45 The Penis Poetry (Among Other Things)

Masturbation in the Roman Empire by Paige Blackwell

Whether it be written on the walls in the city of Pompeii or inscribed in the poetry of some of the most famous Roman poets, one thing is very obvious: the Romans masturbated.  While there is very little serious literature on the subject in Ancient Rome, they made it incredibly obvious that everyone was doing it. Masturbation has a tricky history in Ancient Rome and was seen as an act for slaves. The Romans did not see it as something that the wealthy elites were to participate in, as they did activities that are far more problematic by today’s standards. It was often the point of ridicule and joke. Much like the people of the modern world, the Romans loved a good dick joke above all else. Sexual humor was at the center of Roman culture. Puns and jokes about masturbation are scattered all throughout Roman art, literature, theatre, and even inscribed on the walls of the empire itself. So much of the art from the Roman Empire that stood the test of time revolves around sexual acts, including masturbation. While we may look at the Romans’ attitudes towards masturbation and think of that as a thing of the past, it is important to realize that we have not strayed far from those ideals that they had in the ancient times.

A great number of different Latin words were used to describe the act of masturbation in Ancient Rome. Words such as frico , sollicito, tango, tracto, contrecto, truso, trudo, tero (p. 183), haereo, deglubo, glubo, and rado were all used depending on the exact situation that was being described. For instance, frico was often seen as the most vulgar version of masturbation while others such as tracto were just as common but had less of a vulgar connotation behind them. The word for masturbation most commonly used by the Romans was masturbor, which is where the English word masturbate comes from. The exact origin of the word is unknown, but many scholars have suggested that it derives from the latin word for hand, manus, and stupare, which means to defile. This means that the literal definition of the word is “to defile with the hand.”

This translation is very indicative of the attitudes that Romans, particularly upper class Romans, had towards the act of masturbation. Another translation of the word suggests that “mas” is referring to male genitalia and the word takes on a much more literal form if this is the case. Masturbator was a far less vulgar way of stating the act, but it still remained something that was looked down upon by the wealthy elites in Rome.

On top of the many words used to describe the act of masturbation in Rome, there were also countless euphemisms that poets, playwrights, writers, and even everyday people used to poke fun at the act and those who participate in it. Most often people would refer to the left hand or saying the “amica manus,” which refers to the hand being a friend, to subtly joke about masturbation. The Romans were well versed in the art of the dick joke, to the point where some were even ingrained into the religion of the Romans. Mutto, as used in the Latin satirist Lucelius’s work, was a deity of marriage and was the physical embodiment of the penis. Roman writers of all kinds would refer to the left hand as a girlfriend. This just means that Roman writers, especially not the super famous ones, were not getting any. While sad, it did provide the world with an abundance of euphemisms and jokes for masturbation. All the metaphoric versions of masturbation made for much flowery language throughout Latin poetry and writing. Even the most beautiful of the works could not escape such jokes.

In Roman life, masturbation was not something that people just did whenever and however they pleased. It was an act that had a certain amount of ritual behind it. It was believed that the god Mercury passed the act down to his son, who in turn taught the shepherds how to do it. Most prominent, of course, was the Romans’ use of the left hand for masturbation. There were deities that represented sexuality and marriage, penises in particular. These deities were both made fun of and worshipped at the same time. Sex was at the center of Roman culture and religion, so it was impossible to escape the phallic imagery that showed itself around every corner. The exact origin of this practice is unknown, but it is well known that in Roman society and much of the ancient world the left hand was inferior to the right. It was meant for doing the filthy things such as masturbation or getting rid of one’s own excrements. This is likely due to the fact that the majority of people were and still are right hand dominant. Masturbation did not exist outside of society, and therefore was subject to the rules and expectations society puts on it.

In general, the Romans were a bunch of prudes when it came to masturbation. They were not nearly as sexually liberated as their Greek cousins. Thus, any serious conversation about the act of masturbation is very difficult to come across. This mixed with the fact that the wealthy elites preferred having sex with slaves to masturbating themselves solidifies that sexual pleasure was not something of much discussion in the Roman world. Masturbation was seen as something that was for the poor or the slaves. Many of the people who were for masturbation got the ideas from Greek philosophers such as Diogenes, one of the most prominent Cynics. The followers of cynicism and other philosophies differed from the general consensus of the writers and elites of Rome. Much like it is today, someone needing to masturbate instead of being able to find someone to have sex with is something to make fun of someone for. In Roman culture, that is exactly what happened. All walks of Roman life are filled with jokes and insults regarding masturbation and rarely was it put in a positive light when discussing it.

Roman society dictated that masturbation was not seen as an act that everyone should participate in. Far from that, in fact, considering that evidence suggests that masturbation was something that was only for the slaves in the Roman world. The wealthy elites would use slaves instead of masturbating, a practice that is now looked down upon but was just a part of Roman society at the time. The line between prostitution and rape was very thin and very grey. The Roman poet Martial described the differences between the wealthy form of “masturbation” and what we consider masturbation today through his own desires. The famous poet wrote “at mihi succurrit pro Ganymede manus” (the hand of me relieved me as a substitute for Ganymede) (Martial 2.42). Ganymede refers to a slave that he would orefer to have sex with. Since he can not purchase him, though, he must settle for his own hand to be used to get off. This was the common practice in Roman society. Masturbation was a sign that you were unable to purchase sexual pleasure if you wanted it. Martial also describes slaves being the ones who most often participate in masturbation. He wrote in another of his epigrams “Masturbabantur Phrygii post ostia servi, / Hectoreo quotiens sederat uxor equo” (The Trojan slaves used to masturbate behind the door when the wife of Hector mounted her steed) (Martial 11.104). The way the verse sounds makes it known that this is a dirty act for the slaves to be participating in. It is a low act in the eyes of Martial. This is indicative of the way much of the wealthy elites in Rome viewed masturbation. The association masturbation had with poverty and slavery is part of the reason it was never talked about in any serious light, especially in the writings that have survived to this day.

Unlike masturbation among men, female masturbation and sexual pleasure was a topic seldom talked about in both the daily lives of Romans and in the writings that they left behind. Ancient pottery and art shows that it was something that was happening but it was not a topic that people gave much care to or even discussed. Frescoes in Pompeii show imagery of someone performing cunillingus on a woman, proof that the sexual experience was for more than just procreation for the Romans. An inscription on a wall of Pompeii also proves that female masturbation and pleasure was taken into account by at least a few people. It reads “cunnum tibi fricabo,” meaning “I shall rub your cunt.” Though the phrase may be vulgar, it shows that the practice of female masturbation for pleasure was one that was not unheard of. Other sources say that women would use phallic objects to masturbate, though some (mainly male) historians claim that this was not for pleasure but instead to prepare a woman to have sex with a man. “Double ended dildos” even existed during this time. While cis, straight, male historians may not understand the purpose of this primitive sex toy, anyone with a vagina can infer exactly what toys like these were being used for. Not much has changed since the Roman times and masturbation among women continues to be taboo to speak about, but much like it does now, it was always happening in the shadows.


Woman receiving cunillingus


Roman double ended dildo

Despite these feelings towards masturbation, porn was still very much something that existed in the Roman world. The Romans participated in sexual acts that were well obviously meant for pleasure and not for procreation, both among men and women. Pompeii being the best preserved look at the average Roman life we have today, much of the surviving art and architecture we have comes from there. The walls of brothels were lined with erotic images of people engaging in sexual intercourse, something that could be interpereted as an ancient form of porn. Pornography was a part of many homes throughout the city and plenty of erotic images could be found all over. All kinds of erotic imagery can be found throughout Pompeii. Not only vanilla sex, too. If Pompeii shows us anything about erotic imagery in the Roman world, it is that the Romans were not against non-vanilla sex. The art of Rome shows people in all kinds of positions and with more than one partner. Homosexuality was accepted to a certain degree. It was something that only accepted the dominant role in the relationship, meaning the masculine top was the one who society would accept. The Romans had some of the sexual liberty that the Greeks had, but were far more prude when it comes to showing it. Sexual endeavors were meant for within private walls and not to be discussed in public.

Threesome in Pompeii building

Sexual scene in Pompeii home

One place where Roman sexuality could flourish in whichever way it seemed fit was within the walls of the many brothels. As discussed earlier, soliciting sex was seen as a more elite form of masturbation for the Romans. Brothels and bath houses were common for the common folk, and the more powerful Roman citizens could purchase slaves to have sex with instead. In major cities such as Pompeii, you can still see the phallic images that adorned the floors, each pointing towards the nearest brothel. This kind of advertisement worked well as foreigners and sailors who could not read or speak the Latin language could understand where to find what they were looking for. The buildings were adorned with the imagery shown above, either to arouse guests or to show them how to do certain sexual acts. The rooms themselves were small, though; cells big enough for only the bed. Both male and female prostitutes worked within the walls, all performing the role of the submissive, as masculine men were the only acceptable man in Roman culture.

Sign pointing to Pompeii brothel

Inside of Pompeii brothel

Even though the Romans looked down upon masturbation and those who participated in it, they loved to talk about how funny it was. Masturbation can be found all throughout the remains of Rome that we have. The topic is scattered throughout Roman poetry, theatre, and literature. Writers would use elaborate metaphors to allude to masturbation without ever having to really talk about it. Some pieces may seem beautiful and romantic on the surface when they are actually quite vulgar. The writers were not the only one who indulged in writing jokes about masturbation, though. Graffiti about the act has been found all throughout the remains of Pompeii and elsewhere throughout the empire. This was a form of humor that anyone could participate in and understand. It did not require knowledge of history, culture, or even how to read. Sexual humor is the most accessible kind of humor there is. Because of that, there is so much writing making sexual jokes that has survived into the modern era. In summary, sex, and therefore masturbation, weaved its way into every walk of Roman life.

Satire, no matter what kind of medium it takes, has a massive part of society’s humor as far back as the Greeks and Romans. The Romans, in particular, were masters of satire. No where was that better shown than in their vast quantity and quality of masturbation jokes. They ranged from small quips such as satirists making jokes about their own penises to entire stories revolving around lonely dicks. Horace, a famous Roman writer best known for his many satires, discusses his penis in many of his satires. In one of them, Horace writes about penis “sobbing/heaving” by using the verb “singultire.” Thinking about the motion that someone sobbing has, it is easy to infer that this is simply a euphemism for his penis throbbing. Many of Rome’s most famous satirists wrote entire stories about their penises. Even the earliest satirist, Lucilius, writes stories around the penis and the release that it needs. He writes an entire satire about the phallic deity, Mutinus Titinus, or as he called him, Mutto. In this satire, Mutto has a girlfriend with a rather peculiar name. Lucilius writes “at laeva lacrimas muttoni absterget amica” (with his lover of left hand he wiped the tears from his penis) (Lucilius v. 335). Laeva refers to his girlfriend, “Lefty,” and how she wipes the liquid away from his manhood. Once again, this is an obvious case of a satirist using innuendo to talk about masturbation. Getting off exists in so much more than just satire, though, as writers all throughout the empire put jokes and innuendos about masturbation in their works.

In some sense, almost all poetry written by the Romans has something to do with sex, penises, and masturbation. No works are free from some discussion about it. Famous poets from all Roman times write about sexual pleasure. Particularly in the comedic genre, masturbation jokes and stories were extremely common. Whether it be straight forward or through extended metaphor, Roman poets absolutely loved to talk about masturbation. From those who are relatively unknown to some of the most famous poets in Roman history, every single one talked about masturbation in some sense. Catullus, one of the most famous Latin poets in history, wrote so very many allusions to his own penis and what he does with it. Arguably his most famous poem, Catullus II, is about a bird on the surface. Looking a little deeper, it is obvious to see that the poem is actually about his own penis. He ends the poem by saying “tecum ludere sicut ipsa possem // et tristis animi levare curas” (if only I could play with you just so and ease the sad troubles of your mind) (Catullus 2.9-10). Catullus’s sadness over his girlfriend being too sad to have sex with him leads him to just want to pleasure himself. It does not bring him the same kind of pleasure, though, so it is not something that he will do. Other Latin poetry is not as subtle when talking about masturbation. The Priapeia were a collection of poems regarding all things sexual in Ancient Rome. It also condemns masturbation as something that is lowly. The unknown author says “Tam tremulum crissat, tam blandum prurit, ut ipsum, // Masturbatorem fecent Hippolytum” (She wiggles herself so tremendously and excites lubricious passions, that she would Hippolytus himself a masturbator) (Priapeia 53). Hippolytus is the son of Theseus and is appalled by all things sexual and therefore would never think of masturbating. The idea that masturbation is not something someone should do (although it was being done all over the empire) holds true in this passage. In Greek mythology, The passage also shows there existed a very interesting dichotomy between the social stigma of masturbation and the primal desire to release in that way. The Latin poets did an excellent job of expressing this primal desire among the societal pressure that surrounded masturbation.

The place where the majority of talk about masturbation exists not on the page, but on the wall. Graffiti lines the walls of the surviving Roman cities, adorning plenty of dick jokes and masturbation confessions. Pompeii provides an excellent example of that, as it was so well preserved by the very eruption that destroyed it. On the walls of one Pompeii building, a man scribbled “multa mihi curae cum esserit artus has ego macinas, stagna refusa, dabo” (when my worries oppress my body, with my left hand, I release my pent-up fluids) (Younger). Writings such as this one can still be found all throughout the city. In one of the cities basilicas, another person just pokes fun at the reader, saying “Pum[pei]s fueere quondam ‘Vibii’ opulentissumi || non ideo tenuerunt in manu sceptrum pro mutunio || itidem quod tu factitas cottidie in manu penem tenes” (at one time, the Vibii were the most noble at Pompeii. For that reason, they did not hold the sceptre in hand like a penis, as you do habitually in the same manner every day, holding the member in your hand). The Romans were colorful with their language, but the subject remains the same. They are able to discuss the most vulgar of topics this way. Phrases are not the only graffiti adorning the walls either. Imagery of penises and other sexual acts adorn the walls of the Roman Empire as well. The image below shows a graffiti image of a penis that was carved into the wall of a place conquered by the Roman army. Graffiti has not evolved much from the Roman times until now, as almost everyone has likely seen a penis just like that one drawn in a bathroom stall. Graffiti is an interesting source to look at because it was not written by the famous writers or the wealthy elites; it was written by the everyday people who lived within the city walls. It is one of the few sources that show the perspective of the common folk.

The graffiti on the walls of the Roman Empire gives great insight into what kind of humor the everyday person found funny. Thus, it is one of the strangest but most important sources to look at when looking into comedy in Rome.

Pompeii graffiti

Phallic graffiti

Roman theatre is yet another walk of life that is injected with jokes about penises and masturbation. Roman theatre was not known for being the most civil place to be, as it was riddled with themes that were not exactly safe for the eyes and ears of children. Thus, jokes about masturbation were all too common. One of the famous comedy playwrights of the Roman Empire was Plautus. His comedies were well adorned with sexual humor and dick jokes, as was common among Roman comedies. He did not write about the wealthy elites; he wrote about everyday Romans. Thus, he could use sexual humor and insults without worry of upsetting anyone with any serious power. Even part of the name he used, Titus, was a dick joke, as Titus was slang for penis during the time he was writing. Throughout his plays he would make references to penises and He would make jokes about a man’s “gladius” which literally translates to sword but was a Roman euphemism for penis. It is believed that Plautus took much inspiration from the Greek comedies, but jokes such as that one are entirely Roman. Comedic theatre from the Roman Empire was made for the common folk and therefore needed to have humor that the common folk could relate to. While not much has survived into the modern era, that that has is riddled with puns and jokes about anything and everything sexual.

While it is easy to push the Romans aside and call them prudes when it comes to the subject of masturbation in comparison to today, it is not that simple. We are prudes in the same way that the Romans were. We know that masturbation is going on and it is easy to make jokes about but it is rarely a topic of discussion, much less serious discussion. Female masturbation continues to be something so taboo that we refuse to acknowledge its existence and instead pretend that it does not exist. Female sexual pleasure in general is only now becoming something that is important to the sexual experience. The Romans had a complicated relationship with masturbation and sexuality in general, an idea that trickles into the ideas modern society still has.

It is easier to joke about sexual pleasure, particularly masturbation, than it is to have serious conversations about what is going on. The population may be obsessed with sex and everything that surrounds it, but they do not want to actually face the facts of what it is and what it means.

People in the modern age take a “holier than thou” approach when it comes to looking at the sexual practices of the ancient era versus today. The reality is that we have not progressed nearly as far as people like to think we have. Sexual pleasure remains something that is very primal for humans, even if we choose not to believe so. Masturbation has a long but secretive history in Ancient Rome. While being something that there is very little serious literature or history behind, it had a massive presence all throughout the empire. Whether it be on the walls of Pompeii, the brothels of Rome, or the pottery of Naples, self pleasure has its lasting depictions everywhere in Rome. The Romans had rules associated with masturbation. There was a stigma behind it and while it was practiced everywhere, it was not something that anyone should be proud of doing. The only places where the act could live freely in Roman culture was through humor. Satire, graffiti, poetry, and all other forms of literature in the empire had some level of phallic and masturbation humor scattered throughout. We see a similar thing in society today. Though we pretend that we have advanced so far beyond the ancient world, in reality we are in a very similar place. Our desire to feel pleasure, particularly sexual pleasure, is a primal one. Though how we go through the world and how we interact with each other has changed drastically, there are some things that have not and likely will not change.

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Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Rome Copyright © by Jody Valentine. All Rights Reserved.

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