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. 
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” 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.
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. 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.
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 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.
Statue 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 (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.
Red-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.
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)
- Schulenburg, 2001, 273.
- Mcinerney, 2014, 113.
- Champlin, 2005, 146-147.
- Jeffreys, 2009, 50.
- Mandelbaum,1996, 114.
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.