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