The Roman Orgy Was Taboo, But Not Fictional (Part 5, A Summary and Interpretation of the Evidence)

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In light of all that has been said, it would seem difficult to categorically deny the existence of ancient Roman sex parties on the basis of the available evidence. Group sex, a comic scenario when it involved free born men and prostitutes, was connected with some of the greatest scandals in Roman history when it became associated with intercourse between free born citizens. To summarize what we have observed:

(1) Diverse and trustworthy sources from the archeological, historiographical, and literary records all attest to the existence of sex parties in three specific contexts. These include the alleged rites of certain mystery religions, sex with slaves and prostitutes, and reckless aristocratic parties so uniquely debauched that they were considered worthy of commentary by ancient historians.

(2) No surviving ancient authors ever accuse each other of lying about the existence of orgies per se over the course of five centuries of literary records.

(3) For every surviving work from antiquity describing orgies, many more must have been lost as sources during the Christian Middle Ages, so the prominence of discourse about group sex in the surviving literature is especially striking. (However, Christian authors may have admittedly been eager to repeat scandalous anecdotes about persecutors of their religion such as Nero.)

(4) While the charge of participating in an orgy was slanderous, it was never universally applied as a negative topos. It remained a highly specific accusation tied only to certain individuals, and the surviving literary sources usually concur about the nature of the charges and do not contradict each other.[1] Stories grounded in idle gossip, by contrast, are often difficult to keep straight.

(5) Finally, many of the narratives corroborating the existence of orgies describe conspicuous public events. Authors of the stature of the senatorial Tacitus would have been publicly contradicted if their accounts of the past were not widely believed and considered plausible at the time in which they were written.

While the surviving evidence leads me to disagree with Blanshard’s dismissal of the reality of Roman orgies, he appears fully justified in his assertion that holding sex parties transgressed major social norms. Writing about the penchant of a man named Hostius Quadra to arrange group sex with his slaves in mirrored surroundings, Seneca the Younger describes how:

Even among prostitutes there exists some sort of modesty, and those bodies offered for public pleasure draw over some curtain by which their unhappy submission may be hidden. Thus, towards certain things even a brothel shows a sense of shame. But that monster had made a spectacle of his own obscenity and deliberately showed himself acts which no night is deep enough to conceal.[2]

The upshot of Seneca’s description is that the very notion of sex in the open is repugnant to him, even in the context of sex with slaves. In fact, the idea of sex in public was rarely if ever described in positive terms by Roman authors, and the idea of arranging occasions for it appears to have been a seriously taboo subject. Although Foucault declared that in ancient Rome “pleasure (was) not considered in relation to an absolute law of the permitted and he forbidden,”[3] Roman society was in fact characterized by deep anxiety when it came to any kind of sexual activity that involved the possibility of Roman men fulfilling non-penetrative roles in intercourse or adultery among citizens, both of which are arguably inherent to the idea of an orgy. However, the fact that sex parties were stigmatized is not evidence for their non-existence or lack of historical importance. In fact, my survey suggests that they occupied a major place in Roman discourse as examples of seriously unorthodox behavior that became popular among certain groups at certain points in time. On most occasions one could only get away with hosting orgies among prostitutes or co-conspirators in an illegal plot.

Why might group sex have taken place in ancient Rome despite its taboo nature? Whether or not sacred sex parties were really held to simulate a sense of ecstasy on earth, a great deal of discourse and even legislation existed about orgiastic revelries among different mystery cults. Since so much anxiety was exhibited about group sex in cultic contexts for over five centuries, it seems plausible that if even a few cults were engaging in sex parties, generalizing rumors about the movements at large might be consistently fed. Individuals attracted by the counter-cultural possibilities of an orgy might have been drawn to such cults, but as the story of the Bacchic conspiracy suggests, sex between groups of freeborn people could be perceived in political terms as a conspiracy (coniuratio), so this was walking on dangerous ground. Less controversially, sex parties were almost certainly being held in brothels, where the scene was ripe for experimentation, exploitation, and the transgression of social norms. This was a time before serious venereal disease and an era associated with great promiscuity. Group sex in brothels could even take on festive proportions, and as we have seen, characteristic party games seem to have been involved, such as aristocratic women staffing lupinars, to say nothing of mock marriages perhaps meant to evoke the ambiance of ceremonies such as the hieros gamos of the Anthisteria festival in honor of Dionysus.

One can only guess at the motive for freeborn aristocrats holding these kinds of orgies, behavior which seems to have been hitherto restricted to mystery cults and bordellos. In the first century BC, the national government was falling apart, and aristocratic families found it increasingly possible and tempting to exert their power over other people. They could sometimes even declare civil war on the state itself with armies more loyal to themselves than to the Senate.[4] Holding an orgy made the point that the sponsor could essentially get away with doing whatever he or she wanted, and these kinds of parties could perhaps be arranged to cement ties between new political allies. When aristocratic banquets were arranged in the first centuries BC and AD, the popularity of group sex between prostitutes and free men and discourse about secret cultic orgies must have existed ubiquitously as background noise. Roman aristocrats seem to have sometimes responded to all this discourse in their arrangement of their nightly shenanigans. Sex parties were associated with major political risk, but this may not have stopped certain very powerful and very reckless men and women from experimenting with group sex in their displays of conspicuous consumption at banquets.[5] Because orgies were so taboo, perhaps there existed a certain allure in being able to get away with publicly hosting them, though no aristocrat, emperor, or empress was successful at doing so for long. Even in the most permissive context, orgies among freeborn citizens were stigmatized. When ancient authors wrote about such sex parties, they seldom approved of what they described. In fact, as we have seen, almost every depiction of these goings-on is hostile.

In the past, it has been theorized that ancient people accepted major curtailments of their personal liberties in return for direct involvement in the government of their city-state, exchanging personal freedom for political freedom.[6] This was no longer true after Augustus became emperor. As the Republic tottered and the autocracy of the Julio-Claudian dynasty replaced former political liberty, promiscuity might have become the last vestige of freedom for many people. In poem 1.1, Tibullus declares that in an age when Roman citizens are no longer politically autonomous legionaries, only in the realm of lovemaking can he be a “soldier.” Ovid 1.9 echoes the sentiment. The paradoxical loss of political autonomy coupled with a great rise in personal power over aspects of private life like sex with slaves perhaps created an atmosphere in which orgies were considered spectacular events transgressing hypocritical social norms. No wonder, then, that people like Julia might have rebelled through an act of orgiastic pleasure itself. No wonder too that later Julio-Claudian figures like Caligula, Messalina, and Nero might have been tempted to subvert the anarchic edge of these kinds of parties by hosting them themselves and forcing the aristocracy to participate, mortifying the class that had once used the orgy for very different ends.

We have seen that discourse about group sex is especially prominent in the historiography of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, an era in which emperors literally declared themselves gods and publicly got away with murder. Why might certain emperors like Caligula and Nero have held public orgies? Arranging sex parties among Roman citizens was associated with great political risk, but also the possibility of making a strong statement about the degree of one’s power, to say nothing of courting popularity with the Roman populace. Displays such as the pageants of Nero can be interpreted as debauched spectacles of conspicuous consumption at which the aristocratic senatorial class could be humiliated by the emperor and brought down to size. The god-like Roman emperor himself had nothing to hide, and could do as he pleased to anyone at any time. The petty rules of morality did not apply to him. There existed a dialectical tension between the convention that group sex was permitted when it came to free men and prostitutes but absolutely forbidden in the case of intercourse between citizens. This psychic conflict perhaps sometimes made the idea of holding an orgy irresistible to individuals who accurately saw themselves as the most powerful people in the world. Of course, all of this stands in stark contrast to the clichéd images of idealized monogamous marriages evoked in the numismatic iconography, statuary, and moral legislation of the Julio-Claudian emperors.

The trappings of the brothel and the cultic orgy were often evoked in Julio-Claudian imperial orgies, perhaps because these were the only other contexts in which group sex was understood to regularly take place. Aurelius Victor 3.4-3.7 suggests that Caligula associated himself with Liber, a native Italian god of both political freedom and release in wine, and a first cousin to Bacchus. Party games simulating marriage, a practice attested by comic writers like Petronius and Juvenal describing sex with prostitutes, were perhaps duplicated by people like the emperor Nero with his male slaves in full public view. The imagery of a brothel could be appropriated in aristocratic contexts in which freeborn women themselves acted or were forced to act like prostitutes and engage in group sex. This is perhaps the reason for the abiding suggestion that games to wear out men were held in faux-lupinars. Behavior considered appropriate for brothels and sex parties with the enslaved could be simulated in aristocratic contexts, where everyone was a sort of metaphorical slave before the emperor and his family.

When emperors held sex parties in public, they might be remembered fondly by the Roman masses and furiously by the senatorial class. Suetonius tells us that the mobs of Rome assailed Augustus with requests for Julia’s return.[7] In book 59.28, the historian Dio expresses the joy of the Roman mob at the demeaning of aristocrats in the imperial brothels held by Caligula.  Party tokens bearing Nero’s image were distributed long after his death in memory of his epic bashes, celebrations emulated by the emperor Otho. But when anyone other than an emperor engaged in this kind of behavior, a political conspiracy seemed to be afoot. If freeborn men and women participated in an orgy, everyone present became equipped with intimate incriminating knowledge about each other, minimizing the risk of each individual ever being an informant about the counter-cultural party. For this reason, orgies could potentially lend themselves to plots against the government, as seen in the case of Augustus’ own daughter. And of course, accusations of promiscuity and adultery in general were useful tools when emperors wished to get rid of pesky family members and would-be conspirators, whether or not such behavior was actually going on.[8]

Finally, it must be remembered that later Julio-Claudian emperors like Caligula and Nero were experimenting with the trappings of absolute monarchy after five centuries of Republican rule, and they were worshiped as literal gods in the eastern Roman Empire. These were youthful despots unaccustomed to being contradicted, and the idea that their behavior might have gotten out of control in their unchecked exercise of absolute power is more than plausible. Unfortunately for them, their political strategy which may well have included the holding of public orgies to show off their power and curry favor with the mob proved ineffective in the long run. Julia’s plot was exposed, Caligula was assassinated, Messalina was executed, and the aristocracy eventually revolted against Nero and vilified his memory. When stories (true or false) of public sex games appeared again in the reigns of Roman emperors in the late second century AD, it is no coincidence that they were again associated with rulers who associated themselves either with violent popular spectacles (Commodus, like Nero) or godhood itself (Elagabalus, like Caligula.) Once again, their alleged counter-cultural behavior was condemned by posterity, and all of these emperors’ reigns ended in chaos and revolt.

***

[1] For example, despite negative historiographical traditions against her, the empress Livia is never accused of sexual excess in any surviving sources, though her step-daughter, Julia, is almost ubiquitously accused of attending sex parties and committing adultery, and she was exiled by the Senate for this crime. Earlier in history, Sempronia was accused by Sallust of being an adulteress in addition to a conspirator, but he never claims she stocked faux brothels in her house with free born matrons.

[2] Natural Questions 1.16. See http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/pwh/seneca-nq1-16.asp

[3] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 1st American ed. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978). Pp. 57.

[4] For a classic description of the social forces underlying the collapse of the Roman Republic, see Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[5] For a detailed discussion of the prominence of displays of conspicuous consumption in the prosperous socio-economic context of the early Roman Empire, see, for example, Ray Laurence, Roman Passions : A History of Pleasure in Imperial Rome, Pbk. ed. (London: Continuum, 2010).

[6] See, for example, the lecture of 1816 “The Liberty of Ancients Compared With That of Moderns by Benjamin Constant and Biancamaria Fontana, Political Writings, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (Cambridge Cambridgeshire ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

[7] See Aug. 65.

[8] Edwards, The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome. Pp. 62.

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