Conceptual Virginity & Homosexual Themes From Antiquity

Abstract

     The research I conducted for this project focused on the concept of ancient virginity, specifically centred around Greece and Rome. I researched both the ancient physical understandings of the notion of virginity and how this applied differently to males and females. From my original research, I began to notice an interesting trend that revealed more information about homosexuality and homosexual relationships as being ‘exempt’ from their typical understandings of virginity. I will present the information I gathered about antiquity first and in the second half of this web page, I will discuss our more modern interpretations of virginity.

Virginity in Antiquity

The idea of virginity as being almost like a sacred object was very common in ancient Greece and Rome. In antiquity, virginity was seen simply in the physical form as the presence of the hymen. Women that were virgins were worth more than women that were not. If a women were to lose her virginity before marriage (consensually or not) she was at risk of public shame, getting kicked from her home, or even death in some cases. [1]

     An instance of a woman’s virginity being seen like an object is the myth of the goddess Persephone. She was the daughter of Demeter, who had her virginity “stolen”[2] from her when she was forced to marry Hades of the underworld. This furthers the idea that virginity was seen as a physical thing, much like an object that could be taken away or given at marriage. Although we can tell from ancient readings that both Athena and Artemis were highly respected goddesses that represented both purity and goodness in that they were perpetually virgin. Persephone, however, was also a highly respected goddess, despite not being a virgin in contrast.   

Persephone__fid-7360.jpg

The rape of Persephone, sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1622

     Another example of virginity being “stolen”, as if it were an object, is when emperor Nero married Sporus. Poppaea Sabina, Nero’s first wife, died in 65, rumoured to have been kicked to death by Nero. Shortly after, Nero married Statilia Messalina. Later that year he married Sporus, who was said to bear a striking resemblance to Poppaea. Nero had Sporus castrated (presumably against his will) and during their marriage, Nero had Sporus appear in public as his wife wearing the regalia that was customary for a Roman empress, rather than have his actual wife, Statilia, fill that role[3]. Shortly before Nero’s death, Sporus presented Nero with a ring depicting the Rape of Persephone, which contrasted heavily with what happened to Sporus. Not only was Nero participating in homosexual pedophilia, but he forced Sporus to be castrated and marry him in order to take his virginity from him, almost exactly what happened to Persephone.spiculus-660x350-1437641223

A depiction of Sporus with Nero at a public event shown dressed as Nero’s dead wife, Poppaea.

     So, we see that virginity was not only a concept that applied to women. Both woman and men had stressed the concept of virginity, however, unlike men, a woman’s worth was largely based on whether or not she was a virgin. A woman virginity was seen simply as the physical presence of a hymen. Should a woman have sex or be raped before marriage, she was seen as worth less than before and with little to no hope of marriage, often turned to prostitution as a means of making a living.

Homosexual Norms in Antiquity

     Nero wasn’t the only one to partake in homosexual behaviour in antiquity, in fact, he was far from the only one. Homosexual relations and themes of homoeroticism were incredibly common in ancient Greece and Rome, despite being seen as a taboo. In ancient Rome and Greece, men were free to enjoy sex with other males without a perceived loss of masculinity or social status, as long as they took the dominant or penetrative role. Acceptable male partners were slaves, prostitutes, and entertainers[4] who, regardless of whether or not they were a free citizen, were socially seen as less than free men.

     Sex was largely seen as male entertainment in antiquity. This would likely be the reason for the large number of prostitutes despite being looked down upon and the high rates of homosexual activity in war encampments. This may also be the reason for the stiflingly large amount of sexual and homoerotic-themed art from antiquity. If sex was seen as little more than male entertainment, this would explain why the artists centred their work around sexual behaviour. 

enhanced-11132-1407088768-7.jpgStatue by Jean-Baptiste Roman in 1827. The homoerotic portrayal of Nisus and Euryalus. Vergil (ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period) described their love as pius[5] (translates from Latin to Saintly) in keeping with Roman morality 

Sexually explicate objects

     Typically, Male writers took little interest in how women experienced sexuality in general. Although homosexual relations among women are less documented, there is still evidence of this behaviour in the form of art and literature. There are several artefacts, such as vases and plates, that are decorated with blatantly pornographic images of women having homosexual relations. However, it is speculated that the women were most often not citizens, but instead, prostitutes hired for male entertainment. This may also explain the elaborate vase painting of this pornographic description as a male artist was likely interested in the female entertainers. Most of what we know of women in antiquity, especially regarding sex and virginity, is often insignificant in comparison to what we know of men from that time, it is interesting what historians have managed to piece together. 

imgres.jpgRed-figure kylix by Apollodoros in 475, one woman massaging the labia of another. 

Modern Day Virginity

     Virginity as a conceptual norm is seen much differently now as it was several hundred years ago in antiquity. We see virginity so much differently now because we have found that hymens come in all different shapes, sizes, and thicknesses. As such, a large number of women actually break their hymen before engaging in sexual activity simply while doing day to day activities. Virginity today is seen much more as a personal experience rather than a physical thing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vvdfCMoOboA

Warning!!! This youtube video is very crude but after much thought, I figured I would include it as it’s both funny and incredibly informative. As crude as the language is, this video offers translations of old Roman writings from antiquity and shows you just how sexually crude they really were. This video also mentions many of the facts that I outlined in my web page. So enjoy! (with headphones)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M0vdbxqnYis

Endnotes

  1. Schulenburg, 2001, 273.
  2. Mcinerney, 2014, 113.
  3. Champlin, 2005, 146-147.
  4. Jeffreys, 2009, 50.
  5. Mandelbaum,1996, 114.

Cited Sources

     Pomeroy, S. B. (2015). Goddesses, whores, wives and slaves: women in classical antiquity. London: The Bodley Head.


Carpenter, Laura M. “The ambiguity of “having sex”: The subjective experience of virginity loss in the united states.” Journal of Sex Research 38, no. 2 (2001): 127-39. doi:10.1080/00224490109552080.

     Brown, P. (2008). The body and society: men, women, and sexual renunciation in early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press.


Pierson, E. C., & D’Antonio, W. V. (1974). Female and male dimensions of human sexuality. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.

     Daniluk, J. C. (2003). Women’s sexuality across the life span: Challenging myths, creating meanings. New York: Guilford Press.


Schulenburg, J. T. (2001). Forgetful of their sex: female sanctity and society ca. 500 – 1100. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

     Mcinerney, M. (2014). Eloquent virgins: the rhetoric of virginity from Thecla to Joan of arc. Place of publication not identified: Palgrave Macmillan.

     Mandelbaum, Allan, trans. “The Aeneid of Virgil.” 1996. doi:10.3998/mpub.10501.

     Champlin, Edward. Nero. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard U Press, 2005. Print.

     Jeffreys, Sheila. The idea of prostitution. North Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2009. Print.

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6 thoughts on “Conceptual Virginity & Homosexual Themes From Antiquity

  1. WOW! That was really interesting and fun to read!! It’s funny that they thought homosexuality was normal (for a man) ONLY if he was the dominant one. And yet it’s sad how little we know about women having homosexual relationships. I love the last video you put, it made me laugh. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This is incredible not only did I not think about virginity and homosexuality in the ancient world and how it affected male and female relations, but it made me realize that truly the “definition” of virginity that we use right now, for certain people, does not actually fit. I think my favorite part about this website is the fact that you connected and interpreted the example given about Nero stealing the virginity of Sporus. My only criticism would be is that I would feel that to fully understand the entire story of Nero and the different things you have mentioned before, maybe use more detail explanation of other examples, if there are, and how people viewed/ interpreted them. Otherwise, I thought this was a really good website that connected the idea of virginity and sexuality in antiquity and now. And the fact that it was only acceptable for men to have homosexual relations to be accepted only if he was the dominant partner makes you question, again great example with Nero. Really well done!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This was an interesting and engaging read! I was glad to see a more general examination of virginity than traditional limitations to women. The pictures brought in really helped outline your points, and the video was a lovely ‘next step’ as a reader. While there were some grammatical errors here and there, overall it was very well done! Quick, concise and informative.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I agree with you in your opinion that it is very interesting that I homosexuality and homosexual intimate interactions were “exempt” from ancient understandings of virginity. I find it unacceptable that a woman would be publicly shamed in cases she lost her virginity prior to marriage, or had it “stolen” without her consent prior to marriage placing a woman’s worth dependent on her state of virginity. I touched upon the issue of women’s sexuality being in the hands of men in antiquity, and your point reiterates this. I was a little surprised in regards to men engaging in homosexual activity, assuming the dominant role in the activity as being socially acceptable in society while today there is discrimination and social taboos regarding people who do not identify as heterosexual cisgender people or adhere to the stereotypes concerning heteronormative cisgender people.
    Additionally, I like how you incorporated modern views on virginity in comparison to the views that were held in antiquity.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. First, what a great video! The crudeness of it made it all that much more effective. It really puts into perspective how ridiculous it is that parts of society today are still homophobic. So much of our culture comes from looking back to and trying to mimic the Classical world, yet we seem to have missed this. That is not to say, however, that we should follow all of their examples (ie. it shouldn’t matter who is in the dominant position, regardless of class, gender, etc.)!

    It’s also so sad that rape victims were still punished as if they had done something wrong (again, we haven’t come very far in that regard!). I found it super interesting that both Persephone and Sporus were first forced into marriage before they had their virginity taken. It’s just a bit funny that the men, despite their awful acts, still followed some social conventions, like marriage.

    I think it was a good decision to examine concepts of sexuality related to both males and females in antiquity. It would have been interesting to read more about homosexuality among women as well, since there seems to be evidence (like from Sappho) that implies that there were women outside of prostitution that participated in homosexual acts as well. Maybe you could also tie up the section about antiquity by emphasizing how much women were doubly seen as submissive, seeing as they both had no control over their virginity and that they could never be in the dominant position.

    If you were to change/add anything, I think it would also be good to clarify the part about Sporus. It took me awhile (and help from Wikipedia) to realize that he was a young boy.

    Overall, you have included so much interesting information. Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hello! I first would just like to say that I really enjoyed your article, it was definitely interesting.

    I would like to reiterate what other commenters have already mentioned, clarification of gender prior to the introduction of Sporus is needed.

    An interesting sidenote to the super cool fact about thrusting: Our Psychology of Gender prof explained that there is research going on surround male sexuality in men who have lost sexual function (ie, post prostate cancer treatment) and one hypothesis being tested in looking into the psychology being thrusting. The act of thrusting is an important component of male sexual fulfillment and they’re also looking at techniques men who can no longer use the typical trust-centric postions can use! Cool!

    I also want to comment on the physical layout of your blog post, great length (not too long), excellent photos, lovely.

    Liked by 1 person

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