Pleasure, Procreation, and Punishment: Shocking Facts about Sex and Marriage in the Ancient World
Much of what is considered normal in the present day might have been seen as shocking in the past and vice versa. This idea applies to many of the aspects of daily life, including customs related to sex and marriage. The following is a series of surprising facts about sexual and marital life in the ancient world.
Honey and Pepper to Increase Pleasure
Ancient Greeks had a number of concoctions meant to enhance sexual performance. One of them was meant to cause a lasting erection and it involved smearing the penis with a mix of honey and crushed pepper.
Another Greek text suggested: “ Grind the ashes left after burning a deer’s tail, and then make a paste of the powder by adding wine”. By smearing the penis with this mixture, the desire to have sex would have supposedly been enhanced.
Dionysus with sileni in a vineyard. Attic black-figure amphora attributed to the Priam Painter, (6th century BC). From Monte Abetone (Etruria). Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia (Rome). (Public Domain) Dionysus was a Greek god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, ritual madness, fertility, theater, and religious ecstasy.
The Greeks also used an unknown Indian plant which was said to cause powerful erections after rubbing it on the genitals. Some Greek men claimed that under the influence of this plant they achieved sexual climax up to 12 times, while some Indians claimed that they climaxed 70 times. In order to cancel the effects of these potions, individuals would apparently pour olive oil onto the genitals.
Arranging a Marriage at the Auction and the Importance of Virginity
Although arranged marriages are an accepted cultural practice for some cultures today, it is worth noting some of the ways ancients went about this practice as well. For example, arranged marriages were a common practice in Ancient Mesopotamia and the union took the form of a legal contract between two families. Also, the couples never met before the marriage ceremony.
In Sumer and Babylonia, marriage was simply viewed as a way to ensure procreation, therefore as an enforcer of the continuity and harmony of society. It had nothing to do with the personal happiness of the couple involved. Romans also practiced marriage arrangements.
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In his “Histories”, Herodotus spoke of the existence of marriage markets where young women were sold to men looking for a wife. This happened once a year in the villages of ancient Babylon. At these “bride auctions” many young women who were eligible for marriage were gathered in front of a group of men seeking a wife. Each of the women were sold to the highest bidder. Rich men competed for the most beautiful of the young women and the ugliest women were handed over to the commoners - who could not bid on the beautiful ones.
In the ancient times, the rules of marriage were a lot stricter for women. In ancient Israel, for example, women had to be virgins before marriage. On the other hand, men were not expected to be virgins when they became husbands. Also, if a man accused his wife of not being a virgin at the time of marriage, she faced the risk of being stoned to death. If the charges were disproved, the man was only flogged or forced to pay a fee for his wrongful accusation.
‘The Babylonian Marriage Market’ by Edwin Long. (Public Domain)
Prostitution Practices to Appease the Gods
Male prostitution was widely accepted in Greek and Roman societies. In Athens, the income of both male and female prostitutes was subject to taxation. Therefore, the activity was actually regulated by the state.
When it came to male prostitutes, the majority of the clients were also male. Still, even though male prostitution was legal, a man performing services for a fee would have his civil rights removed. He was banned from many aspects of public life and could not serve as a magistrate nor was he allowed to speak in the assembly. As a result, the majority of male prostitutes were slaves or foreign residents.
Man soliciting boy for sex in exchange for a purse containing coins. Athenian red-figure kylix, 5th c. BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public Domain)
In ancient Babylon, there was a custom that all women had to perform a sacred duty to the goddess Mylitta. This was a form of sacred prostitution involving the woman going to the sacred temple of the goddess and having intercourse with a stranger in exchange for a fee. In his “ Histories”, Herodotus describes how women “are continually entering and leaving this place. Whenever a woman comes here and sits down, she may not return home until one of the strangers has tossed silver into her lap and has had intercourse with her outside the sanctuary”.
The earnings were dedicated to the goddess and, while beautiful women were done with their obligation quite quickly, less attractive women had to wait longer, sometimes even years.
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Some cities of ancient Rome had statues of the god Priapus with an erect penis. These statues were placed in market gardens in order to discourage trespassing. The god was said to inflict intruders with severe sexual punishments – be they women, men, or young boys.
Priapus depicted with the attributes of Mercury in a fresco found at Pompeii, between 89 BC and 79 AD, Naples National Archaeological Museum (CC BY SA 2.0)
‘Til Death Do You Part…
In ancient Mesopotamia, Hammurabi’s Code regarded adultery as a crime punishable by death. In Rome, the Julian Law on adultery stated that a woman caught in infidelity could be killed - and it was her father who made the decision. In Athens, adultery was a serious offense that was originally punishable by death. Later on, killing the adulterer was replaced with fines and public humiliation.
In ancient India, there was a practice called “sati”. This was based on the belief that a widow was not entitled to move on with her life after her husband had passed away. Therefore, the widow had to jump on her dead husband’s pyre (funeral fire) and be burned alive. In another version of the same practice, the widow was buried alive next to the corpse of her deceased husband.
A painting from c. 1800 depicting the practice of sati (suttee) or widow-burning. (Public Domain)
Top Image: Roman love scene mosaic from Centocelle, (1st century AD) Source: Alberto Fernandez Fernandez/ CC BY SA 2.5
By Valda Roric
Valda Roric – “From History to Mystery”
Herodotus – “Histories”
Stephanie Lynn Budin – “The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity”
Hermann Kulke and Dietmar Rothermund – “A History of India”