Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome

Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome

Rebecca Langlands

Language: English

Pages: 408

ISBN: 0521859433

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


Traditionally, scholars have approached Roman sexuality using categories of sexual ethics drawn from contemporary, Western society. In this 2006 book Dr Langlands seeks to move away from these towards a deeper understanding of the issues that mattered to the Romans themselves, and the ways in which they negotiated them, by focusing on the untranslatable concept of pudicitia (broadly meaning 'sexual virtue'). She offers a series of nuanced close readings of texts from a wide spectrum of Latin literature, including history, oratory, love poetry and Valerius Maximus' work Memorable Deeds and Sayings. Pudicitia emerges as a controversial and unsettled topic, at the heart of Roman debates about the difference between men and women, the relation between mind and body, and the ethics of power and status differentiation within Roman culture. The book develops strategies for approaching the study of an ancient culture through sensitive critical readings of its literary productions.

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ancient texts. Castitas denotes a moral and physical purity usually in a specifically religious context, so that castitas and pudicitia become very close in meaning when they describe freedom from specifically sexual pollution in a specifically religious context.127 A fourth-century commentator on Latin semantics attempts to pin down the distinction between pudicitia and castitas in terms of freedom from shameful lusts versus a more general self-restraint associated with religious purity,

to rape you, rather than the traditional protection against this.114 Meanwhile, to add to the confusion, in line 5 of the poem Propertius uses the Latin term decus (a term which has a wide range of meanings in Latin, from honour to visual decoration)115 for the natural physical beauty of the unspoilt girl. If we juxtapose this mischievous verse with the philosopher Seneca’s demure praise of his mother (cited at the head of this chapter), we see the Roman dilemma nicely summarised. Seneca

exercising this extreme form of abuse. His speech is full of reference to physical violence, from the opening image of the sword of Appius raised against him. He jeeringly suggests that Appius summon the resources in his possession as Roman magistrate: the rods and axes of the lictors which traditionally stand for the corporal and capital punishment which the magistrates can use against the people, as a means of controlling crime. Here they are instruments not of the sanctioned power of the Roman

internal inconsistency is partly a result of what happens when ancient texts are viewed in the light of our own modern preconceptions about sexual morality. In contrast to those of the modern West, the ethical structures of Roman society permitted one to find both a husband’s control of a wife’s behaviour a matter of intense importance and at the same time sex with boys of little concern.50 In an ancient parallel, the first-century ethnographer Pomponius Mela describes the sexual customs of the

enjoyed the sex, but whether he is worthy of the protection of pudicitia. If he has consented to sexual intercourse, especially persistently, his integrity is destroyed, he has become a prostitute and rendered himself no longer under the protection of either law or virtue: to collude in sex is to lose one’s all-important free status.100 Bodies and souls However, we have seen that ‘consent’ played a very different role in Roman conceptions of transgressive sex.101 Indeed it is not presented as a

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