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JULIUS CAESAR: The Political Uses of Sex
A pagan man to the core, Caesar appears to have been an unscrupulous libertine who used and abused wives and mistresses to suit his sexual or political urges.
Stanley J. Pacion
Julius Gaius Caesar was the product of what some scholars have termed the Roman Renaissance, a period which roughly spans the century and a half before Christ’s birth. It was an era rooted in the learning and culture of classical Greece, but plagued by civil wars. It was a time of truly awesome upheaval which made way for the relative stability of Caesarism, a word which has come into English meaning, military or imperial dictatorship; political authoritarianism, and the imperium, a concept fully discussed in the online, Wikipedia. The Roman Renaissance witnessed the collapse of the old moral order – and abandonment of the traditional Roman ideals of chastity and sexual moderation.
I was fortunate to have had a great Caesar scholar and a scholar of ancient Roman history as my teacher and mentor for two years at Northern Illinois University. His name was John H. Collins. Dr. Collins was a man of extraordinary talent, and a great teacher. His ability to influence and fire up students to learning lives on to this day. A hall at the University commemorates his name. His fluency in languages has been noted in the above article, but his feats of memory were nothing short of awesome, mind bending. I remember one Spring day when in the middle of a class on the the Roman Republic Dr. Collins launched into a full recitation of Sallust's account of Julius Caesar's oration to the Roman Senate during the period of the so-called Catilinian Conspiracy. Sallust was a literary giant and one of ancient Rome's greatest historians, and Dr. Collins quoted from him the whole length of Chapter 51 of Sallust's history on the Conspiracy of Catiline. Collins did so in Latin, repeating the entire chapter in the sonorous, the marching tones and cadences of the Latin script. In was a truly breath taking performance, and one got the feeling of what it was to be an ancient Roman, and how fraught with danger and awful consequence life in the first century Before the Common Era truly had been. One received a real, first hand glimpse into top-notch Roman oratory. It was history, wie es eigentlich gewesen war.
In English Sallust account reads, remember it is the first time the historical figure Caesar appears in recorded history, “It becomes all men, Conscript Fathers [Oh, Fathers of the Senate!], who deliberate on dubious matters, to be influenced neither by hatred, affection, anger, nor pity. The mind, when such feelings obstruct its view, cannot easily see what is right; nor has any human being consulted, at the same moment, his passions and his interest. When the mind is freely exerted, its reasoning is sound; but passion, if it gain possession of it, becomes its tyrant, and reason is powerless."
In ancient Rome citizens could not be executed for their crimes, but were banished instead. When the Senate, led by Cicero, moved to have Catiline and his fellow conspirators executed for treason, Caesar stepped to the fore and reminded his fellow Senators that there was such a thing as the law, and to abrogate it bore dire consequence.
Born of noble stock about 100 BCE, Caesar expressed the values of this new age, much to the horror of the conservative aristocracy. He lived by what the Romans called virtu – not what we might mean by moral goodness, but vigor, ability, and success. He was an apostle of power, amoral, calculating, unscrupulous and ruthless. Remember we are dealing here in pagan times, about a century before the birth of the historical Jesus, and long before the introduction of Judaeo-Christian value system into Western civilization. Nevertheless, as many of his contemporaries have attested, he was also capable of great devotion, of fairness, and of abandoning all political or career considerations before the demands of love. Actually, Caesar’s duality – the struggle between the consummate politician and the impetuous, sometimes reckless pagan lover – had a great influence on his political life.
While I continue this account of sex and politics during Caesar's time allow me to continue the story of my education in ancient Roman history. Dr John H. Collins memory was simply, but totally photographic. Although it would take hours just to mention his feats of memory, I knew him personally able to recite most of Shakespeare from recall. I would read a verse or two, commit it to memory and challenge him on the bard's plays, and I candidly must attest he unfailingly responded with exact quotations. He told me that he knew all of Ivanhoe by rotestory, "A Stopping by a Railroad Station" by the nineteenth century, English essayist, moralist and historian James Anthony Froude.
Please allow me to continue with all these reminiscences for they do have a point, and it, if patience allows, become apparent in the next paragraph.
A bloody struggle between two major political parties dominated Roman political life at the time Caesar reached manhood. These two parties were the populares, which appealed to the less privileged classes mainly through liberal welfare measures, and the optimates, which espoused the interests of the conservative politicians and insisted on strict constitutionalism and old-time morality. Despite his aristocratic lineage, which could be traced back to the son of the legendary Aeneas, Caesar aligned himself with the populares. His patrimony also included Venus, goddess of love, a point which Caesar’s enemies never tired of repeating, especially as his amatory talents became known. At 18 he cemented his alliance with the populares by marrying the 16-year-old Cornelia, daughter of the great popular leader Cinna, who ruled Italy for three consecutive consulships from 86 to 83 B.C. In spite of the considerable political implications of the union, it appears to have been a genuine love match. The often-broke young Caesar chose Cornelia over a rich heiress, Consutia.
The ascendancy of the populares ended in November of 82 B.C. when the armies of the Dictator Sulla, a reactionary optimate, entered Rome and butchered the leaders of the opposing party. In the slaughter 90 senators were murdered, and some 350 million sesterces (roughly $35 million) of property were confiscated. The dictator soon commanded the young Caesar to divorce his wife. Caesar refused, preferring to see the confiscation of his own property and his wife’s dowry. Fearing that he would be placed on proscription, a listing which offered rewards for the dead-or-alive capture of important political enemies, Caesar fled Rome, though soon afterward, through the intervention of Caesar’s relatives, Sulla pardoned him.
Caesar returned to Rome only after Sulla’s death in 78 B.C. The intervening four years, particularly his stay at the palace of Nicomedes IV of Bithynia, far from Rome and family, afterward provided material for gossip by his enemies who were fond of relating how the young Caesar actively pursued the vices of Nicomedes’s Oriental court. Whether these accusations were true or no were simply slander has never been determined, but two things are certain: Nicomedes’s court was well known throughout the ancient word for its licentiousness, especially pederasty, and Caesar frequented it repeatedly during his self-imposed exile.
Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars, a book noted for its gossipy revelations about the intimate lives of the early Roman Caesars or emperors, and whose portrait of the Emperor Nero I have already discussed, has kept alive some of these accusations. Among them is the charge that Nicomedes kept Caesar for pederastic purposes: “The only specific charge of unnatural practices even brought against him was that he had been King Nicomedes’s catamite – always a dark stain on his reputation and frequently quoted by his enemies. Licinius Calvus published the notorious verses:
The riches of Bithyania’s King
Who Caesar on his couch abused.
Dolabella called him ‘the Queen’s rival and inner partner of the royal bed,’ and Curio the Elder: ‘Nicomedes’s Bithynian brothel.’
Bibulus, Caesar’s colleague in the consulship, described him in an edict as ‘the Queen of Bithynia… who once wanted to sleep with a monarch, but now wants to be one.’ And Marcus Brutus recorded that about the same time, one Octavius, a scatterbrained creature who would say the first thing that came into his head, walked into a packed assembly where he saluted Pompey as ‘King’ and Caesar as ‘Queen.’ These can be discounted as mere insults, but Gaius Memmius directly charges Caesar wit having joined a group of Nicomedes’s debauched young friends at a banquet, where he acted as the royal cup-bearer; and adds that certain Roman merchants, whose names he supplies, were present as guests. Cicero, too, not only wrote in several letters: ‘Caesar was led by Nicomedes’s attendants to the royal bedchamber, where he lay on a golden couch, dressed in a purple shift… So this descendant of Venus lost his virginity in Bithyania,’ but also once interrupted Caesar while he was addressing the House in defense of Nicomedes’s daughter Nysa and listing his obligations to Nicomedes himself. ‘Enough of that,’ Cicero shouted, ‘if you please! We all know what he gave you, and what you gave him in return.’
These accusations, whether true or not, were quite persistent. Caesar’s alleged vices at Nicomedes’s court followed him even at the time of his greatest triumphs. Suetonius reported that during the Gallic triumphal procession in Rome Caesar’s own soldiers, chanting ribald songs as was the custom and privilege, intoned the following refrain: Gaul was brought to shame by Caesar; By King Nicomedes, he. Here comes Caesar, wreathed in triumph. For his Gallic victory! Nicomedes wears no laurels, Though the greatest of the three.
Cornelia died in 68 B.C., after she had borne Caesar one child, a daughter, who later married his chief political rival, Gnaeus Pompey. In a touching act of martial homage to his Cornelia, Caesar is said to have made a funeral speech in her honor from the Rostra to the people. Whenever one examines the life of this first Caesar one is always struck by his ability to be both loyal to the core, and yet a leader of incredible resolve and ruthlessness.
The period following Cornelia’s death saw the making of the legend of Caesar’s alleged sexual prowess with married women. Caesar realized that the women of his day exercised enormous power in the family circle, and he made every effort to befriend the wives of his prominent contemporaries. Among them was Tertulla, the wife of Marcus Crassus, the richest man in Rome, who loaned heavily to Caesar to finance his first campaigns. Another was Mucia, Pompey’s wife. It was whispered that Caesar supported the Gabbinian law which empowered Pompey to suppress piracy in the Mediterranean so that he would be rid of the troublesome husband. Suetonius related the scandal that followed Pompey’s divorce of Murcia and marriage to Caesar’s daughter Julia. The union cemented a political alliance between the two men which lasted until Julia’s death in childbirth. “Be this how it may, both Curio the Elder and Curio the Younger approached Pompey for having married Caesar’s daughter Julia, when it was because of Caesar, whom he had often despairingly called ‘Aegisthus,’ that he divorced Mucia, mother of his three children. This Aegisthus had been the lover of Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra.”
It is no exaggeration to claim that at one time Caesar was accused of having seduced the wives of all the leaders of the populares and the wives of many a notable optimate. One of the latter was Servilia, wife of the late Marcus Janius Brutus, a close ally of the reactionary Sulla, daughter of the great conservative leader Cato the Younger, and then wife of one Decimas Julius Silanus. “Servilia was the woman whom Caesar loved best, and in his first consulship he brought her a pearl worth 60,000 gold pieces. He gave her many presents during the Civil War, as well as knocking down certain valuable estates to her at a public auction for a song. When surprise was expressed at the low price, Cicero made a neat remark: ‘It was even cheaper than you think, because a third (tertium) had been discounted.’ Sevilia, you see, was also suspected at the time of having prostituted her daughter Tertia to Caesar.”
Suetonius’s description of Caesar the great seducer has come down through the ages: Caesar is said to have been tall, fair, and well built, with a rather broad face and keen, dark-brown eyes. His health was sound, apart from sudden comas and a tendency to nightmares which troubled him towards the end of his life; but he twice had epileptic fits while on campaign. He was something of a dandy, always keeping his head carefully trimmed and shaved; and has been accused of having certain other hairy parts of his body depilated with tweezers. His baldness was a disfigurement which his enemies harped upon, much to his exasperation; but he used to comb the thin strands of hair forward from poll, and of all the honours voted him by the Senate and People, none pleased him so much as the privilege of wearing a laurel wreath on all occasions – he constantly took advantage of it.
That Caesar employed his sexuality to gain his political ends won him no friends in the conservative camp. To the optimates, Caesar had become the incarnation of all the new abominations of the time: the young, unscrupulous libertine who used and abused marriage to suit his sexual or political urges. Although there is much scholarly wrangling over his exact motives, Caesar’s second marriage in 67 B.C. to Pompeia, a 21-year-old granddaughter of his erstwhile enemy Sulla, was no doubt a tactical move to bridge the gap between himself and the conservative party. Besides, the political conditions of the time did not favor the popular cause. That Caesar was able to affect this marriage attests to his political skill and the shortness of political memories at Rome.
His marriage to Pompeia put Caesar on the opposite side of the cuckold’s horns. Yearly in the first week of December a religious ceremony known as Bona Dea (Good Goddess) was held in the house of the chief magistrate in Rome, under the leadership of his wife assisted by the six Vestal Virgins. It was a ceremony from which men were excluded under the penalty of banishment. Since Roman law had no provision for capital punishment, banishment was the severest penalty a citizen could suffer. In 62 B.C. the Bona Dea was held in Caesar’s house and, as was the custom, Pompeia officiated at the ceremony.
During the observance, Publius Clodius, a well-known libertine and political leader of the populares, was discovered among the celebrants dressed in woman’s clothing. It was alleged that he was the lower of Caesar’s wife, and the sacrilege of a liaison at the Bona Dea was intended to heighten their lovemaking. The historical biographer
Plutarch, who invariably tries to save his subject embarrassment, explains the love affair somewhat differently: “Publius Clodius was a patrician by descent, eminent both for his riches and eloquence, but in a licentiousness of life and audacity exceeded the most noted profligates of the day. He was in love with Pompeia, Caesar’s wife, and she had no aversion to him. But there was strict watch kept on her apartment, and Caesar’s mother, Aurelia, who was a discreet woman, being continually about her, made any interview very dangerous and difficult.”
Plutarch also gave a full account of the events which lead up to the discovery of Clodius: “As Pompeia was at that time celebrating this feast, Clodius, who as yet had no beard and so thought to pass undiscovered, took upon him the dress and ornaments of a singing woman, and so came thither, having the air of a young girl. Finding the doors open, he was without any stop introduced by the maid, who was in the intrigue. She presently ran to tell Pompeia, but as she was away a long time, he grew uneasy in waiting for her, and left his post and traversed the house from one room to another, still taking care to avoid the lights, till at last Aurelia’s woman met him, and invited him to play with her, as the women did among themselves. He refused to comply, and she presently pulled him forward, and him who he was and whence he came. Clodius told her he was waiting for Pompeia’s own maid, Abra, being in fact her own name also, and he said so, betrayed himself by his voice. Upon which the woman, shrieking, ran into the company where there were lights, and cried out she had discovered a man. The women were all in a fright, Aurelia covered the sacred things and stopped the proceedings, and having ordered the doors to be shut, went about with lights to find Clodius, who was got into the maid’s room that he had come in with, and was seized there. The women knew him, and drove him out of doors, and at once, that same night, went home and told their husbands the story.”
The next morning, the news was all over Rome of the impious attempt Clodius had made against the wife of the chief magistrate and how he ought to be punished not only for adultery but also for his public sacrilege. Senators of the optimate party gave evidence against him, charging him, among other crimes, with having has sexual relations with his own sister, the beautiful but morally dissolute Clodia, who despite her great wealth and ancient patrimony had taken to streetwalking. But the people, with whom Clodius was very popular, set themselves against the nobility, and the judges were afraid to provoke the multitude and renew civil war. Caesar at once divorced Pompeia but, being summoned as witness against Clodius, claimed he had nothing to accuse him of. Since this was of course paradoxical, the prosecutor asked Caesar why had he in that case divorced his wife. Caesar’s terse reply had been often quoted as evidence of his utter amorality: “Because my wife must be above suspicion.”
J.F.C. Fuller, in his biography of Caesar, captures what well may have been the essence of Caesar’s reasoning: “When the scandal was first made public, Caesar must have been intensely annoyed, but after he had divorced his wife, whether she were guilty or not, because she became a thing of the past, to wreak vengeance on Clodius was to think and act in terms of the past. Better to look to the future and profit by the incident. If Clodius were bold enough to commit sacrilege, which he certainly had done, and probably had seduced, or attempted to seduce, the wife of the Chief Pontiff, he must be a man of astonishing audacity, and as such men are not to be picked up at every street corner, would not it be more profitable to befriend him, as the gold of Crassus (who bought out a majority of the jurors for Clodius’s acquittal) had enabled Caesar to do, than to make him a deadly enemy?”
Caesar’s governorship of Spain and his military exploits in Gaul also enhanced his reputation as a lover. Suetonius preserved another of the ribald verses sung by Caesar’s legionnaires: Home we bring our bald whoremonger; Romans, lock your wives away! All the bags of gold you lent him went his Gallic tarts to pay.
But the “Gallic tarts,” it seems, were not simply reserved for Caesar. All accounts indicate that Caesar considered sexuality a good way to heighten morale. Often after a crucial victory he relieved his troops of all military duties and allowed them to carry on as wildly as they pleased. One of his boasts reveals his feelings about the matter: “My men in fight just as well when they are thinking of perfume.”
Caesar’s sexuality did not always win him the objectives he sought. Despite his great victories in Gaul and the military defeat of Pompey, which had virtually made him Dictator, Caesar’s profligacy was becoming the object of frequent aspersions by commoner and aristocrat alike. Even members of his own party spoke out against his open, evermounting dissoluteness. In mock seriousness, one Helvius Cinna informed a number of people of his intention of drawing up a piece of legislation “legitimizing” his marriage with any woman, or women he pleased – for the procreation of children.” Suetonius, in attempting to emphasize the bad name Caesar had won for his natural and unnatural vices, recorded that a political enemy once referred to Caesar as: “Every woman’s husband and every man’s wife.”
Caesar’s last marriage, which occurred in 59 B.C., was to Calpurnia. She remained his wife until his assassination in 44 B.C. Like the previous two, this marriage had its political motives. The usual conservative outcry was heard once again. Cato the Younger complained that the state had now become a mere matrimonial agency. As for Caesar, he hardly saw his wife because military obligations had increasingly taken him from Rome.
After the defeat of Pompey, Caesar found himself in Africa, the land of his most famous affair of the heart. Cleopatra was not the first woman of royalty to be Caesar’s mistress. It had been an open secret for some time in Roma that Caesar had been giving full reign to his passions in Africa and that he had now developed a particular liking for royalty. He is said to have had an affair with Eunoe, wife of the Moor Bogudes, King of Mauretania. As a result, the rumor went, both king and queen were supposed to have profited handsomely. Despite the romantic legend it created, Caesar’s affair with Cleopatra brought him nothing but trouble. It caused him to an unnecessary war in Egypt, which almost cost him his life, and forced him into too long an absence from the Roman political scene. A case can also be made that this affair was one of the principal causes for Caesar’s assassination.
The real motives behind Caesar’s occupation of Alexandria, the then royal citadel of Egypt, continue to be a source of scholarly controversy. Once there, however, he found himself in the midst of a royal struggle for power between Cleopatra and her coregent brother, Ptolemy. According to Plutarch, Ptolemy was supposed to have demanded Caesar’s departure, preferring to settle matters with his sister by himself. Caesar who took umbrage at Ptolemy’s remarks, called for Cleopatra, who was in forced retirement. The story of Cleopatra’s first meeting with her Roman suitor is the cornerstone of the great romantic legend and this is Plutarch’s account of it: “She took a small boat, and one only of their confidants, Apollodorous, the Sicilian, along with her, and in the dusk of the evening landed near the palace. She was at a loss how to get in undiscovered, till she thought of putting herself into the coverlet of a bed and lying at length, whilst Apollodorus tied up the bedding and carried it on his back through the gates to Caesar’s apartment. Caesar was first captivated by this proof of Cleapatra’s bold wit, and was afterwards so overcome by the charm of her society that he made reconciliation between her and her brother, on the condition that she should rule as his colleague in the kingdom.”
Dio in writing his version of this incident told a different story. First, he portrayed Cleopatra as the initiator of the meeting; and second, he added a decidedly sexual cast to the entire episode: “Cleopatra, it seems, had at first urged with Caesar her claim against her brother by means of agents, but as soon as she discovered his position (which was very susceptible, to such an extent that he had his intrigues with ever so many other women – with all, doubtless, who chanced to come in his way) she sent word to him that she was being betrayed by her friends and asked that she be allowed to plead her case in person. For she was a woman of surpassing beauty, and at that time, when she was in the prime of her youth, she was most striking; she also possessed a most charming voice and a knowledge of how to make herself agreeable to every one. Being brilliant to look upon and to listen to, with the power to subjugate very one, even a love-sated man already past his prime, she thought that it would be in keeping with her role to meet Caesar, and she reposed in her beauty all her claims to the throne. She asked therefore for admission to his presence, and on obtaining permission adorned and beautified herself so as to appear before him in the most majestic and at the same time pity-inspiring guise. When she had perfected her schemes she entered the city (for she had been living outside of it), and by night without Ptolemy’s knowledge went into the palace. Caesar, upon seeing her and hearing her speak a few words, was forthwith so completely captivated that he at once before dawn, sent for Ptolemy and tried to reconcile them, thus acting as advocate for the very woman whose judge he had previously assumed to be.”
Ptolemy, who quickly realized that Caesar could no longer be expected to act as a neutral party, reportedly went to pieces upon hearing of his sister’s visit to Caesar’s bedchamber. He ran out of the palace crying that he had been betrayed, and at last tore the crown from his head and cast it away. His actions greatly disturbed the Alexandrian populace, who were already resentful of the high-handed Roman occupation of their harbor and royal palace. War erupted shortly thereafter, and Caesar, whose armed forces at the time amounted to very little, was caught off guard and in one of the skirmishes almost lost his life.
Sir William Tarn, a modern scholar, placed Caesar’s attraction to Cleopatra in a different light. The 22-year-old princess, he held, was not remarkably beautiful but possessed and extraordinary seductiveness. She was intensely alive and quite fearless, highly intelligent, and conversant in a number of languages. The “essence of her nature,” he wrote, lay not in her sexuality but in her ambition, a thing for which the always striving Caesar had the highest regard. She combined charm and brain remorselessly in the pursuit of power. It was evidently this “ambition” that caused the Romans to look up her with such suspicion. They feared her, hated her, and accused her of the vilest vices, including sorcery, beast-worship, and willful castration of men. Yet all these calumnies only built up, as Tarn held, “the monument which still witnesses to the greatness in her. For Rome, who had never condescended to fear any nation or people did in her time fear two human beings: the one was Hannibal, and the other was a woman.”
The so-called Alexandrian war, which was an affair of Caesar’s heart and not his head, lasted from early October 48 B.C. to March of the following year. And though civil war had once again erupted at Rome, Caesar decided on a 2-month honeymoon cruise to celebrate his Egyptian victory. The historian Appian claimed that the lovers were accompanied by a fleet of 400 ships, which many hold as an exaggeration since there was not sufficient time to organize such a vast fleet. Suetonius related that during this cruise Caesar often feasted Cleopatra until dawn, “and they would have sailed together in her state barge nearly to Ethiopia and his soldiers consented to follow him.”
Sometime late in 46 B.C., Caesar invited Cleopatra to Rome. She arrived with a large entourage, her newly acquired boy husband, and an infant son reputed to be Caesar’s. He installed her and her party in his suburban mansion on the Janiculan Hill beyond the Tiber. That Caesar kept another mistress was no scandal, but that she was an alien queen, as Dio related “incurred the greatest censure from all because of his passion for Cleapatra – not now the passion he had displayed in Egypt (for that was a matter of hearsay), but that which was displayed in Rome itself. For she had come to the city with her husband and settled in Caesar’s own house, so that he too derived an ill repute on account of both of them.”
Caesar’s child by her also caused much scandal. The Romans were shocked at considering a half-alien boy an heir to their state. Caesar did little to stop the murmuring. For instance, he allowed her to call the boy “Caesarion.” A number of Caesar’s close friends, including Mark Antony, testified before the Roman Senate on the boy’s legitimacy. But another friend, Gaius Oppius, seems to have felt the need of clearing Caesar’s reputation. He published a book to prove that the boy could not have been fathered by Caesar at the time.
The long-neglected Calpurnia was also a cause for much scandal. Many felt that she had been greatly wronged. Married for 13 years, she spent most of that time left alone by a travel-loving husband, and, with Cleopatra’s arrival, she compelled to receive rival into her own household. Yet Calpurnia’s instance was but one of a thousand other women who were neither dissolute nor criminal and whose names have not survived. They were married, abandoned, and divorced from one year to the next, without regard to the age or character of their intended husbands. Politics determined their marriage beds, homes, households, and society. Often these arrangements forbade them the right to motherhood or brought them stepsons older than themselves at their husband’s table. They often had to endure the shame of being openly superseded by freedwomen, slaves, noble mistresses, and sometimes queens.
The degree to which Caesar’s affair with Cleopatra led to his undoing is still in question. Doubtless there were better reasons for his assassination in 44 B.C. than his open promiscuity. The assassins themselves appear to have acted mainly to thwart what they considered Caesar’s kingly ambitions. But it was intolerable that Caesar should ostentatiously make public his private vices. In particular, the installation of a long-hated foreign queen and the display of Caesarion in Rome, if not direct causes, were at least contributory factors. No doubt these incidents helped create the general atmosphere of distrust and suspicion in which the assassins acted. In the end, undoing not so much in themselves but that in his great passions he often neglected to calculate the results.