When in Rome

HBO’s Rome only lasted two seasons–around now, with the schedule relatively bare, I bet the network regrets they canceled it. But before the second season started, I got the show’s historical consultant, Jonathan Stamp, on the phone so we could discuss the show’s more prurient aspects and how they gibed with reality. It proved to be a very entertaining history lesson.

“No contemporary actually says ‘Roman women have Brazilian waxes,’ but it’s pretty much a given for several literary sources that the women depilated their pudenda. The clearest is the poet Ovid, who talks in ‘The Art of Love’ about the importance of keeping yourself beautiful as a woman and the various ways in which you can keep your whole body smooth: one of the ways that he relates is the passing of very hot walnut shells over the body. We also know that Caesar tweezered his legs.”

“We all know the term fellatio, which comes from the Latin word fellare, which means ‘to suck.’ Now, the Romans also had the word irrumare: that’s the active part of the relationship in the blowjob, and it basically meant ‘to stick your cock in somebody else’s mouth.’ And the noun from it was irrumatio. It’s interesting that they had a term for it; if you think about it, we don’t. It was important for them to differentiate the two parts of that sexual activity. If you were a Marc Anthony, when you were a young boy making your way in the world, you would be performing fellatio. Once you’d established yourself, you’d be performing irrumatio: they now had to blow you.”

“The taking and abuse of narcotics in Rome is a difficult subject to get a handle on, but once in a while, you find a reference. Herodotus says there’s people called Scythians, who lived around the Caspian Sea: they chafed hemp seeds on a hot surface, probably a stone held in tweezers. We know there was ample opium grown in Egypt and opium was imbibed and eaten. Since all roads led to Rome, we assume that anything that was a habit out east would have become a habit within the city itself, because the city was the most cosmopolitan place on earth, along with Alexandria.”

“The Romans talk vaguely about addiction, and always in terms of the male experience: any form of addiction that unmanned you–in the sense that it was your master, rather than you being master of it–was regarded as a bad thing, whether it was alcohol or drugs or sex. The idea that you were master of yourself and you could control yourself was very important. Being too keen on shagging was not a good thing for a Roman male, and both Marc Anthony and Caesar got pilloried for it.”

Originally published (in a shorter version) as “Sex, Drugs and Rome” in Rolling Stone 1018 (January 25, 2007).

posted 15 December 2009 in Archives and tagged , , , . no comments yet

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