The Roman Orgy Was Taboo, But Not Fictional (Part 1, Introduction)

henryk-hector-siemiradzki-roman-orgy-in-the-time-of-caesars[1]

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting the results of my preliminary research on Roman orgies. Here is the introduction to my findings.

Until the nineteenth century, the very name of the empress Messalina was a byword for promiscuity writ large.[1] Old-fashioned medical textbooks even called nymphomania “Messalina syndrome.” According to ancient authors, she had scores of extra-marital affairs. Those who refused the advances of the emperor Claudius’ wife did not survive long enough to boast about their scruples. Tradition has it that she competed with a prostitute to discover who could dispatch the most men in a single night, and that she even compelled aristocratic matrons to work in brothels. Eventually, the historian Tacitus claims that she bigamously married the consul-elect and organized a promiscuous masquerade as a coup de grace. Her husband’s armed guards broke up the proceedings. Dozens were executed, including the empress herself. Only a few guests survived—Suilius Caesoninus, for one, who disgusted the emperor with his effeminacy because he admitted to having played a non-penetrative role at the proceedings.[2] In the months that followed, the widowed Claudius eventually married his own niece, Agrippina, and adopted her son. He was the future emperor Nero.

The story of Messalina’s downfall and its aftermath seems like the stuff of soap opera rather than history. But in a rare instance in his extensive body of work, Tacitus specifically vouches for the accuracy of his narrative when he describes Messalina’s bigamous marriage rites:

It will seem fantastic, I know, that in a city where nothing escapes notice or comment, any human beings could have felt themselves so secure… But I am not inventing marvels. What I have told, and shall tell, is the truth. Older men heard and recorded it.[3]

Tacitus insists that he is telling the truth, however far-fetched his story. If this sort of claim should be taken seriously, then something like the Hollywood legend of the Roman orgy might have indeed existed in antiquity, with fatal consequences for Messalina. But were orgies in fact a historical feature of Roman civilization? According to major contemporary schools of thought, ancient primary sources are so mired in prejudice and hyperbole that their contents should be interpreted as adaptations and re-adaptations of tropes and stereotypes rather than anything approaching Truth with a capital T. According to Alastair Blanshard writing on “The Myth of the Orgy”:

 (The idea of Roman orgies) is an enormous superstructure built on few and flimsy foundations. The Romans never routinely engaged in sexual orgies and would have been appalled that we thought that they did. The very few instances where we can find references to anything remotely approaching an orgy seem to indicate, if we can even believe them, that these were one-off affairs. If the Romans did try the orgy, they certainly didn’t seem to like what they found. Roman sexual activity was largely based around the idea of satisfying one dominant male. This sits uneasily with the notions of reciprocity and bodily sharing implicit in an orgy…The orgy largely exists in people’s minds.[4]

If all this is the case, can Tacitus’ account of Messalina’s marriage be considered reliable? In fact, although group sex in festive settings is arguably one of the most abiding features of Roman civilization in the popular imagination, few books or articles are devoted to the subject of the existence of sex parties per se, let alone the question’s bearing on the fate of Messalina. What evidence, if any, survives suggesting that orgies might have really taken place? And if such evidence exists, are its foundations really “few and flimsy,” as Blanshard suggests?

I will first examine the ancient evidence for the existence of “Roman orgies,” by which I mean group sex in the setting of a party or banquet. If the evidence comes from varied and trustworthy sources, and if those sources are bolstered by other historical and archeological narratives, we can begin to ask interesting questions about ancient orgies beyond whether or not they existed at all. What they were like? Why they were held? In what contexts are they described as taking place? Were attitudes toward them positive or negative? After evaluating the quality of the evidence, I will pose potential answers to these questions in the second part of my paper.[5] In the final part, I will ask what these answers can possibly teach us about the fall of Messalina. While the veracity of the ancient sources can never be definitively proved, I will suggest that the charges against the empress should be considered plausible and worthy of serious consideration rather than dismissed on face as exaggerations. Ultimately, I will show that there seem to have existed highly specific defining characteristics of Roman sex parties originally associated with activities at brothels that may help to explain elements of Messalina’s career more satisfactorily than current discourse on the issue. While it is admittedly possible that most of the ancient descriptions of orgies are fundamentally grounded in gossip, the surviving evidence suggests that it is at least equally plausible that sex parties were sometimes held in cultic contexts and bordellos and at times also employed by powerful dynasts to simultaneously curry popularity with the Roman masses and degrade potential rivals in the senatorial class, particularly during the era of the Julio-Claudian emperors (27 BC-68 AD).

***

[1] An entire chapter is devoted to Messalina in P. M. Cryle, The Telling of the Act : Sexuality as Narrative in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century France (Newark ; London ; Cranbury, NJ: University of Delaware Press ; Associated University Presses, 2001).

[2] For an interesting discussion of Caesoninus and his role in Messalina’s orgy, see Craig A. Williams, Roman Homosexuality : Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity, Ideologies of Desire (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). Pp. 196-197.

[3] Tac. Ann. 11.27. Cornelius Tacitus and Michael Grant, The Annals of Imperial Rome, Rev. ed., Penguin Classics (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England ; New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Penguin Books, 1985).

[4] Alastair Blanshard, Sex : Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity, Classical Receptions (Chichester, U.K. ; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Pp. 49-50.

[5] Edward Champlin’s 2006 working paper on Tiberian Neologisms seems to be on the right track when he explores the categorizing features of group sex when it comes up in the ancient sources in an attempt to explore it as a social institution. See http://www.princeton.edu/~pswpc/pdfs/champlin/090601.pdf.  He notes that examples of group intercourse usually involve no more than 3 or 4 people at a time, and that both men and women are usually involved. However, we will see that some evidence also exists for homosexual group sex, and I question whether the laws of physics and the inherent flexibility of the human body would allow for a regular practice of group intercourse involving more than 3 or 4 people at a time in any place or culture.

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2 thoughts on “The Roman Orgy Was Taboo, But Not Fictional (Part 1, Introduction)

  1. Found my way here through Christian’s reblog of this article. I started off with the thought that it is a long article but I couldn’t stop reading. It’s gripping and I am very much looking forward to the rest oft his. I am going to stick around and follow you. Please do drop by my site for light hearted reads inspired by everyday moments. Cheers 🙂

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