LGBT Roman Emperors – the facts!

It’s surprising just how many Roman Emperors could be defined in today’s terms as LGBT. So, what are the stories and can we confirm the facts two thousand years later. Well, let’s go through a list of Roman Emperors who were in same-sex relationships and were very definitely non-binary. It’s a jaw-dropping list!

Kicking off the LGBT Roman Emperors list…with Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar: The Roman poet Catullus sarcastically commented that Caesar was “the husband to every woman and the wife to every man”. As a young man, the future dictator of Rome spent time on military campaigns in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The kingdom of Bithynia was a client state of the empire and Julius spent what was widely felt to be an inordinate period of time with its ruler, King Nicomedes IV.

Much older than Julius Caesar – and unfavourably portrayed as a lecherous geriatric ruling in the decadent East and coveting the youthful Roman. This sexual liaison was used as propaganda back in Rome against the ambitious Caesar. Suggesting that he had gone ‘native’ while out in the East and succumbed to all that sleaze and corruption. Allowing himself to be used as the plaything of an oriental despot.

Years later, the Bithynia episode led to a bawdy ditty being sung by the legions as they marched along: Gallias Caesar subegit, Caesarem Nicomedes. Which roughly translates as “Caesar laid Gaul while Nicomedes lay Caesar”. This annoyed Caesar so much that he swore on oath that there had never been a sexual relationship between him and the King of Bithynia. That didn’t stop Caesar being referred to behind his back as the Queen of Bithynia.

The Roman historian Suetonius was convinced the twenty year old Caesar shared a bed with the king and that – horror of horrors – he was the passive partner. Something an elite Roman would find unforgivable. By all means have a dalliance with another man – but always be the dominant party. Suetonius – who was quite a bitchy writer – referred to Caesar competing against the real Queen of Bithynia for the king’s affections: paelicem reginae, spondam interiorem regiae lecticae.

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Julio-Claudian LGBT Roman Emperors

All the first emperors of the so-called Julio-Claudian dynasty could have been classified as LGBT if contemporary sources and later writers are to be believed:

Emperor Augustus: The first acknowledged emperor of Rome is well-known for his tough laws on adultery and promiscuity. His legal prudishness even led to the banishment of his own daughter, Julia, to the island of Pandateria and the exile of the licentious poet, Ovid. But Augustus may have been over-compensating for the swirl of LGBT related rumours and accusations that dogged his youth.

Augustus was known as Octavian before becoming emperor. His rival for political power was the Roman alpha male, Mark Antony. On his coins, Mark Antony has the bearing of an American football quarterback or a rugby scrum half. In contrast, this Roman jock depicted Octavian as effeminate and incapable of military and political leadership. But Mark Antony went way further than that.

Through his brother, Lucius Antonius, Mark Antony accused Octavian of being the passive partner when having sex with a consul called Aulus Hirtius who reportedly paid the young Octavian for the experience. Octavian was also said to have cemented his alliance with Julius Caesar in between the sheets. All the more scandalous as Caesar adopted Octavian as his son and heir.

As we know, Octavian would go on to defeat all his enemies – including Mark Antony – and adopt the title Augustus. With almost absolute power, Augustus posed as the defender of ancient Roman morals.

For instance, he was once informed that a Roman actor called Stephanio was parading around the streets with a page-boy who it turned out was a married woman with her hair cut short. The scandalised Augustus had Stephanio whipped in three of Rome’s main theatres – those built by Pompey, Marcellus, and Balbus. He also forced an actor called Pylades out of Rome for making an obscene gesture at somebody in the audience with his middle finger.

All a far cry from the sexual liberality of the young Octavian!

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Tiberius: Tiberius took the reins of power after Augustus died. Already on the older side of middle age, he went into semi-retirement on the island of Capri leaving the business of government to others in Rome. Tongues wagged over what exactly he was up to on Capri and the stories got increasingly lurid.

Some of the accusations encompassed what we would now classify as pedophilia. The jaded emperor also brought together young women and adult male prostitutes. Obsessed with pornography, he would insist that a kind of live sex show was put on for his entertainment. All of this was intended to excite and ‘stiffen’ his flagging libido or as Suetonius puts in in Latin: ut aspectu deficientis libidines excitaret.

I think you get the drift!

Caligula and Nero:

Among the Julio-Claudians, two emperors stand out as the most deranged: Caligula and Nero. Though attempts have been made in recent years to rehabilitate both of them to a degree. They undoubtedly engaged in what we would regard as LGBT sexual activity. But their tastes were very broad – to put it mildly!

Caligula is accused of incest with two of his sisters and demanding sex with the wives of senators. But he also had a homosexual relationship with a senator called Valerius Catullus. This caused some consternation among upper-class Romans who didn’t mind that Caligula was seeing a male actor called Mnester, because it was fine for an elite Roman to have a gay fling with a lower-class person.

But with somebody of equivalent social rank, they needed to be sure that Catullus hadn’t been pressured into it. For his part – Catullus complained that he was literally worn out by the emperor’s demands in bed. Gay sex for pagan Romans was a fact of life. Many in the senatorial class engaged in LGBT activity, not just the emperors. But the ideal was an older, richer, man in a dominant role with a younger, lower social rank individual who took a passive role. This is uncomfortable for us today – and illegal where it was under age.

Should also mentioned that elite Romans were queasy about Caligula cross-dressing as he allegedly did. What you wore designated your position in society so emperors wearing dresses or imitating the Gods was not a good thing. Caligula, Nero, and Elagabalus were three emperors who ignored social and gender norms when it came to their attire to the horror of their social equals.

Nero was the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors. He had just kicked to death his pregnant second wife Poppaea Sabina when he decided to marry a male freed slave called Sporus who resembled her. This was according to the historian Cassius Dio. Just to get the resemblance even closer, Nero had Sporus castrated and in a wedding ceremony, Sporus was dressed as a bride.

Curiously on a later occasion, Nero held yet another wedding ceremony where the LGBT emperor dressed as a bride and married another freed slave dressed as the groom. Only Nero didn’t have himself castrated for this role. These accounts come from all the major historians of the time with Suetonius even claiming that Nero used to wear an animal skin and “assail with violence the private parts both of men and women, while they were bound to stakes”.

Emperor Hadrian and Antinous – an imperial LGBT romance!

The most famous LGBT relationship in Roman imperial history has to be that between the Emperor Hadrian and Antinous. The British Museum, Louvre, Prado, Vatican and other collections of Roman art are replete with busts of the beautiful LGBT youth – Antinous. Lover and companion of the Emperor Hadrian. Coincidentally from Bithynia where Julius Caesar had so much fun!

Hadrian the bearded Spaniard who rose to the top position in the Roman Empire. Antinous born a slave, freed, and lived as the lover of Hadrian. Often described by gay friends of mine as the perfect coupling of a “bear” and a “twink”.

Hadrian spent a big part of his reign on a tour of the empire. While sailing down the river Nile, Antinous drowned. Rumours have always swirled around this tragic death. Accident, suicide, murder, or ritual sacrifice? Whatever the circumstances, a grief-stricken Hadrian had Antinous turned into a God.

His cult centred on a new city called Antinoopolis whose impressive ruins lasted into the 19th century until locals ground up the remaining buildings for cement production. Hadrian’s intense love affair with Antinous wasn’t viewed negatively at the time although his reaction to the young man’s death was seen as over the top. Womanly even – in one sneering comment.

Other LGBT Roman Emperors – including the boundary pushing Elagabalus

Other LGBT Roman Emperors include Nero’s immediate successor Galba; the Flavian dynasty emperors Titus and Domitian; the “good emperors” Nerva and Trajan; Commodus (as featured in the movie Gladiator); and the notorious Elagabalus.

The latter LGBT emperor – Elagabalus – is a corker! A teenage ruler whose reign last four years until he was assassinated age just eighteen. Though in that time he managed to rack up four marriages to women – and a string of gay encounters. Roman writers commented on his use of a female hair net by Elagabalus and removing hair from all over his body. He wore mascara, powdered his face, and wore women’s clothes.

To the horror of respectable opinion he took several husbands and Cassius Dio claimed that Elagabalus prostituted himself. But where he truly crossed a line for Roman elite opinion was his partial castration. This has led some to claim that he was a transgender Roman Emperor – which seems a fair conclusion. Sadly the Praetorian Guard turned on the young emperor and assassinated him.


When the Roman Empire lost battles

We always think of the Roman Empire as being completely invincible. But the Romans lost a few battles and some of them pretty disastrously. There were at least two occasions when Roman emperors were killed and one where the emperor was captured and then executed.

Take for example the Battle of Carrhae in the dying years of the Roman Republic. This was a time when three men – the so-called Triumvirs – shared control of Rome. They were Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus. The latter was an obscenely wealthy senator who also famously crushed the slave revolt of Spartacus.

But in 53BC he overreached himself in a bid for glory by attempting to invade the Parthian Empire with its base in modern Iran. He marched a vast army through the deserts of the Middle East being drawn deliberately deep into Parthian territory. The enemy cut down the legions with an astonishing number of arrows that showered down ceaselessly. Here is an amazing computerised depiction of the battle.

Some of you will have watched Barbarians on Netflix. This is a loose retelling of how several Germanic tribes wiped out three legions under the control of a Roman general called Publius Quinctilius Varus under the first Roman emperor, Augustus.

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Like Crassus, Varus was guilty of overreach and hubris. He also ignored good advice when deciding to launch punitive raids against the so-called ‘barbarians’. At this stage of history the military balance favoured the Roman Empire overwhelmingly. But the terrain didn’t. Roman armies just weren’t cut out for fighting in dense forests and that proved to be their undoing.

And then if we go to the closing centuries of the Roman Empire, we come to the disastrous Battle of Adrianople in the year 378. The empire was now ruled by two co-emperors with Valens in charge of the eastern half with his capital at Constantinople.

He’d been moderately successful in repelling the Persian based Sassanian Empire in the east but then faced demands from a huge mass of Goths north of the Danube river to be admitted into the empire.

Now, this wasn’t unusual. The Romans had often allowed in tribes from outside the empire but they were disarmed on entry and settled on Roman terms. However, Valens was busy on the Sassanian border and the local governor simple didn’t have the troops to enforce the required conditions.

This led to an uncontrolled influx of armed Goths into Roman territory. The rest, as you might say, was history. By the time Valens marched his armies up to meet the Goths, the whole thing had spun wildly out of control. The resulting battle of Adrianople saw the Romans defeated and the emperor possibly burned alive after taking refuge in a barn.

Roman Coliseum arena

The Roman Colosseum – arena of death!

The Colosseum was the largest arena of its kind in the Roman Empire – a place where spectators came to watch executions, animal hunts and gladiatorial combat. At the end of any major festival, the place was literally dripping blood.

I’ve visited a few times and I wrestle mentally trying to imagine what it must have been like for a Roman spending the day there. Arriving to this huge structure with a ticket and entering under one of the many arches.

The scale of the building is best appreciated in the corridors that took you to your seat. And I hope I’ve conveyed that with the images below taken in 2015. If you were a slave or a woman, you’d have made your way to the upper galleries. Equites and Senators were closer to the front. And the emperor in the imperial box.

A Roman would have been treated to public executions as spectacle but also a warning that – this could happen to you! Crucifixion, burning and being attacked by wild beasts were the main forms of execution. But contemporary accounts also say that criminals were killed by re-enacting gory scenes in Greek and Roman myths.

Then wild beast hunts. When the Colosseum was first opened, the Roman audience watched thousands of animals slain. What happened to all these lions, tigers and leopards? Quite possibly their meat was offered to the populace as this was a society where the poor had a protein-deficient diet.

Finally, gladiatorial games where trained fighters fought in armour depicting traditional enemies of Rome. The gladiators were often well-known personalities like footballers today but their social status was the lowest of the low. They were slaves though if they survived long enough could save enough money to buy their freedom – if their master permitted it.

One final point, the Colosseum earned its name not from the size of building the enormous statue next to it. There was a huge statue of the Emperor Nero, estimated to have been about 98 feet high, that had been in place before the Colosseum was built.

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The site of the Colosseum had been Nero’s palace that covered about a fifth of the city. After his assassination, the palace was built over by the Flavian emperors: Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. They were making a public statement that Rome was a city for the people and not the play thing of one man.

But – for some reason – the statue stayed. And the Flavian amphitheatre was named after it. Some historians believe that the statue of Nero may have remained up to the seventh century AD. But at some point, it went. While the Roman Colosseum remained and despite being quarried and vandalised over two thousand years – it’s still with us.

Pompeii destroyed by a volcano!

It was 79 AD when a mountain near the Roman city of Pompeii did something rather unexpected – it exploded into life revealing itself as a volcano.

The green slopes of Vesuvius had hidden its true nature for centuries. But in that year, a cataclysmic eruption tore it apart sending a plume of fire far into the sky.

Pompeii volcano described: “Tree with a flaming trunk”

One contemporary account described it as looking like a tree with a flaming trunk and streaks of fire and smoke high above. That whole area of Italy was plunged into darkness only lit up by thundery streaks.

Death didn’t come instantly to thousands of people living nearby and many chose not to flee straight away. Instead, the stunned citizens of Pompeii decided to stick it out. Maybe they were still overcome with a degree of incomprehension – the sight before them was too much to absorb.

What happened next was the collapse of the enormous volcanic plume sending hot gas and rubble fanning out across Pompeii, Herculaneum and other the surrounding countryside.

At temperatures over a thousand degrees celsius, people were fried where they stood, sat or lay. It didn’t matter if they sought shelter – there was no escape from the Pompeii volcano.

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Pompeii rediscovered

It took 1500 years for Pompeii to be accidentally rediscovered under many feet of solidified volcanic material. Gradually, over the centuries, streets have been uncovered as well as town houses, temples and bath houses.

By pouring concrete into the spaces left behind by vaporised human bodies, we’re even able to see the positions that people died in. Sometimes their hands are raised and you can certainly see their mouths open for one last gasp.

I just visited Pompeii and felt the need to share some great images with you. Hopefully, you will get the opportunity to travel to southern Italy and see it for yourself!

Top Roman movies of all time!

The Roman Empire at the movies has often been great box office. Think Spartacus or Gladiator. Though there have been some box office stinkers too!

From the silent movie era to the CGI laden epics of modern cinema, the Roman Empire has always provided great material for film makers. Rome has gone in and out of fashion but the lure of sword and sandals means it’s always coming back again like a cinematic boomerang.

So – from the early days to our own time – here are the classic Roman movies!

ROMAN MOVIES: The silent era

In the early days of cinema, the Romans on the silver screen were voiceless. The talkies had yet to arrive so there was no audible clash of swords or trundling of chariot wheels. Nevertheless, Rome still gripped audiences. It was always good box office!

The Italian film industry got in early with The Last Days of Pompeii in 1913 – a feature length love story that ends with an erupting Neapolitan volcano. Italian directors never needed a second invitation to make movies about ancient Rome. And the Cinecitta movie studio built under the Mussolini dictatorship has provided convincing Roman backdrops for decades.

The 1913 movie is all about the final days of the Roman city of Pompeii, before the buildings and people of that ancient metropolis were incinerated by spewing lava and fumes from mount Vesuvius in AD 79.  The plot is quite operatic and of course the audience realise that many of the characters will be toast in about 90 minutes. But for its time – a compelling piece of cinema.

Ben Hur – a story written over 130 years ago – has gone through five movie versions of varying quality.  It’s based on a 19th century novel by the US civil war Union general Lew Wallace. The story’s hero is Judah Ben Hur who falls out with his boyhood Roman friend Messala who allows his Jewish buddy to be framed for a crime he didn’t commit.

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Ben Hur eventually gets his revenge by defeating Messala in a chariot race that leaves the nasty Roman mangled and dying. Redemption and happiness returns to Ben Hur when he accepts Christ – who he sees being crucified.

There are two amazing movie versions that I thoroughly recommend. The 1925 silent movie with Ramon Novarro in the lead is beautiful. It’s like art deco meeting ancient Rome.

Charlton Heston took the main role in the subsequent 1959 classic that was deservedly showered with Oscars and is still stunning today. In marked contrast, the 2016 movie is a gigantic turkey that should be avoided at all costs.

ROMAN MOVIES: Golden age of sword and sandals

The 1940s and 1950s were a golden age for sword and sandals biblical epics and ancient Rome featured heavily. 1951 saw Quo Vadis  – setting meek and mild Christian heroes against the capricious and evil emperor Nero. It assumed an audience steeped in the kind of Sunday school bible learning that you wouldn’t find in our more secular times – as well as an awareness of the finer details of Roman history.

Then there was Spartacus – a superior example of the genre directed by the legendary Stanley Kubrick. It tells the story of a huge slave revolt that really happened in the closing years of the Roman Republic – before it became the Empire.

The cast includes Kirk Douglas as the slave hero. Tony Curtis as his sidekick. Laurence Olivier as the Roman general Crassus. And Charles Laughton as Gracchus.

In this scene below, Crassus has defeated the rebel slave army. He asks which of the slaves is Spartacus so that he can punish the audacious rebel. In a very moving scene, one slave after another claims to be Spartacus. Watch and weep!

By the mid-1960s, the sword and sandals bubble finally burst. The movie Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton soared over budget. The scenes were opulent and jaw dropping with vast numbers of extras and gargantuan studio sets – but the returns to the studio were too thin. Rome had got too bloated for its own good.

ROMAN MOVIES: The Empire Strikes Back!

For the next 35 years, the Romans were put up on a high shelf and sort of forgotten. As far as Hollywood was concerned, the Roman Empire was past its sell-by date. But then in 2000, UK director Ridley Scott bravely resurrected the imperial glory with his movie Gladiator.

For those of us yearning for some swords and some sandals on the big screen again, this was a miracle. When it premiered, I went to see it three times without being bored once. It’s still a remarkably watchable movie. Tightly scripted and with inspired casting. Russell Crowe’s brooding Antipodean growling suited the lead character. And I loved the campy performance from the late Oliver Reed.

It’s a genuinely good film and you can tell because there are so many memorable lines.