If you only need to know one thing about Roman attitudes towards sex, it’s that they’ve given us our word “vagina” which, in Latin, translates as the sheath of one’s sword. Macho and militaristic, elite Roman culture revolved as much around a man’s ability to demonstrate his sexual power as it did around scoring political points against rivals by accusing them of effeminacy or sexual depravity. Since many of the early Roman emperors were phenomenally unpopular with the Roman elite, and it was the elite who wrote the histories, this is why the emperors have come down to us as templates for erotic degeneracy and sadistic cruelty (in the literature the two are often indistinguishable).
But how much of what we think we know is true? In this article, we’ll be looking at anecdotes from “The Lives of the Twelve Caesars” by the first century AD court biographer Suetonius—who, if you’ve never read him, is essentially the ancients’ answer to a Daily Mail columnist. A lot of what he wrote might be fanciful and fictitious. But by adding historical context and comparing his anecdotes with those of other writers, we can at least get a feeling for the sexual attitudes of the authors if not for sexual acts of their subjects.
Admittedly Julius Caesar is better known to history as the penetrated rather than the penetrator. Sexually speaking, however, he was both. Known as the “bald adulterer” Julius Caesar fit the Roman political stereotype perfectly by sleeping his way to power. As a young man he spent a considerable amount of time at the court of King Nicomedes of Bithynia, fuelling a series of rumors about an affair in which Caesar was the submissive party. His return to Bithynia just a few days after leaving to “collect a debt” only fanned the flames.
The Roman biographer Suetonius tells us that this was the only stain on Caesar’s masculinity. But it was a stain that proved difficult to wash out and he would be reminded of it throughout his prematurely ended life. One colleague, Bibulus, addressed Caesar as “the queen of Bithynia.” During an assembly, a man named Octavius hailed his co-consul Pompey as “king” and Caesar as “queen”. Even the great Cicero couldn’t resist a poke, writing that it was on a Bithynian couch that Caesar—the son of Venus—lost his virginity.
He was just as badly behaved in the provinces, his veni, vidi, vici mantra applying just as much to his sexual conquests as to his military. While in Egypt he had a fling with another historical A-lister, Cleopatra, who forced their introduction by having herself smuggled into his palace wrapped in a carpet. She clearly made an impression. Within nine months she gave birth to their son Caesarian; an unfortunate child who wouldn’t survive the purges of Caesar’s successor Octavian. Caesar’s behavior in Gaul didn’t go unnoticed by his men either. During his military triumph celebrating his success there they chanted:
“Men of Rome, look out for your wives,
We’re bringing the bald adulterer home.
In Gaul you fucked your way through a fortune
Which you borrowed here in Rome.”
With Caesar returning, there was good reason for men to lock up their wives (and, indeed, daughters). Caesar had slept his way through the rank and file of aristocratic Roman women, even seducing the wives of fellow consuls and political allies. But these weren’t the only exploits his soldiers sang about on this triumphal occasion. They couldn’t resist making reference to his submission to a certain Bithynian king (boys will be boys) and in the course of their banter also boomed out: “Caesar might have conquered the Gauls but Nicomedes conquered him!”
Homosexual tendencies weren’t frowned upon in Roman culture per se. Granted, they might earn you the derision of your macho-militaristic cohort. But, as long as sexual favors were given for the purpose of advancing your own political career, they could be overlooked. At least it showed some degree of interest in the proper, political values an upper class Roman should have. This doesn’t exonerate Caesar in his colleagues’ eyes. But, when Gaius Scribonius Curio, an orator and outspoken opponent of Caesar, called him “a man to every woman and a woman to every man”, it at least took something of a sting out of the tail.