But sexuality was not excluded as a concern of the mos maiorum, the traditional social norms that affected public, private, and military life. Pudor, "shame, modesty", was a regulating factor in behavior, as were legal strictures on certain sexual transgressions in both the Republican and Imperial periods. The censors—public officials who determined the social rank of individuals—had the power to remove citizens from the senatorial or equestrian order for sexual misconduct, and on occasion did so. The mid-20th-century sexuality theorist Michel Foucault regarded sex throughout the Greco-Roman world as governed by restraint and the art of managing sexual pleasure.
Roman society was patriarchal (see paterfamilias), and masculinity was premised on a capacity for governing oneself and others of lower status, not only in war and politics, but also in sexual relations. (Virtus), "virtue", was an active masculine ideal of self-discipline, related to the Latin word for "man", vir. The corresponding ideal for a woman was pudicitia, often translated as chastity or modesty, but a more positive and even competitive personal quality that displayed both her attractiveness and self-control. Roman women of the upper classes were expected to be well educated, strong of character, and active in maintaining their family's standing in society. But with extremely few exceptions, surviving Latin literature preserves the voices only of educated male Romans on the subject of sexuality. Visual art was created by those of lower social status and of a greater range of ethnicity, but was tailored to the taste and inclinations of those wealthy enough to afford it, including, in the Imperial era, former slaves.
Some sexual attitudes and behaviors in ancient Roman culture differ markedly from those in later Western societies. Roman religion promoted sexuality as an aspect of prosperity for the state, and individuals might turn to private religious practice or "magic" for improving their erotic lives or reproductive health. Prostitution was legal, public, and widespread. "Pornographic" paintings were featured among the art collections in respectable upperclass households. It was considered natural and unremarkable for men to be sexually attracted to teen-aged youths of both sexes, and pederasty was condoned as long as the younger male partner was not a freeborn Roman. "Homosexual" and "heterosexual" did not form the primary dichotomy of Roman thinking about sexuality, and no Latin words for these concepts exist. No moral censure was directed at the man who enjoyed sex acts with either women or males of inferior status, as long as his behaviors revealed no weaknesses or excesses, nor infringed on the rights and prerogatives of his masculine peers. While perceived effeminacy was denounced, especially in political rhetoric, sex in moderation with male prostitutes or slaves was not regarded as improper or vitiating to masculinity, if the male citizen took the active and not the receptive role. Hypersexuality, however, was condemned morally and medically in both men and women. Women were held to a stricter moral code, and same-sex relations between women are poorly documented, but the sexuality of women is variously celebrated or reviled throughout Latin literature. In general the Romans had more flexible gender categories than the ancient Greeks.
A late 20th-century paradigm analyzed Roman sexuality in terms of a "penetrator–penetrated" binary model, a misleadingly rigid analysis that may obscure expressions of sexuality among individual Romans. Even the relevance of the word "sexuality" to ancient Roman culture has been disputed, but in the absence of any other label for "the cultural interpretation of erotic experience", the term continues to be used.
Ancient literature pertaining to Roman sexuality falls mainly into four categories: legal texts; medical texts; poetry; and political discourse. Forms of expression with lower cultural cachet in antiquity—such as comedy, satire, invective, love poetry, graffiti, magic spells, inscriptions, and interior decoration—have more to say about sex than elevated genres, such as epic and tragedy. Information about the sex lives of the Romans is scattered in historiography, oratory, philosophy, and writings on medicine, agriculture, and other technical topics. Legal texts point to behaviors Romans wanted to regulate or prohibit, without necessarily reflecting what people actually did or refrained from doing.
Major Latin authors whose works contribute significantly to an understanding of Roman sexuality include:
Ovid lists a number of writers known for salacious material whose works are now lost. Greek sex manuals and "straightforward pornography" were published under the name of famous heterai (courtesans), and circulated in Rome. The robustly sexual Milesiaca of Aristides was translated by Sisenna, one of the praetors of 78 BC. Ovid calls the book a collection of misdeeds (crimina), and says the narrative was laced with dirty jokes. After the Battle of Carrhae, the Parthians were reportedly shocked to find the Milesiaca in the baggage of Marcus Crassus's officers.