Thoughts on Historical Causality, “Inevitability,” and the Origins of the Peloponnesian War


Part I: The Dangers of Questions Dealing With Historical Causality and Inevitability

The question of when the Second Peloponnesian War became inevitable, like the related question of who or what was directly responsible for its outbreak, is a dangerously broad query. It seems to demand a specific answer, yet one can imagine multiple beautifully argued, well supported theses all standing like ducks in a row in stark contradiction to each other, with no systematic way for a reader to evaluate the relative truth of any of the claims. One could plausibly argue, for example, that Spartan fear of Athens made the conflict inevitable the moment the Persian War ended in 479 BC; or that Pericles’ commitment to imperialism in the Aegean was to blame for the struggle, symbolized by the movement of the treasury of the Delian League to Athens in 454 BC; or even that commercial rivalry between Corinth and Athens guaranteed a pan-Hellenic war in the late 430s. All of these theses and countless others like them can be supported to some degree or another by evidence from the surviving ancient sources. Because we cannot go back in time and “rerun” history from a plurality of starting points to see how different hypothetical timelines would have played out, no single explanation about causality and inevitability can be definitively challenged.

In trying to evaluate the truth of these sorts of theses, an historian is left with a battery of lame tropes, particularly reasoning by false analogy. For example, one might claim that the intensity of commercial rivalry with Corinth is an inadequate yardstick for deciding when war became inevitable because at previous points on the timeline, it did not lead to war; for example, Sparta did not immediately attack Athens when the conflict over Corcyra erupted, and at an even earlier point in history, Corinth supported Athens during its suppression of the Samian revolt (Thuc. 1.40). This sort of reasoning, however, is specious, comparable to saying “the question of when World War Two became inevitable does not center on the Nazi-Soviet relationship because at an earlier point in history, the nations were in treaty with each other.” The fact remains that commercial conflicts with Corinth were indeed a major factor when the Peloponnesian War finally did break out, whatever the situation was in the past. It is either the case that the question of inevitability intrinsically has an infinity of potentially correct answers that cannot be meaningfully evaluated against each other, or that the Second Peloponnesian War became inevitable once it was declared and the fighting had begun.

Of course, this seems like a singularly unsatisfactory answer akin to rhetorical sleight of hand. Our intuitions tell us that causality is usually more complex than literally proximate causes like the declaration of the war itself. Yet long term causes like “the growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta” (Thuc. 1.23) only seem meaningful given the benefit of historical hindsight. For example, it is easy for us now, knowing that the Peloponnesian War took place, to claim that in the extreme long term, as Thucydides said, Spartan fear and Athenian imperial progress were to blame for the conflict. Yet during the fifty year interval separating the Persian War from the Peloponnesian War, we neither find Athens aggressively pursuing an explicitly imperial policy at all times, nor Sparta equally willing to go to war at all times; indeed, even when Athens eventually allied with Corcyra, it was explicitly a defensive compact, and the assembly at which the Spartans at last voted to go to war was too close to call by acclamation (Thuc. 1.87). If World War 3 had broken out between the USSR and the USA in 1962, one might have said that the differences between the capitalist and communist worlds made the war inevitable. Yet war did not break out between the USSR and USA, and the battery of attractive-sounding arguments suggesting it was inevitable would be demonstrably false. This is also the case with Thucydides’ famous claim.

This question of historical inevitability can drive one up a wall; proximate causes are inadequate in themselves (“the war became inevitable when Athens and Sparta declared war”), and long term causes only seem decisively fateful with the benefit of hindsight. For this reason, theses about when war became inevitable often say more about the tastes of the author making the claim than the meaningful answer to the question at hand. How, then, is one to approach such a challenge beyond pointing out its puzzling subtext?

Part II: Patterns of Behavior and Ideological Conflict Make Wars Increasingly Likely But Never Inevitable Until They Are Declared: The Peloponnesian War as a Case Study


If a man decides on January 1st to eat only the gristle of bacon for the rest of his life and has a heart attack after breakfast on June 1st, one would probably not blame the final breakfast for his demise, or say that the heart attack was inevitably going to take place on June 1st. The best that one could say is this: given the establishment of a repeated pattern of dangerous behavior, a disastrous result became increasingly likely as the timeline progressed after January 1st. Although World War 3 did not break out in 1962, such a conflict was probably far more likely at that moment than, say, during the years of the Clinton Presidency. This analogy enriches the possibilities for answering the question “when did the Peloponnesian War become inevitable?” We know that it was only inevitable once it was declared; however, we can also say that after certain points on the timeline, patterns of behavior were established that were sufficient to lethally drive up the likelihood of a conflict between Athens and Sparta.

The remainder of this paper seeks to present two points. First, potentially lethal patterns of behavior were well established before the conflict of 431 BC, making war very likely by that point. Second, ideological conflict between Athens and Corinth on the difference between a subject, an ally, and a colony effectively exacerbated tensions in 431 BC to provide a pretext for the war. The fact remains, however, that it might have been avoided at any time just as the hypothetical World War 3 was avoided, or at least delayed. A diet of gristle does not guarantee a heart attack; it only makes it very likely.

In the same way, we can say that the Peloponnesian War was caused by dangerous patterns of behavior established over time that made disaster more and more probabilistic at every moment (though, emphatically, never inevitable). Oligarchic, conservative, land-locked Sparta was deathly terrified of democratic, innovative, maritime Athens’ growth yet continued to have confidence in the superiority of her land forces. Indeed, confidence in the age-old superiority of hoplite warfare to all other forms of military organization was an inextricable aspect of the Spartan mindset, and the Athenian defeat at Tanagra in 457 and the Egyptian disaster later that decade likely lived on in the collective consciousness of the Greek world for a long time afterward. Thus, Athens simultaneously seemed infuriating and vulnerable to many conservative Spartans. (In On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, Kagan writes that “the Athenians simply did not have enough manpower to create an offensive threat.”) At the same time, Periclean Athens was confident in her Long Walls and the power of her navy and simultaneously committed to an imperialistic policy in the Aegean upsetting the power of Sparta’s allies. Considering the fifty year interval separating the Persian from the Peloponnesian War as a whole, Thucydides was certainly correct when he wrote: “that the whole period…with some peaceful intervals, was spent by each power in war, either with its rival, or with its own revolted allies, and consequently afforded them constant practice in military matters, and that experience which is learnt in the school of danger” (Thu, 1.18). It takes no Thucydides to realize that this was a potential recipe for disaster, with warfare between Athenian and Spartan interests the rule rather than the exception throughout the period. In fact, even before the Battle of Sybota, the Siege of Potidaea, and the ultimatum over the Megarian decree, the people of Corcyra could meaningfully warn the Athenians that war was “all but upon (them)” (Thuc. 1.36).

In such a climate, the Peloponnesian War might have broken out at many points in history. After decades of hostility and memories of many unavenged loved ones dead on the battlefield, war probably seemed very likely indeed by the time of the crisis over Epidamnus in the late 430s. Was there perhaps a point along the timeline in which the probability for long-term peace was at its maximum, or at least significantly greater than by the time of Sybota? My intuition is that the Spartan rebuffing of Athenian aid at Mt. Ithome in 462 BC significantly worsened the climate—perhaps beforehand the conciliatory policies of a man like Cimon might have found some workable middle ground with the Spartan oligarchy. The outbreak of the First Peloponnesian War soon afterward in 460 BC is surely no coincidence, and this too poisoned the waters—once war was declared once, it was significantly more likely that it could happen again in the realm of everyone’s imaginations. Indeed, Athens and Sparta were by some standards still in a theoretical state of war even after the conflict nominally ended: after all, the struggle was concluded by a supposed 30 Years Peace, which is really a euphemism for a ceasefire, not an eternal truce. It was within this volatile atmosphere that two conflicting ideologies concerning the very nature of spheres of influence would prove sufficient to spark a second explosion.

The First Peloponnesian War was an indecisive affair, and Corinthian interests and commercial rivalry with Athens continued to cause great travail. The Peloponnesian League was a loose defensive network led by a hegemon; the Delian League was a network of subjugated states. Corinth, a member of the Peloponnesian League armed with an ancient name and great pretensions, was neither a real hegemon nor the leader of an empire. Desirous of sway in her own right, she seems to have perceived her colonies as more than simply sister cities sharing quaint historical and religious associations, which was otherwise the rule for Greek colonial relations. Athens saw Corcyra as a neutral state free to make its own choices; Corinth did not concur.

Corinth’s grounds for her high expectations for her colonies were, however, shaky—the best the Corinthian representatives at Athens could say about defiant Corcyra was that proper respect was not paid to the metropolis at games and sacred assemblies, which seems less than compelling as grounds for war (Thuc. 1.25). However, the claim that Corinth’s other colonies acquiesced more readily to her will (Thuc. 1.38) and the assertion that Epidamnus theoretically belongs to the Corinthian sphere of influence because she is the daughter of a daughter city (Thuc. 1.25) prove that there existed a unique Corinthian conception of what it meant to be a metropolis. At 1.40, the Corinthians explain that their city supported Athens’ suppression of the Samian revolt because “every power has a right to punish its own allies.” The implication is that Athens should leave well enough alone and let Corinth do what it pleases to Corcyra—however, the secondary implication is that in Corinthian eyes, “ally,” “subject,” and “colony” are interchangeable terms. Of course, one could claim that Corinth was simply grasping at straws because she feared what would happen if Corcyra’s navy joined the Athenian fleet. However, the trouble over Potidaea, an Athenian ally but also a Corinthian colony, suggests that fundamentally, the Corinthians were sincere in their belief that colonial ties implied the existence of sacred spheres of influence, and that defending these rights was worth dying for.

Kagan’s suggestion that “had it not been for Corinth the Spartans would have taken no action whatever” (307) is in harmony with the claim of Elizabeth Meyer that the conservative Spartan state as a rule did not intervene in Athenian affairs, even when Athens established military garrisons (Meyer, 40). Corinth’s power at League meetings was likely very great indeed if the story is true that she once deterred Sparta from supporting Samos and now forced the city’s hand by shaming its leaders as unhelpful and indecisive at the council to decide for war. However, one should not underestimate an independent Spartan willingness to fight. According to some sources, Sparta first considered going to war when Dorcis was rebuffed; it demanded that Athens neglect its walls during Themistocles’ heyday; at 1.101, Thucydides suggests that it nearly went to war with Athens over the issue of rebellious Thasos, and the same situation certainly took place during the Samian revolt; Cimon and his party were rebuffed at Mt. Ithome; the First Peloponnesian War was fought!

Ultimately, Kagan is likely correct when he says that the Corinthians “accepted the division of the Greek world into two parts as a lasting and workable arrangement” (Kagan, 175). However, a fundamental disagreement over just where the borders of those “two parts” were located made conflict with Athens a continuous reality and war with Sparta a very likely attendant outcome. The indecisive conclusion of the First Peloponnesian War sowed dangerous seeds, just as the First World War would in many meaningful ways pave the way for the Second in the 20th century.

Had the cities of Carthage and Alexandria ultimately fought a “Punic War” in an alternate universe, one could write endlessly of its inevitability: conflicts between Greek and Punic culture, access to the lucrative grain markets of North Africa, and even geographical location could be used to justify such a theoretical conflict. The fact that such factors were not sufficient to even cause diplomatic ripples in our universe proves that history works probabilistically but not fatefully. I maintain that the Peloponnesian War never became inevitable until it was declared. However, repeated conflict over the nature of allies, colonies, and subjects made violent solutions extremely probabilistic, particularly after the outbreak of outright hostilities for the first time in 460 BC. But the ultimate choice for the war—and ultimate blame for it—lies in the hands of the individual statesmen who failed to come up with a more imaginative solution to the problems at hand.



Roman Decadence and Complex Systems Theory: Toward a New Teleology of Historical Progress, Collapse, Modernity, and Futurism



Discourse on the link between the erosion of traditional moral values and political collapse during the era of the Roman Republic and Julio-Claudian dynasty nurtured the ideology that just as “capitalism” is often conceptualized as a ubiquitous bogeyman in the eyes of some contemporary critical theorists, in antiquity, “free love” was a similarly corrosive force beguiling individuals into losing a sense of allegiance to the state as they succumbed to their petty perversions.[1] This vision of the ancient world, perhaps best epitomized in the moralizing histories of Sallust and Tacitus, haunted the Western imagination forever afterward, with “perversion” thematically bound to the idea of social collapse. This final chapter stands as a rejoinder to such notions, defending the practitioners of vilified forms of sexual expression from the ridiculous allegation that they provoked the fall of Rome or will cause modern culture to descend into anarchy, instead proposing a very different model of historical change in the ancient world.

The idea of Roman history as the cautionary tale of a society where sexual transgression sparked the conflagration of civilization at large has found various forms of expression over time, alarmingly often in modern political contexts. In May 1971, for example, President Nixon complained that All in the Family was promoting homosexuality and declared:

You ever see what happened to the Greeks? Homosexuality destroyed them. Aristotle was homo, we all know that. So was Socrates. The last six Roman emperors were fags. Neither in a public way. You know what happened to the popes? They were layin’ the nuns; that’s been goin’ on for years, centuries. But the Catholic Church went to hell three or four centuries ago. It was homosexual, and it had to be cleaned out. That’s what’s happened to Britain. It happened earlier to France. Let’s look at the strong societies. The Russians. Goddamn, they root ’em out. They don’t let ’em around at all. I don’t know what they do with them. Look at this country. You think the Russians allow dope? Homosexuality, dope, (and) immorality are the enemies of strong societies. That’s why the communists and left-wingers are pushing it. They’re trying to destroy us![2]

Nixon’s bizarre understanding of history is grounded in terror at the idea of society slackening as its individual members kowtow to their personal inclinations rather than the cisgendered heteronormative patriarchal rules of the game. Depressingly, the idea of Rome falling in the wake of the normalization of homosexuality has remained something of a trope in conservative circles. According to his 2012 book America the Beautiful, future Presidential candidate Ben Carson wrote that “as a Bible-believing Christian, you might imagine that I would not be a proponent of gay marriage… I believe God loves homosexuals as much as he loves everyone, but if we can redefine marriage as between two men or two women or any other way based on social pressures as opposed to between a man and a woman, we will continue to redefine it in any way that we wish, which is a slippery slope with a disastrous ending, as witnessed in the dramatic fall of the Roman Empire.”[3]

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These kinds of cockamamie theories have often been promulgated by “scholars” too. For example, Roberto De Mattei, the deputy head of Italy’s National Research Council and a “prominent…historian” claimed as recently as 2011 that the “contagion of homosexuality and effeminacy” destroyed Rome after it subdued Carthage, which was apparently “a paradise for homosexuals.”[4] Other scholarly metanarratives about ancient history, love, and historical collapse have proved to be equally dark and outlandish. Perhaps no schema linking political disintegration and sex seems to be so misguided in retrospect as the work of Joseph Vogt, whose “Population Decline in the Roman Empire” (1935) and “Race Mixing in the Roman Empire” (1936) popularized the original theory of Arthur de Gobineau that racial mixing was responsible for the decline of Rome, with the originally “Aryan” conquerors increasingly diluted by inferior Semitic and African genetic influences.

In the wake of these kinds of revolting models, no wonder reputable historians have increasingly turned away from the construction of grand schemas and have instead accentuated the nuance and complexity of micro-systems, overseeing increasingly specialized and compartmentalized studies of the past (and writing for increasingly small audiences). In 1979, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge challenged the underlying validity of sweeping explanatory schemas fumbling to account for complex phenomena like the onset of political disintegration. He characterized the postmodern condition in general as one of skepticism toward metanarratives, rejecting their old-fashioned emphases on “transcendent and universal truth.” According to Lyotard and critical theorists inspired by his legacy, such metanarratives invariably downplay the naturally existing complexity of various systems, and they are often created and nurtured by oppressive power structures begging to be deconstructed. In short, since grand metanarratives tend to ignore the heterogeneity of the human experience, theories of human progress as historical development toward a specific goal are ultimately deemed inadequate by most of my academic peers.

Nevertheless, while I realize that to propose a metanarrative schematizing historical progress in 2017 is to invite a barrage of criticism since the very definition of progress has been destabilized by critical theory, the merits of the theoretical approach outlined in this paper speak for themselves. Its themes stand as a strong retort to millennia of hysterical discourse demonizing non-normative sex as the cause of civilization’s ills. The fact that any given metanarrative can be problematized does not mean that metanarratives in general cannot still be useful as thematic prisms through which to view a complex social process, providing a simplifying yet clarifying lens that can often prove revelatory when it comes to accentuating unexpected dynamics of open-ended questions.[5]

Though this chapter is grounded in original research in complex systems theory, the underlying thesis is not unprecedented. In the eyes of Jose Ortega y Gasset, for example, the modern world was liberated from a tendency toward chaos and collapse due to the inherently progressive nature of technological evolution and its marriage to the scientific method, ensuring an increasingly vibrant standard of living for an increasing number of people over the long run. According to his view, a failure of “technique” [6] rather than non-vanilla sex doomed the Roman Empire. In the language of complexity theory, the system tended toward a state of collapse because the pace of technological and scientific progress was ultimately retarded before it could gain the unstoppable momentum it seemed to attain after the Italian Renaissance. The remainder of this chapter defines these terms, summarizes the themes of complex systems theory, and applies this lens to the subject of “historical progress” in the ancient world. I conclude by proposing falsifiable hypotheses that could test this framework, providing evidence against the idea that either sex or Christianity was at the root of Rome’s collapse.

Defining Terms: Progress and Modernity

The fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up.JPG

Once writing was invented and the memories of past thinkers could be stored and readily accessed, a long conversation was initiated between generations of brilliant individuals who, in long discussion and debate with each other’s ghosts, were ultimately able to further and further clarify humanity’s collective understanding of the empirical characteristics of reality, to say nothing of how its constituent elements could be carved up, recombined, and harnessed to serve utile human ends. Tragically, throughout many periods of history, voices were deliberately excluded from this evolving dialogue and even denied basic education, which consequently resulted in a lower quality of debate, less discourse, and slower advancement in the arts and sciences in general.[7]

Be this at it may, once history began (that is, once representational symbolic records came about), a long conversation between ingenious contributors was initiated which led to what I want to call “progress.” The invention of writing enabled a conversation to take place that could be sustained across multiple generations about questions to which there seemed to be no obvious answers, but to which meaningful contributions could nonetheless be made that served a useful, clarifying role. Is there a God? How is motion possible? Why does it rain? What is art? How can I maximize the yield of my crops? Different people have different perspectives on these kinds of open-ended questions and diverse ways of schematizing the problems and solutions. Once their perspectives are added to the evolving discourse, these people’s contributions can never be erased. If what they articulated was meaningful and clarifying, it will inspire new, micro-discourses in turn. Over the course of time, thousands of meaningful contributions lead inevitably to what I want to define as progress—an increasingly lucid understanding of the nature of reality and how to harness its constituent elements toward (hopefully) good ends such as the alleviation of physical torment. Across the millennia, if enough people are welcomed into the conversation of great minds, there will be millions of meaningful contributions which can never be erased, and this will inevitably lead to advancement over time as battles will rage in the marketplace of ideas and only the best ideas (those most bound to meaningful contributions from the perspective of the most people) will survive.

What do I mean by modernity? In this chapter, I mean a condition in which political institutions valuing both autonomy and stability, economic institutions catering to the distribution of “money,” and academic institutions governing scientific research create synergistic platforms where discursive progress can take place. Foucault, of course, reminds us that the influence of institutions on discourse can be oppressive, but in fairness, the great institutions of civilization can also provide stages upon which meaningful contributors can interact with one another and usher in an increasingly accelerated and exponentially growing rate of progress.

According to the teleology of modernity as imagined in this paper, and contrary to the idea that most premodern Iron Age civilizations were fundamentally similar in nature, I will argue that a formative moment for the West took place in the polytheistic, “democratic” civilizations of Greece and Italy and Asia Minor and not in the monotheistic or monarchic contexts of other civilizations. I will also suggest that the medieval contribution to modernity is in some ways being overstated in contemporary scholarship, though the preservation of ancient knowledge and the creation of the university-system would of course contribute immeasurably to the synergy between academic, political, and economic institutions which this paper associates with modernism.

Complex Systems Theory and Historical Change


 According to complex systems theory, certain events such as rises and declines in the number of living species unfold according to a process of punctuated equilibrium, with spurts of sudden advancement or collapse associated with changes in the organisms’ relationships to their environment. The rule of the day is long intermediate periods of stable predictability interrupted by sudden catastrophic plunges, then a series of unpredictable oscillations before a new homeostatic balance is reached. I want to suggest that a similar lens can be applied to thinking about the process of historical change in the form of political collapse (the elimination of old institutions and the leadership roles associated with them) and reconsolidation (the creation of new institutions and the subsequent rise of novel opportunities for political dominance by new factions of people.) The system can be conceptualized as a zero-sum game for power expressed in the form of individual “players” scrambling to attain limited institutional positions; over time, individuals maneuver and form alliances to gain such positions, and preexisting hierarchies can be upset by changing environmental conditions.

Complex systems theory is an emergent area of scientific investigation. While chaos theory, a subset of the general field of complexity, has been enriched with quantitative theorems since the emergence of sophisticated computer technology in the 1970s, the study of complexity as a broad principle in itself is, as of yet, largely limited to qualitative descriptions of the dynamics of non-linear systems marked by sensitive dependence on initial conditions. In my opinion, these qualitative descriptions, while frustrating to mathematicians seeking specific formulae to describe the evolution of complex systems, are in fact an ideal prism through which to view the periodic transformations of civilization without reducing the infinite nuances of the phenomena involved to anything analogous to a neat set of simple rules. Fundamentally, in order to comprehend the behavior of a non-linear system, one must in principle examine the system as a whole and not merely investigate its parts in isolation. For this reason, a description of change over time in a civilization demands a somewhat sweeping chronological approach, whatever the detractors of metanarratives in history might say. Antiquity uniquely provides us with several useful examples of cultural evolution over whole millennia.

The essential idea of complex systems theory is that the interactions of individual parts within a whole can result in so-called self-organizing criticality. This is to say that the changing relationships between diverse constituent elements of a complex system can spontaneously result in great changes in the whole, potentially characterized by radically distinct emergent properties. The complex whole exists in a fragile state of equilibrium in a “critical state” on the “edge of chaos.” Changing environmental factors can tip aspects of the complex system into chaos itself through “cascading events,” resulting in the sudden onset of turbulence, tumult, and disorder. Eventually, according to chaos theory, the complex system should settle into new points of equilibrium rather than simply collapsing altogether—chaos is turbulent and unpredictable, but it is not synonymous with a complete and total breakdown of order. The new equilibrium, however, similarly exists at a critical point on the “edge of chaos” until new environmental forces again tip it toward chaos and the eventual emergence of a new state of homeostasis similarly radically divergent from the preceding initial conditions. The entire process is one of punctuated equilibrium-by way of analogy, imagine a graph that shows exponential growth, a period of stagnation, and then either a period of collapse or a resumption of growth; the horizontal axis would be time and the vertical axis would be some measure of the level of progress (which I suggest can be measured in such potential ways as surviving written records per year, patents produced per year, deaths by disease each year, institutional roles available per year, etc.)

According to information systems theory, the emergence of chaos can result from exceedingly slight shifts in environmental forces, minutiae like the emperor Claudius’ choice of a successor, or unpredictable migrations of whole barbarian tribes. Such forces precipitate the rapid emergence of unpredictable, fast-changing sets of information that have the capacity to overwhelm traditional governmental structures and contribute ever more to a slide toward a chaotic breakdown. Nevertheless, according to chaos theory, this breakdown should not be complete, but rather characterized by the emergence of new equilibrium points which are always themselves on the edge of chaos. This process perhaps explains phenomena like the restoration of imperial hegemony in the form of the “Dominate” in the third century AD after a period of civil war, the permanent splitting of the empire into eastern and western regions of governance, and finally, the tripartite division of the Mediterranean region into Western European, Byzantine, and Muslim spheres of influence. We can think about the history of the Roman Empire as a narrative of punctuated equilibrium; during eras of “chaos,” individual efforts by the government to restore the old order resulted in diminishing returns, reflective of the theories of Joseph Tainter, but clarifying when they actually come into play.[8]

In my opinion, the question of why certain eras are characterized by such diminishing returns has everything to do with the emergence of chaotic patterns complicating previous states of equilibrium until a new homeostatic balance is eventually reached, potentially far less complex than the initial system. The old ways of carving up and dividing resources are upset by demographic and environmental changes and shifting cultural expectations. During periods of turbulence associated with the onset of chaos, complex systems whose central organizing structures are burdened by an overflow of information tend to disintegrate—whether they were organized as a multiparty system, a monopoly by a single party, or a dual party system, old organizational structures built to accommodate old fashioned flows of predictable information quickly become outmoded. New factions rapidly form. However, as any single faction gains an upper hand, it is in the interest of all smaller factions to join together against it. This leads inevitably to a bipolar tension, with the creation of a two party equilibrium and the ultimate emergence of a single party system or a new multipolar equilibrium themselves susceptible to collapse and always tending toward bipolar cleavages. In this chapter, I will call this the factional nature of political change.

Insights from chaos theory can help to make sense of the largest questions in world history from a fascinating new perspective. Turbulence and transformation are the order of the day rather than decline and fall. The unexpected appearance of chaos belies the linear biases of traditional models of history. Violent fluctuations and oscillations cannot be casually dismissed by mono-causal theories; they are in fact a fundamental aspect of any system at a critical point on the edge of chaos.

As mentioned before, there is currently a decided movement among historians in the direction of micro-history. But there is nevertheless great value in a global approach to world history and the exploration of supposed periods of “decadence.” Broadly speaking, the very nature of causation itself is more complex than contemporary historiographical accounts of things like the “decline and fall” of the Roman Empire suggest.

In other words, a core set of beliefs in the field of history about the nature of complexity and causation are ultimately incorrect. Traditionally, it is assumed that simple systems behave in simple ways, and that as long as such systems could be reduced to a few perfectly understood deterministic rules, their long-term behavior should be stable and predictable; it is also asserted that complex behavior implies complex causes, and that a system that is visibly unstable, unpredictable, or out of control must be governed by a multitude of independent components or subject to random external influences. Now, however, physicists, mathematicians, biologists, and astronomers have created a new set of ideas. Simple systems can give rise to complex behavior, and complex systems can give rise to simple behavior. Moreover, contrary to the idea that the stories of the rise and fall of individual civilizations are fundamentally unique, it is now believed that the laws of complexity hold universally, whatever the constituent parts of the system.

Questions about causation need to be approached probabilistically (what forces worked to raise the odds that a specific outcome took place, and to what degree did they raise the likelihood of the outcome?) and inclusively (what diversity of explanations can help to explain an outcome rather than a mono-causal model?). The following three sections illustrate this approach toward describing history.

Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel and Phoenicia Versus the World of the Poleis


In the beginning was the Stone Age. It last for an obscene number of millennia. A rock is only so sharp and strong, and during agonizingly long eons, humankind struggled to carve up and recombine the constituent components of nature, powerless to harness them toward useful and progressive ends. But then, civilization began in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China beside great rivers where agricultural surplus could be harnessed by the sundry institutions required to organize labor. The use of bronze was fundamental to this shift because it enabled the creation of objects like axes, ploughs, and swords, tools that could not be chiseled out of rock. Such devices enabled nature to be carved up more efficiently, leading to further surplus and the possibility of the creation of a leisured class devoted to discursive inquiry rather than the brute struggle to survive. Now, progress was born, and “history” proper began with the invention of writing. The pace of technological progress was incredible, particularly in the intercompetitive monarchic city-states of Mesopotamia, where the boat, writing, and the wheel were pioneered. I believe that the decentralization of the region was key to its innovativeness. Whenever one city-state innovated by creating a new invention, other city-states either had to adapt and improve the invention for their own ends or lose their territory and be winnowed out.[9]

Ultimately, however, these early Bronze Age Civilizations did not evolve institutions in which politics, economics, and academics lined up to create modernistic synergy along the same kind of radical lines to be seen in Greece and Italy and Asia Minor. After the great burst of inventiveness around the time that bronze was first forged, there was a sudden stagnation. In other words, a kind of equilibrium was reached after exponential growth (which could be measured according to such factors as numbers of inventions created per century, the number of new cities founded, etc.) The reason why is that the very institutions that created the platforms upon which meaningful contributors acted suddenly became oppressive, forming rigid class structures which excluded voices from discourse and emphasized the creation of rules where the goodies could be monopolized by the elite.[10] Subsequently, authoritarianism, rigid class structures, and oppressively dogmatic religious institutions barred, exploited, and excluded people from contributing to discourse (for example, all non male elites). This inherently retarded progress, since the voices of geniuses went silenced: for example, there were thousands of anonymous women who never got the chance to be Aristotles, though they had the capacity to do so.

Between the age of the pyramids and the birth of Thales of Miletus there extended a tragic 2000 years—approximately the length of time separating us from Cleopatra. But then, iron came, and a new age dawned, with a sudden rise in progress. When we mastered iron, we literally forged a new future for ourselves—stronger tools which were more productive, resulting in more utility (stronger armies, more crops yielded per acre, etc). This rise in productivity allowed the goodies to be spread to more people than traditional elites, and suddenly, new classes began to arise. These new classes for the first time could contribute to the development of political, economic, and academic institutions, leading to more progress. This promise would prove to be most fully actualized in the Greco-Roman-Semitic world.[11]

The cultures of the poleis of Greece, Italy, and Asia Minor did not have religious institutions strong enough to sanction or to ban provocative debate about the nature of reality. At the same time, in that society, inherent values of the government were grounded in the celebration of debate, equality, and the inherent importance of every man’s contribution. The city states were fiercely agonistic, yet their people spoke dialects of the same language, so everyone could simultaneously compete with each other and imitate each other’s innovations. Finally, the society was composed of disparate, far-flung colonies that were inherently at competition with the societies around them and forced to govern themselves without the help of age-old institutions. One man in this society declared that everything was made of water. Another man questioned the hypothesis of Thales. This led to a debate which progressed toward proto-scientific notions. The origins of “modernity” were not bound to be found in Greece, Italy, and Asia Minor, but rather probabilistically likely to be brought into being there thanks to institutional features of those territories, to say nothing of their geographically central location on the easily accessible Mediterranean Sea. Enriched by iron tools and metal coins, utile goods could be distributed to more people than ever before, and more and more brilliant positive contributors could make a difference to their communities.

Greece and Italy are in a culturally diverse spot in the Mediterranean Sea near the spot where one group developed the alphabet (the Phoenicians), another group pioneered centralized bureaucratic organization (Egypt), another group developed coined money (the Lydians), and still another group refined ideas about monotheism (the Jews), making the area a diverse hodge-podge including the voices of many different people with many different perspectives. Ultimately, the institutions of the Greco-Roman world created a unique situation where political, economic, and academic institutions could welcome a greater plurality of voices with a greater variety of ideas than in other contemporary states. Compare the situation to that in other ancient cultures:

The Egyptians: They essentially invented the idea of the centralized monarchic state and refined techniques of massive stone architecture in concert with the Mesopotamians. But their 3000 year old civilization was one of the least progressive in the history of the planet despite the enormous productivity of the land of Egypt itself. This is because political, economic, and academic institutions all aligned to impoverish the vast majority of the country and retain the goodies for a small minority who monopolized all education (it took years to learn hieroglyphs—difficult to do that if you’re a peasant). It boggles the mind to think of all the women, non-elites, and foreigners deliberately excluded from discourse—and many of them extraordinary thinkers! One of the sole examples of real political innovation took place under an elite despot (Akhenaten), and his legacy of “novelty” in questioning whether there were one god or many was vilified forever afterward in Egyptian lore. Tellingly, however, when Greco-Roman civilization came to Egypt and Alexandria was established as a polis, it became the greatest center of science in the ancient world because it welcomed a cosmopolitan congregation of voices debating the nature of reality in a way that was never possible before, and all in the presence of the bounty of the Nile River, which could feed enough people to provide a great deal of leisure time. Even women were sometimes allowed to participate in this academic discourse.

The Jews: Arguably, as a whole, Jews have made the most meaningful contributions to human progress from the perspective of individual ingenious contributions to life on this planet. But I think that ideas about religion and politics in ancient Judaea made it probabilistically much less likely that a “scientific revolution” would take place there rather than in Greece, Italy, and Asia Minor (the world of the poleis). This is because more people and more ideas were inherently excluded from discourse in the Jewish culture due to ideas about politics and religion, leading to less internal progress. In Jewish culture, there was no place for discourse questioning whether certain elements of the Law could be broken (though debates about the meaning of the law could, and did, take place, admittedly showing that what superficially seems dogmatic can often run much deeper.) A rigid priestly caste monopolized power and education, meaning that many voices which might have been brilliant went uneducated while a small group of individuals monopolized the learning for themselves. Much scientific progress was bound to discourse on the Law and its meaning, with a neglect of areas of study about the atomic nature of reality. After all, the Bible inherently answered certain kinds of questions (“God made it that way.”) The Jewish idea that God chose them, loved them, and had a special covenant with them sowed the seeds that would one day grow into the concept that there is fundamental goodness in the world and all people are inherently worthy of redemption and made in God’s image. Yet science and philosophy as we now know them began as a branch of Hellenic paganism and not monotheistic Judaism.

The Phoenicians: The Phoenicians are the most similar to the Greeks of any other Mediterranean civilization. They lived in mercantile-oriented small city-states; there was no single governing monarch; the people were seafaring and polytheistic; and they established colonies in the Western Mediterranean. They were also an inventive culture, pioneering glass, dye-making, and most importantly of all, the alphabet, which not only hastened economic transactions, but also made education more readily available to more people than ever before, and hence led to great material progress. There were even institutions resembling the ecclesia or comitia of the Greco-Roman world.

Yet while the Phoenicians were great explorers and agronomists, there seems to have been absolutely no tradition of philosophical discourse and debate in their society. Why? One of the reasons is that the Romans annihilated Carthage and its books, but we have to look deeper than this—there were no famous Phoenician philosophers (though Zeno of Citium might have been of remote Phoenician ancestry.) We must look to religion, economics, and politics, I think, to say nothing of social attitudes toward abstract philosophizing versus practical knowledge. The Canaanite form of polytheism was one of the world’s most brutal, at some times in history evidently mandating child sacrifice even among elites during times of hardship—this more than anything shows a brutal commitment to religious principle at the expense of reason, for all of the institution’s social-leveling power. The Phoenicians formed a narrow mercantile ruling oligarchy over polyglot city-states where the bulk of the non-Punic population was denied political rights. In the Phoenician homeland where there was the most scope for “equality,” overmighty empires like the Persians and Assyrians conquered the cities and set up restrictions to ensure that society was oriented toward the production of ships and money, not knowledge. Culturally practical knowledge was valued much more than silly, impractical “abstraction,” which was conceptualized as something fundamentally Greek.

Because we cannot rerun history as a simulation just yet, it is impossible for us to test hypotheses about what might have happened in other times and places and in other contexts. But the fact remains that in the history of our world, the Greece-Italy-Asia Minor axis created a certain synergy associated with democracy, empiricism, and coined money that proved hugely historically influential. Political, economic, and academic institutions were inherently more inclusive of more voices and ideas than in the case of their Mediterranean counterparts, and this made more scientific progress more likely. The fruits of that progress constitute the core of Classics.

From the Grandeur That Was Rome to the Squalor of the Dark Ages


Between Thales of Miletus and the period of the height of activity in the Library of Alexandria under the early Roman emperors there existed a period of approximately 800 years. Toward the end of the period in Alexandria, Aristarchus was the first to propose heliocentrism and Hero invented the steam engine; early “computers” like the Antikythera Mechanism boasted the sophistication of eighteenth century Swiss clocks.

Aristotle’s work had long set the stage for empiricism and the development of the scientific method. “Modernity” seemed to be on the cusp of something great. Then, the unexpected took place. Among a perfect storm of other forces, the repercussions of a single man’s unjust crucifixion would reverberate through the centuries—history’s greatest example of the Butterfly Effect in action.

Earlier in this dissertation, I have addressed the topic of decadence from the perspective of the common but outmoded belief that sexual perversion was the destabilizing influence in Roman history around the time of Christ. Contrary to the opinions of scholars like Blanshard, I have argued that behavior which might be considered licentious did in fact exist in the Late Republic as a response to changing political and economic conditions in which the sexual availability of slaves and prostitutes coupled with the rise of totalitarianism by divine right upset traditional patterns of morality. However, I have also shown that the idea of sexual license itself as a chaotic influence on Roman history is a case of mistaking causation and correlation. Free love did not vitiate the Roman Empire. The inadequacy of its cultural hierarchies in the face of the turbulence of history did.

While the study of antiquity is inherently interesting for its own sake, it is perhaps particularly valuable because it represents a long stretch of time in which myriad historical changes took place, with the entire history of the system existing in a kind of metaphorical laboratory. The height of the Roman Empire and its subsequent decline are particularly fascinating because the sophistication of the Mediterranean world ultimately faltered, and the Roman Empire and the barbarian cultures surrounding it finally blended together into a single, largely similar culture. Why did the sophistication of the ancient world lapse so horrifically, and why was the recovery rate following this collapse so slow? The theory of complex systems provides the answer: the “parochial” elements of the ancient economy described by historians like Moses Finley ultimately hindered the development of historical momentum toward industrialization until the entire system collapsed over the edge of chaos into increasingly less complex states of equilibrium. Society was transformed from the single-party domination of the Principate to the multiparty chaos of the Dominate; then, society re-stabilized as the two-party Eastern and Western Roman Empires before the Western portion distintegrated and the Mediterranean was divided into the multiparty three civilizations of Islam, Western Europe, and Byzantium. The periods between the eras of stable hierarchies (the second century and the fifth century and the seventh century) are the ones associated with the onset of chaos; the conclusion of this chapter provides a means of testing the thesis.

Mono-causal explanations for Roman decadence such as “perversion” are ultimately fruitless. In fact, the era of the greatest sexual license in Roman history is ultimately the one of its greatest economic and territorial expansion. Instead, complexity theory provides a very different answer to the question of why the Republic fell and the Principate replaced it: a plethora of forces existed that pushed the old multipolar equilibrium represented by the checks and balances of the earlier Republic and its feuding dynasts over the so-called “edge of chaos” into a simpler new “homeostatic state” marked by the monopolar despotism of a single family, very much like those of their Hellenistic neighbors (and hence less complex than a unique Roman political system artificially distinct from the institutions of the civilizations around it).[12] The history of the transitions along the way are classic lessons in the factional dynamics of the organization of power, shifting between single-party and multi-party modes of organization with a marked tendency toward dualism: hence we see patrician versus plebeian, optimates versus populares, cives versus socii, Marians versus Sullans, the dictatorship of Sulla, the First Triumvirate, Caesarians versus Pompeiians, the dictatorship of Caesar, the Third Triumvirate, Octavian versus Cleopatra, and the ultimate rise of the dictatorship of the Julio-Claudians, the union of the two most influential families of the late Republic.

We have seen that throughout history, changing relationships between humans and the metals with which they forged their tools contributed to chaotic transitions and the emergence of new forms of social organization accommodating increasing numbers of people in dominant roles. In the late Roman Republic, however, as the Republic ripened (or rotted, depending on one’s perspective) into the Principate, it was not a change in humans’ relationship to metals but rather an information-overflow associated with the repercussions of Roman imperialism that destabilized the national government to the point of Civil War; the autocratic monopolar system which followed was both simpler (less complex) than the earlier multipolar system which preceded it and also far more similar to the surrounding civilizations (organized under monarchic rule by divine right), as if by a process of osmosis which diluted the institutions of the Republic. By the same token, when the Western Empire collapsed, the cultures on either side of the Rhine and Danube became fundamentally more similar: Christian, de-urbanized, and dominated politically by German tribes. The tortured intricacies of the late Dominate collapsed into simpler states more similar than dissimilar to the civilizations surrounding them.

Of course, the Middle Ages was not a single Dark Age, but we have to admit that the level of progress was retarded for some time. It seems to me that the period as a whole in the West can best be defined as an age of stagnation and decline at the end of the Iron Age that eventually settled into an equilibrium and then began to hit upon an upward trend again after the crisis of the Black Death created another pivot point on the edge of chaos at the end of the period. According to my formula, fewer voices must have resulted in less discourse for some time, and less discourse must have resulted in less progress in the form of meaningful contributions to questions about the nature of reality. Institutions must have become less welcoming of difference and more oppressive and oriented toward self-preservation rather than the creation of meaningful platforms for debate. At the same time, there must have been no new significant advancements in metallurgy to radically improve the potential for creating new sources of utility to fuel the development of new social classes. I understand that medievalists regret that classicists historically derided their era’s contributions and are right to emphasize that the era they love was a dynamic one in some ways, but it’s important to understand that the period between the fall of Rome and 1000 AD really was a Dark Age despite some cultural continuity. It serves as a sobering lesson for all ages—the momentum of material and technical progress can never be taken for granted.

According to complex systems theory, there existed at least a small probability that the Roman Empire might have industrialized at their pivot point c. 180 AD. Why did they fail to do so? Was it due to their penchant for licentious sex? How can historians even begin to go about answering these kinds of counter-factual questions in the first place?

Rather than branding ancient cities fundamentally primitive or modern in nature in the tradition of Max Weber, I want to examine the various forces working for and against the increasing specialization and application of productive technologies in the Roman Empire. My conclusion is that while aspects of the ancient Roman economy were in fact quite “modernizing” and might have led to a technological revolution under different circumstances, there existed sufficient forces in society hindering the momentum of material progress and rendering an industrial revolution in antiquity far less likely than one in late eighteenth century Britain.

Of all eras of world history, the period of the Roman Empire boasted many of the prerequisites for a commercial and industrial revolution. The Roman world contained some sixty to one hundred million inhabitants living in largely peaceful conditions. A single currency was employed throughout the Mediterranean, disseminated by bankers and professional financiers. The very existence of the Mediterranean as a great central lake facilitated trade and communication, as did the existence of a fine road system overseen by the policing power of the Roman army. Sprawling urban centers like Rome and Alexandria boasted populations in the hundreds of thousands, their populations demanding a steady stream of material products in order to sustain themselves. Great opportunities existed to serve increasingly globalized markets. At the same time, individual merchants enjoyed a set of circumstances marked by relatively free trade, and the capacity to make massive amounts of money by participating in the commercial life of the Empire. In places like Alexandria, intellectual elites cooperated to pioneer potentially world-changing technologies like Hero’s rudimentary steam engine. From the perspective of complex systems theory, all of these forces might have tipped the Roman Empire into a state of industrialization, and the “proto-modernity” of several aspects of the ancient world cannot be denied. As I suggested earlier, the world of the poleis is where institutional “modernity” was born and then refined and extended to the West by the Romans.

Nevertheless, several factors existed rendering an industrial revolution unlikely—the high Roman Empire was an era of equilibrium and eventually stagnation in world affairs. All of the following elements, from the perspective of a computer simulation, would lower the probability of progress and raise the probability of stagnation.

The language required to describe and conceptualize economic growth was relatively rudimentary. The cumbersome system of Roman numerals rendered mathematical calculations arduous and difficult, hindering the development of practices like double-entry bookkeeping, which is virtually unattested in antiquity. At the same time, ancient manuals on the field of “economics” usually emphasized the importance of maintaining the self-sufficiency of plantations, with expenditures kept lower than income. This stands in stark contrast to the later emphases of early modern economic theorists, who advocated catering to the rules of supply and demand to maximize fiscal profits. Ancient economic theorists downplayed the desirability of investment in trade, which was seen as inherently riskier than pooling resources in real estate.

There existed fundamental bias among the most politically powerful classes toward manual labor, commercial investment, and applied technology. Finley exhaustively categorizes these trends in his famous books on the ancient economy. While modern critics are correct to point out that these conservative biases were not necessarily universally felt in Roman society, their existence among the classes of society with the greatest ability to invest in new material resources surely acted at least in part against the chances for industrialization. In antiquity, slaves, freedmen, and non-citizens were responsible for most economic activity. The political powerlessness of these groups is remarkably conspicuous, particularly when their situation is compared to that of their counterparts in the Middle Ages; in medieval Florence, for example, membership in a trade guild was a prerequisite for political participation in the state.

In the late Republic, free enterprise and what Weber called “merchant capitalism” were at their height. Limited liability joint stock companies even existed in the form of conglomerates of entrepreneurs who pooled resources to win the rights to tax farm various provinces. In the early Roman Empire, however, there existed an increasing preference for the use of appointed officials for such activities, and the legal underpinnings of corporate cooperation failed to further develop. Thus, there existed no overlap between the era of the greatest commercial sophistication and freedom (the late Republic) and the era of greatest economic expansion and opportunity (the early Empire).

There existed several bars to the application of new technologies. While current archeological work admittedly points to the widespread implementation of certain technologies (windmills, etc.), there existed no patent law in Roman antiquity to spur on technological innovation. In fact, narratives exist of Roman emperors actively discouraging technological progress for fear that mechanization would result in unemployment, and hence social instability. For all of its revolutionary potential, Hero’s steam engine was viewed more as a toy than an implement of social change. Techniques of metallurgy stagnated in an era of universal peace, as did the need to create new weaponry for the sake of a competitive edge over enemies. At the same time, the omnipresence of slavery similarly served to deter investment in new machinery, since investments in slaves and real-estate promised the safest returns.

The very unity of the Mediterranean world stifled innovation. Consider the example of Roman Lusitania. Merchants in that province had access to the entirety of the Mediterranean basin to sell their wares. In the Middle Ages, however, geographical fragmentation denied the state of “Portugal” a Mediterranean coast. Thus, merchants were forced to turn to the Atlantic Ocean in hopes of finding new products and markets, spurring the development of radically new shipping technologies. No such incentives existed in the unified, relatively non-competitive world of Roman antiquity.

The existence of amphitheaters drained economic resources, particularly in the West (which, interestingly, had far more amphitheaters than the Roman East, which was traditionally more economically vigorous than the West and survived much longer). Rather than investing in economically beneficial infrastructure, local elites poured money into the celebration of gladiatorial games, importing professional fighters and exotic beasts to satiate the interests of the populace. However, all of these resources were ultimately wasted despite spurring limited economic activity. In the same way, the existence of grain doles similarly retarded economic growth, as major metropolitan centers invested most of their resources on defense and feeding the unproductive urban populace, who remained in a permanent state of economic non-productivity. In my opinion, these historical forces provide some validity to Weber’s insistence on the “parasitic” character of ancient cities, which generally consumed resources from the countryside rather than producing materials to be redistributed to suburban markets (though exceptions admittedly existed to this rule.) At the same time, though, the Romans’ emphasis on the importance of the distribution of the bounty of the government back to the people and the emperor’s promotion of fun on public holidays were, in my view, admirable features of their culture, if only the spectacles didn’t cause so much pain and heartbreak to their victims.

There existed virtually no notion of “historical progress” in the Roman Empire. Although many at least sensed that the order of the Roman world was preferable to barbarism, major historians advocated cyclical views of history, or the notion that the true “Golden Age” was in the distant past, before urbanization and the use of tools corrupted humankind’s primordial naïveté. With the civilization at large devoid of the sense that the world could actively be improved over time through the evolution and application of radical new technologies, the momentum of increasing material progress was actively retarded.

According to my model of the Roman Empire as a complex system existing on the edge of chaos, ancient civilization was able to survive for a remarkably long period of time at a “critical point” of great material prosperity so long as the army remained loyal to the emperor and the citizens of the realm agreed to pay the taxes required to support its infrastructure. In terms of the punctuated equilibrium of progress, it was an era of equilibrium after one of growth. Broadly speaking, the Empire can be compared to a snowball that could maintain its structural consistency so long as it continued to roll, but begins to melt when its journey down the hill comes to an end. In the same way, so long as the Roman army was able to incorporate new territory into the Empire and redistribute booty in the form of slaves, booty, and various forms of material resources, the civilization was able to subsist at the edge of chaos despite its lack of internal momentum toward industrialization. However, once the civilization’s territorial growth came to an end, the costs of maintaining the defenses of the sprawling realm proved to be immense, and the system became remarkably unstable. As instability led to the emergence of chaos, efforts by the emperors to preserve the structure of their civilization resulted (as Tainter suggests) in diminishing returns on investments in social complexity. Why is this the case? In the long term, chaos theory suggests that the system was bound to collapse into new states of less sophisticated equilibria unless the momentum of scientific and technological progress overtook the abiding forces of stagnation and “decadence” mentioned throughout the dissertation. The story of the “decline and fall of the Roman Empire” is actually a tale of turbulent dynamics upsetting the ancient society and resulting in a new homeostasis similar to the old order in some ways, yet fundamentally distinct in others.

According to world systems theory, the fall of the Roman Empire cannot be understood as an isolated phenomenon. The third to seventh centuries AD were in fact marked by cascading patterns of turbulence throughout all of Eurasia unleashed by the outbreak of plague, environmental degradation, and aggressive migratory patterns by individuals formerly content (or compelled) to exist on the fringes of civilization. After the period of the Antonine Plague, emperors became increasingly reliant on marginalized ethnic groups and finally barbarian hordes to man the Roman army. This resulted in a massive influx of foreigners into the empire with only marginal allegiances to the state, ever ready to resort to violence for the sake of promoting the interests of a local warlord. At the same time, as uncivilized tribes across Eurasia spilled into each other’s territory, barbarian groups saw their ancestral lands taken from them and were compelled to venture into new countries. The prosperous civilized territories surrounding the Mediterranean seemed increasingly attractive to such immigrants. Migrations were associated with the sacking of major urban centers, terrorizing the local populace into retreating into the countryside and destroying the traditional bases of Roman tax collection.

Chaos theory suggests that the onset of chaos produces more information than a stable state of equilibrium; for example, each new number in the numerical pattern 121212121… represents less new information than each new number in the chaotic, seemingly random series 173749724… As the Roman Empire slipped over the edge of chaos, the central government began to be flooded with information concerning the destruction of cities, the emergence of rebel groups, military disasters, the migratory patterns of barbarians, and the outbreak of diseases. Even as it was burdened by this information overload, it began to lose internal consistency as civil war swept through the empire and loyalty to the central government became increasingly divided. Unlike the situation in the Han civilization, Roman dynasties were usually helmed by individual emperors with a great deal of personal power as opposed to the largely ceremonial kings of China, ruled by a narrow oligarchy of Confucian bureaucrats. As the empire slid into civil war, the individual charisma of the Roman emperors was increasingly undermined, and the relatively feeble bureaucratic institutions of the central government proved incapable of juggling the dilemmas at hand. To make matters worse, as increasing numbers of would-be emperors attempted to finance their campaigns and new sources of precious metals dried up, massive inflation began to undermine the economy, and several areas of the empire reverted to bartering and trade-in-kind. While traditional historians often point to individual elements of this chaotic breakdown as an explanatory cause for the transformation of Roman society, chaos theory instead suggests that they are all fundamentally interconnected symptoms of a movement over the edge of chaos after a long homeostatic/stable period of self-organized criticality.

The leaders of the Roman Empire were confronted by major problems, and they were in no position to stem the tide of chaos despite their best efforts to do so. Just as chaos theory predicts, however, the system did not collapse entirely overnight, but began to re-solidify at new points of equilibrium according to the creation of new party-systems tending toward bipolar duality. Thus, the dictatorial Roman Dominate replaced the relatively gentle rule of the Principate, as military figures attempted to cement the structure of the collapsing society by imposing mandatory liturgies on local aristocracies who had once given freely in a process of euergetism, requiring children to follow their fathers’ professions, and mandating religious uniformity throughout the empire. This new state of homeostasis, imposed by brute force and driven by an increasingly de-urbanized economy, proved far more precarious than the old order, and unsurprisingly, the system again slid into chaos as the barbarous nations on the fringes of the Roman world created entirely new kingdoms within its borders. A division between East and West after a brief division in four would prove to be abiding.

In 1776, Edward Gibbon famously pioneered the view that Christianity was ultimately a symptom of decadence, and one of the principle causes of the collapse of the Roman Empire. He reasoned that its emphasis on peacefulness and passivity vitiated the ancient martial spirit of the Romans, and that its insistence on non-material causation served to hinder the development of the ancient scientific method. Thus, in the tumultuous third, fourth, and fifth centuries AD, thinkers increasingly turned to un-judicable philosophical debates about the nature of divinity rather than taking steps toward the refinement of the scientific method. Eventually, thought was “canonized” by the government, and discourse shut down altogether, relegated to the realm of “commentary” and “copying.”

There is some truth to this narrative. Yet ultimately, I believe that complex systems theory problematizes these claims, to say nothing of the fact that most of the warlike barbarian hordes who overran the provinces of the Roman West were themselves Christian, rendering the idea that the religion necessarily resulted in a state of martial enervation somewhat non-compelling.

First, I plan to explore the historical forces that gave shape to Christianity in the first place from the perspective of complex systems theory. The “Butterfly Effect” is a fundamental principle of chaos, which stresses the interdependence of the constituent parts of a complex whole, sensitivity to initial conditions, and the potential for cascading effects. On the most basic level, the life and death of Christ, an anonymous carpenter in a backwater of the Roman Empire, had the potential to revolutionize the entire Roman world due to its nature as a complex system sensitive to the Butterfly Effect. At the same time, the emergence of the idea that humans were naturally sinful served to incentivize parents to baptize their children, since the prospect of sprinkling water over an infant represented a low cost when it came to forestalling the possibility of eternal torture in hell. Moreover, in a world marked by widespread poverty, a philosophical system stressing God’s love of the poor was surely an attractive alternative to the official state religion, which accentuated the worship of brute power. As the structures of Roman government fell into increasing disequilibrium following the Antonine Plague of the late second century, the apocalyptic message of Christianity perhaps seemed increasingly instructive, as well as its emphasis on the promise of a better world in the hereafter. Roman culture’s traditional emphasis on exemplarity also likely facilitated the rise of Christianity, as martyrs met their deaths heroically in the face of persecution by the state, ultimately forming a new canon of exemplary figures replacing traditional Roman personae such as Lucretia and Cincinnatus. And the Christians were on to something in their aversion to the ubiquitous violent sexual exploitation permeating ancient society—unfortunately, this intolerance extended toward all elements of human sexuality, throwing away the baby with the bathwater.

In the short term, Gibbon was surely correct that the rise of Christianity led to a loss of momentum in the development of the ancient scientific method due to its emphases on supernatural causation and obedience to the Bible as the literal, unquestionable word of God. However, in the long term, I believe that Christianity in fact represented a major source of power for the West, embodying one of the reasons that the equilibrium of the Middle Ages ultimately metamorphosed into a new and more vigorous state of homeostasis in the Renaissance following a period of chaos in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, ripe for a new era of development in the unfolding of the punctuated equilibrium of discursive progress.

Unlike the situation in the Roman Empire, there existed opportunities for common men and women to become priests and nuns during the Middle Ages, greatly broadening the net when it came to the number of individuals contributing to intellectual discourse. It must be remembered that the possession of great intelligence and even genius is randomly distributed. Consequently, given the nature of ancient demographics, it stands to reason that most great minds were either enslaved or members of severely disadvantaged classes with little access to education. The rise of Christianity began to mitigate this problem, adding more knowledgeable voices to scientific discourse.

During the height of the Roman Empire, the greatest intellectual achievements associated with scientific development were associated with the Library of Alexandria. Why was this the case? Uniquely, it provided a centralized infrastructure through which scholars could share ideas, research the best writings of the past, and find rewards for new theories. Unfortunately, such centers were few and far between in the Roman world. However, the rise of medieval universities as schools for studying the Bible enabled numerous such centers to come into being in the long run, greatly facilitating the growth of the scientific method. Unlike in the pagan Roman Empire, there existed major incentives to provide access to such centers of learning, as knowledge of the precise Word of God was a prerequisite to enter heaven. At the same time, these centers often specialized in the copying of ancient texts, broadening their dissemination.

The system of Roman education was largely geared toward an education in rhetoric and debate, emphasizing relativity and a lack of absolute truth. At the same time, during the height of the Roman Empire, it was difficult to enjoy a career devoted to the pursuit of science and literature for its own sake unless you came from an especially affluent social background. The growth of Christian centers of learning altered this state of affairs, providing the possibility of education to more members of society (and hence more geniuses) than ever before. The Church’s emphasis on the possibility of the existence of Truth with a capital T coupled with the concomitant study of ancient literature emphasizing the rudiments of the scientific method eventually created a unique synergy paving the way for the achievements of figures such as Copernicus, Galileo, and Descartes.

It seems clear to me that the emergence of Christianity can be explained by complex systems theory as a variation of the unpredictable Butterfly Effect, with the cascading repercussions of Christ’s life and teachings increasingly prevalent throughout all levels of Roman society. As the late Roman Empire succumbed to chaos, the religion’s teachings appeared increasingly attractive to an ever-expanding core conservative group, who proved unwilling to compromise their major beliefs even in the face of widespread persecution. While Gibbon is perhaps correct that in the short term the rise of the religion led to a retardation of the development of the scientific method, in the long term, the presence of the Church in Europe served as a major stimulus toward scientific growth, to say nothing of representing a major step forward when it came to social attitudes toward coming to the aid of the poor and helpless.

Historical periodization is, admittedly, a somewhat arbitrary science—thus, for example, some have even hazarded to suggest that the Classical world ended with the fall of Athens at the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War. In my eyes, however, there is great validity to Henri Pirenne’s thesis that the true end of the ancient world took place after the Battle of Tours in 732 AD, which halted the expansion of Muslim armies into Europe. Modern historians have questioned this thesis, suggesting, for example, that it conceptualizes the Islamic World as an Other. However, from the perspective of complex systems theory, 732 AD represents a significant date marked by the creation of a radically new equilibrium in which the Mediterranean was divided into Western European, Byzantine, and Muslim spheres of influence, and the unified system of currency came to an end; fundamentally speaking, the date marks the final and permanent fragmentation of formerly unified economic zones. Formerly, the most stable points of equilibrium involved either the political unity of the entire Mediterranean basin (the Principate and the Dominate) or a division between the Latin speaking West and the Greek speaking East (the Late Roman Empire). Now, for the first time, the economies of Western Europe would be left to develop on their own in a crucible of geographical fragmentation and intense internal competition. A new equilibrium had come about. The new civilization would ultimately give rise to a dynamic culture which, when pushed out of equilibrium over the edge of chaos by the Black Plague and Great Schism, arrived at a new homeostatic state enriched by the discoveries of the Renaissance and the resources of the Americas, empowering it to set forth and conquer the world.

Modernity and Futurism

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 By the end of the Middle Ages, urbanization had sprung up again and an inter-fragmented collection of nation-states loosely created by the tribes who inhabited the fallen Roman Empire were all competing to make meaningful contributions to ensure cultural survival; many meaningful contributions also came from the Muslim and Chinese worlds as well, who were no less involved in the struggle to survive, understand, and harness and recombine the world’s elements toward utile ends. Yet unlike the unified Chinese empire or the great Muslim monarchies, after the fall of Rome, the West was blessed with an inter-competitive edge much like that of ancient Mesopotamia, when a city-state had to innovate or be annihilated. After the Black Plague, there were so few people left alive in society and institutions had become so inherently weakened that the stage was set for an era of true rebirth. All the ingredients were there for renewed progress: competition, a demand for new elites and experts, the necessity of welcoming of new voices to the table, and higher wages for the living. Now, progress began to quicken, and the development of steel weaponry and maritime navigation made possible the discovery and exploitation of the New World. Descartes improved upon Aristotle, and the experimental method was eventually articulated and led to the possibility of Newton finally answering Parmenides’ questions about how limits and infinity should be conceptualized.

On a macro scale, the economic history of the West is until the nineteenth century largely the story of a loss of precious metals to the East in return for luxury items, a trend first undermined by the discovery of the New World, and then finally put to rest in the nineteenth century Opium Wars. The eventual emergence of full fledged European capitalism proved particularly productive to the development of new technologies. In the midst of intense competition, there existed major incentives to produce wares quickly, differentiate them, and deliver them to market more rapidly than competitors, all of which would be facilitated by more efficient productive technologies. In the Roman Empire, despite the intensity of urbanization, categorical bars existed to the development of such technologies. Max Weber’s model of “merchant capitalism” is particularly revealing, because it suggests that commercial agents had incentives to ensure that local production remained rudimentary so that there would continue to exist increasing demand for foreign products unable to be manufactured closer to home; this state of affairs was undermined in the capitalist age, when the political fragmentation of Europe rendered the geographical scope of merchants’ activities much smaller. On the eve of the Industrial Revolution, England had twice as many people as Rome, huge international markets, knowledge of advanced science, and a particularly conducive environment to the exchange of free capital. Thus, the probability of an Industrial Revolution was much greater than in Roman antiquity. The forces working against Roman industrialization would ultimately render the “critical point” of its equilibrium on the edge of chaos increasingly precarious. In a sense, then, economic stagnation represents the heart of Roman decadence.

We are now in the midst of an era of great scientific development. In terms of the punctuated equilibrium of progress, we have all of the ingredients suggesting that we are neither in decline nor at an equilibrium, but in the midst of a rise—an era like the golden age of Athens, or Augustan Rome, or the Renaissance.

  1. We are transitioning into a new age of metal—the Silicon Age. The ability to process information and enhance the human body with computers will increase the potential for more and more people in society to enjoy sources of utility. This will inherently lead to more and more voices joining discourse, and more meaningful contributions over time.
  2. For the first time in history, women and non-elite males are being welcomed by academic, political, and economic institutions. This will inherently lead to better discourse and more progress over time for all of the reasons brought up throughout this paper: more geniuses will now contribute.
  3. There exist many new inventions every year, which is indicative of a high degree of technical innovation and experimentation.
  4. Wars are not being fought between dying superpowers. The era from the Boxer Rebellion to the fall of the Berlin Wall was one of crisis in which nuclear weapons might have annihilated material progress and shown its dark side, temporarily halting progress (but perhaps, like the Black Death, enabling the creation of progress in the future as the survivors experimented with new technologies to live on in the wreckage of the earth.) At the moment, the probability of major metropolises being destroyed by nuclear weapons is much lower than it was at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I define Futurism as the belief that close alignment should be forged between political, economic, and academic institutions to harness the most progress possible in as short a time as possible to be enjoyed by as many people as possible, particularly in the form of advancements in medicine and the development of cyborg technology, cloning, and genetic engineering. In the face of the threat of the “singularity” and a destabilization of the superpowers imperiling the world through nuclear war, Futurism is the only hope for harnessing the exponential power of progress for good rather than toward self-destruction in the form of the retardation of progress.

Concluding Thoughts: Simulations and Falsifiable Hypotheses About Ambiguous Questions of Causation


 A major advantage of the theoretical model proposed in this paper is that it lends itself to the creation of “simulations” to explore open-ended hypotheses about causation, which is always a matter of a storm of different probabilistic influences, some more direct and major than others (in other words, certain forces raise the probability that an event will take place more directly than others). Assume that the unfolding of Roman political history from the Principate to the barbarian successor states represents the evolution of a complex system sensitive to initial conditions and the Butterfly Effect; it was one in which individuals engaged in a long term zero-sum game for power expressed in the form of a limited number of political and cultural offices and institutions, with conflicts represented by battles such as those mentioned in the (imperfect) historical record.

We will consider two hypotheses. The first is whether gay sex caused the Roman Empire to fall; the second is whether Christianity was the culprit. First we must consider how to model the questions at hand by constructing crude and imperfect simulations of history drawn from quantitative data when possible; next we need to justify what empirical results (what relationship between quantifiable variables) we would expect when examining the outcome of the simulation if a given hypothesis were true; then to say what we would expect if it were false; next what we ourselves hypothesize; and finally, how quantitative data drawn from the relationship between variables in the simulation sheds light on our assumptions, or defies them.

In the case of the first hypothesis, compose a list of years, listing battles per year. Also, search a database of literature (including legal literature) for mentions of gay sex. If it were probabilistically true that homosexuality largely precipitated the fall of Rome, the least I would expect is that the decades which saw the most battles would be associated with the most surviving mentions of individuals described as engaging in gay sex, and also the most surviving laws permitting institutions like, for example, gay marriage, relative to times of internal stability (measured by a lower frequency of battles per year). Yet if it were probabilistically unlikely that non-normative expressions of sexuality played a decisive role in corrosive social change, I would expect little alignment or even reverse alignment—individuals described in the historical record as having gay sex would be distributed evenly across the years, or their numbers might even decline as the empire entered into its most violent phases.

Of course, neither correlation necessarily guarantees causation—for example, perhaps as the empire declined, more religious hysteria arose leading more people to be falsely accused and demonized for homosexuality, generating an artificial rise in the historical record of how many times it is mentioned in surviving literature but saying nothing about its actual social prevalence or why society was collapsing. However, the specific information that the number of mentions of homosexual behavior declined in the final period of the greatest violence would be very problematic for the first hypothesis, because it would suggest not only that most instances of homosexual behavior come statistically from the late Republic and early Empire when there were the fewest battles and the civilization was strongest, but that the era of the final collapse was actually one of cultural repression toward gay sex, since one would expect that with all else being equal, the number of mentions should be equally distributed across the centuries, with highs and lows in the historical record reflecting various degrees of either cultural permissiveness or paranoia. (I actually hypothesize that the highest number of mentions of gay sex would come from the High Roman Empire, when the civilization was flourishing. Then, after an artificial rise associated with the rise of the hegemony of Christianity and discourse hysterically demonizing gay sex, laws banning it would lower the numbers in the final centuries of the Western Roman Empire, thus vitiating evidence for the first hypothesis.)

The second hypothesis made famous by Gibbon is even more challenging to model. Like the first simulation, we might compose a list of years, examine the number of battles mentioned as occuring per decade, and see if the most mentions of Christianity correlate with the years containing the highest numbers of battles. However, just as last time, there would be little revelatory information even if the number of battles correlated strongly with the most mentions of Christianity—after all, perhaps the civilization became Christian coincidentally while it was collapsing or as a response to the horror of the collapse, and this led to a rise in the number of mentions, saying nothing in either case about causation. However, just as with the first hypothesis, the specific information that mentions of Christianity declined during the time of the most intense violence might prove problematic for the theory, though it could also be a function of other forces as well, like so many people perishing, there was little literature produced during the final death throes of the culture. (I actually hypothesize that the data this time round would speciously vindicate Gibbon, with the most mentions of Christianity found during times of the most violence at the end of the Western Empire.)

In order to model the question more closely, we would need recourse to a wider comparison. Even if Christianity, which was unique to the Roman Empire and its environs, caused Rome to fall, we would expect it to have no effect on the history of another similar directly contemporary Iron Age empire such as, for example, Han China. Hence, if the hypothesis were true that it was Christianity that had the largest probabilistic influence on the collapse of Roman civilization of all other possible factors, we would expect it to have more of an effect on the outbreak of battles and their locations than, for example, Pan-Eurasian forces that might have affected both empires, such as the onset of plague or the migration of barbarian tribes or the widespread adoption of a new technology. If the hypothesis were false and Christianity’s rise had less to do with the fall of Rome than Pan-Eurasian factors, we would expect those forces to have more of an effect on the outbreak of battles. But how can all of this be modeled?

Imagine we were looking at a map of the Roman Empire and Han China, divided into many quadrants.

These are the elements that would be tracked:

1) the locations of iron deposits and other natural resources that can be pinned down with a fair degree of accuracy, including the locations of major mines (these are, of course, static)

2) The locations of recorded battles (these move about, and are thus dynamic)

3) The location of metropolises, major roads, and other geographical features (Mediterranean sea and the Rhine-Danube frontiers; major Christian centers, etc.)

4) The borders of the empire

I tentatively hypothesize that times of plague, rebellion, and civil war should show statistically significant changes in the relationships between the static and dynamic data sets as such periods would lend themselves to efforts to seize control of local mineral deposits and resource-distribution-centers.  By contrast, in times of relative internal stability, the Rhine-Danube frontier and the walled frontiers of China would be more likely to attract dynamic movement in response to external pressure along the borders. Permanent changes in spatial relationships would suggest watershed moments in Roman history. (Imagine, for example, if after a certain date battles suddenly never take place within a 50 mile radius of an area that once suffered from yearly violence.) The upshot of all this is that using the right mathematical tools, the relationship between these variables can be systematically evaluated, and we can investigate what various causal forces (internal or external) seem to have been primarily responsible for violence at different points in time.

Consider the question of Christianity’s influence on the fall of Rome. If it were true that Christianity was a major formative factor, we might expect major Christian centers to attract battles—this might be, for example, the result of sectarian violence between rival heresies, or barbarians sacking passive religious populations. We might hypothesize that the number of battles within a 50 kilometer radius of major Christian centers would rise over time as the empire collapsed, and we might even expect such centers to attract more battles relative to pagan cities untouched by Christianity or the fifty mile radius along the Rhine and Danube frontiers. By contrast, if it were not the case that Christianity were a major factor, we might see no such increase over time as we studied the decade by decade data. We might guess that the number of battles named in the historical record would remain highest within a 50 mile radius of the length of the Rhine and Danube, since the primary focus was on keeping out barbarians. (I actually hypothesize that the data this time round would again champion Gibbon, with the most battles found around cities, which were—albeit coincidentally—also Christian centers, since it was primarily an urban phenomenon.)

In order to disprove Gibbon, we might propose a new question—whether Christian centers or, for example, mineral deposits were greater probabilistic attractors of violence. If the urge to control mines was the primary determiner of where conflicts arose, we would expect the number of battles in the vicinity of mines (within a fifty kilometer radius) to rise during decades of turbulence, and we would expect the battles around Christian sites to either decline in number or show no statistically significant rise or fall at all. (In this case, I actually hypothesize that there would be no relationship between the locations of mines and battles at all; the number of battles in such locations would not rise over time relative to other indicators like whether an event is within 50 kilometers of a Christian center or 50 kilometers along the Rhine and Danube, since the late Roman emperors resorted to adulterating their coinage and hiring mercenaries.)

Our last resort might be to add Han China into the mix so that we could begin to see the limits of Gibbon’s view by considering Christianity’s impact versus that of pan-Eurasian forces, like the outbreak of plague, the spread of new technologies, and the migration of barbarian tribes. Comparing the two empires decade by decade, I would measure the number of battles per decade and whether they were within 50 kilometers of the borders of each empire (in the case of Rome, the Rhine-Danube frontier.) During times of internal instability, metropolitan centers and mineral deposits might be expected to attract battles more than the old frontiers, which are disintegrating (presumably because armed groups want access to the goods in the cities and countryside.) If Pan Eurasian forces were the largest probabilistic influence on the fall of Rome, I would expect the empires to both show an increase in the number of battles outside of the 50 mile radius along the frontier zones during the same period—the shape of the graphs (with more internal battles rather than frontier battles over time) would be expected to have the same shape over almost the same time frame. If a cultural force unique to Rome such as Christianity caused the fall, by contrast, I would expect no such relationship to exist between the datasets of the two empires, separated by thousands of kilometers.

Of course, any similarity or difference might be purely coincidental. Nevertheless, finding that both Rome and China were undergoing turbulence at the same time (measured by the number of battles in internal regions rising, to say nothing of the number of battles rising in general) would provide strong evidence for the view that Pan-Eurasian forces had a major formative effect, which itself undercuts the idea that the rise of Christianity was the vitiating factor. (This time, I expect that Gibbon’s argument would be undermined—turbulence in both Rome and China was probably caused at least in part by the same migratory phenomena affecting all Eurasia; in the language of this chapter, it was sparked by the complexity of an artificial border with a high degree of organization on one side and a low degree on the other collapsing into a less chaotic state of stable, simpler homeostasis with cultural similarity and less political sophistication on each side of the barrier. A heap of stones, however aesthetic, is no long-term solution to socio-economic and cultural division between neighbors in any time or place.)


[1] In the eyes of biographers like Plutarch, Mark Antony’s decision to divorce his Roman wife in favor of taking up with his Egyptian mistress and then dividing up Roman territories to their illegitimate children together might stand as the epitome of such forces in action. (Of course, from his perspective, he was only restoring traditional Ptolemaic territories to their rightful owners and leaving the Senate to govern Rome rather than imposing his will as a dictator upon it.)

[2] Quoted by James Warren, “All the Philosopher King’s Men,” Harper’s MagazineFeb, 2000. Accessed at

[3] See

[4] See

[5] E.g., while one might not be a Marxist, applying a Marxist lens to questions about social change can help to illuminate specific dynamics associated with, for instance, class struggle. This is why so much of the work of people like Freud remains interesting and relevant despite the fact that few psychiatrists today subscribe strictly to his specific model of the human spirit; applying his model, however bizarre it sometimes appears, can help to emphasize and clarify the role of forces like family interaction in early childhood and repressed memories in shaping character. Ideally, scholars should use a variety of thematic lenses to examine a subject from different vantage points; many, however, stick strictly to their favorite set of glasses, stubbornly ignoring the microscopes and binoculars of the world and complaining that such apparatuses blur vision because they cannot learn to refocus their vision. The lens of complexity theory accentuates the role of the unexpected, the contingent, and the probabilistic on history.

[6] José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses : Authorised Translation from the Spanish (New York: W. W. Norton & co., 1932).

[7] Discourse becomes impoverished in the absence of diversity for two reasons—first, geniuses who were born anything but elite males are doomed to a life where they cannot actualize their potential; second, the greater the diversity of voices and lived experiences at the table, the greater and more powerful the synergy can be created as unique perspectives are applied to age-old problems.

[8] In the language of this paper, during periods of “turbulence,” a situation envisioned by Tainter can readily arise in which individual efforts by the government to micro-manage a devolving state of affairs in the face of rapidly changing environmental conditions and information-overload can simply provoke more devolution.

[9] Shades of Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind.

[10] This is where Foucault’s greatness as a historian is most apparent, because he understood this phenomenon intuitively.

[11] Interestingly, after the Bronze Age stagnation, there was a temporary dip into chaos and misery at the onset of the Iron Age when barbarous tribes armed with iron ransacked civilization. Eventually, however, a long and productive equilibrium was eventually reached.


The Meaning of Roman History to Britain, Italy, and Germany on the Eve of the Second World War


Yesterday, on June fourth, 1944, Rome fell to American and Allied troops. The first of the Axis capitals is now in our hands. One up and two to go! It is perhaps significant that the first of these capitals to fall should have the longest history of all of them. The story of Rome goes back to the time of the foundations of our civilization. We can still see there monuments of the time when Rome and the Romans controlled the whole of the then known world. That, too, is significant, for the United Nations are determined that in the future no one city and no one race will be able to control the whole of the world… But Rome is of course more than a military objective. Ever since before the days of the Caesars, Rome has stood as a symbol of authority. Rome was the Republic. Rome was the Empire. Rome was and is in a sense the Catholic Church, and Rome was the capital of a United Italy. Later, unfortunately, a quarter of a century ago, Rome became the seat of Fascism — one of the three capitals of the Axis… Italy cannot grow in stature by seeking to build up a great militaristic empire. Italians have been overcrowded within their own territories, but they do not need to try to conquer the lands of other peoples in order to find the breath of life. Other peoples may not want to be conquered.[1](Franklin Delano Roosevelt)

The thematic content of this radio address by President Roosevelt speaks to the remarkable breadth and occasional notoriety of the legacy of the ancient Romans among their heirs, students and emulators. Over the course of Rome’s long history, the city experienced so many diverse phases of development that cognizance of contemporary parallels to at least segments of its story served to enrich the Western imagination ever since the twilight of antiquity in the fifth century AD. As Roosevelt explained, “Rome” in fact epitomized many paradigms at once. It was, in turn, a monarchy overthrown by Senators demanding the right to self-determination; a Republic corrupted by civil war; a universal Empire unconquerable in battle; a perverse culture that oversaw the enslavement of millions of people and the exhibition of lurid spectacles that disgrace its legacy to this day; a magnificent civilization that tottered and fell; the spiritual mother of Byzantine Orthodoxy and Latin Catholicism; an insistent reverie in the minds of would be Caesars from Charlemagne to Mussolini; and a living nightmare in the hearts of their victims.

We shall see that for much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Roman history was endlessly adapted and reinterpreted through the prism of contemporary political beliefs about race, empire, and military might. For the British, the civilization’s rise often inspired a sense of pride in the value of struggling against all odds to maintain a polyglot global empire, and Rome’s fate served as a reminder that Civilization succumb to barbarism in the absence of proper vigilance. For the Italians, the nationalist unity of Augustan Italy (27 BC-14 AD) and the glory of the period’s art, poetry, and political precedents served as vital thematic inspirations for the development of Fascist doctrine as we know it (the name “Fascism” itself was of course a reference to the bundles of rods and axes grasped by Roman lictors, symbolic of the authority of magistrates to inflict absolute punishment in the name of the law.) Finally, at the hands of German propagandists, the fall of Rome was portrayed not as the result of barbarian invasions from Teutonic lands, but rather the inevitable consequence of infiltration by Jews and other provincial peoples flooding the supposedly Aryan hinterland of the civilization and weakening its very genetic fabric.

Considering the uses and abuses of Roman imagery in the first half of the twentieth century, it seems remarkable that references to the ancient civilization continued to enrich the propaganda of Axis and Allied combatants alike. Although Britain was once conquered by the Romans and Italy was its mortal enemy in the Second World War, references to the valor of ancient Roman culture were continually spoken with pride by the leaders of a civilization that found itself at the heart of an empire even larger than that of the Caesars. Though Rome ultimately faltered militarily and was conquered by Gothic hordes, Mussolini and his cadre aggressively insisted that the new Italian Empire was the very embodiment of the ideals of Augustan Rome, Vergil’s predictions of eternal glory overshadowing the unsavory reality that the civilization ultimately collapsed upon itself. And despite the fact that Germany was never a lasting province of the Roman Empire and that Northern European warriors were in fact the very men who sacked the metropolises of the Empire and propelled Europe into the Dark Ages, even Hitler and his entourage could not resist grandiloquent comparisons between their Reich and the Latin Empire. The twin facts that Roman history is so diverse and that the study of its language and culture served as the foundation for classical educations throughout virtually every nation in Europe likely resulted in the abiding popularity of references to the ancient culture even among enemy nations whose people had historically served as Rome’s victims and destroyers.

The Importance of Roman Imagery to Victorian and Early Twentieth Century Britain


For nearly three hundred years Britain, reconciled to the Roman system, enjoyed in many respects the happiest, most comfortable, and most enlightened times its inhabitants have had…In this period, almost equal to that which separates us from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, well-to-do persons in Britain lived better than they ever did until late Victorian times… there was law; there was order; there was peace; there was warmth; there was food, and a long-established custom of life…To be a citizen of Rome was to be a citizen of the world, raised upon a pedestal of unquestioned superiority above barbarians or slaves.[2] (Winston Churchill)

The preceding Churchillian encomium portrays Britannia under the sway of the Pax Romana as a sort of progressive wonderland. The statesman explicitly calls the era “most enlightened” and suggests that, for the wealthy at least, the vita bona was unparalleled until the late nineteenth century. Churchill does not consider evidence that even the Georgian era was likely far more prosperous than antiquity, with luxuries made more widely available and basic goods cheaper than ever before in the thematic shadow of a sophisticated capitalistic structure, to say nothing of the benefits of improved medicine for rich and poor alike.[3] But the memory of Rome had always been associated with dazzling cultural heights, and the art of showering hyperbolic praise on the civilization boasted a lively tradition in English letters stretching to Gibbon and beyond. By the time of the outbreak of the Second World War, the glorification of ancient Roman imperialism as a noble, civilizing force coupled with an appreciation for the discipline required to maintain the scattered Empire were deeply engrained mainstays in the English educational system. Celebrated Britons lionized the ancient Romans and proudly compared their multi-racial, multi-national empire with its two thousand year old counterpart. Only after the First World War did a sense of ambivalence regarding the violence of Roman imperialism begin to come, subtly, into play in certain intellectual circles.

Writing of the pervasive influence of Roman classics on British education, Churchill declared that “not without pride” would the Romans discover that knowledge of Latin was necessary if one wished to enter the “famous universities.”[4] Influential educational theorists of the nineteenth century such as Thomas Arnold emphasized the importance of inculcating students with a love of ancient writers, also accentuating thoroughgoing training in the nuances of Classical philology; the discipline and confidence required to navigate the complex twists and turns of Latin syntax was said to be character forming. Criticism of the virtual deification of Classics at the expense of pragmatic sciences was voiced since the 1860s, but until the aftermath of the Second World War (and perhaps even beyond it, to the 1960s), it was widely believed by individuals perhaps self-consciously justifying their own youthful scholarly efforts that knowledge of Greco-Roman culture would uniquely “open the door to the study of literature and art and all politics, and are the foundation of the humanities; which, finally, are full of high types and examples of great deeds done and noble words said, peculiarly capable of impressing the mind in the impressionable years which mark the transition to adulthood.”[5] Until after the First World War, knowledge of Greek and Latin was required for admission to Oxford and Cambridge, to say nothing of its being essential to the acquisition of academic scholarships. In recognition of this reality, so-called public schools often focused their curriculums on Greco-Roman antiquity, and drilling in Latin formed an abiding if often monotonous tradition at leading institutions at Winchester, Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury, Charterhouse, and Westminster.[6] Knowledge of Latin and years’ worth of drilling in classical authors who sang the praises of Roman imperialism were also necessary for success in the Home Civil Service and Royal Military Academy. In this thematic context, the reverence paid to Rome by myriad British thinkers comes as no surprise.

Although many have written at length on the important of classical Greece to late Victorian British identity, even the arch-Hellenist Frank Turner admits that for long periods of history, Rome somehow clung more insistently to the imagination: “Roman law and literature…dominated Europe’s cultural experience. Roman walls, forts, bridges, baths, theaters, roads, and aqueducts could be found in Britain and across the continent…Even the broad Enlightenment appeal to antiquity had concentrated on Rome.”[7] Though eighteenth century German polymaths such as Winckelmann and Goethe had pioneered renewed enthusiasm for Athenian culture, Rome remained entrenched in the hearts of the British people who, like their ancient colonizers, found themselves a small nation at the center of a multinational, global empire. The notion of the Pax Britannica as a force for good on the world stage was closely modeled on the notion of the Pax Romana as a virtuous predecessor.


While eighteenth century French and American authors discovered archetypes worth emulating in the foundational legends of the Roman Republic as they struggled to win popular sovereignty, late nineteenth and early twentieth century British writers found sources of inspiration in the achievements of the autocratic Roman emperors. Writing on “The Imperial Ideal,” Sir John R. Seeley, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, declared in 1883 that “there are many other good things in politics besides liberty,” and that the Romans in particular introduced “the modern brotherhood or loose federation of civilized nations”.[8] Echoing a generation of thinkers who praised their nation’s expansion into tropical climes as an example of the progress of modernism over barbarism, historians such as W. F. Monypenny described Roman expansion as “conquest that ultimately justified itself as a furtherance to civilization.”[9] The Earl of Cromer’s praise in 1910 for the Romans’ talent at integrating foreigners into their empire is also typical of a fawning mindset: “No modern Imperialist nation has… shown powers of assimilation at all comparable to those displayed by the Romans.”[10] Sir Charles Lucas lauded Rome’s racial harmony in particular, theorizing that a homogenous equality existed among all free men of the empire regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. Since slaves and freemen alike were of various colors, slavery itself was said to have contributed to a process of homogenization, drawing people of all ethnicities toward the imperial core, where they would eventually win their freedom and take their place as citizens. These emphases on class, color, and immigration were distinctly Victorian topoi.[11]

In contrast to German scholars who spoke of racial disharmony as the harbinger of Rome’s fall, there thus existed in Britain influential schools of thought that claimed quite the opposite—the strength of the Empire was its multi-national cohesion. Nevertheless, while progressive thinkers might have lauded the Romans for their color blindness, others found in antiquity a model validating the oppression of “barbarian” peoples. The notorious Cecil Rhodes enjoyed repeating the maxim of Marcus Aurelius: “Remember always that you are a Roman.” In fact, when ordering portrait busts of himself, he is said to have waxed lyrically upon similarities between his likeness and certain statues of Roman emperors.[12] For better or worse, Rome provided a model of despotic rule seemingly justified by the necessity of civilizing “barbarian” peoples, including, ironically, the ancestors of the British themselves. Nevertheless, a willingness to blindly emulate the methods of the Roman should not be overstated. In reference to Britain’s relationship with the English-speaking people of the dominions, historian Raymond Betts suggested that the Roman Empire was not worthy of comparison, since it was something “tyrannical and exploitive;” countries like Canada and Australia were predominantly inhabited by individuals of European stock, and there existed a sense that their people would not endure tyranny for long.[13] C. P. Lucas’s Greater Rome and Greater Britain (1912) is also typical of this trend when he writes at length about the difference between the administration of English-speaking dominions and tropical colonies—a constitutional framework is appropriate for the former, and paternalism for the latter.

Unfortunately, in the racially charged context of European men ruling over indigenous societies, some scholars were proud to look to Roman forbearers to justify their political control of other races. In 1883, the lecturer John Robert Seeley proclaimed that although Britain won its empire informally, there suddenly existed a moral duty to rule and civilize India, cautioning his audience to emulate the ancient Romans in their discipline but to resist their cardinal failure of developing tyranny at home as a response to expansion abroad.[14] The bureaucratic administration of India was in the hands of individuals steeped in myths of noble Romans civilizing barbarian hordes. So called “all-rounders” educated in the Classics, such as the Viceroy Lord Curzon, wrote of “the living influence of the empire of Rome” on the Indian subcontinent.[15] Sir James Stephen spoke boastfully at Eaton of the Indian empire being even “more populous, more amazing, and more beneficent” than that of Rome.[16] Indian Civil Service candidates in the mid-nineteenth century were required to be tested in a manner “not less severe than those examinations by which the highest classical distinctions are awarded at Oxford and Cambridge.”[17] For this reason, a grounding in the study of classical antiquity was held in common by most administrators. Proficiency in English language and literature was worth 1500 marks, Math 1000 marks, and Greek and Latin 750 marks each; Sanskirt and Arabic, though utile languages in India, were only worth 375 marks each, later raised to 500. The Royal Titles Act of 1876 established Victoria as “Regina et Imperatrix” over India, cementing the strange bond between the titles of ancient Roman despotism and those of British power over the Subcontinent.[18] For all of the crassly propagandistic abuses of Roman history at the hands of her Fascist enemies, Britain too thus had many sons and daughters who were willing to avoid the psychic repercussions of their aggressive imperial actions against other nations by imagining themselves clad in togas.


On the eve of the sobering horrors of the First World War and directly following that struggle, British scholars began to examine Roman history in an increasingly cynical and wry manner. Artists like Rudyard Kipling, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves began to challenge the supposedly glorious images of Roman legions triumphing over savages, age-old motifs immortalized in the poetry of Horace, Martial, and other ancient masters. For example, Kipling’s poem “A Pict Song” begins:

“Rome never looks where she treads, always her heavy hooves fall on our stomachs, our hearts, or our heads; and Rome never heeds when we bawl. Her sentries pass on—that is all, and we gather behind them in hordes, and plot to reconquer the Wall, with only our tongues for our swords.”[19]

Now, for the first time, the authorial voice identifies himself with the victims of imperialism rather than its agents. By the same token, Wilfred Owen famously challenged Horace’s claim that it was dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, calling it “the old lie” in a poem written between 1917 and 1918. By the time that Graves published I, Claudius in 1934, romantic images of the imperial household were completely set aside, and the rulers of Rome were portrayed as prototypes of the corrupt, fascist leaders of the era before World War Two. In The Roman Revolution, the great classicist Ronald Syme wrote: “When a party has triumphed in violence and seized control of the State, it would be plain folly to regard the new government as a collection of amiable and virtuous characters. Revolution demands and produces sterner characters.”[20]

Nevertheless, for all this increasing awareness of the imperfection of ancient Roman government, the civilization somehow retained its attractive luster for decades following the Second World War. In the words of Churchill, a Roman “would have the same sense (as an Englishman) of belonging to a society which was threatened, and to an imperial rule which had passed its prime. He would have the same gathering fears of some sudden onslaught by barbarian forces…”[21] In victory or defeat, Roman precedents provided poignant counterpoints to the English experience.

Augustan Rome and the Origins of Italian Fascism


Rome is our point of departure and our point of reference: it is our symbol, or if you will, our myth.”[22] (Benito Mussolini)

In 1932, an American professor of Classics by the name of Kenneth Scott wrote rather effusively in the “Journal of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South” comparing Mussolini to Augustus:

“It is an interesting coincidence that Italy’s premier is a journalist, a master of language, in speech or written word, a dramatist, a man who in spite of manifold duties can find time to write an autobiography and memoirs of his experiences in the World War. He is carrying on a tradition not only of Augustus, but of such emperors with literary talent as Claudius, Nero, Hadrian, or Marcus Aurelius and Julian.”[23] Mussolini also said: ‘Italy has had enough of liberty for a while. What it needs now is law. The people want peace, work, bread, roads, and water.’”[24]

Before the catastrophes of the Second World War forever disgraced the memory of the Fascist movement, an understanding of the phenomenon as a classicizing manifestation of hyper-nationalism seemed to many observers a viable, even vibrant alternative to the threat of popular communist revolution. In his creation of an ultra-patriotic state fuelled by propaganda, Benito Mussolini and his crew mined Roman history for all it was worth to associate the glory of their regime with the triumphs of their nation’s ancient culture. Symbols of Roman authority abounded in the nascent movement: the ceremonial rods and axes called fasces which gave the movement its name, the stiff-armed Roman salute, colorful imperial standards, and eagles with outstretched wings. Appeals to Romanitas, the “quality of being like a Roman,” were key to the nationalist agenda, the necessity of providing “peace, work, bread, roads, and water” calling to mind the achievements of the ancient Caesars.[25] The potential allure of liberalism and Marxism were dramatically overpowered by the state’s ability to command the people’s fanatical loyalties. Fascism was designed to bring about a permanent change in the European imagination, ascribing value to individual life only insofar as it was committed to service and obedience to the state. Tellingly, the fact that ancient Rome ultimately eviscerated itself with civil wars and over-expansion had no place in Mussolini’s appeals to the past.

The so-called First Party Congress held in Rome in 1921 helped to cement the popularity of Fascism as a movement calling for efficiency and militarism as an antidote to the creeping contagion of Bolshevism.[26] By 1922, Il Duce already had enough support among the hoi polloi to march upon Rome, self-consciously following in the footsteps of demagogues such as Sulla and Caesar before him. In the wake of the increasing spread of Fascist doctrine, the abstraction characteristic of Italian futurism in the arts was largely set aside for a return to classicizing motifs. Between 1922 and 1943, the fasces began to be imprinted on posters, bass reliefs, and military paraphernalia, symbolic of collective force; at the same time, statues of eagles, Roman-style military parades, and legionary insignia and standards were all resurrected to cement the power of the nascent state in the hearts of the Italian people, who were longing for greatness again. The spiritual renovation of the state was thus physically expressed through seemingly endless repetition of core motifs; indeed, some have suggested that Roman imagery was aggressively recycled in order to create a sort of brand or logo for the state, inspired by techniques of early twentieth century advertising.[27] It is important to remember that the early movement was not grounded in anti-Semitism; Margherita Sarfatti, an early influence on Fascism, was in fact of Jewish descent, though by 1938, anti-Jewish feeling had begun to taint the ideology. Before this, however, Italian Fascism seemed to many like a process of aestheticizing politics, slapping a classicizing Roman varnish on hyper-patriotism and fanatical commitment to a dictatorial figure.

Comparisons between Mussolini and Augustus were especially prominent. Both men had come to power after a period of civil disorder, and both stood at the center of a revolutionary autocracy built on the embers of what had once been a Republic.[28] Panegyrics by Giuseppe Bottai (the Governor of Rome from 1935-1937) and numerous works by E Balbo repeatedly emphasized similarities between Mussolini and Augustus, even drawing parallels between the first Roman emperor’s Iberian campaigns and the Duce’s support of Franco.[29] Mussolini himself hosted a major exhibition called the Mostra Augustea della Romanita on the 2000th anniversary of Augustus’ birthday, with Giulio Quirino Giglioli appointed to serve as the general director the exhibition.[30] Opened in 1938, an indoor fairground highlighted the historical developments that look place in Augustus’ lifetime, with a second and third series of antechambers devoted to the topics of “architecture and engineering” and “religion and society,” respectively. Meant as a sort of interactive museum, the halls of the exhibition highlighted models, maps, and artifacts charting the growth of the Roman Empire, but tellingly contained virtually nothing extolling the achievements of Senatorial rule or Republican virtue—some particular facets of Roman history were now politically incorrect. In the central room of the exhibit, eerily anticipating Andy Warhol’s portraits of Marilyn Monroe in later history, sixteen portraits of Augustus were displayed in repetitive rows, with posters of the monuments of his age set alongside more recent constructions sponsored by Mussolini himself. The exhibition was meant to serve as a great rhetorical exercise in hyperbole, explicitly uniting Fascism and Roman Imperialism as a single, glorious tradition. Hitler enjoyed the exhibition so thoroughly when he came to visit Rome in May of 1938 that he even arranged for a return visit to study the displays in greater detail before the end of his trip.[31]

Until the eighteenth century, readers who were only familiar with Rome through their knowledge of the Classics often found that the city of their imaginations looked very different from the heaps of toppled columns that they actually found there.[32] Spending millions of modern dollars, Mussolini set out to revive the glory of the city’s ruins, often setting up enormous maps beside the renovations portraying the High Roman Empire on one side and the modern Italian Empire on the other. In the classicizing Hall of the Horatii and Curiatii, Mussolini delivered a telling speech on the occasion of the appointment of Filippo Cremonesi as governor of the city in 1925. He said:

“My ideas are clear, my orders are exact, and certain to become concrete reality. Within five years Rome must strike all the nations of the world as a source of wonder: huge, well organized, powerful, as it was at the time of the Augustan Empire. You will continue to free the trunk of the great oak from everything that still clutters it. You will create spaces around the Theater of Marcellus, the Capitol, the Pantheon…Within five years the mass of the Pantheon must be visible from the Piazza Colonna through a large space…The milleniary monuments of our history must loom larger in requisite isolation.”[33]

Within less than a decade, this vision of resurrecting the Augustan metropolis indeed became concrete reality. Begun in 1931, the Via dell’ Impero, now the Via dei Fori Imperiali, became the artery connecting the Piazza Venezia (site of Mussoloni’s office, the Sala del Mappamondo and the very hub of Fascist Italy) with the ruins of the imperial forums of ancient Rome.[34] The Ara Pacis, an Augustan altar dedicated to the peace brought about by the stability of his regime, was reassembled in 1938 and inaugurated on the 23rd of September, Augustus’ birthday. Finally, an entire suburb dubbed L’Esposizione Universale di Roma (EUR) was constructed in 1937, its architecture Fascist and bombastic to the core, including a giant rhombus dubbed “The Square Coliseum” and a museum of Roman civilization in the city-center famous to this day.

Ultimately, this glorification of Augustan Rome was also manipulated to validate Mussolini’s programs of imperial aggression just as it had been harnessed to justify the loss of civil and political liberties in the name of peace and order. Speaking of the Italian Empire, Mussolini once ominously averred: “We can give value to two regions (Tripoli and the Cirenaica) which once were owned by Rome and which must grow to the greatness of their past.” Aggressive moves in the Aegean and North Africa were described as glorious re-conquests of regions that had once belonged to Rome, with Mussolini delivering them from generations of waste and misrule.[35] In 1937, emblematic of this trend, the film Scipione l’ Africano portrayed the ancient Carthaginian Empire as a corrupt regime ruled by what can only be described as loathsome Semitic stereotypes saved from themselves by Scipio’s victory in the Hannibalic War; it was awarded the so-called Duce Cup at the Venice film festival and declared a masterpiece.[36] Until the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, all this posturing was seen as par for the course when it came to the justification of foreign imperialism, and even bears some similarity to the interpretations of Roman history voiced by the classically trained administrators of British India. Indeed, before the mid 1930s, Mussolini and his classically inspired movement seem to have been viewed as something inspirational to the nations that would go on to topple him; Roosevelt was often compared favorably to Mussolini in the implementation of his New Deal, for example.[37] But when on the 9th of May, 1936, a second Roman Empire was proclaimed following the fall of Ethiopia, the stark realities of the fruits of autocracy began to chip away at their attractive, classicizing veneer.[38]

Nazi Racial Ideology and the Rise and Fall of Rome


“In the historical department the study of ancient history should not be omitted. Roman history, along general lines, is and will remain the best teacher, not only for our own time but also for the future. And the ideal of Hellenic culture should be preserved for us in all its marvelous beauty. The differences between the various peoples should not prevent us from recognizing the community of race which unites them on a higher plane. The conflict of our times is one that is being waged around great objectives. A civilization is fighting for its existence. It is a civilization that is the product of thousands of years of historical development, and the Greek as well as the German forms part of it.”[39](Adolf Hitler)

Just as educated Britons waxed lyrically on the Roman antecedents to their Empire and Italians spoke with pride on the fruits of ancient Italian nationalism, Hitler and other German thinkers like him perceived Romanitas through their own particular political prism, obsessing about the racial continuity between themselves and ancient ancestors who ironically lived in an era before the concept of race had even come into full existence. The fact that the ancient Romans deemed the Germans barbarians was moot—that both civilizations shared a Caucasian identity was deemed more significant. Before the Second World War, the Germans even expressed admiration for the British Empire as a remarkable achievement proving the ingenuity and superiority of the white race over all others. In 1930, Hitler upbraided Otto Strasser for suggesting that the Nazis should provide aid to the burgeoning Indian independence movement, declaring that the Nordic British had a right to rule in the Subcontinent—“The interest of Germany demands cooperation with England since it is a question of establishing a Nordic-Germanic America, over the world.”[40] In the eyes of the crazed German leader, even matters of real politick were paltry concerns beside weightier matters of racial ideology.

Alfred Rosenberg and Hitler shared the belief that the course of ancient history revealed that Greece and Rome were the direct forbearers of contemporary Nordic civilization, with “Nordic” implying a “Caucasian” identity rather than a “Negroid” or “Mongoloid” one. The cultural achievements of antiquity were interpreted as the inevitable fruits of racial superiority unabashedly expressed over barbarian peoples. The story of the rise and fall of Rome was thus manipulated to justify the Fuhrer’s pseudo-scientific notions of race. The Romans were deemed “die Erstgeborenen der arischen Voelker,” a community of Nordic peasant farmers (Bauernstaat) that came to dominate the racially inferior people surrounding them.[41] In his writings, Hitler declared Italy “the original home of the concept of the state” and expressed awe for the rapid rise of Rome, employing ancient imagery such as eagles, fasces, straight-armed salutes, and legionary standards in his propaganda just as his neighbor to the South did.[42] Hitler found a source of inspiration in the order and militarism of ancient Rome, and a model for Berlin as a world capital.[43] In large part, with the exception of his memorable addition of the swastika to the canon of symbols, the imagery of German fascism was in large part deeply grounded in the classicizing tendencies of its Italian counterpart.[44] In his mind’s eye, Hitler seems to have envisioned himself as a sort of latter day Roman emperor, and he hungered to create a capital worthy of his imperial ambitions. Albert Speer recounts that Hitler saw himself above all else as a great artist, plotting to create a giant metropolis called Germania to be visually modeled on ancient Rome.[45] The imaginary city would have boasted a triumphal arch dwarfing Napoleon’s efforts in Paris and a Volkshalle on the model of the Augustan Pantheon that could have housed the entire Vatican within its walls. The structure was planned to be sixteen times the volume of St. Peter’s Basilica.

How was the Nazi government to account for the fall of the Roman Empire, which was of course precipitated by the direct ancestors of the German people? In the words of Mussolini, “thirty centuries of history allow us to look with supreme pity on certain doctrines which are preached beyond the Alps by the descendants of those who were illiterate when Rome had Caesar, Virgil, and Augustus.”[46] In the eyes of Rosenberg, and Hitler like him, the emperor Caracalla’s granting of full citizenship to all the citizens of the Empire muddied the civilization’s racial waters, and ultimately, a Jewish cult conquered the state like a form of ancient Bolshevism before virtuous German tribes to the North re-invigorated Europe with their pure Aryan blood and set the stage for the achievements of modern history; the same echoes of the idea of an Aryan-Roman super-race can be found in the work of Italian Julius Evola, a formative influence on Mussolini. The narrative of the rise and fall of Rome was thus directly perverted to express contemporary Fascist beliefs about race, nationalism, and imperial force. Still, the discontinuity between a vision of an “Aryan Rome” and the reality of warfare between ancient Romans and Germans, to say nothing of the specific association of Romanitas with Mussolini’s Italy, meant that Rome alone would not suffice as a model for ancient valor. At the same time, certain influential historians were less than impressed by the achievements of Roman culture, interpreting it largely as a cautionary example; Oswald Spengler, for example, identified “Caesarism” as a symptom of cultural decline and underrated Roman military achievements after the Second Punic War. Heinrich Himmler, chief and police and minister of the interior, was admittedly more interested in occultism than Classics and attempted to mythologize the ancient, pre-urban German tribes.[47]

Yet as Helmut Berve wrote: “We are not Romans, and the world around us is different from the Mediterranean world. Nevertheless we can learn endless lessons from Roman history.”[48] Hitler was so thoroughly seduced by the idea of Imperial Rome that as late as 1941, he declared to Himmler that “the Roman Empire never had its like. To have succeeded in completely dominating all neighboring peoples! And no empire has spread so uniform a civilization as Rome did.”[49]

The fact that a bizarre racially charged interpretation of Roman history became so prominent in Germany speaks to the tragic rapidity with which Nazi ideology had taken hold of the contemporary imagination. For generations, Germany had been Europe’s leading center of Classical scholarship, producing works of timeless value and priceless insights. This was the country where Theodor Mommsen pioneered the very art of modern historiography as he systematically and objectively explored the intricacies of the Roman past.[50] Barthold Georg Niebuhr too was a trailblazer, one of the first to differentiate between the value of primary and secondary sources in historical research; for years, Leopold Ranke had his bust in his study, and Grote, Toynbee, and Arnold all paid homage to his legacy.[51] Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Karl Bücher’s Die Entstehung der Volkswirtschaft became one of the most important books in the study of economic history thanks to its detailed attention to the nuances of the ancient, medieval, and modern markets; later, Ed Meyer’s critique of his work added a still more nuanced understanding of the sophistication and complexity of ancient civilization. It became clear that inflation, civil war, and barbarian invasions by Germanic tribes caused the fall of Rome. All of this scholarship, however, paled before the racially charged myth of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and a country whose intelligentsia once boasted the most scientific approach to the study of the ancient past completely lost its bearings and succumbed to the allure of fairy tales. Non-German historians such as Numa Fustel de Coulanges attempted to redress the balance, writing the History of the Political Institutions of Ancient France in which he challenged the notion that ancient Germans had introduced political innovations to a “racially stalling” nation.[52] Tragically, however, the works of individuals like Joseph Vogt became much more common. His “Population Decline in the Roman Empire” (1935) and “Race Mixing in the Roman Empire” (1936) repeated the original theory of Arthur de Gobineau that racial mixing was responsible for the decline of Rome as an established fact. Those whose vision of antiquity was grounded in a search for truth rather than political expedience promptly found no place for themselves in the German university system.

Quo Vadis, Romanitas?


“Yours is the first barbarian army in history to have taken Rome from the South.” (An anonymous Roman, said to the Allied commander in June 1944.)[53]


Since the fall of the Roman Empire, Romanitas and the Latin language became cultural touchstones held in common by all educated citizens—in a sense, from Russians calling themselves czars to Victoria being crowned imperatrix, the course of the continent’s history can be described as a long series of interpretations and reinterpretations of the meaning of a classical past held in common by all Europeans. For the French in the late eighteenth century, “Rome” was a byword for Republican freedom; for Italy on the verge of the Second World War, it symbolized devotion to a dictatorial ideal. The breadth and diversity of Roman history armed every historical epoch, whatever its nature, with a rich array of symbols upon which to draw. So long as European education was grounded in the study of the Greek and Roman past, the Greek and Roman past continued to shape the youthful minds of students imagining themselves as ancient heroes. On the eve of World War Two, never did “Rome” become associated with “wickedness,” because all parties in the struggle were imperial, and all identified with the same ancient past.


Thus, seldom did the British draw unfavorable comparisons between Roman aggression and the actions of Mussolini; rarely did Italians dwell on reasons for Rome’s decline; never did the Germans accept responsibility as one of the forces that precipitated that collapse. Instead, we have seen that allusions to Roman history were almost universally employed to imbue contemporary beliefs about race, politics, and imperial conquest with an air of authenticity, with each fresh reinterpretation of the past serving to virtually supplant the true facts of the city’s rise and fall in the popular imagination.[54] Ultimately, much the same can be said of the collective European enthrallment with the imagery of Roman history as Frank M. Turner once wrote about the meaning of allusions to ancient Greek culture to the Victorian mind, which transferred a “moral outlook…to the ancient past and then, in accordance with their humanist aims, upheld that past as a source of wisdom for current ethical and cultural conduct.”[55] In this case, however, it must unfortunately be admitted that the aims of many of the men who appealed to the shadow of the Roman past were far from “humanist,” whether in the form of the British attempting to justify their Empire, Italians their hyper-nationalism, or Germans their xenophobia. Greek history once supplied an inexhaustible source of erudite, artistic references; Roman history, by contrast, came to serve as an inexhaustible trove of symbols able to be mass marketed for purposes of propaganda and pseudo-science.

[1] “Address of the President on the Fall of Rome,” June 5, 1944, 8:30 pm, E.W.T. Radio Broadcast, accessed at

[2] Winston Churchill, The Birth of Britain, His: A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (London,: Cassell, 1956).

[3] S. J. Bastomsky, “Rich and Poor: The Great Divide in Ancient Rome and Victorian England,” Greece & Rome 37, no. 1 (1990).

[4] Churchill, The Birth of Britain.

[5] Cyril Norwood and Arthur H. Hope, The Higher Education of Boys in England (London,: J. Murray, 1909). Pp. 343.

[6] Ibid. Pp. 344.

[7] Turner, The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain. Pp. 2.

[8] Raymond F. Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” Victorian Studies 15, no. 2 (1971). Pp. 150.

[9] Ibid. Pp. 151

[10] Evelyn Baring Cromer, Ancient and Modern Imperialism (London,: J. Murray, 1910).

[11] Charles Prestwood Lucas, Cambridge University Library., and Adam Matthew Digital (Firm), “Class, Colour and Race.” (Marlborough, England: Adam Matthew Digital, 2007),

[12] Richard Faber, The Vision and the Need: Late Victorian Imperialist Aims (London: Faber, 1966). Pp. 25.

[13] Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Pp. 154.

[14] John Robert Seeley, The Expansion of England : Two Courses of Lectures (London: Macmillan, 1883).

[15] Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Pp. 151-152.

[16] Ibid. Pp. 155.

[17] Catharine Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945 (Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Pp. 93-94.

[18] Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Pp. 149.

[19] Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook’s Hill, Writings in Prose and Verse of Rudyard Kipling (New York Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906.).

[20] See the final chapter of Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939).

[21] Churchill, The Birth of Britain.

[22] Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Pp. 205

[23] Kenneth Scott, “Mussolini and the Roman Empire,” The Classical Journal 27, no. 9 (1932). Pp. 656.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Pp. 189.

[26] Emilio Gentile, The Origins of Fascist Ideology 1918-1925 (New York: Enigma, 2005). Pp. 158-159.

[27] See Steven Heller, Iron Fists : Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State (London ; New York: Phaidon Press, 2008).

[28] See Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, Jerome Lectures (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988).

[29] Alexander Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity, Monographs on the Fine Arts (University Park: Published for College Art Association by the Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990). Page 10.

[30] Lewine, Annie Esmé (2008) “Ancient Rome in Modern Italy: Mussolini’s Manipulation of Roman History in the Mostra Augustea della Romanitá,” Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity and Classics: Vol. 2: Iss. 1, Article 5. Available at:

[31] Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity. Pp. 28.

[32] Berland, “Review: A City Endlessly Rewritten: Some Versions and Appropriations of Rome in the Long Eighteenth Century.” Pp. 288.

[33] Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity. Page 9.

[34] Nelis, Jan, “Constructing Fascist Identity: Benito Mussolini and the Myth of Romanitá,” Classical World 100.4 (2007). Pp. 408.

[35] Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Pp. 290.

[36] Ibid. Pp. 209

[37] Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Three New Deals : Reflections on Roosevelt’s America, Mussolini’s Italy, and Hitler’s Germany, 1933-1939, 1st ed. (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006). Pp. 21-22.

[38] Henry Ashby Turner, Reappraisals of Fascism, Modern Scholarship on European History (New York: New Viewpoints, 1975). Pp. 73.

[39] See Adolf Hitler, Alvin Saunders Johnson, and John Chamberlain, Mein Kampf, Complete and Unabridged, Fully Annotated (New York,: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1940). Chapter 2, Volume 2.

[40] Milan Hauner, India in Axis Strategy : Germany, Japan and Indian Nationalists in the Second World War, 1. Aufl. ed., Veröffentlichungen Des Deutschen Historischen Instituts London = Publications of the German Historical Institute London (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1981). Pp. 25.

[41] Ibid. Pp. 20-21.

[42] Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity. Pp. 14.

[43] Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity. Page 2.

[44] Heller, Iron Fists : Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State.

[45] Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs (New York: Macmillan, 1970). See the chapters Our Empire Style and The Globe.

[46] Institute of Jewish Affairs. and Boris Shub, Hitler’s Ten-Year War on the Jews (New York,: Institute of Jewish Affairs of the American Jewish Congress, World Jewish congress, 1943). Pp. 283.

[47] Christopher Hale, Himmler’s Crusade : The Nazi Expedition to Find the Origins of the Aryan Race (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2003). Pp. 87.

[48] For this quote, see the introduction to Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity.

[49] Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Pp. 225.

[50] Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Pp. 151.

[51] For a summary of early twentieth century historiography on Roman history, see Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition; Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature, A Galaxy Book, (New York,: Oxford University Press, 1957). Pp. 472-479.

[52] See Coulanges Fustel de and Camille Jullian, Histoire Des Institutions Politiques De L’ancienne France, 6 vols. (Paris,: Hachette et cie, 1888).

[53] Wiseman, T. P. (1992) ‘Of grammar and grandeur’, TLS (May 29). Pp. 11- 12.

[54] Kevin Berland, “Review: A City Endlessly Rewritten: Some Versions and Appropriations of Rome in the Long Eighteenth Century,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 34, no. 2 (2001). Pp. 288.

[55] Frank M. Turner, The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981). Pp. 51.

Reflections On the Populousness of the Roman World

060930-120153 Model of Constantine's Rome Northwest View of Palatine Hill Area

Reflections On the Populousness of the Roman World 

David Vincent Kimel

I. The History and Significance of the Questions at Hand

Prior to the popularization of the work of T. R. Malthus (1766-1834), it was widely believed among seventeenth and eighteenth century thinkers that a sprawling population was evidence of a prosperous society governed by just institutions. Although he did not agree with this idea in its entirety, David Hume wrote in 1777 that “if every thing (sic) else be equal, it seems natural to expect, that, wherever there are most happiness and virtue, and the wisest institutions, there will also be most people.”1 This notion linking a state’s metaphorical and literal vitality inevitably informed early scholarly opinions on the size of the Roman Empire’s population. The period of the Antonine emperors in particular (96 CE-180 CE) was associated by such historians as Edward Gibbon with notions of hyperbolic grander thanks to its supposedly enlightened political leadership. Citing an opinion undoubtedly antithetical to contemporary stirrings in the American colonies, he declared in the third chapter of the first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776 that “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”2 With his imagination fired by the holistic grandeur of antiquity, Gibbon wrote in chapter two that the Roman Empire constituted “the most numerous society that has ever been united under the same system of government.” This opinion was echoed with just as little grounds by earlier scholars like Isaak Vossius, who estimated that the city of Rome at its height housed some 14 million people “with an area twenty times greater than that of Paris and London combined.”3 No less an authority than Montesquieu wrote in 1721 that Europe was depopulated compared to the days of the Caesars, with the eighteenth century population likely representing one fiftieth of the ancient total.4

It would be comic understatement to suggest that common assumptions about the size of Rome and its empire have somewhat altered over the past three centuries. In the wake of work such as David Hume’s groundbreaking study on the populousness of antiquity and, most importantly, Julius Beloch’s Die Bevoelkerung der griechisch-roemischen Welt published in 1886, altogether smaller numbers began to be imagined for antiquity, with the entire population of Italy during the reign of Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE) amounting to perhaps no more than 6 or 7 million people, with three quarters of a million to 1 million people crowded into Rome itself.5 Hume worked with a wide body of knowledge about ancient literary sources, pointing out how the often extravagant totals mentioned by ancient authors were unrealistic and contradictory. For his part, Beloch revolutionized approaches to the issue by turning to quantitative analysis; specifically, he sought to measure changes in the size of the Roman population by studying fluctuations in the size of the city’s public grain doles, proceeding to estimate what percentage of the population those receiving the grain represented. According to modern authorities like Walter Scheidel, Beloch’s conclusion that the Roman Empire at its height contained some 35 to 80 million people definitively set the parameters for all future discussion on the subject.6 While acknowledging the existence of important contributions to the question of Rome’s populousness since 1886, scholars like John C. Caldwell believe that “much of classical demography, originally deduced from literary sources and burial inscriptions, remains essentially unchanged.”7 Whatever the validity of this claim, it is unlikely that mainstream academic opinion will ever favor the assertions of Vossius and Montesquieu again. After all, they appear at odds with well-known trends in comparative demographic history, which, for better or worse, only admit to limited gains in world population until the advent of the industrial era.

Of course, the question of whether the Roman Empire contained 35 or 80 million people seems to leave a great deal of room for meaningful debate. Unfortunately, personal bias often appears to motivate authors toward defending lower or higher estimates. For example, in an attempt to highlight the productivity and populousness of pre-Roman Gaul, C. Jullian averred that before Caesar’s invasion, the population probably stood at some 20 million people, which proceeded to double over the course of the next century thanks to “the long famous fertility of Celtic women.” Likewise, E. Lo Cascio’s rejection of Beloch’s totals and his insistence on a population of 7-14 million for Augustan Italy have been branded patriotic hogwash by the late Keith Hopkins.8 Nationalism certainly becomes a particularly thorny issue when it comes to the scale of the Roman Empire’s population compared to that of Han China. The notion that one empire was significantly more populous than the other invariably reveals bias in favor of the “progressiveness” of Roman or Chinese culture, since evidence to suggest any fundamental differences in size simply does not exist. (Admittedly, recent efforts seem aimed at building bridges and accentuating the similarities between the two imperial systems, though the thematic emphases of this approach might arguably conceal its own kind of bias shaped by the fear of stepping on professional toes.9) At other times, pride in one’s academic discipline, such as Medieval Studies, might tempt some to underrate the Roman period’s supposed luster relative to subsequent history. There is surely something deliberately revisionist in the air when it comes to Angus Maddison’s 2001 attempt to suggest that far from representing a height in Europe’s population, the number of people on the continent might have stayed the same or even slightly increased over the course of the period formally known as the Dark Ages.10 Irene Barbiera and Gianpiero Dalla-Zuanna wrote disparagingly of the very notion of the “Dark Ages,” claiming that the bleakness of the era was largely a rhetorical trope developed by Christian authors longing for the imperial order of the past.11 However, other “authorities have posited the population of Europe halving during the first six centuries of the modern era,” maintaining that the decline of Roman civilization was indeed accompanied by a fall in population.12

Fundamental questions concerning the quality of life in ancient Rome, the scale of the empire’s economy, and the ways in which urbanization transformed the provinces are all bound to debates over population size; for example, a lower population might reveal an unexpected source of economic strength, with more benefits for everyone to go around and less competition for jobs.13 Unfortunately, in many ways our state of knowledge remains woefully speculative. In the words of Scheidel: “Our ignorance of the size of ancient populations is one of the biggest obstacles to our understanding of Roman history. After generations of prolific scholarship, we still do not know how many people inhabited Roman Italy and the Mediterranean at any given time.”14 Attempts to glean the likely populations of major cities from vague references in ancient literary sources can be compared to similar attempts to understand the scale of Pre-Columbian American society by assembling a constellation of random quotations and trustingly treating them as scientific evidence. In an effort to draw attention to the ludicrousness of such methods, David Henege jokingly attempted to calculate the population of elves and orcs in Middle Earth by analyzing references from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.15

In this study, I present important sources of evidence about the size of Rome’s population over time, discussing various broad indicators of growth and then examining approaches to the question of populousness grounded in a diversity of different sources, from the analysis of bones to studies of comparative DNA profiles. The fact that debate persists to this day with an intensity belying the poverty of the available evidence is telling, though few scholars disagree with the broad parameters established by the work of Beloch with regard to the grain dole and with Harkness (1896) and McDonnel (1913) vis a vis funerary inscriptions.16 Ultimately, I will show that while there exists a general consensus that the Roman world was far removed from modern population dynamics, the methods of evaluating the data are all extremely problematic, and one’s conclusions about the size of the empire’s population often reveals more about the nature of the researcher and his or her academic interests than historical truth.

II. Harnessing Evidence on the Populousness of the Romans

During the reign of the emperor Trajan (98 CE-117) , the Roman Empire stretched 3000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the banks of the Euphrates and encompassed some 1,750,000 square miles, approximately half the territory of the contemporary United States. Roman civilization facilitated the spread of Hellenistic civilization around the Mediterranean basin and its hinterlands, creating a great cultural melting pot solidified by centuries of general peace.17 Even after a millennium and a half of neglect, the ruins of cities like Leptis Magna and Pompeii are impressive enough to awe millions of tourists a year; the urban landscapes of the empire at its height, before centuries of theft and collapse took their toll, must have been magnificent indeed. Surveying the rural landscape of Turkey and noting the many hulks of abandoned Roman cities, Gibbon took the ruins as evidence of the populousness and vigor of antiquity compared to the state of affairs under the Ottomans:

(The Asian provinces) of the east present the contrast of Roman magnificence with Turkish barbarism. The ruins of antiquity scattered over uncultivated fields, and ascribed, by ignorance, to the power of magic, scarcely afford a shelter to the oppressed peasant or wandering Arab. Under the reign of the Caesars, the proper Asia alone contained five hundred populous cities, enriched with all the gifts of nature, and adorned with all the refinements of art. Eleven cities of Asia had once disputed the honour of dedicating a temple to Tiberius, and their respective merits were examined by the senate. Four of them were immediately rejected as unequal to the burden; and among these was Laodicea, whose splendour is still displayed in its ruins.18

The notion that the Pax Romana was an era of unprecedented prosperity has definite implications with regard to opinions concerning the size of the population that enjoyed its fruits, even if the effects are difficult to quantify. In the second century BC, the archeological record shows great ranches dotting the Italian countryside where once there had been barren fields, suggesting demographic change. These are the so-called latifundia, cash-crop plantations manned by hundreds of thousands of imported slaves.19 The suicides of Antony and Cleopatra in 30 BCE represented the final act in a century of tragedies and brought an end to the Civil Wars. Until the early third century CE, battles were subsequently altogether more infrequent and smaller in scale. Given the destructiveness of warfare in pre-modern societies, the introduction of peace associated with the rise of Rome might conceivably have facilitated a growth in population.20 The idea that the Celts, Berbers, Teutons, and Illyrians who had once inhabited Rome’s provinces lived like noble savages in blissful harmony with nature is flatly contradicted by the fact that 90-95% of all world societies, statistically speaking, were involved in periodic warfare to some extent or another and that violence was part and parcel of everyday life for the people of most pre-modern civilizations. Indeed, the historical record attests to unending combat among indigenous peoples before the Roman occupation.21 At the same time, Roman culture celebrated fertility and encouraged early marriage among women, with the mothers of three children granted special economic privileges by the emperor Augustus.22 According to Frier, surviving Egyptian census data suggested that the vast majority of women married during the Roman period. Specifically speaking, he estimated that some 80% were wedded by the age of 20.23

Added to these trends was the introduction of innovations like “iron tools, iron knives, screw presses, rotary mills, even water mills…silver and bronze coins, money taxes, chattel slavery, writing, schools, written contracts, commercial loans, technical handbooks, large sailing ships, shared risk investment, (and) absentee landlordship,” all speaking to possibilities for enhanced productivity and the accommodation of a large population.24 Grain imports and handouts, bathhouses, aqueducts, gymnasia, sewage systems, written laws, and paved roads facilitating travel and migration might easily be added to the list. Keith Hopkins explained that by raising taxes and spending money on the defense of distant frontiers, the empire facilitated long distance trade and enhanced possibilities for social mobility.25 Authors such as Horace, Martial, Juvenal, and many others all affirmed that these economic opportunities drew significant numbers of migrants into Italy, with the city of Rome ballooning to ever larger heights, a trend confirmed by rising numbers of insula type high-rise apartments discovered in the suburb of Ostia dating to the first two centuries CE.26 In certain parts of the empire, sources of evidence even seem to suggest that Roman rule was associated with long life-spans (and presumably a large population). For example, a graveyard from the North African site of Castellum Celtianum was found to contain 1,258 individuals with an average lifespan of 60.2 years in a time period where the average life expectancy of most world societies was in the high teens or early 20s.27 Although the site is unique, graveyard inscriptions from the salubrious provinces of North Africa in general suggest life expectancies closer to 40 than 20.

While all of this seems compelling enough, how can one go about attempting to actually quantify the Roman population? Comparisons to other historical epochs, informed conjectures, and old-fashioned common sense in the face of extremely limited evidence are the rules of the day. In 2 CE a census in Han China counted 12,233,062 families, which has been used to suggest that some 60 million people lived under imperial rule. An Augustan census of 14 CE included 4,937,000 citizens. This has been interpreted to suggest rough parity with China, for “assuming that full-fledged citizens of Rome constituted less than 10 percent of the empire’s total population at that time, it is (thus) reasonable to conclude that the Roman Empire contained 50 to 60 million people in the early decades of the first century CE.”28 Adding to these numbers were streams of slaves from beyond Rome’s borders, an insidious source of population growth. Sir William Smith’s epic nineteenth century dictionary mentioned that the Roman Empire saw the system of slavery augmented “to a prodigious extent.” Quoting Book VI of Athenaeus, the author reflected upon the idea that “very many Romans possessed 10,000 and 20,000 slaves and even more.”29 Even if this total seems exaggerated, the number of slaves owned by certain aristocratic Romans was likely to be very high indeed. Pliny the Elder recorded in Book XXXIII.10 of his Natural History that 4,116 slaves were left to the heirs of a single Augustan freedman who (paradoxically) had seen his estates greatly diminished during the Civil Wars; Dio Cassius reported in Book V.1.27 of his History that Augustus allowed a man to take 40 slaves or freedmen with him into exile out of sympathy for his impending loneliness. In his paper “Believing the Ancients: Quantitative and Qualitative Dimensions of Slavery and the Slave Trade in Later Eurasia,” Timothy Taylor took the words of Athenaeus at face value when he declared that Scheidel’s estimate of slaves at 10% of the classical population was likely too low; when it came to classical Athens, after all, Athenaeus described a populace of 21,000 citizens, 10,000 resident metics, and 400,000 slaves, implying that 93% of that city’s population was enslaved.30 Even if these numbers are off, they imply a world in which it was possible to imagine sprawling numbers of unfree people toiling alongside a small core “in-group” of citizens, such as was famously the case in fifth century Sparta.

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 8.57.49 PM.pngThe Romans themselves took great interest in numbering their subjects for the purposes of taxation and (during the Republic at least) conscription, though most of the information drawn from these censuses and, indeed, how the surveys were even conducted in the first place is tragically lost. Nevertheless, from the first century BCE to the fourth century CE, literary sources mention the numbers reached by selected censuses. (Please refer to Table A for a representative sampling.31) Twenty-five different censuses are recorded from the third century BCE to the end of the second century BCE, ranging between some 137,000 to 395,000 people.32 These numbers clearly do not approximate the entire population of the empire; most scholars assume that they represent the number of adult male citizens, though even this is not uncontroversial. Whatever the case, the numbers rise dramatically to 910,000 in 70/69 BCE and a whopping 4,063,000 in 28 BCE when the method of taking the census itself evidently changed. 14 CE saw 4,937,000 people counted. Claudius’ census of 47 CE totaled 5,984,072, further evidence of long-term growth.

But can these numbers be trusted? Basing his work on a seminal 1971 study by P. A. Brunt, P. M. G. Harris insisted that the general trends to which the data spoke made perfect sense in light of Roman history. For example, from 465 BCE to 493 BCE the population of Rome seems to have increased by two-thirds if the census was accurate, a trend associated with an extension of citizenship rights to allied states and an increase in the cultivation of the ager publicus, or land for public use. By contrast, 218 BCE to 203 BCE saw steep losses in the wake of the Second Punic War so grave that the author compared them to demographic trends in Aztec Mexico after the arrival of the conquistadors. The Lex Julia of 90 BCE enfranchised several allied states up to the banks of the Po River, adding nearly a million people to the empire. Finally, by the time of the 47 CE census, Claudius had begun to extend Roman citizenship to the people of southern Gaul, further driving up the numbers.33 Estimates about the size of Rome’s population often toy around with this data, asserting that various census totals represent different hypothetical percentages of the total populace.

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 9.00.11 PM.pngThe 1886 work of Beloch on the size of the Roman grain dole served to contextualize these numbers. (Please refer to Table B for data related to the public distribution of goods in Rome.34) In 123 BCE, Gaius Gracchus instituted the practice of doling out grain to the urban masses, and in 58 BCE Cicero’s enemy Publius Clodius Pulcher made the practice permanently free of charge. Beloch put the information that 150,000 to 320,000 men were eligible to receive the various doles to good use by attempting to guess how many dependents (wives, children, slaves, etc.) these men might have had, and how many foreigners likely lived in the city alongside them. He ultimately concluded that 800,000 inhabitants for the city of Rome seemed consistent with the levels of grain imported during the age of Augustus. This number likely increased over time. Dionysius of Halicarnassæus, for example, attested in Book IV.3 that the ancient walls of Rome had nearly the same circumference as those of Athens, but that by his time, Rome’s suburbs were so extensive that it was impossible to tell where the city ended or the countryside started. Also consistent with a narrative of increasing population is Gerda de Kleijn’s work on the water supply of imperial Rome.35 The completion of the Aqua Claudia and the so-called New Anio aqueducts begun by Caligula in 38 CE and completed by Claudius in 52 CE suggest an increasing demand for fresh water, just as Claudius’s construction of a second harbor at Portus to supplement the one at Ostia suggests a growing urban market for grain and other goods. Altogether, the population of the city likely peaked at 1.2 million people, making it the largest urban center in Europe (and according to some sources, the largest in the world) until the early nineteenth century.

When it comes to the first two centuries CE, the archeological record is unanimous throughout the lands bordering the Mediterranean that the volume of goods traded dramatically increased, which might be consistent with a rising population prospering during peacetime. Sites like the colony of Cosa grew greatly in size and, like Rome, gradually acquired high-rises and suburbs.36 We know there were 430 so-called urban centers in Italy during the age of Augustus. Using this information, Elio Lo Cascio took issue with Scheidel’s statement that Italy as a whole probably contained 6 million people total (the so-called “low count”). Pointing out that if the estimates were raised for 25 major towns from 15,000 to 20,000 inhabitants and the average of the 405 minor cities from 2000 to 3000, a total of 3 million would be reached, which would mean that half of Italy’s pre-industrial population was urbanized—a number which comparative demography suggests is altogether too high.37 Thus, he estimated that the total population must have been somewhat greater than 6 million if even 35-45% of Italians lived in cities, since ancient agriculture was rudimentary and a great deal of food would have to be produced by many hands to feed the sprawling populace. One is struck by how even a slight shift in assumptions can radically affect an interpretation of the extant archeological evidence. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, a degree of agreement has been reached concerning certain issues in Roman demography. For example, despite statistically outlying sites like Castellum Celtianum, Harkness’ 1896 work with funerary inscriptions suggested a stationary population for the empire with an average life expectancy of 18 years, and McDonnell’s widely cited study in 1913 harnessed a still more extensive corpus of inscriptions to raise life expectancy in Rome “to 22 years for males and 21 for females, in the Iberian Peninsula 39 and 34 years respectively and in Africa (not including Egypt) 48 and 46.”38 In 1966, Keith Hopkins used United Nations model life tables to reach an empire-wide life expectancy of 20-30 years.39

Archeological fieldwork in Egypt has proved to be especially informative thanks to the discovery of papyrological records containing information of interest to demographers. The literary record is unfortunately erratic when it comes to contextualizing this data, which is certainly disheartening considering the centrality of this kind of evidence to conjectured numbers for Roman Italy. For example, Josephus in his Jewish War II.385 suggested that 7.5 million people lived in Egypt outside of Alexandria; Diodorus of Sicily, however, said in his Library of History I.31.6 that the number for the entire country was a paltry 3 million. Roger Bagnall and Bruce W. Frier took Diodorus’ number seriously and used it as the basis for all of their work; however, one is struck by the fact that they might have just as easily based their findings on Josephus’ number.40 The surviving archeological evidence cannot provide definitive answers and is often more tantalizing than edifying. For example, while scattered examples of birth registrations have been discovered in Egypt, they are few in number and the practice in general seems to have been optional. At the same time, we know that local administrators took detailed tax records with a large number surviving in clumps dating to the reign of Claudius (41- 54 CE), but almost all of the archives have been lost.41 Scheidel put the number of Egypt’s people during the Roman period at 4.75 million people, with 35% of the people inhabiting urban areas, though the categories of “urban” and “metropolitan” often bleed into each other.42 Nevertheless, as in his account of the population of Italy, Scheidel’s estimate might have been too low. Joseph Manning, for example, explained that during the Roman period as a whole, growth in population was reflected in gradually increasing agricultural and craft production.43 And according to some ancient sources, the city of Alexandria came to rival that of Rome in size and splendor.

Recent years have seen further refinements in the debate over the size of the Roman population. Comparative genetic analyses of individuals hailing from former imperial provinces represents a particularly exciting, nascent field. Eric Faure in 2008 turned to Roman history to explain the distribution of chemokine receptors related to the CCR5- Delta 32 allele. Homozygosity for the CCR5-Δ32 allele results in resistance to R5- tropic HIV-1. The frequency of this allele is lowest in areas corresponding to the lands of the Roman Empire. 10% of Europeans on average have the gene, but only 4% of Greeks, and almost no one in North Africa. To explain the data, Faure suggested that feline zoonoses might have spread among provincial populations as the Romans brought increasing numbers of cats to new areas with them to serve as pets and to control pests.44 Although he suggested that gene flow between colonizers and the colonized was “low and indirect,” this data suggests that the scale of Roman occupation was extensive enough to leave fundamental and permanent marks on Europe’s genetic landscape.

III. The Limitations of Existing Demographic Models of the Roman Population

Petrus_Roselli._Carte_marine_de_la_mer_Méditerranée_et_de_la_mer_Noire_(15th_century)While, as we have seen, eighteenth century models of the Roman population were informed by the underlying assumption that the empire represented a period of unprecedented prosperity, current estimates of the civilization’s population are caught up in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that it could only have been a large natural fertility regime with rampant disease similar to other pre-industrial societies. The problem is that this approach, while grounded in reasonable assumptions, denies the possibility that the Roman Empire was somehow uniquely ahead of its time, which was once assumed as a given—after all, Europe did not see such extensive urbanization and such large metropolitan centers until over a millennium and a half later. Tim G. Parkin declares that “no one today would seriously regard as accurate” Pliny’s estimate of 600,0000 total people for Seleucia, but this is an arbitrary assumption grounded in nothing but the belief that the Empire contained few such extensive cities.45 The dismissive tone of the author is particularly telling. After all, had his assumptions about the inherent trustworthiness of Pliny been different, he might have forgiven the author under the grounds that he could have been referring not only to the city of Seleucia itself, but also to its extensive surrounding hinterlands.

Nevertheless, multiple sources of evidence discussed in the previous section of this paper can safely be labeled problematic. For one thing, even if the Roman Empire saw extensive urbanization, large-scale internal migration, and the formation of suburbs, this redistribution of people geographically is not necessarily synonymous with population growth. Moses Finley seems to have been correct in his critique of Keith Hopkin’s model of Roman commerce, declaring that opportunities for exploitation could increase without a corresponding growth in productivity.46 Studies such as those by Barbiera and Dalla- Zuanna attempting to understand population size with reference to burial sites are often hampered by the paucity of the existing sources of evidence; for example, they use eleven cemeteries to represent the entirety of the period between the first century BCE and the fifth century CE, but have ten data points for the sixth to seventh centuries alone. They also systematically ignore the fact that the bulk of the Western Roman population practiced cremation during the first two centuries CE, while early Christians (who practiced burial but lived on the fringes of society and likely did not have the best diets) were probably over-represented.47 Evidence for enhanced nutrition might be grounds for believing that Italy was becoming a more salubrious and populous place. It might alternately, however, be evidence for economic collapse as lands formally devoted to cash crops were turned over to the production of fruits and cereals and formally massive urban populations broke up into smaller groups whose nutrition did not rely on grain doles. There is simply no way to know the truth, though the fact that the paper was written by medievalists rather than classicists perhaps informed the ultimate thesis. Whatever the case, a high population for Rome and its empire might be interpreted as a mixed blessing vis a vis long term growth. At I.12, Herodian described how “because of its very high population, and because it took in immigrants from all over,” mortality was highest in Rome during times of plague. And contrary to the naïve impulse that a large population implies a prosperous nation, Bruce W. Frier aptly explained that with higher population can paradoxically come lower living standards and less opportunity for economic advancement.48 Paradoxically, the lower the population of Roman Italy is estimated to be, the more urbanized and prosperous its people might seem to appear.

It is impossible to know to what degree rising birth rates and immigration were responsible for the dramatically increasing numbers seen in Table A. An increasing percentage of a stable pre-existing population might simply have been granted citizenship over time with no corresponding growth in population size. Even the epigraphic data, deemed over-analyzed by Scheidel, can prove to be deceptive. For example, epigraphic patterns differed depending on location in the empire. Old ages seem to have systematically not been recorded in Noricum, but were a popular typos in Africa.49 The number of surviving grave sites, just as in the case of the number of surviving documents from Egypt, is not enough to make accurate estimates for the state of the empire as a whole. Even the little evidence that survives is in some degree inherently unrepresentative. For example, young males between the ages of ten and fourteen were underrepresented in Egyptian papyri dealing with the census, likely because the census was taken regularly and once it became known that a boy reached the age of fourteen, he became liable for taxation; females were under-registered as a rule.50 It is not even clear what category of people were eligible for being counted in censuses of Roman citizens. Saskia Hin, for example, pointed to the possibility that Augustan counts might have included widows, children and grandchildren liberated from patria potestas, and freed slaves.51 At the same time, while there is some evidence for the growth of the Roman population in urban contexts, there is also evidence for a drop in fertility among certain subsections of the populace. A full three-quarters of the senatorial families of the early Roman Empire disappeared after a single generation. This extraordinary fact has been variously interpreted, but it was likely, at least in part, the result of deliberate birth control, delayed marriage, and even infanticide.52 While Augustus passed laws punishing bachelors and rewarding fertility among Roman wives, two children were exposed in his own family: the child of his granddaughter Julilla, and an infant whom the future emperor Claudius suspected was illegitimate.

Compounding these problems is a lack of sensitivity to just how untrustworthy the numbers mentioned by ancient literary sources can be. As we have seen, scholars such as Bagnall and Frier somberly employed numbers mentioned by Diodorus of Sicily in their estimates of the size of the Egyptian population. However, this ignores the fact that Diodorus has been called one of “the most accomplished liars of antiquity” and was condemned to hell in one of Lucian’s satires for his poor scholarly standards.53 In fact, some have even assumed that Diodorus (or a scribe) simply made a typo and meant to write 7 million rather than 3 million, since he used just that number at an earlier point in his history.54 Ultimately, even the most respected and meticulous authors of antiquity were liable to make mistakes. In Book I.2 of his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides mentioned that 200 triremes were dispatched by Athens to Egypt in 460 BCE, which would mean that 40,000 men were sent to the Nile in the midst of the First Peloponnesian War when there were incredible strains on manpower. A Persian source, Ctesias, says that the number was actually 40 triremes, and he may (or may not) have been closer to the mark.55 Duncan-Jones readily accepted Cicero’s assertion that the state income of Ptolemaic Egypt was 300 million sestertii. However, we know that the entire Roman Empire’s annual income ranged between 650 and 900 million sestertii, and the notion that 35-40% came from Egypt alone seems improbable.56 To make matters worse, ancient sources in general cannot be fully trusted when it comes to any number. Scribal errors and the use of letters to represent digits resulted in maddening variations across the manuscript traditions of many ancient authors, which sometimes only survive in their present form from a single copy that may or may not have been accurately transcribed.57

Gibbon’s notion that the Roman Empire represented the most populous state in the history of the planet seems hyperbolic, yet his use of evidence was actually quite reasonable and rather similar to contemporary approaches, albeit informed by different assumptions about the possibilities for the veracity of the source material and the proportion of people who were enslaved and/or otherwise unrepresented in the data set. He wrote, for example:

We are informed that when the emperor Claudius exercised the office of censor, he took an account of six millions nine hundred and forty-five thousand Roman citizens, who, with the proportion of women and children, must have amounted to about twenty millions of souls. The multitude of subjects of an inferior rank was uncertain and fluctuating. But, after weighing with attention every circumstance which could influence the balance, it seems probable that there existed, in the time of Claudius, about twice as many provincials as there were citizens, of either sex, and of every age; and that the slaves were at least equal in number to the free inhabitants of the Roman world. The total amount of this imperfect calculation would rise to about one hundred and twenty millions of persons; a degree of population which possibly exceeds that of modern Europe.58

It is singularly discouraging that Gibbon’s use of the same source material as Walter Scheidel could result in an estimate twice the size of contemporary guesses. Be that as it may, imaginative applications of common sense to ancient data can sometimes generate compelling arguments indeed, shedding light on obscure demographic forces. For example, when considering whether or not the deliberate breeding of slaves raised the population of Roman Italy, Hume ingeniously concluded that the effect was likely minimal:

At the capital, near all great cities, in all populous, rich, industrious provinces, few cattle are bred. Provisions, lodging, attendance, labour are there dear; and men find their account better in buying the cattle, after they come to a certain age,from the remoter and cheaper countries. These are consequently the only breeding countries for cattle; and by a parity of reason, for men too, when the latter are put on the same footing with the former. To rear a child in London, till he could be serviceable, would cost much dearer, than to buy one of the same age from Scotland or Ireland; where he had been bred in a cottage, covered with rags, and fed on oatmeal or potatoes. Those who had slaves, therefore, in all the richer and more populous countries, would discourage the pregnancy of the females, and either prevent or destroy the birth.59

Hume backed up his argument by noting that individuals bred into slavery, so-called vernae, enjoyed special legal rights compared to other kinds of slaves, so there was likely not many of them. (owners preferring to maximize the possibilities for exploitation). Moreover, Cato, Varro, and Columella mention nothing about the profitability and desirability of breeding slaves. Xenophon’s Oeconomicus actually suggests that male and female slaves sleep separately. While it is impossible to tell whether or not Hume was correct about the impact of slave-breeding on the size of the population, the silence of these iconic texts on the issue is difficult to ignore. To Hume, as to most modern authorities on the subject, the eighteenth century image of an empire of 120 million people fuelled by the breeding of massive numbers of slaves seemed somehow intuitively unreasonable.

IV. Final Thoughts: “Losing the Trees for the Forest?”

Rome-Forum-night-italy-1-XLKeith Hopkins warned that economists and demographers exploring the Roman past often make simplifying assumptions in an effort to see where they lead without paying attention to the complexities and ambiguities of the real world situation: “It is as though, in order to guess the weight of an elephant, you first imagine it to be a solid cube.”60 As we have seen, assumptions about the overall size of the Roman Empire have shifted dramatically over time, with the same problematic evidence interpreted through various thematic prisms forged by one’s academic interests and general beliefs about the nature of pre-industrial civilization as a whole. Be that as it may, Beloch’s work in 1886 broke real ground by harnessing reported census returns to make reasonable guesses about the size of the population, and since then, the general parameters of the debate have been set; the Roman Empire likely contained c. 60 million people, with the city of Rome boasting somewhere around a million inhabitants at its height. The size of individual provinces— even the relatively extensively documented Egypt—remains controversial. However, if the Roman Empire was not a natural fertility regime and consistently showed life expectancy above the mid twenties, it would be unique in the history of the pre-industrial world.

There is perhaps an unfortunate tendency in modern scholarship to ignore the possibilities for such uniqueness, or to make generalizing claims about the size of the ancient population without paying attention to the ways in which cultural practices might shape demographic realities. The fundamental problem is that the evidence for institutions such as birth control, infanticide, etc., is limited to passing references in literary sources, complicating the possibilities for evaluating the “modernity” or lack thereof of ancient practices, to say nothing of their demographic effects.

However, in the tradition of Hume, I believe that there still exists the possibility to make use of common sense and a strong imagination to add new information to our knowledge of otherwise extremely inaccessible states of affairs. For example, what is one to make of the ancient Roman saying “sexagenarios de ponte deicere”—“(to) hurl sixty year old men from the bridge”? Modern scholars who treat the subject almost unanimously assume that the phrase refers to a remote period in Roman history when an over-eager youthful populace attempted to monopolize voting rights, casting elderly men off the planks that Roman citizens would cross to reach voting places.61 However, at least one ancient author, Festus, admitted that the saying might have referred to ancient practices of senicide. The answer to the puzzle seems lost to time, but there are some clues to guide us. First, we know that bridges in general were invested with religious significance in early Rome—to this day, the pope, like the Roman emperors before him, is known as the Pontifex Maximus. Moreover, on the 15th of every March, a series of ancient purification ceremonies began whose origins were purportedly obscure; the Vestal Virgins would throw life-size dolls (argei) from the Sublician Bridge into the Tiber. Some have theorized that this was a proxy for former human sacrifices, though as far as I know, few have specifically connected the practice with the ancient saying.62 Human sacrifice in general was banned by Crassus and Lentulus as late as 97 BCE, and Romans in the time of Cicero and Augustus seem to have preferred to ignore the issue. However, I personally suspect that it was no coincidence that Julius Caesar was “sacrificed” on the Ides of March, the very day when the ancient ceremonies associated with senicide and the freedom of an independent youthful electorate took place.63

This is a situation in which an ancient practice which may or may not have existed was likely limited to a small circle of old men in extremely early Roman history. There certainly exists no way to measure its overall demographic effects on the size of the population (which, anyway, might have been negligible to begin with.) However, a sense of imagination with regard to the surviving ancient evidence can highlight unexpected quirks which made the structure of Roman civilization unique rather than a cookie-cutter example of a pre-industrial society. While archeologists pine for new discoveries and many scholars believe that our best hope for new knowledge of Roman demography will derive from this source, an ability to creatively reconstruct past social practices in the tradition of Beloch and Hume perhaps suggests another avenue for hopefulness with regard to our understanding of the structure of ancient society at large.


1 See David Hume, Essays Moral, Political, Literary, edited and with a Foreword, Notes, and Glossary by Eugene F. Miller, with an appendix of variant readings from the 1889 edition by T.H. Green and T.H. Grose, revised edition (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1987). Chapter: ESSAY XI: OF THE POPULOUSNESS OF ANCIENT NATIONS, accessed at

2 Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 6 vols. (London: Printed for W. Straham; and T. Cadell, in the Strand, 1776). Chapter 3.

3 See the opening essay in Isaac Vossius, Isaaci Vossii Variarum Observationum Liber (Londini: Prostant apud Robertum Scott bibliopolam, 1685).

4 See the Baron de Montesquieu, The Persian Letters, Letter 112, 1748. Roger B. Oake points out that the 1758 edition of the letters was edited to read a tenth rather than a fiftieth. See also Roger B. Oake “Montesquieu and Hume,” Modern Language Quarterly 2 (March 1941): 25–41.]

5 In 1973, the famous classicist Moses Finley still branded Beloch’s study “The fundamental work on ancient population figures.” See M. I. Finley, The Ancient Economy, Sather Classical Lectures, (Berkeley,: University of California Press, 1973). Pp. 182.

6 Walter Scheidel and Sitta von Reden, The Ancient Economy, Edinburgh Readings on the Ancient World (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002). Pp. 201.

7 John C. Caldwell, “Fertility Control in the Classical World: Was There an Ancient Fertility Transition?,” Journal of Population Research 21, no. 1 (2004). Pp. 11.

8 Scheidel and Reden, The Ancient Economy. Pp. 182. See E. Lo Cascio, ‘The Size of the Roman Population,’ JRS 82 1994. Pp. 115. See also C. Jullian Histoire de la Gaule, (Paris; 1920) Vol. 5. Pp. 25-28.

9 For a cultural, political, and economic comparison between the two empires in a spirit of building bridges between subfields of history, see Walter Scheidel, Rome and China : Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires, Oxford Studies in Early Empires (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). Donald Kagan criticized the book to me in a conversation for its unwillingness to dwell on the implications of fundamental differences vis a vis conceptions of liberty between the two empires.

10 For the development of this argument, see Angus Maddison and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Development Centre., The World Economy : A Millennial Perspective, Development Centre Studies (Paris, France Development Centre of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development,2001).

11 Irene Barbiera and Gianpiero Dalla-Zuanna, “Population Dynamics in Italy in the Middle Ages: New Insights from Archeological Findings,” pp. 369.

12 Caldwell, “Fertility Control in the Classical World: Was There an Ancient Fertility Transition?.” Pp. 2.

13 Quoted in L. de Ligt and Simon Northwood, People, Land, and Politics : Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy 300 Bc-Ad 14, Mnemosyne Supplements, (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2008). Pp. 17.

14 Ibid.

15 David P. Henige, Numbers from Nowhere : The American Indian Contact Population Debate (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998). Pp. 287-280.

16 Caldwell drew my attention to their work. See Harkness, A. G. 1896. Age at marriage and death in the Roman Empire. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 27. Pp. 35-72. See also McDonnell, W. R. 1913. On the Expectation of Life in Ancient Rome, and in the Provinces of Hispania, Lusitania, and Africa. Biometrika 9. Pp. 366-380.

17 M. I. Finley, The Ancient Economy, 2nd ed. (London: Hogarth Press, 1985). Pp. 29-30.

18 Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Chapter 2.

19 M. I. Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (London: Chatto & Windus, 1980). Pp. 84.

20 For a description of the destructiveness of periodic old wars and the old order, see Alan Macfarlane, The Savage Wars of Peace : England, Japan and the Malthusian Trap (Oxford, UK ; Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997).

21 See Lawrence H. Keeley, War before Civilization (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). pp. 28.

22 For the most comprehensive contemporary evaluation of the institution of Roman marriage, see Susan Treggiari, ACLS Humanities E-Book (Organization), and American Council of Learned Societies., “Roman Marriage Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian.” (Oxford New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press, 1991),

23 Bruce W. Frier. 2000. “Demography” in A. K. Bowman, P. Garnsey, and D. Rathbone (editors), The High Empire: AD 70-192. Cambridge Ancient History Volume 9. Cambridge University Press.

24 Peter Garnsey, Keith Hopkins, and C. R. Whittaker, Trade in the Ancient Economy (London: Chatto & Windus : Hogarth Press, 1983). Pp. 12.

25 For an analysis of this important element of Hopkins’ contribution, see John R. Love, Antiquity and Capitalism : Max Weber and the Sociological Foundations of Roman Civilization (London ; New York: Routledge, 1991). Pp. 215.

26 Fritz-Heiner Mutschler and Achim Mittag, Conceiving the Empire : China and Rome Compared (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). Pp. 127.

27 Tim G. Parkin, Demography and Roman Society, Ancient Society and History (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992). Pp. 8-9.

28 Alfred J. Andrea, James H. Overfield, The Human Record: Sources of Global History: To 1700, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000. Pp. 146.

29 See the entry under slavery in William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 2nd ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1870).

30 Timothy Taylor, Believing the Ancients: Quantitative and Qualitative Dimensions of Slavery and the Slave Trade in Later Prehistoric Eurasia, World Archaeology, Vol. 33, No. 1, The Archaeology of Slavery, (Jun., 2001), pp. 27- 43.

31 See Table A taken from Tenney Frank, “Roman Census Statistics from 225 to 28 B. C,” Classical Philology 19, no. 4 (1924).

32 Ligt and Northwood, People, Land, and Politics : Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy 300 Bc-Ad 14. Pp. 19.

33 P. M. G. Harris, The History of Human Populations (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001). Pp. 168- 172.
34 See Table B taken from

34 Gerda de Kleijn, The Water Supply of Ancient Rome : City Area, Water, and Population, Dutch Monographs on Ancient History and Archaeology, (Amsterdam: Gieben, 2001).

35 Ibid.

36 Alan K. Bowman and Andrew Wilson, Quantifying the Roman Economy : Methods and Problems, Oxford Studies on the Roman Economy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). Pp. 142-143.

37 Ibid. Pp. 101.

38 For a summary of findings on inscriptions, see Caldwell, “Fertility Control in the Classical World: Was There an Ancient Fertility Transition?.” Pp 9-10.

39 Hopkins, Keith. 1966. On the Probable Age Structure of the Roman Population. Population Studies 20(2). Pp. 245 onward.

40 Roger S. Bagnall et al., “The Demography of Roman Egypt,” In Cambridge studies in population, economy, and society in past time 23. (Cambridge England ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1994),

41 See chapter 3 of Walter Scheidel, Death on the Nile : Disease and the Demography of Roman Egypt, Mnemosyne Supplements, (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2001).

42 Walter Scheidel, Debating Roman Demography, Mnemosyne, Bibliotheca Classica Batava Supplementum, (Leiden Netherlands ; Boston: Brill, 2001). Pp. 141.

43 Joseph Gilbert Manning, Land and Power in Ptolemaic Egypt : The Structure of Land Tenure (Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

44 See Eric Faure, “Could FIV zoonosis responsible of the breakdown of the pathocenosis which has reduced the European CCR5-Delta32 allele frequencies?” Virol J. 2008; 5: 119. Published online 2008 October 16,


45 Parkin, Demography and Roman Society. Pp. 65.

46 Joseph Gilbert Manning and Ian Morris, The Ancient Economy : Evidence and Models, Social Science History (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2005). Pp. 212.

47 Irene Barbiera and Gianpiero Dalla-Zuanna, “Population Dynamics in Italy in the Middle Ages: New Insights from Archeological Findings,” pp. 379.

48 See chapter 4 of Scheidel, Debating Roman Demography.

49 Bowman and Wilson, Quantifying the Roman Economy : Methods and Problems.

50 Walter Scheidel, Measuring Sex, Age and Death in the Roman Empire : Explorations in Ancient Demography, Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series, (Ann Arbor, MI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1996). Pp. 56-57.

51 See Saskia Hin’s essay in Ligt and Northwood, People, Land, and Politics : Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy 300 Bc-Ad 14. Pp. 187-285.

52 D. S. Potter and D. J. Mattingly, Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire, New and expanded ed. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010). Pp. 100.

53 Lloyd, quoted in Robinson, Eric W., “Thucydidean Sieges, Prosopitis, and the Hellenic Disaster in Egypt,” Classical Antiquity, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Apr., 1999). Pp. 135.

54 Parkin, Demography and Roman Society. Pp. 65.

55 Robinson, Eric W., “Thucydidean Sieges, Prosopitis, and the Hellenic Disaster in Egypt,” Classical Antiquity, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Apr., 1999), 132-135.

56 Scheidel and Reden, The Ancient Economy. Pp. 196.

57 Ligt and Northwood, People, Land, and Politics : Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy 300 Bc-Ad 14. Pp. 20.

58 Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Chapter 2.

59 David Hume, Essays Moral, Political, Literary, edited and with a Foreword, Notes, and Glossary by Eugene F. Miller, with an appendix of variant readings from the 1889 edition by T.H. Green and T.H. Grose, revised edition (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1987). Chapter: ESSAY XI: OF THE POPULOUSNESS OF ANCIENT NATIONS, accessed at

60 Scheidel and Reden, The Ancient Economy. Pp. 193-194.

61 See, for example, Lily Ross Taylor, Roman Voting Assemblies from the Hannibalic War to the Dictatorship of Caesar, Jerome Lectures, 8th Ser (Ann Arbor,: University of Michigan Press, 1966). Pp. 92.

62 For a sampling of contemporary thoughts on the issue, see Tim G. Parkin, Old Age in the Roman World : A Cultural and Social History, Ancient Society and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). Pp. 265-268.

63 Incidentally, I believe I am the first to make this claim. It at least adds credence to the idea that Caesar might actually have been told to “Beware the Ides of March”—it was no ordinary day.

Works Cited

Bagnall, Roger S., Bruce W. Frier, ACLS Humanities E-Book (Organization), and American Council of Learned Societies. “The Demography of Roman Egypt.” In Cambridge studies in population, economy, and society in past time 23. Cambridge England ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Bowman, Alan K., and Andrew Wilson. Quantifying the Roman Economy : Methods and Problems, Oxford Studies on the Roman Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Caldwell, John C. “Fertility Control in the Classical World: Was There an Ancient Fertility Transition?” Journal of Population Research 21, no. 1 (2004): 1-17.

Finley, M. I. The Ancient Economy, Sather Classical Lectures,. Berkeley,: University of California Press, 1973.

Finley, M. I. The Ancient Economy. 2nd ed. London: Hogarth Press, 1985.

Finley, M. I. Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology. London: Chatto & Windus, 1980.

Frank, Tenney. “Roman Census Statistics from 225 to 28 B. C.” Classical Philology 19, 4 (1924): 329-41.

Garnsey, Peter, Keith Hopkins, and C. R. Whittaker. Trade in the Ancient Economy. London: Chatto & Windus : Hogarth Press, 1983.

Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 6 vols.London: Printed for W. Straham; and T. Cadell, in the Strand, 1776.

Harris, P. M. G. The History of Human Populations. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001.

Henige, David P. Numbers from Nowhere : The American Indian Contact Population Debate. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
Hopkins, Keith. 1966. On the Probable Age Structure of the Roman Population, Population Studies 20(2).

Jullian, Camille. Histoire De La Gaule. 8 vols. Paris,: Hachette et cie, 1920.

Keeley, Lawrence H. War before Civilization. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Kleijn, Gerda de. The Water Supply of Ancient Rome : City Area, Water, and Population, Dutch Monographs on Ancient History and Archaeology,. Amsterdam: Gieben, 2001.

Ligt, L. de, and Simon Northwood. People, Land, and Politics : Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy 300 Bc-Ad 14, Mnemosyne Supplements,. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2008.

Love, John R. Antiquity and Capitalism : Max Weber and the Sociological Foundations  of Roman Civilization. London ; New York: Routledge, 1991.

Macfarlane, Alan. The Savage Wars of Peace : England, Japan and the Malthusian  Trap. Oxford, UK ; Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.

Maddison, Angus, and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Development Centre. The World Economy : A Millennial Perspective, Development Centre Studies. Paris, France Development Centre of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development,2001.

Manning, Joseph Gilbert. Land and Power in Ptolemaic Egypt : The Structure of Land Tenure. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Manning, Joseph Gilbert, and Ian Morris. The Ancient Economy : Evidence and Models, Social Science History. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat. Persian Letters. The 5th ed. London,: M. Cooper, 1755.

Mutschler, Fritz-Heiner, and Achim Mittag. Conceiving the Empire : China and Rome Compared. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Parkin, Tim G. Demography and Roman Society, Ancient Society and History. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Parkin, Tim G. Old Age in the Roman World : A Cultural and Social History, Ancient Society and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Potter, D. S., and D. J. Mattingly. Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire. New and expanded ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.

Scheidel, Walter. Death on the Nile : Disease and the Demography of Roman Egypt, Mnemosyne Supplements,. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2001.

Scheidel, Walter. Debating Roman Demography, Mnemosyne, Bibliotheca Classica Batava Supplementum,. Leiden Netherlands ; Boston: Brill, 2001.

Scheidel, Walter. Measuring Sex, Age and Death in the Roman Empire : Explorations in Ancient Demography, Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series,. Ann Arbor, MI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1996.

Scheidel, Walter. Rome and China : Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires, Oxford Studies in Early Empires. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Scheidel, Walter, and Sitta von Reden. The Ancient Economy, Edinburgh Readings on the Ancient World. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002.

Smith, William. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. 2nd ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1870.

Taylor, Lily Ross. Roman Voting Assemblies from the Hannibalic War to the Dictatorship of Caesar, Jerome Lectures, 8th Ser. Ann Arbor,: University of Michigan Press, 1966.

Treggiari, Susan, ACLS Humanities E-Book (Organization), and American Council of Learned Societies. “Roman Marriage Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian.” Oxford New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press, 1991.

Vossius, Isaac. Isaaci Vossii Variarum Observationum Liber. Londini: Prostant apud Robertum Scott bibliopolam, 1685.

Libidinous Pygmies and Perverted Slave Masters: An Introduction to the Thematics of the Roman Orgy

Libidinous Pygmies and Perverted Slave Masters: An Introduction to the Thematics of the Roman Orgy[1] Through a Close Reading of a Fresco in the Pompeian House of the Doctor

1.1 Orgiastic Sex as the Inauthentic and Aberrant—A Case Study in Imperial Propaganda

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Prepubescent pygmy-boys fornicate beside a picnic table underneath a billowing canvas awning. The penetrator lies flat on his back as his lover rides him astride, facing his feet. The “bottom”[2] (who is ironically physically on top in this case) delights a party of banqueters by bouncing along to the melody of a tibia. The picnickers and flutist are similarly depicted as members of the same chimerical species eliding the features of children, dwarfs, and Cupids. To the right of the ensemble, a pair of pygmies shepherd a wild crane toward the party, while a second couple gossip in the shade of elegantly fenestrated parapets enclosing an idyllic park. To the left of the banquet, a ship with the masthead carved into the shape of an ass carries myriad amphorae on the Nile. One of the diners raises his arm in a gesture of salute, either to celebrate the athletic achievements of the couple having sex at the picnic or to beckon the pilot of the boat into port so that the party can be restocked. The captain, however, is preoccupied. He is in mid-thrust penetrating another pygmy from behind, his chest and mien extended triumphantly toward the heavens as he pumps. On the riverbank, another pygmy rides a hippopotamus among the reeds and raises a mace or a bottle into the air, either sadistically egging the beast on or desperately trying to rein him in. The hippo chomps on yet another pygmy, the entire lower half of his body mashed into ooze that drips from the animal’s jaws in viscous strands. A bystander pathetically attempts to wrest what is left of the victim’s cadaver from out of the creature’s teeth.[3]

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 11.26.23 AM.pngWhen I first visited the so-called Secret Cabinet in the Archeological Museum of Naples, I came face to face with the most unsettling work of art that I had ever encountered, a fresco discovered in the Pompeian House of the Doctor (VIII. 5. 24) dating to the late Julio-Claudian or early Flavian dynasty.[4] The residence received its name thanks to seventy surgical instruments and tools for ointment-making that were uncovered on the site when it was first excavated in the nineteenth century.[5] Situated on the Via dell’ Abbondanza in the vicinity of the Forum, the house has been called “modest” in comparison to many of its ostentatius neighbors in the city.[6] John Clarke describes the original setting of the fresco of the pygmies, which was exhaustively detailed by Antonio Sogliano in 1882.[7] The owner of the house constructed an addition to the southwest section of the building some time after a devastating earthquake in 62 CE. He or she took advantage of the opportunity to install a small peristyle beneath a skylight (compluvium) along with a reception area and a dining room directly beyond it. The image of the libidinous pygmies was taken from the low walls (plutei) that connected the columns of this peristyle. It is thought that an impluvium (water basin) originally surrounded the fresco since waterproof flooring was discovered beneath the compluvium and the space was connected to both a cistern and a channel leading out to the street. The accumulation of water would have enhanced the illusion of being in the presence of the Nile River, the content of the fresco seemingly spilling out into the three-dimensional realm of the viewers themselves and blurring the distinction between art and reality.[8] Yet underscoring the profound divergence that existed between the world of the painting’s admirers and the exotic wonderland depicted by the anonymous artist is the fact that spectators would have only been able to admire the fresco by observing it from vantage points along the frame of a low wall rather than studying it head-on in intimate detail, since the entire space in front of the image would have been overflowing with water.[9] Consequently, there invariably existed physical distance between viewers of the fresco and the object itself mirroring and reinforcing the thematic gulf between “Roman” and “Other” as visitors to the house contemplated the bizarre shenanigans of the pygmies reflected in the rippling pool in front of them.

The depiction of pygmies as exotic, licentious Others has a long pedigree in Greek and Roman thought. Given their name because the span of their bodies was thought to be equal to the length from the human elbow to the knuckle (a πυγμή), they were popular subjects since the end of the Greek Dark Ages.[10] Homer described an annual rumble between pygmies and cranes when the latter encroached upon the pygmies’ sweltering homeland whenever the birds flew south for the winter, a struggle that became known as the geranomachy.[11] The pygmies themselves combine generic features associated with dwarfs, adolescents, and sub-Saharan Africans. Their “civilization” has no basis in reality, and certainly not in the culture of the historical bush tribes who inhabited central Africa.[12] Clarke suggests that depictions of pygmies could often serve to facilitate Roman imperialism by effectively erasing the personhood of subjugated Nilotic peoples, auguring themes associated with racist imperial propaganda that would plague the Western imagination until the modern age.[13] Mary Boatwright concurs with Clarke, insisting that images of pygmies often underscore the τρυφή (luxuriousness) of Egypt, divorcing the lascivious subjects of the depictions from the human sphere.[14] Representations of pygmies may further be understood in light of contemptuous elite Roman attitudes not only toward their colonized subjects, but toward physical disability in general. Dwarfs and deformed individuals were often kept as “pets” that were considered fascinating to their owners due to their ugliness.[15] According to Bert Gevaert and Christian Laes, this prurient interest was likely grounded in large part in an urge to accentuate one’s prosperity by means of stark daily juxtaposition with the less fortunate.[16] All of this is in line with the opinion of Edward Said that the foundations of Orientalism extend to the Greco-Roman past. “In classical Greece and Rome,” he wrote, “geographers, historians, public figures like Caesar, orators, and poets added to the fund of taxonomic lore separating races, regions, nations, and minds from each other; much of that was self- serving, and existed to prove that Romans and Greeks were superior to other kinds of people.”[17] Said might well have added visual artists to his catalogue of imperial collaborators.

IMG_5673.jpgWhy are the pygmies engaged in orgiastic behavior? In the eyes of many critics, the hypersexual content only serves to further a program of brutal colonial dehumanization. In fact, the very act of portraying these sexual antics might be considered tantamount to an aggressive act of imperial exploitation in its own right. According to arguments developed by Susanne Kappeler that later proved fundamental to second wave feminist thinking in the Classics epitomized by Amy Richlin’s Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome[18], the depiction of an act that is brutally dehumanizing is in fact in some ways more “real” than the “reality” that the representation purports to portray.[19] After all, an isolated event exists ephemerally in time and space and is subject to endless reinterpretation, possessing no fixed meaning. A representation, however, is a facticity that endures forever. The depiction of the pygmies’ orgy can be understood through this thematic lens accentuating the pernicious influence of gross stereotyping as a tool of imperial exploitation. The nudity of the subjects may be central to their brutal debasement. In ancient art, the portrayal of nakedness was often associated with the clichéd celebration of beauty and purity; indeed, it was often the “clothing” of the gods themselves. As Roman artists adapted and readapted age-old formulaic models associated with the human form, however, they could exploit the rich constellation of meanings connected with nudity to make unique artistic statements depending on the context in which that nudity was deployed.[20] In the fresco of the pygmies, the nakedness is vulgarly explicit, with bare buttocks and erect penises confronting viewers at every angle. There is sex on display everywhere, but the pygmies themselves are not very sexy. There is no intimacy or passion on display here. The subjects are simultaneously unrealistic and childlike rather than objects of beauty or desire. The faces of the penetrated partners are not even visible. The festive, public context of their intercourse seems to render their efforts more ridiculous than alluring. While gay sex is ubiquitous, females are evidently nowhere to be found. One wonders how the strange species even reproduces itself.[21]

In light of all of this, at first glance, the idea of viewing the sexual acts depicted in this fresco through the prism of reality and lived experience seems almost foolhardy. If the pygmies are meant to be rendered as quintessential Others, it might stand to reason that their preferred form of festive, exhibitionist sex was likely viewed as a bizarre act in its original cultural context. This would fall squarely in line with Alastair Blanshard’s suggestion that Roman orgies are largely grounded in discursive fantasy rather than authentic cultural practice. Writing about “the Myth of the Orgy,” Blanshard opines that:

(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.[22]

Blanshard goes on to explain that the myth of the orgy is fundamentally misogynistic, bound to paranoid male fantasies on the rare occasions when the Romans deigned to talk about it at all.[23] He even suggests that Christians might have accused the Romans of holding orgies to dispel rumors about their own cult, suggesting that the legendary popular image of the Romans as polyamorous debauchees might date more to the post-classical world and the imaginations of modern European and American artists than the ancient past.[24] Normativity in the Roman was bound to the idea that a dominant man should penetrate his way down the social ladder. The implication is that the experience of being penetrated was fit only for people like slaves, prostitutes, and one’s legal wife. For this reason, the chaotic couplings of an orgy seem somehow fundamentally “inauthentic” or “aberrant” to the Roman cultural experience in Blanshard’s imagination. Many ancient Romans would have undoubtedly shared his anxiety about group sex. For example, around the time of the creation of the fresco of the pygmies, Seneca wrote that “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… (since) towards certain things even a brothel shows a sense of shame.”[25]

IMG_5693.jpgInterestingly, Blanshard’s problematization of orgiastic imagery is not the first example of sexual content contained in ancient material evidence resulting in that evidence’s relegation to the realm of the “inauthentic” and “aberrant” because it failed to square up with contemporary notions of how certain scholars would like to imagine the Romans behaving in the bedroom.[26] The future King Francis of the Two Sicilies (r. 1825 to 1830) made a habit of visiting the Neapolitan Archeological Museum with his wife Maria Isabella and daughter Louisa Carlotta in tow to broadcast the sophistication of the royal house as the family admired one of the finest collections of classical statuary in existence. The gallery was the pride of Naples and a veritable place of pilgrimage for European adventurers on the Grand Tour. During the eighteenth century, the Greeks and Romans were idealized as the originators of the values of the Enlightenment, and their aesthetic accomplishments were the inspirations for the entire neoclassical movement. To experience their art was thought to be to commune with the zeitgeist of a lost and better age.

However, the royal family was in for more than just a glimpse at edifying busts of dead emperors when they explored the museum. Much of the art uncovered in Pompeii portrayed sex in a frank manner that defied eighteenth century values, compromising the morals that the Bourbon dynasty wished to inculcate. Like it or not, art depicting sex was not “a vulgar exception… (but) the rule” in Pompeii.[27] The very word “pornography” entered into the English language in the mid-nineteenth century in part as an attempt to describe the genre of erotic representation seen so ubiquitously in the ruins of the ancient city.[28] Interestingly, when the word “pornography” was described by Webster’s Dictionary for the first time in 1864, the ultimate definition was “licentious painting employed to decorate the walls of rooms sacred to Bacchanalian orgies, examples of which exist in Pompeii.”

Pan_with_a_she-goa_2507863b.jpgAccording to legend, Francis and his family were flabbergasted by the art that they encountered, including objects like a statue of a faun penetrating a nanny-goat[29], a tripod made of Pan-figures with erect penises, paintings of slaves attending their masters during sexual trysts, and enough priapuses to scar poor princess Louisa Carlotta for the rest of her life. Disgusted by the obscenity on display and the increasingly scurrilous jokes of visitors to Naples, Francis concluded in 1819 that “it would be as well to confine all the obscene objects, of whatever material, in one room, the only people allowed to visit this room being of mature age and proven morality.”[30] In this way the Secret Cabinet was born, a restricted annex meant to contain “disreputable monuments of pagan licentiousness.” “Women, children, and non-elite men were strictly barred from seeing…any of the objects.”[31] Certain modern works were hauled off to the room as well, including Titian’s provocative “Danae.” Demand for permits to visit the hidden chamber climbed to such an extent that licenses soon had to be printed rather than handwritten. According to the display in the museum today, “the way in which the collection was administered became a symbol of the cultural backwardness of the Bourbon regime.” After the discovery of the fresco of the pygmies in the House of the Doctor, there was little question about where it would be housed.

During the Revolution of 1848 and again during the Risorgimento, troops vowed to open the Secret Cabinet to contrast the censorship and incompetence of the Bourbon dynasty with the liberty and openness of the new regime. After the unification of Italy, Giuseppe Fiorelli unsuccessfully attempted to abolish the puritanical restrictions once and for all in 1860.[32] But the Cabinet’s contents compromised Mussolini’s plan for a Nova Roma in the first half of the twentieth century. Appeals to Romanitas, the “quality of being like a Roman,” were key to the fascist agenda, and the party’s provision of “peace, work, bread, roads, and water” was explicitly meant to call to mind the achievements of the ancient Caesars.[33] Mussolini even hosted a major exhibition called the Mostra Augustea della Romanita on the 2000th anniversary of Augustus’ birthday, with Giulio Quirino Giglioli appointed to serve as the general director of the exhibition; Hitler himself visited it twice.[34] The Secret Cabinet was made completely off limits during this time since its unwholesome images contradicted the fascist fantasy of austere Roman morality that Mussolini held to be so fundamental to Italian nationalism. The Cabinet was eventually reopened in 1976. Women were only admitted in the 1980s.[35] Then it was closed yet again until a grand rechristening in the year 2000 and the construction of a special wing devoted to it in 2005. Today, children scamper freely about the hallways and access to the collection seems completely unrestricted to visitors of all ages, although various publications suggest that the age limit is technically 14.[36] One wonders what the Romans and eighteenth and nineteenth century Grand Tourists would have made of this latest development.

It is unfortunate that the culturally specific meaning of the fresco of the pygmies is lost in the anonymous jumble of the Secret Cabinet’s “erotica.” In the words of Nicholas Fox Weber, “One wishes only that (the works of art) could be seen where they belong: in the context of everything else in this archaeological museum, as part of a life as a whole rather than as the sort of peep show that censorship and prudery have forced them to become.”[37] The Secret Cabinet contains an array of widely disparate objects that are essentially only united by modern ideas about their sexualized attributes. The fact that nude statues of Venus were almost always deemed uncontroversial in European museums but that a tripod with images of erect penises should be considered obscene enough to be relegated to a restricted annex says more about modern European values than ancient Roman ones, since both nude statues of Venus and images of erect phalluses were in no way exclusively associated with sexual titillation in the ancient world. In the words of John Clarke speaking in reference to the most famous work in the Secret Cabinet in a documentary about the history of pornography:

The removing of the Pan and the Goat from the culture that it was embedded in and putting it away started a process that still continues today, that is: cordoning off sexual representation from the rest of life. For the Romans it was a part of the continuum, for us it is still a very scary thing. We believe in the power of images of sex to create disturbance.[38]

app0017.jpgScholars have struggled to articulate subtle differences in the meaning of different types of art that to the Bourbons seemed uniformly eroticized and therefore dangerous in the illicit passions that they might evoke among patrons to public museums, institutions which expanded knowledge of the Classics to a wider audience than ever before but caused consternation since traditional educated elites no longer held an exclusive monopoly on access to historical information which might inspire unruly behavior.[39] Yet in reality, the bronze tripod with legs formed by ithyphallic figures might have simply been a charcoal brazier associated with religious offerings, with the penises serving an apotropaic rather than pornographic function.[40] Depending upon the context in which they were depicted, images of phalluses could be considered humorous, lucky, or merely a symbolic and highly generic way of illustrating a boundary.[41] All of these distinctions are eradicated in the hodgepodge of the Secret Cabinet, where these kinds of images are lumped alongside objects like paintings of hermaphrodites being seduced by Pan, erotic images on dinnerware, and our fresco of hypersexual pygmies.

Assembling the content of the Secret Cabinet carried the attendant ramification of distorting the public understanding of Greco-Roman history by excluding key pieces of material evidence from study and enshrining a lack of sensitivity to the nuances of each individual piece’s original meaning and reception. In the same way, categorically dismissing the fresco of the pygmies as contemptuous imperial propaganda and the broader idea of the Roman orgy as nothing but a hyperbolic fantasy carries the attendant risk of ignoring the potential range of non-mutually-exclusive understandings that an original Roman audience might have reached when contemplating a work of art illustrating group sex at a banquet on the Nile. When Duke Francis and Alastair Blanshard forged spaces (rhetorical and otherwise) in which depictions of sex that they found unsettling could be banished as “inauthentic” or “aberrant,” their actions disempowered future scholars by restricting access to source material on the one hand and silencing Roman sources on the other by branding their claims fallacious, incredible, and illegitimate when they depicted intercourse in ways that did not reflect modern (and sometimes ancient) ideas about propriety.[42] Blanshard’s description of the orgy essentially creates an echo-chamber of elite prejudiced attitudes in which only vanilla sex is viewed through the prism of lived experience and supposedly non-normative sex is banished to the realm of the fantastical precisely because it is non-normative.[43] Blanshard mistakes that which is taboo for that which is rare, implausible, or non-existent. In fact, group sex and sex in the context of banquets and orgiastic rituals are often prominent and startling features of Roman art and historiography, and a willingness to engage with their depiction on their own terms and in the thematic company of other lived experiences in antiquity rather than exclusively through the prism of “fantasy” can often prove revelatory. This is even true in the analysis of pieces such as the fresco of the pygmies in the House of the Doctor, which ostensibly portrays a completely imaginary scenario.

1.2 A Sampling of Contemporary Critical Views of the Orgiastic Pygmies Beyond Propagandistic Readings

Let us reconsider the fresco of the pygmies in its original Roman context. The first task is to cautiously set aside the notion that the fresco would have necessarily or exclusively been read as a derogatory or wholly fantastical depiction in its original Roman setting in all respects and by all viewers. Clarke emphasizes that it is not always a straightforward task to decide when a pygmy is symbolizing a colonial Other and when the image is intended to be perceived in other ways.[44] His confusion on the matter, however, seems to miss the point that even clownish depictions of pygmies bound to non-colonial concerns could never have completely escaped the imperialist discourse surrounding these types of images in other contexts. For this reason, they must have inevitably spoken at least in part to the perpetuation of “propagandistic” discourse in the absence of any critical interrogation of the demeaning “Orientalist” perspective. However, I nonetheless agree with Clarke that “the best antidote to fanciful overinterpretation is to insist on the circumstances of creation and reception for each visual representation”[45] when considering a specific work of art. Even if issues associated with propaganda were inevitably at play in depictions of pygmies as a generic class, the only way to untangle whether a specific depiction was primarily grounded in such concerns or also spoke to other themes demands a close investigation of contextual issues associated with the piece and its installation in its original setting. Until now, attempts to interpret the fresco of the pygmies beyond emphases on colonialism and dehumanization have focused on the fresco’s apotropaic or documentary functions. We will examine each of these in turn before I suggest an additional prism through which to view the work grounded in the details of the group sex being portrayed, questioning whether the pygmies were in fact meant to represent “Others” in all respects.

Undercutting the idea that the fresco of the pygmies should exclusively and fundamentally be understood as anti-provincial propaganda is the fact that the fresco seems to imagine the pygmies as magical, playful, and even lovable beings. Meyboom and Versluys’ description of the variegated roles of pygmies in Roman art accentuates their symbolic roles connected with the idea of fertility and the copiousness of the Nile flood.[46] Clarke describes how the portrayal of pygmies was often associated with the παράδεισος motif of wild animal hunts in sacral-idyllic landscapes in addition to σύμπλεγμα (complex sexual couplings), all of which feature in the fresco in the House of the Doctor. To Clarke, these kinds of images were “lightning rods, to pull away the forces of evil from non-deformed individuals through the laughter they incited… when a Roman encountered a visual representation of deformed, phallic dwarfs in a liminal–and therefore dangerous–space, he or she understood that laughter was the point.”[47] Clarke understands the sexuality on display in these kinds of depictions as a variation on other kinds of apotropaic depictions of sex and the human body, linking the power of laughter with the ability to draw away the unwelcome attentions of the evil eye.[48] The work of Robert Garland, who has explored the “talismanic” character of deformity in antiquity, reinforces this reading.[49] For her part, Marilyn Skinner writes that depictions of ithyphallic pygmies and bath-servants with erect penises are similar to phallic images like those of the god Priapus, and that the laughter which they invoked was itself considered to be apotropaic, to say nothing of an opportunity to release anxiety.[50]

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 10.06.31 AM.pngClarke’s idea that the pygmies on display in the House of the Doctor serve a primarily apotropaic purpose can be challenged, however.[51] In her incisive review of Clarke’s work, Alexandre Mitchell reminds readers that pygmies were popular objects of mirth since time immemorial and that laughter directed in their direction was not necessarily always apotropaic in nature. However, she seems to overstate her case insofar as most other depictions of beings with erect phalluses are almost invariably associated with apotropaic functions in classical art, particularly when they are discovered in liminal spaces like gardens and the entrances to baths where visitors pass from one thematic realm into another, often accompanied by a change in dress. The fact that so many depictions of pygmies have been discovered in gardens, tombs, and baths suggests a link to apotropaism even if the intended function of the representations sometimes transcended the merely apotropaic.[52] In other words, the apotropaic association could no less be completely eradicated than the imperialist connection whenever this kind of art was put on display. At best, either function could be emphasized or downplayed depending on the tastes of the individual artist/patron.

While I disagree with Mitchell that the pygmies are not necessarily invested with apotropaic power, I share her misgivings that Clarke may be drawing too much attention to the apotropaic power of laughter in this specific incidence, at least in terms of the inherent “humor” of depicting a pygmy in the first place. It seems to me laughter is perhaps not the only source of the pygmy’s power as an apotropaic symbol. Images of the creatures are quite common in Pompeii, with depictions found in locations associated with banqueting and in tombs like the monument of Vestorius Priscus, which depicts pygmies hard at work on a Nile barge in a totally non-sexualized and non-humorous setting beneath an image of a festive symposium attended by full-size humans decked out in Greco-Roman garb.[53] This is an inversion of the classic distinction between sober-minded Romans and decadent, partying pygmy-Others. The pygmies as a class are evidently foils whose antics reflected, distorted, and magically charmed the lives of the people who encountered them rather than merely serving as crass representations of hilarious decadence juxtaposed with Roman sobriety. Of course, the pygmies might serve as humorous symbols of lasciviousness, but this was not their only role in Roman art. Nor are they always ugly and deformed—indeed, they often resemble elegant, blithe beings.

The fresco of pygmies in the House of the Doctor seems at least in part humorous and talismanic in nature, and certainly would have been interpreted that way by many viewers considering the general association between apotropaic images, erect phalluses, and liminal spaces like gardens which bridged the gulf between the private and public and indoor and outdoor worlds. The Roman garden was itself a fantastical landscape with an atmosphere in some ways reminiscent of the fairytale-like world evoked in the fresco of the pygmies, typically suffused with exotic statuary and panels with features like Egyptian deities, Nereids, and sundry mythological characters.[54] Far from being merely objects of contempt, the pygmies might have been viewed as lucky beings whose wondrous qualities could prove to be protectively empowering.

Beyond the fresco’s apotropaic power, scholars have also drawn attention to its potential documentary connections to Egyptian culture. Nilotic landscapes in Roman art had certain generic features in common which help to explain some elements of the fresco. Pompeii had long been associated with the appropriation of Egyptian culture. In fact, the sanctuary of Isis at Pompeii was one of the oldest in Italy. It included Fourth Style paintings portraying flotillas, priests and priestesses, still lives, and (of course) pygmies.[55] Egypt had a longstanding reputation for licentiousness. Sex manuals like those of the legendary Elephantis were commonly associated with the province, and Roman authors luxuriated in tales of notorious prostitutes like Rhodopis, women whose names became bywords for promiscuity (and this despite the fact that papyrological evidence suggests that sexuality was much more downplayed in Egypt than in Pompeii itself).[56]

999204621c7b27e6b01aeb7c25855960.jpgEroticized banquets with couples languishing by the Nile were evidently common visual motifs in Rome whether or not they involved pygmies. For example, in the magnificent mosaic from the Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia at Praeneste, the scene is enlivened with erotically charged vignettes of men and women lounging at picnics set along the Nile.[57] It is hypothesized that the mosaic dates anywhere from the late second century BCE to the late first century BCE, and has been interpreted in light of Roman views of Egypt in literary sources.[58] It underscores the fact that visually, Egypt was long associated with the erotics of banqueting in the Roman imagination. The presence of pygmies might simply provide an opportunity for the artist to get away with being particularly explicit in his depiction of σύμπλεγμα, undoubtedly a playful nod to the fertility rituals for which the abundant country was famous in addition to a commentary on the land’s notorious τρυφή.

Ceremonial ὄργια in honor of Dionysus orchestrated in the time of the Ptolemaic dynasty were subjects of gossip even centuries after the fact, doubtless contributing to Egypt’s reputation as an appropriate artistic venue for the depiction of luxury and outlandishness. Ptolemy II organized an enormous celebration including 24 chariots drawn by 96 elephants, a mile long parade, and still more vehicles pulled by “lions, oryxes, ostriches, and wild asses,” and also “leopards, cheetahs, lynxes, a white bear, brown bears, camels laden with cinnamon and the tusks of 600 elephants, 130 Ethiopian and 300 Arabian sheep, a snake reported to have been 45 feet long, and 24,000 Indian dogs,” to say nothing of a “giraffe… (and) black African rhinoceros.”[59] During the height of the Dionysian rites in Alexandria, a large ceremonial phallus was carried on a float and worshipped for its life-giving properties.[60]

Turin-Reconstruction.jpg Paul G. P. Myboom
and Miguel John Versluys ground their understanding of images like the fresco
of the pygmies in the House of the Doctor in the history of these kinds of fertility rituals stemming from Egypt itself, providing a so-called interpretatio aegyptiaca of the scenes in question.[61] They argue that the sex seen in these images of fornicating dwarfs should be interpreted as representations of the symbolic union of Isis and Osiris. They insist that the σύμπλεγμα must have ceremonial overtones, an idea which can be traced far back in Egyptian history. For example, the Turin Erotic Papyrus 55001 from the twelfth century BCE depicts priests and Hathor-dancers in various sexual couplings, in one case in the presence of an ithyphallic dwarf. Myboom and Versluys believe that the Pompeiian frescoes might not depict parodies at all, but “genuine imitations” of ceremonial rituals.[62] While temple prostitution (hierodouleia) was not native to Egypt, it was likely associated with foreign cults such as that of Astarte at Saqqara and the worship of hybrid gods like Zeus-Amun.[63] The god Bes was especially associated with fertility, and so-called Bes chambers have been discovered containing erotic figurines in Saqqara in proximity to the Anubeum dating to the mid second century BCE, including decorations showing Bes flanked by female worshippers; it is unknown, however, if these images were associated with prostitution or childbirth.[64] Later, soldiers’ graffiti related to Bes provides evidence of the longevity of interest in his cult.[65] Myboom and Versluys are at their most convincing when they explain that sexualized depictions of dwarfs and pygmies become far less common after 200 CE, arguing that this shows an increasing divergence between pagan and Christian ideas about Nilotic τρυφή. The idea is that the associations between σύμπλεγμα and pagan fertility rituals would have been so obvious to Roman viewers that the depictions would no longer have been deemed culturally appropriate in a Christian context.[66]

Whatever the associations between Bes and sacred prostitution and the question of whether images of homosexual couplings can meaningfully be said to symbolize the union of Isis and Osiris, the Pompeiian scene incorporates the eroticized σύμπλεγμα associated with divinities such as Bes and weaves them into a rich tapestry of discursive strands that emphasized the lascivious “Otherness” of Egypt, but also the country’s bounty, vitality, and infinitely renewable fertility, all within the setting of a peaceful garden protected by delightful apotropaic images.[67]

But for all of these insights, a question which Clarke took for granted remains unanswered: why is the image of the pygmies having group sex particularly “funny,” especially since the pygmies in this particular fresco are more cherubic than deformed and grotesque? And if we agree with the interpretatio aegyptiaca of Myboom and Versluys, why should the “genuine imitation” of public sex in an orgy take on the specific features that it does, complete with a musician playing a tibia and homosexual pairings which otherwise have no precedent in Egyptian art? At the same time, what, if anything, does all of this have to do with the wild hippopotamus hunt taking place on the fringes of the scene? It is here that an investigation of the particular kind of orgiastic sex on display in the fresco is particularly illuminating and reveals the perils of relegating the sexual evidence in the painting to the realm of the merely fantastical, apotropaic, or documentary when it in fact served all three purposes simultaneously and also a fourth which might seem altogether less obvious upon first examination: a reflection of anxiety about social class, sex, and public performance in a specifically Roman context. Indeed, again and again throughout this dissertation, tensions between propaganda, fantasy, slander, humor, the documentation of lived experience, and a reflection on what it means to behave in a sexually “normative” fashion in a brutally classist society will prove to both haunt and enrich our exploration of the thematics of the Roman orgy.


1.3 Interrogating the “Otherness” of the Orgiastic Pygmies—An Interpretatio Romana of the Scene

pict_md_dnBdYHFnYWU1ODs7PzkoYH53YGJicCs4bXtgaTNnbG5WT0QMVEdcREpfS0wDGB0YFkJESkYIBwYICg4VS15K.jpgGroup sex was often deployed as an amusing motif in Roman art. On the basis of the discovery of its depiction on several lamps, it has been hypothesized that its portrayal might have served an apotropaic function much like images of dwarfs and pygmies in their own right.[68] Images of group intercourse are particularly common which depict chains linking a woman between two men, as if to underscore the drainer’s domination.[69] In several surviving Nilotic images from Pompeii, “Egyptians” engage in group intercourse in festive settings. In one painting, a woman fellates a man while another partner penetrates her from behind as they sail on the Nile to an appreciative audience of river creatures; in another image, pygmies flit about in the background as an apparently full grown heterosexual couple have reverse-cowgirl style sex while two maids stand by, one playing the tibia.[70] The image of the tibia-player beside the couple having sex is strikingly reminiscent to the fresco from the House of the Doctor and suggests that a pattern book was used at least in part in the crafting of both images.

Despite our emphasis so far on Otherness, there are thematic links in the fresco that bind the image inextricably to Romanitas. It has already been demonstrated that in generic images of this kind, both pygmies and full-grown humans are depicted engaging in group sex, complicating a simplistic divergence between viewer and subject. In the fresco from the House of the Doctor, the pygmies are portrayed as cute, essentially human-like figures rather than monstrous or deformed beings. Indeed, we know that they are pygmies because they fit the cues (an Egyptian setting with a heron, the presence of a hippo, etc.), but otherwise, they are quite cherubic and might as well be human children in line with other images in the later history of Roman art.[71] It has even provocatively been suggested that images of libidinous pygmies might be associated with critiques of the Roman imperial family, who restricted access to Egypt, harnessed its luxury to fuel the engine of their authoritarianism, and were reported by historians to participate in orgiastic practices during just the time when this fresco was said to have been executed in the reign of the emperor Nero.[72] Regardless of whether the fresco refers to contemporary events in imperial circles, other elements of the painting unequivocally ground it in the world of the Romans themselves. The pygmies are surrounded by dainty examples of Hellenic architecture rather than huts. Both the House of the Doctor and a sumptuous opus vermiculatum mosaic in the House of Menander depict realistic cityscapes behind the pygmies, grounding the images in the everyday visual experience of the viewer and complicating the idea that the artist is interested in a complete distancing between spectator and object.[73] Like the “Greek” characters of Plautus in his adaptations of New Comedy, the pygmies are ostensibly Others, but really inhabit a world that, in some ways, greatly resembles Rome itself. Nor are all of the pygmies in the fresco in the House of the Doctor engaged in outlandish acts. One couple simply strolls in a garden while its members chat with each other, undoubtedly doing much the same as visitors to the peristyle itself. There exists a kind of intimate closeness to the society which the pygmies are aping, although the reflection is a distorted one, as if seen in a fun-house mirror.

Impudicita (the quality of being sexually penetrable outside of wedlock) seems to be on parade in the fresco of the pygmies, but because the class distinctions between the pygmies is unclear, it is not entirely evident whether stuprum (transgressive sex that defied class and gender norms) is being committed. This is a key feature of the scene that would have likely been prominent to a Roman viewer conscious of class but which has hitherto been invisible to modern commentators. We will see in later parts of this dissertation that when indiscriminate group sex between freeborn citizens comes up in Roman historiography, it is a cause of great concern and consternation to conservative historians, but that the topic of group sex among slaves and the enslaved in erotic poetry is often the subject of great jocularity. The scene of the pygmies depicts group sexual acts without reference to the class distinctions that made such acts either normative (albeit hedonistic) or non-normative. It is fundamentally impossible to tell if the tibia player is a slave, if the penetrated partner is a freeman, or if the captain of the boat is a Roman citizen. For this reason, the artist can combine the shock value of scenes in historiography depicting indiscriminate orgiastic sex without sensitivity to class with the hilarity of poetic portrayals focusing on slaves and Others, since the “pygmies” are imaginary beings who inherently do not display class distinctions, and so are inherently sexually subversive from a Roman perspective. Because the pygmies seem to inhabit a classless society at war with the forces of nature, there is no social ladder to hump one’s way down. Instead, there is inherent scope for a free-for-all.

As in the realm of literature, the theme of impudicitia could be harnessed by artists to explore the inherent tension between hilarious invective and serious outrage.[74] In traditional classical Greek portrayals of homosexual behavior, the explicit depiction of anal sex was somewhat rare, perhaps a means of preserving the illusion of the sanctity of freeborn boys.[75] By contrast, Roman artistic portrayals often depict anal sex far more blatantly, allegedly since there invariably existed the assumption that the sex portrayed was reinforcing class hierarchies: that is, that the penetrated drainers were the likes of slaves or prostitutes.[76] While this formula holds true for images such as panel paintings depicting servants fulfilling the sexual needs of patrons in locations such as brothels, we have already shown that the couplings of the pygmies complicate this simplistic scenario. The possibility of indiscriminate group sex is outrageous because such public exhibitions inherently complicate class hierarchies, but in this case, there are no hierarchies to complicate. There is nothing in pygmy-land but hilarious permutations of bodies and unbounded vitality. If Clarke is correct and the fresco was meant to be perceived as humorous from a Roman perspective and that its apotropaic power was in fact bound to its humor, its inherent elision of the class distinctions that normally defined sexual acts as normative or non-normative is surely at least part of the reason for this power.[77]

Still another dimension of meaning to the sexual acts on display in the fresco becomes evident in consideration of the spatial hierarchies that defined the lived experiences of the members of ancient cities such as Pompeii. Imagine what it would have been like to walk through the town on the eve of its destruction. On the outskirts of the city were long stretches of roadside punctuated by tombs. This was the zone of the dead, with nothing but epitaphs and rotting offerings of victuals to memorialize the ghosts of the maiores. Along the gates of the city were both amphitheaters and dumping-grounds for unwanted children. This was the zone of the dying, where the bodies of unwanted humans from infants born outside of wedlock to gladiators bound for the arena were exploited for gain or left to rot. And within the towns themselves were the zones of the living, overflowing with images evoking sexual penetration and interspersed with brothels and taverns which often served the sexual in addition to the alimentary appetites of their clientele. Apotropaic images of erections were ubiquitous, from ithyphallic statues to mosaics, lamps, frescoes, and graffiti. The overall impression would have been overwhelming: the ancient world was a primal place in which a civilized veneer barely concealed the brute facts of a savage, altogether more basic existence. Sex and violence were everywhere, barely controlled by being confined to set spaces within the city and wielded as weapons against set groups of people whose reputations did not matter: those afflicted with infamia.[78] People’s roles were clearly demarcated—one’s position in the city (and sexual vulnerability) clearly signified who was in power and who was an outcast.

Literal and discursive violence upheld power. Certain people were permitted to exploit others, and those who broke the rules of the game could expect merciless approbation and violence against their bodies and even their memories. The image of rape was ubiquitous, represented everywhere from myths to paintings to reenactments in the arena and perpetrated against the bodies of slaves everywhere from brothels to aristocratic boudoirs. The exploitation of the vulnerable was seen as more than just an unpleasant fact of life. It was what it fundamentally meant to be a Roman. The spatial organization of the city and ideas of sexual normativity both upheld Roman power—to be a Roman citizen was to be a penetrator who exploited the less powerful in permitted zones within the urban space and within certain parameters; the way one treated a tavern-girl for hire, for example, was not the way one treated the unmarried daughter of another Roman citizen. In this world, as Blanshard intuited, the idea of an indiscriminate orgy was dangerous, something fundamentally disorderly to the organizing spatial regimes that defined the domain of a Roman city. This does not mean, however, that group sex had no place within the Roman city. Indeed, its very transgressive potential perhaps made experimentation with it all the more irresistible.

Now, think back to the fresco of the pygmies. Clarke emphasizes that to understand the nature of Roman laughter, one must first examine the nature of “looking” itself. In other words, we need to understand Roman “scopic regimes” and untangle how humor is culturally constructed, exploring the assumptions underlying jokes which provide impact to their punchlines.[79] To Clarke, we have already seen that pygmies are quintessential Others who provoke laughter and function as apotropaia, lampooning commonly held ideas about cultural beauty and dispelling the evil eye by distracting it with hilarious deformity.[80] Clarke specifically believes that the fresco in the House of the Doctor parodies scenes on triumphal arches and sarcophagi, caricaturing Roman virtus rather than naively celebrating it.[81] Usually in images of heroic exploits, he explains, “the hero always wins,” and he contrasts the defeat of the pygmies at the hands of the Nilotic beasts to the glorious fates of epic heroes. This is a subtle point. Like Mary Beard’s description of a Hellenistic or Roman statue of a drunken old woman whose body has been ravaged by time makes clear, certain images can be seen as “sneers” at canonical heroic values.[82] As for the orgiastic banquet, Clarke suggests that “this image shows just what a proper Roman was not supposed to do at a convivium before you turn the corner and enter the triclinium: drink too much, dance, and have sex in the open.”[83]

All of this stands in line with Clarke’s emphasis on the Otherness of the pygmies. Yet just as an analysis of the group sex portrayed at the picnic revealed that the specific humor of the situation portrayed in the fresco was likely bound to the elision of class-distinctions rather than merely the outrageousness of group sex as a theoretical act per se, consideration of the fresco in light of the spatial hierarchies of the Roman city further suggests a level of meaning that has hitherto been invisible to modern commentators. The fact of the matter is that wild animal hunts, the public performance of sex to music, and even the goring of living victims by wild beasts were regular facts of life in Roman cities rather than merely fantastical occurrences. The only difference is, they normally took place within set spatial domains such as amphitheaters and brothels rather than indiscriminately out in the open. In fact, the fresco in the House of the Doctor does not construct the pygmies as unintelligible Others, but as individuals going about experiences in their daily lives that are normally relegated to specialized “performance spaces” in a Roman town. Clarke may suggest that on sarcophagi and triumphal arches the hero always wins, but many Pompeiians would have been all too familiar with the faces of the dead and dying in the amphitheater and realized that virtus and victoria were in fact not always joined.

“Group sex” in the form of intercourse in festive performative settings for the delight of a crowd is strongly attributed in the archeological record in Pompeii. It has been suggested that while pantomimic actors often hoped to inspire more from their audience than simply a knee-jerk sexual response, the uneducated class reveled in bawdy scenes on the stage that toyed with the distinction between simulation and reality.[84] Antonio Varone stresses the erotic nature of popular performances and explains that they often culminated in live acts, tracing the history of these kinds of spectacles to Atellan farces and fescennini, in which eroticism was particularly prominent.[85] An image from a caupona in Pompeii on the Via di Mercurio known from a copy made in the nineteenth century shows a man penetrating a woman from behind while simultaneously drinking from wine goblets and balancing on a tightrope.[86] Martial describes a woman being raped in a public mythological reenactment of the sex between Pasiphae and a bull.[87] Kathleen Coleman has extensively explored these kinds of performances as lived experiences in the Roman world where violence served to uphold autocratic power by channeling the frustrations of the mob into a herd mentality that could be exploited to uphold the might of the emperor.[88] In the Flavian era, dwarfs were set against each other in combat during the Saturnalia[89], and Domitian was notorious for arranging battles between females and dwarfs.[90] Considering the tradition of depicting such battles as mythological reenactments, one wonders how often real-world brutality was justified by the creation of violent tableaux vivant featuring real-life “pygmies” at war with exotic beasts and each other.

The upshot of all of this is that if a Roman viewer found the content of the fresco of the pygmies to be outlandish, it was emphatically not because of the nature of the acts themselves, but because of the fact that they are presented as mundane and in a manner in which the features associated with social class that normally determine the bounds of acceptable behavior are blurred. The pygmies inhabit a kind of state of nature where daily life is defined by being subject to the forces of sex and violence normally kept at bay in amphitheaters and brothels by the spatial demarcations of a Roman city. They are not outlandish Others, but mirror images of the Romans with all class distinctions, pretense, and spatial boundaries stripped away: infames in a world of infamia run wild.

The scene in the fresco of the pygmies is thus fantastical not because it shows fantastical acts, but because it takes social practices out of their social context. Insofar as this is too, it affirms Clarke’s intuition that Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque and its liberating inversions of social norms can be used as a meaningful prism through which to think about the history of Roman humor.[91] There is something gallant about the pygmies all indiscriminately dying, fighting, and loving life together in a single indiscriminate heap, trying vibrantly to conquer the forces of nature in a world lacking the institutional barriers to stave them off.[92] There is a sense of de-individuation on display here in the carnivalesque atmosphere of the picnic, in which no one has a reputation to uphold and everyone can simultaneously be a gladiator, a sexual performer, a penetrator, a drainer, a gentleman enjoying a stroll in a garden, and hippo-meat. The fact that no women are depicted in the orgy must have been a deliberate choice on the part of the artist, since we know from the example in the House of the Ephebus that generic images of couples performing intercourse in front of pygmies and tibia-players often included women.[93] This undercuts Myboom and Versluys’ interpretatio aegyptiaca of the scene in question, since if the sex was primarily meant to depict the union of Isis and Osiris, one would not expect the artist to omit female figures.[94] Rather, it seems to me that the exclusive inclusion of men enhances the carnivalesque atmosphere of the painting by ensuring that no one is sexually situated in their “proper” place. An image of a pygmy male dominating a pygmy female would have conformed to traditional notions of Roman normativity, with everyone playing an appropriate role. A world in which everyone is male is inherently more chaotic, since each individual can simultaneously be subject to penetrating or draining at any moment, and it is entirely unclear if traditional social hierarchies are actually being upheld in the sex being portrayed. According to this understanding, the inclusion of women would have robbed the picture of much of its subversive edge.

The orgiastic imagery juxtaposing brutal death with musical sex was meant to do more than, as Clarke believed, remind diners of how not to act at a dinner party. It also served as a brutal memento mori about what it meant to be a non-Roman-citizen or one of the infames—an exciting and colorful life in its lack of restrictions, but a brutal and grotesque existence where death was always close at hand. To be a Roman citizen meant the occasion to be entertained by sex and violence inflicted upon others. In the world of this panel painting, life itself is conceptualized as one grand gladiatorial spectacle. The triumphant, public sex accompanied by no shame on the part of the penetrators or drainers epitomizes the transgressive potential of an orgy to collapse all categorical distinctions even as the violence surrounding the scene underscores the idea that the inevitable consequence of a world without boundaries is destruction.


1.4 Contextualizing the Fresco of the Pygmies in Its Full Architectural Framework: Orgiastic Sex as Subversion or Bad Taste 

The artist’s focus on gladiatorial behavior and public spectacle is accentuated by the other panels found beside the fresco of the banqueting pygmies in the House if the Doctor. The fact that the images have long been carted off to separate rooms of the Archeological Museum of Naples and have largely been subject to disjointed scholarly traditions is an unfortunate reminder that the sexual content of the original fresco has historically banished it from most of the discourse about the art discovered in the House of the Doctor.

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 10.13.15 AM.pngBeside the fresco of the fornicating pygmies was an additional panel depicting pygmies battling with crocodiles, with one dueling against a particularly vicious example with sword and shield in hand, mimicking the pose of a gladiator.[95] Still others ride and attempt to harness a crocodile, while others cooperate in battle against an animal so enormous that it could be an elephant, hippo, or another crocodile, the whole scene portrayed against the backdrop of a magnificent sacral-idyllic landscape containing realistic Greco-Roman villas rather than huts.[96] While all of this seems thematically in line with the content of the orgiastic fresco, a third panel on the site defies simplistic attempts at a cohesive explanation of the ensemble under the peristyle. This particular pluteus has traditionally been described as a pygmy reenactment of the judgment of Solomon between two mothers claiming the same infant, the scene immortalized in 1 Kings 3:16-28.[97] The image has been called “unparalleled” by Mary Beard, transcending what is usually seen in depictions of pygmies that have been discovered elsewhere in Pompeii in places like the sides of the couches in the triclinium of the House of the Ceii, which depict pygmies up to sexual antics very similar to those in our fresco.[98] What does “Solomon’s Judgment” add to our understanding of the space?


There exists a rich bibliography about the painting’s meaning, with some claiming that it is an anti-Semitic caricature, and others identifying Socrates and Aristotle as the people to the left and right of the Hebrew monarch.[99] The world of Judaea and Egypt seem to combine into a single exotic Orientalist space. Beard believes the story is either the tale of Solomon or one quite similar to it.[100] Clarke seems more confident, saying the scene “would have invited fanciful story-telling, or ekphrasis.”[101] Scenes of judgment have been found in the Villa under the Farnesina, but by Clarke’s own admission, the scenes in the House of the Doctor are reminiscent of other imagery, like friezes of butchers on tomb reliefs at Ostia.[102] In his view, the infusion of pygmies into the mix transformed the “serious” into the “silly.” Nevertheless, the inclusion of the story of Solomon seems highly unusual given the Egyptian motifs defining the other paintings on the site. But if not Solomon, then who is being depicted?

It has been suggested that the panel perhaps shows a scene in the life of the pharaoh Bakenranef of the Twenty-fourth dynasty (ruled c. 725-720 BCE). Known to the Greeks and Romans as Bocchoris, scarabs with his Egyptian name roughly contemporary to his reign have been found on Ischia, the site of Pithecusae, the first Greek colony in Italy, bearing witness to the longevity of his association with Hellenic peoples.[103] Diodorus of Sicily describes the legendary wisdom of the king and his greatness as a lawgiver, explaining that he abdicated the throne rather than fulfill a prophetic dream in which he could only continue ruling Egypt if he carved the priests of his kingdom in half and walked between their bodies.[104] Another of his legendary judgments is preserved in the Stromata of Clement of Alexandria, in which a prostitute who demanded to be paid after inspiring a wet dream in a prospective client is given the shadow of a real coin by the wise king rather than the real thing by means of an elegant analogy.[105] Gaston Maspero, the historian who coined the term “Sea People,” records that the king was likely associated with stories about dividing a child between two women who both claimed it, two beggars arguing over the same cloak, and a wallet full of food between three people who were all hungry, tales which might have been drawn from the lost book Bocchoreidion by the mysterious Pancrates; the evidence seems to be the discovery of these motifs in Pompeiian frescoes that conjure up Egyptian aesthetic values.[106] Yet Maspero’s source for the idea that Bocchoris is associated with narratives about the division of a child between rival claimants seems to be drawn from turn of the century archeological analysis of frescoes from Pompeii theorized to depict the deeds of the pharaoh, which would make the identification in this context a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in the same way that suggestions that the more dehumanized a depiction of an Egyptian landscape, the closer it must have been executed in time to the Battle of Actium. If anything, the scene is slightly more reminiscent of Diodorus of Sicily’s story about the king’s refusal to carve up his priests than the narrative about a child being claimed by two mothers. For better or worse, attempts at identifying specific pictorial scenes as representations of one historical figure or another have fallen out of fashion in contemporary analysis of the painting, and the “Judgment of Solomon” has stuck.

It is striking that much of the discourse surrounding the meaning of the Judgment of Solomon has been divorced from an exploration of its relationship to the orgiastic panel. Indeed, as we saw in the case of Walton McDaniel, evidence of the group sex was sometimes even deliberately omitted because the activity was seen as inherently offensive. If the panel of the Judgment of Solomon were thematically in line with the other frescoes, however, one would expect the scene to be connected to issues connected to public performance and spectacle. The scene depicts a soldier about to carve what looks like a headless, de-feathered chicken with a butcher’s knife. A woman in a bonnet (evidently the only female pygmy in the House of the Doctor) restrains it in place. To the right, a man seems to plead before a seated ruler holding a staff and enthroned on a dais between two counselors—the fact that the clearly male figure below the dais has almost always been uncontroversially identified as a woman pleading for her baby’s life is surprising given the century of discourse surrounding this painting. Perhaps the scene is a parody of public sacrifice, with an animal which is already dead taking the place of the living victim; perhaps, as Clarke suggests, it is a parody of legal judgment; perhaps in accordance with the theme of exploring actions in liminal spaces in the Roman city, the scene is even a subtle allusion to the practice of infanticide or abortion. The misshapen form certainly seems, like Antonia’s description of her son Claudius, “nec absolutum a natura, sed tantum incohatum.”[107]

To insist upon one reading over another is ultimately a fruitless enterprise. Seen in conversation with the orgy, the panel underscores the bizarre yet familiar (unheimlich) nature of the distorted world depicted in the peristyle as a whole. The only sex in this world is orgiastic gay sex; the only baby in this world, if it is a baby at all, resembles a multicolored miscarriage; the only woman in this world exists to sacrifice an infant and not to nurture it; the only domesticated animals in this world are monstrous riverine creatures likely to devour you alive. The magic of the ensemble is its adaptation of a plethora of disjunctive narrative traditions about pygmies including clichéd images of hunts, orgies, boat rides, and banquets with pictorial traditions representing actions that typically took place in the Roman arena or in brothels to create a single, bizarre landscape in which the carnivalesque was depicted as the banal. The whole serves as a meditation on normativity, virtus, masculinity, and violence in the provocative context of a world without class distinctions, a fitting introduction to the area of the triclinium, where hierarchy was always on display in the very arrangement of the seating, but the effects of wine constantly threatened its perpetuation.[108] Of course, this reading is in no way mutually exclusive with the image’s apotropaic, documentary, and even propagandistic functions as a monstrous monument to colonialism.

During the Julio-Claudian and Flavian eras in Pompeii, a rapidly growing population saw wealth distributed beyond a narrow class of aristocratic landowners to what J. B. Ward-Perkins called a “growing middle class, whose tastes and rapidly rising standards of living demanded comparable living conditions.”[109] While the term “middle class” should not be naively applied to antiquity, the observation that a substantial class of urban dwellers existed in Pompeii who were neither impoverished peasants nor super-wealthy real estate barons certainly holds true. This class was willing to appropriate, reinvent, and experiment with artistic traditions to carve out a memorable space for themselves in their homes. The fresco of the pygmies might be understood as the product of a constant game of one-upsmanship and conspicuous consumption that defined elite life in Roman civilization and the experiences of those with pretensions to elite life. Even after two millennia, the painting remains shocking, befuddling, infuriating, and provocative. The execution is at times astounding, with the full force of the techniques of Roman illusionism combined with the effects of time to create a blurred, steamy landscape of oranges and blues evoking the vermilion of the desert and the turquoise of the Nile. Subtle distinctions between the artistic styles of the different panels add variety to the ensemble and enliven the plutei with a sense of diversity even as thematic similarities between the panels result in a fundamental aesthetic unity.

The execution is so fine that some have hypothesized that the fresco might even be a wholesale appropriation of a lost Hellenistic original (or at least the section of it depicting the Judgment of Solomon).[110] This would seem to complicate attempts to ground an understanding of the painting in a specifically Roman context. Certainly the similarity between the tibia player in our fresco and the flutist depicted in the house of the Ephebus is very suspicious, suggesting, as has been mentioned already, the use of pattern books.[111] However, scholars like Beard would explain that to insist upon blind appropriation is to oversimplify the history of Roman painting and ignore the rich interplay between adaptation, appreciation, and invention that defined the creation of ancient frescoes, in which even small changes to a generic scene could profoundly transform its meaning.[112] The history of Roman painting was largely defined by a series of creative twists on traditional topoi that could be mixed and matched to surprise viewers as artists engaged in a constant dance between appropriation and reinterpretation in novel contexts.[113] Whether or not some of the figures in the panels were derivative of known paintings, the choice of the panels as an ensemble in the peristyle was meant to create a conversation between pieces, empowering them to speak to each other and enhance each other’s meaning in unique ways. Certain figures might be whimsical inventions, while others might be reworkings of famous lost masterworks. For example, Beard and Henderson understand the paintings of Andromeda and Perseus and Polyphemus and Galatea from Bosoctrecase in the Metropolitan Museum of Art as local original masterpieces that then became inspirations to other local homes.[114]

001a.jpgWe do not know enough about the context of the painting of the orgiastic pygmies to tease out what figures are original and which are derivative. We can only say for certain that the artist chose to emphasize content with strong thematic links to public performance and infamia, which would have furthered the painter’s aims by grounding the fantastical, apotropaic content in the lived experiences of the victims of Roman imperialism while simultaneously softening their presentation by divorcing it of the charges of struprum in view of the pygmies’ inherent classlessness. The fact that this painting was evidently executed in the era of the emperor Nero is perhaps especially telling, since he was said by Roman tradition to be associated with transgressive sexualized theatrical spectacles.[115] Before the godlike Roman emperor, everyone was essentially rendered of the same servile class, traditional rules of morality did not apply, and life itself was one extended theatrical spectacle. Clarke is quite right that the image of the pygmies was meant to be funny, but not because it depicts group sex, but group sex out of the classist social context of “where it belonged” in Roman society (the brothel, the aristocratic bedroom, the mystery cult, or the theater). In the Rome of Nero as in the fresco, group sex sometimes threatened to break free of the boundaries of where it was supposed to be contained.

Ultimately, the decorative scheme of the peristyle in the House of the Doctor has inspired over a century of agony, censorship, and soul-searching among classicists struggling to pin down its meaning. In the end, we cannot discount the possibility that it might even be interpreted as an example of phenomenal bad taste in a “middle class” house, in line with the aesthetic judgments of the negotiatores on the island of Delos who might have patronized a statue of Venus with hilariously oversized nipples during the heyday of Roman imperialism on the island.[116] The fact that the entire surface of the walls of the peristyle was not covered with paintings, the obvious differences in skill level between the painters of the different panels, the hasty construction of the peristyle as a whole in the wake of an earthquake, and the aggressively over-the-top melodramatics of the content of the images might all suggest a less than perfectly refined aesthetic taste at play in the sponsor of the fresco. While this interpretation in no way diminishes the monument’s significance as a document of Roman attitudes toward sex, violence, and physical and cultural difference, it serves as an important reminder that even the most nuanced and enlightened modern interpretations of an ancient masterwork might sometimes be anachronistic in their charity with regard to the sophistication of the intentions of the original artist and patron. Many Romans might have simply seen the fresco as something like a kitschy depiction of garden gnomes gone wild.

1.5 Problematizing Blanshard’s Dismissal of the Roman Orgy Through Further Examples of Group Sex in Pompeian Art[117]

Regardless of one’s opinions of the aesthetic merits of the peristyle in the House of the Doctor, the act of viewing the group sex on display through the prism of lived experience empowered us to understand the reasons that the image was likely considered both humorous and subversive. Because examples of group sex sometimes involved the danger of people who should be penetrators acting as drainers and because orgies were only considered normative when undertaken with subordinates, an image of a classless pygmy society engaging in festive group sex was inherently transgressive from a Roman perspective. By the same token, the choice of specific images of sex set to music juxtaposed with gladiatorial imagery deliberately evoked the ambiance of the Roman amphitheater, where sex and violence were nightmarish lived experiences that were in every way the opposite of mere discursive fantasy. Blanshard’s dismissal of the reality of the Roman orgy would impoverish understandings of the fresco of the pygmy by over-simplifying its content as imaginary and “unreal,” thus disempowering us from understanding its poignancy as an example of social commentary. At the same time, it carries the danger of denying the experiences of the institution’s historical victims, whose ordeals deserve to be remembered in all their horror. By mistaking the orgy’s supposed lack of normativity for its lack of existence, Blanshard entrenches the power of patriarchal discourse by dismissing examples of transgressive or exploitative sex to the realm of the imaginary. He fails to realize that the very “rules” of Roman normativity necessitated the brutal exploitation of women, slaves, and Others in often startlingly public contexts. To declare that the Roman orgy is a discursive fantasy is to make a political statement silencing the voices of the victims of Roman imperialism, a system which often made a public spectacle of the violent sexual degradation of its victims.

Beyond images of orgiastic pygmies, other paintings from Pompeii often portray sex taking place in the presence of slaves, rendering attempts to suggest that images of “group sex” are rare in Roman culture simply incredible to me if “group sex” is understood to include exhibitionist coupling in public, often drunken scenarios in the presence of third and fourth parties. Countless erotic images were painted by local artists from albums containing stock models, with slaves sometimes serving as voyeurs to the antics of their masters, and sometimes being coerced into participation.[118] The depiction of slaves being debauched is especially common in private households, inns, and brothels, where the space was inherently bitty and cramped and a single noisy soundscape would have created a public element to sex everywhere from brothels to bedrooms regardless of the presence of flimsy partitions between chambers. Propertius complains about how erotic paintings incite girls to licentious behavior,[119] and Ovid too mentions the prominence of figurae Veneris in formal domestic contexts.[120]

eop1567.jpgElite households often contained paintings of groups engaged in erotic behavior. One such image from the house of Caecilius Iucundus (famous as the hero of the Cambridge Latin Course) portrays a couple directly after intercourse being attended by a female slave.[121] The image was found in the peristyle and could be seen by anyone in the house. It was evidently meant to broadcast Caecilius’ aristocratic pretensions: here was a man who could afford a cubicularius.[122] Like the image of the orgiastic pygmies, the fresco was banished to the Secret Cabinet after its discovery by Antonio Sogliano in 1873. Whether the scene depicts a master sleeping with his slave about to be attended by a third slave or a Roman mistress rising from bed after intercourse with her husband and about to greet her maid is ambiguous, and undoubtedly a large source of the titillation that such images must have provoked. Similar frescoes from the Villa Farnesina are particularly explicit in addition to pictures from the Villa di Centocelle, which all depict couples making love surrounded by servants ogling them and providing wine.[123] The Villa Farnesina and its painted panels were executed in the late second style and likely date to around 19 BCE; it was once hypothesized that it might have belonged to Augustus’ daughter, the supposedly promiscuous Julia.[124] Not only were the bedrooms of aristocratic houses outfitted with erotic paintings depicting slaves, such images were often located “on the outer fringes of the house adjacent to the servants’ quarters, sometimes with a door opening onto a sidestreet.”[125] The implication is that the owners of the houses might have sometimes rented out their domestic slaves as prostitutes. People often boast of their multiple sexual conquests in extant graffiti, with one man claiming he had vaginal sex with the memorably named Nanfa and Amomo and anal sex with a certain Perennis.[126] Nor were such boasts confined to men. Consider, for example, Romula and Euplia’s claim to have seduced thousands of men.[127] Clearly sex in the Roman world often had a communal and indiscriminate element in which the powerful luxuriated in their ability to exploit the bodies of the powerless. Along somewhat different lines, if Romula and Euplia were prostitutes, their boast would acknowledge the power of non-aristocratic women to effectively act like men by actively seducing passersby for gain in a communal public context.

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 10.36.12 AM.pngAntonio Varone goes into great depth exploring the inherent connection between eroticism, art, and communal life in Roman Italy. His research on so-called “erotic pictures with doors” is particularly fascinating in its attention to the inherent group sexual dynamics often at play even in “normative” aristocratic Roman bedrooms.[128] He hypothesizes that a game existed in which erotic panels were inserted into empty frames in bedroom walls by slaves while their masters were engaged in sex on the inside of the rooms. His evidence for the phenomenon is exhaustive. A medallion on a vase from the Rhone valley depicts a woman being penetrated from behind by a man, who is in turn being penetrated by another man; above them is a provocative picture encased in a doorframe featuring galloping horses. [129] On a mirror in the Antiquarium Communale of Rome, a painting of a couple having doggy style sex in a doorframe forms the background to a second scene of similar thematic content, with a man penetrating a woman from the front.[130] A cameo in the Archeological Museum of Naples shows a picture of a couple having sex in front of a frame, an image that Varone argues probably represents an erotic picture with doors.[131] Still another image imagines a woman having sex with a man before an erotic framed painting and wishing him well, congratulating him at his prowess at lovemaking.[132] Varone suggests that when the doorframes were opened, diverse erotic portraits could have been iserted into the windows by slaves in the anteroom in an inherently communal game akin to roulette. That this was a kind of erotic game is suggested by an image in the lupinar of Pompeii, in whic
h a man on a bed gestures to an erotic painting on the wall as if in an effort for the woman to copy the posture.[133]

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 10.39.15 AM.pngVarone’s strongest piece of evidence is drawn from a magnificent abode on the decumanus. An empty window-frame has been discovered at the opulent House of the Centenary (IX.8.6) in a private portion of the house connected to the servants’ wing but near a luxurious dining room, suggestive of the fact that the owner might have met friends there in a “hidden chamber.” The only explanation for the window must be that third parties were intended to look through it (though at 166.5 cm from the floor it is a bit high). As we have seen, panel paintings might have been inserted into it, since on the right hand side near the cubiculum door, two small holes likely left by nails might have been used for the insertion of doors.[134] In the room are images of couples having sex in front of framed paintings of other couples having sex. Regardless of the truth of Varone’s claim, the possibility of aural and visual voyeurism and the titillating potential participation of third parties were evidently constant fixtures in the aristocratic Roman bedrooms. Martial writes evocatively of small holes deliberately drilled into the walls of brothels to facilitate the observation of couples having sex.[135] But such shenanigans often transcended the confines of the lupinar. Later in the same book, Martial writes masturbabantur Phrigii post ostia servi, Hectoreo quotiens sederat uxor equo.[136]

The point of all of this is that depictions of group sex and orgies in Roman culture were not considered outrageous because they were unreal and imaginary, but because they were a natural feature of the cultural landscape that was simultaneously absolutely forbidden among married, respectable Roman peers by the unwritten but restrictive rules of sexual normativity which defined appropriate behavior in the bedroom by class rather than by natural inclination, gender, or other potential organizing principles. During the second wave feminist revival of the 1990s, dismissals of the reality of “pornographic” and “misogynistic” depictions of ancient sexuality took hold, but while this trend liberated classical scholarship from slavish obsession with the “objective facts” of ancient history and replaced it with an emphasis on the transformative nature of discourse itself, this trend carried the attendant consequence that the voices of the victims of ancient sexual violence (many of whom were women, the enslaved, and ethnic minorities) were effectively silenced. Beginning in the late 1970s, concerns emerged that feminism would transform into a single issue movement associated with the condemnation of pornography, and ideas were expressed emphasizing sex positivism, particularly after the publication of Ellen Willis’ “Feminism, Moralism, and Pornography” in the Village Voice.[137] This gave rise to the so-called third wave in feminist thought. Its thematic emphasis on lack of judgment, the importance of evaluating lived experiences on their own terms, and sensitivity when exploring the suffering of minority groups in post-colonial contexts all make possible the reclamation of the Roman orgy as something more than a tired, misogynistic trope. Even at its most clichéd, pernicious, and dehumanizing, the thematics of its presentation speak to fundamental and often startlingly unexpected aspects of the conceptualization of sexual morality in ancient Rome as a system in which social and political roles were meant to directly mirror sexual roles and penetration was viewed as an inherently dominating enterprise rather than an act of sharing.


1.6 A Thematic Preview of the Dissertation

In my dissertation, I investigate group love and sex in festive settings as a locus of rhetorical invective, transgression, and subversion and explain how descriptions of orgies and even love between friends might simultaneously serve conservative discursive ends and at the same time empower certain groups to resist, reimagine, and overturn traditional socio-economic and sexual hierarchies.[138] The topic of group love in ancient Rome and group sex in particular is fundamentally bound up with issues concerned with freedom, power, and coercion. A genealogy of the Roman orgy and an uncovering of its successive archaeological layers reveals fundamental organizing principles behind all of the discourse surrounding group sex, explaining how various topoi connected with orgies were invented, reinvented, and occasionally discarded in the thematic shadow of a lived experience which often included group sex, but only in the presence of incessant reminders that respectable citizens should never behave this way among themselves. Why is group sex such a prominent feature of the existing literary and archeological record in the Roman Empire relative to the situation in other historical civilizations? The dissertation explains that the answer to this question has a great deal to do with the history of class, slavery, and prostitution in the Roman world and the special importance of spectacular theatrical and religious displays as exhibitions of brute power in Roman society.

The Roman orgy is a fascinating topic for a variety of reasons beyond narrow questions bound to “sexual orientation” and whether or not attraction to specific gendered attributes are a culturally specific or biological phenomenon, questions which often dominate attention on the subject of sex in the Greco-Roman world.[139] For example, the upcoming chapters speak to the following six themes, all of which have been previewed in our exploration of the frescoes in the House of the Doctor.


  1. The Question of Fantasy Versus Reality in the Ancient Sources


We found in our exploration of the fresco of the pygmies that a significant body of scholarship exists questioning whether the various attributes of the painting represent “authentic” ancient fertility rituals. At the same time, a great deal of discourse exists underscoring the inauthentic, dehumanizing, and imaginary nature of the acts being depicted. The “realists” insist on some kind of institutional religious core to the proceedings, and the “symbolists” on its apotropaic or dehumanizing features. Interestingly, virtually no one explains the content of the painting by suggesting that it depicts a fun and joyous event that takes place for its own sake rather than for an ulterior motive.

tumblr_n4r0u7GvHT1r1a51ho1_500.jpgIn much the same way, most modern discourse on orgiastic practices in imperial Roman history has fallen into two camps. The first attempts to read comprehensible “authentic” political motives behind hyperbolic ancient historiographical accounts of figures such as emperors and empresses engaging in orgies. The second insists that ancient historiography is grounded in anti-dynastic propaganda and misogyny and that these features divorce the sources from lived experience and render them fundamentally factually “inauthentic,” interesting only from the perspective of literary analysis.[140] Consider, for example, the case of the alleged group-sexual antics of the Empress Messalina. Barbara Levick, on the one hand, believes that Messalina might have involved herself in political conspiracies with the men with whom she was accused of committing adultery. Levick implicitly demonstrates her faith that there is a core of truth in the accounts of the ancient historians about the empress’ behavior, however distorted. [141] Sandra Joshel, on the other hand, very eloquently attempts to dismantle the idea that Messalina represents anything more than a lurid male fantasy, emphasizing that Tacitus’ account tells us virtually nothing about the real woman.[142] Interestingly, both Levick and Joshel and the schools of thought which they represent agree upon one thing: Messalina was not really having group sex, even though this is the single fact upon which the ancient sources unanimously insist.

While this trend of doubting Roman historians was originally bound to admirable second-wave feminist concerns with the harmfulness of misogynistic depictions of women in power and the realization that the sources did not naively represent Truth with a capital T, it unfortunately also stood in line with a long tradition relegating anything associated with group sex to the realm of the imaginary, slanderous, insulting, forbidden, and “inauthentic.” It was, in a sense, a form of censorship of the ancient sources—a kind of metaphorical fig leaf over the mouths of people like Tacitus and Suetonius. Stooges of the patriarchy might have written the history books, but at least enlightened modern critics could reclaim the narrative by insisting that the male authors were liars and gossipers.[143]

At stake here is nothing less than our entire understanding of how we should imagine the narrative of ancient history. The fact of the matter is, the possibility exists that Messalina indeed coerced her peers into group sex—perhaps because it had political purposes (a possibility sometimes grudgingly admitted by modern sources), or perhaps because she was a bored, privileged, and very unwise young woman who derived pleasure from being the center of attention and exploiting her subordinates (a possibility never mentioned by any contemporary source beyond Robert Graves in Claudius the God).

While there are good reasons to call the potential veracity of the ancient sources into question, there also exist at least four significant dangers in categorically dismissing all of the evidence of orgiastic sex as “inauthentic” without a proper investigation of their potential grounding in lived experience.

The first is that calling the stories imaginary ignores the fact that many of them involve narratives of innocent victims being raped by their social and political superiors. When all of the existing historical evidence corroborates the accounts of victims of rape, their suffering should not be dismissed so off-handedly as “fantasy” because it does not align with how we would like to imagine aristocratic totalitarian figures like Caligula, Messalina, and Nero acting. The second problem is that dismissing orgiastic accounts off-handedly because group-sex among peers was seen as non-normative in Rome mistakes that which is taboo for that which is unreal and ironically reinforces patriarchal norms by suggesting that the only forms of sex likely bound to lived experience were “normative,” when much of the evidence suggests that this is not the case. The third danger is that calling the orgies fantasies off-handedly is deeply classist, as group-sexual elements were often part and parcel of daily life for many non-elite members of the Roman Empire. Joshel cannot fathom Messalina the wealthy and famous aristocrat in an orgy, but would have no problem imagining a prostitute engaging in the same behavior. The fourth issue is that the dismissal of the orgy stands in thematic line with a long legacy of “inauthenticating” sexual content in the Classics when it stands out of line with modern values.

The only way to untangle the dilemma of the “veracity” of group-sex in the Roman world is ultimately through a forensic approach that weighs the evidence carefully in a cross-culturally sensitive context, taking the charge of group sex much more seriously than most contemporary scholars of ancient Roman sex currently do. The second chapter of the dissertation will accomplish this, questioning whether there is better evidence for the existence of European witch-cults in the early modern period or the orgies of Messalina. The investigation will shed light on fundamental mysteries of Roman history, such as the nature of the empress’ legendary bigamous “marriage.” All of the discourse might be dismissed as the repetition of slanderous gossip, but the preponderance of evidence suggests that modern historians should take the charges seriously enough to interpret them as potentially factual. Indeed, considering the violent nature of the imperial orgies which were described by Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio as degrading spectacles involving rape, to completely insist upon the sources’ lack of veracity may be tantamount to denying justice to the institution’s historical victims.


  1. The Relationship Between Libertas, Licentia, and Exploitation


Our exploration of the fresco of the pygmies suggested that orgiastic content in these kinds of Nilotic images might have become increasingly prominent and hyperbolic over time as Egypt became established as a province of the empire and the Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire. Regardless of whether or not this is true, the owner of the “House of the Doctor” was operating in a social context in which he chose to represent an act of group-sex as the crowning glory of his peristyle, displaying the freedom to represent deeds in his own abode that might be viewed as offensive to traditional social mores. The fact that his proud celebration of a hedonistic image necessitated the brutal dehumanization of the “Egyptian” “pygmies” depicted in the painting was of course beside the point.

During the time of the American and French Revolutions, it was theorized that ancient people accepted major curtailments of their personal liberties in return for direct involvement in the government of their city-states, in effect exchanging personal freedom for political freedom.[144] This would no longer have been the case after Augustus became emperor. As the Republic tottered and the autocracy of the Julio-Claudian dynasty replaced a state of former political liberty for the upper class, promiscuity might have become something like the last vestige of freedom for many people, as if all that was left of libertas was licentia. Tibullus, for example, declares that in an age when Roman citizens were no longer politically autonomous legionaries, only in the realm of lovemaking could he be a “soldier.”[145] Ovid echoes the sentiment.[146] The 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 either reinforcing social norms when subordinates were compelled to be penetrated, or transgressing such norms when free citizens dared to penetrate each other and seduce married partners. Orgies were often associated with the idea of “freedom,” but “freedom” at the expense of an Other. The third chapter of the dissertation explores the origins and erosion of monogamous norms in the Roman Republic and the emergence of the orgy as a transgressive space associated with libertas (for some). Ultimately, behavior normally excluded to the boundaries of a brothel or a cult could sometimes be appropriated by aristocrats as a display of libertas in an increasingly autocratic context.


  1. Class Consciousness, Conspicuous Consumption, and “Social Networking”


We have seen that the owner of the House of the Doctor might have been engaged in a game of one-upsmanship with his neighbors as they attempted to produce increasingly over-the-top artwork to broadcast their creativity, sense of humor, and subversive tastes. Insofar as this is true, both the orgiastic content of the fresco of the pygmies and the image of the couple having sex in front of a slave in the house of Caecilius were associated with issues connected with conspicuous consumption (and in the case of Caecilius, class consciousness, since the depiction of a cubicularius indicated high social status). Such issues come up again and again in the history of group sex in Roman civilization. This was a culture in which arranging for a lavish orgiastic banquet among free citizens could be interpreted as a shocking indication of one’s power and personal freedom, particularly if it was orchestrated among social equals. It was also a civilization in which group sexual encounters with slaves where Roman citizens acted as penetrators inherently enforced the social hierarchy. The very titillation associated with orgiastic parties was their potential to blur the simplistic class and top/bottom penetrator/drainer distinctions so fundamental to the idea of Roman normativity in the bedroom. Issues associated with conspicuous consumption and class are thus essential to both the erotics and the thematics of the Roman orgy.

When aristocratic banquets were arranged in the first centuries BCE and CE, 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 prohibited certain very powerful and very reckless men and women from experimenting with group sex in their displays of conspicuous consumption at banquets.[147] 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.[148] Even in the most permissive context, orgies among freeborn citizens were stigmatized. When extant ancient authors wrote about such sex parties in which free citizens assumed non-penetrative roles or freeborn women participated, they never approve of what they described. In fact, almost every depiction of these goings-on is hostile. The third chapter of the dissertation suggests that the root of this hostility is not, as traditionally thought, Christian-style disgust at the idea of group sex per se, but rather disgust at the idea of citizens acting like slaves and non-citizens.

One can only guess at further motives for freeborn aristocrats holding 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. Holding an orgy made the point that the sponsor could essentially get away with doing whatever he or she wanted. At the same time, these kinds of parties could perhaps be arranged to cement ties between new political allies in one’s social network. Orgies involving freeborn citizens inherently involved the potential for mutual entrapment. 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 both serve as a potent social lubricant and also potentially lend themselves to plots against the government, as seen in the case of Augustus’ own daughter.[149]


  1. The Nature of Subversion and Transgression


Our exploration of the fresco of the pygmies and Blanshard’s attack on the idea of the existence of Roman orgies suggests that deciding which sexual acts represent the “normative” and which represent the “transgressive” can be a thorny process. The implication of much modern work on sexuality seems to be that if an act generally seems to be described in non-opprobrious terms by a plurality of authors, we call that act “normative,” and we call it “transgressive” if it broke widespread social taboos about proper social and gender roles. From this perspective, however, the Roman orgy or group sex as a general class can be described as neither normative nor transgressive. The reason is that whether it was depicted as normative (and hilarious) or transgressive (and grotesquely horrifying) depended completely upon issues connected with social class. If a freeborn man had sex with his wife in front of masturbating male slaves like the scene depicted in Martial XI.104.12, the group sex would have been considered normative (and perhaps comical), since everyone would be fulfilling their proper role of subordination in the bedroom. If a Roman empress competed with a prostitute to see who could have sex with the most married men, the situation would be inherently different—now we have entered into the realm of the transgressive and the horrifying. Blanshard’s categorical denial of Roman orgies ignores the class distinctions that were at the heart of the nature of normativity and transgression in the Roman world. At the same time, it mistakes the opprobrium of conservative authors at lack of normativity for the idea that this means that no one actually behaved in non-normative ways, which is an error in logic.

To say that Foucault’s work on the venerea is more sophisticated than Blandhard’s exploration of the same terrain would be gross understatement. Yet Foucault’s schematization of Greco-Roman sexual morality is equally problematic from the perspective of the lived experience of the Roman orgy. Foucault’s aim is to examine the philosophical origins of Greek and Roman thought on the nature of sexual normativity. He associates ideas about normative masculinity not only with the act of penetration, but also with issues associated with self-control and the importance of maintaining moderation in areas of life where taste prevailed (for example, how often to have sex, and with how many partners.) For Foucault, pagan sexual morality was concerned with an “aesthetics of existence” which did not formally codify the forbidden and the non-forbidden in a “hermeneutics of desire,” but merely suggested the constant, vigilant use of logos to moderate one’s behavior.[150] He describes two forms of immoderation: one of “fulfillment,” and one of “artifice” which stems from it. Immoderation was fundamentally unnatural, and contrary to a system of ethics which should be based on need rather than pleasure, a system of thought which Foucault located in Platonic writings.[151] He suggests that this would later go on to dominate Roman thought in the third volume of the History of Sexuality as the Romans paid even more attention than the Greeks to the “care of the self” after reflecting on an earlier Hellenic philosophical tradition on the “use of pleasure.”[152] According to Foucault, the first and second centuries were associated with the creation of a stricter and stricter morality, particularly illustrated in increasingly sentimental and rigid understandings of marital fidelity. Foucault’s revolutionary idea was that this emphasis on hyper-attention in Rome to self-moderation stemmed from the ruling class being empowered by the emperors to control increasingly large clientele in the imperial provinces. This was in contradiction to the simplistic popular narrative of hedonistic, disengaged, and bored politicians operating in an autocratic world in which there was no longer any use for them.

Foucault’s exploration of “normativity” and “transgression” proved enriching to the history of the study of sexuality in the Classics and beyond it. His theories indicate that Roman orgies would be considered “effeminate” from traditional Platonic and Stoic perspectives, grounded as they were in non-penetrated roles, the luxury of banquets, and inherent immoderation. This is a non-obvious and rather profound point: it is Foucault who empowers us to understand that if a Roman man were to orchestrate an orgy at which he penetrated a series of slave-girls, he would seem to be acting effeminately despite the fact that he ostensibly appeared to be an arch-penetrator and no one was breaking the rules of proper social role-playing. The reason is that his excessive desire and immoderation in choice of partners would reveal an implicit lack of self-control. For this reason, even in “normative” contexts, there is always something slightly “off” about a Roman orgy, which is perhaps yet another reason why it is often depicted as a humorous scenario. A Roman man having sex with many people and around other people is inherently not behaving in a very masculine manner.

Nevertheless, like in the case of Blanshard, there is much that is wrong with Foucault’s approach, and the problem again stems from an insensitivity to detail about class and lived experience. Even if everything that Foucault says is true about how Platonic and Stoic philosophers conceptualized sex in the early Roman Empire, this does not mean that their concerns were grounded in expanded opportunities to participate in government and sponsor local clientele. The fourth chapter of the dissertation will show that much of the discourse about sexual moderation among both early Christians and Stoics was written in response to the excesses of the late Julio-Claudian court. In other words, much of the sex that was going on in Rome at the time was precisely not of the sort that people like Seneca would have approved. The fact that what the elite senators said was “normative” and what the rabble, slaves, and the tyrannical Roman emperor enjoyed was seen as “transgressive” is too simplistic. What most people were doing and even what the government was sponsoring was often what Foucault would call the transgressive, which somewhat enervates the idea of transgression itself. At the same time, Foucault’s summarization of Stoic and Platonic thoughts on sex fail to illuminate very much about Roman views of female sexuality. In fact, a sophist could argue that from Foucault’s perspective, a woman like Messalina would seem to be acting absolutely normatively, since if succumbing to libidinous desire and a lack of self-regulation is quintessentially feminine, what could be more in line with nature than the orgies of Messalina?[153]

While I am deeply sympathetic to and inspired by Foucault’s synthesis of sources from a diversity of historical time periods, his collapse of distinctions between the licentious Julio-Claudian period and the sober environment of the Second Sophistic is unfortunate because he ignores great differences between the historical periods. His claim that marriage was as a whole becoming a more strict institution in the first century CE is especially shocking, because while some Stoic sources might emphasize marital fidelity, this was in fact likely the era with the highest divorce rates in all of history before the modern era.[154] Even Jesus railed constantly against divorce. When Seneca wrote about sexual moderation, the message was different than when a philosopher in the Second Sophistic expressed the same thought. One message would have been subversive to the official government line, and the other would have been completely in line with officially endorsed conventionality. Foucault’s History of Sexuality ironically ignores its actual history from the perspective of changing attitudes toward sex and totally neglects the non-vanilla hedonistic sex that was constantly going on as background noise but was not endorsed by conservative elite authors.

My analysis of the Roman orgy suggests an alternate model for thinking about transgression that is, again, hinted at in our analysis of the fresco of pygmies. I suggest in the third and fourth chapters that transgression is ultimately rooted not in the “non-normative,” but in the subversion of norms, enabling the possibility of liberation from restrictive social roles that, for Foucault, are positively tyrannical and limit the possibilities of human freedom. The pygmies are not shocking (and hilarious) because they are having group sex, but because they are having it accompanied to music as if in a theater among slavish actors in an everyday context at a banquet among equals. The Roman orgy was transgressive not because it was inherently “non-normative,” but because it sometimes deliberately inverted the usual hierarchies of who was allowed to penetrate whom. Even when it did not, men seemed to be acting effeminately by succumbing to the pleasure of multiple bodies at once rather than moderating their actions. The orgy is a locus of a kind of sex that both Foucault and Blanshard chose to exclude from their “histories” of Roman sexuality because its existence deeply problematized their metanarratives about what the limits of ancient normativity looked like. Perhaps the orgy was too feminine for Foucault in its luxuriousness, and too masculine for Blanshard in its brutality and misogyny.

It must be said, however, that Roman orgies have little to do with modern orgies accentuating a free and open exchange of bodies in a non-judgmental and loving context.[155] Today, many who participate in group sex perhaps find it liberating because it breaks down monogamous norms. As in the case of ancient Roman transgression, the titillation comes from subversion of a hierarchy, from the breaking of a rule. Yet at least for men, these kinds of monogamous norms did not exist in antiquity, when it was considered acceptable to penetrate social inferiors even after getting married. In light of this fact, the transgressive edge to the most transgressive imperial Roman orgies was not bound to the titillation of being able to sleep with multiple partners in itself, but being able to engage in intercourse with individuals with whom it was usually categorically forbidden to do so, inverting traditional social hierarchies in the deindividuated ambiance of the throng of bodies.


  1. Tyrannical Behavior by Emperors and the Establishment of the Imperial Cult


orgies-perverts.jpgWe have seen that the orgiastic content of the fresco of the pygmies has potentially been interpreted as propaganda since Egypt was the personal property of the Julio-Claudian family and several of its members had a reputation for orgiastic sex. I have suggested in this paper that the painting might have been a kitschy celebration of the kind of sexual identity and sexual behavior celebrated by the emperor Nero. Yet why would the head of state embrace modes of sexuality widely seen as deviant, non-normative, and effeminate? What was going on in the Julio-Claudian period that resulted in no less than five figures in the dynasty (Julia the Elder, Tiberius, Caligula, Messalina, and Nero) being accused of engaging in group sex, when the official line promoted in the statuary and imperial propaganda emphasized these figures’ clichéd traditional virtuous qualities? The fourth chapter of the dissertation explores these questions.

Modern scholars often insist that depictions of Roman orgies are inauthentic topoi meant to underscore the insanity of various powerful imperial figures who disenfranchised the senatorial class. According to this line of thought, charges of adultery and aberrant sexuality were used as convenient excuses to destroy and demean political enemies yet almost never reflected lived experience. But remember that in the example of the fresco of the pygmies, insisting upon the fantastical nature of the sex and violence on display without considering the possibility of “lived experience” denied the existence of certain realities such as the spectacles of Nero and Domitian, who are said to have staged theatrical sexual extravaganzas set to music on the one hand and gladiatorial fights featuring dwarfs on the other. To insist that the fresco had no basis in reality would have blinded us to the fact that the pygmies in the fresco are being conceptualized as gladiators and performers, and not totally unfamiliar characters. In exactly the same way, the problematization of the idea of “reality” of imperial orgies should not preclude us from thinking about historical accounts of imperial group sex through the prism of potential lived experience, or certain fascinating thematic issues will be overlooked and the stories of the innocent, non-royal victims of the imperial orgies will be ignored and denied.

Orgies often served as a locus for contemplation about freedom and autonomy and one’s relationship to the government, since sex was inherently a political act in a society that saw “humping down the social ladder” being synonymous with normativity. Multiple social classes participated in an orgy in either traditional or shocking permutations of bodies, so the situation was inherently socially unstable. The organizing force that brought all of these bodies together and determined who got to penetrate whom was inherently coercive. From Foucault’s perspective on ancient sexuality, the idea of a ruler being sexually immoderate seems especially problematic, since sexual moderation was seen as a reflection of one’s ability to govern not only one’s own appetites, but govern in general. For this reason, the coercion inherent in the orgy’s overturning of traditional sexual hierarchies was seen as something congruent with political tyranny, just as the sexual act itself was seen as a microscopic reenactment of the macroscopic social order of things, with the Roman man’s privilege of penetrating his wife, slaves, freed slaves, and non-citizens being understood as being parallel to, symbolic of, and perhaps even synonymous with the imperium of the Roman state in general.

As we have seen, almost all contemporary scholars accentuate their lack of belief in the presence of group sex as a feature of Roman social and political life, especially Blanshard.[156] Yet if “brothel parties” in fact took place among late Republican aristocrats at which they engaged in orgies as a display of their libertas (as the historical record insists occurred), it would come as no surprise that tyrannical 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. 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 when mobs of people were invited to the spectacles. Displays such as the pageants of Nero can be interpreted as debauched entertainments at which the bounty of empire could be redistributed to the plebs and the aristocratic senatorial class could be humiliated by the emperor and brought down to size.[157] Before the emperor, everyone was equal: a slavish mortal. He made sure that the rich didn’t monopolize the goodies for themselves.

The history of the Roman orgy thus speaks partly to the history of tableaux vivant and theatrical spectacles fundamental to urban life in the capital. Bettina Bergmann describes the Roman theater as a place where “ritual,” “festival,” and “spectacle” mixed together in a rich intertexuality in which art was fundamentally interactive, giving the audience a unique power to enact prerogatives that were usually left to the emperor alone.[158] There was danger in the gaze of the audience, according to Holt N. Parker; all eyes were on the emperor, and peril existed in the agency of the mob to withhold their chants and applause.[159] Demeaning the aristocracy in an orgy could channel the gaze of the audience and its applause to good end. 

At the same time, the image of emperors and empresses engaging in orgiastic behavior in which they had sex indiscriminately with whomever they pleased, whatever the consequences, sounds a great deal like the alleged behavior of the gods. I argue in chapter four of the dissertation that the development of the ruler-cult is fundamental to the evolution of orgiastic practices in the Julio-Claudian dynasty.[160] Consider the sexual actions of the gods in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, who rape, manipulate, exploit, and commit injustice with impunity. To be a god meant to be able to have sex with whomever one wanted and in whatever way one pleased. The god-like Roman emperor himself had nothing to hide, and could do as he wished 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 and who, for better or worse, were also the rulers of mobs of hundreds of thousands of non-citizens who thirsted for their sexual “superiors” to be brought down to size. 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. 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.[161] Yet none of this suggests that we should doubt that the Julio-Claudians might have actually been realistically interested in sometimes orchestrating the orgies which every extant ancient source insisted that they did, and often within living memory of witnesses and named victims.

The 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 throughout the 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. In a dynasty characterized by seven generations of incest, alcoholism, child abuse, psychological torture, constant conspiracies, mental illness, and widespread lead poisoning, anything was possible. Wise arm-chair Roman emperors like Barbara Levick with years of college education who theorize that the sexual antics of ancient figures were all rationally motivated by political insights might be better equipped to make wise political decisions than the inexperienced teenaged aristocrats who sometimes found themselves at the helm of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately for people like Messalina, 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 CE, 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. The Concept of Decadence, Historical Immorality, and Historical Collapse


Implicit to the fresco of pygmies being locked away was the idea that its content was thematically dangerous because it represented the art of a decadent and licentious society in sexual disorder. And implicit again to this line of reasoning is the idea being that the depiction of homosexual and/or group sex is inherently demeaning and representative of a society in collapse. This connection linking political decadence with sexual decadence is a fascinating one that continues to haunt western discourse to this day and forms part of the subject of the third and fourth chapters of the dissertation.

I argue that conceptions of love are bound foremost to rapidly fluctuating popular schematizations of historical progress—in other words, the emphases of discourse on the meaning and value of love vary chiefly depending on an author’s attitudes toward the past and present and whether a process of “decadence” negotiates the thematic space between them. Awareness of technological change and refinement over time has led to a significant body of discourse on progress in the modern world. In antiquity, analogous discourse on progress was bound to an awareness of the history of changing norms associated with love, from ancient discipline (or constrictive prudery) to modern debauchery (or exhilarating liberty). Changing attitudes toward group love reflect the evolution of Roman thought on the nature and possibility of historical change itself. Writers operate under different discourses on progress as they describe the past, present, and future. Sallust and Livy assert that the chaste past is better than the adulterous present; in the Julio-Claudian era, sycophantic historians declare the present “great,” and the glorious Republican past becomes dangerous to describe in an era of hypocrisy and adulation; then in the Flavian dynasty, there is another change as the Julio-Claudian past is called depraved and the present is branded virtuous; finally, Christianity suggests the present is corrupt in all forms of sexual expression, and only the future promises goodness after the Apocalypse. Attitudes toward love (and group-love in particular) often broadcast Roman metanarratives about progress even more than discourse on technological progress.

From all of this discourse on love and progress there evolved the idea that love itself determined the course of historical progress, with “aberrant sex” associated with collapse. In May 1971, President Nixon complained that All in the Family was promoting homosexuality and declared,

You ever see what happened to the Greeks? Homosexuality destroyed them. Aristotle was homo, we all know that. So was Socrates. The last six Roman emperors were fags. Neither in a public way. You know what happened to the popes? They were layin’ the nuns; that’s been goin’ on for years, centuries. But the Catholic Church went to hell three or four centuries ago. It was homosexual, and it had to be cleaned out. That’s what’s happened to Britain. It happened earlier to France. Let’s look at the strong societies. The Russians. Goddamn, they root ’em out. They don’t let ’em around at all. I don’t know what they do with them. Look at this country. You think the Russians allow dope? Homosexuality, dope, immorality, are the enemies of strong societies. That’s why the communists and left-wingers are pushing it. They’re trying to destroy us![162]

Nixon’s brutish schematization evokes fear of a lack of self-regulation and terror at the idea of society slackening. Other metanarratives about Rome, love, and historical collapse were even darker. No metanarrative concerning historical decadence seems so misguided in retrospect as the work of Joseph Vogt, whose “Population Decline in the Roman Empire” (1935) and “Race Mixing in the Roman Empire” (1936) popularized the original theory of Arthur de Gobineau that racial mixing was responsible for the decline of Rome, with the originally “Aryan” conquerors increasingly diluted by Semitic and African genetic influences.
Building upon my research on Roman orgies and shifting sexual standards in the late Roman Republic, I first address the topic of decadence from the perspective of the common but outmoded belief that “perversion” was the destabilizing influence in Roman culture in the third chapter of the dissertation. Contrary to the opinions of scholars like Blanshard, I argue that behavior which might be considered licentious did in fact exist in the Republic as a response to changing political and economic conditions in which the sexual availability of slaves and prostitutes upset traditional patterns of morality. However, my exploration of this topic suggests not only that the idea of sexual excess as a chaotic influence is a case of mistaking causation and correlation, but that a plethora of forces existed that pushed the old equilibrium of the Roman Republic over the edge of chaos into a new homeostatic state marked by despotism. In the eyes of Jose Ortega y Gasset, the modern world was liberated from a tendency toward chaos and collapse due to the nature of technological evolution and its marriage to the scientific method, ensuring material progress and an increasingly vibrant standard of living over the long run. A failure of “technique” doomed the Roman Empire to collapse because the pace of technological and scientific progress was ultimately retarded before it could gain the unstoppable momentum it seemed to attain after the Italian Renaissance.[163] Mono-causal explanations for Roman decadence such as “perversion” are ultimately fruitless. In fact, the era of the greatest sexual license in Roman history is ultimately the one of its greatest economic and territorial expansion.

My dissertation not only pays close attention to the rhetorical importance of negative topoi associated with gender, sexuality, and power, but also attempts to scrutinize and flesh out the arguments of researchers like Thomas McGinn, whose work suggests that ancient historiographical accounts of “decadent” behavior may in fact have close ties to lived experiences and political realities, particularly given the ubiquity of prostitution in the Roman world, with aristocrats collaborating in the perpetuation of the practice and Roman emperors since Caligula taxing it.[164] The paper also explores topics such as license and discipline in the Roman Republic, the Bacchanalian conspiracy of 186 BC, love poetry in the late Republic and Augustan era, orgiastic celebrations in the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and early Christian appropriations and subversions of classical hierarchies associated with sex and power. It is even suggested in the fourth chapter that the Christian agape represents an appropriation of the orgy, desexualizing it to avoid the exploitation of participants, but maintaining its practices of kissing on the mouth, declaring love for each other, singing songs, intermingling among different social classes, drinking wine together, and toasting the resurrection of a savior-figure.


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Turin Erotic Papyrus 55001


[1] In this dissertation, I will use the word “orgy” to describe group sex in the festive setting of a ceremony or a banquet. By “group sex,” I mean either a sexual combination of three or more bodies or a sexual coupling of two people in the presence of sexually aroused spectators. To describe the religious ceremony in honor of Dionysus from which the English word orgy derives, I will use the Greek ὄργιον. These distinctions are not always obvious. For example, though intuitions might differ on the subject, I would describe a live sex show involving a single couple performing for a crowd as an example of group sex. It would be an example of an orgy if food and wine were being consumed and there were a masturbatory or potentially participatory ambiance in the room. If a crowd at a sex show were to sit in stony and unaroused silence as the couple performed, I would still call it an example of group sex, but it would somehow seem less than orgiastic to me. An orgy implies a party of some kind, and a party demands conviviality.

[2] There exists no active verb in the English language meaning “to sexually envelop a penis.” This linguistic poverty mandates that the act is symbolically conceptualized as something inherently passive, a demoralizing reflection of patriarchic standards. The phrase “bottoming” is usually restricted to gay sex and implies a kind of subservient position; as this fresco illustrates, it is not always even physically accurate. To remedy this problem, I will use the active verb “drain” to mean “sexually envelop a penis.” Accordingly, for the purposes of this dissertation, a “drainer” in a given sexual scenario is a “penetrated partner.”

[3] Figures 1-6 on pages 60-64 of the dissertation illustrate this fresco and its placement beside other paintings in the House of the Doctor.

[4] For a detailed description of the “small house with an odd plan,” see Laurent Bricault, M. J. Versluys, and P. G. P. Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005, Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2007), 162-69. For a description of the fresco, see Karl Schefold, Die WäNde Pompejis; Topographisches Verzeichnis Der Bildmotive (Berlin,: W. de Gruyter, 1957), 227. A discussion is also featured in Giovanni Pugliese Caratelli, Ppm: Pompei Pitture E Mosaici I-Ix, vol. VIII (Rome: Instituto della enciclopedia italiana, 1990-2003), 606-08. See also Jean Marcadé, Roma Amor; Essay on Erotic Elements in Etruscan and Roman Art (Geneva, New York,: Nagel, 1961), 36.

[5] W. H. Davenport Adams, The Buried Cities of Campania; or, Pompeii and Herculaneum, Their History, Their Destruction, and Their Remains (London,: Nelson, 1873), 234.

[6] Mary Beard, Pompeii : The Life of a Roman Town (London: Profile, 2008), 130.

[7] The details in the remainder of this paragraph are taken from Clarke’s work in Bricault, Versluys, and Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005, 162-64.

[8] In an article on the Archeological Museum of Naples from 2000, The New York Times erroneously reported that these plutei were the headboards for beds and that the pygmies are depicted “frolicking in sexual pursuit of one another” with no mention of either the orgiastic content or the hippopotamus mauling. See Nicholas Fox Weber, “Opening the Doors to Erotic Roman Antiquities,” The New York Times, August 13 2000.

[9] For the idea that guests might have sat on the low wall and dipped their feet into the basin as they admired the art, see Bricault, Versluys, and Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005, 164. The idea is certainly picturesque, but the wisdom of dangling one’s feet over the plutei and potentially wetting them by splashing about in the meager cubic centimeters of water in the impluvium seems suspect to me. See Figures 5-6 on pages 63-64 of this paper for a reconstruction of the peristyle.

[10] For an expert discussion of the use of imagery associated with pygmies in Roman tombs and gardens, see John R. Clarke, Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans : Visual Representation and Non-Elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 315, The Joan Palevsky Imprint in Classical Literature (Berkeley, Calif. ; London: University of California Press, 2003), 191-215. See also Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae vol. 7 (Zürich, München, Düsseldorf: Artemis & Winkler Verlag, 1994), 595-98.

[11] Hom. Il. iii. 5. The pygmies were said to inhabit both India and the area around the source of the Nile, which were thought to be connected by the great southern ocean. Arist. Hist Animal viii. 14 locates their homeland in Upper Egypt. For an in-depth catalogue of ancient references to pygmies, see William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, New impression ed., 3 vols. (London: John Murray, 1902).

[12] Veronique Dasen, “Dwarfs in Ancieny Egypt and Greece,” Oxford Monographs on Classical Archeology (1993): 175-88. The idea cannot be discounted, however, that the Greeks and Romans may have heard legends about the bush people or even encountered them on occasion, cementing the idea of pygmies as real beings and not merely legendary gnomish creatures.

[13] John R. Clarke, Looking at Laughter : Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 89-107. See also Bricault, Versluys, and Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005, 156-60. Clarke argues that representations of Egyptians and pygmies became increasingly clownish in character during the first century BCE in the thematic shadow of imperialistic enterprises in Egypt, becoming particularly hyperbolic around the time of the Battle of Actium. However, individual frescoes are often difficult to date, and his theory can turn into a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy when it artificially imposes a date of creation on a piece on the basis of its subjective hyperbolic qualities.

[14] Mary Taliaferro Boatwright, Peoples of the Roman World, Cambridge Introduction to Roman Civilization (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 166.

[15] See Plin. Nat. 7.75 for a description of the empress Livia’s dwarf Andromeda, who was granted her freedom. Her prominence at court is interesting in light of the allegation at Suet. Aug. 43.3 that Augustus shunned the company of dwarfs. According to Plut. Mor. 520c, markets where monstrous beings could be purchased took root in Rome (τῶν τεράτων ἀγορὰν), a fact also attested by Quint. Inst. 2.5.11, which mentions the high prices fetched for deformed slaves.

[16] Christian Laes et al., Disabilities in Roman Antiquity Disparate Bodies, a Capite Ad Calcem, (Leiden ; Boston: Brill,, 2013). 221.

[17] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 1978), 57.

[18] See Amy Richlin, Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). The book is a pioneering feminist interpretation of a variety of material and literary sources of evidence from antiquity concerned with the portrayal of sex and gender. It provocatively suggests that ancient presentations of sex may have fundamental links to the thematics of modern pornography, particularly when it comes to issues associated with dehumanization and exploitation. This emphasis stands in opposition to the opinion of post-modernists like Foucault who focus on understanding sex and sexuality in antiquity on their own terms instead of with the help of modern schematizations shaped by very different social concerns.

[19] Susanne Kappeler, The Pornography of Representation, Feminist Perspectives (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 3. For an eloquent rejoinder to the idea that pornographic representations are inherently bound to oppression, see Earl Jackson, “Review of Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome by Amy Richlin,” Bryn Mawr Classical Review 5 (1992). Jackson writes from a non-heteronormative perspective, wishing to end the censorship of gay pornography. He questions Kappeler’s understanding of the inherent link between real-world oppression and the artistic portrayal of aggressive sexual acts. He points out that her perspective inherently demeans drainers by assuming that they are merely passive objects rather than willing subjects in their own right. He also complains that a lack of attention to the nuances in the distinction between materiality and reality is inherently insensitive to the victims of “real” trauma such as rape, whose lived experience transcends its mere representation. While I am sensitive to many of his critiques, the idea that dehumanized depictions of sex can have strong associations with oppression in both ancient and modern contexts nevertheless seems valid to me.

[20] Mary Beard and John Henderson, Classical Art : From Greece to Rome, Oxford History of Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 113-15.

[21] The generic figure of the pygmy is so inhuman that in some images depicting them, bestiality is even featured. A crocodile mounts a pygmy in a famous carving on a lamp, a scene of one animal pleasuring itself at the expense of another. See Gaston Vorberg, Glossarium Eroticum (Hanau/M.,: Müller u. Keipenheuer, 1965), 19.

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

[23] Ibid., 58.

[24] Ibid., 64.

[25] See Sen. Nat. Qu. xii. The translation is taken from Lucius Annaeus Seneca and Thomas H. Corcoran, Natural Questions, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,, 2014).

[26] For an in-depth description of the tortured history of the Secret Cabinet, see Michael Grant and Antonia Mulas, Eros in Pompeii : The Secret Rooms of the National Museum of Naples (New York: Morrow, 1975). See also Stefano de Caro, The Secret Cabinet in the National Archeological Museum of Naples, ed. Ministero per I Beni e le Attivita Culturali Soprintendenza Speciale per I Beni Arcgeologici di Napoli e Pompei (Ministero per I Beni e le Attivita Culturali Soprintendenza Speciale per I Beni Arcgeologici di Napoli e Pompei, 2000). Additional information was obtained from the display marked “History of the Collection” in the museum itself.

[27] Judith Harris, Pompeii Awakened : A Story of Rediscovery (London ; New York

New York: I.B. Tauris ;

Distributed in the USA by Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 113.

[28] Ibid., 120. See also Walter M. Kendrick, The Secret Museum : Pornography in Modern Culture (New York: Viking, 1987), 13. For a description of the role of Karl Otfried Mueller in the development of the German word pornographie to describe the art of Pompeii, see Hans Maes, Pornographic Art and the Aesthetics of Pornography (London ; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 141.

[29] This statue was associated with a long history of censorship since the eighteenth century even before it was locked away in the Secret Cabinet. Originally discovered in the garden of the Villa of the Papyri in the era of King Charles VII and stored in the royal basement, it was withheld from the view of no less a personage than Winckelmann himself, who wrote that he ‘had the good fortune to be admitted to see them all (works of art), except this obscene one, which was not to be seen without a special license signed by his majesty, for which … I thought it did not become me to be the first to apply.’ See Shelley Hales and Joanna Paul, Pompeii in the Public Imagination from Its Rediscovery to Today, Classical Presences (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 309. For the suggestion of King Charles’ confessor that the image was “worthy to be ground to a powder,” see Maes, Pornographic Art and the Aesthetics of Pornography, 142.

[30] The quotes in this paragraph are taken from the display marked “History of the Collection” in the Archeological Museum of Naples. Fisher and Langlands suggest that the story may be an apocryphal invention by museum director Michele Arditi, who credited Francis with inspiring him to remove the original 102 objects chosen for sequestering. Fisher and Langlands emphasize that many of the objects were freely available to public sight before this time. See Kendrick, The Secret Museum : Pornography in Modern Culture, 307.

[31] Maes, Pornographic Art and the Aesthetics of Pornography, 142.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Catharine Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945 (Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 189.

[34] Annie Lewine, “Ancient Rome in Modern Italy: Mussolini’s Manipulation of Roman History in the Mostra Augustea Della Romanitá,” Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity and Classics 2, no. 1 (2008).

[35] Hales and Paul, Pompeii in the Public Imagination from Its Rediscovery to Today, 310.

[36] Ibid., 313.

[37] Weber, “Opening the Doors to Erotic Roman Antiquities.” While I appreciate Weber’s sentiment, the creation of the Secret Cabinet is itself an event of monumental historical importance in the history of censorship and pornography in the West, and disassembling the collection at this point would seem to be a disservice to the history of European museums as cultural institutions.

[38] “The Road to Ruin: Antiquity,” in Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation, ed. Kate Williams (UK: BBC, 1999).

[39] Maes, Pornographic Art and the Aesthetics of Pornography, 144.

[40] Harris, Pompeii Awakened : A Story of Rediscovery, 115.

[41] Craig A. Williams, Roman Homosexuality : Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity, Ideologies of Desire (New York ; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 92.

[42] For an important rejoinder to an overly-simplifying narrative emphasizing the restrictiveness of Bourbon censorship, see Kate Fisher and Rebecca Langlands’ chapter “The Censorship Myth and the Secret Museum” in Hales and Paul, Pompeii in the Public Imagination from Its Rediscovery to Today, 301-15. The authors suggest that stories about the art locked away in the Secret Cabinet are highly romanticized, that many objects were long on display before being locked away, and that the collection was assembled only very gradually, and often in a conscious effort to promote scholarship about art and sex. While I am sensitive to this reading of the legacy of the Secret Cabinet, the indistinct hodge-podge representing modern rather than ancient ideas about sexual propriety and the collection’s legacy of being hidden from the public by oppressive monarchic regimes suggests an altogether darker texture to its history in my eyes. The fact that so much content was hidden away due to homosexual or group sexual content and that women were restricted from access to the collection until the 1980s is not a “myth” even if the story of the collection’s creation is highly mythologized. Insofar as this is true, Fisher and Langlands’ choice of title for their chapter is unfortunate at best and insensitive at worst. They claim “we use the word ‘myth’ primarily with its stronger sense in mind: that is, a story with a cultural purpose, serving modern agenda” (303). Yet the word “myth” can also used to discount and belittle the lived experiences of oppressed minority groups, and the term should be employed cautiously.

[43] An orgy in Rome might in fact be considered “normative” so long as all the penetrators were of a higher social class than the drainers. However, for reasons explored later in this chapter, the excess inherent to an orgy was deemed rather effeminate according to conservative tastes even when penetrators and drainers were all of the “proper” class.

[44] Bricault, Versluys, and Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005, 156-60.

[45] Clarke, Looking at Laughter : Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250, 9.

[46] Bricault, Versluys, and Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005, 173.

[47] Clarke, Looking at Laughter : Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250, 67.

[48] For a discussion of the importance of apotropaic images such as phallus-fascina in baths, where one’s vulnerability when naked evoked fear of black magic and the evil eye, see M. W. and Dunbain Dickie, K. M. C. , “Invida Rumpantur Pectora: The Iconography of Phthonos/Invidia in Graeco-Roman Art,” Jahrbuch Fuer Antike und Christentum 26 (1983).

[49] Robert Garland, The Eye of the Beholder : Deformity and Disability in the Graeco-Roman World (London: Duckworth, 1995), 109.

[50] Marilyn B. Skinner, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture, Ancient Cultures (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), 259-62.

[51] For a rejoinder to Clarke that suggests that the images might be too readily associated with apotropaia, see Alexandre G. Mitchell, “Review of Looking at Laughter: Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture by John R. Clarke,” Bryn Mawr Classical Review 9 (2008).

[52] See Figure 7 on page 65 of this paper.

[53] Clarke, Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans : Visual Representation and Non-Elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 315, 192-93.

[54] Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, The Gardens of Pompeii : Herculaneum and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Caratzas Bros., 1979), 7-8.

[55] Molly Swetnam-Burland, Egypt in Italy : Visions of Egypt in Roman Imperial Culture, 108.

[56] Dominic Montserrat, Sex and Society in Græco-Roman Egypt (London, England ; New York, NY, USA: Kegan Paul International ; Distributed by Columbia University Press, New York, 1996), 106-35.

[57] H. W. Janson, Penelope J. E. Davies, and W. H. Janson, Janson’s History of Art : The Western Tradition, Eighth Edition, 7th ed. (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2011), 195.

[58] See Miguel John Versluy’s discussion of Piet H. Schrijvers’ work in Bricault, Versluys, and Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005, 7. The Augustan period lacks large mosaics like this, so it might seem to date to an earlier period.

[59] Bernard Livingston, Zoo : Animals, People, Places (New York: Arbor House, 1974), 22. The author paraphrases Athen. Deipnos. V.

[60] Harris, Pompeii Awakened : A Story of Rediscovery, 117.

[61] Bricault, Versluys, and Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005, 6. For an extensive bibliography on recent work on dwarfs in Nilotic scenes, see ibid., 170.

[62] Ibid., 197-98.

[63] Montserrat, Sex and Society in Græco-Roman Egypt, 124.

[64] Ibid., 125.

[65] Roger Matthews and Cornelia Roemer, Ancient Perspectives on Egypt, Encounters with Ancient Egypt (London: UCL, 2003), 157-90.

[66] Bricault, Versluys, and Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005.

[67] This association between Bes and the pygmies was kindy suggested to me in a conversation with Joseph Manning at Yale. For the suggestion that Bes might have originated as the “deification of the negrillos (sic) whom expeditions from (inner Africa) had conquered” and that the god might have had historical connections with Greco-Roman depictions of pygmies, see the discussion of the work of P. Monceaux in Walton Brooks McDaniel, “A Fresco Picturing Pygmies,” American Journal of Archaeology 36, no. 3 (1932): 262.

[68] John G. Younger, Sex in the Ancient World from a to Z, The Ancient World from a to Z (London ; New York: Routledge, 2005), 315-24.

[69] Vorberg, Glossarium Eroticum, 208.

[70] Pompeji: Geschichte, Kunst Und Leben in Der Versunkenen Stadt, ed. Marisa Ranieri Panetta (Stuttgart: Belser, 2005), 210-11. The erotic scene on the boat is taken from the House of Quadrigas (VII. 2. 25). The scene depicting the tibia-player beside the couple having sex is from the summer triclinium of the House of the Ephebus (I. 7. 9-10). See Figure 8 on page 66 of this paper.

[71] For example, see the third century paintings discovered in 1868 in Ostia in the Campus of the Magna Mater. Images may be accessed at:

[72] For this idea, see Mitchell, “Review of Looking at Laughter: Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture by John R. Clarke.” I find the argument to be both imaginative and intriguing, though it presupposes that the thematic content of the fresco installed in the middle of the house would have been viewed through a fundamentally disapproving lens.

[73] Salvatore Ciro Nappo, Pompeii : Guide to the Lost City (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998), 64.

[74] Rebecca Langlands, Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome (Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 319-20.

[75] See James N. Davidson, The Greeks and Greek Love : A Bold New Exploration of the Ancient World, 1st U.S. ed. (New York: Random House, 2009), 101-21. Davidson complicates attempts by scholars like Sir Kenneth Dover to find representations of sodomy sublimated ubiquitously in Greek art and literature.

[76] Williams, Roman Homosexuality : Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity, 93.

[77] Clarke, Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans : Visual Representation and Non-Elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 315, 195. While his analysis of the portrayals of pygmies is often quite cogent, he seems to take for granted that the group-sex would have been seen as comical simply due to its outlandish nature and the fact that it was being committed by pygmies rather than paying attention to the blurring of class distinctions which I believe lies at the heart of the image’s power.

[78] See Catherine Edwards’ work in Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner, Roman Sexualities (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 66-95.

[79] Clarke, Looking at Laughter : Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250, 229.

[80] Bricault, Versluys, and Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005, 161.

[81] Ibid., 163.

[82] Beard and Henderson, Classical Art : From Greece to Rome, 142.

[83] Bricault, Versluys, and Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005, 163-64.

[84] Otto Kiefer, Sexual Life in Ancient Rome (New York: AMS Press, 1975), 174.

[85] Antonio Varone, Eroticism in Pompeii, Pompeii Thematic Guides (Roma: “L’Erma” di Bretschneider, 2000), 49.

[86] Ibid., 51.

[87] Mart. Spec. 5.

[88] Kathleen Coleman, “Fatal Charades: Roman Executions Staged as Mythological Enactments,” Journal of Roman Studies, no. 80 (1990): 44-73.

[89] Stat. Silv. 1.6.57.

[90] Dio 67.8.4. For the suggestion that “in general, the imperial court of the first century had all the paraphanalia and trappings of a medieval court” in its emphasis on the grotesque, see Brian W. Jones, The Emperor Domitian (London ; New York: Routledge, 1992), 25.

[91] See his discussion of the various categories of the carnivalesque in M. M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1968).

[92] The character of the pygmies is interesting, and much hinges on their attitude toward each other. The pygmies seem to be heroically trying to cooperate to harness the Nilotic creatures. This suggests that the pygmy riding the hippopotamus and raising the mace in our fresco is doing so in defense of his friend rather than in an act of wickedness.

[93] Pompeji: Geschichte, Kunst Und Leben in Der Versunkenen Stadt, 210-11.

[94] Bricault, Versluys, and Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005, 6.

[95] See Figure 2 on page 61 of this paper.

[96] For the suggestion that the scene depicts authentic methods used by Nilotic people to capture crocodiles, see McDaniel, “A Fresco Picturing Pygmies,” 260-71. With regard to the fresco that is the subject of the introduction of this dissertation, McDaniel says “Even though the Egyptians themselves were a lively, fun-loving people who had some propensity for caricature in their own art, they might not relish finding at Pompeii pictures of their native land with the scene almost always inhabited by absurd little runts doing ridiculous, sacrilegious, or scandalously obscene things. Even this same Pompeiian room contains some that we do not care to describe.”

[97] See Figure 3 on page 62 of this paper.

[98] Beard, Pompeii : The Life of a Roman Town, 130.

[99] For a discussion of the scene as an anti-Semitic caricature, see August Mau and Francis W. Kelsey, Pompeii, Its Life and Art (New York,

London,: The Macmillan company;

Macmillan & co., ltd., 1899), 17. For the idea that Socrates and Aristotle are onlookers, see Theodore Feder, “Solomon, Socrates, and Aristotle,” Biblical Archaeology Society 34, no. 5 (2008). For the idea that the fresco is proof of the presence of Christians and Jews in Pompeii, see L. De Feis, Alcune Memorie Bibliche Scoperte a Pompei (Florence1906).

[100] Beard, Pompeii : The Life of a Roman Town, 130.

[101] Clarke, Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans : Visual Representation and Non-Elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 315, 164.

[102] Bricault, Versluys, and Meyboom, Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005, 169.

[103] Robin Lane Fox, Travelling Heroes : Greeks and Their Myths in the Epic Age of Homer (London ; New York: Allen Lane, 2008), 31.

[104] For his reputation for wisdom and judiciousness, see Diod. 1.45, 1.79, 1.94. For the story about the priests, see Diod.1.65. For the alternate tradition that Bocchoris was burned alive by Shabaka, a Kushite king, see Man. 4.66. (from Syncellus, according to Africanus), frag, 67 (a) (from Syncellus, according to Eusebius.)

[105] Clem. Strom. 4.18.

[106] For a description of the alleged judgments of Bocchoris, see G. Maspero, History of the Ancient Peoples of the Classic East, ed. A. H. Sayce, trans. M. L. McClure, 3 vols., vol. 3 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge 1897), 245-46.

[107] “Not finished by nature, but just begun.” Suet. Claud. 3.2.

[108] See Anthony Corbeill’s work in Hallett and Skinner, Roman Sexualities, 99-128.

[109] J. B. Ward-Perkins, Roman Imperial Architecture, 2d (integrated) ed., The Pelican History of Art (Harmondsworth, Eng. ; New York: Penguin Books, 1981), 185.

[110] John Joseph Dobbins and Pedar William Foss, The World of Pompeii, The Routledge Worlds (London ; New York: Routledge, 2007), 195.

[111] Pompeji: Geschichte, Kunst Und Leben in Der Versunkenen Stadt, 210-11.

[112] Beard and Henderson, Classical Art : From Greece to Rome, 22.

[113] Ibid., 11-63.

[114] Ibid., 50-53.

[115] The promotion of “indecent” theatrical spectacles was neither limited to the imperial family nor to men. See Plin. Ep. 7.24 for an account of Ummidia Quadratilla, an aged dowager who kept a professional troupe of pantomimes who gave both public and private performances during the height of the Julio-Claudian decadence. Ummidia dismissed her grandson whenever the freedmen performed in order to protect his morals. Pliny’s description of the sycophantic applause of her admirers in the arena is strikingly reminiscent of the description of the applauding courtiers at the court of Nero at Suet. Nero. 20. This was the cultural milieu in which images such as the fresco of the pygmies were being produced.

[116] For a description of the statue, see Andrew F. Stewart, Greek Sculpture : An Exploration, 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 56-58, 226-28. For the idea that the statue might have represented “motel art for ancient businessmen,” see Beard and Henderson, Classical Art : From Greece to Rome, 139.

[117] This section of the paper may ultimately be placed in Chapter 2 concerning material evidence for orgies.

[118] Harris, Pompeii Awakened : A Story of Rediscovery, 120.

[119] Prop. Ele. II.6, 29.

[120] Ov. Trist. II.521-24.

[121] See Figure 9 on page 67 of this paper.

[122] de Caro, The Secret Cabinet in the National Archeological Museum of Naples, 28. See inv. 110569. See also Kymberly N. Pinder, Race-Ing Art History : Critical Readings in Race and Art History (New York: Routledge, 2002), 14.

[123] Varone, Eroticism in Pompeii, 76-77.

[124] Museo Nazionale Romano, cubicula B and D. See pl 326,7, inv no 1187; pl. 326,6, inv. 1188; 326.5, inv. 1188, pl. 326,9, inv 1128.

[125] de Caro, The Secret Cabinet in the National Archeological Museum of Naples, 41-42. Both the House of the Vettii (VI, 15, 1) and the House of the Centenary (IX, 8, 6) were built with this layout.

[126] CIL IV 8897.

[127] CIL IV 2310b.

[128] Varone, Eroticism in Pompeii, 66-72.

[129] Ibid., 69. Second to third century AD, now in the Lyon Museo. There is also a terracotta vase from the Rhone valley showing a couple having sex behind another picture in doors showing a quadriga, See Figure 12 on page 70 of this paper.

[130] Ibid., 68. From the Palatine c. 70 AD, Rome Antiquarium Communale, no 13694. See Figure 10 on page 68 of this paper.

[131] Ibid. Inv. No. 25847/15. See Figure 11 on page 69 of this paper.

[132] Varone, Eroticism in Pompeii, 69. See Figure 13 on page 71 of this paper.

[133] West wall of the brothel, VII.12.18.

[134] Varone, Eroticism in Pompeii, 66-67.

[135] Mart. XI.45.

[136] Mart. XI.104. (The Phrygian slaves behind the door were masturbating whenever the wife rode Hector, her steed).

[137] For a discussion of this article and the roots of sex positive feminism, see Ellen Willis, Beginning to See the Light : Sex, Hope, and Rock-and-Roll (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press : University Press of New England, 1992).

[138] In the example of the fresco of pygmies from the House of the Doctor, the orgiastic content distanced Roman viewers from the world of the subjects by abstracting them as apotropaic exotic symbols engaged in musical, spectacular acts of sex usually restricted to the theater or the bordello. But at the same time, the depiction of the group sex titillated Roman viewers by presenting a provocative wonderland in which class and gender distinctions were blurred and hence the concept of sexual transgression itself did not exist, since notions of what constituted normativity were bound to such distinctions in the first place.

[139] For the argument that “homosexuality” is a modern culturally constructed category and that attraction in the Greek world was bound to fundamentally different kinds of schematizations of desire (shades of Foucault), see David M. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality : And Other Essays on Greek Love (New York: Routledge, 1990).

[140] The fact that many classical historians spend so much time exploring canonical literary texts during their training undoubtedly contributes to this trend of viewing ancient historiography as a genre almost akin to fiction. Professors exploring ancient history in history departments, however, are trained to be equipped with a slightly different set of skills because there is often a greater emphasis on the synthesis of evidence rather than a literary deconstruction of each individual piece of evidence as “literature.”

[141] Barbara Levick, Claudius (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990), 64-67. Levick does not seem to realize that Messalina’s marriage to Silius precedes the celeberation of the vintage, but this is understandable, since it will eventually be argued that both were likely orgies. She, however, calls the idea of the marriage as a Bacchic ritual as an “alluring modern fantasy” (67).

[142] Hallett and Skinner, Roman Sexualities, 221-54.

[143] Insofar as much of the evidence about the internal goings-on of the imperial household was off limits to non-members of the dynasty, “gossip” was often the only way for people like women, slaves, and the poor to distill the political information that profoundly influenced their daily lives. For this reason, “gossip” can be interpreted as a kind of People’s History, and its content contains important messages about cultural dissatisfaction regardless of its connection to truth.

[144] 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).

[145] Tib. Ele. 1.1.

[146] Ov. Am. 1.9.

[147] Ray Laurence, Roman Passions : A History of Pleasure in Imperial Rome (London ; New York: Continuum, 2009). See this book for a detailed discussion of the prominence of displays of conspicuous consumption in the prosperous socio-economic context of the early Roman Empire.

[148] For a discussion of the efficacy of using tropes associated with debauched dining habits in an adversarial political context, see Anthony Corbeill’s work in Hallett and Skinner, Roman Sexualities, 99-128.

[149] For the idea that the charges of adultery were often used for political purposes, see Catharine Edwards, The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome (Cambridge ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[150] Michel Foucault et al., The History of Sexuality Volume 2, Vintage Books ed., 3 vols. (New York: Vintage Books, 1990 (French original published in 1984)), 89.

[151] Ibid., 56-57.

[152] The History of Sexuality Volume 3, 1st Vintage Books ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1988 (French original published 1984)).

[153] As Foucault said, the ethical system he was describing was one designed for men. But this does not mean that a prudish ethical system did not exist defining the sexual lives of women. Foucault is right that the do’s and don’ts were not codified in a book like the Bible, but if an elite women ever engaged in intercourse beyond wedlock or if an elite man submitted to penetration, as much anxiety could be raised as in the most hysterical Christian contexts of the Middle Ages. Sexual ethics regulating the lives of men were based on the idea of learning to control oneself for the sake of being able to control others. Sexual ethics regulating the lives of women were based on learning to control oneself for the sake of being able to submit to others. But learning to control oneself was normative for all, at least in the eyes of prudish Stoics and Platonists.

[154] For an in-depth description of the state of marriage in the first centuries CE, see Susan Treggiari, Roman Marriage : Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian (Oxford

New York: Clarendon Press ;

Oxford University Press, 1991).

[155] Meg Barker and Darren Langdridge, Understanding Non-Monogamies, Routledge Research in Gender and Society (New York: Routledge, 2010).

[156] Blanshard, Sex : Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity, 65-87.

[157] 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.

[158] Bettina Bergmann et al., The Art of Ancient Spectacle, Studies in the History of Art, (Washington, D.C.

New Haven, Conn.: National Gallery of Art ;

Distributed by Yale University Press, 1999), 9-11.

[159] Ibid., 163-69.

[160] Duncan Fishwick, The Imperial Cult in the Latin West : Studies in the Ruler Cult of the Western Provinces of the Roman Empire, 2nd ed., Etudes Préliminaires Aux Religions Orientales Dans L’empire Romain (Leiden ; New York: E. J. Brill, 1993).

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

[162] Quoted by James Warren, “All the Philosopher King’s Men,” Harper’s MagazineFeb, 2000. Accessed at

[163] José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses : Authorised Translation from the Spanish (New York: W. W. Norton & co., 1932).

[164] Thomas A. McGinn, The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World : A Study of Social History & the Brothel (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), 14-77.


The Roman Orgy Was Taboo But Not Fictional (Part 6, Messalina’s Demise Revisited)

IMG_2390 (1)

The preponderance of evidence thus seems to suggest a certain model for the nature of orgiastic celebrations in the Roman world, not quite the image promulgated by Hollywood and nineteenth century history painters, perhaps, but also not quite the staid narrative endorsed by mainstream academia either, often discounting the possibility of lived experiences for the sake of emphasizing the overarching power of Discourse with a capital D, and suggesting that believing authors who describe women engaging in group sex is tantamount to believing authors who said women committed witchcraft in the early modern period.

Let us return, now, to Messalina’s famous “wedding.” Was everything about her behavior simply fabricated by chauvinist authors uncomfortable with the idea of women in positions of power?[1] If my model is correct and her marriage was in fact an orgy, we would expect her celebrations to have the following very specific features if they were plausible charges rather than the products of generalizing and non-specific slander:

  • They would include group sex.
  • They would evoke the thematic ambiance of a mystery cult and/or a brothel, which were the usual social contexts for group sex.
  • They would include characteristic party games, like the placing of aristocratic women into brothel stalls, competitions to see who could wear out the most men, and faux marriage ceremonies appropriated from Dionysian ritual.
  • They would probably be associated with political conspiracy, since only someone with the authority of an emperor could usually get away with hosting such an event.
  • They would probably be associated with coercion against the aristocracy during the later Julio-Claudian dynasty.

Of course, one would expect slanderous stories to have specific features in common in accordance with the general cultural context; for example, the fact that numerous witches in early modern Europe were accused of dancing around fires does not necessarily make the claim true. It might be the case that the historiographical tradition about Messalina is largely imaginary. But unlike the alleged activities of witches’ covens, the empress’s orgies were held publicly and described as factual by centuries of historians. If all five of these highly specific features of orgies are described in consistent terms by multiple trustworthy authors, and if no dissenting voices survive discrediting the tradition, it would seem at least equally likely that Tacitus and others were telling the truth about Messalina than that everybody was simply writing on a vague generalizing trope with no basis in reality. Indeed, if Messalina’s orgy has these five features, her behavior would be completely consistent with what other surviving historical voices insist was taking place in Italy at this time.

The sources speak for themselves.

Messalina’s parties were said to feature group sex. At 60.18, Dio Cassius says that Messalina compelled aristocratic women to have promiscuous sex in the palace in the presence of their husbands, who, if they played along, were rewarded by the empress with “honors and offices.” Those who refused her advances were in danger of their lives. Tacitus suggests at Ann. 11.36 that Suilius Caesoninus was spared Claudius’ wrath because he was being sodomized at Messalina’s “wedding” rather than penetrating anyone.

Messalina’s parties were said to evoke the thematic ambiance of mystery cults and brothels. Juvenal describes Messalina as a prostitute at 6.114-141, suggesting that she frequented brothels. Aurelius Victor 4.5 says that Messalina had aristocratic matrons put up for sale with herself in the fashion of prostitutes, and that males were compelled to attend if they valued their lives. At 11.31, Tacitus says that Messalina’s bigamous public “marriage” included the imagery of a Bacchic revelry, including a masquerade, cult objects, and costumes.

Messalina’s parties included characteristic games including the forced prostitution of aristocrats, competitions to wear out men, and faux marriage ceremonies. This is born out jokingly by Pliny 10.172, which claims that while most animals mated seasonally, Messalina was an exception, having intercourse with 25 men in a single night and out-competing a prostitute. Juvenal repeats the charge. Aurelius Victor 4.5 says that Messalina compelled aristocratic women to pretend to be prostitutes. At 11.26 Tacitus describes Messalina bigamously marrying Silius at an orgy. The anonymous play Octavia confirms a second marriage as the cause of Messalina’s destruction.[2] Suetonius mentions that Messalina married twice at Claud. 26: “but when he learned that besides other shameful and wicked deeds she had actually married Gaius Silius, and that a formal contract at been signed in the presence of witnesses he put her to death.” Dio 61.31 also repeats the story of the orgiastic marriage, in addition to the charge that Messalina had previously forced aristocratic matrons to pretend to be prostitutes in the palace. The fact that Mnester, one of Rome’s most popular actors, was implicated in the orgy shows that it might have involved theatrical pantomiming.

Messalia’s antics were associated with political conspiracy. Tacitus’ Annals 11.12 suggests that Messalina was politically active, manipulating the legal system to destroy her enemies. Ann. 11.26 describes the affair between Messalina and Gaius Silius as a potential coup, with Silius offering to adopt her son Britannicus. The very fate of the wedding party, with almost everyone executed in a kangaroo court, shows that the event was interpreted as a conspiracy. Dio 61.31 makes it clear that Claudius was in fear of his life. At 11.32, Tacitus mentions that among the people executed at Messalina’s wedding were several important men in the city, including Decius Calpurnianus, commander of the watch, and Sulpicius Rufus, who was in charge of public spectacles.

Messalina’s parties were coercive. We have already examined evidence that women were forced to act as prostitutes at Messalina’s parties. Juvenal 10-329-345 describes Silius as a poor sap, lamenting that people who resisted participating in Messalina’s parties risked sticky fates. Aurelius Victor 4.5 repeats that those who refused Messalina’s advances were promptly destroyed. Tacitus 11.36 has Mnester complaining that he was forced to participate in the conspiracy by Messalina. Dio Cassius 60.18 reconfirms the danger of rejecting Messalina.


Recent scholarship usually attempts to explain Messalina’s fall without resorting to literal readings of the sources. It seems plausible to me, however, that this reckless young woman might have involved herself in a dangerous party scene with origins extending back to the Roman Republic, especially since she first  came to prominence in the orgiastic reign of Caligula. As we have already noted, sex parties provided potential opportunities for conspirators to mutually entrap each other with knowledge of seriously scandalous behavior, and the fact that Messalina rewarded those who partied with her but quickly destroyed those who hesitated is evidence that she understood the game she was playing was potentially dangerous. The idea that she married Silius in a hieros gamos ceremony akin to the orgiastic faux-weddings described by Petronius and historians of the age of the emperor Nero is especially interesting. It would neatly explain the unanimity of the sources that she seems to have gone through a public ceremony of some kind. This would have been particularly confusing to a Roman audience, since many common law marriages simply involved moving into each other’s houses, and Messalina’s Bacchic revelry and masquerade probably really did seem like a wedding in the same way that Tacitus, Dio, and Suetonius could write about Nero’s dalliances with Sporus and Pythagoras seeming like ones. Perhaps they were meant to evoke the ambiance of ceremonies such as the hieros gamos of the Athenian Anthisteria festival in honor of Dionysus.

Motives for Messalina’s orgies may not have been completely irrational. This paper suggests that by the time of her husband’s reign, these kinds of pageants were being held to cement popularity with the masses and control over the aristocracy. But at the same time, just as Caligula and Nero were young and reckless and naïve about the longevity of their absolute power, so too was Messalina. It might have been difficult for the young empress to resist the temptation of being at the center of Rome’s nightlife, sponsoring outlandish parties on order with those of her imperial predecessors. And at the point that she began to host these kinds of parties at all, it would have become increasingly difficult to extricate herself from a web of potential informers, who would need to be killed, and trustworthy lovers, who could serve as a potential source of political conspiracy.

There is a final piece that needs to be added to this puzzle. Why did Messalina arrange this final conspiracy when her son Britannicus was the heir to the throne and she was already the Roman empress? According to Barbara Levick, Messalina might have been afraid that her son was less popular with the masses than the young Nero, who was a direct lineal descendant of Augustus through his great grandmother, Julia.[3] Suetonius tells us that at certain public games, the emperor’s niece Agrippina and her son Nero was applauded by the crowd more warmly than Messalina and her son. If her husband Claudius died unexpectedly, her position might have been threatened. However, complicating this thesis is the striking fact that at Ann. 11.26, Silius offers to adopt Britannicus. Why should Silius have been promising to adopt someone who was already clearly the heir to the throne, even if the boy was losing popularity?

Something that could conceivably endanger the position of Britannicus is if his father, the emperor Claudius, disowned him. Messalina’s parties were probably beginning to seriously endanger her position in Roman society—major figures in Roman politics like the wealthy senator Asiaticus were becoming entrapped in her web of intrigue, and word would inevitably reach her husband. If Claudius found out about Messalina’s behavior, he might begin to doubt the paternity of his son. Perhaps this was the reason that Messalina would have been attracted to Silius’ offer to categorically declare Britannicus the heir by adopting him. After Claudius adopted Nero, Nero in fact began to insist that Britannicus was illegitimate, and Claudius preferred his step-son to his natural child at every opportunity.[4]

Dio’s account of Messalina’s fall makes it clear that while she was planning a coup against her husband, the banquet was not meant to set it off. The conspiracy was perhaps still in the planning stages, and the revelers were literally caught with their togas down. Discovered at the orgy were some of the greatest names in Rome: her lover Silius, the famous and popular actor Mnester, the commander of the watch, and (tellingly) the organizer of Rome’s public spectacles. Because Claudius distrusted the loyalty of his Praetorian Guardsman Geta, he temporarily made Narcissus, the freedman who exposed Messalina, head of the imperial bodyguard for the day. Narcissus might have been enacting revenge against Messalina for her destruction, the previous year, of his fellow counselor Polybius, one of the emperor’s most trusted freedmen who, according to Aurelius Victor 4, once even walked among the consuls. Somehow along the way, Messalina had lost the trust and confidence of Claudius’ inner circle of freedmen advisors, and when she did so, it did not take long for them to trap her. They merely had to wait until she hosted one of her notorious orgies and break up the proceedings, which is just what seems to have happened.

A final word should be said on this topic involving an anecdote from Suetonius’ biography of Nero. In book 6, Suetonius explains:

Another manifest indication of Neros’s future unhappiness occurred on the day of his purification, for when Gaius Caesar (Caligula) was asked by his sister to give the child whatever name he liked, he looked at his uncle Claudius, who later became emperor and adopted Nero, and said that he gave him his name. This he did, not seriously, but in jest, and Agrippina scorned the proposal, because at that time Claudius was one of the laughing stocks of the court.

Why did Claudius ultimately adopt Nero and marry his niece? According to Tacitus’ Annals 12.3, his motive was lust. The court of Caligula, of which Claudius was once a part, was said to be characterized by ubiquitous incest among imperial family members.[5] Might Claudius, the sympathetic emperor famous from Robert Graves’ novels and a renowned BBC miniseries, have actually committed incest with his niece even before marrying her? This would certainly seem to explain Caligula’s punch line more plausibly than Suetonius’ interpretation. Normally, a Roman child would take the name of his father’s gens. To tell Agrippina to name the boy after Claudius could potentially mean Caligula was implying that Claudius was the boy’s natural father. Messalina certainly saw Agrippina as a threat, contriving the execution of her sister, and allegedly once attempting to have Nero assassinated. If Claudius suspected that Britannicus was illegitimate and Nero might be more likely to be his natural son, his adoption of Nero and choice to ignore Britannicus would make perfect sense, as would Messalina’s alarm at the power of Agrippina.[6] Some of Nero’s psychological problems would begin to make more sense in light of this theory too, since his marriage to Claudius and Messalina’s daughter, Octavia, might have been to his own half-sister. Suetonius tells us that for whatever reason, he evidently did not consummate the marriage, and remained so infuriated with his mother and sister-bride that he eventually had them both murdered.

We will of course never know definitively what happened to Messalina. Tacitus, however, swears that she was participating in orgies and political conspiracies, and the evidence put forward in this paper suggests that if she were indeed doing so, she would be in the company of others. According to the preponderance of evidence, Roman sex parties were so taboo that when they were held, a seriously dangerous political gambit was inherently being committed. That they were perhaps used in spectacles by the emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty speaks to the existence of a striking and unusual political strategy emphasizing short term popularity among the masses, who held the nobility as common enemies just like the prince did. The cruelty and exploitation inherent in this strategy invariably rendered it ineffective in the long run.

In many ways, Blanshard is correct that orgy-going was not central to ancient Romans’ sexual identities, but the very fact that the activity was so off-limits may have made participation irresistible for certain kinds of people. The argument that all of the discourse on the subject is grounded in fiction and hyperbole ultimately makes less sense than the idea that sex parties were really being held in unusual circumstances involving certain cults, brothels, and people corrupted by absolute power. The unanimity of the ancient sources on the subject, the lack of any dissenting voices, the corroboration of historical and archeological evidence, the fact that most of the evidence must have been lost in the Middle Ages yet so much still survives, the extreme and uncontested specificity of the charges, and the fact that eminent ancient historians attested to the truth of these publically witnessed events all suggest that the Roman orgy was taboo, but not a fictional, and that the Julio-Claudian dynasty was its golden age. Its characteristic features explain events such as the fall of Messalina more satisfactorily than endless recourse to accusations of authorial fantasy denying the lived experience of its victims.

A final word on the subject. It must be said that modern orgies accentuating a free and open exchange of bodies in a non-judgmental and loving context have little to do with the Roman orgies as they were described by conservative ancient historians. Today, many who participate in group sex perhaps find it liberating because it breaks down monogamous norms. But, at least for men, these kinds of monogamous norms did not exist in antiquity, when it was considered acceptable to penetrate social inferiors even after getting married. In light of this, the transgressive edge to the imperial Roman orgies were not bound to the titillation of being able to sleep with multiple partners in itself, but being able to engage in intercourse with individuals with whom it was usually categorically forbidden to do so, inverting traditional hierarchies in the deindividuated ambiance of the throng of bodies. The coercion inherent in the overturning of traditional sexual hierarchies was seen as congruent with political tyranny and upheaval, just as the sexual act itself was seen as a microscopic reenactment of the macroscopic social order of things, with the Roman man’s privilege of penetrating his wife, slaves, freed slaves, and non-citizens being understood as parallel to, symbolic of, and perhaps even synonymous with the imperium of the Roman state in general. Yet for all of its subversive nature, the Roman orgy was a novel institution, and a cultural amalgamation unique to the early Roman Empire. There was no single word to describe it–more often than not, it was simply called a party or vigil (convivium or pervigilium). To me, this is the final piece of evidence for the idea that orgy-going reflected three dimensional lived experience rather than simply hostile discourse–for unless authorial descriptions were bound to actual cultural behavior consistent across time and space, how else would the thematic picture painted by authors have been so consistent without an overarching word/rhetorical concept to encapsulate the “myth”? At the very least, the Romans were hearing stories of orgy-going constantly being repeated in their history books. It would be remarkable indeed if they never once practiced what they were constantly taught their ancestors practiced.


[1] For the argument that the portrayals of Roman women in general should be interpreted as permutations of rhetorical stereotypes, Dixon, Reading Roman Women : Sources, Genres, and Real Life. pp. 225-250. For a well-written exploration of the rhetorical forces at play in Tacitus’ description of the empress, see Sandra R. Joshel’s expertly written article in Hallett and Skinner, Roman Sexualities. Pp.221-255.

[2] See Lucius Annaeus Seneca and E. F. Watling, Four Tragedies and Octavia, Penguin Classics, (Baltimore,: Penguin Books, 1966). Pp. 266-267.

[3] Barbara Levick, Claudius (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

[4] Nero, 7.

[5] Caligula, 24.

[6] I am very proud to be the first person to interpret Caligula’s joke this way. My suggested reconstruction of the relationship between Claudius and Agrippina could make for interesting historical fiction some day. I always thought that “Agrippinilla” was underdeveloped in I, Claudius compared to Messalina (whose marriage even the observant Graves described as a legitimate wedding rather than an appropriated orgiastic hieros gamos parallel to Nero’s later ceremonies and events described in the writing of Petronius.)

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


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

[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.

The Roman Orgy Was Taboo, But Not Fictional (Part 4, Orgies at Aristocratic Banquets)


The last great line of evidence for the existence of orgies involves subversive aristocratic parties. Although some of these stories seem most outrageous of all, the fact that so many of the sex parties in question were said to be held publicly, especially in the era of the Julio-Claudian emperors, makes it difficult to imagine that writers would be so audacious to completely fabricate their existence. Historians like Suetonius, Tacitus, and Dio Cassius, who all held high offices of state, would have been in a position to be called liars by their contemporaries if they were dishonest in their accounts of the recent past. But for all of the modern discourse about the unreality of the ancient sources, not a single voice survives from antiquity claiming that ancient historians were completely fabricating the idea of imperial orgies. In fact, while the historian Tacitus began his Annals by complaining that many historians of the early Roman empire exaggerated their accounts of the past and he explicitly promises not to do this in his own work, he nonetheless goes on to describe several examples of sex parties. This suggests that his accounts of the facts of Messalina and Nero’s notorious banquets must not have been considered especially controversial or untrustworthy by the historian.[1]

Allegations of group sex at aristocratic banquets extend into early periods of the history of Italy. The historian Theopompus of Chios wrote in the fourth century BC that banquets attended by both freeborn women and men were customary among the Etruscans, as was the practice of sharing wives. He insists that it was common to have sex with women and young men alike after dinner, sometimes in the open, but most of the time hidden by screens. Intercourse in public or in groups was par for the course after drinking parties.[2] Theopompus is an obscure author, and none of these claims can be definitively proved, though Plato also seems to have alluded to the “immorality” of the Etruscans, and a sarcophagus housed in the Louvre portrays group sex, as does an erotic engraving on a cup illustrating a homosexual male threesome next to a couple engaging in oral sex.[3] The “Tomb of the Floggings,” a famous Etruscan site, includes paintings of sadomasochistic whippings and group intercourse on its walls. Thus, a cultural and even artistic memory existed of casual group sex between free people in parts of Italy, albeit once upon a time. Interestingly, the scandal concerning the Bacchic orgies that we encountered earlier in this paper was also said to have originated in the permissive atmosphere of Etruria.

During the chaos of the first century BC, political invective in the courtroom sometimes evoked the atmosphere of sex parties for shock value and to slander political opponents. Cicero’s speech Pro Caelio of 56 BC describes wild aristocratic bashes and insinuates lascivious goings-on in an effort to discredit the aristocratic Clodia:

“If any unmarried woman has opened up her house to the passion of everybody and openly set herself up in the life of a prostitute and made it her habit to take advantage of the banquets (conviviis) of totally unknown men, if she does it in the city, in gardens, in the mobs at Baiae, if at last she carries herself in this way not just with her gait but by her way of styling herself and by her attendants, not just by the flashing of her eyes, nor the freedom of her conversation, but even by her embrace, her way of kissing, at beach parties (actis) and sailing parties (navigatione), at banquets (conviviis), so she might seem like not just a prostitute but even an aggressive and insolent one at that, I ask, Lucius Herrenius, if by chance a young man should sleep with her, whether he would seem to be an adulterer or a lover, to have assaulted her chastity or to have wanted to fulfill his libido (libidinem).”[4]

According to Cicero, Clodia was throwing parties which were associated with adulterous liaisons, and he compares her in front of a jury to a prostitute for doing so. Cicero might have been being completely facetious when it came to Clodia’s vices, and the speech is clearly a problematic source. However, it seems to me unlikely that charges of debauched parties in themselves would have seemed out of left field when this speech was delivered, or the orator would never have dared to make these allegations in front of a jury. In whatever way the historical Clodia was behaving, it is clear that sex parties were considered plausible in some contexts, especially those involving prostitutes. Otherwise Cicero’s association between these feasts and prostitution would not have made sense.

Other independent sources describing the collapsing Republic suggest that sex parties were indeed being held by the aristocracy, and that these parties were explicitly imitating the ambiance and set of behaviors characteristic of brothels. Valerius Maximus 9.1.8 describes how:

“equally outrageous was the banquet which Gemellus, a tribunician messenger free by birth but by employment base below servile condition, prepared for Consul Metellus Scupio and the Tribunes of the Plebs to the signal shame of the community. He set up a brothel in his house and in it as prostitutes Mucia and Fulvia, both famous through their husbands and fathers, and a boy of noble birth, Saturninus. Bodies infamously patient, destined to be playthings for drunken lust! Feast for a Consul and Tribunes not to attend but to punish!”[5]

While Valerius Maximus’ account is not necessarily accurate, it must at least be taken very seriously. The boy’s ancestor Cnaeus Saturninus was consul in 19 BC, and this kind of slander against a noble family would not have been made lightly.[6] At the same time, the action of setting up a brothel in one’s home and stocking it with aristocratic freeborn women is a highly specific accusation that seems to transcend generalizing slander about the sexual perversity of an author’s subject; indeed, such a charge comes up only once in all of Valerius Maxmus’ work. If all this discourse about orgies is just a trope blindly applied to all powerful people, why do the extant historical sources only bring up the charge in highly specific circumstances? The accusation of simulating a brothel in one’s house only comes up on occasion, in scandals famous enough to be on the public record. While it is possible that all this is slander, it seems equally plausible that a characteristic feature of an aristocratic Roman sex party might have involved imitating the ambiance of a brothel, with all of its attendant traditions and rituals. After all, the historical records attest that besides the questionable actions of mystery religions, this was the only other context in which group sex was imagined as taking place. As we shall see, long after the death of Valerius Maximus, Caligula, Messalina, and Nero were also accused of holding exactly these kinds of parties, with exactly the same kind of highly specific features evoking a bordello.

Other evidence for sex parties in the late Republic exists in the form of discourse between the future emperor Augustus and his brother-in-law Mark Anthony before their civil war against each other. Suetonius, who worked at the imperial court of the emperor Hadrian and had access to historical imperial documents, quotes a letter from Anthony accusing Augustus of committing adultery with women named Tertulla, Terentilla, Rufilla, Salvia Titisenia, or all of them at once.[7] Suetonius also describes Anthony’s reaction to a masquerade held by Augustus. It was a banquet at which guests were dressed as the twelve Olympians. Anthony spitefully referred to all the guests by name in a letter, and anonymous verses accused the party of being an orgy, with the future emperor “in the midst of new debaucheries of the gods.”[8] The fact that Suetonius quotes a popular ditty about the event shows that word of the festivities spread to the masses, who interpreted the feast as a pretext for group sex. Perhaps the commonality of group sex in certain contexts (including, increasingly, aristocratic banquets) made these stories plausible.

Even after Augustus became emperor, accounts of orgiastic parties continued into the era of the Julio-Claudian emperors. Again, it is possible that no sexual misconduct was actually taking place, and that when individuals were accused of participating in orgies, everything was being made up for the sake of political slander. But the implications of Augustus’ moral legislation criminalizing adultery, unprecedented in Roman history, cannot be denied—something about the state of Roman sexual norms must have inspired this aggressive law, which saw members of the emperor’s own family condemned and exiled under it.[9]

There is a good deal of evidence that Augustus’ daughter, Julia was banished for adultery committed in public, including even the accusation of an orgy in the Forum itself on the speaker’s platform. Velleius Paterculus 2.100 includes a catalogue of Julia’s lovers who were punished for adultery with the princess: Iulus Antonius, Quintius Crispinus, Appius Claudius, Sempronius Gracchus, and a certain Scipio. Seneca the Younger, a polymath who advised the emperor Nero and wrote both tragedy and philosophical works, confirmed the nature of the charges against Julia in On Benefits 6.32:

“The deified Augustus banished his daughter, who was more shameless than the term “shameless” can describe, and made public the scandals of the ruling house: her lovers admitted in packs, her nightly rambles through the city in drunken revelry, her choice of the forum itself and the rostra from which her father had proposed the law on adultery as favorite places for debauchery, and her daily visits to the statue of Marsyas, where turning from a mistress into a whore she sought the right to absolute license with partners she did not even know.”[10]

Rhetorically charged as they are, Seneca’s words cannot be dismissed on face as fancy. He was an imperial counselor, and his works would have been widely read at court. Moreover, the emperor Nero, for whom he worked, was Julia’s great-grandson. Pliny the Elder’s NH 21.9 similarly calls Julia “a paradigm of licentiousness” (exemplum licentiae), and the author expresses disapproval of her adultery at 7.147, with the additional charge that she had plotted against her father’s life. Dio 55.10 confirms that some sort of a political conspiracy was going on, since Iullus Antonius (the son of Mark Anthony) was forced to commit suicide for designs on the monarchy. When it came to Julia herself, however, Dio explains that “when (Augustus) at length discovered that his daughter Julia was so dissolute in her conduct as actually to take part in revels and drinking bouts at night in the Forum and on the very rostra, he became exceedingly angry.”[11] Dio even mentions that so many other women were also accused of “similar behavior” that the emperor was forced to put a statute of limitation on all the charges. Tacitus and Suetonius both agree about Julia’s fate and the fact that her sexual promiscuity is what precipitated her fall.[12] The late antique antiquarian Macrobius records an interesting anecdote in which, when asked how it was that Julia’s children resembled her husband despite her many lovers, she answered that “she only took on passengers when the ship was full.”[13]

Some years later, Julia’s daughter was also banished for adultery, and the poet Ovid too, whose Ars Amatoria seemed to flout imperial legislation against promiscuity. As the dynasty progressed, the princess Livilla, two of Caligula’s sisters, Messalina, and Nero’s wife Octavia were all implicated in charges of adultery, some on less grounds than others. In the case of Augustus’ daughter, contemporary scholarship affirms the ancient suggestion that she was probably involved in a plot against her father’s life, but sensitive to the misogyny of the ancient sources, almost uniformly downplays the accusations of orgy-going.[14] However, the fact remains that it is precisely Julia’s devotion to sex parties rather than her political aims which is accentuated by the majority of ancient historians. Forced to marry three men in succession at the emperor’s bidding, one can perhaps understand her rebellion against her father’s power over her. The fact that Dio mentions that many other women were also accused of similar “crimes” is also significant, since it implies that the “crimes” involved attending sex parties, and not political conspiracy against the emperor.

Under the next emperor, Tiberius, there existed several accusations of group sex by prostitutes known as spintriae, but only in the privacy of the monarch’s private retreat on the island of Capri. Suetonius describes the palace (which survives to this day, in ruins) as the “seat of secret lusts” (sedem arcanarum libidinum):

“Teams of wantons of both sexes, selected as experts in deviant intercourse and dubbed analists (spintriae), copulated before him in triple unions to excite his flagging passions. Its many bedrooms he furnished with the most salacious paintings and sculptures and stocked with the books of Elephantis, in case any performer should need an illustration of a prescribed position…He trained little boys (whom he termed minnows) to crawl between his thighs when he went swimming and tease him with their licks and nibbles. And unweaned babies he would put to his organ as though to the breast, being both by nature and age rather fond of this form of satisfaction.”[15]

While all of this seems incredible and the private actions of Tiberius on his island cannot be known for certain, we know that the next emperor Caligula publicly banished Tiberius’ spintriae at the start of his reign, so they were presumably real people.[16] In book 3 of his biography of Vitellius, Suetonius even records the rumor that the future emperor was once one of the spintriae, though the innuendo might simply be based on the fact that the young Vitellius spent time on Capri with the emperor. If Vitellius was really teased at the start of his reign, however, it is clear just how deep-rooted discourse was about what went on in Tiberius’ private life even decades later.

Whatever Tiberius’ activities on his island, during the reigns of the final three Julio-Claudian emperors (Caligula, Claudius, and Nero), members of the imperial family are described as openly holding orgies in public to flaunt their power over the aristocracy. Participation in what had once been dangerous private parties seems to have become suddenly obligatory. As usual, the ambiance of prostitution and party games which, as we have seen, are usually associated with brothels are consistently evoked in the descriptions of the parties. Suetonius wrote of Caligula:

“To leave no kind of plunder untried, he opened a brothel (lupanar) in his palace, setting apart a number of rooms and furnishing them to suit the grandeur of the place, where matrons and freeborn youths should stand exposed. Then he sent his pages around the for a and basilicas to invite young men and old to enjoy themselves, lending money on interest to those who came and having clerks openly take down their names, as contributors to Caesar’s revenues.”[17]

Dio Cassius also mentions forced prostitution in the palace at 59.28, asking “how could one keep silent about the rooms set apart in the very palace, and the wives of the foremost men as well as the children of the most aristocratic families that he shut up in those rooms and subjected to outrage, using them as a means of milking everybody alike?”[18] The more obscure writer Aurelius Victor repeats the accusation about Caligula: “In his palace, he subjected noble matrons to public wantonness.”[19]

The orgies of Messalina during the reign of the next emperor, Claudius, will be considered in the final part of this paper. The emperor after Claudius, Nero, was similarly accused of sponsoring public sex parties. Suetonius describes Nero’s actions, including forcing free born women into simulated brothels and even arranging faux marriages:

“Whenever he drifted down the Tiber to Ostia, or sailed about the Gulf of Baiae, booths were set up at intervals along the banks and shores, fitted out for debauchery, while bartering matrons played the part of inn-keepers and from every hand solicited to come ashore…He castrated the boy Sporus and actually tried to make a woman of him; and he married him with all the usual ceremonies, including a dowry and bridal veil, took him to his house attended by a great throng, and treated him as a wife…He so prostituted his own chastity that after defiling almost every part of his body, he at last devised a kind of game, in which, covered with the skin of some wild animal, he was let loose from a cage and attacked the private parts of men and women, who were bound to stakes, and when he sated his mad lust, was dispatched by his freedman Doryphorus; for he was even married to this man in the same way that he himself had married Sporus, going so far as to imitate the cries and lamentations of a maiden being de-flowered.”[20]

Dio Cassius 62.15 confirms the story of pubic orgies, mentioning a banquet arranged by Nero’s henchman Tigellinus incorporating the forced prostitution of free born matrons:

“They would also enter the brothels and without let or hindrance have intercourse with any of the women who were seated there, among whom were the most beautiful and distinguished in the city, both slaves and free, courtesans and virgins and married women; and these were not merely of the common people but also of the very noblest families, both girls and grown women. Every man had the privilege of enjoying whichever one he wished, as the women were not allowed to refuse anyone. Consequently, indiscriminate rabble as the throng was, they not only drank greedily but also wantoned riotously; and now a slave would debauch his mistress in the presence of his master, and now a gladiator would debauch a girl of noble family before the eyes of her father.”

Later, Dio Cassius 62.28 corroborates the public marriage to Sporus and a certain “Pythagoras,” perhaps a misnomer for the man Suetonius called “Doyphorus”:

“He caused a boy of the freedmen, whom he used to call Sporus, to be castrated, since he, too, resembled Sabina, and he used him in every way like a wife. In due time, though already “married” to Pythagoras, a freedman, he formally “married” Sporus, and assigned the boy a regular dowry according to contract; and the Romans as well as others publicly celebrated their wedding.”[21]

Finally, Tacitus 15.37 also confirms the existence of orgies attended by aristocratic matrons and mentions a simulated marriage to “Pythagoras”:

“On the margin of the lake were set up brothels crowded with noble ladies, and on the opposite bank were seen naked prostitutes with obscene gestures and movements. As darkness approached, all the adjacent grove and surrounding buildings resounded with song, and shone brilliantly with lights. Nero, who polluted himself by every lawful or lawless indulgence, had not omitted a single abomination which could heighten his depravity, till a few days afterwards he stooped to marry himself to one of that filthy herd, by name Pythagoras, with all the forms of regular wedlock. The bridal veil was put over the emperor; people saw the witnesses of the ceremony, the wedding dower, the couch and the nuptial torches; everything in a word was plainly visible, which, even when a woman weds darkness hides.”[22]

It is striking that the kinds of parties described by Valerius Maximus as taking place in the late republic, complete with aristocratic matrons staffing faux-lupinars, continue to be described over the course of the entire Julio-Claudian dynasty. Comic references to sex parties including competitions between prostitutes and even sham marriages (as we saw, for example, in the works of Juvenal and Petronius) are repeated with grave seriousness in accounts of the careers of Caligula, Messalina, and Nero. Contemporary scholars are highly dubious of the charges, pointing out the hostility of ancient historians to these individuals. But sometimes, where there is smoke, there is fire. For years, many doubted Dio Cassius when he mentioned at 59.28 that Caligula expanded his palace by joining it to the Temple of Castor and Pollux in order to keep the heavenly twins as his gate keepers. However, it was recently discovered that Caligula’s palace really was connected to the temple of Castor and Pollux.[23] All of these descriptions of humiliating public orgies held by members of the Julio-Claudian dynasty cannot be categorically dismissed as rhetorical exaggerations. These accusations were not universalizing tropes, since not all hated emperors were described as holding such parties. The emperor Vitellius, for example, is often described as a glutton, but he is never portrayed forcing women of senatorial families to prostitute themselves. Tellingly, literary references to imperially sponsored orgies die out after the discredited Julio-Claudian dynasty fell. It seems that only later emperors who toyed with the imagery of personal divinity re-adopted the old patterns, if the biographies in the fanciful Historia Augusta are to be believed. Commodus 5.4-5.8 talks of an emperor forcing matrons and prostitutes alike into a harem. Pertinax 7.8-7.9 mentions the next emperor selling off the members of the harem, except for its freeborn members. Elagabalus 24 claims that the emperor “opened brothels in his house for his friends, his clients, and his slaves.”[24] All of this might be dismissed as the repetition of slanderous gossip, but the preponderance of evidence suggests that modern historians should take the charges seriously enough to interpret them as potentially factual. Indeed, considering the violent nature of the imperial orgies which were described as degrading spectacles often involving rape, to completely insist upon the sources’ lack of veracity may be to deny justice to the institution’s historical victims.


[1] See Tac. Ann. 1.1.

[2] Theopompus, Hist.115 FGrHist F204 = Athenaeus 517d-518a. G.

[3] Georges Marbeck, Orgies (New York: Ipso facto, 1999). Pp. 227.

[4] Cic. Cael. 49.

[5] Translation by D. R. Shackleton Bailey in the Loeb Classical Library edition.

[6] For this suggestion, see Maximus Valerius and D. R. Shackleton Bailey, Memorable Doings and Sayings, 2 vols., Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000). Pp. 301.

[7] Aug. 69.

[8] Aug. 70.

[9] See Susan Treggiari, Roman Marriage : Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian (Oxford ; New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 1991).

[10] Translation by R. J. Tarrant in class pack for Literature and Arts C-61 (The Rome of Augustus), Spring 2002, Pp. 88.

[11] For translation, see*.html

[12] See Aug. 65, and Tac. Ann. 1.53.

[13]  Macrobius Sat. 2.5, 9-10.

[14] For the suggestion that allegations of sexual misconduct against powerful imperial women might be used as a pretext to eliminate dynastic rivals, see Edwards, The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome.

[15] For all translations of Suetonius, see J. C. Rolfe’s work in the Loeb Classical Library.

[16] Calig. 16.

[17] Calig. 41.

[18] Dio 59.28 at*.html.

[19] Aurelius Victor 3.7. See

[20] Nero 27-29.

[21] See*.html.

[22] See

[23] See

[24] See*.html.

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


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

[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

[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

[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).

The Roman Orgy Was Taboo, But Not Fictional (Part 2, Orgies in Cults and Mystery Religions)


From the onset, it is important to remember that ancient texts are often hyperbolic, slanderous, and misogynistic documents. Their claims about the past cannot be accepted uncritically. An interesting argument can and has been made that these sources are so fundamentally flawed that they should not be interpreted as objective historical evidence per se. During the Roman Republic, insults about the sex lives of political enemies were par for the course, and this tradition of character assassination survived during the Roman Empire.[1] To make matters worse, since ancient authors often resorted to caricature in their portrayals of the Other, some scholars believe that there exist only limited possibilities of “extracting substantive information” from these writers at all.[2] We aren’t time travelers, so we can never decisively test the accuracy of ancient descriptions of people engaging in sexual activity. It is thus for good reason that Walter Scheidel warns against taking literary evidence about the sex lives of powerful Romans at face value:

For a literary critic, the actual conduct of Roman emperors may be of secondary importance or even irrelevant, and it is perfectly feasible to dissect the biographical tradition as a patchwork of complementary stereotypes that could be re-arranged in a limited number of constellations in keeping with the biases of the observer.[3]

Despite all of these problems, however, authors like Scheidel remain committed to employing ancient texts as documentary evidence rather than relegating them once and for all to the realm of imaginative fiction. While Scheidel denies L. Betzig’s view that the internal consistency of stories about sexual excess is in itself evidence for their potential veracity, he suggests that given what we know about human reproduction, evolution, and the behavior of absolute monarchs from other civilizations, traditions about the Roman emperors’ sex lives should perhaps be taken seriously. This point is well taken. But how can we tell when hostile invective begins and accurate reporting ends?

It is clear that in whatever context we consider the plausibility of the historiographical tradition, the evidence for the existence of Roman sex parties needs to be evaluated with great sensitivity and attention to detail. It might be the case that orgies are just as fictitious as witches’ gatherings in the seventeenth century, and that the chorus of primary sources attesting to their existence tells us nothing about the state of reality. Alternately, it might be the case that certain ancient people really participated in orgies just as certain ancient people presumably really engaged in passive homosexual activity. It would be wrong to assert that every ancient reference to passive homosexuality was probably a fantasy of each author’s imagination simply because such a charge inherently spoke to social taboos.[4] The only way to extract fact from fiction is, as if in a courtroom, to examine the evidence as a whole, to question the reliability of each individual witness, to attempt to find corroborating physical (in this case, archeological) data, and, finally, to come to a conclusion about the facts of the matter suggested by the preponderance of evidence. Operating under the premise that we cannot reject every ancient depiction of orgies on face simply because the idea of frequenting them might have been inherently scandalous, this is precisely how we will now proceed.

My survey of ancient evidence for group sex revealed that it comes up persistently but almost exclusively in three contexts—alleged cultic ceremonies, rendezvous with prostitutes and slaves, and certain kinds of aristocratic parties. I shall examine each of these in turn.

The first major line of evidence involves group sex in cultic contexts. Originally, an orgia was a religious rite in honor of the god of wine, Dionysos, called Bacchus by the Romans.[5] Because the god’s ceremonies were held at night and in secret, it is unclear just what went on at these gatherings, though we know that they were originally exclusively attended by women and were said to culminate in ecstatic revelries. During the early second century BC, popular rites associated with the worship of Bacchus spread throughout Italy attended by both men and women simultaneously, which was a novelty. In 186 BC, a scandal broke out of such magnitude that the Roman Senate itself became involved. Livy, the tutor to the emperor Augustus’ grand-nephew and one of the most eminent of all Roman historians, describes the problem in book 39.8 of his Ab Urbe Condita.

When (the orgy-goers) were heated with wine and the nightly commingling of men and women, those of tender age with their seniors, had extinguished all sense of modesty, debaucheries of every kind commenced; each had pleasures at hand to satisfy the lust he was most prone to. Nor was the mischief confined to the promiscuous intercourse of men and women; false witness, the forging of seals and testaments, and false informations, all proceeded from the same source, as also poisonings and murders of families where the bodies could not even be found for burial. Many crimes were committed by treachery; most by violence, which was kept secret, because the cries of those who were being violated or murdered could not be heard owing to the noise of drums and cymbals.[6]

At 39.13, Livy again underscores the sexual nature of the ceremonies in addition to their violence:

When once the mysteries had assumed this promiscuous character, and men were mingled with women with all the licence of nocturnal orgies, there was no crime, no deed of shame, wanting. More uncleanness was wrought by men with men than with women. Whoever would not submit to defilement, or shrank from violating others, was sacrificed as a victim… amongst them were members of noble families both men and women.

After the Senate intervened, the orgies were effectively banned.[7] At 39.18, Livy sums up the fate of the Bacchic revelers:

Those who had polluted themselves by outrage and murder, those who had stained themselves by giving false evidence, forging seals and wills and by other fraudulent practices, were sentenced to death. The number of those executed exceeded the number of those sentenced to imprisonment; there was an enormous number of men as well as women in both classes.

So, according to Livy, the Bacchantes’ ceremonies had become associated with indiscriminate sexual intercourse among individuals of both high and low socio-economic status, rape, the forging of wills, and even the murder of unwitting initiates.[8]

But can Livy be trusted? Blanshard suggests that his narrative is “embroidered” and reminiscent of conventions of “Hellenistic drama.”[9] Walsh calls it a “soap opera.”[10] Although Livy mentions at 39.19 that specific witnesses were rewarded by the Senate for their testimony, we have no way of knowing whether or not they were lying. Fortuitously, the actual senatorial resolution against the Bacchantes survives in an inscription, proving that there was indeed some kind of a scandal in 186 BC, whatever its nature. The allies of Rome were required to forbid unauthorized meetings of the Bacchantes in public and private on pain of death. Exceptions could only be granted by the Roman Senate provided that no less than one hundred senators and the urban praetor agreed to the dispensation, and that no more than five people would be present at the revelries at any one time. Livy’s account is consistent with these details. Yet the legislation described on the inscription is not contextualized. The only hint as to the reason for the Senate’s decree is the phrase “let them not make conspiracies among themselves.”[11] The nature of the conspiracies is not specified. Beyond Livy’s explanation, the comic plays of Plautus which are contemporary with the senatorial legislation include many scattered references to bacchanals and the followers of Bacchus in general. They are invariably portrayed as insane, violent, and promiscuous, though the fact that so many of the playwright’s jokes involve explicitly hyperbolic fear of their violence might be taken as a subtle critique of exaggerated fears of the threat that they posed.[12] Whatever the case, the extant evidence never contradicts Livy’s account and even confirms certain aspects of it like the technical specifications of the senatorial restrictions and the association between the worship of Bacchus, sex, and violence. But the fact remains that the whole affair might have been a giant witch hunt. So, where do we go from here?

In general, we have cause to be suspicious of any body of writing dedicated to the activities of secret religious organizations. Because the rites were deliberately kept under wraps, it is impossible to know exactly what they involved. Historians have emphasized the fact that Livy’s account is highly embellished and modeled on age-old literary tropes.[13] At the same time, Livy admittedly does not consider the anti-Greek sentiment marking aspects of Roman politics at the time, or deep-rooted political divisions among prominent aristocratic families which might have inspired a witch hunt.[14] But what is important to note is that even if everything about the orgies of Bacchus was fabricated, there existed in the popular consciousness the idea and even the expectation that people who met by night for secret ceremonies might be engaging in group sex. In fact, the idea of group sex as a feature of secret nocturnal meetings was so prominent in the psychological landscape of multiple Roman authors that it attached itself to many different cults over time. In his Satires, the poet Juvenal mentions aristocratic matrons competing with slave girls in sexual feats at the celebrations of the rites of the Bona Dea.[15] The novelist Apuleius describes catamite priests of a secret cult participating in a homosexual orgy.[16] Early Christian groups were often accused of holding orgies. In the late third century AD, for example, Minucius Felix described a Christian feast in which lamps were overturned and indiscriminate sexual escapades took place in the dark, though the charge was admittedly categorically denied.[17]  In fact, the Agape, or Christian love feast, was interpreted and described so often as a sex party that Justin Maryr, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Theophilus, and Terturllian all took the time to write against the charge.[18] Interestingly, however, Christian sects often accused each other of holding orgies. Writing in the early third century AD, Hippolytus Romanus said of the Simonists that they believed “all earth is earth, and there is no difference where anyone sows, provided he does sow. And they congratulate themselves on their intercourse with strange women, asserting that this is the perfect Agape.”[19] And in the late fourth century Epiphanius described orgiastic feasts among the Gnostic Phibionites in which semen and menstrual blood were used as ceremonial fluids.[20]

Admittedly, many of these details seem highly fanciful, and some of the evidence like the satirical remarks of Juvenal and the diatribes of Christian sects writing against each other is overtly hostile or comical in nature. No accounts survive from antiquity of religious sects openly admitting to holding sex parties. It is invariably described as a taboo practice that the Other arranges and enjoys. But it also must be said that in the whole of extant ancient literature, no voices survive denying that such parties ever took place at all. If all of the descriptions of orgies were fabrications, one would think that after so many centuries, at least a few authors would comment on the fact that all of these accusations were fundamentally groundless. But as we have seen, even Christian apologists did not deny the reality of orgies in all contexts. They simply accused heretics of being the ones to hold them.

The truth remains elusive, though at least in the case of the worship of Bacchus and Priapus, a chaste and sober get-together seems somehow inappropriate as a celebration of the gods of wine and the male libido, respectively. The Roman conception of an orgia as a potential venue for group sex is the very origin of the modern term “orgy,” with all its connotations. In the opinion of Albert Henrichs, one of the most important scholars on the rites of Dionysos, the idea that the originally chaste ceremonies became associated in Italy with “sexual liberation” seemed plausible enough to be stated categorically and without reservation.[21] Whatever the case, the Romans were sure enough about the reality of group sex to have recourse to referencing it often, and religiously inspired sex parties existed firmly in the realm of popular discourse for centuries. If even a handful of sects indeed engaged in group-sex, it might explain the longevity of the rumors associated with the movements at large more plausibly than five hundred years of hysterical slander. The very fact that such celebrations were so fundamentally taboo and counter-cultural might have attracted certain elements to these cults in the first place.


[1] For a description of the effectiveness of innuendo about sexual transgressions as a form of character assassination, see Anthony Corbeill’s article on “Dining Deviants in Roman Political Invective” in Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner, Roman Sexualities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997). Pp. 99-128.

[2] See the introduction to Suzanne Dixon, Reading Roman Women : Sources, Genres, and Real Life (London: Duckworth, 2001).

[3] See Pp. 47.

[4] For the argument that even Roman cinaedi (passive male homosexuals “who preferred to be penetrated by other men and/or to service women orally”) might have been a “fabulous construct” without “material existence,” see Marilyn B. Skinner’s analysis of the work of H. N. Parker’s work in Marilyn B. Skinner, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture, Ancient Cultures (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005). Pp. 252.

[5] For an account of the history of the worship of Dionysos, see Albert Henrichs, “Greek Maenadism from Olympias to Messalina,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 82, no. ArticleType: research-article / Full publication date: 1978 / Copyright 1978 Department of the Classics, Harvard University (1978).

[6] See

[7] Commentators who point out that the ceremonies could still technically be held at the specific discretion of the Senate are missing the point that the Senate would likely never agree to such terms given the general severity of the legislation against the Bacchic rites.

[8] See Livy 39.8-19.

[9] Blanshard, Sex : Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity. Pp. 59.

[10] Walsh, P.G. “Making a Drama out of a Crisis: Livy on the Bacchanalia.” Greece & Rome, 2nd Ser., Vol. 43, No. 2 (Oct., 1996), 188-203. Pp. 202.

[11] See (CIL i2 2, 581).

[12] See American journal of philology, Volumes 31-40 By Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, Charles William Emil Miller, Benjamin Dean Meritt, Tenney Frank, Harold Fredrik Cherniss, JSTOR (Organization), pp. 243 onward. Plaut. Am. 703-705 has a joke about the insanity of the Bacchae; Au. 408-411 has a joke about their violence; Cas. 978  professes comic fear of the Bacchae; Mi. 855 associates them with drunkenness; Mi. 1016 has a request for a Bacchic password (“a certain man loves a certain woman”); the title of the play Bacchides is a play on “Bacchae,” and involves courtesans; Bac. 53 expresses fear of a “bacchanal,” as does Bac. 371; the speech beginning at Men. 835 associates the worship of Bacchus with violence and insanity.

[13] See P. G. Walsh, “Making a Drama out of a Crisis: Livy on the Bacchanalia,” Greece & Rome 43, no. 2 (1996).

[14] Cato is traditionally held to have opposed the phil-Hellenic Scipionic circle. For a discussion of the intricacies of Roman politics in this time period, see H. H. Scullard, Roman Politics, 220-150 B.C (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981).

[15] Juv. 6.315-346.

[16] Apuleius 8.30.

[17] Min. Fel. Oct. 9.6-7.

[18] Jeffrey Burton Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, N.Y.,: Cornell University Press, 1972). Pp. 90-91.

[19] Elench. 6.19, 5.

[20] Epiphanius Panarion haer. 26.4-26.5. For the idea that “Epiphanius made up his accounts…creating bizarre ritual activities,” see Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities : The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (New York ; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). Pp. 201.

[21] Albert Henrichs, “Greek Maenadism from Olympias to Messalina,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 82, no. ArticleType: research-article / Full publication date: 1978 / Copyright 1978 Department of the Classics, Harvard University (1978).