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.

Catullus Bedspread jacket frontl

‘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…

Please be aware there are some sexual references below

PinkNews –  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)

Both are available for order here.