The Scandalous Love Lives of 8 Roman Emperors
The Scandalous Love Lives of 8 Roman Emperors

The Scandalous Love Lives of 8 Roman Emperors

Alexander Meddings - July 21, 2017

If you only need to know one thing about Roman attitudes towards sex, it’s that they’ve given us our word “vagina” which, in Latin, translates as the sheath of one’s sword. Macho and militaristic, elite Roman culture revolved as much around a man’s ability to demonstrate his sexual power as it did around scoring political points against rivals by accusing them of effeminacy or depraved sex lives. Since many of the early Roman emperors were phenomenally unpopular with the Roman elite, and it was the elite who wrote the histories, this is why the emperors have come down to us as templates for erotic degeneracy and sadistic cruelty (in the literature the two are often indistinguishable).

But how much of what we think we know is true? In this article, we’ll be looking at anecdotes from “The Lives of the Twelve Caesars” by the first century AD court biographer Suetonius—who, if you’ve never read him, is essentially the ancients’ answer to a Daily Mail columnist. A lot of what he wrote might be fanciful and fictitious. But by adding historical context and comparing his anecdotes with those of other writers, we can at least get a feeling for the sexual attitudes of the authors if not for the sexual acts of their subjects.

The Scandalous Love Lives of 8 Roman Emperors
Julius Caesar. Salon

Julius Caesar

Admittedly Julius Caesar is better known to history as the penetrated rather than the penetrator. Sexually speaking, however, he was both. Known as the “bald adulterer” Julius Caesar fit the Roman political stereotype perfectly by sleeping his way to power. As a young man, he spent a considerable amount of time at the court of King Nicomedes of Bithynia, fuelling a series of rumors about an affair in which Caesar was the submissive party. His return to Bithynia just a few days after leaving to “collect a debt” only fanned the flames.

The Roman biographer Suetonius tells us that this was the only stain on Caesar’s masculinity. But it was a stain that proved difficult to wash out and he would be reminded of it throughout his prematurely ended life. One colleague, Bibulus, addressed Caesar as “the queen of Bithynia.” During an assembly, a man named Octavius hailed his co-consul Pompey as “king” and Caesar as “queen”. Even the great Cicero couldn’t resist a poke, writing that it was on a Bithynian couch that Caesar—the son of Venus—lost his virginity.

He was just as badly behaved in the provinces, his veni, vidi, vici mantra applying just as much to his sexual conquests as to his military. While in Egypt he had a fling with another historical A-lister, Cleopatra, who forced their introduction by having herself smuggled into his palace wrapped in a carpet. She clearly made an impression. Within nine months she gave birth to their son Caesarian; an unfortunate child who wouldn’t survive the purges of Caesar’s successor Octavian. Caesar’s behavior in Gaul didn’t go unnoticed by his men either. During his military triumph celebrating his success there they chanted:

“Men of Rome, look out for your wives,

We’re bringing the bald adulterer home.

In Gaul you fucked your way through a fortune

Which you borrowed here in Rome.”

With Caesar returning, there was good reason for men to lock up their wives (and, indeed, daughters). Caesar had slept his way through the rank and file of aristocratic Roman women, even seducing the wives of fellow consuls and political allies. But these weren’t the only exploits his soldiers sang about on this triumphal occasion. They couldn’t resist making reference to his submission to a certain Bithynian king (boys will be boys) and in the course of their banter also boomed out: “Caesar might have conquered the Gauls but Nicomedes conquered him!”

Homosexual tendencies weren’t frowned upon in Roman culture per se. Granted, they might earn you the derision of your macho-militaristic cohort. But, as long as sexual favors were given for the purpose of advancing your own political career, they could be overlooked. At least it showed some degree of interest in the proper, political values an upper-class Roman should have. This doesn’t exonerate Caesar in his colleagues’ eyes. But, when Gaius Scribonius Curio, an orator and outspoken opponent of Caesar, called him “a man to every woman and a woman to every man“, it at least took something of a sting out of the tail.

The Scandalous Love Lives of 8 Roman Emperors
Augustus. Khan Academy

Augustus

Despite his sexual proclivities being so similar to his predecessor’s, Caesar’s successor, Octavian, enjoyed a much better reputation. Throughout his life, Augustus (or Octavian as he was called prior to becoming emperor) used sex in a thoroughly Roman way: as a means of obtaining power. Politically, this justified his homosexual escapades towards the beginning of his career—most famously with Aulus Hirtius: a consul and military writer by whom Octavian allowed himself to be buggered for the bargain-basement price of three hundred thousand sesterces.

The man who repeatedly reminded Octavian of this was Lucius Antonius, the brother of Marcus Antonius (or Mark Antony). Initially his co-consul, Mark Antony would become Octavian’s bitter rival until his defeat at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. We shouldn’t be surprised that Mark Antony and his allies sought to portray Octavian in these terms. As someone said to have driven a chariot led my lions, Antony was the quintessential Roman: bold, brash, a military man through and through. He knew full well that, in the thoroughly macho culture of the Roman elite, the best way to trash your opponent was by emphasizing his effeminacy.

This is why Mark Antony alleged Octavian had only earned Caesar’s favor by sleeping with him; why Lucius Antonius claimed he practiced singing his legs with roasting nutshells to soften the hairs; and why Sextus Pompey—another dynast who fought against Octavian—taunted him as a man given to effeminacy (or mollitia as the Romans called it). And it wasn’t just his submission to men that his enemies picked up on. Not even Octavian’s allies could deny his proclivity for adultery, although they stressed that he was motivated by policy rather than passion

In what was presumably a bare demonstration of power, during a banquet Augustus was said to have taken the wife of an ex-consul from the dining table to his bedroom, returning her a short while later with her hair disheveled and her ears glowing. His friends would routinely procure women for him and, like slave dealers, strip them down for him to inspect and select. Most shockingly, his later wife Livia would do the same, but exclusively to satisfy his penchant for deflowering virgins.

He had three wives but was faithful to none. His first, Clodia Pulchra, he divorced in order to cement a political alliance with the family of his second, Scribonia. However he felt that Scribonia nagged him too much, and he divorced her as soon as she’d given birth to their daughter Julia. He exiled Julia in 2 BC; our sources cite treason as the reason. In all likelihood, it was, hypocritically, for her serial adultery, which badly undermined his family-orientated marriage policies of 18 BC. His third wife was Livia, with whom his relationship could hardly be described as romantic. But their marriage was never based on romance. It was more a marriage of political pragmatism than passion, her more his Lady Macbeth than his Juliet.

The Scandalous Love Lives of 8 Roman Emperors
Tiberius. Emerson Kent

Tiberius

Among the pantheon of the early Roman emperors, Tiberius hold pride of place as the most perverted. As a young man, amidst the prying eyes of the capital, he was relatively restrained. It was only during his self-imposed exile in the Villa of Jupiter on the island of Capri (where millions of tourists still flock every year) where he unleashed his depravity. The walls of the imperial palace were awash with pornographic imagery, much like that still on display inside the brothel (lupanar) in Pompeii. And with pornography as his backdrop, Tiberius would command his “tight bums”—groups of young boys whose “talents” are clear from the name—to perform threesomes in front of him in order to stimulate his flagging libido.

From sexually deprived to simply sadistic, during banquets Tiberius would fill his drinking companions with vast quantities of wine before tying ligatures around their penises, preventing them from urinating. But it was for pedophilia that Tiberius was most notorious. He trained infants he called his “little fish” to swim between his thighs when he took a bath and nibble on his genitalia. And that’s not even the most horrendous. We’re also told that he would take newborn babies from their mothers and hold them to his genitals as if to replicate the mother’s breast.

He buggered two boys during a sacrificial ceremony on the island, and when they complained he had their legs broken. He also sexually assaulted aristocratic women, causing one woman, Mallonia, such trauma that she was driven to suicide. In old age, he was hairy and pungent, and theatrical audiences would taunt him by chanting “the old goat is licking the old does’ asses”. Given that in Latin the word for goat is caprea, contemporary references to Tiberius’s twisted pleasure palace on Capri as “the old goat’s garden” is a pun that wouldn’t have been lost on anyone.

We’ll never know exactly to what extent these stories about Tiberius’s sexual depravity were accurate. There is, undoubtedly, a kernel of truth; the weight of sources and their cohesion make complete fabrication extremely unlikely. But Tiberius was hated by the Roman elite—far more so than his predecessor Augustus had been. And we’d do well to bear in mind that it was the Roman elite, their tradition coming down to us in the writings of Tacitus and Cassius Dio, who wrote the histories.

Suetonius is the source of the most deplorable information. He worked at the court of Hadrian around the end of the first century until being dismissed on murky grounds (probably for having an affair with the emperor’s wife, Sabina). It’s for this reason that his early biographies from Caesar to Nero are full, detailed and brimming with primary sources—letters, quotes, speeches—while the rest are shorter and much more vague. His “Life of Tiberius” was written while still at court, when he still had access to letters, memoirs and other court documents. And despite the clear bias, the disturbing truth is that Suetonius probably captures much more of the man than previously thought.

Also Read: The Troubled Reign of Roman Emperor Tiberius.

The Scandalous Love Lives of 8 Roman Emperors
Caligula. BBC

Caligula

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (known to history as “Caligula” or “little boots” after the military attire his father paraded him in as an infant) had an upbringing that condemned him to cruelty and depravity. His entire family fell victim to the political intrigues of the imperial palace, dying from poison, starvation or suicide. At the age of eighteen, Caligula was sent to live with his uncle Tiberius on Capri. Constantly fearing death, he showed nothing but neutrality towards his uncle, silently observing his sexual perversions. When Tiberius died on 16 March 37 AD, many had reason to believe Caligula had helped him on his way.

As emperor, all went well for the first few months until Caligula fell seriously ill in October. Few thought he would recover. When he did, all semblance of normality had gone and he revealed his true, evil nature. Suetonius tells us that he habitually committed incest with his sisters, once spit roasting himself between them and his wife during a grand banquet. He was so infatuated with one sister, Drusilla, that in her childhood he deflowered her, and in adulthood, he abducted her from her husband Cassius Longinus and publically paraded her as his wife.

The incest accusations are most likely fabricated. Not only do no contemporary writers mention them but they also fit in well with Caligula’s portrayal as an eastern-style, Hellenistic despot, particularly one of the Ptolemies who married and interbred with their sisters (all of whom were called Cleopatra). We should also bear in mind that accusations of incest were common in political invective aimed against unpopular dynasts; not least for the reason that they undermined the purity of the bloodline that gave the family their legitimacy. But while he may not have been incestuous, it’s likely that, as Suetonius suggests, he did routinely use sex as a way of demonstrating his power.

Following in the footsteps of Augustus, Caligula would insist that aristocratic women accompany their husbands to his banquets. Over dinner he would make them pass by his couch while he examined them like livestock, commenting on their physical attributes and forcing those who looked away to meet his eyes. He would then retire to his chambers before sending for the woman who had pleased him most. Later, when she returned flushed and disheveled, he would evaluate her performance in front of her husband: pointing out both the positive and negative aspects of her sexual performance. On one occasion he even forced a consul’s wife to divorce her husband, sending him the divorce bill personally.

He had homosexual relations, most notably with the patrician Valerius Catullus (who admitted quite publically that the emperor’s sexual demands exhausted him) but also with the pantomime actor Mnester, who Caligula would rush up and kiss during the middle of his performance. Most of all, he made no distinction between sensuality with cruelty. Whenever kissing the neck of a lover he would remark that, with one command, he could have it severed at his pleasure. He would ultimately go to far with his cruelty and taunting, and in 41 AD he got himself assassinated by Cassius Chaerea who the emperor had mocked for his effeminacy and high-pitched voice.

The Scandalous Love Lives of 8 Roman Emperors
Claudius. Famous People

Claudius

We would probably know more about Claudius’s sex life if it didn’t completely pale into insignificance when compared to that of his wife, Messalina. What the empress allegedly managed to get away with is astounding. Pliny the Elder records that she held a competition in the imperial palace with one of Rome’s most notorious prostitutes to see how many men they could sleep with. Needless to say, Messalina won the race: after non-stop intercourse day and night her final headcount was 25, her opponent’s 24. And that’s not all. In one of his satires, the poet Juvenal has her working surreptitiously at a local brothel; “she-wolf” being her nom de guerre.

In 48 AD Messalina put into action what must go down as one of the worst planned conspiracies in history. As soon as Claudius had left the capital to perform a sacrifice down the road in Ostia, his wife Messalina decided the time was right to marry her senatorial lover, Gaius Silius. Up until this point, their affair had hardly been private; she was actually growing tired of how easy it all was, we’re told. But as soon as Claudius was out of sight, they celebrated a wedding ceremony, complete with witnesses, sacrifices, and of course, the all-important consummation.

Suffice to say it didn’t work out well for them. Without hesitation, the Praetorian Guard arrested Silius and Messalina upon their emperor’s return. Silius was executed immediately while Messalina was held in a cell away from the emperor. Weak and indecisive when it came to women, Claudius wanted to spare her. But it was advisors who were running the show, and they chose to act differently. They had Messalina put to death. And the only thing that Claudius could say upon receiving the news was that he’d like more wine.

Claudius wasn’t as sexually perverted as his predecessors but, in line with his character, he was astoundingly hypocritical. After Messalina’s death, he addressed his Praetorian Guard and told them that, if he ever married again, they should kill him. Lo and behold by New Year’s Day 49 AD he was remarried, this time to his niece (Caligula’s sister and Nero’s mother) Agrippina the Younger. By no strange coincidence, Claudius passed a motion in the Senate later that year legalizing incestuous marriages.

We know next to nothing about Claudius’s sex life with Agrippina. Suetonius tells us that throughout his life he was an ardent lover of women, though he never slept with men. We can assume that this continued during his marriage to Agrippina: Roman emperors not being known for their marital fidelity. What we do know is that Agrippina loved power more than her husband. The details are hazy, but their relationship rapidly deteriorated in 54 AD (Claudius often heard lamenting his lousy choice of wives over the years) and on 13 October, after consuming a plate of poisoned mushrooms, Claudius loudly defecated himself and died. Few were in doubt about who’d killed him.

The Scandalous Love Lives of 8 Roman Emperors
Nero. Famous People

Nero

Freud would have had a field day with Nero. Having helped murder his adopted father Claudius, he went on to have what the sources suggest was a fully incestuous relationship with his mother Agrippina. We’re told that whenever they rode together in a litter, the stains on his clothes would betray what they had done. Worst of all, in wanting to share his power she was complicit. Tacitus tells us that she would get him drunk to loosen him up. But being the good historian that he was, Tacitus also offers the view of a contemporary writer, Fabius Rusticus, who had it on good authority that Nero needed no such encouragement.

Nero would ultimately kill his mother in 59. He initially plotted to drown her, sending her out into the bay of Baia on a boat rigged to collapse. But the plan went awry, and while he panicked and prevaricated his advisors ended up taking command, sending a group of centurions to her villa at Baia to finish the job. Realizing her fate as they approached her Agrippina pointed to her womb before uttering her final words: “strike here”.

Nero had several wives. The first, Octavia, he made commit suicide. The second, Poppaea Sabina, he kicked to death during her pregnancy after she rebuked him for returning home late from the races. The third was his former mistress, Statilia Messalina, and in 66 Nero forced her unfortunate husband—the consul Marcus Junius Vestinus Atticus—to commit suicide so he could go ahead and marry her. And then there were Pyhtagoras and Sporus.

Pyhtagoras (not to be confused with the man who invented the theorem) or “Doryphorus” as some sources call him, was one of Nero’s favorite freedmen (or “ex-slaves”). In 64 AD he participated in a bizarre wedding ceremony, marrying Nero who took on the role of the veiled bride. But Pythagoras wasn’t Nero’s only husband; he had another favorite—a young boy called Sporus—who the emperor had castrated and married in 67 AD.

Like his uncle Caligula, he sexually assaulted the wives of senators. He also devised an utterly bizarre sex game in which he would dress up in wild animal pelt, sally forth from a cage, and attack the genitalia of men and women who had been tied to stakes. Once he’d had enough, he would be run through by his husband, Pythagoras, while moaning like a vestal virgin being deflowered (whatever floats one’s boat). Still, nothing should surprise us about someone whose philosophical principle was that no man was in any way pure or chaste but merely concealed their vices behind a thin veil.

It’s hard to establish the truth behind these stories. Granted Nero was no Mother Theresa. But it’s also hard to reconcile his mother-f*cking, wife-killing, slave-marrying, sexually assaulting, a pelt-wearing persona with the fact that he managed to retain power for almost 14 years. What’s worth remembering is that Nero was the last of a dynasty, and it was in the interests of subsequent writers under subsequent dynasts to blacken his name to benefit theirs.

The Scandalous Love Lives of 8 Roman Emperors
Vitellius. Times Online

Vitellius

Abnormally tall and fat, with hanging flesh and a face flushed from alcohol, Vitellius is one of the few emperors whose statues perfectly capture what was written about his appearance. He never stopped eating, feasting at least three times a day (excessive for the ancients) while drinking copiously in between. You might assume from this that Vitellius was in no condition to enjoy healthy sex life. And you would be right; at least insofar as our sources go.

It was during his youth that Vitellius earned his sexual notoriety. He spent part of his childhood on Capri with his “friend” and former emperor, Tiberius. I say “friend” in inverted commas because during his time with Tiberius, and for reasons we really don’t need to go into, Vitellius came to acquire the nickname “tight-bum”. In fact, Suetonius tells he used his asset (for want of a better word) to great effect; the emperor’s access to it secured his father a political promotion.

After Tiberius’s death, he endeared himself to the emperor Caligula who repaid the favor by driving his chariot in Vitellius and crippling him for life. After Caligula’s assassination, Vitellius befriended his successor, Claudius (their friendship founded on a mutual love of gambling). Vitellius even managed to navigate (or should I say hobble) his way through Nero’s reign, taking up the emperor’s theatricality and playing the role of his biggest sycophant. He finally, and briefly, came to power during the civil war of 69 AD (known otherwise as The Year of the Four Emperors). Vitellius, to his misfortune, was the third.

His rule was short and not particularly sweet. He spent his few months in power eating his way around various houses of the Roman aristocracy, being excessively and unnecessarily cruel and—in order to fulfill a prophecy—starving his mother to death. His administration was guided by the counsel of one Asiaticus, a freedman who Vitellius made a knight. Many said that from a young age they had been mutual partners in buggery and this explained Asiaticus’s astronomical rise through the imperial court. This may or may not have been true. For Asiaticus’s sake we can only hope, on account of the presumably horrendous gout from which Vitellius suffered, it wasn’t.

Vitellius would meet a particularly nasty end on 22 December 69 AD. Upon the arrival of his rival Vespasian’s army, he was dragged from his hiding place. With his hands bound behind his back and a noose around his neck, he was hauled through the streets—the whole time being pelted by faeces and weight-related insults—towards the Gemonian Stairs. This was never a good place to be dragged as they were a commonplace of execution. And it was here, after a final plea to his people where he was executed. As a final insult, a hook was put through his lifeless body and he was thrown into the Tiber.

The Scandalous Love Lives of 8 Roman Emperors
Domitian. Famous People

Domitian

Domitian was the black sheep of the Flavian dynasty. Or at least that’s how our sources portray him. The last of three Flavian emperors, succeeding his father Vespasian (69-79 AD) and his older brother Titus (79-81 AD), Domitian ruled for 18 years, the longest reign of any emperor since Tiberius. But he shared the same fate as Nero in that, being the last ruler of a dynasty, he was always going to be reviled under the propaganda of the next. He was certainly ruthless. But while senators hated him his soldiers admired him, and on balance his policies and reforms and went a long way in setting the tone for the next century of peace.

A great deal of mystery surrounds Domitian’s love life. Unusually for a Roman emperor, he only married once. He rebelled against Vespasian’s attempts to wed him to his brother’s daughter, Julia Flavia. Instead, he betrothed himself to the woman he loved, Domitia Longina, after the small matter of making her divorce her husband. They appear to have had a happy marriage, save one significant hiccup in 83 AD. For reasons unknown, Domitia was banished from the palace and sent into exile—perhaps because of her failure to produce an heir, perhaps because Domitian was having an affair with Julia Flavia.

But she returned within a year, and other than this there doesn’t look to have been anything particularly noteworthy. That is until you read Suetonius. Right from the outset, the biographer writes about how Domitian would continually harass the wives of men of high reputation, following an autocratic precedent already set by Augustus, Caligula and Nero. He had a penchant for removing the hair from his lovers’ bodies with his own hands, Suetonius tells us, and loved nothing more than swimming in the baths with common prostitutes. He was adulterous with his niece, Julia Flavia, and in forcing her to abort their child, he ended up killing her.

A lot of this seems unlikely: reading more like political propaganda than a character portrait. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s rampant, racy and a really good read. The best and most quintessentially Roman anecdote of all is that Domitian referred to sexual intercourse as “bedroom wrestling”. We will never know if it’s apocryphal or not, though my guess is that it probably is. However, the truth behind it is less important than the fact that it perfectly encapsulates the machismo of Roman sexuality, and adds a whole new layer of meaning to Seneca’s famous dictum vivere militare est—to live is to fight.

 

Sources For Further Reading:

History Extra – In Bed with The Romans: A Brief History of Sex in Ancient Rome

History Hit – Promiscuity in Antiquity: Sex in Ancient Rome

Psyche – What Rude Jibes About Caesar Tell Us About Sex in Ancient Rome

Medium – The Diplomatic and Scandalous Sex Life of Julius Caesar

Town & Country Magazine – Inside Caligula’s Pleasure Palace, History’s Original Hype House

Medium – The Sexually Insatiable Messalina

Medium – Sex Life of Agrippina & Onset of Nero’s Reign

Cultura Collectiva – The Eunuch Who Was Loved by The Most Depraved Emperor of All Time

Medium – The Scandalous Love Life of Roman Emperor Nero

History Collection – Tremendous Lives and Dramatic Deaths of Twelve Roman Caesars

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