Did Roman cinaedi have sex with women? Or rather, since we have no historical knowledge of any actual Roman cinaedi, was the category of cinaedus defined as capable of or interested in sex with women? The scholarly consensus is that it was, in keeping with the understanding of cinaedi as being gender non-normative, rather than belonging to a sexuality in the modern sense (Richlin 1993, Williams 2010, Ormand 2017). While the cinaedus does not inhabit a sexual identity per se, I argue that there are no clear examples of (imaginary) cinaedi having sex with women. A lack of sexual desire for a penetrative role in sex, and thus, for sex with women, appears to be one of the constituent features of the gender-identity cinaedus.
This argument depends, in part, on distinguishing the term cinaedus from adjectives describing Roman men who engage in various forms of non-normative sexual behavior (Richlin 1993 and Williams 2010, 2015 provide useful lists). I argue that cinaedi are marked by behaviors and affectations beyond the requisite desire for sexual penetration; not every pathicus is necessarily a cinaedus, contrary to common scholarly practice, including work on images of supposed cinaedi (Clarke 2005; see Williams 2015, Kamen/ Levin-Richardson 2015). In addition to desiring to be penetrated, cinaedi are marked by specific affectations of personal delicacy and behavior outside of the sexual realm. Thus Aulus Gellius (NA 3.5) quotes a saying of Arcesilaus, taken from Plutarch (used twice by the Greek historian, in different contexts), to the effect that a man may be a cinaedus from the front or from the back. Williams (2010) interprets this as meaning that he may be the penetrator or penetrated, but I argue instead that by “from the front” Aulus Gellius is referring to the man’s concern with his face, makeup, and appearance; a form of gender- deviance, as Williams argues, but not a reversal of the cinaedus’ generalized sexual passivity.
Similarly, our literary texts include many examples of non-normative men (not identified as cinaedi) who engage in both active and passive sex, and with partners of both sexes; see, e.g. the notorious Hostius Quadra (Sen. NQ 1.16), who is never called a cinaedus. But I can find no clear examples of cinaedi ascribed such bisexual behavior.
Williams’ excellent discussion presents numerous examples of men called cinaedi who are in the next breath attacked as moechi (adulterers) (see, for example, Suet. Aug. 68-69). In keeping with the imagined general sexual voracity of cinaedi, these examples have been taken to mean that cinaedi were thought of as interested in sex with women. I argue, however, that we should distinguish between a gender-normative man (often a real historical person) who is called a cinaedus as a momentary insult (as, e.g. in Catullus 67), and an unknown man who is thought of as fully inhabiting the identity of the cinaedus. A careful reading of Williams’ and others’ examples will show that all of our examples of bisexual cinaedi belong to the first class, and not the second. Some such examples are not named cinaedi at all, but belong to behavioral categories of mollis, impudicus, etc. On the other hand, several poems of Martial suggest that cinaedi are incapable of sex with women (Mart. 7.58), and one may suggest that a man who is having sex with a woman cannot, by that discovery, be a cinaedus (Mart. 10.40).
We still lack any examples of historical cinaedi, and I can find no evidence of any Roman man laying claim to the identity. I may, therefore, be speaking only of an imaginary figure, a term of personal invective rather than a real category of individual. But in so far as the cinaedus was thought of as an identity to be inhabited, characterized by distinctive modes of dress, walk, appearance, and behavior, that category seems defined, in part, by the inability to have sex with women.
Searching for the Cinaedus in Classical Antiquity