Thursday, July 17, 2008

NERO: SEX AND LOVE in Ancient Rome


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Nero’s sexual excesses led to corruption of all Roman institutions.

Stanley J. Pacion

This article presents an historical essay on sex and love in the court of the Emperor Nero. It was originally published in the medical journal, Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality, Volume V, March 1971, pp.170-185. The journal is now defunct, and its availability is severely circumscribed because it is usually found in the archive stacks of university, medical libraries where access to the general public is often denied. Still I was pleasantly surprised to find some online references to this article. I have taken this opportunity to edit and rewrite the essay, but I have also tried to retain its original content and style.

The best source of information regarding Nero is in
On the Life of the Caesars, or as it is commonly known by its English title, The Twelve Caesars by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, known over the generations as Suetonius. This expose of the personal lives of the first twelve Roman emperors shocks readers even today. Suetonius’ explicit depictions of Nero’s sexual exploits border – some will argue transcend – the pornographic. In older translations of the work, parts of the life of Nero are either deleted, asterisks mark off the censored passages, or they are left in the original (a practice which induced many a schoolboy to improve his Latin). Generally speaking, Suetonius' history can be described as very lascivious, gossipy, filled with great story telling, and, often, downright funny.

Those readers who followed the links to online sources will soon ascertain just how relatively few are the actual, real sources to the lives of the of the Caesars, especially those at the helm during the earlier years of the Roman Empire. This may be an wholesale exaggeration, but I remember a professor of classics claim that there is more evidence for the historical Jesus than there is evidence in for the life of Julius Caesar. As has so often been remarked, the triumph of barbarism and Christian was relatively complete. The libraries of antiquity, and the writings of the ancient essayists and historians were destroyed. The monks simply scraped off the writings from the lamb skin parchments before them and replaced the ancient script with the new ecclesiastical doctrine. Then when the next scribe came along he merely scraped off the writings of the previous scribe and rewrote the same or similar passage either from or about Scripture on the now blank parchment, so on and so on. The operating principle here was not the preservation of historical scripts, or Scripture, but a maxim which held that idle hands were the devils tools.

Also, another central point of fact, the barbarian tribes which crossed the borders of the Empire were largely illiterate, and so were their commanders in chief. They burned and they pillaged. There is no way to describe how long this era of absolute destruction reigned until one remembers that most of the knowledge of classical antiquity remained lost to Western Europeans until its rebirth in Italy, well-nigh a thousand years later during the thirteenth and fourteenth century, a period which is commonly called the Renaissance.

Readers will find me addressing my credentials when I comment on this period of ancient Roman history in my account of love and sex during Julius Caesar's political rise and subsequent seizure of power. But for now my sense of Roman history and society during Nero's time for the purpose of this article rests on the text that that has come down to us from Suetonius.
Historians have to the scholar remarked that the history of Nero’s reign is highly conjectural, because no historical sources have survived which were contemporaneous with Nero's period. In a word, no primary sources from Nero's court remain. Actually there is nothing surprising in this central fact. We know that so much of the literature from all of antiquity has been lost anyway.

I will continue this account of Nero's court with an a school-book exercise called, or commonly referred to as an explanation of the text.
There is no doubt that Suetonius does retain both the book knowledge, then extant in the ancient world libraries, and what was preserved in the oral tradition. It is true that he was a member of the patrician class, and that this group had suffered terribly in the hands of Nero and his guards. No doubt Suetonius, like so many other Romans, had axe to grind when it came time to account for the emperor. But his is one of the only historical accounts remaining. The Twelve Caesars remains one of the most famous books to reach us from classical antiquity. So it is to Suetonius chapter on Nero that I turn to abstract the quality and meaning of life of the Roman court during the mid-part of the first century during our common era.


When Suetonius begins his account of Nero's life he sets the theme, Nero's is a relatively good life story, he might be even construed a good man, who has gone bad. Whatever the eventual consequences of his reign, the best intentions marked Nero’s first years as the emperor. Suetonius writes, “…he promised to model his rule on the princip
les laid down by Augustus, never missed an opportunity of being generous or merciful.” He lowered taxes, strengthened the economy, lessened the severity of Roman jurisprudence, and through his influence and money provided for a general cultural renaissance in Rome.

For Suetonius, the cause for the transformation of Nero’s rule from virtue to depravity, violence, and unmitigated squander was sexual. This theme about sexual excess ever mounting desires, its insatiability, and its ultimate regression into absolute depravity repeats itself time and again in Suetonius' account. I might personally argue that it is Suetonius himself who can be held responsible for Christianity's long time play on the self-same theme in the literature of its Saints. Early Christian writers, almost to the man, argue that one engaged the carnal lust multiplies in a downward progression. In the end, they hold, it brings about personal destruction, and great woe and misfortune to all those in the company of depravity. In like measure, it, too, is a theme upon which Suetonius seems never to tire harping. He repeats it endlessly in his account of Nero's life.

The young, handsome boy obsessed by music (he played the lyre), the theater, art, and given to public recitals of his poems, began to hold great dinner parties to which he invited prostitutes. What follows is a horrifying account of the rapacity and the extremes of sexuality. Nero’s life once again marches to illustrate Suetonius’ central theme: the desire for carnal pleasure multiplies a
nd ultimately leads to perversion. Though the young Nero’s first experiments with debauchery were relatively mild, his sexual appetites soon drove him through the catalog of lusts:

“Not satisfied with seducing free-born boys and married women, Nero raped
the Vestal Virgin Rubria… Having tried to turn the boy Sporus into a girl by castration, he went through a wedding ceremony with him – dowry, bridal veil and all – which the whole Court attended; then treated him as a wife. He dressed Sporus in the fine clothes normally worn by an Empress and took him in his own litter not only to every Greek assize and fair, but actually through the Street of Images at Rome, kissing him amorously now and then. A rather amusing joke is still going the rounds: the world would have been a happier place had Nero’s father Domitius married that sort of wife.”

Suetonius employs a dark, sinister humor, but the reader can not hold back a smirk.

The symbolic meaning of Nero’s r
ape of the vestal virgin Rubria was not lost to Suetonius’ original readers, even those of the early second century of the common era. The Six Vestal Virgins were young women of noble families who dedicated themselves to guarding the Sacred Heart in the temple of Jupiter. These women submitted themselves to regular vaginal examination. If it were determined that a maid had allowed herself to be violated, even, as in the case of Rubria, if the act had been forced upon her, raped, she was bound and hurled alive from the Tarpeian Rock to the Forum some four-hundred feet below.

The Sacred Hearth itself represented, among other things, traditional Roman morality, which was very different from the moral standard developing during Nero’s day. In sexual terms; it meant chastity for unmarried women, fidelity in wedlock, and the sanctity of the family, a series of strong imperatives that held death better than dishonor. Nero’s rape of the vestal virgin, besides the fact that it sentenced her to die, symbolized an assault ag
ainst the entire moral order. It was a sacrilege, a willful trespass against all things holy, and signaled the commencement of a reign of depravity.


Suetonius’ anecdotal account of Nero’s perversions is more than a simple indictment of a single personality. Interpreted broadly, it represents an attack against the whole of Roman society, especially the upper classes. Nero, father of the country and head of state, was symptomatic of the disease that had invaded the entire social body. In his perversity Nero found many eager accomplices: “Whenever he floated do
wn the Tiber to Ostia, or cruised past Baiae, he had a row of temporary brothels erected along the shore, where a number of noblewomen, pretending to be madams, stood waiting to solicit his customs.”

Suetonius’ implication is unmistakable. Society had become a bordello. The state no longer responded to the demands of empire, but to the beckons of madams. Lust was turning all social values topsy-turvey. Passion, Suetonius argues, not reason and might, governed the Roman imperium. Indulgence in sexuality had subordinated the vast resources of the dominion to orgy. “His feasts now lasted from noon till midnight, with occasional break for diving into a warm bath or, if it were summer, into snow-cooled water. Sometimes he would drain the artificial lake
in the Campus Martius, or the other in the Circus, and hold public dinner parties there, including prostitutes and dancing girls from all over the city among his guests.”

Nero’s flagrant disregard for traditional Roman morality reached its peak in his attacks on the family. He had an unnatural attachment to his mother. The seriousness with which antiquity viewed the crime of incest is brilliantly presented in the play Oedipus Rex. Even in Nero’s day the crossing of this sexual line had terrible repercussions. Once again, Suetonius works his favorite theme: the sexual instinct, because it constantly seeks new forms of arousal, proceeds to the corruption of all moral norms. Addiction to sex, Suetonius seems to say, has a terrible end. “The passion he felt for his mothe
r, Agrippina, was notorious; but her enemies would not let him consummate it, fearing that, if he did, she would become even more powerful and ruthless than hitherto. So he found a new mistress who was said to be her split and image; some say that he did, in fact, commit incest with Agrippina every time they rode in the same litter – the state of his clothes when he emerged proved it.”

For Suetonius, the sexual need not only doubles upon itself and falls to perversion, it also makes for violence. The destruction, mayhem, and brutality that marked Nero’s reign had its direct cause in sexuality. From its earliest years the Roman state
was militaristic; war was a commonplace. Mildness and meekness were never considered virtues. But Roman martial brutality usually had one specific end: subjugation of territories in order to increase revenues for the state treasury. Nero, however, practiced brutality for a different reason. In his eager pursuit of new erotic forms, sadism became his partner. His personal atrocities against others were extensions of his lust. Sex addiction, Suetonius seems to say, has a very sorry, sad end.MATRICIDE

Nero’s murder of his mother, Agrippina, is often represented as the most startling example of this kind
of sadism. Nero attempted the murder at least four times. Agrippina herself, largely because of Suetonius account of her life and murder, has become the second most famous mother in Western history. Though Nero’s motives for the crime were mixed, Suetonius shows that there was a strong sexual undertow. This long excerpt is a case study of oedipal lust-rage and one of the most famous passages in Roman literature:“…he had a collapsible cabin boat designed which would either sink or fall in on top of her. Under pretense of a reconciliation, he sent the most friendly note inviting her to celebrate the Feast of Minerva with him at Baiae, and on her arrival made one of his captains stage an accidental collision with the galley in which she had sailed. Then he protracted the feast until a late hour, and when at last she said: 'Nero, I really must get back to Baiae,' offered her his collapsible boat instead of the damaged galley. Nero was in a very happy mood as he led Agrippina down to the quay, and even kissed her breast before she stepped aboard. He sat up all night, on tenterhooks of anxiety, waiting for news of her death. At dawn Lucius Agermus, her freedman, entered joyfully to report that although the ship had foundered, his mother had swum to safety, and he need have no fears on her account. [Here we have a great example of Suetonius uses of a very dark, but pointed sense of humor.]For want of a better plan, Nero ordered one of his men to drop a dagger surreptitiously beside Agermus, whom he arrested at once on a charge of attempted murder.

“After this he arranged for Agrippina to be killed, and made it seem as if she had sent Agermus to assassinate him but committed suicide on hearing that the plot had miscarried.”

The kissing of Agrippina’s breasts before he led her down the pier to what he believed would be her death is only one example of Nero’s sadistic bent. Suetonius supplies other more gruesome details, ones which bear a necrophilia stamp: It appears that Nero rushed off to examine Agrippina’s corpse, handling her legs and arms critically and, between drinks, discussing their good and bad points.”

Sadism animated all of Nero’s love relations with women. He murdered his favorite aunt by ordering her doctors to give her a laxative of fatal strength. He treated his first wife so badly – he even tried to strangle her on a number of occasions – that a few of his friends mustered enough courage to criticize him. Though he doted on his second wife, he kicked her to death while she was pregnant because she dared complain that he came home late from the races. Again, Suetonius account reads loud and clear, once the way to sexuality becomes unbridled, the end result invariably becomes one of awful violence.

Nero not only brutally abused the marriage and familial institution, using it as means to meet the demands of his ever-mounting lusts, he also openly and deliberately mocked it. Nero’s love for his freedman Doryphorus, the boy Sporus, and a host of other male friends always involved a mock marriage. The holiest of Roman institutions was his plaything, an instrument which he employed to heighten erotic simulation. Suetonius works a dark theme. Sex had undermined all social values. Motherhood, marriage, the family, every principle guaranteed by the Sacred Hearth, fell to a sadistic lust. The unchecked sexual instinct had reduced Roman society to a horrible travesty of its former self.

Nero’s debauchery had an effect throughout the empire. Lust, not right, became the standard in judicial procedure. Felons of all sorts would gain executive clemency from Nero if they confessed to sexual excess. “He was convinced that nobody could remain sexually chaste, but that most people concealed their secret vices; hence, if anyone confessed to obscene practices, Nero forgave him all his other crimes.” All a criminal had to do, according to Suetonius, is confess to the Emperor a crazy, perverted sexuality and his or her crimes, whatever their seriousness, would be pardoned. In Nero's court, wanton vice and penchant for debauchery became the touchstones for assaying morality. All had been turned upside down. Like all other things he touched, Nero perverted the once proud legal code of the Roman state.

Sex, also, dictated the empire’s economic policies. Though during the early years of his reign Nero actually fattened the treasury, his later years showed incredible profligacy. Excess in sexuality, Suetonius suggests, made for excess in spending, especially in the building of pleasure palaces. The vast fortunes that Nero expanded in creating places of sensual delight were fantastic, forcing him in the end to bankruptcy. Suetonius gives a good account of some of these projects:

“He built a palace, stretching from the Palatine to the Esquiline, which he called “The Passageway”; and when it burned down soon afterwards, rebuilt it under the new name of “The Golden House.” The following details will give some notion of its size and magnificence. A huge statue of himself, 120 feet high, stood in the entrance hall; and the pillared arcade ran for a whole mile. An enormous pool, more like a sea than a pool, was surrounded by buildings made to resemble cities, and by a landscape garden consisting of ploughed fields, vineyards, pastures, and woodlands – where every variety of domestic and wild animal roamed about. Parts of the house were overlaid with gold and studded with precious stones. All the dining-rooms had ceilings of fretted ivory, the panels of which could slide back and let a rain of flowers, or of perfume from hidden sprinklers, shower upon his guests. The main dining-room was circular, and its roof revolved slowly, day and night, in time with the sky. Sea water, or sulphur water, was always on tap in the baths. When the palace had been decorated throughout in this lavish style, Nero dedicated it, and condescended to remark: “Good, now I can at least begin to live like a human being!”

The bankruptcy of the economy signaled the mortal bankruptcy of the state. To obtain the additional funds he needed to complete his architectural projects, he resorted to extortion, robbery, and blackmail. In committing these crimes his private bestiality grew into a public affair. One, among his many atrocities, was a wholesale massacre of the nobility. And then, finally, the burning of Rome, crimes from which he profited. Addiction, in this case sex addiction, leads to crime, and the greater the addiction, the greater the crimes need to satiate its ever mounting demands.

But despite his violent depravity, Nero had grown increasingly ineffectual. When challenged by the revolt of his general, Galba, and rising power of the barbarian chieftain, Vindex, his only response was obscenity. “Yet he made not the slightest attempt to alert his lazy and extravagant life. On the contrary, he celebrated whatever good news came in from the provinces with the most lavish banquets imaginable, and composed comic songs about the leaders of the revolt, which he set to bawdy tunes and sang with appropriate gestures.”

Suetonius’ sex history lesson is clear. Excessive and perverted sexuality made for moral decadence. Rebellion, treason, arson, murder, or extortion could be practiced without fear of retribution. The Roman martial tradition of might and action was turned into a kind of comic relief, some bawdy theatric. Forced at last to act against the Gauls under Vindex, Nero’s first military preparation was “finding enough wagons to carry his stage equipment and arranging for the concubines who would accompany him to have male haircuts and be issued with Amazonian shields and axes.”

Through the life of Nero, Suetonius tackles the cosmic question: “Why did Rome fall?” and creates an answer which has lasted the centuries. For Suetonius, Rome saw its decline in the age of the first Caesars, particularly during the reign of Nero. In this sense, Suetonius is a moralist, not a pornographer. He employs an obvious sensationalism to gain his reader’s ear, to cement interest. His gossipy revelations of the intimate behavior of the high and powerful are not ends in themselves. They are devices used to underscore a theme of decadence, and to pinpoint what he considered to be the chief cause for the downward swing in Roman morality – sex. For Suetonius, all social, ethical, cultural, political and economic norms depend on the suppression of the sexual instinct. In his view, once there is adventure in carnality, no society, state, or empire can long endure.

The validity of Suetonius’ lesson is difficult to determine. If there is a link between sexual depravity and the downfall of the Roman Empire, that result was long in coming. Rome's society's indulgence in sexual depravity, after all, has had a very long history, indeed.