Sexuality in Rome

Floor 1, Room 19, Showcase 19.3. Erotic oil lamp
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This small 1st-century AD oil lamp presents an erotic scene, with two people having sexual intercourse while one plays a musical instrument called hydraulis. Erotic iconography is quite common on roman oil lamps, as they were objects intended for private use. We are not absolutely certain about what exactly is depicted in this particular oil lamp, beyond its erotic content. However, in the Roman context, where male homoerotic representations were relatively abundant, it is perfectly possible that this would have been a depiction of two men having sex.

Broadly speaking, there are some similarities between social conventions on sexuality in the Greek and Roman worlds: the Roman male citizen could have sexual relations with persons of the same sex, as long as they were with a slave or a foreigner, preferably younger than him, and with the citizen always keeping a dominant role. There is, however, no direct equivalent in Rome to the relations between eromenos and erastes, which means that no homoerotic relationships between citizens were ever socially accepted. Moreover, homoerotism was generally less visible in Rome.

Once again, it is worth keeping in mind that there is a big difference between what the norm sanctions and what actually happens in everyday life. The poet Martial, for example, writes very abundantly about men who loved other men of the same age, or who assumed passive roles, although he does so in a tone of mockery and derision.

Sex scenes between women are much rarer, yet not non-existent. We do know of a few oil lamps with images of oral sex between women, as well as some paintings. Sex between women, however, was often mocked in the Roman world and, as in other patriarchal societies, female sexuality received relatively little attention.

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