I am struggling to understand the following sentence.

Many Roman emperors were known for their dissolution, indulging in unspeakable desires of the flesh.

Does the phrase "desires of the flesh" mean killing people for fun, or does it mean having sex with women, or does it mean cannibalism, or something else?

  • 11
    In my view, it just means sexual activities.
    – user200777
    Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 1:51
  • 30
    Flesh here means body, as opposed to the mind or soul. Thus desires of the flesh include mostly gluttony, alcohol consumption and sex (not necessarily with women). Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 7:21
  • 4
    Reminds me of the A.I translation of "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." It ended up with the quality liquor and steak. Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 7:48
  • 2
    The word "dissolution" being used this way is rather old-fashioned (it reminds me of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice), so I suspect this sentence is fairly old.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 8:04
  • 6
    note that "desire of flesh" and "desire of the flesh" seem to mean wildly different things with the former smacking of cannibalism.
    – MD-Tech
    Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 15:12

3 Answers 3


I think it refers to a broad range of sins (where "flesh" hints at man's mortality and susceptibility to being tempted into doing morally questionable things), including lust, greed, violence, etc. It most likely does not refer to cannibalism. One controversial Roman emperor who comes to mind and who fits this description is Caligula:

Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger describe Caligula as an insane emperor who was self-absorbed, angry, killed on a whim, and indulged in too much spending and sex. He is accused of sleeping with other men's wives and bragging about it, killing for mere amusement, deliberately wasting money on his bridge, causing starvation, and wanting a statue of himself erected in the Temple of Jerusalem for his worship. Once, at some games at which he was presiding, he ordered his guards to throw an entire section of the crowd into the arena during intermission to be eaten by animals because there were no criminals to be prosecuted and he was bored.

  • 10
    I bet ticket sales went way down after that...
    – Jim
    Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 17:31
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    "So you're saying you don't want me to throw you into an arena of rabid animals and watch you get eaten alive?" -- Caligula Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 17:41
  • Note that for most people, their desires won't include violence, so the usual usage of this phrase doesn't include violence. (And even in Caligula's case, only violence for its own sake, not violence as a means to an end. Violence to get what he wants is a separate thing, even if the thing he gets from the violence does fall under the "desires of the flesh" category. e.g. killing a guy who put up a fight while Caligula was trying to sleep with his wife). Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 22:06
  • 2
    Also, sometimes it's just euphemism for sex, and doesn't include other hedonistic pleasures (like food) which everyone also likes. e.g. a brothel or strip club might be said to cater to "the desires of the flesh" even if they don't serve food or alcohol. Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 22:11
  • The desire to do things for the pleasure or comfort of the physical body without regard to the soul. Eating rich foods (not for sustenance, but for pleasure,) sex for pleasure not reproduction, getting drunk, perfume, jewelry, fine clothing, even sleeping on a comfortable mattress could be viewed as desires of the flesh. Unspeakable means the worst, most heinous of these, ones so bad you can't talk about them. Which qualify depends on your perspective, but sex generally ranks low on the speakability scale.
    – barbecue
    Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 23:34

According to The Bible, "flesh" refers to the physical nature of human beings. Here, the "unspeakable desires of the flesh" is a figure of speech more probably related to unorthodox and promiscuous sexual activity than to violence or cannibalism.

  • 4
    How do you know that it is using the Biblical definition of "flesh"? Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 7:14
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    @curiousdannii Is there any other?
    – Casey
    Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 13:53
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    @curiousdannii "Desires of the flesh" is pretty distinctly associated with conservative Christianity, and the tone of the passage ("unspeakable") and subject matter (evil Roman emperors) reinforce this.
    – Grault
    Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 18:00
  • @Casey There are many other definitions but in this case it is using the context that arose in Paul's writings, referencing 'sensual appetites', IIRC.
    – TylerH
    Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 20:45
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    @curiousdannii "desires of the flesh" is an idiom that comes from Galatians in the Bible, and as a result, its typical use is in the context of Judeo-Christian morality. American mores being what they are, the sexual aspects seem to be given much more attention than the rest, at least in the American part(s) of the world. Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 20:45

This exact phrase "desires of the flesh" is used in the Bible, or very similar phrases, depending on the translation. Looking at it in context:

Galatians 5:16-24 (ESV)

¹⁶ But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. ¹⁷ For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. ¹⁸ But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. ¹⁹ Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, ²⁰ idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, ²¹ envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. ²² But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, ²³ gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. ²⁴ And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

"The flesh" in this passage is in contrast to "the Spirit". The works of the flesh are sinful desires and passions, whereas the fruit of the Spirit is a list of virtues and disciplines.

  • 2
    +1, even has a helpful list of examples. Also referred to as the "lust of the flesh" in other translations. 1 John 2:16 "For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world."
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 21:14
  • 1
    +1 from me as well, very nice find! Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 21:35

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