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Sexuality and Empire: The Politics of Restraint

Michael Taylor

University of Texas at Austin

This paper examines discourses concerning male sexuality in the Roman Republic as epiphenomenal to Roman expansionism in the third and second centuries BC.  It finds that the Romans during this period sought to reassert traditional civic discourses advocating male sexual restraint, both at home and abroad. This emphasis on civic restraint is at odds with later discourses related to sexuality and empire manifest in the notorious statue from Aphrodisias representing the emperor Claudius as a heroic nude raping the female personification of Britannia (Whittaker 2004: 115-143). In this mature imperial ideology, conquest is rape and empire is eroticized, fundamentally equating sex with power (see also Vout 2007).

Yet the Romans of the Middle Republic, busy creating Rome’s Mediterranean empire, discourses of sexual restraint were the order of the day. Restraint in fact was seen as the appropriate model for imperial rule: the exemplar here was Scipio Africanus, who famously declined to rape an Iberian captive after the capture of New Carthage, a decision that ultimately had important diplomatic and military implications, given that she was the daughter of an important Iberian chieftain. While commentators from the early empire to the 18th century appropriated “the continence Scipio” as an exemplar of primitive Roman virtue, it better reflects a specific moment in Roman elite discourse about male sexuality and empire, concerned less with chastity than with pragmatic moderation.

Similar discourses about male restraint turn up repeatedly for the third and second century BC. We see attempts to regulate the sex lives of senators, for example Cato’s censure of a senator for kissing his wife in public in front of his daughter, as well as commons, most notably severe penalties for sexual misconduct in the Roman army. We also have a flurry of anecdotes about sexual misconduct with slaves, involving not only the philogunes Scipio, but even the morally uptight Cato the Elder. In the case of both men, the stories suggest that wives, children and in-law were expected to police the sexual behavior even of a consular paterfamilias.

            This culture of sexual restraint was a traditional one, undergirding the civic politics of a republican state. The political class of the Middle Republic depended upon a delicate lattice of marriage alliances, which might be upended by a culture of male libertinism.  Common citizens, worried least they might be victims of elite predation, also had a stake in enforcing a culture of elite restraint.

            The advent of empire provided its agents new outlets for sexuality that were difficult to regulate, and these outlets overlapped with other horizons for abuse and aggrandizement facilitated by imperial resources. This in turn led to redoubled efforts to enforce traditional civic mores. Ultimately, sex was power for the Romans of the Middle Republic, just as it would be for later propagandists of the Imperial period. But as Rome’s imperial activities placed elite Romans in unprecedented positions of poorly supervised authority, discourses advocating sexual restraint contained blatant subtexts about political rectitude.

            In some ways the political outcomes of the Late Republic suggest that the sexual anxieties of the Middle Republic were not simply the product of traditionalist prudery or conservative paranoia. The rampant adultery that makes late-Republican poetry so much fun (fecundum semen adulterio)--and which provoked the Julian laws--was the byproduct of the collapse of a stable aristocratic system. Nothing represented the implosion of Republican civic and sexual cultures as a result of imperial pressures than the Shakespearean drama of iterative Roman dynasts making love to the same Ptolemaic queen. 

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Power and Politics: Approaching Roman Imperialism in the Republic

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