When it comes to older women and sex, most cultures have always tended to treat sexually active older people, especially women, with disdain, and the Romans were no exception. In fact, unless you were very rich (think Caligula and his orgies), or very poor (and, therefore, not worthy of record), there was only one legitimate reason to get busy in Rome.
As the poet Musonius said, “Men who are not wanton or immoral are bound to consider sexual intercourse only when it occurs in marriage and is indulged for the purpose of begetting children, since that is lawful, but unjust and unlawful when it is mere pleasure seeking, even in marriage.”1 After all, who wants to have sex just for pleasure, right? Only young and beautiful courtesans were allowed to stray from a woman’s customary, deferential position in Rome.
As a result, once a woman moved beyond her child-bearing years, it was considered unseemly for her to be sexually active, and this is borne out in Roman literature. The erotic poet Leleager, for example, compared an old woman named Timo to an old wreck of a ship, her breasts like flapping sails, and pitied those who had to cross the sea in her.2 Lucilius declared that he preferred castration to bedding old woman.3 We bet you those "old women" preferred it as well!
That said, the Romans — just as most contemporary cultures — were far more tolerant when it came to old men with young fertile wives. After all, old men could still father children, while old women were of no use to the Roman Republic.
So threatened were the Romans by sexually active older women that they often associated them with striga, or witches. Horace, Ovid, Petronius and others described “wanton”, post-menopausal women as the makers of love potions (Viagra of the Ancient World), dabblers in magic.4 Often depicted as drunks, old and hag-faced in art, they were preoccupied with the arousal or suppression of passions, and their spells and potions could either cause or cure male impotence. Worst of all, they were frequently portrayed as unsuitably lustful.
Not much seems to have changed since the Romans when it comes to the depiction of older woman considered unsuitably lustful. The image at left displays a drunken old woman whose cloak has slipped down in an indecorous manner. The image at right is by “Buck” Brown, the African-American painter and cartoonist best known for creating Playboy Magazine's "Granny" cartoons, which appeared in the ’60s and ’70s. Here, Granny is depicted drinking a Martini and chiding her pre-Viagra lover for his “energy crisis”.
Roman marble copy of third- or second-century-B.C. original. Glyptothek, Munich.
This notion that post-menopausal women should no longer have sex — unless they’re blood-sucking, vampiric ghouls — continued throughout the Western world for millennia, and was carried over into the conservative doctrines of the Puritans, which is how it ended up in the New World.
It wasn’t until the sexual liberation of women in the ’60s, when the birth control Pill came into wide usage, that sex as a way of expressing our love for each other (vs. for the procreation of children) became not only possible, but more generally accepted by society.
So, when you find yourself moaning about your lack of options, be happy you’re not in Ancient Rome. Sure, you’d probably look great in that Toga . . . but forget about getting any sex. What do you expect from a culture that thought glis glis — or dormice on a stick — was a delicacy?
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