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Incest In Ancient Greece And Rome: How Was It Viewed?

Ancient Greece and Rome are considered the birthplace of civilization. You’ve probably heard about Athenian democracy and Emperor Nero, but how much do you know about ancient views on incest?

amphora urn depicting sexual activities
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Detailed view, A Greek Amphora urn depicting some of the interesting sexual activities that occurred in the ancient world, via The British Museum

 

The great civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome are famed for many things: art, architecture, literature, politics, philosophy… But classical culture was shaped just as much by personal, intimate and private affairs as by grand public matters. Just like today, relationships in the ancient world formed the bedrock of society and took on many different forms. Among the most interesting, complex and controversial of all was incest. Read on to discover what the ancients thought of this taboo sexual practice, and explore the presentation of incest in myth, literature, art and law.

 

The Word Incest Comes From Latin, But Actually Means Something Different

A marble statue of a Vestal Virgin
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A marble statue of a Vestal Virgin by Raffaelle Monti, via Chatsworth

 

Even though they were no stranger to the practice, the Greeks had no word for incest. There was no shortage of vocabulary to describe strange sexual relationships, from μητροκοίτης (metrokoites), meaning a man who slept with his mother, to θυγατρομιξία (thugatromixia), the act of sleeping with one’s own daughter. However, there is no single word that we might directly translate as ‘incest’. Such relationships were instead euphemistically referred to as γαμος ανοσιος (gamos anosios) or γαμος ασεβης (gamos asebes), which literally mean ‘unholy union’.

 

It is from the Romans that we get the modern term ‘incest’, derived from the Latin word ‘incestum’. ‘Incestum’ literally means something not castum, or not pure, and therefore refers to a whole host of sexual activities that were considered to violate some moral, religious or legal boundary. Although incest as we know it was certainly included under the category of incestum, so too were a number of other wrongdoings. For example, if a Vestal Virgin lost her sacred virginity, she would be accused of incestum and punished accordingly. Famously, a 1st century BC statesman, Clodius Pulcher, was charged with incestum when he sneaked into an all-female religious ceremony disguised as a woman.

 

Incest Was At The Heart Of The Classical Creation Story

Venus and Mars by Sandro Botticelli
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Venus and Mars by Sandro Botticelli, via The National Gallery

 

As everyone knows, the king of the gods in ancient Greek mythology was Zeus, married to the goddess Hera. But this pair didn’t just share a marriage and rule over the heavens. They also shared parents. Both Zeus and Hera were the children of the Titans Cronus and Rhea, who were also siblings, being the offspring of the primordial deities Uranus and Gaia. According to some strands of myth, Uranus may even have been the son of Gaia. 

 

This incestuous tangle of gods and goddesses doesn’t stop there, however, as it was fairly commonplace in Greek and Roman religion for deities to engage in strange sexual relationships with their brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles. Aphrodite, for example, was supposed to have been born from the foam created when Cronos threw the testicles of the castrated Uranus into the sea. Across the centuries, artists have often depicted the same goddess accompanied by her lover Ares, who would technically be her half-brother!

 

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli
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The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, via The Uffizi Gallery 

 

The incest prevalent among the gods must have set an interesting precedent in the ancient world when it came to family relationships. We must bear in mind, however, that the classical deities were not the models of morality and goodness that we associate with the word ‘god’ now. Instead, they were each independent characters with their own strengths and, more importantly, their own vices. An ancient Greek or Roman would not aim to emulate the actions or behavior of the gods in their own lives! It is nonetheless interesting to consider how the sexual deviance of these divine figures may have influenced the classical perception of incest.

 

The Great Classical Writers And Poets Also Explored The Theme Of Incest

Sculpture by Auguste Rodin
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Sculpture by Auguste Rodin, inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, via The V&A Museum

 

There is one key difference between ancient and modern literature. Today we are always demanding new plotlines from our authors and screenwriters, and go crazy if anyone reveals a spoiler for our favorite books or TV shows. However, an ancient audience was not too bothered if they already knew what was going to happen. In fact, they often went to the theatre, listened to a poem or read a text in full knowledge of how the story would end. This is because the majority of ancient literature was based on myths and legends that had been around for centuries. The skill was in telling the same stories in a new way, to entertain, shock or perplex the audience. 

 

One of the masters of this craft was the poet Ovid, whose career spanned the transition from BC to AD. Arguably his greatest work was the Metamorphoses, a 15-book poem containing tales of mythological transformation. Among these, there are several stories of incest, including that of Myrrha, who has sex with her own father before turning into a tree, and Byblis, who falls in love with her own brother but cries herself into a babbling brook when he refuses to sleep with her. Ovid was no stranger to the erotic, and his visceral poetic exploration of the theme of incest highlights how intrigued the Romans were by this taboo subject. 

 

Sigmund Freud photo
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Sigmund Freud, whose famous Oedipal Complex was inspired by Sophocles’ play 

 

By far the most powerful example of literary incest, however, has to come from Ancient Greece. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, which was first performed in 429 BC, centers on protagonist’s incestuous relationship, examining the disastrous consequences of the revelation that he has unwittingly married his own mother. Over 2000 years later, the play inspired Sigmund Freud to coin his new theory ‘the Oedipal complex’, demonstrating that the question of incest remains a timeless issue connecting ancient and modern culture. 

 

Some Forms Of Incest Were Even Permitted By Law

A copper bust of Emperor Claudius
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A copper bust of Emperor Claudius (or Nero!), via The British Museum 

 

Apparently, the ancient Greeks and Romans were not content to limit their fascination with incest to the realm of mythology, literature and drama. Laws from the two major city-states of Athens and Sparta indicate that Greeks were legally permitted to marry their own siblings, while in Rome, it was not uncommon for uncles to marry nieces, which was legalized after the Emperor Claudius married his brother’s daughter, Agrippina

 

It is important to remember, however, that just because incest was not prohibited by law, and even allowed in some cases, this does not mean that it was widely practiced or socially acceptable. In general, marriage in the ancient world was looked upon as a private affair between two families, and was often used to negotiate, forge alliances and gain power. Consequently, the state did not interfere directly in the arrangements, and was even willing to overlook certain incestum unions. 

 

Moreover, it is not particular helpful to rely on official legislation as a guide to the ancient perception of incest, as it only took into account marriages and not casual relationships. As we shall see, the social stigma that surrounded incest was enough to dissuade anyone from publicizing their inter-familial affair, and so we are undoubtedly lacking a wealth of information about lots of secret incestuous relationships that occurred in ancient Greece and Rome.  

 

Generally, Incest Was Considered An Evil Act

The Greek philosophers pictured by Raphael
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The Greek philosophers pictured by Raphael in his legendary School of Athens, via The Vatican Museums

 

Although there was undeniably a great interest in the idea of incest in Greek and Roman culture, as well as evidence that it could, in some cases, be legally practiced, the overall perception of inter-familial relationships remained negative. 

 

Sexual relations between parent and child were widely condemned. This is an attitude epitomized by the tragedy of Oedipus, and an accusation of incest was often enough to ruin one’s reputation. Although they were not aware of the genetic problems that so often result from incest, the ancients did have an inkling that the offspring of two relatives were likely to be born with weaknesses. For this reason, Socrates condemns relationships between parent and child, although he cites the inevitable age-difference as the main cause for concern.

 

Even if it was not forbidden by written law, the ancients held that incest was prohibited by the unspoken laws of the gods. Plato, for example, argued that a particularly beautiful mother, sister or daughter would be protected from the lust of their son, brother or father by an ἀγραφος νομος, or ‘unwritten law’. With a few notable exceptions, incest was thought to be so obviously wrong that the state didn’t even need to make a law against it. 

 

Ancient Greeks And Romans Saw Incest As Something That Separated Civilized Men From Barbarians

 

Ever since the writings of sixth century BC historian Herodotus, there was a clear divide in the classical mindset between the civilized and virtuous world of the west, and the “barbaric,” unhealthy culture that prevailed in the east. Both the Romans and the Greeks thought their own societies were far superior to those found in any of the surrounding states, whether to the north in Gaul and Germania, east in Asia Minor, or south in North Africa. As the Roman Republic and then Empire began to extend its reach, the relationship with Egypt became ever more complex. With its fertile lands that contributed the vast majority of the state’s grain supply, Egypt became indispensable, and yet the powerful Ptolemaic dynasty had the potential to throw a spanner in the works for Rome’s expansion. The Romans therefore resorted back to the old distinction to deal with this potential rival. 

 

A bust of Cleopatra
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A bust of Cleopatra, who was married to her own brother, via University of Chicago

 

The Ptolemys infamously practiced incest in the form of sibling marriage, with Cleopatra herself married to her own brother. Roman polemicists seized on this fact and used it to present the Egyptian powers as barbaric, backwards and inferior. The poet Lucan, for example, describes how Cleopatra came to control her brother, the pharaoh, through sex: ‘if her brother once submits to her embraces with incestuous heart and drinks in unlawful passion on pretense of natural affection, then he will grant her your head and mine, each perhaps in return for a kiss’ (10.360-365). In this way, the Romans used the act of incest to elevate themselves above their foreign rivals. 

 

Accusations Of Incest Could Easily Ruin Someone’s Reputation

 

Just as incest was used as a slur against outsiders, the Romans were also quick to turn the accusation against their own countrymen. Many of Rome’s ‘bad emperors’ faced just such slander. Emperor Caligula, for instance, was accused of passionate feelings towards his sister Drusilla, while the infamous Emperor Nero was said to have touched his own mother’s corpse inappropriately. Whether simply rumor or the uncomfortable truth, these anecdotes imply that incest was seen as a major social taboo in ancient Rome.

 

Painting showing Cicero giving a speech
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Painting showing Cicero giving a speech in the senate, by Cesare Maccari, via Lytham St Annes Classical Association

 

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in a speech given by 1st century BC statesman and lawyer, Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero is defending the young Caelius against the charge of murder brought against him by the prosecutors, among whom is Clodius Pulcher (the same one who was charged with incestum after his foray into the women’s festival!). As well as offering some reasons to justify his client’s actions, Cicero dedicates a lot of time to attacking the character of Clodius and his sister, Clodia. One of his best slurs implies that the two siblings engaged in incest, as the orator accidentally-on-purpose mixes up the words ‘husband’ and ‘brother’ when discussing their relationship. 

 

Such accusations demonstrate that, while incest was a subject that could openly be explored in poetry and drama, it remained hugely controversial as an aspect of real life. 


Mia Forbes
About the Author

Mia Forbes

Mia is a contributing writer from London, with a passion for literature and history. She holds a BA in Classics from the University of Cambridge. Both at work and at home, Mia is surrounded by books, and enjoys writing about great works of fiction and poetry. Her first translation is due to be published next year.


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