A rich man’s banquet may often include entertainment by dancers and the entertainment could in some cases spill over into entertainment withthe dancers in a general free for all. This wasn’t far removed from general prostitution where even a waitress at a “pub” may well be expected to offer full services to the customers in the intimacy of the spare room.
The situation with regards to the population at large was a little different: clearly unable to afford rich banquets and dancers they could take the alternative approach of joining one of the several mystery religions linked to divinities such as Dionysus or Bacchus imported from Greece and the Orient. These divinities were generally linked to wanton debauchery and luxury – a celebration of hedonism driven by pure nature (that fertility of the land thing).
Religious ceremonies involved channeling the sexual energy of the participants in order to achieve some form of trance state, probably with the aid of hallucinogenic substances. The rituals might also involve cases of sadism or sacrifice upon unsuspecting would-be members of the sect. The authorities got a whiff of what was going on and took hard repressive action and they were surprised by the large number of public figures involved in the scandal. It was as early as 190BC but in spite of the repression the cult lived on. The famous paintings at the villa of Mysteries in Pompeii seem to make some sort of reference to this type of mystery cult.
These religious ceremonies initially took place at night, possibly 2-3 times per year. Probably in coincidence with Spring, Summer Solstice, that sort of thing. By the time they became a scandalous affair they were more like rave events which took place 4-5 times a month!
There were several other instances of sexual practice linked to religion which in many ways can be related to the more ancient practice of ritual intercourse between king and priestess to ensure fertility of the land. There is little proof of this sort of practice in Rome but at the Roman city of Paestum a brothel has been found annexed to a temple of Venus which makes you wonder what was going on.
The priests of the goddess Cibele or Magna Mater on the other hand were supposed to be men whose member had been amputated. The Romans found this a little repulsive and so resorted to signing up foreigners to the role of priests.
Unjustly the most vivid link of Roman religion and sex or orgy is with the Vestal Virgins but in fact they were just that, virgins. Breaking their vote of chastity was punished with a whipping and being buried alive. I suppose that similarly to porno films involving nuns the notion of transgression is likely to make the Vestals quite titillating to the modern public and possibly to their contemporaries also. However their public position was so elevated that any misdemeanors would have been quite limited and severly punished with capital punishment. Although, now that I think about it, there wasa direct tunnel joining the Palace on the Palatine hill and the Vestals’ temple…..
Also read about Morality in Ancient Rome, Ancient Roman Sex and Prostitution, Orgies in Ancient Rome, Religion, Marriage.