The history of transsexualism in Rome was intimately tied to that of religion and, paradoxically, sexual libertinism.
In Rome, it was considered the greatest disgrace for a man to be penetrated, but the Romans had no issues with men penetrating. They saw that as just being what men do; and men duly penetrated, with enthusiasm, anyone or anything that would stay still long enough.
They had no concept of ‘homosexuality’ as we would understand the term today. Shame, for a man in Rome, was being made into a woman — which was the inevitable result of being penetrated. Numerous tortures were invented by the Romans that involved inserting large objects into the victim’s anus. This was only partly to cause pain; it was much more to cause shame and embarrassment, especially if carried out in public. Male rape was used, by Romans. to demean and dishonour their enemies.
This dynamic pervaded Roman society and is crucial to understanding it. Rome gave its ideas to the successor cultures in Europe, where they were carried on to the modern world and it is from these ideas that the stigma that still attaches to homosexual and transsexual sex derives. Today, men who are known to associate with transwomen are deliberately slighted, especially if their partner is pre-operative, by the assertion that they are the receptive partners in sex. 1
In Rome, however, transwomen were considered perfectly legitimate sexual partners for a man. Indeed, a beautiful transwoman lover would be admired by other men and her owner (since she would almost certainly be a slave) much envied.
Boys become girls: galli
Boys were also considered to be legitimate lovers for men, as they had been in Greece, but the Romans did not have the subtle relationships between the erastes and the erominos, in which the former educated the latter in all the matters of manhood, while also being his sexual lover. In Rome, boy-love was just for fun and so it was normally between free men and slaves. These slaves were called ‘puer delicatus’ or ‘pretty boy’ and either were purchased and served in a master’s household alongside other sexual slaves, or they were bought by pimps and made to work the streets and bath-houses.
These boys were called ‘galli’, which means ‘Celt’ or ‘Gaul’ because the prettiest were fair-skinned boys who came from Gaul, modern France. The Romans hated the adult Gauls but apparently not their boys. It was widely reputed that Gaulish boys were introduced to being the sexual partners of men, long before they arrived in Rome and so were skilled lovers. Such boys invariably presented as girls.
Many were castrated, especially if they were retained in a household, as this caused them to retain their youthful femininity for far longer. They lived as women, with the other female slaves. However, once they grew older and outlived their usefulness in their master’s household, they would face an uncertain future, although many became household managers. If they were not so lucky, they too might become transsexual prostitutes.
Cybele; Phrygian Goddess of Transsexuals
After the Punic Wars, the cult of Cybele, the Phrygian Great Mother, was imported to Rome and so were the rituals surrounding her. Phrygia was in Anatolia, part of what we now call Turkey and is one of the cradles of human culture. The Phrygians had three qualities that impressed Roman authors: their abilities as horse-soldiers; their ferociousness; and the prominence of transsexualism in their culture.
Cybele’s cult was a derivative of the older Sumerian and Akkadian cults of Inanna and Ishtar, with similar rituals. Cybele herself was cognate to the Sumerian/Akkadian Ereshkigal, to the Egyptian Nephthys and to the Hindu Kalli amongst many others. She is the Goddess in Dark aspect.
In devotion to her, just as they had in previous cultures, boys would work themselves into a trance, using incense, alcohol, other narcotics, music and dance — and then self-castrate, to become priestesses and temple prostitutes. These boys are often also referred to as ‘galli’ both by Roman writers and later ones, but this is a conflation with the Gaulish ones. However, while the true galli were invariably slaves, self-castration in the cult of Cybele became popular amongst free-born boys of good families.
Other forms of transsexualism existed, which reflected the multi-cultural nature of the Roman Empire. For example, Egypt had become a Roman vassal in the first century CE as a result of the Roman assumption of the former Greek territories, which were established by Alexander the Great.
Philo of Judea (30 BCE to 40 CE) the Jewish philosopher of Alexandria, wrote of a section of the populace:
“Expending every possible care on their outward adornment, they are not ashamed even to employ every device to change artificially their nature as men into women … . Some of them … craving a complete transformation into women, they have amputated their generative members.”
Again, this refers to the removal of the male genitalia, a ‘complete transformation’ in which both testes and penis were removed. This differs from the more commonplace form of castration in which the testes only were removed.
Limited castration, in which only the testes were removed, was performed on slaves. It was especially popular in Egypt, less so in Rome itself. These individuals usually lived as men and the function of castration was to make them less aggressive and more docile. Full castration was more dangerous, took much longer to recover from and could lead to problems with urination and the risk of urinary tract infections.
Where the whole external genitalia were completely removed, the purpose was for the individual, born male, to live as a woman. It was, clearly, transsexualism. It made no difference whether the castration was enforced, as it was for slaves, or voluntary, as it was for free-born boys.
Ovid (43 BCE to 18 CE) was a prolific Roman poet and writer. In modern parlance he would have been described perhaps as a journalist, as he, like many Romans of letters, wrote copiously about the things he observed in the world around him. One of his most famous works is a play titled Metamorphoses. In it, Teresias — a male — becomes Teresa when he hit two copulating snakes with a piece of wood. She was transformed back into a male by the same process. Once again, it is clear that the theme of transsexualism was popular.
The Emperor Elagabalus (203-222) is fascinating. His brief reign occurred in the years 218-222, at the end of which he was killed.
Elagabalus was born in what is now Homs in Syria and inducted to the hereditary priesthood of the solar deity El Gabal, who was worshipped in the city as the supreme deity. In a different approach to the Greeks and Romans who erected statues of their deities in their temples, El Gabal was worshipped in the form of a meteoric black stone. Elaborate ceremonies would mark this stone’s entry to Rome.
Sun worship had increased in popularity in Rome and Elagabalus saw an opportunity to set up El Gabal as the greatest deity in the Empire, stronger even than Jupiter. On his coronation as Emperor, Elagabalus danced, in women’s robes, around the meteoric stone that was the totem of El Gabal. Many sources commented on her beauty and femininity. Throughout a short life, he frequently bemoaned his male genitalia and even promised ‘half the Empire’ to any doctor who could make for him a vagina. He was famously attracted to men.
Elagabalus was only 19 when he was assassinated.
Sporus (see link to separate article) was a slave-boy who served as a prostitute in the household of the Emperor Nero. She bore a striking resemblance to Nero’s wife, which is probably why she had been purchased; slave boys could be more compliant in sex than free-born women. After Nero killed his wife in a fit of rage, he married Sporus and had her castrated in order to be a ‘complete woman’. Sadly, after Nero was deposed, she became the plaything of his successors and eventually committed suicide.
Christianity in Rome
Various Emperors, notably Augustus, the first Emperor, made attempts to limit the libertine proclivities of the Roman population, and not just the men. But for hundreds of years after Augustus’ reign, prostitution, including that of boys and transsexuals, persisted and indeed, became a feature of Roman life. As long as cults like that of Cybele and that of Isis, which had been imported from Egypt, along with numerous other goddess cults all vying for popularity and wealth existed, transsexualism remained protected; and as long as Roman men believed that sex with anyone was a laudable act, as long as they were the one penetrating, so the pueri delicati would remain popular sexual partners; the delightful sweetmeats without which no orgy would be complete. But when Rome adopted Christianity as the official State religion, all of that changed.
Although Christianity, in its Roman form, made huge concessions to goddess culture, the avatars of the Goddess that were venerated were those of the Virgin and the Mother, and not those of the Harlot, the temple prostitute, or the transsexual street-prostitutes that were commonplace. Christianity had an absolute injunction against any form of homosexual sex which it applied firmly. It also had a horror of anal penetration, which, after all, in the millennia before modern surgery, was the only way an HSTS transwoman could enjoy sex.
Under the new order, transsexuals were ruthlessly persecuted, both because of their desire to be the male-born lovers of men and their association with ‘pagan’ goddess cults . Rome’s lasting contribution to the history of transsexualism — which had become a commonplace within its culture — would be to drive it underground.