27. The Man Who Destroyed Thebes’ Elite Homosexual Unit
In a bit of historic irony, the man who destroyed Thebes’ homosexual elite unit, King Philip II of Macedon, himself came to grief because of a sordid scandal. In the first half of the fourth century BC, Thebes and Sparta vied for the dominance of Greece. While they fought each other, a new power was rising in the north that would soon eclipse both. In 359 BC, twenty-three-year-old Philip II (382 – 336 BC) ascended the throne of Macedon.
Within two decades, Macedon’s new monarch would change the face of Greece, and warfare would never be the same again. Greeks viewed Macedon as a barely civilized kingdom that spoke a barely intelligible Greek dialect. The kingdom had a lot of potential, both in manpower and resources that far exceeded those of any Greek city state. However, it had yet to realize that potential. Philip unified Macedon’s fractious tribes and transformed them into the world’s most respected and feared military machine.
Philip II of Macedon made soldiering a full-time, paid, and highly professional occupation. That enabled him to drill his men regularly, which ensured discipline and unit cohesion. He built upon earlier Greek phalanx innovations and improved upon them by arming his men with a long spear, the sarissa. To increase his men’s mobility, he reduced their armor and furnished them with smaller and lighter shields. That enabled them to march at speeds that few other armies could match. Philip also made Macedon’s horsemen the world’s best and recruited the sons of the nobility into what came to be known as the Companion Cavalry.
He equipped them with long lances that gave them greater reach than their opponents, and trained them in shock tactics. To break enemy lines, Philip taught the Companion Cavalry to ride in wedge formations well suited to penetrate enemy lines, in addition to being more maneuverable than riding abreast. Another innovation was Philip’s creation of a corps of engineers to design and build new instruments of war. Philip further revolutionized warfare when he perfected the coordination of different types of troops in a battlefield synergy that enabled them to support each other. It was the birth of combined arms tactics. The King of Macedon was headed places, until, as seen below, he was undone by a homosexual scandal.
In the army of Philip II of Macedon, heavy infantry, light infantry skirmishers, archers, slingers, cavalry, and engineers, all worked together. The mutual support made their collective whole greater than the sum of their individual parts. Philip’s signature combined arms tactic came to be known as the “hammer and anvil”. The infantry phalanx fixed an enemy in place (anvil), and the cavalry closed in with shock tactics, and acted as a hammer to shatter the foe. Philip’s military machine was unstoppable, and by 338 BC, he had mastered Greece. He then began preparations for his life’s ambition: an invasion of the Persian Empire.
However, Philip’s ambitions and life were cut short by an assassination stemming from sordid court dispute. Philip engaged in intimacy with men at times, and had occasional male lovers. One of his bodyguards, a former lover, quarreled with one of Philip’s in-laws. The king’s in-law got the bodyguard drunk, and had his attendants assault him. When the bodyguard turned to Philip for justice, the king failed to offer him redress. So the bodyguard assassinated Philip during the king’s wedding to a new bride. It would be his son, Alexander the Great, who would use Philip’s military machine and tactics to become the Ancient World’s greatest conqueror.
Alfred Redl (1864 – 1913) was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army, who rose to become chief of that empire’s counterintelligence from 1900 to 1912. He was eventually placed in charge of tracking down and rooting out traitors and spies. All the while, he was himself a traitor who betrayed his country. Redl sold Austria’s secrets to its main rival and likeliest future enemy, tsarist Russia, whose chief spy in the Austro-Hungarian Empire he became. It is suspected that he also spied for both the French and Italians in exchange for money.
The son of a railway clerk, Redl was born into a poor family in the Galician province of Austria-Hungary, in what is now Ukraine. He lacked wealth and family connections, the usual prerequisites in those days for joining the Austro-Hungarian Army’s officer ranks and advancing. However, Redl had been precocious from an early age and was highly intelligent. That enabled him to secure a commission. He had a talent for languages, and his facility with Russian led to his assignment to the intelligence branch. He was also gay, in an environment in which homosexuality carried a great stigma. As seen below, that led to serious trouble.
Alfred Redl impressed General Arthur Freiherr Giesl von Gieslingen, the chief of Austria’s military intelligence, who made the young officer his protégé. In 1900, Giesl promoted Redl, made him his deputy, and put him in charge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s counterintelligence corps. Redl quickly gained a reputation for innovation in what had been a disorganized and backward branch. He streamlined the system, and introduced new technologies such as the use of recording devices and cameras. Redl had a secret, however: he was gay, at a time when homosexuality was a taboo fatal to social standing and career prospects.
Russian intelligence learned of Redl’s homosexuality, and entrapped him in a compromising position. They caught it on camera, and used it to blackmail him into turning into a traitor. They sweetened the extortion with the offer of money in exchange for secrets. Redl accepted, and in his first major act of treason, in 1902 he passed on to the Russians Austria-Hungary’s war plans. When word reached the Austrians that the Russians had a copy of their war plans, General von Giesl ordered Redl to find the traitor.
22. Russian Incompetence and Sloppiness Doomed Their Star Spy
The Russians might have entrapped Alfred Redl and used elicit photos to blackmail him into treason. Once he got started as a double agent, however, Redl took to it with a will. To cover his tracks, he unmasked minor Russian agents who were fed him by his tsarist spymasters. He also framed innocent Austro-Hungarian officers with falsified evidence. Through such means, he enhanced his reputation within the Austro-Hungarian establishment as a brilliant head of counterintelligence. Over the next eleven years, Redl sold the Russians Austro-Hungarian mobilization plans, army orders, ciphers, codes, maps, reports on road and rail conditions, and other secrets. His career finally came to an end because of incompetence and sloppiness by his Russian handlers.
In 1912, Redl’s mentor, von Giesl, was promoted to head an army corps and took Redl with him as his chief of staff. Postal censors employed by Redl’s successor in counterintelligence intercepted envelopes stuffed with cash and nothing else. However, they had postal registration receipts that were traced back to addresses abroad that were known to be used by Russian and French intelligence. A sting operation was set up, the envelopes were delivered under surveillance, and Redl eventually showed up to claim them. Arrested, he confessed to treason and requested that he be left alone with a revolver. His request was granted, and after he penned brief letters to his brother and to von Giesl, Redl committed suicide.
21. The Homosexual Scandal That Led to the Birth of Athenian Democracy
In another twist of ancient history, the birth of democracy was inextricably tied to a lethal and sordid scandal. That can be seen in the circumstances that surround the rise of Ancient Athens’ Cleisthenes and the emergence of popular rule in Athens. Born circa 570 BC, Cleisthenes is referred to as “The Father of Athenian Democracy”. He is credited with the creation of the system that, with incremental reforms, governed that city during the Classical era. He came of age when Athens was ruled by a tyrant named Peisistratos.
Tyrant at the time referred to an authoritarian absolute ruler and did not yet carry the word’s modern negative connotations. By all accounts, Peisistratos was a capable ruler, and Athens prospered with him at the helm. He died in 527 BC, and was succeeded as co-tyrants by his sons Hippias and Hipparchus. At first, the duo governed Athens competently and with a light hand. Then Hipparchus was assassinated in 514 BC at the hand of two gay lovers, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, in a private feud that stemmed from an attempt at romance that went bad.
Hipparchus hit on Harmodius, the eromenus, or younger male lover, of Aristogeiton. Harmodius shot Hipparchus down and told Aristogen what had happened. The spurned Hipparchus then set out to get some payback. He invited Harmodius’ kid sister to play a role at a religious festival, then publicly berated and chased her away as ineligible because she was not a virgin. That shamed Harmodius’ family. In retaliation, Harmodius and Aristogeiton decided to assassinate both Hipparchus and his brother Hippias, and free Athens of tyranny. They were only partially successful. At the Panathenaian festival, they stabbed Hipparchus to death, but only wounded Hippias. Hipparchus’ bodyguards took care of Harmodius on the spot, and Aristogeiton was arrested, tortured, and eventually ended by Hippias. The lovers were celebrated and honored for centuries afterward in Athens as the Tyrannicides, and public statues were commissioned in their honor.
After his brother’s assassination, Hippias grew paranoid, and his rule became oppressive as he lashed out indiscriminately at enemies real and imagined. Hippias’ descent into violence eroded the popularity that tyranny had enjoyed since the days of Peisistratos, and the number of victims and exiles forced to flee Athens grew. One exile was Cleisthenes, who began to plot with other exiles to overthrow the tyranny. Invasion was considered, but Hippias had a well-equipped army, while the exiles did not, and lacked the funds for an army of their own. So they sought to enlist the help of Sparta, which had the Greek world’s best army, to liberate Athens.
As Hippias continued to spiral after the doomed scandal that ended his brother and almost did him in, opposition to his tyranny grew. Cleisthenes and his followers wanted help from the Spartans, who were known for their piety. So the exiles bribed the priests of Delphi, the Greek world’s most important religious site and home of the Oracle of Delphi, to put in a good word. The Oracle, which for centuries had given petitioners cryptic answers that could be interpreted in a variety of ways, suddenly began to give every Spartan petitioner who showed up the same uncryptic answer: “LiberateAthens!” So the Spartans marched into Attica in 508 BC, liberated Athens, then marched back home. The Athenians, left to govern themselves, immediately split into rival camps.
An oligarchic camp, led by Isagoras, wanted the government returned to the hands of the wealthy. A populist camp, which comprised a majority of Athenians and was led by Cleisthenes, declared Athens a democracy ruled by a popular Assembly. Cleisthenes’ camp prevailed, but the oligarchic faction solicited Spartan aid to overthrow the democracy. The Spartans, no fans of democracy, sent another army to Attica, overthrew the democracy, and replaced it with an oligarchy. Cleisthenes and 700 democracy-supporting Athenian families were exiled. However, Cleisthenes and the exiles soon returned. The population rose up in revolt, and the aristocratic faction and the Spartans were besieged in the Acropolis, Athens’ fortified hilltop. The rebels allowed the Spartans to leave, but the Athenian anti-democrats were annihilated.
With the oligarchs decisively taken care of, Cleisthenes set out to establish democracy. Key to that was the reorganization of the citizen body (demos) of Athens. Before, Athenians had been grouped into four tribes, based on kin groups. Cleisthenes argued that lent itself too readily to factionalism. Instead, Cleisthenes instituted an artificial classification system that divided the citizen body into ten at-large tribes, with membership drawn at random from all classes and all parts of Attica. Each new electoral tribe thus contained a representative sample of the entire population, including all classes and regions. Thereafter, no tribe had cause to act out of geographical or familial loyalties at the expense of Athens as a whole. A new council, the boule, was created, in which all citizens had the right to speak.
At a stroke, Cleisthenes thus eliminated the parochialism that had plagued Athens for generations. He granted the entire male citizen population access to institutions and powers previously reserved for the aristocracy. Another of Cleisthenes’ reforms was ostracism. An annual vote would be held in which each citizen could name any person he thought was too dangerous or getting too powerful for the good of the city. The citizen who received the most votes would be exiled for ten years, without prejudice to his property while he was gone, or to his citizenship rights upon his return. Cleisthenes’ reforms established basic democracy in Athens, and created the constitutional structure by which further incremental reforms would be made to transform Athens into a direct democracy. All of that was set in motion by a scandal of gigantic proportions.
17. One of Modern History’s Most Romantic Homosexual Figures
Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888 – 1935), better known as Lawrence of Arabia, was one of modern history’s most romantic gay figures. He was the fifth illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Chapman, a married baronet who left his family for his daughters’ governance, Lawrence’s mother. The couple assumed the mother’s surname, lived together and raised a family as “Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence”, without marrying. They eventually settled in Oxford, were Thomas Edward, who preferred to go by his initials T.E., attended college. Lawrence was a history buff from early on, with a particular fondness for Medieval and military architecture, and a love of travel. He combined his two interests and spent much of his youth exploring old churches and castles. He traveled to France to study Medieval fortifications, and to Syria and Palestine to study Crusader castles.
Lawrence submitted a thesis on the subject that earned him a history degree with honors from Oxford, in 1910. He then secured a fellowship and joined an archaeological expedition that excavated Hittite settlements on the Euphrates, from 1911 to 1914. In his free time, he traveled around the Middle East and got to know the region and its people. The lands in which he worked and traveled were part of the Ottoman Empire, of whose leanings in case of a general European war the British were unsure. So Lawrence, under the guise of scholarly pursuits, also undertook map-making reconnaissance missions in Ottoman territories. Their results proved extremely valuable in World War I.
T.E. Lawrence was greatly impacted by inner struggles. As a recent biographer put it: “He was illegitimate and he was affected badly when he became aware of it. He had questions about who he was … There were questions about whether he was ‘normal’ because he was gay. He was a repressed homosexual and developed sado-masochistic disorder“. When the Great War began in 1914, Lawrence joined the British War Office as a civilian employee, and prepared militarily useful maps of the Middle East. Sent to Cairo, his knowledge of the region and fluency in Arabic proved valuable to the war effort. He interviewed Turkish POWs and agents operating behind enemy lines, and gained considerable knowledge of Turkish military positions and strengths. In 1916, he was sent to Arabia, where Hussein ibn Ali, the ruler of Mecca and the surrounding region, had raised an Arab revolt against his Turkish overlords.
Lawrence urged his superiors to back the Arabs, and make use of their aspirations for independence to further the British war effort. His advice was heeded, and Lawrence joined the Arab Revolt as a political and liaison officer. That was when his legend took off, and he was transformed from T.E. Lawrence to Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence helped organize the Arab tribesmen into an effective guerrilla force that operated behind Turkish lines in hit-and-run attacks that blew up vital rail lines, destroyed bridges, and raided enemy supplies. Lawrence, the historian, archaeologist, and scholar, discovered a knack for guerrilla warfare. He set an example with his own courage when the tribesmen’s spirits flagged, bribed their cynical leaders with gold when they lost heart, and kept the rebellion going.
15. An Assault That Wreaked Havoc on Lawrence of Arabia’s Psyche
In November, 1917, T.E. Lawrence was captured by the Turks while spying out one of their positions in Arab garb. His captors flogged, tortured, and assaulted him before he managed to escape. The experience left physical scars, as well as psychic wounds that never healed. For a man already struggling with his self-identity and his peers’ acceptance or lack thereof because he was gay, the assault intensified his inner torment by orders of magnitude. It did not stop him from returning to the revolt, however. With Lawrence’s assistance, the Arab forces discomfited the Turks, tied down a significant part of their military strength behind the lines in security operations, and helped bring about the final Turkish defeat.
After the war, the Allies betrayed the Arabs, reneged on their promises of independence, and divvied up most of the Middle East amongst themselves instead. Disillusioned, Lawrence returned to Britain, where he lobbied in vain for Arab independence. He also wrote his memoirs, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which flew off the bookshelves, became an international best seller, and transformed Lawrence, already famous, into a bona fide legend. To escape the public glare, he enlisted under an assumed name as an ordinary airman in the Royal Air Force, and then as a private soldier in the British Army, from 1922 to 1935. He left the service in 1935, with plans for early retirement to his dream home, only to die soon thereafter in a motorcycle accident.
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