Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire are two historically heavy nations with regards to the roles of different cultural practices in shaping historical perspectives. Practices considered tradition in ancient cultures have continued to shape the behaviors, beliefs and perspectives held about particular cultures throughout the world. The history of the Roman Empire for instance, would be incomplete without the mention of the vestal virgins, as would the history of Ancient Greece without the mention of pederasty. The practice of pederasty and the reverence for vestal virgins are two distinctive practices, both considered sexual to some extent, and both considered impactful in the long term traditional perspectives developed about the Roman Empire and about Greece. The practice of pederasty was considered to be beneficial to the boys who were involved in it. On the other hand, the roles of vestal virgins in the Roman Empire were considered beneficial to the entire Roman population. Boys engaged in pederasty for their own benefit while young women offered to be vestal virgins for the sake of continued proliferation of the entire empire. In the ensuing essay, an exploration of these two practices is conducted, with the objective of determining how the practices influenced historical perspectives developed about the cultures associated with the places in which the practices were observed. An explanation of what the two concepts entailed is presented, followed by an analysis of the implications of those practices to the traditional position of the Roman Empire and of Ancient Greece. It is however observable that some of the practices of modern day Rome and Greece were probably adopted form the practices that were considered acceptable in the historical days.
Pederasty and Historical Perspectives
Pederasty was considered one of the common sexual practices in Ancient Greece, revered almost as the model of ultimate eros. The practice involved relationships between adult males and younger men, who were on the verge of transitioning through puberty. In particular, the boys considered candidates for the practice had to be between 12 and 6 years of age. The practice involved older men grooming younger ones into sexual activity, with the ultimate accomplishment involving romance. According to Regan the practice of pederasty rewarded the young men with social advances, attentiveness and learning for their yielding and mutual satisfaction (3). The Greek practice of this concept emphasized on its role in celebrating masculinity through homo-erotic focus and also for initiation of young boys into adult sexual life. Consent for sexual activity was given by the young men once sustained attention had been given and recognized (Regan 3).
Pederasty can be considered similar to what is in the contemporary times described as abuse. However, the traditional Greek traditions considered the older lover in the relationship as the embodiment of an ideal love, which was considered different from what ‘inferior’ people feel (Regan 3). Homo-eroticism in this context was regarded acceptable by virtue of the presumed support by the god Eros. The notion of good intentions originating from both parties to the relationship negates the possibility of consideration as immoral within the context of the Ancient Greek society. The motivations behind the relationship developed should not be pegged on greed or interest in anything other than pure love (Regan 3). However, the practice of pederasty also made other practices to be considered socially acceptable. It is even ironic that while the support for the practice portrayed it as an ultimate reflection of love, the same support accepted the use of slaves for sexual gratification and even male prostitution as the norm. The males were also allowed to visit prostitutes in order to satisfy their sexual needs.
Despite the distinct contrast between the beliefs surrounding pederasty in Ancient Greece and similar practices in the contemporary time, it is undeniable that the members of the Greek society valued the practice for its impacts on their social and political lives. The practice was also aligned to various other social practices among the Greeks, which made it welcome as an essential part of a larger social perspective in the society. For instance, pederasty was considered to be a dyadic mentorship relationship, and the fathers of young boys hoped that their sons could be seduced by good older men (Dover 19). The boys hid nothing from their fathers and the fathers wanted handsome boys that could be the object of attraction for suitable men. Moreover, young boys who attracted multiple suitors were even considered luckier. This was because the boys had to make choices among men and could be courted, as opposed to girls whose choice of life partners depended entirely on the agreement between their fathers and the suitors available.
As a part of the political discourse, deviations from the norm in the practice of pederasty were considered ill informed and could be used as a rationale for the defamation of political figures. In particular, pederasty was considered to be accessible more to the men born free in Greece than to slaves (Dover 19). For the men born free therefore, prostitution could be frowned upon as observed in the case of Timarchus in 346 BC, in which his political competitor desiring to stop the political privileges accorded to the politician, described his violation of the law through prostitution in spite of being free born (Dover 19). Such beliefs and restrictions are indications of the limits within which pederasty could be practiced unquestionably.
The impacts of pederasty relations have been felt throughout the history of Greece. Art forms such as painting and poetry continue to depict the practices in which the populations engaged. Various paintings depict scenes in pederasty such as a painting from the 5th Century Athenian Amphora which shows a bearded man demonstrating the up-and-down position to a younger un-bearded man (Dover 19). Similar art forms are available, and have been an accurate source of reference for Greece history. While moral issues can be seen in the practice of pederasty even at now, it can be deduced that the practice was immoral but informed by communal acceptability.
Vestal Virgins and Historical Perspectives
In the context of the traditional gendered roles in the Roman Empire, the position of the vestal virgins as priestesses seems somewhat ambiguous (Gallia 222). According to Gallia the vestal habit is one element of the requirements of vestal virgins that positions them in this ambiguous position (222). The practice in the Roman Empire was to assign six virgins between 6 to 10 years, to the service of the hearth goddess Vesta. The worship of the hearth goddess was considered one of the sacred practices in Rome’s ancient customs until it was ended by Christianity in 394 A.D (Biggi 17). The six virgins had to be sworn to 30 years of chastity, during which they would live in the Astrium Vestae, from where they would perform different roles over three distinctive phases (Biggi 12). The first decade was the training period during which they were mentored by the vestals in their final decade of service, the next decade would be spent in active service to the hearth goddess while the last decade would be spent training the next general of vestal virgins.
Being a vestal virgin came with several obligations and privileges. The main responsibility was to keep the fire in the hearth burning throughout the year. The fire would be lit once a year and then had to be maintained throughout, with the vestal virgins taking turns to tend to it (Biggi 10). The hearth and the fire were considered an indication of purity and its being on assured the Romans of their continuity. For this reason, any vestal virgin that violated the obligation to remain chaste would be considered unholy and thus punishable by law. The chastity of the vestals was also quite visible, and any accusations around violation of chastity would be treated seriously and taken care of by the highest authority in the land. Any confirmation of guilt would be punishable by starvation to death in a bricked in environment. Given the conditions associated with the lives of vestal virgins, it is arguable that the practice was more of a cult than any religious belief in the land. The benefits associated with vestal virginity on the other hand included the freedom to own property, protection by the political systems, freedom to speak in a court of law, and a consideration as a symbol of good tidings (Biggi 13). For instance, any person sentenced to death was forgiven when he/ she met a vestal virgin accidentally during his journey to the executioner.
From the discussion of the roles and obligations of the vestal virgins in the Roman Empire and the history of Rome as the foundation of the early church, this history can be considered similar to the contemporary Christian practice in which young women, as nun, dedicate themselves through celibacy in service to God (Biggi 18). There are various distinctions between this ancient practice and the modern day role of the nuns in the church as well as there are similarities among them. For instance, just like in the case of vestal virgins, the nuns have special clothes referred to as habits, which they wear. The nuns’ dressing is also somewhat similar to those of the vestal virgins in that in spite of the decision to remain celibate and chaste, the dressing reflects a more matriarchal disposition. Additionally, the nuns also have to cover their hair in a specific pattern as did the vestal virgins. This similarly is an indication of the possible assimilation of the cultic practice in the Roman tradition into the Church.
Besides the garb worn by the contemporary nuns particularly in the Roman Catholic Church, the order of command in the ancient Greece customs can also be linked to the conventional political and religious systems in modern day Rome. The political and religious factions have always been intricately connected, placing Rome centrally in religious ratings across the world. During the traditional regime of the vestal virgins, the Pontifex Maximus was the ultimate leadership in both the political and the religious contexts, to which the vestal virgins found to have violated their obligations with reference to the worship of Vesta were reported. Since the beginning of Christianity, the ultimate leadership position in Rome is left to the leader of the Catholic Church who holds the title of a Pontiff (Biggi 18). It is therefore arguable that the roles of the nuns as well as the papal position were inspired by the roles of the vestal virgins and the Pontifex Maximus respectively.
The vestal virgins phenomenon has affected not only the history of the Roman Empire but also the history of the whole world in reference to the practice of Christianity. Currently, there are populations of Roman Catholics across the world, with women holding the positions of nuns in all countries. All these women together with men who are also committed to celibacy for the sake of heaven, report to the papal figure in the Church. Any changes in the church affect the entire world both politically and socially by virtue of Rome’s standing in the political and religious contexts globally.
Religious and cultural practices at any given time in history affect the future of the populations that practice them as well as that of other populations with whom they may interact and exchange cultural values. The practice of pederasty in ancient Greece for instance, has shaped the Greek history significantly, through its impacts on the political and social systems of the Greeks. These impacts have been seen even in conventional forms of art inspired by this ancient sexual practice, and which may also influence modern day societies to experiment in an age where homo-erotic relationships and continuously being recognized by law. Similarly, the phenomenon of vestal virginity in the Roman Empire influenced various Christian practices both in content and context, an outcome which has been spread throughout the world. From these two phenomena therefore, it is deductible that historical outcomes affect future generations.
Biggi, Elda. “Rome’s Vestal Virgins: Protectors of the City’s Sacred Flames.” National Geographic, 18 December 2018. www.nationalgeographic.com/archaeology-and-history/magazine/2018/11-12/vestal-virgins-of-ancient-rome/. Accessed on 11 June 2019.
Dover, Kenneth J. Greek Homosexuality. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1978.
Gallia, Andrew B. “The Vestal Habit.” Classical Philology, vol. 109, no. 3, July 2014, pp. 222–240. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1086/676291
Regan, Paul. “Pederasty and Power in Plato’s Mythological Dialogues.” Inquiries Journal, vol. 9, no. 10, 2017, pp. 1-2.