Understanding and Using the Bible
Roman Patterns of Sexuality
Roman patterns of sexuality were very different from our own. A Roman citizen was entitled to have penetrative sex with his wife, his slaves (male or female), prostitutes, freedmen or freedwomen and a young man who had not yet reached adulthood (normally conceived of as a “boy” between the ages of 13 and 20).
Romans thought that male homoerotic behaviour was the result of an excess of desire not, as we do, as of a different type of desire. A Roman might defend himself against the charge of being effeminate by pointing out that he’d seduced his accuser’s son! However, Roman sexual behaviour was tightly prescribed.
To take on the penetrated role in sex was seen as shameful, oral sex was problematic as in Roman thought they couldn’t quite discern who was active and who was passive and sex between women was viewed with horror as was a man giving oral sex to a woman. Women were to be passive and submissive, two women together in bed involved (in Roman thought) at least one taking the active dominant role. A succession of Roman emperors had behaved disgracefully (in Roman eyes) by playing the passive role in sex with other men (it was the passivity not the gender of the partner that was problematic).
Religion played a part in Roman sexuality too. The cult of the Great Mother was popular and the worship of Cybele (one manifestation of the Great Mother) involved male priests (Gallii) castrating themselves in an ecstatic frenzy and then being penetrated by women using artificial phalluses.
Some scholars think Paul’s reference to the women referred to this goddess worship. They think this because in Romans 1 Paul mentions three signs that humanity had turned away from God; the first two of these are idolatry so it is reasonable to presume that the third sign – the sexual behaviour noted in 1:26-27 – is also a sign of idolatry.
Read on to "Idol Worship and Slaves".