The Imperial Itch -  From the Metroland Sex Issue
By Glenn Weiser
Feb 14, 2002

In olden days, absolute power permitted rulers to indulge their infinite lusts.

Let’s say you had unlimited money and power with which to satisfy any and all of your lusts, and no moral constraints to stop you. You could, without censure here or damnation hereafter, have sex in any setting with any number of men, women, or both. How wild would you go? History provides some clues in the lives of the monarchs and emperors of the pre- Christian Roman Empire, and what you learn is that ancient heads of state often went to such lurid excesses that it strains belief.

A major source of what we know about the amorous indulgences of ancient omnipotents is The Twelve Ceasars by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, who was chief secretary to the Roman emperor Hadrian (who ruled 117-38 A.D.) Suetonius had access to the imperial annals, and was able to draw on them in his biographical sketches of Rome’s first dozen emperors. Although it is his only surviving work, we know he also penned what had to have been an at least equally juicy volume, The Lives of Famous Whores.

Suetonius starts with Julius (100-44 B.C.), the first Caesar. Even as a general in Gaul he was sung of in this ribald Latin verse back in Rome, as rendered by Robert Graves in his landmark translation of The Twelve Ceasars:

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.

After he got back and became emperor, he did exactly what the quatrain warned of by helping himself to the wives of numerous Roman patricians. For a husband so cuckolded, though, the price of complaining was prohibitive—angering an emperor could be fatal. Julius was also bisexual (sex with male slaves was common among Roman men, but for a married man, adultery with women other than prostitutes was frowned upon), being described by a contemporary as “every queen’s man and every man’s queen.” But as it turns out, Julius was tame in comparison with some of his successors.

 Tiberius (42 B.C.-37 A.D.) had an entire island converted into a pleasure garden and peopled it with “bevies of young women and men, from all over the world, who were adept in unnatural practices,” who would perform for the emperor in groups of three. Rooms decorated with pornographic paintings and statuary and staffed with concubines of either sex who were required to study Egyptian sex manuals were available for the ruler. And for al fresco debauchery among the forests and glades of the island, boys and girls attired as Pans and nymphs stood waiting outside of caves and grottos.

  Tiberius probably was the most sexually depraved of the early emperors on account of his pedophilia. Translators of Suetonius before Robert Graves simply refused to include passages like this: “Some aspects of his criminal obscenity are almost too vile to discuss, much less believe. Imagine training little boys, whom he called his ‘minnows,’ to chase him while he was swimming and get between his legs to suck and nibble him. Or letting babies not yet weaned from their mother’s breast suck at him-such a filthy old man he had become!” After all, there was nothing to stop him, and the Romans had no concept in their pagan religion of an afterlife with possible punishment for earthly sins.

 Leaving Rome for a moment, Egypt’s Queen Cleopatra VII (69-30 B.C.) had a robust libido on steroids. Known by sobriquets such as “the great swallower,” and “she who gapes wide for ten thousand men,” she was said to be highly skilled at fellatio. Tradition holds that she performed oral sex on a hundred Roman noblemen in a single night (blow jobs evidently were a national pastime in the land of the pyramids—it’s worth mentioning that lipstick was first worn there by women wishing to advertise their fondness for giving head).

But that feat pales in comparison with how quickly Cleopatra met the eligibility requirement for becoming a High Priestess of Aset, which was having fucked 1,000 men. The story goes that it took her only 10 days to accomplish this, although some hyperbole may be assumed.

One of the worst emperors, Nero (37-68 A.D.), was seduced by his mother, Aggripina, and is remembered for fiddling while Rome burned (the fiddle actually didn’t come along until the Middle Ages). According to Suetonius, Nero would stage elaborate fantasies like having temporary brothels built on the banks of the Tiber with noblewomen posing as madams waiting outside them, and then sailing down the Tiber and taking his pick of the women. Or this: “Nero practiced every kind of obscenity,” Suetonius writes, “and at last he invented a novel game: He was released from a den dressed in the skins of wild animals, and attacked the private parts of men and women who stood bound to stakes. After working up sufficient excitement by this means, he was dispatched—shall we say?—by his freedman Doryphorus. Doryphorus now married him—just as he himself had married Sporus—and on the wedding night he imitated the screams and moans of a girl being deflowered.” Both men had been castrated and forced to undergo what are described as sex-change surgeries, reminding us that the lasciviousness of some of the emperors was nothing next their cruelty.

Although bisexuality among the emperors was the rule, with their complete freedom to follow their fancy, there naturally were exceptions. Of the first 12, only Claudius (10 B.C.-54 A.D.) was purely heterosexual. Suetonius remarks, “His feelings for women were extremely passionate, but men and boys left him cold.” On the other hand, the emperor Galba (3 B.C.-69 A.D.) was gay: “A homosexual invert, he showed a decided preference for mature, sturdy men. It is said that when Icleus, one of his trusty bedfellows, brought the news of Nero’s death, Galba showered him with kisses and begged him to undress without delay, whereupon intimacy took place.”

 So what sense do you make of it all? In a 1959 essay on Suetonius, Gore Vidal, author of the novel Julian, wrote (and here we may include Cleopatra), “From the sexual opportunism of Julius Caesar to the sadism of Nero to the doddering pederasty of Galba, the sexual lives of the Caesars encompassed every aspect of what our post-medieval time has termed ‘sexual abnormality.’ It would be wrong, however, to dismiss, as so many commentators have, the wide variety of Caesarean sensuality as simply the viciousness of twelve abnormal men. They were, after all, a fairly representative lot. They differed from us—and their contemporaries—only in the fact of power, which made it possible for each to act out his most recondite sexual fantasies. This is the psychological fascination of Suetonius. What will men so placed do? The answer, apparently, is anything and everything.”

List of Metroland Stories by Glenn Weiser                          ©2002 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved. 


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