Monday, February 20, 2012

Sexual innuendo and character assassination in the ancient world


Portrait of Caligula. Photographed at theGetty Villa in Malibu, California by Mary Harrsch.    

Whenever I review a novel set in the ancient world I always read up on the history behind the novel before I prepare my review of the work.  I just finished reading "Caligula", a novel by Douglas Jackson, and I remembered that years ago I had picked up a slim "history" text entitled "Caligula Devine Carnage: Atrocities of the Roman Emperors" by Stephen Barber and Jeremy Reed. So I thought I would begin my research with it.  Fortunately, for me, the reign of Caligula was covered in Chapter 1 of Barber and Reed's little tome so I didn't have to slog through any more sewage than was absolutely necessary.

The foreward in this historical travesty, subtitled "Orgy of Death" proclaims:

"Ever since the cinematic holocaust of Tinto Brass' blood-splattered porno epic Caligula in 1980, connoisseurs of visceral history have thirsted for more information and details on the pleasuredomes and necrodromes of Ancient Rome.  Yet the true glories of the Roman Empire - the slaughter, the sexual depravity, the insanity - were virtually impossible to glean from the handful of arid, academic texts available.  Finally, here is a book which counts - a book which pointedly eschews the mind-numbing minutiae of politico-military history and instead brings the glorious, often shocking decadence of Ancient Rome to bloody, pulsating life. "
"Here are the incredible cruelties, vices and vanities of emperors such as Caligula and Claudius [see Chapter One], Nero [see Chapter Four], Commodus [see Chapter Three] and Heliogabalus [see Chapter Four] in uncensored and vivid relief.", James Havoc, Caligula Divine Carnage: Atrocities of the Roman Emperors.

In my opinion, I have never read such trash pawned off as history in my entire life! Perhaps I'm just not a "connoisseur of visceral history!"  For those of you thirsting for more details on the slaughter and depravity of the Roman Empire, however, I can share some choice morsels.


Did you know that early in his reign, Caligula supposedly had a lavish amphitheater built where he and Drusilla fornicated publicly for the mob's enjoyment? Well, neither did I.   Just to be sure I haven't become senile in my retirement, though, I double checked Suetonius' bio of Caligula, one of the few ancient sources still available on the topic and probably the most salacious of the bunch.  Suetonius, despite the fact that Pliny the Elder claims he was a serious, studious type, seemed to enjoy inserting sexual entendres in his discourse and was not above embellishing his accounts with delicious details that he could not have possibly known - especially considering that he wrote his biography of Caligula almost 80 years after Caligula's reign.

In p441 of Thayer's translation, Suetonius begins with a general undocumented statement that Caligula engaged in incestuous relations with his sisters (a common slur between Roman political rivals) then it reads " and at a large banquet he placed each of them in turn below him, while his wife reclined above."

Roman couch and footstool with bone carvings and glass inlays
 possibly from the villa of co-emperor Lucius Verus 161-169 CE.
Photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Mary Harrsch.


In modern terms this sounds like he was having a public "threesome" with them, although a banquet would hardly qualify as an amphitheater seating thousands of leering spectators.   However, good scholars consider the context of the period and realize that it could have been merely a criticism of the reclining arrangements on the dining couches since Roman society was tightly controlled by rank and position. Thayer's translation is also a bit awkward which doesn't help. But using the word reclining in the passage, especially since the activity is stated to have taken place at a banquet, makes me think that Suetonius is trying to make a rather ludicrous play on words to infer a sexual liaison from a situation where one did not really exist.

Barber and Reed also claim Drusilla, Caligula's sister and rumored paramour, actually died from too much fornication rather than a fever.  Even Suetonius doesn't go that far.

Barber and Reed go on to describe a wild orgy aboard the famous Nemi ships that ended with the sexually sated participants being burned alive when the ships were set ablaze in the conclusion of an orgiastic spectacle that Caligula conceived in his demented mind. That's funny. If the ships were set ablaze how were they recovered intact from the lake bed by Mussolini just before WWII? Maybe Barber and Reed got their timing all mixed up when he read about the ships being burned by the Nazis as they retreated from Italy?


Historical photo of Caligula's "Nemi" ships courtesy of Joe Geranio.


The climax of chapter one (if you'll excuse the pun) described how Caligula planned his own assassination to be staged in front of the crowd in a gold and silver appointed amphitheater. In the center of the arena Caligula placed a golden altar and when Cassius Chaerea struck off Caligula's head it was so artfully done that his head bounced perfectly up onto the altar just as Caligula had planned it!

I can't believe that when you Google Stephen Barber he is hailed as an "award-winning" writer. Whoever wrote the reviews for his book about Caligula (or should I say chapter)  either knew absolutely nothing about history or never read the book at all.

Sadly, I guess that happens a lot. I read an article written by a woman trying to convince people that they could make a living writing reviews based on book dust covers and, considering a number of reviews I have read on line, apparently there are a number of people doing precisely that!
Of course Barber included no footnotes.  In his book where the bibliography should have been he gives us a general statement about his sources:

"This account is drawn from contemporary sources, biographies, manuals, polemics and newly-excavated documents (notably the "Butrinte Caligula"), as well as from works of the following centuries, from the golden era of Roman scholarship in Germany in the 1900s-1910s, and - least usefully by a wide margin - from recent biographies of Caligula and Commodus.  All material of every kind written on the Roman era, whatever its date of composition, reflects the structures and gaps and limitations of its time, and it would require the most omniscient oracle to say definitely what was authentic." - Stephen  Barber, Caligula Divine Carnage: Atrocities of the Roman Emperors

This certainly sounds like a cop out to me.

But, how reliable are even the ancient sources covering the reigns of Caligula and his predecessor Tiberius?  What political motivations could have influenced their sources?  I pose this last question because our most complete source on Caligula is Suetonius who was at one time an imperial secretary for Hadrian, decades after the actual reign of Caligula.  Therefore Suetonius had to have relied upon much earlier sources.

Some scholars have speculated that this earlier source material may have included a significant amount of political propaganda put forward by the power base that brought the emperor Claudius to the throne.  Caligula was actually popular with the Roman mob who probably needed to be assuaged after his assassination. I would take this suggestion a step further and speculate that not only was the material about Caligula politically manipulated but that even the end of Tiberius' reign suffered collateral damage in an effort to lay the groundwork for Caligula's reputed maniacle behavior.

The emperor Tiberius wearing the
Corona Civica.  Photographed at the
Museo Archaeologico Nazionale di Napoli
 in Naples, Italy by Mary Harrsch
Tiberius, through most of his reign, demonstrated that he was a competent administrator and militarily gifted general.  His serious demeanor did not endear him to the Roman populace, unlike Germanicus, and, apparently, he was not well-liked by Augustus and ended up as successor simply because there was nobody else left in the line of succession.  He seemed to be a reluctant ruler  who disliked the mud-wrestling nature of Roman politics and after the particularly nasty business of Germanicus' suspicious death and the subsequent suicide of the suspected assassin procurer, Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso (who it is reported was about to implicate Tiberius), Tiberius retreated to the island of Capri and left Sejanus in charge.

One thing I have realized over the years as I have studied ancient Rome is that the basic nature of humankind, despite all of the technological advances, has not really changed.  As social creatures, we become suspicious of individuals who separate themselves from the community and attempt to live an isolated existence.  The ancient Romans were no different.  Rumors spread that Tiberius must have been involved in unnatural activities on his island retreat and these rumors blossomed into tales of sexual depravity reported many years later by Suetonius.  But were these stories simply a result of purient speculation or an orchestrated effort by Claudian propagandists to point out how unworthy Caligula was as Tiberius' successor?

Most of the stories revolved around pederasty, detailing how Tiberius imported children and young men to satisfy his sexual appetites.  This included having the youngsters swim around in the palace's pools, nibbling on Tiberius.   Hence, the reference to his little "minnows", of which Caligula was one (although Caligula was not a child but a young man of 19 when he was asked to join Tiberius on Capri after the deaths of Livia and Octavia).

But what was the actual Roman attitude toward pederasty?

"Preeminent among Roman biases was a conviction that Greeks were excessively self-indulgent and inordinately fond of a life of luxury.  One might, then, have expected Roman writers to make use of pederasty as a major weapon in their assault against Greek cultural traditions, but they quite noticeably fail to do so.  And while we might conjecture that the influence of Greek culture encouraged an increased tolerance of pederastic relationships, ancient writers themselves give us little reason to do so, for they most often associate the influence of Hellenism with an increased tolerance of traditionally discouraged heterosexual practices, such as the poetic celebration of adulterous affairs or a luxurious overindulgence in female prostitutes.  In fact, the verb graeccari ("to act like a Greek") and its compounds, far from suggesting pederasty, evoke a hedonistic indulgence in food, drink and love, often in the company of female prostitutes; Festus for example, defines pergraecari as "being devoted to banquets and drinking-parties."  Likewise, in one after another condemnation of Greek decadence we hear not of pederasty but of a general levitas, hedonism or luxuriousness."  - Roman homosexuality by Craig Arthur Williams

Historically, gender or age of a sexual partner was considered irrelevant if the dominant sexual partner was Roman, especially if the submissive partner was a slave.  Procured participants would fall into that category.
However, Rome's martial society frowned upon a freeborn Roman male assuming a submissive role in any sexual encounter, hence, the implication that Caligula had done so would be, by far, the most scandalous part of the stories recorded as part of Tiberius' bio.

If Caligula, Tiberius' adopted heir, was involved in these aquatic escapades, Tiberius would only be viewed by traditionalists as violating an ancient custom that forbade the co-mingling of a father and son in the baths.

"According to Plutarch, Cato observed that his son's presence encouraged him to speak as decently as if he were in the presence of Vestal Virgins, and indeed he refused to bathe with his son.  Plutarch adds that this corresponded to an old Roman tradition: even fathers-in-law avoided bathing with their sons-in law. " - Roman homosexuality by Craig Arthur Williams

So the scandalous issue was not Tiberius' involvement in pederasty, if it even took place, but that he may have bathed with his adopted son.

"The resistance to nudity among traditionalist Romans (apparently an uphill battle) was not connected to questions of acceptable or unacceptable sexual desires but rather to more general questions of decent behavior among Roman citizens." - Roman homosexuality by Craig Arthur Williams
But according to Tacitus, Tiberius was so traditionally proper that he issued a written reprimand in 29 CE chastening the young Caligula for "love affairs with young men and unchastity not in accordance with ancestral traditions" shortly after Tiberius' mother Livia died - less than 8 years before Tiberius himself died.  As there was no reported episodes of stroke or illness in connection with Tiberius, how could such a traditionalist degenerate in such a short time into an individual who sexually frolicked with children in the baths?

Mosaic in bath complex in Herculaneum.
Photographed by Mary Harrsch
Furthermore, Suetonius himself says Caligula could not swim so if Caligula had been involved in water "sports", it would have had to have been in shallow water. Caligula was also said to have suffered from "the falling sickness," like Julii before him, so it would have been imprudent for Tiberius to risk his heir by exposing Caligula to the potential hazard of a seizure in the water.

When you read Suetonius, you must also stop and ask yourself, how did he know (or his sources know) about activities going on in the emperor's private apartments?  Ancient historians and philosophers existed on the patronage of emperors and other ultra-wealthy citizens.  Unlike today's yellow journalists, they would not take the risk of interviewing body servants of the imperial family to get the latest gossip.  They would not even consider interrogating imperial slaves (if they wanted to keep a luxurious roof over their heads and food on the table).  So, I tend to dismiss details of sexual adventures that supposedly occurred behind closed doors since  there would always be a big question mark as to how such information was acquired and it was a common ploy in elite Roman society to use sexual innuendo to damage the dignitas of a political rival.

I place more credance, however, in descriptions of behavior that were observed at public gatherings.  In the case of Caligula, it was not his private sexual behavior that is most disturbing, but his public brutality that is far more appalling and I have little doubt that the brutality he suffered in his formative years as his family was decimated (I use this word in the modern sense not the literal ancient sense) by power politics produced a man capable of extreme brutality himself.

"He forced parents to attend the executions of their sons, sending a litter for one man who pleaded ill health, and inviting another to dinner immediately after witnessing the death, and trying to rouse him to gaiety and jesting by a great show of affability. He had the manager of his gladiatorial shows and beast-baitings beaten with chains in his presence for several successive days, and would not kill him until he was disgusted at the stench of his putrefied brain. He burned a writer of Atellan farces alive in the middle of the arena of the amphitheatre, because of a humorous line of double meaning. When a Roman knight on being thrown to the wild beasts loudly protested his innocence, he took him out, cut off his tongue, and put him back again." - Suetonius, The Life of Caligula from The Lives of the Caesars

Much is made of Suetonius' reports that Caligula often selected sexual partners from his dinner guests then reported back to their husbands about the unfortunate woman's performance.  I would not be surprised if these charges were true.  However, Caligula is not the first powerful Roman to use sex to demean those who may be viewed as political rivals.  Julius Caesar was notorious for seducing the wives of his political opponents, although he was far more clandestine about it than Caligula, preferring his opponents to appear to be so politically impotent that they could be cuckolded by a rival.

Detail from "Romans of the Decadence" by Thomas Couture, 1847 CE.
Photographed at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, France by Mary Harrsch.


Caligula's behavior seems consistent with the "I'll show you" attitude that Caligula apparently possessed.  Caligula used overt demonstrations of his unlimited power throughout his brief 3 1/2 year reign, such as the building of the bridge across the Bay of Naples, to convince the Roman populace and, in my opinion, even himself, that he could do whatever he could imagine and he appeared to have a very fertile imagination.  Did this confirm that he was clinically insane?  No, I don't think so.  I think it is just an example of absolute power corrupting absolutely.   I just know I wouldn't want to be a member of his imperial court.

Whenever I read an account of a Roman who is described as "way out there", I also ask myself about later motivations of those involved in the transcription of ancient source documents as well as ancient authors.  I find it interesting that the colorful and demeaning biography of Caligula by Suetonius has come down to us almost totally intact while almost the entire section of Tacitus' Annals dealing with Caligula's reign, with the exception of a few derogatory statements, has been "lost".  Most ancient manuscripts were copied and recopied over the centuries by monks who belonged to a religion that had its own axes to grind.  When Christianity became the state religion after the reign of Constantine, pagans were actively persecuted and the Roman elite during the predominately pagan period of Roman history were vilified in efforts to convert remaining pagans to monotheism. See Persecution of Pagans by the Christian Roman Empire.

Having watched the ever-popular History Channel series "The History of Sex", I also can't help but wonder about those lewd illustrations found in the margins of medieval manuscripts and consider the possibility that the same apparently sexually-deprived individuals that were copying the ancient texts may have inserted some of their own fantasies in the process.  Unfortunately, it's something we probably will never know unless we discover something other than philosophy in the remaining charred papyri from the Villa dei Papyri in Herculaneum.


Roman Archaeology Timeline