The Roman Orgy Was Taboo, But Not Fictional (Part 3, Orgies in Ancient Brothels)

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The inherent scandal of attending orgies undoubtedly made accusations of doing so particularly effective as slander. However, another plausible explanation for the abiding nature of the accusations against nocturnal cults is the possibility that because the Romans were used to group sex in other clandestine nightly contexts, the charges seemed realistic. This leads us to the second great line of evidence for the existence of Roman orgies: references to group sex between free men and the enslaved, especially prostitutes. It is striking that in contexts involving intercourse between free men and un-free people, group sex is often viewed through a comical lens. This is in stark contrast to the seriousness with which the charges are taken when they involve promiscuity between the free born, who were theoretically only supposed to enjoy intercourse among themselves in monogamous marriages. In the realm of relationships between free born men and the enslaved, however, much greater license was socially permitted, and the imagery of group sex and even group rape seem to have been evoked for comic effect.

In poem 56, Catullus suggests that he penetrated a young male slave when he came upon him having sex with a female slave, calling the situation “ridiculous,” “funny,” and “worthy of laughter.” In poem 4.8, the erotic poet Propertius describes arranging a threesome with two prostitutes named Phyllis (“when she’s drunk, anything goes”) and Teia (“full of wine, one man’s never enough.”)[1] His lover, Cynthia, violently breaks up the party in a scene worthy of the comic theater. Gallus 5.49 describes a woman servicing three men at once as she is penetrated in her mouth, anus, and vagina. The Greek poet Nicarchus in the Greek Anthology 11.328 describes how Hermogenes, Cleoboulus, and Nicharchus split up a woman named Aristodike (“the most virtuous in justice”) for a foursome, comparing their efforts to those of the Olympian gods. Just like Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades divided the earth between them, so they divide up the woman, with Nicarchus to the vagina, Hermogenes to the anus, and Cleoboulus to the mouth.[2] Martial 12.43 describes a poet named Sabellus who disgusts him by writing poems about group sex involving intercourse with five or more people at a time. He mentions that not even the books of Elephantis include such novelties; she was a female writer from the early first century AD who is said to have composed a sex manual of some kind in addition to a work on procuring abortions.[3] Only male prostitutes (exoleti) would do things like Sabellus described, “and even they would keep quiet about it.” Martial 10.81 describes two men having sex with a prostitute named Phyllis, anally and vaginally penetrating her. At 9.32, the poet expresses an urge for a girl who “on her own takes care of three at once.”[4] The fourth century poet Ausonius poses a riddle in epigram 43. He describes three men in bed together, “two debauching, and two being debauched.” How can this be possible? He then explains the punch line: the man being simultaneously anally and orally penetrated counts twice.

Sometimes group sex with prostitutes could take on the festive atmosphere of a party complete with characteristic games, as suggested, for example, in the Satyricon of Petronius. He describes an orgy at the home of Quartilla, an organizer of secret cultic rites in honor of Priapus. In book 25, a servant named Psyche suggests to Quartilla that Pannychis, a seven year old slave, should lose her virginity at that night’s festivities. The company promptly makes what Petronius calls “bridal preparations” for the child, simulating a wedding (officium nuptiale). In chapter 26, after a mock ceremony is held, the girl and her “husband” retire behind closed doors to consummate the proceedings. Other members of the party peek in on the events within the bridal chamber:

We sat down on the threshold of the nuptial chamber, and first of all Quartilla applied an inquisitive eye to a (peephole) in the door contrived for some such naughty purpose, and watched their childish dalliance with lecherous intentness. She drew me gently to her side to enjoy the same spectacle, and our faces being close together as we looked, she would, at every interval in the performance, twist her lips sideways to meet mine, and kept continually pecking at me with a sort of furtive kisses.[5]

This is not this the only example of an orgy in the Satyricon. Petronius 113, for example, also speaks of group sex at a banquet with prostitutes. A party descends into pandemonium after a maid becomes jealous of the narrator’s affections and begins slinging accusations at her rivals. Though much of Petronius’ novel is lost, it is striking how many times the banquets the comic author describes between free men and prostitutes descend into orgies, complete with party games including charades like faux weddings. While the events described by Petronius may seem horrifying to modern audiences, that they are interpreted by the author as comedic underscores the fact that in antiquity, the human rights of slaves were frequently cast aside, and ruthless exploitation was considered part and parcel of everyday life and a potential venue for the transgression of common sexual norms.[6]

John R. Clarke’s book of characteristic art on sexual topics from Rome includes several examples of group sex, including a red figure cup by the so-called Pedeius painter from the late fifth century BC showing men engaging in oral and anal sex with each other in groups (38-39); medallions depicting group intercourse with men and women’s bodies arranged in various permutations (144-145); and novelty lamps inscribed with group intercourse (146).[7] The reality of the free-wheeling and promiscuous ambiance described by Petronius as existing in southern Italy in the mid first century AD is also born out in the form of archeological evidence from Pompeii. An example of Pompeian graffiti has been found calling the city “Sodom and Gomorrah” (CIL 4, Inscription 4976). Two pieces of evidence from Pompeii are especially interesting. First, a peep hole just like the one described by Petronius at the orgy of Quartilla has been discovered at the House of the Centenary in a “hidden chamber” next to a painting of a couple having sex. The only explanation for the window must be that third parties were intended to look through it. Second, paintings at the “Suburban Baths” (which are said to have allowed both men and women to attend at the same time since there was only one common dressing room) portray group sex—one image shows a man anally penetrating another man who in turn penetrates a woman, while another shows group intercourse with a man simultaneously giving and receiving oral sex, with a fourth men penetrating one of the penetrators and waving his arms triumphantly in the air. Scholars have interpreted the images in various ways, with some suggesting that they were simply used as mnemonic devices to help bath-goers remember in what cubbyholes they’d put their cloaks. However, the idea that the bathhouse was in fact associated with prostitution and/or the performance of group sex and that the paintings would have been interpreted as humorous in character should certainly not be discounted.[8] If the standards of erotic Roman poetry are any indication, this kind of imagery was appropriate for brothels but rarely found in contexts in which free people met and interacted. Ultimately, that group sex was taboo even in Pompeii is borne out by the lack of inscriptions about it among the graffiti. The archaeological evidence suggests, however, that it could nonetheless have been going on in certain special contexts.

Interestingly, sex parties come up very rarely as a topic in the erotic poetry of the collapsing Republic and early Roman Empire, and when group sex is mentioned, it almost invariably involves free men having sex with the enslaved, which, as we have seen, was perceived as a potentially humorous situation. Part of the reason for this silence might admittedly be the rarity of sex parties in general. But it must be remembered that for every surviving voice from antiquity describing orgies, many more must have been lost as sources during the early Middle Ages. Hard-core erotic poetry describing sex with prostitutes seems to have been the most likely place to find references to what went on at orgies. One imagines that Christian scribes would be hard pressed to justify what they were spending their time transcribing in their monastery cubicles.[9] At the same time, given the associations between group sex among free born people and political conspiracy evidenced, for example, in the Bacchic scandal of 186 BC, orgies among fellow Roman citizens would hardly be something a poet would be expected to openly endorse.[10] Group sex between citizens was an entirely different subject from group sex with the enslaved. When group sex among citizens took place in either a religious context or, as we will see next, in a recklessly debauched banquet, such deep-rooted concerns arose that the event could be interpreted as a threat to national security. Again, this does not mean that orgies among the free born did not take place, but that to hold them would be a seriously risky affair often associated with political intrigue, entrapping everyone present with mutual knowledge of each other’s adultery, which was criminalized in the time of Augustus, the first emperor.

***

[1] See http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/PropertiusBkFour.htm#_Toc201112562

[2] Marguerite Johnson and Terry Ryan, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Society and Literature: A Sourcebook (London ; New York: Routledge, 2005). Pp. 93.

[3] Suetonius tells us that the emperor Tiberius was a fan of her work at Tib. 43.2. Pliny 28.21 says she wrote on abortions. Little is known about Elephantis. In some older translations, references to her work are interpreted to mean erotic literature from the city of Elephantis itself, in Egypt.

[4] Johnson and Ryan, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Society and Literature : A Sourcebook. Pp. 94.

[5] See translations of Petronius at http://www.sacred texts.com/cla/petro/satyr/sat05.htm#XXVI.

[6] For an interesting discussion of the function of laughter and derision in Petronius’ work, see Maria Plaza, Laughter and Derision in Petronius’ Satyrica : A Literary Study, Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis Studia Latina Stockholmiensia, (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2000).

[7] John R. Clarke and Michael Larvey, Roman Sex : 100 B.C.To 250 A.D (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003).

[8] For an image of the erotic paintings, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suburban_Baths_(Pompeii).

[9] Indeed, certain poems discussed on this paper have even been excised from internet translations, or even, in one case, rendered from Greek into Latin rather than English.

[10] For a discussion of the relationship between adultery in general and political conspiracy, see Catharine Edwards, The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome (Cambridge England ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

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