Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome, by L J Trafford: A Review

Many long years ago, I took courses from a Scottish Studies professor who, hands down, was the most entertaining lecturer I ever had. He combined serious scholarship with stories – sometimes scurrilous – that made us howl with laughter. L J Trafford’s Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome fits that model: solid research told in an accessible manner, and it too had me howling with laughter in places.

Divided into sixteen chapters covering everything from ideals of beauty, the sex lives of Emperors, and what constitutes good sex (from the point of view of a Roman male), this is all presented in a fairly light-handed manner. While Trafford does acknowledge that Roman morals and behaviour cannot always be judged by 21st century standards, she also does not shy away from pointing out the inequalities and lack of choice for many Romans, especially those who were enslaved.

I was pleased to see that women’s sexuality was not ignored, as it often is in books on this subject. The information (opinion) still comes from men, who were doing most of the writing at the time, and much of it is as eyebrow-raising as men’s thoughts on women’s sexuality often are…but then we have Ovid, who wrote that mutual pleasure was the goal of sex, and that women’s orgasms were important and desirable. I learned more about women’s sexuality in ancient Rome than any other topic, and for that alone the book was worth reading.

Trafford also shows how some things never change. The sex lives of prominent people, including (maybe particularly) the emperors and their wives, were topics of discussion, and the reputation of many an emperor was dragged in the dirt by the poets, satirists and orators of the day. What we would now view as homophobic slurs were common insults, but this isn’t how the Romans saw it. The gender of your sexual partner was (almost) irrelevant; what position you took – the active or passive partner – was. The passive role was unmanly, and Roman men could not be unmanly. Some of the insults remain the same to this day.

I read Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome as a novelist, judging it for its usefulness in world-building. It is full of tidbits that, judiciously adapted, would certainly add to the verisimilitude of historical fiction set in ancient Rome. That along the way I was entertained, educated, but also made to think reflects Trafford’s grasp of her subject as well as her skill as a writer. Highly recommended.