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Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome (Paperback)

Ancient History Rome P&S History Social History

By L J Trafford
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 224
ISBN: 9781526786876
Published: 23rd September 2021

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From Emperors and empresses, poets and prostitutes, slaves and plebs, Ancient Rome was a wealth of different experiences and expectations. None more so than around the subject of sex and sexuality. The image of Ancient Rome that has come down to us is one of sexual excess: emperors gripped by perversion partaking in pleasure with whomever and whatever they fancied during week long orgies. But how true are these tales of depravity? Was it really a sexual free for all? What were the laws surrounding sexual engagement? How did these vary according to gender and class? And what happened to those who transgressed the rules?

We invite you to climb into bed with the Romans to discover some very odd contraceptive devices, gather top tips on how to attract a partner and learn why you should avoid poets as lovers at all costs. Along the way we’ll stumble across potions and spells, emperors and their favourites and some truly eye-popping interior decor choices.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

A very thorough, in-depth study regarding what we can know about Roman views on sex and sexuality from literary and archaeological sources.

The author explores every facet of sexuality: general attitudes, history and development, the male perspective, female perspective, slaves, expressions of sexuality, divorce, adultery, and analysis of the claims regarding the sexual proclivities of various emperors.

The book has many valuable insights. Understanding Roman sexuality in terms of penetrator vs. penetrated, and the hierarchy of shame in what was penetrated (least to most, vagina, anus, mouth) is essential for the many discussions about sex as it relates in that culture and that time. The same sex sexuality discussion was interesting: the author does show that for men there wasn't really a same sex relationship culture, but there were some instances of lesbian relationships at the time, which more likely speaks to power dynamics than anything else. And, of course, the importance of remembering the likely continual sexual exploitation of both genders by their masters.

Important reading for understanding Roman times.

NetGalley, Ethan Longhenry

Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome by L J Trafford was such a fascinating book. She wrote it in a funny way, making it a delight to read. I had some expectations when it comes to this topic in its pre-Christian era and, while some were confirmed, some were definitely not. For example the Romans had many more taboos than I ever imagined.

This is a sensitive topic because it deals with things that we are horrified about, like pederasty and paedophilia. At that point marriage-age for girls was 12. The book contains so many incredible details, on homosexuality and how it was both seen and its definition, which is at least puzzling to say the least. Sexual taboos were different for men and women, very much so, which was, again another surprise in the book. I assumed that men and women were treated more equally than it was in reality.

Trafford touches on all aspects of sex and sexuality, including contraception and how to pick up a partner, how they were decorating their homes. She interestingly creates the image of the ideal men and the ideal woman. The book is very well structured. The information included is so interesting that it would be hard for me to pick up some highlights from the book. The best way to discover more is to pick up the book and enjoy it.

5/5 stars

Read the full review here

Coffee and Books

I’ve reviewed a couple of these ‘Sex and Sexuality during specific era’s’ and they’ve always been very good and this one is certainly up there with them. These tours of sexuality aren’t overly serious, they are treated in a serious manner with an easy sense of humour too. I imagine the books could have been too serious and become too boring and serious, but the books aren’t written in a facetious or bawdy manner. This book covers a wide range of sexuality from straight or gay, dress to fancy dress, adultery to affairs of the heart and so much more. It’s just nice to see that there was success and problems with any community in era, in it’s quite easy to see there have been all types of loving and friendship for many years. An interesting book that works well with the rest of the series of these books.

Read the full review here

UK Historian

Trafford makes for a fun tour guide, and the book makes for a good introduction to the topic without falling into the pitfalls of being too narrowly focused or pandering to too salacious an audience. Recommended.

NetGalley, Bill Capossere

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It was an informative, compelling and entertaining read that made me learned something new about Ancient Rome.
The author delivers a well researched and well written book, I appreciated the part about the moral models.
Highly recommended.

NetGalley, Anna Maria Giacomasso

A fascinating read. It covers every nook and corner of ancient Roman sexuality and morality and weird and ludicrous tales of depraved emperors and empresses.⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

NetGalley, Michelle Coates

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Engaging riveting historical look at sex and sexuality in Ancient Rome. A very well written book with lots of intriguing information. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

NetGalley, Krystle Hackett

An entertainingly written and clearly well-researched book, this tells you all you ever wanted to know about sex lives in ancient Rome, including things you hadn't thought to ask. The book starts with a warning I'd repeat: if you are easily offended/squeamish/sensitive about discussing any kind of sexual matter bluntly, put the book down. Because, as Trafford shows us, the Romans considered sex something (usually) natural, with nothing private about private parts, and the sheer number of words they had to describe acts lets you know they talked about sex bluntly. From what made a person attractive to what was considered normal sexual behavior (with plenty of gossip from ancient historians about those they claimed enjoyed sexual behaviors that were rather abnormal); from love potions to health matters, actors and prostitutes to Senators and emperors, it is all here. Trafford does a good job at reminding us when ancient sources should be considered reliable, unreliable, and conducting smear campaigns as well as bringing in archaeological finds to back up statements when possible.

Witty and clever, entertaining and informative, this is a great book for anyone interested in ancient Rome or sexuality throughout history.

NetGalley, Anne Morgan

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is a truly fascinating deep dive into the extant historical, cultural, and legal records from the Ancient world, chiefly Rome with brief forays into Greece, Africa, and other lands, partially in order to contrast the overwhelmingly male dominated Roman cultural mores of the time. The author is a capable tour guide and explains the vast differences in an accessible manner. Due to the paucity of surviving first person references, the necessary extrapolations she makes from secondary references and inferences are as carefully built up and reasonable as she can make them.

This is not a titillating book; there's little at which to thrill or gawp. Instead, it's a fascinating glimpse into a long vanished culture as foreign and odd to modern westerners as can be imagined. The information is gathered into chapters by theme: morality, the culture for men, women, eunuchs, beauty & fashion, frustration & infidelity, function & dysfunction, religious significance, adultery, homosexuality, undesirable liasons, imagery and cultural references, and the ruling classes (who pretty much had their own rules).

Although the book is well annotated throughout, the author has a light and humorous style and I found myself grinning often and even chuckling a few times at her witty repartee. Many of the rules, laws, and rigid cultural mores are/were quite bizarre and ridiculous to us (from our long distant viewpoint). She also does a good job of summoning compassion and pathos for the plight of slaves, freedmen, and women, most of whom had very very little (or no) control over their situations or lives.

The book mentions, but isn't overwhelmed by infamous historical characters (Caligula, Commodus, Nero, and others). In fact the author expends much effort visualising the everyday Romans who weren't writ large on the pages of history. It's copiously annotated throughout and the chapter notes and bibliography will provide readers many hours of background. There are also a number of photographs showing sculptures and artistic representations of many of the principal players as well as modern archaeological digsites and artifacts (note: some artifacts are NOT safe for work).

Five stars. This is an illuminating and interesting book of history and never dryly academic or boring. I had seven years of Latin at school and I -really- wish I'd had this book as a resource to enliven some of my school presentations. This would be a good selection for public library acquisition, home library, and for readers of history and culture.

NetGalley, Annie Buchanan

"Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome" by L J Trafford seems very on trend. In the past couple of years books about approach to sex and sexuality in different time periods were booming, inviting readers to peek into sex lives of people from ye olden days.

What I like about this book is that it doesn't sensationalise the experience of sexuality and sex, but rather explores the systems that were in place and what we can derive from ancient writings, documents and art. It certainly will be an interesting read for someone who is either interested in the historical perspective on sex, or is an ancient Rome hobbyist.

NetGalley, Natalia Grubizna

Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome is a fun and educational new perspective on a subject that has enchanted the western world for millenia.

NetGalley, Rae Hock

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome: A book I devoured.

When I spotted this on Netgalley I instantly had to try my luck and request it; the stars aligned and I jumped of joy when it showed up on my shelf. Having studied ancient greek and byzantine romances at university I was drawn to the topic of Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome; something that, despite my interest in the topic, I didn't get the chance to learn much about before.

This book does not only cover various aspects of Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome but also offers a phenomenal introduction into the society and way-of-thinking of the romans. It takes the reader on a journey through different eras, social classes, and the (sometimes questionable) commentary of contemporary witnesses.

What I absolutely adored about "Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome" is the humor that is shining through and plastered a smile on my face and made me laugh out loud several times while reading. Reading this was just pure joy to me. So many interesting facts wrapped up in such a fun-to-read language.

This book is full of intriguing and amusing stories and facts I am now ready to dramatically recall to my dates to impress them. Ok, maybe less to my dates, and more to my friends, some of whom I've already recommended this book to...

Overall I have to give this book 5 stars because it was truly exciting, funny, thoughtful and made me happy.

NetGalley, Julija P

With this one, the entire premise of the book is in the title- Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome. Trafford begins by outlining the language used in Ancient Rome that has anything to do with sex or sexuality, she introduces these concepts and then explains them so you’re aren’t left lost throughout the book when they inevitably come up again. She then travels through the intricate and somewhat scandalous history of sex in Ancient Rome from the perfect virtuous man and the ideal chaste woman, to how to find a woman and who you are and are not meant to be seen fondling in the forum. She details erotic wall paintings and statues, the concept of witchcraft, the tantalising beauty and fashion and what was all the rage to help you pull on the streets of Rome. Not to mention, Trafford takes it upon herself to tell us all about the sexual exploits of the most well-known figures from Ancient Rome, and she does all this with ample evidence (both textual and archaeological). In short, Trafford answers everything you have ever wanted (and really not wanted) to know about sex and sexuality in Ancient Rome!

This book was a massive undertaking, and may I say the L J Trafford understood the task and executed it incredibly well. In this book, you will find chapters named things like Getting Down to Business: Sex, Sexual Problems and Solutions, Undesirable Partners and How to be Sexy: Beauty and Fashion (just to give you an idea of the types of things discussed)! As a fairly short book (sitting at only 197 pages), Trafford condenses everything you need to know about the Romans in a way that is really easy to read. Her language is colloquial, and her quips and inputs into some of the debauchery that went on in Ancient Rome made me laugh out loud. With her hilarious commentary comes an obvious attempt to remove any modern bias that could be placed upon the way sex, marriage, relationships and all that was used and experienced in Ancient Rome. She reminds the reader over and over that there isn’t really any way we can fully understand the meanings behind the erotic images, or the social importance embedded into the rules and laws attached to relationships and sex, but we can do our best! I loved that as Trafford was discussing some facet of Roman sexual experience, she would then bring in detailed case studies and examples from history.

Although sometimes Trafford seemed to take the poetry and writings of men like Ovid and Catullus at face value, often she used it to help build the whole picture around the topic she was handling at that time. It is unsurprising that the book was focused on men and boys and what was expected of them (both from an imperial lens, but also the freedmen and slaves) rather than women for the pure reason that we have a lot more information on men than women. With that being said, Trafford interspersed what we do know about women (imperial, slaves, prostitutes etc) throughout the book in what seemed like as much detail that was available. It was really wonderful to see different types of evidence (images, paintings, statues and literature), all used together to try and piece together just what sex was like in Ancient Rome, and although it was a quick tour, it was still detailed and highly enjoyable.

NetGalley, Kelly Macquire

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The cheekiness from the author was fun to read. I liked the writing and the deep dive into the topic.

NetGalley, Alicia Wolf

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This historical research book was a pleasure to read, No pun intended. Every generation likes to think they are the ones to test the boundaries and indulge in new things But history shows us we are tighter in our "morals" than ever before. It is just with the internet we are seeing and hearing everything once kept private.
Enter the ancient Romans. They were the inventors of the LGBTQ movement and no one batted an eye, AND a lot of things can happen when bathing is a social outing.
LJ Trafford is known for her deep dives into history and coloring outside of the lines in her accounts. This time is no different and I felt myself gasp a few times and I don't think I am uninformed in any of the areas discussed. This is the kind of book my generation would of have snuck out of the library for a good laugh and some education.
well done.

NetGalley, Natalie Freese

Very interesting and informative book about the sexuality of the Roman Empire and its moral laws.

NetGalley, Emma Fristedt

I love reading about the odd things from history and sex is an interesting subject. The Romans were not shy when it came to sex and they had very few taboos or rules for it. This book explains the many odd ideas and what was commonplace at the time. Marriage, virginity, pregnancy, abortion, STDs, sex work, periods, sexual health... you name it! It's a great guide about the subject and helpful for those who are writing about the era.

NetGalley, Kayla Thomas

Was Ancient Rome really a sexual free-for-all? From impotence cures made out of vultures' lungs to the 'wickedest woman who bedded hundreds of men', new book lays bare what Romans REALLY thought about sexuality

Daily Mail 02/08/21

Taking information from many different sources, with an entertaining voice, and focusing on niche topics well compartmentalized throughout, this book has pertinent information for all types of readers, be they academic or first-timers. This is a much needed and loquacious compilation on the dirtiest secrets of Classical Rome.

NetGalley, Ari Perez

An entertaining read, well organised and covering a lot of ground in terms of the many salacious stories about individuals in ancient Rome, both famous and infamous (the latter being mostly either emperors or members of their families). The book covers issues around what is the ideal Roman man or woman, how sex was perceived to play a role in this but also how the existence of laws usually shows that people are still people and doing what they want to do.

NetGalley, Graculus .

Gossipy and salacious, this is sure to whet the appetites of any reader who has had questions or wondered about sex in Ancient Rome. The author covers a wide array of topics and doesn't shy away from any prudery. It’s all exposed, along with graphic descriptions of sex among the Romans. While much of the book focuses on men, women are not forgotten. It’s an eye opening read.

NetGalley, Janilyn Kocher

I’ve always found the idea of sex and sexuality in ancient Rome to be fascinating so this book did not disappoint.
It covered so many areas including the laws and views and was full of really interesting facts that were written in a way that made it enjoyable to read!

NetGalley, Lauren Hudspeth

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Although the title suggest we are going to learn only about sex, this book, goes more far than that. Can be read as a history book, with all what it implies. Sexuality, love, magic, women, men, social manners, deep complex ideals and ways from ancient Rome... you will learn about all those things. Now, my knowledge about ancient Rome is not huge, as my main interest have always belonged to Greeks, so if you are a classicist I'm sure you can find some things that could have been better

Since I'm not, this book was really key to have a big and easy idea of all these themes that are their selves truly complicated and required a huge research. Is not doubt that the work from L.J. Trafford is amazing, the read of this book is so easy, so captivating that you easily devour it and end up learning a lot of things that you only have clichés about
I truly recommend it to you all

NetGalley, Mariana Cevallos

The volume is written and presented in a conversational, light-hearted manner, and undoubtedly will be enjoyed by the everyday curious individual. Trafford covers a vast amount of scope in their text, analysing Romans from every walk of life - plebs and emperors alike - something often overlooked or out of balance in competing trade titles. Various sources of ancient evidence (ranging from sculptures to vases to magical papyri - fantastic!) support Trafford's witty narrative, and the volume often had me laughing out loud (personal highlights include: the image descriptions in the prelims, the whole section on contraception, and 'A Short History of Beards').

Ultimately, bravo to Trafford. I would definitely recommend this work, and thank you very much to NetGalley and Pen & Sword History for the privilege!

NetGalley, Attica Idle

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is one of the best nonfiction titles I've read so far this year. I devoured this book and highly recommend it to anyone interested in the topic. The book covered pretty much everything I could have dreamed of on the topic of sex and sexuality from the stories of famous Roman debauchery to Rome's fear of decreasing morality and yes, the book even discusses their view of same-sex relationships. It was fascinating to see how while some aspects of Roman culture may seem alien to us in the modern day, other aspects about human nature never really change.

The wealth of examples straight from Rome included in this book made the peek into Roman culture fun and taught me about people, cultural taboos and expectations I didn't know about. The style of the writing and topic breakdowns made everything easy to absorb and sucked me right in without the material ever feeling dry or too academic. And while this book is hilarious at times, it does explore the darker side of sexuality and taboos as well, including topics that could make some readers uncomfortable like rape and infant exposure.

NetGalley, Katelyn Uplinger

An interesting read not just in the sexual activities of Romans, but the lives they lead as well. There was a lot of interesting information in this book for its length, and I really appreciated how the author sprinkled in some humor in the writing — although sometimes it's like they're trying too hard. Very well-researched, attention-getting, and everything was explained in a way that wasn't clunky.

NetGalley, Kirsten Nicole Braza

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is loads of fun. If you've read Trafford's novels, or Emma Southron's books, you'll enjoy this speedy romp through the sex lives and attitudes of the Romans. From laws about adultery to attitudes to bestiality, is covers it all at a smart pace and is very entertaining. The Romans seem so modern in many ways it's always good to be reminded there were things they saw very differently to us. And who knew they thought going bald was an illness?

NetGalley, Jackie Bates

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

A really great and informative book that brings light to sex and sexuality in ancient Rome! This book really sheds light on all aspects of ancient Roman sexuality from homosexuality, ideals, sexual problems and beauty standards. This book really gets down to the nitty gritty of everything sex and sex adjacent in Ancient Rome.

NetGalley, Meaghan Babin

This book gave an intriguing whistle stop tour on sex and sexuality in Rome, including its practices, laws and views.

This was a super fascinating book! Delving into topics such as the Morality Laws introduced by Augustus; the ideals of virtuous men and chaste women; the differences of law between freed people and freed born; love potions; homosexuality; prostitutes; and the all important salacious lives of the emperors.

This book was just filled with so many fascinating facts that I’ve ended up making a tonne of notes. I enjoyed learning how Romans viewed sex and sexuality, and how these changed later when Christianity was introduced and perceptions/laws shifted. Examples include how there is no Roman equivalent of the word homosexuality- you were not defined by the gender you were attracted to/having sex with, but rather by the act that you partook in. I learned the preferences for hair on both males and females (I had no clue that back then it was usual to be fully bare from the shoulders down in some cases). I also enjoyed learning and taking notice of the rather debauchery lifestyles of some of the Emperors and their wives or mistresses, and how they would implement their status to get around Morality laws.

Overall this book was such a fun and informative read. The author was also SUPER witty and it was just such a joy to read! I also loved the cover of this and it really drew me into requesting this book.

NetGalley, Lucy Langford

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I absolutely loved the tone the author chose for this book, in a way it perfectly matched its contents. There’s plenty of photos too, for those who can’t quite make it to the museum to check out the stunningly racy art the Romans left behind, behinds and all. A bunch of perverts…just like the rest of us.
All in all, a great read. I enjoyed it very much. Recommended.

NetGalley, Mia D

This is an eye-opening, free-wheeling and extremely frank account of Roman attitudes, beliefs and practices when it comes to sex, with a focus on the pre-Christian empire. The author approaches the topic without handwringing and with a wry sense of humour.

Highly readable and full of information about a culture that had very different perspectives on sex than our own.

NetGalley, Adam Windsor

I liked the straightforward approach of this book and the way it was written. Good book.

NetGalley, Norma Carroll

A quick trip through Rome, with a critical eye towards sex and sexuality. This book was an interesting look into the sexual lives of Roman men and women and the rules they lived by. It had a bit of a slow pace, but I was definitely engaged and I learned a lot of new things. For one, I was surprised to find out that there were actual morality laws in Rome. But it’s things like that that kept me invested and coming back for more.

NetGalley, Nicole Nieto

Very educational! Alot of facts I didn't know but am happy to now. The parts on women were particularly interesting.

NetGalley, Blind Bat Books Bakunzi

Some of the more salacious stories of the Roman Empire emphasize its sexual licentiousness; early scholars even blamed it in part for the empire's fall. Despite the moralizing Augustus' best efforts, a whole host of sexual behaviors were practiced by Romans across the empire. While strict gender roles were in place, there was plenty of room to play within--or outside of--those boundaries with a range of partners, particularly if you were wealthy and/or powerful.

This was quick and fairly light romp through Roman cultural history, looking at gender roles and how those constructs translated into love, marriage, sexuality, and masculinity and femininity. Of course, there is the nonconsensual sex--sex between slaves and masters, adults and children, unwilling spouses--which is troubling but unfortunately a considerable aspect of sexuality in ancient Rome. But on the whole, it's useful in exploring, at a birds' eye view, the cultural forces at work that determined dominant sexual mores if not sexual behavior.

NetGalley, Claire Grothe

About L J Trafford

L.J. Trafford studied Ancient History at the University of Reading after which she took a job as a Tour Guide in the Lake District. Moving to London in 2000 she began writing ‘The Four Emperors’ series. The series comprises four books – Palatine, Galba’s Men, Otho’s Regret and Vitellius’ Feast – which cover the dramatic fall of Nero and the chaotic year of the four emperors that followed. Palatine, published in 2015, received an Editor’s Choice Mark from the Historical Novel Society. Her first book for Pen and Sword, How to Survive in Ancient Rome was published in October 2020.

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