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

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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