This is one that’s going to piss off so many pseudo-classicists, the ones that come from that lens of neo-classicism. Neo-classicism was an idea that sprung up, predominantly, in Victorian-era Britain, where conservatism and austerity were things to be admired. Meanwhile, behind the scenes and down back alleys you’d be getting wankered on bathtub gin and fucking an unconscious, etherised child. One thing Rome and Victorian England had in common was a hypocritical veil of civilisation on top of a monster of purest, basest savagery. The Romans knew it, the Victorians, fucking hideous hypocrites, pretended it wasn’t there.
Anyway, one of the best things about their interpretation of Roman history is it is all fucking wrong. The austere white marble statues would have been garishly painted in bright colours. The clear delineation of sex and gender roles, as God intended, in this most manly of men’s societies that was Rome, was actually so blurred, muddy and grey you’d be unsurprised to see those roles used as clay, kiln fired, and turned into sexual tableware.
Now let me just establish a few things here. One, gender is not sex. Gender is the social identity related to your sex that is constructed by the self and the society around you. Just because you have a dick it doesn’t mean you’re of the male gender, maybe you like to have long hair, wear dresses, high heels and make up and, by gender, you are a woman. Gender is the presentation of identity, not some biological status.
Sex is that, supposedly, innate biological status but even then things get weird. Predominantly people fall into two sexes, male and female. However biology is amazingly diverse and can give, say, someone with a penis enough biological signals to make them feel as though they should be female. This is gender dysphoria and is also perfectly normal. Often these people will consider themselves transgender. There are also even more complicated biological conditions. Sex is generally chromosomally determined, with XX denoting a female and XY denoting a male. However there are people out there who are XXY. There are people who are born with both nobs and slits. It’s complicated.
The point is there’s a lot of modern bullshit around sex and gender and it’s all stupid, it’s all bullshit, life is nonsense, evolution is drunk and one day we will all be unified in our energies as a vague entropic mass so stop giving a shit. Back to the Romans.
Gender in Rome, as far as we can best tell from the record, was a matter of action not genitalia. A woman could be considered a man if she behaved manly enough. A man could be considered a woman if he behaved feminine enough.
Sexuality, too, was a matter of action. ‘Lesbianism’ as a concept pretty much did not exist, without penetration by a dick there’s no sex and therefore no sexuality. Roman women were pretty much free to have as much fanny-fun with friends as they liked, as long as they didn’t penetrate. A husband wouldn’t bat an eyelid about it.
Homosexuality between men was a strange one, too. They did not discriminate against homosexual men in the way we would consider today, exactly. If you were the top, the one sticking it in and penetrating then it would barely get a mention. You were fucking, you were penetrating, you were a man doing as a man does. If you were the penetrated party, however, it would lead to rumour and negative reputation. You were, after all, adopting the role of a woman. You would be judged as feminine.
Romans, as far as we can tell, did not care what sex you acted as, nor what sexuality you exhibited.
They were, though, just rampant fucking misogynists.
They didn’t care if you were a man who acted like a woman, so long as you were willing to adopt the subservience and passivity expected of a woman. If you were a woman who did not take on that subservience and passivity then you’d better damn well do some dominating and penetrating or else you’d end up being a pretty weak man and the only things treated worse in Rome than women were Roman men you opposed.
When there is some disagreement about the roles of sex, gender and sexuality in the west you can almost be sure it is religious nutters leading it. Sexual oppression further east is usually being shouted about by the religious nutters there, too. Whilst they may have divided into at least three major religions, and too many sects and sub-sects to count (some of which disagree entirely with the nutters, I should add) the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) have dominated discussion on sex, gender and sexuality, in many countries, for hundreds of years .
History, though, shows that this is little more than a long term fad. The One True God did not smite the empire that dominated Europe and the Holy Land of ‘His’ chosen people for close to a millennium because they buggered each other. Jesus turned the tables of the money lenders, he wasn’t busy going around smacking up eunuchs or men dressed as women. As far as I can tell Allah hasn’t exactly been busy raining hellfire down on gay Muslim women, either. It’s bollocks.
Our ideas, here in the UK and much of the rest of the West, of what men and women are supposed to be comes from that lineage, but it’s just an idea. Across history different cultures have had different ideas about sex, gender and sexuality. These are fluid concepts, subject to change according to fad, fashion, faith and philosophy. The systems we are negotiating now, as relatively liberal societies, bear more resemblance to those of Ancient Rome than they do our conservative near-past.