,
when the flute stirs the loins
and the Maenads of Priapus sweep along,
frenzied alike by the horn-blowing and the wine,
whirling their locks and howling.
What foul longings burn within their breasts!
What cries they utter as the passion palpitates within!
How drenched their limbs in torrents of old wine!
Saufeia challenges the slave-girls to a contest….”

(See a complete version in English prose of Juvenal Satire 6, plus the same passage in Latin verses).

Well, what happened in the house of Julius Caesar according to Plutarch seems to confirm Juvenal’s opinion. Let’s see why.

Sacrilege in Julius Caesar’s house

Two Roman Women. Fair use

Dramatis personae


The scandal broke during the Dea Bona December ceremonies in 62 BC, when Julius Caesar was Pontifex Maximus. This is why the celebration took place in his house. Caesar of course was absent, being a man. The way it all developed seems to confirm Juvenal’s view, as we have said.

As Plutarch writes, our great source of the Ancient world (Life of Caesar 9-10):

“(9.1) Publius Clodius was a man of noble birth and notable for his wealth and reputation, but not even the most notorious scoundrels came close to him in insolence and audacity. Clodius was in love with Caesar’s wife Pompeia, and she was not unwilling. But a close watch was kept on the women’s apartment, and Caesar’s mother Aurelia followed the young wife around and made it difficult and dangerous for the lovers to meet.”

“(9.3) The Romans have a goddess whom they call Good… It is unlawful for a man to approach or to be in the house when the rites are celebrated. The women, alone by themselves, are said to perform rites that conform to Orphic ritual during the sacred ceremony.”

“(10.1) At the time [when the incident occurred] Pompeia was celebrating this ritual; Clodius did not yet have a beard and for this reason thought that he would escape detection if he were dressed up as [woman] lyre-player, and went into the house looking like a young woman. He found the doors open and was led in without difficulty by a slave-woman who was in on the plot; this woman went to Pompeia and told her, and some time passed, but Clodius could not bear to wait, and as he was wandering around the large house and trying to avoid the lights, one of Aurelia’s [female] attendants got hold of him, and asked him to play with her, as one woman might with another, and when he refused, she dragged him before the others and asked who he was and where he came from.”

“(10.3) Clodius said that he was waiting for Pompeia’s slave Abra (which happened to be the woman’s name), and gave himself away by his voice. The [woman] attendant dashed away from him towards the lights and the crowd, shouting that she had caught a man. The women were terrified, and Aurelia called a halt to the rites of the goddess and hid the sacred objects; she ordered the doors to be shut and went around the house with torches, looking for Clodius. He was found in the room that belonged to the girl where he had gone in an attempt to escape. When he was discovered, he was taken through the doors by the women and thrown out of the house. That night the women went right off and told their husbands about the affair, and during the day the story spread through the city that Clodius had been involved in sacrilege and had committed injustice against not only those he had insulted, but the city and the gods.

“(10.5) Clodius was indicted for sacrilege by one of the tribunes, and the most influential senators joined forces against him and testified about other dreadful outrages he had committed and his incest with his sister.”

[Her name was Clodia – prob. the slutty Lesbia loved by Catullus – a perpetual scandal like her brother Clodius. We’ll probably talk about her again, it is important in our view of Roman sex. In the painting below you can see Catullus visiting aristocratic Lesbia’s mansion, a nice work by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 – 1912,) an interesting painter of late nineteenth century Britain]

Catullus at Lesbia’s by Sir Laurence Alma Tadema. 1836-1912. 1865

[Online Britannica: “In December 62, when the winter ceremony of the Bona Dea (from which men were excluded) was celebrated in the house of Julius Caesar, a man believed to be Clodius was discovered disguised as a female harpist among the participants. Charged with incestum he was tried before the Senate…Caesar divorced his wife in suspicion that she had admitted Clodius to the ceremony….Clodius maintained he had been at Interamna, 90 miles (145 km) from Rome, on the day in question, but Cicero, who abused the defendant intemperately, presented evidence to the contrary. Clodius was acquitted, perhaps because the jury had been bribed, but immediately began to devise ways to revenge himself on Cicero.” (Clodius Pulcher, Publius. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 9 Dec. 2007) ]

Plutarch (10.6): “Caesar immediately divorced Pompeia, but when he was summoned as a witness in the trial said that he knew nothing about the accusations against Clodius. The prosecutor asked him about the apparent contradiction: ‘why then did you divorce your wife?’ He answered, ‘because I thought my wife should be above suspicion’….Clodius was acquitted because most of the jurors handed in their opinions in illegible writing, so that they would not endanger themselves with the common people by voting against him, or disgrace themselves with the nobility by letting him off.”


I think the reason Caesar supported Clodius was because they belonged to the same common people (democratic) party. Clodius was popular and influential therefore deemed useful by Caesar for his own political career.


Related posts:

Sex and the city (of Rome) 1
Sex and the city (of Rome) 3
Sex and the city (of Rome) 4
Sex and the city (of Rome). A Conclusion.

Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan)

18 thoughts on “Sex and the City (of Rome). 2

  1. @Ashish
    Aphrodite? The one with beautiful buttocks lol? We’ll see. I wanted tho to provide a general overview of how ancient (Roman) West considered sexuality, which is not entirely dissimilar from Kamasutra times, although, Indian history, it is up to u Indians to explain to me, I suppose lol.
    All the best buddy


  2. @Poonam
    I thank you very much. I also want to know more about you. Only I am so stupid I didn’t understand yet what being tagged means… 😦


  3. Manofroma, “being tagged” is that means your blog was bookmarked/ added into his blog? I just tried to guess the real meaning. I think you better ask Ashish, it seems he knows well about wordpress lol~ I also added your blog link on my blog too! 😉


  4. Though I do not understand well about this post…due to my bad english. I was looking at those pictures that you have pasted on here…wow… first, i did not realise what those pictures showed but when I concentrted to take a look a bit longer…i saw something…I was just surprised to see such an “interesting” pics! :-p


  5. I really love to look at those pictures what you pasted on your posts..especially the first pic on the post of New Subura. 🙂


  6. @AutumnSnow
    >I really love to look at those pictures what you pasted on your posts..especially the first pic on the post of New Subura.

    Dear Chinese woman, that first picture on the New Subura post is Venus, our sweet Roman Goddess of love. It is a beautiful painting by French painter Adolphe Bouguereau (1879). This type of academic painting is now again popular, and many other end-of-1800 etc. so called academic painters (German, French, Italian, Dutch etc.) are now considered good painters, while during most of 1900 they fell into disrepute.


  7. ManofRoma: Tis considered evil to ask geeks what Kamasutra means! 😛

    Oh you’ve been tagged again. Just write 8 random facts about yourself [for this tag asks you to do that] and ask 5 others to do the same. The world isn’t saved or anything, just for fun. 🙂


  8. @ManofRoma: Tagging is a chain. Someone tagged me to write 8 random facts about me. I wrote it. and then I tagged 5 more people. So do you. You could read my post for the idea. :)Though you could do it in your way.


  9. @All
    Ok, I got the tagging thing but I’ll do it another time. Now just trying to survive in hard environement conditions, with cerebral waves flat. I’m living in a damn cold and humid place … 😦


  10. At the beginning, i found that it’s too difficult to me to give comment in here because it’s too deep to me and I lack the Roman history background/ knowledges on it..(and i had studied some world history for 3 years at high school in my whole study life). I found that Indian with deep mind like Ashish, he commented on your blog a lot and the way of thinking of Indian is quite different from us Chinese.

    Now, I understood better after i watched a series of movie “ROME” which i borrowed from a video shop, it provides me an idea and background, get to know more about how Roman Empire to be established and it helps me to know better about other posts in your blog. It’s so interesting!!! The actor who acts Julius Caesar in that movie looks great! I mean he can make people feel his power even just look at his face lol~ 😀

    The most interesting thing is History, not so boring as I thought, it enriches my mind and now I start getting interested on all these stuffs. ;-D Besides, I also have to know well about my country “CHINESE HISTORY” lol.


  11. @AutumnSnow
    I so much appreciate your efforts to understand such a different world, AutumnSnow! In which sense you perceive that an Indian mind is different from a Chinese one? It would be interesting for us to understand.

    So you saw that great ‘Rome’ TV series? Wow! You Chinese people do things seriously! I also like that actor that plays Julius Caesar. I forgot his name, but he seems a great British actor to me.

    Yes, history is not boring, once we get into it, and it can teach us so much because the world today is the result of what has happened in the past. Knowing the past, we shed light on the present, otherwise we are sort of blind.

    All the best, dear AutumnSnow


  12. Hello,
    My comment will surprise you. So far erotic aspect is concerned, I do not see any difference between Indian and Greek Roman history. I am writting a book about, the title of the book, ‘An introduction to philosophic meaning of shivling’ I see, eroticism as the seed of philosophy, I will prove my point, from historical fact.

    philosophically sincer,
    bharat mehta.


  13. @bharat mehta
    I am not surprised, only pleased, and your comment intrigues me. I hope you can contribute with some of your ideas. Indians are deep people, and this blog should be based on dialogue, since I do not possess any truth lol.
    Btw, what is ‘shiveling’?
    My warmest regards


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