Tag Archives: Roman

Ancient Rome and Intersex People, Those Known to the Romans as Hermaphrodites

I’ve recently finished my MA dissertation (hurray!) and it focussed on disability in ancient Rome. Part of my research focussed on intersex people, those the Romans knew as hermaphrodites or those with an ambiguous gender. It’s a fairly unusual topic but one which tells us a great deal about how the Romans treated those they categorised as ‘abnormal’.

The Sleeping Hermaphrodite. Roman (100-200 CE). Currently housed in the J.Paul Getty Museum in Malibu.

Intersex people in modern society are rare. Some conditions such as Classical Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia are estimated to occur in 1 in 130,000 births in the U.S. (Intersex Society of North America). It is likely, in Roman society, intersex people were equally as rare but the Romans were aware of their condition in some capacity and, like with many other people with disabilities, treated intersex people with fear and contempt.

Here’s what you need to know about the Roman’s relationship with intersex people:

– The Romans were unaware of the different conditions which cause individuals to display both male and female attributes. They believed those born with physical variations were signs of natural corruption. As such, intersex people could be considered as punishments or warnings from the gods.

– The Romans coined the term hermaphrodite, after Hermaphroditus (the divine offspring of Hermes and Aphrodite). The Greeks previously used a term similar to androgynous, according to Livy (27.11.4) and Pliny (NH 7.34).

– The majority of sources which deal with intersex people and the Romans concern Rome’s mythological past, including Romulus’ reign and the following few centuries. Authors such as Livy and Julius Obsequens, writing many centuries after the events supposedly occurred, are also thought to have embellished their accounts. Furthermore, their original sources (thought to be priestly records) are now lost to us.

– Intersex people were considered prodigies; viewed as both divine punishment of the family and the Roman state and warnings of impending doom. The birth of intersex infants, who were of neither male nor female gender, represented a physical manifestation of corruption within the state.

– The births of intersex babies are recorded alongside unusual animal births, such as ‘a lamb with a pig’s head’ (Livy 31.12.6-8.) This tells us that intersex infants were considered as almost ‘sub-human’. The births usually took place in settlements outside the limited confines of the Roman state at the time. In this way, the Roman state may have been able to suggest to their citizens that the births were warnings not necessarily within their own state but close enough to home to warrant concern.

– Intersex infants were killed shortly after their births. Their murder usually involved an ‘expiation’ ceremony, a ritual carried out to appease the gods. The baby would be placed in a box and drown at sea (or in one instance, a river). Prior to the baby’s disposal hymns, dedicated to Ceres and Persephone, were sung by 27 virgins and sacrifices were made.

Statue of Hermaphroditus. Roman (200-300CE). Currently housed in the Louvre Museum.

– The expiation ceremonies usually coincided with times of political strife, such as a ritual carried out in 207 BCE during the Second Punic Wars. As such, intersex infants were used as scapegoats.

– Some parents of intersex children did attempt to conceal their child’s true nature from the state. One instance, recorded in Livy (31.12.6-8.), refers to a 16-year-old intersex child who was discovered by the Haruspices (those in charge of interpreting divinations) and killed. That the child survived to the age of 16 is telling. Either the child’s parents concealed him or the child (possibly not an intersex person) may have simply been a scapegoat, used to show that the state was fulfilling their duties to the gods in understanding their divine will through prodigies.

– The attitude towards intersex people appears to have changed over time. Initially, as we have seen above, intersex children were thought of with fear and disgust. By the 1st century CE, intersex people were regarded with fascination. Phelgon of Tralles (FGrH F36.6) recorded how a high-born girl, on her wedding day, began to experience incapacitating stomach pains and within days had physically transformed into a man. The case was brought to Claudius’ attention and he celebrated the ‘rebirth’, honouring the gods’ intervention with an altar. Males were highly prized in patriarchal Roman society and Claudius’ celebration of the transition appears to reinforce the importance of males and male heirs within society and elite families.

– Intersex people were depicted in art often for humorous purposes. The Sleeping Hermaphrodite type, which depicts a seemingly feminized figure lying on hir side, was deliberately designed as an illusion (see top image and one below). Those approaching the statue may have assumed – as many modern viewers do – that the sleeping figure is wholly female only to discover the figure possesses male genitalia (Von Stackelberg, 2014). Similarly wall paintings from Pompeii depict satyrs attempting to rape intersex people. The image was seemingly intended to be humorous (from the perspective of Roman viewers) as the viewer was aware of the individual’s true nature whereas the satyr was not.

The front view of The Sleeping Hermaphrodite. See top image for back view. J.Paul Getty Museum.

If you want to learn more about intersex people in ancient Rome, take a look at:

Garland, R. 1995. The Eye of the Beholder: Deformity and Disability in the Graeco-Roman World. London: Duckworth

Graumann, L.A. 2013. Monstrous Births and Retrospective Diagnosis: The Case of Hermaphrodites in Antiquity. In: Laes, C., Goodey, C., Lynn Rose, M. eds. Disabilities in Roman Antiquity: Disparate Bodies A Capite ad Calcem. Leiden: Brill, pp. 181-210.

Greaves, A.M. 2012. Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (Reifenstein’s Syndrome) in the Roman World. The Classical Quarterly. Vol. 62/2, pp. 888-892.

Satterfield, S. 2011. Notes on Phlegon’s Hermaphrodite Oracle and the Publication of Oracles in Rome. Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, Neue Folge. Vol. 154/1, pp. 117-124.

Von Stackelberg, K.T. 2014. Garden Hybrids: Hermaphrodite Images in the Roman House. Classical Antiquity. Vol. 33/2, pp. 395-426.

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Here’s What You Need to Know about Pompeii’s ‘Main’ Brothel

If you’re planning on visiting Pompeii or have ever visited this magical ancient site at the foot of Vesuvius, then you may have heard some pretty tall tales about the ‘main’ brothel (lupanar). So if you want to be one step ahead of the tour guides, here’s what you need to know about the most visited building in Pompeii:

An erotic scene from the brothel in Pompeii.

It’s One of Many

There’s an estimated 35 brothels in Pompeii (Varone, 2002) which range from small cells leading directly off the street (cellae) to lavish villas. This number is an overly high estimation as it means there was one brothel for every 75 Pompeian males (Beard, 2008). We need to consider that many of these men had wives, slaves or others to satisfy their sexual needs. The building in question (VII.12.19) has been frequently confirmed as a purpose built brothel owing to its unusual layout. It’s located in the west of the city near two main gates and consists of the ground floor of a corner building. It’s separated into six small cells and a toilet. Above the brothel is a small apartment which is reached by an external staircase.

We Don’t Actually Know How it Worked…

No one’s entirely certain if the prostitutes were slaves, owned by the brothel’s proprietor, or if they were independent prostitutes who rented out a cell as and when they had a client. The prostitutes who worked there may have even lived in the tiny cells. An alternative theory is the prostitutes lived in the small apartment above the brothel. This would certainly make sense if some of the women, as a result of the nature of their work, had children.

One of the tiny cells inside the brothel.

It was Noisy, Smelly and Uncomfortable

If you’re labouring under the illusion the brothel was at all romantic, then you’re sorely mistaken. The building was utilitarian and each dark little cell was equipped with a stone bed. Even with soft furnishings, the beds would still have been incredibly uncomfortable. There was also very little privacy. None of the cells or the toilet had doors and there was even a gap between each cell. Assuming the cell doors were covered with curtains, one can only imagine the sounds and smells emanating from the cells… and the toilet!

Women AND Men Worked There

From what we can glean from literary sources, it was only acceptable for men in ancient Rome to visit brothels and there was plenty of services to sate any appetite, including homosexual sex. Homosexuality in the ancient world was considered reasonably acceptable if you were the active i.e. penetrating partner. The evidence we have of men working in the brothel comes from the ‘waiting rooms’ – the two cells on either side of the main door – where graffiti written by clients attests to the sexual prowess of men working within the brothel.

One of the erotic wall-paintings in the brothel.

The Sex ‘Menu’

Tour guides are keen to claim the seven erotic images above the cell doorways were some form of menu for clients to pick and choose their services. Many guides claim the pictures enabled clients, unable to understand Latin or possibly unable to communicate with prostitutes of foreign birth, to demonstrate what service they required. However, the positions depicted are hardly overly complicated and even the most basic of gesticulation would have achieve the same result without such artifice. Furthermore, the pictures do not include all the possible services on offer (including homosexual sex). Considering the unpleasant conditions in the brothel, the pictures may simply have been aesthetically pleasing. Alternatively, as the couples in the pictures are depicted in far more luxurious circumstances than those of the brothel, the pictures may have provided a distraction by showing fantasy scenarios.

If anyone wants to have a proper nosy around Pompeii but can’t afford the travel costs, take a look at PompeiiInPictures. It’s also where I’ve borrowed these pictures from…

Thanks for reading x

Another erotic scene from the walls of the brothel.

Thanks for reading x

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