Subscribe to our Gay Travel Newsletter here

Since we’re heading to Rome on a swanky, culture-rich tour of Italy, you may be wondering about ancient Roman homosexuality and how gay the Empire really was? As it turns out, super gay. But it’s complicated.

You Weren’t Gay or Straight. But Top or Bottom. With Consequence.

The biggest thing about sexuality in ancient Rome was that they didn’t concern themselves with who, but rather how, you boinked. They didn’t even have a word for homosexuality, but the empire was obsessed with conquest, and that mindset pervaded everything including sex. All that mattered was who’s on top. Alas, if you were a man, to be penetrated was to be conquered, thus weak and less worthy. 

Furthermore, sexual partners weren’t chosen by gender, but class. Married men would continue to cavort with other fellows, so long as that partner was beneath them both sexually and societally. This could entail prostitutes, the enslaved, and the infamia (those disgraced by society such as gladiators, actors, dancers and anybody else who ‘gave up’ their body for public display).

Gay Marriage was a Thing.

Even without a word for homosexuality, men (including emperors) would marry other men. In fact, Nero ‘wed’ two different men and was said to assume the role of the bride when he shacked up with Pythagoras.

Virtually every emperor was bisexual.

Roughly 70 emperors ruled over ancient Rome. But rather than discussing which were fond of eggplant, it’s easier to mention the one who did not. That’s right. Only one Roman emperor was considered ‘straight’ in the modern sense. And that’s Claudius, who ruled from 10BC-54AD. Like modern gay culture, the other emperors ran the gamut of archetypes.

Caesar was a Queen

Being called “Queen” would be a fierce compliment today, but Julius Caesar was known as Queen of Bithynia for a homophobic reason. He may have been pivotal in building the empire, but he was allegedly involved with King Nicomedes IV of Bithynia and assumed a passive role in their relationship. His fashion was ‘flamboyant’ and he preened his body hair. Work, Queen!

“Caesar conquered Gaul, but Nicomedes conquered Caesar.”

-Gallic army song that bottom-shamed the allegedly homosexual antics of its very leader Julius

Elagabalus: the queerest emperor of them all

Only a teenager, they ruled from 218-222. They flouted tradition, embraced sexual impropriety, and even prostituted themselves. They married four women (one of them twice) and a couple of men. And the reason we’re referring to Elagabalus with gender-neutral pronouns is because they thought of themselves as a lady and possibly sought out gender reassignment surgery. Elagabalus was assassinated at the age of 18 for his antics. They were too young, wild and crazy even for Ancient Rome.

Hadrian & Antinous: The Gay Power Couple

Despite having a wife, Hadrian was possibly gay (not even bisexual) as we know it. His most important lover was Antinous, a young Greek who tragically drowned in the Nile River. Hadrian was so devastated by Antinous’ passing that he deified him, erecting shrines and idols in his honour, and even naming the Egyptian city of Antinoopolis after him.

What’s especially interesting about Antinous being deified is that the religious fervor surrounding him rivaled that of Jesus in Christianity. This new religion was on the rise when Christianity took hold, meaning if things went slightly differently, we could have had a gay Western deity today.

The Gods Served Serious Queer Energy.

While Antinous was deified by Hadrian, there were also the other classic gods of ancient Rome. And they also had some queer inclinations.

Cupid: The Grindr of Ancient Roman Homosexuality

Long before he was the star of Valentine’s Day cards, Cupid helped Ancient Rome’s men find lusty connections with one another.

Venus: Queen Of The Lesbians

The Goddess of Love and Mother of Rome was to women what Cupid was to men, helping gal pals find love amongst one another.

Jupiter: The Gender-Fluid King of all Gods

Jupiter, king of all gods, was gender-fluid and polyamorous. He was known to present as both male and female and slept with both men and women… much to the chagrin of his wife, Juno, who also happened to be his sister. Because that’s not weird.

But what about the ladies?

Since sex was exclusively defined by penetration, classic lesbian sex wasn’t considered sex at all. The notion that a woman would be attracted to another woman was preposterous because they were supposed to be diminutive and passive. And since most ancient writing was done by men, they didn’t concern themselves with what ladies did on their own time, which is why little was written on the subject.

Although Ovid did write ladies loving ladies was “a desire known to no one, freakish, novel…among all animals no female is seized by desire for female.” Suffice to say, according to ancient Romans, women didn’t have sex. They were just really, really friendly roommates.

A Glossary of Gay Male sex terms.

For a society that had no ‘homosexuals’, ancient Rome had a slew of other terms surrounding gay sex. Here are a few of the most popular terms, some of which have evolved into modern language.

  • Cinaedus – an insult for a man that wasn’t masculine, and probably a bottom
  • Concubinus – a male concubine, unmarried, who lived with a married man
  • Exoletus – a male prostitute that is past his prime (from exolescere, to ‘wear out with age’)
  • Pathicus – a bottom, from the Latin word passus, which evolved into the English word ‘passive’
  • Puer – literally translates to boy, but it often applied to servants regardless of age (like an American plantation owner would refer to his adult slaves as ‘boy’)
  • Pullus – the Latin word for ‘chick’. Like today, it was a term of affection, but applied to young men versus women.
  • Scultimidonus – literally means ‘a**hole bestower’, because they gave it up for free.

The Romans were fascinated by 🍆. Literally.

There are 120 Latin words and terms for penis, most of them aggressively military. Even testes were adulated. And long before people swore on bibles, they swore on balls. Alas, taking an oath genuinely took balls. 

But why fascinated? The English word ‘fascinate’ is actually derived from the fascinus, which embodied the ‘divine phallus’. There were effigies, amulets, and charms. They were considered straight-up magical.

The Rise of Christianity… and the end of ancient Roman homosexuality.

Gay sex lost its celebration as Christianity emerged in Europe. The first nail in the coffin was when Emperor Philip The Arabian (244-249AD) criminalized man-on-man prostitution. That was soon followed by a series of laws concerning different types of gay sex, the rise of Christianity, and the Dark Ages.

If learning about ancient roman homosexuality has you keen to cavort amongst the modern Roman homosexuals, our deliciously decadent Italy tour departs every June! Grab your spot or Contact Us if you have any questions. Ciao! 

By using our website, you agree to the Out Adventures Privacy Policy which includes Out Adventures' practices regarding personal data and cookies.    I AGREE