Classical attitudes to sexuality

Sex and stereotypes

Two modern sexual stereotypes

  • In modern times there is an assumed stereotype that men are more likely to be ‘led by' their sexual desires than women are - that they're instinctively promiscuous and ‘just can't help themselves'.
  • The assumed female stereotype is that women are less ‘naturally' lustful and more reactive, needing to be wooed and flattered into sexual desire.
As a consequence of these assumptions, women have been attributed responsibility for men's sexual conduct. One negative consequence of such assumptions is the idea that rape-victims have ‘led on' their attacker by their ‘loose' behaviour or ‘provocative' dress.

Classical sexual stereotypes

In classical times the stereotype was completely opposite: women, the ‘weaker sex', were thought to lack self-control. It was a mark of masculinity to be master of one's instincts, a sign of (female) inadequacy to be ruled by one's desires. This didn't mean that ancient men didn't want sex. But no man had any business being emotionally or sexually dependent on a woman's love. By contrast, the Roman poet Ovid, in his Ars Amatoria (‘The Art of Love') described women's passion as ‘unbridled': ‘It is fiercer than ours, more frenzied.' 
Any admiration for a male seducer was owing to his ability to ‘conquer' a female. And even here, the assumption was that the man was only availing himself of the woman's deep-seated lustfulness. 

Sexual expression and social order

Social order and orgies

The ‘Roman Orgy' was one consequence of the power and wealth of the elite coupled with the free availability of slave and immigrant women for exploitation. Yet lavish partying was the exception. Like the Greeks before them, the Romans drew a clear line between the occasional spree and the daily routine of life – in which regularity and order were highly prized. And the bedrock of an ordered society was marriage.

Adultery – a threat to inheritance

The pre-eminence of the ‘patrician' families was derived from the illustriousness of their patres – those ‘fathers' or ancestors who had helped to build the power of Rome. Adultery was a problem because it jeopardized that dynastic continuity. A man's affair with someone else's wife endangered her husband's bloodline, whilst a straying wife was not to be tolerated because it brought the risk that a man's children might not be his own. As the Roman statesman Cato said:
‘If you catch your wife in the act of adultery, you may take her life without the risk of facing trial.'     
Similarly, the daughter who decided to sleep with a boyfriend was depriving her father and her family of their property (a man who raped or seduced her was committing a crime in the same way). 
However, according to Roman logic, a man's philanderings with his slave girls or prostitutes didn't endanger any family's bloodline. This gave rise to an unjust sexual double standard: male promiscuity could be tolerated but female promiscuity never. 

Destructive female desire

Basically, any attempt by a girl or woman to assert her emotional or sexual autonomy, without regard to her father's approval, was potentially destabilising, not just for the family but for society. So female sexuality was feared as a violently destructive force. 


Maenads, in Greek mythology, were the female followers of Dionysus, the god of drunkenness and sexual licence. He was known as Bacchus in Roman myth and his adherents as Bacchantes. Women taking part in the rites of Dionysus/Bacchus would drink and dance themselves into a frenzy, finally surrendering all self-control and shame. Their sexual voracity in this ecstatic state extended over into cannibalism: in some mythic accounts, maenads were quite literally man-eaters. If some poor, unsuspecting young male crossed their path, they fell upon him in a ravening pack, tearing him limb from limb and biting away at his raw flesh. 

Pure matrons

Roman culture felt more comfortable with a femininity that was chaste and modest, and kept any desires it might have ruthlessly in check. Lucretia was the most famous symbol for this sort of purity. She was the wife of a Roman, Lucius. Violently raped by the young tyrant Tarquin, she stabbed herself to death – though plainly innocent of any crime – to spare her beloved husband the ‘dishonour'.
Just as the Christianised Western world has offered the dichotomy of Madonna or whore as a choice of female role models, so the ancient classical world presented the dichotomy of Maenad or matron. In reality, most women would have fallen somewhere between these two extremes. 

Women in drama

Greek tragedy contains many femmes fatales:
  • In Aeschylus' trilogy, the Oresteia (458 BC), although Queen Clytemnestra murders her husband King Agamemnon so she can put her lover Aegisthus in his place, she is treated with some sympathy. She had been married to Agamemnon against her will and he'd then sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to secure a favourable wind to take his fleet Troy.
  • In Euripides tragedy, Medea (431 BC), Princess Medea is abandoned by Jason (hero of the Golden Fleece), the lover whom she'd helped to triumph. In rage and distress at Jason's abandonment and disrespect, she sends a poisoned gown to kill his new lover before murdering her own children in revenge against their father. 
According to such plays, a woman crossed in love is capable of anything, yet both dramatists also demonstrate psychological understanding of these women's sufferings.

Female expressions of passion

Of course Greek and Roman women had desires and feelings, but they had little opportunity to record them via written history, literature or even the inscriptions of their own time. This makes the poetry of Sappho, born in the seventh century BC on the Aegean island of Lesbos, hugely significant. She was the original ‘lesbian', addressing some of her most heartfelt lyrics to female lovers:
‘Blessed, like a god, to me he seems,
That man sitting right across from you …

When I so much as see you,
I lose the ability to speak.

My tongue seizes up, a subtle
Fire creeps underneath my skin,
I can see nothing with my eyes; there's a
Pounding in my ears.

I sweat, I shiver from head to foot,
Lose all my colour, blench as green as grass,
I can't take much more of this:
I'm going to die.' Content/quote to go here     

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