Inevitably, when the Romans encountered Greek civilization they encountered Greek homosexuality. Here, in particular, the two cultures diverged. The Greeks were able to conceive of love between an older and a younger male as a protective and affectionate mentorship, while the Romans, generally speaking, did not accord this privileged status to male relationships. There was no taboo of silence such as developed under Christianity—the Romans were quite willing to acknowledge the prevalence of same-sex desire. Indeed, the earliest Latin literature treats it quite openly. The swaggering hero of Plautus’s comedy The Braggart Soldier (c. 200 bce) has an eye for handsome young men as well as women, and numerous casual references to male homosexuality appear in Plautus’ other plays. But male love was not, as with the Greeks, a theme for philosophical or forensic panegyrics. It did not have the same high cultural import and was not regarded as the root of deep, inspiring personal devotion.
On the contrary, homosexual relations were perceived primarily as a form of dominance, an extension of the will to power. We see this in early Roman comedy, where the same-sex intrigues are not between men and freeborn youths but exclusively between masters and slaves. The Greeks deprecated such servile liaisons as ungentlemanly, but these relationships were the only ones that Roman society accepted unreservedly. Since the slave population of Italy increased dramatically in the late third and second centuries bce—some authorities calculate that slaves made up as much as 40 percent of the population—opportunities were ample for Roman masters. By 200 bce Cato the censor was to complain that a good-looking slave boy cost as much as a farm. The spread of slavery had a paradoxical effect, preventing any general prohibition against male homosexuality per se from taking root but casting a special stigma on the passive partner and preventing Romans from idealizing male passion as the Greeks had.
For the Romans, homosexual relations were not in themselves good or bad. But to submit to penetration was to be feminized and humiliated. Such an experience, if it became public knowledge, invited reproach and ridicule from a man’s enemies. The analogy between military and sexual defeat was strongly felt. A striking instance was the teasing of Rome’s greatest general at his triumph, when Caesar’s soldiers sang mockingly of his youthful affair with the king of Bithynia: “Caesar conquered the Gauls, but Nicomedes conquered Caesar.”
In Greece, to be the beloved protégé of a respected ruler was an honor. In Rome, it was an embarrassment and an occasion for ribald humor. The amorous-sexual vocabularies of the two languages reveal the distinction. In the line just quoted, the same verb, subigere, “to subjugate,” signifies both the public and the private “conquest.” Greek usage incorporated some form of the root eros (love) into such words as paiderastia, erastes, eromenos. Roman men did not embrace lovers (amantes) but rather pathici, cinaedi, exoleti— terms suggestive of passivity, degradation, and abuse. No cultural heroes exemplified male love in Rome, as Achilles did in Greece, the Yellow Emperor in China, and an exalted bodhisattva in Japan. What homoerotic myths the Romans knew were borrowed from Greece.
Indeed, if we look for the first records of homosexuality in Roman history, we find them not in legends but in Valerius Maximus’s Memorable Facts and Sayings, a handbook compiled about 30 ce for rhetoricians and orators. Book VI recounts a dozen notorious offenses against “chastity,” half of them homosexual and involving military or civil officials who abused their rank to coerce subordinates. Family honor might also be at stake: Fabius Maximus Servilianus (126 bce) is said to have killed his son for his complacence to men and then voluntarily exiled himself for shame at this dishonor. The earliest anecdote, dating from 326 bce, is perhaps the most revealing. Livy tells the story at length as an important development in Roman jurisprudence. A freeborn boy enslaved for debt had been beaten by his master when he rejected his advances. The populace, hearing his cries and seeing his lacerated back, objected to these indignities. What is significant, however, was the Senate’s response. They did not pass a law to protect slaves from assault; instead, it was decreed that freeborn Romans could no longer be enslaved for debt. Faced with a choice between limiting sexual access to slaves or limiting slavery, the Romans chose to limit slavery.
Valerius Maximus’ cases were handled by administrative or paternal action with no reference to any specific law against homosexuality. Such a measure has been assumed to exist in the so-called Lex Scantinia. Our knowledge of this statute is, however, fragmentary and uncertain; its date, scope, and rele- vance have all been called into doubt. It has been suggested that it was en- acted in 226 bce, when a Roman tribune, C. Scantinius Capitolinus, was convicted of soliciting another aristocrat’s son. But Roman laws were named not after offenders but after the men who proposed them. The first known mention of the Scantinian Law appears in 50 bce in two letters to Cicero, but the context provides no hint of what it dealt with. The Emperor Domitian (81–96 ce) invoked it in a campaign to enforce sexual morality, but again exactly what it punished is not clear.10 The only text in the pre- Christian period to connect the law definitely with homosexual behavior is Juvenal’s second satire, c. 100 ce, where it seems to be understood as penalizing cinaedi, that is, passive males. Writing shortly before this, Quintilian, in his Institutes, tells us that a fine of 10,000 sesterces ($2,000?) was the penalty for seducing a freeborn boy.12 Most authorities think he is referring to the Scantinian Law, but the matter remains unclear.
Nevertheless, sex with freeborn boys was certainly frowned on in Roman society, along with adultery and the seduction of virgin daughters, all of which violated the honor of the paterfamilias. An orator named Haterius, pleading in the courts in the Augustan age, put the matter succinctly: “Losing one’s virtue is a disgrace [crimen] for a freeborn boy, a necessity in a slave, and a duty [owed to his emanicipator] for the freedman.”13 (In Rome emancipation was a civil and religious procedure by which the freed slave might still be required to render certain services, including, on occasion, sexual ones, to his former master.) But though sex with freeborn boys was disapproved, it was not seen as degrading. The “conqueror” was regarded with the ambivalent mixture of censure and envy successful Don Juans have met with in most societies.