The sex lives of Roman emperors might shock and appall modern readers. But what can they tell us about an ancient society?
In his history of the Roman Empire, the early 3rd-century senator Cassius Dio lamented how little people knew of the Roman emperors and their business. Everything changed once Augustus had done away with the Republic: “after this time, most things that happened began to be kept secret and concealed” (53.19.3). Politics became a shady business, riddled with subterfuge and secrecy, conducted between emperors and their associates, men of lower class and dubious morals.
How the emperors themselves must have wished this secrecy was the case for every part of their lives.
It’s a common refrain that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This could hardly ring truer than by turning to the histories of ancient Rome and peeking behind the princeps’ curtains. Our sources, including Suetonius, Tacitus, and Cassius Dio, about in tales of sex and scandal, recorded for posterity with as much zeal as any of the narratives of politics and power. From the sleazy and the sordid, to the often downright unpleasant and frequently bizarre, the sex lives of Roman emperors provide us with more than just salacious entertainment. They offer us a window through which historians can begin to make sense of an ancient society.
1. Augustus: The Moral Roman Emperor
Getting to grips with Rome’s first emperor is a tricky endeavor. The ancients themselves recognized it, with the 4th-century emperor Julian even going so far as to label the first princeps a “chameleon” (The Caesars, 309). Part of Augustus’ camouflage was his piety; as pontifex maximus, his role was to ensure that the empire retained divine favor and the support of the gods. His vast moral authority was also brought to bear on the lives of the empire’s populace through a series of laws introduced in 18 BCE. These leges Iuliae were designed, amongst other objectives, to promote healthy, prosperous relationships. The lex Iulia de adulteris coercindis (17 BCE) punished adultery with banishment for instance, while the later lex papia Poppaea (9 CE) promoted offspring and penalized celibacy. This was despite the fact that the consuls who introduced the latter legislation, Marcus Papius Mutilus and Quintus Poppaeus Secundus, were themselves unmarried.
Such hypocrisy hangs over the reign of Augustus. His own marriage to Livia—his third marriage—was a childless union, and made with almost indecent haste: divorcing his former wife Scribonia on the day she gave birth, he “at once took Livia Drusilla from her husband” according to Suetonius (Aug. 62.2). Later, the biographer asserts that it was common knowledge that Augustus was an adulterer, claiming that his later years were marked by a particular predilection for “deflowering maidens” (Aug. 71.1), some of whom were procured for him by Livia herself!
Although he seemingly fell short of his own expectations, he would not tolerate these failings in others. His daughter Julia was exiled to the island of Tremirus when her affair with Decimus Junius Silanus was discovered in 8 CE. Her grief was imagined by the English painter Joseph Wright. It seems therefore that Augustus’ attempts to improve Rome’s moral fiber was a case of do as I say, not as I do. Morality and piety evidently provided this most hypocritical of Roman emperors with another layer of valuable camouflage.
2. The Ogre on the Island: Tiberius at Capri
One of imperial Rome’s most formidable generals was also, according to Pliny the Elder, the “most unsociable of men”. As one of the most reluctant Roman emperors, he rose to power following the death of Augustus in 14 CE. His accession was bungled, with Tiberius attempting to refuse the senate’s offer to take power; Suetonius juxtaposes senators “rushing into slavery” at Rome, all while Tiberius was attempting to defer to their judgment (Tib. 7.1).
An insular man himself, it seems that islands brought the worst out of Tiberius. Removed from the glare of public view, he gave space to his own predilections. First, there was Rhodes. This was in 6 BC and represented something of a premature retirement the motive for which remains unclear; the embarrassment of his wife’s very public promiscuities may have been a factor, with Julia’s affairs a poorly kept secret according to Velleius Paterculus (100.2-3). This semi-retirement was not, according to Tacitus, peaceful, giving reign to his “secret lasciviousness” (Annals 1.4).
However, it was the island of Capri, off the coast of Naples, where Tiberius descended fully into debauchery, earning his reputation as one of the most depraved Roman emperors. Withdrawing from Rome, which he left in the clutches of the Praetorian Prefect Sejanus, Tiberius withdrew once again, this time to the Villa Jovis, perched high on the cliffs above the Tyrrhenian Sea. There, the recluse allegedly gave free reign to his perversions and cruelties: “he acquired a reputation for still fouler depravities that one can hardly bear to tell” claimed Suetonius (Tib. 44.1). To his credit, however, Suetonius bravely recorded the various scandals. This included secret orgies led by experts in deviancies, threesomes, bedrooms decorated with erotic sculptures and paintings, libraries stocked with erotic manuscripts (to serve as instruction manuals to the performers).
Perhaps the most shocking tale of all, is that of his “little fishes”: he trained young boys to swim between his legs to lick and nibble his body (Tib. 44). He was also one of the cruelest Roman emperors: having debauched two brothers at the end of a sacrifice, they had the audacity to complain. Tiberius had their legs broken. Tiberius died in 37 CE, to be replaced by Gaius. His passing was not lamented, but the people of Rome would discover their celebration of his successor was premature…
3. Caligula: A Terrifying Roman Emperor
The emperor Gaius—better known to history as Caligula—was exposed to the cruelties of imperial power from an early age. In 31 CE accepted the invitation to join Tiberius on Capri. Eventually, the elderly emperor passed away, with Tacitus suggesting that Macro—the Praetorian Prefect—ordered the enfeebled emperor to be smothered (Annals 50). Despite this inauspicious start, Gaius’ accession was met with jubilation. His descent from the popular soldier, Germanicus, certainly helped; more importantly, he just wasn’t Tiberius.
The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria described the effusive joy in his Embassy to Gaius (II.10): “all the world, from the rising to the setting sun, all the land” rejoiced at the news. Later in the year, however, Gaius fell ill. Something had changed, the emperor was not the man he had been before. As Suetonius described: “So much for Caligula as emperor; we must now tell of his careers as a monster” (Gaius, 22.1).
So, what of the monster? The remainder of Caligula’s reign was, by all accounts, given over to excesses: of greed; of hubris; of violence; and of sex. Suetonius’ biography of the emperor reports that the imperial palace was made into a brothel (Gaius, 41). The emperor’s promiscuity reputedly knew no bounds: “he respected neither his own chastity nor that of anyone else”. His sisters—Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla—were all allegedly the victims of imperial incestuous passions, along with his brother-law-Marcus Lepidus. Were these crimes all true? It is hard to say.
Like the infamous episode of his desire to make his horse, Incitatus, a consul (Cassius Dio, 59.14.7), there is likely a political aspect to these anecdotes. While his reign does appear to have hinged on his illness, his treatment of the senate and nobility thereafter led to his increasing unpopularity. It reached a boiling point in 41 CE when he was assassinated, aged just 28. What better way for the aristocracy to absolve themselves of blame than to create the image of an unhinged of Roman emperor?
4. Claudius the Cuckold: The Exploits of Messalina
The shuffling, stammering, studious figure of Claudius is perhaps not a figure one would associate with sexual scandals (Suetonius Claudius 30). Then again, he probably wasn’t what many people had in mind when they imagined an emperor (an image not helped by the heroizing statues erected to him…). Nevertheless, emperor he was; the successor to Gaius, picked by the Praetorian Prefects in 41 CE, the scene evocatively imagined by Alma-Tadema. His love life was also one of contradictions, seemingly dominated by women and a terrible philanderer. He was married four times, not including two failed betrothals. His marriage to Plautia Urgulanilla and Aelia Paetina both ended in divorce, the former for adultery and the latter for politics. His third wife is where the scandals really began. In 38/9 CE, he married Valeria Messalina, his own cousin, but also the grandniece of Augustus and second cousin of Caligula. It would appear that she inherited some of their proclivities…
Things started well; the newlyweds welcomed a daughter, Claudia Octavia, and a son, Britannicus, not long after Claudius came to power. Things quickly went badly. Messalina’s reputation in literary sources is one of unquenchable promiscuity and political duplicity. Reputedly, her nymphomania extended to her behaving as a prostitute in the imperial palace, and compelling other aristocratic women to follow suite (Cassius Dio, 61.31.1). Claudius seemingly turned a blind eye towards his bride’s infidelities—perhaps because he was acting as Censor, so Tacitus (Annals 25) suggests—until she got married to Gaius Silius (Suetonius, Claud. 26.2). This took place in a ceremony when Claudius was visiting the harbor at Ostia. Fearful that his wife and her new husband desired his downfall, he had the conspirators murdered, including his wife. Seemingly unperturbed by his rotten luck with wives, Claudius married a fourth time, to Agrippina the Younger, the daughter of Germanicus and great-granddaughter of Augustus, the mother of Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, better known as Nero.
5. Imperial Debauchee: Nero
“That Claudius was poisoned is the general belief, but… by whom is disputed”. One of the leading culprits is Agrippina, his fourth and final wife; Suetonius (Claudius 44) alleges she served poison to him in a dish of mushrooms… Agrippina was likely keen to remove her elderly husband from the frame because his successor was her son, Nero. Adopted by his step-father at the age of 13, he succeeded at 17. Initially popular and wisely advised, the young emperor seems to have rapidly given license to a series of vices. The truth of these scandals is hard to ascertain, and historians must extricate the reality from the salacious slander of the ancient historians. This includes the stories of Nero’s tempestuous relationship with his mother. In 59 CE, he had her murdered: the elaborate plot he concocted of drowning her in a shipwreck was bungled, so the emperor had her killed by his freedman Anicetus (Tacitus Annals 14.8).
Before the matricide, however, Suetonius alleges that their relationship between Nero and Agrippina was much closer… The historian levels the accusation of incest against the emperor. He claims that first he added a lookalike courtesan to his retinue before the rumors circulated that every time he rode in a litter with her, the stains on his clothing betrayed the illicit relations between mother and son (Suetonius Nero 28). An inability to restrain his base desires—however they manifest—is a recurring feature of Nero’s portrait in the ancient literature: “He so prostituted his own chastity”.
In 67, the emperor married Sporus, a young boy who reputedly resembled his former wife Poppaea. Their wedding night was marked by the cries of the emperor, imitating a “maiden being deflowered” (Suetonius Nero 29). Nero’s suicide in 68 was not the end of his story. The emergence of imitators around the empire—a series of Psuedo-Neros—testify to the emperor’s ongoing popularity with certain members of the imperial populace. Can we really believe the sordid tales of Neronian debauchery, then? Or are such tales examples of senatorial and aristocratic biases, justifying the regime change, with Nero’s passing the opportunity for Vespasian’s rise?
6. Cult of Love: Hadrian and Antinous
Roman emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE) did not have a happy marriage. His wife Sabina, the grandniece of Trajan (the optimus princeps), was politically useful but of little benefit to either party. The Historia Augusta, a collection of later imperial biographies, even alleges that Hadrian’s secretary—the biographer Suetonius—was dismissed from the imperial court for his behavior towards Sabina. Instead, like his imperial predecessor, Hadrian appears to have preferred the company of men and homosexual relations. The great love of his life, Antinous, was a young man from Bithynia. Despite the problematic dynamics—the great inequality in age and status—their relationship remains perhaps the most well-known homosexual relationships from the ancient world. It became an iconic feature of the arts, in paintings, sculpture, and literature: the relationship between the two is a prominent theme of Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian (1951).
Antinous traveled with the emperor and imperial court. That was, until he died on Hadrian’s tour through Egypt; as the imperial entourage traveled down the Nile, Antinous drowned. Whether this was murder, suicide, or even offered as a sacrifice as Cassius Dio ponders (69.11.2), remains a mystery. Hadrian mourned the loss of his great love, founding the city of Antinoöpolis on the site where Antinous had died. The emperor’s lover also became the subject of cult, worshipped around the empire in at least 28 temples, and celebrated in games that were held in cities around the empire, including at Antinoöpolis.
7. Severan Scandals: The Roman Emperors Caracalla and Elaglabalus
It is sometimes claimed that although history rarely repeats itself, its echoes never go away. This is certainly true when examining the sex lives of the Severan emperors, who ruled the empire from 193-235. Septimius Severus, the first of the Severans, was married to Julia Domna. Together they had two sons: Caracalla and Geta. The younger sibling was murdered by Caracalla, and his memory condemned. Reviled by the senate, the literary sources for Caracalla are concerned with making sure their readers knew how rotten the emperor was. There could be no easier way of doing so than making Caracalla another Nero. This is likely why they allege an incestuous relationship between Caracalla and Julia (HA Caracalla 10.4).
Similarly, the historian Herodian (4.9.1-8) claims that the people of Alexandria, whom Caracalla ordered the massacre of in 215/6, openly mocked the emperor’s mother calling her Jocasta (a reference to the tragic figure of Oedipus’ mother). Cassius Dio, no fan of the emperor and the source of much vitriol against him, alleges that Caracalla debauched one of Rome’s sacred Vestal Virgins (78.16.1-2). Intriguingly, the historian also alleges that the emperor was impotent: “all his sexual power had disappeared”
Elagabalus was the son of Julia Soeamias, the niece of Julia Domna. He had come to power in 218, restoring the Severan dynasty and masquerading as the son of Caracalla. The high priest of the Syrian sun god Elagabal, from where his name derived, the sources are roundly critical of what they perceive to be his religious eccentricities. These contribute to the Orientalist tropes that dominate the historical narratives, which include sexual depravities and effeminacy. His sexual appetite was seemingly vast: despite coming to power aged just 14, he was married 5 times, including to a Vestal Virgin.
He also had a slew of male lovers, most notoriously Hiercoles, a former slave and chariot driver, and Zoticus, an athlete Smyrna. Cassius Dio alleges that Zoticus was picked by Elagabalus because of the enormous size of his genitals (80.16.1)! Elagabalus’ is also seen by some historians as an early figure in transgender history, motivated by his request for a physician who could perform a surgery that gave him a vagina. He may not be as notorious as Caligula or Nero, but the accounts of Elagabalus’ life, his sexual promiscuity, and his alleged effeminacy, certainly recall the rumors that circulated around his imperial predecessors. The Historia Augusta (Elag. 32.8) recognized as much: “he was well acquainted with all the arrangements of Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero.”
Peeking behind the curtains into the private lives of the Roman emperors offers an eye-opening experience into the customs, mores, and attitudes of the ancient world. Moreover, they seem to repeat; the tales of promiscuity and rumors of debauchery echo from one “bad” emperor to the next. Were the salacious stories true? Or, did the sexual habits of the princeps become a ready rhetorical tool for historians to create the portraits that served their own ends?