Roman Kisses

In modern Rome (and most Italian cities for that matter), it is very common for the enamored to express their love by kissing in public. Witnessing a couple romancing while standing next to the column of an ancient portico, sitting on the steps of a famous piazza, or dining out with others is part of the daily Italian experience. What about in Ancient Rome? Were lovers as spontaneous and expressive in public as their descendants? Was it normal for a couple who was in love to be romantic in open spaces without minding the presence of others? What kind of kisses did the Romans know? 

The answers to these questions can be discovered in the book “Amore e sesso nell’ antica Roma” (Love and Sex in Ancient Rome) written by Alberto Angela. In the section titled “amore dammi mille baci” (give me a thousand kisses my love), Angela explains that though lovers in Ancient Rome engaged in the same kind of “baci” as we do today, kissing a loved one in public was strictly prohibited because it was considered an indecent act. For instance, a married woman of a high social rank, such as a matron, would never smooch her spouse in the presence of others for it was contrary to the sense of morality expected from a dignified Roman wife. Likewise, the lower classes followed the same conduct of the richer classes. For instance, the romancing of two servants in an open space would have been considered equally disgraceful. 

Interestingly so, more than 2,000 years ago, Romans distinguished love kisses with three different names. Each kiss had a unique meaning depending on the purpose and the circumstances. The most ancient one of the three was the osculum, the equivalent of the closed-mouth kiss that is known in English as the angel kiss. The second kiss was termed savium, and it originates from the Latin suavis, as in sweet or soft. The savium represented the most intimate and passionate kiss a couple would share, known in modern times as the French kiss. The third kiss was called basium from which the modern term bacio is derived, commonly used in standard Italian today. Eventually, it became the term the Romans used to allude to any type of kiss, whether it was meant to show affection to their kids or share intimacy with their partner. 

Of the three, the osculum was undoubtedly the most curious one. This type of lip-to-lip kiss had also another surprising peculiarity, utterly estranged from romance. That is, in ancient Rome, a woman had the daily obligation to kiss her husband on the mouth. More so, she was also obligated to kiss her male relatives as well as the husband’s brothers and cousins. This expectation, that today leaves us stunned, was dictated by the so called “ius osculi” or “right to kiss.” The latter goes back as far as Romulus and continued until the imperial period. 

This bewildering rule served as a breathalyzer. It allowed a man to verify if his loved one had drunk wine, an activity which at that time was strictly prohibited for women. A married woman drinking wine was comparable to her committing adultery. If a wife acted contrary to the law, her husband had the legal right to divorce her and, in more dramatic cases, even kill her by locking her up in a room and letting her starve to death. The ritual of kissing a circle of relatives, then, had the purpose to sniff the woman’s breath to validate that she had not betrayed and dishonored her spouse. Eventually, kissing multiple family members brought about the spreading of labial herpes (cold sores) which led the emperor Tiberius to prohibit its use. 

Kissing in Ancient Rome was a private expression of love and passion that spouses and lovers kept confined within the walls of a love nest. Centuries later it is a public demonstration of romance put on display for everyone to see. Whichever is the more proper is debatable. But one thing is for sure, kissing in Rome has been an enduring activity of intimacy as eternal as the city itself.