Profanity in Ancient Rome

Petronius laments “if only we had the balls,” while the contemporary poet Persius groans “if only we had a drop of our fathers’ spunk,” and Cicero complained about “Rome having its balls [coleos] cut off.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Speaking with Roman plainness, as the euphemism for cursing at the time went, mostly involved vividly describing genitals, which were considered both shameful and awe-inspiring – veretrum and verecundum.

The ten worst words in ancient Latin centred on bodies and sex.

Slight a Roman, and he might retaliate by threatening to perform irrumatio, or oral rape. The worst of the worst insults related to being on the receiving end of oral sex, since the mouth was one of the most sacred of body parts.

Interestingly, many of these Roman swears weren’t passed down to English. Latin usually gives us the proper medical terms for immodest parts of the body, like for instance penis or vagina, not our primary obscenities.

In one epigram, the poet Martial rhetorically asks an old woman why she’s plucking her pubic hair, inquiring, among other things, “Why stir up the ashes in your tomb?”

Instead, another word was considered far more foul: landica, or clitoris. People swore about what they cared about, and the Romans cared about the clitoris. They thought that both male and female partners in intercourse had to achieve orgasm for conception to occur, a wrong, but gallant, idea.

Other Roman expletives centred on passivity and aggressiveness in sex – passivity being considered far inferior. There were two profanities for a man who allowed himself to be penetrated – catamitus and cinaedus. 

“The sort of twee person who thinks swearing is in any way a sign of a lack of education or a lack of verbal interest is just a fucking lunatic.” – Stephen Fry

1 thought on “Profanity in Ancient Rome

  1. I like this. The other day I was in a conversation about how words are just words, but in social context some words are given much more power than they deserve to have, swear words being chief among them.

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