Did Ovid Invent the Concept of Heterosexuality?

Ovid, known for timeless classics like the Ars Amatoria and Metamorphoses was an elegiac and truly Augustan poet in the 1st century BCE/AD. Some of his favourite topics to discuss in erotic collections like the Ars Amatoria (Art of Love) were:

  • Where to go to have sneaky public sex in Rome
  • Where in Rome to go for a stroll that may result in chancing upon a lovely woman that you may be able to have sneaky public sex in Rome with
  • How to act in public around your lover when your husband and/or wife is around
  • How to fake being drunk in public so you can be more handsy with your lover but not be held accountable for your actions

and so on. Ovid was basically the self-purported sex expert in Augustan Rome.

One thing I find endlessly fascinating in all of this, is that until Ovid started explicitly mentioning in Book 2 of the Ars that he prefers having sex with women and not boys the concept of heterosexuality didn’t exist. This may very well be the first instance in Greek or Roman literature where a poet differentiates between having sex with women or men. Let me explain.

In both Ancient Greece and Rome, sex didn’t really have its own literary or political discourses. It was based more around phases in one’s life, citizenship, and the physical act of penetration instead of being gender-specific. Sexual orientation wasn’t really a thing. No one had any kind of sexual identity in terms of being homosexual, bisexual, etc. Or at least, no one was writing about it in works that have survived until today. I’m not going to get into lurid details of  full citizen males doing the penetrating of women/slaves/resident aliens being the important differentiator oh but look at that I just did ahem MOVING ON.

For example, other elegiac poets living and working during the same period as Ovid like my homies Propertius and Catullus were writing about intensely homosocial and homoerotic relationships with their boyfriends. Ovid was the first to say that he prefers the mutual orgasm between women and men and thus explicitly rejects men as sexual partners. This is the reason why many Augustinian-era scholars argue that Ovid created the concept of a heterosexual male.

I find that fascinating, because heterosexuality existing as a concept is taken for granted in Western culture and historical interpretations when it didn’t actually exist as a thing until the first century BCE. Before Ovid, gender wasn’t as important of a distinction to make in a sexual partner, just things like citizenship and social status.

Fun Resources:

The entire collection of the Ars Amatoria can be found here. However, it’s probably the least visually appealing way to experience the work so here’s a paperback copy that you can carry it around and serenade your sweetheart.

This book  contains an article written by Thomas Habinek that goes into more detail about the invention of the heterosexual male and sexuality in general. It’s an incredibly interesting read!



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