14. A Gay Emperor Who Stepped Beyond the Bounds of Social Convention
Elagabalus (203 – 222) ruled the Roman Empire from 218 until his death four years later. He was not as vicious or cruel as many of Rome’s worse emperors, but the Romans nonetheless saw him as one of their worst rulers, ever. Chiefly because he deviated greatly from the day’s intimacy norms. Elagabalus was gay, and although that was not a deal-breaker for Romans in of itself – as seen above, Emperor Hadrian was openly gay, yet greatly respected – Elagabalus took Romans way past their comfort zone. He was not just gay, but flamboyantly gay. He was also a religious zealot who followed eastern religious practices that weirded out the Romans, whom he shocked with illicit conduct viewed as unseemly in an emperor.
Nobody had expected that Elagabalus would ever become emperor, so he grew up training to become a priest of the Syrian sun god Heliogabalus. However, after the assassination of his cousin, Emperor Caracalla, Elagabalus was the nearest surviving male imperial relative. So his grandmother was intrigued to have him succeed Caracalla as emperor at the age of fifteen. The teenaged priest-turned-emperor took his deity’s name as his own, and brought its worship to Rome, where he built Heliogabalus a great temple. Then he shocked the Romans by dancing around the deity’s altar amidst a cacophony of cymbals and drums – not the kind of stuff that Roman emperors normally do. That was bad, but what really sank Elagabalus was that he might have been history’s most flamboyantly gay ruler. As seen below, it did not end well for him.
13. Open Defiance of His Era’s Social Conventions Doomed This Emperor
Elagabalus openly wore women’s clothing, and fawned upon and engaged in public displays of affection with his boyfriends. He frequently elevated his male lovers to high positions, such as an athlete whom he appointed to powerful government positions, and a charioteer whom he sought to have declared Caesar. He also reportedly prostituted himself: “Finally, he set aside a room in the palace and there committed his indecencies, always standing nude at the door of the room, as the harlots do, and shaking the curtain which hung from gold rings, while in a soft and melting voice he solicited the passers-by. There were, of course, men who had been specially instructed to play their part. For, as in other matters, so in this business, too, he had numerous agents who sought out those who could best please him by their foulness.
He would collect money from his patrons and give himself airs over his gains; he would also dispute with his associates in this shameful occupation, claiming that he had more lovers than they and took in more money.” The problem was not that he was homosexual, as homosexuality or bisexuality was not unusual in Rome. Respected previous emperors such as Trajan and Hadrian had male lovers. The problem was that Elagabalus was the passive, or receptive partner in intimate relations with other men. Emperors were supposed to be dominant alpha males – tops. Elagabalus was a bottom. That, plus other instances of his perceived effeminacy, was unacceptable in a Roman emperor. It opened Elagabalus to ridicule and contempt and led to his assassination in 222.
12. Ancient Athens’ Most Beautiful Youth Was Pursued by Would-Be Lovers
Alcibiades (450 – 404 BC) was a brilliant and unscrupulous Athenian politician and general who roiled Ancient Athens and turned it upside down, and inside and out. A relative of Pericles, he did not share his famous kinsman’s probity or commitment to democracy. Instead, he was perhaps the most dynamic, adventurous, fascinating, and catastrophic Athenian leader of the Classical era. Alcibiades was born into a wealthy family, and his father fell when Alcibiades was a toddler. So Pericles became his guardian.
However, Pericles was too busy with his duties as a statesman to provide the boy with the necessary guidance. Alcibiades thus grew into a dissipated man, whose gifts of brilliance and charm were counterbalanced by self-centeredness, irresponsibility, extravagance, and debauchery. Growing up, Alcibiades was considered Athens’ most beautiful youth, in an era when pederasty was widespread and acceptable. He was passionately pursued by many who sought to be his male lovers, and showered with gifts and flattery. Even Socrates was among his admirers.
When the Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BC) against Sparta began, Alcibiades quickly gained a reputation for courage and military talent in battle. He also demonstrated that he was a charismatic and persuasive speaker in the Athenian Assembly. A hawk, by 420 BC Alcibiades had become one of Athens’ generals, and strongly opposed reconciliation with Sparta. In 415 BC, he convinced the Assembly to send a massive expedition to invade Sicily and conquer Syracuse. On the eve of sailing, however, statues of the god Hermes throughout the city were desecrated.
Suspicion fell upon Alcibiades, whose dissolute clique had a reputation for drunken vandalism and impiety. He demanded an immediate trial, but his enemies allowed the expedition, whose ranks were disproportionately comprised of Alcibiades’ supporters, to sail on with the charges still hanging over him. Then, after the city had been largely emptied of Alcibiades’ partisans, a ship was sent to Sicily to summon him to return to Athens. There, he would face trial before an Assembly in which his enemies were now a majority. Rather than obey the summons, Alcibiades fled, and defected to Athens’ mortal enemy, Sparta.
10. The Man Who Had a Relationship With a King, and a Heterosexual Relationship With the King’s Wife
Once in Sparta, Alcibiades wasted no time helping Athens’ mortal enemies against his home city. He advised the Spartans to adopt a strategy which culminated in the near-complete annihilation of Athens’ Sicilian expedition. The force he had organized, convinced Athens to send to Sicily, whose men he once led. That was the most catastrophic and bloodiest defeat suffered by Athens during the war. Of the tens of thousands of Athenians who took part, only a handful ever saw Athens again. Those who did not perish were enslaved, then sent to Sicilian quarries, where they were worked to death.
Alcibiades also convinced the Spartans to abandon their strategy of marching into Attica each campaigning season to burn and loot, then retreat and repeat the next year. Instead, he had the Spartans establish a permanent fortified base in Attica, which allowed them to exert direct pressure on Athens year round. He also went to Ionia, where he stirred up a revolt against Athens by her allies and subject cities in Asia Minor. Despite the valuable services he rendered Sparta, Alcibiades wore out his welcome. He had reportedly become a lover of Sparta’s King Agis II, but things soured after he was caught in bed with the Spartan king’s wife. He fled again, this time to the Persians. Alcibiades convinced them to adopt a strategy to prolong the war as long as possible, and keep the Athenians and Spartans too busy fighting each other to challenge Persia’s interests.
Back in Athens, still reeling from the string of military catastrophes that Alcibiades had helped inflict on his city, political turmoil led to an oligarchic coup. However, the Athenian fleet remained pro-democracy, and in the chaos, Alcibiades used his charisma to persuade the fleet to take him back. From 411 BC to 408 BC, he led the Athenian fleet in a dramatic recovery, and won a series of unexpected victories that turned the war around. Suddenly, it was Sparta that was reeling and on the verge of collapse. He returned to Athens in 407 BC, where he received a rapturous welcome.
His earlier treasons forgiven and temporarily forgotten, Alcibiades was given supreme command to conduct the war. However, the Athenians turned on Alcibiades a few months later, after a minor naval defeat when he was absent from the fleet. He fled again and having burned bridges with all sides, holed up in a fortified castle in Thrace, before he fled even further away to take refuge in Phrygia. However, a Spartan delegation traveled to Phrygia, and convinced its Persian governor to have Alcibiades exterminated in 404 BC.
8. A King Who Struggled To Suppress His Homosexual Tendencies
Ludwig II, better known as “Mad King Ludwig” (1845 – 1886), was Bavaria’s king from 1864 until his death in 1886. Unlike many other unbalanced tyrants, his madness did not express itself in cruelty and viciousness. Instead, it took the form of an obsession with art and architecture. A generous benefactor of the arts, Ludwig was an admirer and patron of the composer Richard Wagner. During his reign, he devoted himself to artistic and architectural projects, such as opulent fairy tale castles whose construction he lavishly funded to the point of bankruptcy. Ludwig never married and had no mistresses. He had strong homosexual desires, which he struggled throughout his life to suppress. He was unsuccessful.
It was an open secret in Bavaria that Ludwig had affairs with his bodyguards. Homosexuality had been decriminalized in Bavaria in 1813, but when Germany was unified under Prussian hegemony in 1871, Prussia’s criminal code, which criminalized same-sex acts, was instated. After Bavaria joined the German Empire in 1871, Ludwig withdrew from governance. He concerned himself only intermittently with affairs of state, went into morbid seclusion and devoted himself to his true passion: the arts. He worshiped the theater and the opera, especially the works of Richard Wagner, whose lifelong patron he became.
King Ludwig II also developed a mania for extravagant building projects in the Bavarian mountains. He started with the Linderhof Palace, patterned on the Trianon palace and built between 1869 to 1878. Simultaneously, he started the construction of his most famous project, Neuschwanstein, a fairy tale castle precariously situated on a crag and decorated with scenes from Wagner’s operas. Built from 1869 to 1886, it inspired Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. As that one was being built, Ludwig started an even more ambitious project in 1878, the Herrenchiemsee Palace, a copy of Versailles.
The Herrenchiemsee was never completed because Ludwig went bankrupt. Between the abandonment of his official duties, profligate spending, and withdrawal into the life of a recluse among other odd behavior, the king’s ministers finally had enough, and in 1886 he was declared insane by a panel of doctors and sent to a remote palace by a psychiatrist. Three days later, he drowned himself in a lake, and took his psychiatrist with him. Today, Ludwig’s architectural and artistic legacy includes many of Bavaria’s biggest tourist attractions.
Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus AKA Nero (37 – 68 AD) ruled from 54 to 68, and was the final emperor of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty. Dominated by his mother Agrippina early in his rule, he decided to end her. He resorted to elaborate means to make it look accidental, such as a roof designed to collapse and crush her, and a pleasure barge designed to sink. She survived the roof collapse, and swam from the sinking barge to shore. Exasperated, he sent his henchmen to club her to death with oars. Once freed of his mother, and with the resources of an empire at his disposal, he gave free rein to his impulses.
Nero was not gay, but bisexual. In 64 BC, he married a former slave named Pythagoras, in a public ceremony in which the emperor took the part of the bride. As Tacitus described it: “The bridal veil was put over the emperor; people saw the witnesses of the ceremony, the wedding dower, the couch and the nuptial torches; everything in a word was plainly visible, which, even when a woman weds, darkness hides“. Nero also fancied himself a musician, and gave long concerts in which he sang while playing lyre. Few dared show boredom. Women reportedly faked labor in order to leave, and men faked heart attacks or death so they could get carried out.
One of Nero’s childhood dreams was to become an Olympics champion. So he had the games delayed for two years until he could visit Greece and participate. He competed in chariot racing but failed to complete the course when his chariot crashed. The judges, equal parts fearful and sycophantic, awarded him the victor’s wreath on the grounds that he would have won, but for the crash. They also awarded him victor’s wreaths for every event in which he competed, for events in which he did not compete, and for events that were not part of the Olympic competition, such as singing and lyre playing. Nero emptied the treasury with lavish spending, while neglecting the government and entrusting its daily conduct to a corrupt entourage who drove it into the ground.
By 68 AD, discontent reached a boil, and generals and provincial governors across the empire rebelled. In Rome, the Senate officially declared Nero a public enemy and his Praetorian Guard abandoned him. As he fled Rome, Nero thought he should throw himself upon the mercy of the public and beg its forgiveness, while playing the lyre to “soften their hearts”. He was dissuaded when it was pointed out that he would likely be torn apart if sighted in public. As he mulled alternatives, news came that he had been declared a public enemy by the Senate, had been sentenced to be beaten to death publicly, and that soldiers were on the way to arrest him. Out of options, Nero decided to end his life. Unable to do it himself, he had a freedman stab him with a sword, as he sobbed his last words: “Oh, what an artist dies in me!”
4. A Pope Remembered More for the Manner of His Death Than for Anything He did in Life
Paul II (1417 – 1471) was Holy Father from 1464 until his death in 1471. His papacy was marked by repression, autocratic rule over the College of Cardinals, and few accomplishments. Because of that and his devotion to fluff such as festivities and games, Church scholars and historians view him as one of the worst Renaissance popes. He is more remembered for the scandalous manner of his demise, in the midst of vigorous bedroom activities, than for whatever he achieved in life.
He was born Pietro Barbo into a wealthy family in Venice, and like many Venetians of his class, it was anticipated that he would pursue a career in business. However, those plans changed when his uncle was elected Pope Eugenius IV in 1431, and Pietro switched from a merchant career to a spiritual one. In quick succession, his uncle made him an archdeacon, then a bishop, and in 1440, at age 23, the pope made his nephew a cardinal. He continued his ascent through the Church hierarchy after his uncle’s death. In 1464, he got himself elected pope by promising reformers in the College of Cardinals that he would implement an 18-point reform program. As seen below, it was an empty promise.
3. The Pope Who Died in the Midst of Intimate Acts
No sooner did Paul II get elected as pope than he reneged on his promises. He declared that the listed reforms were only advisory, not binding. He then drew up an alternate reform program, and forced the Cardinals to sign it under the threat of ex-communication. An intellectual lightweight, Paul II was mentally incapable of grasping the deep issues of the day. Instead, he devoted his energies to games and festivities. With his interests focused on the ceremonials and outward trappings of his position, he transformed the papal court into one whose splendor rivaled that of Europe’s monarchs.
Insecure and threatened by those who enjoyed highbrow pursuits beyond his ken, he disliked the Classics, and prohibited the teaching of pagan writers to children. Thin-skinned, he had critics of his fluff papacy imprisoned and tortured. Paul likes to dress up in elaborate vestments. While there had been quite a few gay or bisexual popes before Paul II and after, his sartorial choices and behavior earned him a reputation for effeminacy that damaged his prestige. Death finally claimed him in 1471, reportedly while he was being intimate with a young male page.
King Edward II of England (1284 – 1327) was the anti-knight and the opposite of the chivalric ideal. He stood in jarring contrast to his father Edward I, one of England’s greatest monarchs. A weak and flighty monarch, Edward II raised favorites who misgoverned the kingdom in his name. To compound the problem, he did little to counter the perception that those favorites were his male lovers. Poor government and perceived effeteness in a homophobic age were a toxic mix. It earned Edward the contempt of his barons and subjects, and brought him grief in the end. Early in his reign, he enraged his barons when he made an earl out of Piers Gaveston, a frivolous favorite and his rumored lover. The barons demanded that the king banish Gaveston and assent to a document that limited royal power over appointments and finances.
Edward caved in and banished Gaveston, but soon thereafter allowed him to return. In response, the barons seized and executed the royal favorite. In 1314, Edward led an army into Scotland, but was decisively defeated at the Battle of Bannockburn. At a stroke, he lost all the hard-won gains his father had made with years of great effort and expense to assert English control of Scotland. Humiliated, he was unable to resist his magnates when they formed a baronial committee that sidelined Edward and ruled the realm. It lasted until the king found another favorite and rumored lover, Hugh Despenser, and raised him. As with Gaveston, the barons demanded that Edward banish Despenser. This time, however, the king fought back, and with the Despenser family’s support, defeated the barons and regained his authority in 1322.
Unfortunately for Edward II, his public displays of affection for his new male lover, Hugh Despenser, humiliated and alienated his wife, Queen Isabella. While on a diplomatic mission to Paris in 1325, she became the mistress of Roger Mortimer, an exiled baronial opponent of the king. In 1326, the couple invaded England, executed the Despensers and deposed Edward II. He was replaced with his fourteen-year-old son, who was crowned Edward III in January 1327, with Mortimer as regent. That April, Mortimer heard of plots to rescue the deposed monarch. So he had him relocated to a more secure site. Reports of fresh plots to free Edward caused Mortimer to order him to move to various locations in the spring and summer of 1327.
Eventually, the fear that one of the numerous plots might finally succeed led Mortimer to decide to end the problem once and for all. He would put the deposed monarch beyond the possibility of rescue by having him disposed of. The perpetrators did not wish to leave marks of violence on the body. Contemptuous of Edward and his perceived effeminacy and gay reputation, they held him down and shoved a red hot poker up his rectum to burn his bowels from the inside. Another version has it that a tube was first inserted in his rectum, then a red hot metal bolt was dropped down the tube into his bowels. Either way, it was reported that his death screams were heard for miles around.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading