Orgy, particularly public orgy was not well seen by the authorities. This of course didn’t mean that personal services with male or female prostitutes at the Thermal baths were not a common occurrence – but they were personal.
When considering ancient Roman orgy we should start with two considerations:
the etymology of the word Orgy – which in its earliest sense signified secret rites to certain gods within Greek or Roman civilisations. In modern days it has come to mean a form of licentious activity.
moral attitudes in ancient rome: there was a strict sense of morality in ancient Rome but it clearly wasn’t the same as our own. The attitude to intimacy and sexuality was well codified through the common sense of “Pudicitia” and indeed through the power of magistrates to inflict punishment for immoral behaviours. There was a generally accepted practice of prostitution, and brothels running their activities with full approval and control by the authorities, as happens in some countries today. In every day terms it did not rule out the possibility that a Roman waitress at a “pub” might be expected to offer full services to the customers in the intimacy of the spare room.
Hedonistic Mystery Religions
With the growth of Roman influence and of contact with new cultures, several mystery religions linked to divinities such as Dionysus or Bacchus were imported from Greece and the Orient. These divinities were generally linked to what we, and the highest Roman authorities would consider 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!
An ongoing link between religion and sexuality
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 penis had been amputated. The Romans found this a little repulsive and so resorted to signing up foreigners to the role of priests.
Vestal Virgins buried alive
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. Their public position was so elevated that any misdemeanors would have been quite limited and severely punished with capital punishment. Although, now that I think about it, there was a direct tunnel joining the Palace on the Palatine hill and the Vestals’ temple…..