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Ancient Romans wrote about gay sex quite a bit – and it’s really dirty
by Joseph Patrick McCormick  

Ancient Romans, it turns out,
wrote about gay sex in poetry
quite a bit.

PinkNews caught up with
Daisy Dunn, the author of
‘Catullus’ Bedspread: The
Life of Rome’s Most Erotic
Poet’, and ‘The Poems of
Catallus: A New Translation’  
who was able to give a
unique insight into poems
about sex.

While it is widely known that
Roman men would have sex
with other men, sometimes
boys, it is less commonly
known that men wrote poetry
about men, and women
about other women.

‘The Poems of Catallus: A
New Translation’ and
‘Catullus’ Bedspread: The
Life of Rome’s Most Erotic
Poet’ by Daisy Dunn
Sexuality wasn’t categorised
in the same way as it is now,
so it is hard to put labels on
what people identified as,
but the history of gay sex, love and poetry is quite fascinating.

Some acts which would have been considered consensual in Ancient Rome would be considered child abuse or sexual assault now. But it
was not just sex that they wrote about…

Who was Catullus?
Daisy Dunn – Catullus was Rome’s first great love poet. He came from Verona, and lived in the times of Julius Caesar and Pompey the
Great, before the Emperors ruled Rome. He wrote some truly eviscerating poems about politicians, ex-lovers, and friends, but also some of
the most romantic poetry that survives in Latin, including poems addressed to a woman he called ‘Lesbia’.

Was ‘Lesbia’ a lesbian?
No. In fact she had quite a reputation for being very into men (plural)! Catullus called her that (her real name was in all likelihood Clodia)
because she liked writing poetry, and the most famous Greek female poet had been Sappho, who came from the island of Lesbos.
Although Sappho in fact married and had a daughter, she remains most famous for writing romantic poems about other women. Hence
today we also speak of ‘Sapphic love’. In ancient times, Lesbos was considered a sexy place; the Greek verb ‘lesbiazein’ in fact means ‘to
fellate’.    

I’ve read that Catullus also had relationships with men. So was he bisexual?
The Romans didn’t categorise sexuality in the same way we do. For a man of respectable social class like Catullus, it was quite expected
that he might be attracted during his lifetime to both women and men – particularly boys – but ultimately marry a woman. There are 117
surviving Catullus poems, and a significant number of them show his interest in a boy called Juventius. Catullus admired his ‘honeyed
eyes’ and delicate lips, and longed to give him thousands of kisses. Sadly, Juventius rebuffed him. When Catullus got close enough to kiss
him just once, Juventius reached for a bowl of water to wash his lips, ‘as though it were the filthy saliva of an infected whore’. Catullus was
genuinely really upset by this. But he could also be brutal. This is from another of his poems:

The scenario is ridiculous and too funny.
Just now I caught my girlfriend’s little boy
Wanking; If Dione approves, I took him
With my hard-straining cock.

We’d call this assault. For the Romans it was different. Assuming the boy Catullus assaulted was a slave, the worst he’d have had to do
was compensate the slave’s owner for property damage.

What about gay relationships between older men?
One of Catullus’ more inflammatory poems, which he addressed to two men, begins, ‘I shall fuck you anally and orally’. These men were
probably his friends, but they’d insulted him, so Catullus thought he’d threaten them jokingly back. The point was that the Romans
considered it an assertion of power for a man to be doing the penetrating, but they had a host of negative words for any man who was seen
to be a ‘passive’ partner; that was seen to be womanly, and therefore bad. Basically, to call a man of social standing ‘a penetrated man’ was
a huge insult in ancient Rome. Catullus famously called Julius Caesar one in his poetry.  

In Catullus we also find the idea that homosexual relationships belonged to youth, not adulthood. A man’s marriage to a woman marked a
break from the homosexual relationships he might have had as a teenager. In a poem he wrote for a friend’s wedding, for instance, Catullus
referred to the ‘miserable [male] concubine’, who was very sad since his lover, a man of higher social class, was leaving him behind to
begin a sexual relationship with a woman, his new wife. So though Catullus could be very crude, he also recognised that people of the
same gender could and did form lasting, loving relationships with one another.

Daisy Dunn’s ‘Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet’, and ‘The Poems of Catullus: A New Translation’, are published by
William Collins (RRP: £16.99 and £8.99)


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