Being a nonfiction author is my day job. In reality, I’m a historical detective (a gig so entertaining it ought to be illegal) and my “crime scene” is the ancient past. Recently I investigated the status of lust, love, and longing in the Greco-Roman world of 2,000 years ago.

I was shocked. No one back then identified as hetero or gay or bisexual. They readily admitted to a rainbow of sensual pleasures–guilt-free. I dug deeper, discovering a plethora of things they were crazy about: buttock worship, for one. Aphrodisiacs. And anti-aphrodisiacs. X-rated celebrity antics. Illustrated porn by female writers. Biodegradable dildos. Fertility festivals. So, watching hot girl blowjob videos is not a big deal, I should say, if compared to what people used to do in the past.

My long-ago witnesses did confess to certain erotic fears–over lettuce, that well-known virility killer. They also stressed over the stinging price paid for adultery. And the thunderbolt that men and women called love.

Aroused by this treasure-trove of passions, perversions, and piquant personalities, I tore into my research. Here are some salty, sometimes spicy samples for you from The Joy of Sexus: Lust, Love, & Longing in the Ancient World[1] (Walker Books) P.S. Reading ancient history isn’t smut–it’s educational. At times edifying. Revel in it!

  • Where Valentines Day got its semi-naked start

    The martyrdom of several early Christians, all named Valentin, supposedly inspired our Valentines Day. But Im betting it was the pagans February fertility bash. An ancient Roman purification ritual, they called it Lupercalia, from lupus: the wolf. To kick it off, a group of guys sacrificed a goat and a dog, then feasted, heavy on the wine. Afterwards, they got naked, wrapping their loins in bloody strips of goatskin and making whips. As the men ran through the streets of Rome, gals from teens to matrons excitedly awaited them on every corner. The wolfish streakers did not disappoint. Lashing female bottoms while bellowing naughty songs, they made a circuit of the city, guaranteeing fertility for humans, animals, and crops. When Christianity triumphed in Rome, church officials tried and failed for two centuries to stamp out Lupercalia. Romans also adored the pagan godlet Cupid and his band of helpers, whose art, depicted everywhere, carried the notion of loves importance into our time.

  • An awesome all-gay military

    Forget Sparta. Forget Athens. Around 375 B.C., the most macho city-state among Greek speakers was Thebes. The Theban Greeks made a tremendous cultural breakthrough by combining two favorite male activities: sex and fighting. Long known for its serene acceptance of male homosexuality, Thebes put together a fighting force of 300 men, chosen from its population of committed male couples. They called this elite army of lovers the Sacred Band. For decades these bad dudes kicked Spartan posterior all around Greece, led by wise and savvy generals who were likewise gay. Despite their military discipline and innovative tactics, the Sacred Band was eventually slaughtered to the last man by another phenomenon: the even more pumped-up army of King Philip of Macedon. Although Philip won on this battlefield, he soon lost his life–assassinated by a man who was his disgruntled former lover.

  • The golden age of derrieres

    Greek males adored the booty beautiful. They called it callipygian, meaning with beautiful buttocks. Being open-minded, they admired derrieres of all sorts and genders. Ever notice how statues of naked goddesses with splendid asses still clutter museums worldwide? Not an accident. In the 3rd century B.C., a sculptor created a goddess looking over her shoulder at her own shapely tush–and people went mad for it. Glorious rear ends even had their own religious cult in Sicily. As the story goes, a pair of well-endowed sisters, while comparing cheeks, accosted a young man passing by. They asked him to vote (back then, you could do such things without getting arrested.) After he chose the rump of the older sister, his brother fell for the rear of the younger sis–and the couples lived callipygiously ever after. The sisters even commissioned a temple to the Fair-Buttocked Aphrodite in Syracuse, which endured for centuries. How delightful to have lived in a place where hindquarters basked in admiration. A golden era when no one needed to ask, Does my butt look too big in these pants?

  • X-rated Chick Lit, B.C.

    The ancient workplace offered meager opportunities for women. Nevertheless, various gals achieved notoriety in one arena: literary porn. Was it frustration at clueless husbands? Or the naughty thrill of revealing details about lesbian and gay sex in print while cloaked in a pen name? Whatever the motives, write they did. And often illustrate as well. The popular erotic how-to by Philaenis, a Greek from Samos, had a killer title: <em>On Indecent Kisses.</em> Her lip-smacking chapters included How to Make a Pass; Seduction Through Flattery; and Sexual Positions. Her additional tips on seldom-discussed female to female intimacy may have terrified unsuspecting males. Elephantis, another talented writer-illustrator, produced a lust and learn through pictures manual of sexual positions–with suggestions for organizing group sex. Her book got heavy use on Capri, where that old lech Emperor Tiberius forced youngsters to perform daisy-chain sex while he watched.

  • Male tools: love potions, reverse Viagra

    Named after Aphrodite, the Greek love goddess, aphrodisiacs B.C. ranged from pomegranate wine to knock-em-silly opium. Some ardent customers preferred lotions applied to the male organ, including one called “the deadly carrot.” Greeks and Romans also went for honey-pepper/Spanish fly mixtures, making literal the phrase “all fired up and ready to go.” Although aphrodisiacs saw plenty of action, the super-confident Greeks also thought of themselves as raging bulls of desire. At times, bursting with libido, they needed reverse Viagra to cool their jets. Options abounded. Guys routinely applied erection-withering liniments, including one of mouse dung. Or they manfully ate lettuce (thought to be a terrifying anti-potency drug). When truly awesome horniness hit, however, males hurried to purchase a hippos forehead. Users had to attach the left side of the animals forehead firmly to the groin. The womans groin, that is. (This recipe, among others, comes from Plinys <em>Natural History</em>.) Howd they strap this thing on? Didnt they smell to high heaven? Was stench the active ingredient? Did women play along? I long to know more. Dont you?

  • Sexual time-shares in old Athens

    Diogenes, one of historys most-quoted Greeks, was a street person, a philosopher of the cynics school who punctured the pretensions of the Athenians by flaunting his ultra-Spartan lifestyle. He dumpster dove, excreted al fresco, and slept in an earthenware jar that once held olive oil or wine. Diogenes gladly gave up material goods but his physical needs? No way. Although Athens had cheap brothels, Diogenes sought cheaper–and managed to snag a companion in lust named Lais. Because this high-end call-girl admired his philosophy, the two struck a bargain. She spent six months with rival philosopher Aristippus, charging him top drachma. Then cohabited the rest of the year with Diogenes, pro bono. The worlds first sexual time-share? Its likely. I’m also betting Lais must have been in love, since she had to share Diogenes rancid jar with a smelly array of stray dogs.

  • The red-hot price of adultery

    Sexual hanky-panky B.C. could really smart–if you got caught. For centuries, male and female adulterers in Athens and Rome could legally be killed if found en flagrante. (Greco-Roman marriage was all about legitimacy of the offspring; sexual cheating took away the guarantee of paternity.) There was, however, a non-lethal but humiliating punishment reserved for male cheaters. The cuckolded husband could legally sodomize the adulterer–with an audience, if desired. Rather than human-to-human penetration, the punishment sometimes took symbolic form. The injured party could inflict his revenge by inserting a radish into his rivals bum! I call it an ancient “sting” operation, since Greek radishes grew to a healthy size and had a good “bite” to them. This method of anal justice was likewise practiced in Rome. How do we know about the procedure? Because it was portrayed in Greek comedies from Aristophanes and others. Did The Radish make an effective deterrent? That question awaits my further vegetarian research.

  • E-Z Divorce, but dad keeps the kids

    Divorce in Rome and Athens: did it exist? Did it ever: no attorneys, no fees, no marriage therapists, either. We have speed dating—they practiced speed divorcing. Sometimes the split was amicable; sometimes not. Love (or its lack) was an also-ran, since marriage was about begetting heirs, not romance. Roman spouses kept their property separate. Upon divorce, the wife and her dowry returned to her father’s household–and daddy was obliged to find her a new husband. The newly divorced husband kept the kids, however. What grounds did Roman men have for a split? Initially, the issue was infertility (wife got the blame even if the husband was sterile). Later laws provided three more reasons a man could ditch the Mrs: sexual cheating; excess wine consumption; and the heinous act of making copies of the household keys! (Evidently, duplicating keys was a sure sign that the Mrs. was duplicitous.)

  • The busy sex life of Socrates

    Socrates of Athens wasnt Apollo handsome. He was homely Mr. Wisdom, ahead of his time, welcoming women and gays and slaves and sex workers into his lively intellectual circle. People found his big brain sexy. As a result, Socrates was hit on by both genders. Twice married, Socrates also hankered after dishy males. According to the most credible accounts, he kept that love platonic, even with Plato, his biographer. Sublimate, baby; thats how Socrates mastered his own sexuality. Ironically, he was sentenced to death for corrupting Athenian youth. As he sipped that hemlock cocktail and the poison took hold, he experienced an erection. (Apparently a fairly normal occurrence when males expire.) Socrates turned to a friend and made his last earthy wisecrack: be sure to sacrifice a rooster (that is, a cock) to the god of healing, he said.

  • Historys first cougar

    You think younger guys hooking up with older women is a 21st-century phenomenon? Check out this prime example from the first century B.C. Servilia was pushing 50, with four kids and two marriages under her belt when they met. And her 36-year-old lover? Julius Caesar, Romes most popular politician. Despite wedded status on both sides, they remained lovers for two decades. As reckless as Caesar, Servilia once sent him a smokin hot note while he was in the Senate, arguing with Senator Cato, her own half-brother. When the note got read aloud, Cato (and the avid senators) learned that his half-sister had been doing the wild thing with his political opponent. Awkward moment? Oh yeah. Multiple marriages and divorces gave elite Romans deeply tangled family ties. So when Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 B.C., Servilia not only lost the true love of her life–she also became the horrified mother of the ringleader assassin: her son Marcus Brutus. Plus the mother-in-law of a second assassin, Cassius.

  • Eco-friendly (sometimes edible) sex toys

    Greek and Roman men were big believers in the pleasures of penetration. And voyeurism. That made dildos bestsellers. Customers were big into leather—of necessity, since ivory and bronze dildos were crazy expensive, and ceramics tended to crack at critical moments. Artisans molded leather into hot-dog shapes, polished them smooth, and eureka! showtime. Female sex workers often used dildos to arouse guests at all-male dinner parties. But where and how did other women–heterosexual, gay, or decline to state–fit into the sex-toy picture? It began in a bakery B.C., where a gal with time on her hands started fooling around with bread dough. While lasciviously daydreaming, she created an olisbo-kollix: the breadstick dildo, the sex industrys first green product. From this moment on, lonely widows in Arcadia, unsatisfied moms in Athens, and partnerless gals on Lesbos had a DIY pal, discreet and disposable. Custom made to fit; even nutritious, should the need arise. (Think Im making this up? If only my imagination were that good!)


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  1. ^ The Joy of Sexus: Lust, Love, & Longing in the Ancient World (

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