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!

DISCOVER: LGBT men hanged in 18th century London

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.

Celebrating LGBT Muslims in history

Abu Nuwas – a great Muslim scholar who wrote unashamedly about LGBT love

Muslim LGBT visibility has been increasing in recent years. On Pride in London – Muslim LGBT groups are often very vocal and one carried a placard last year saying: “See ya down at the mosque!”

Obviously this scandalised many. But there is a strong LGBT tradition in the Muslim world going right back through the centuries.

It may come as a surprise to know this but in Muslim history, homosexuality was often considered as perfectly acceptable. And there were leading scholars and even members of the ruling elite who expressed love and affection for members of their own sex.

Many Muslims I know today are exasperated that bigoted views within Islam – especially from violent extremists – have clouded out the more exotic and colourful history of the religion. They also dispute claims that the Qur’an prohibits gay and lesbian love. In fact, it doesn’t even mention homosexuality.

The rulings that are often cited from anti-LGBT Muslims frequently come from later “hadiths” – claimed sayings of the Prophet – that range from reliable to totally unreliable in terms of authenticity. Or they originate in the schools of jurisprudence that arose centuries after the Prophet’s death in the Abbasid Empire.

I was surprised several years ago to find wall paintings in a bathhouse in Jordan dating back to the two hundred years after the emergence of Islam that depicted dancers and even animals like bears playing musical instruments.

It sparked my realisation that Islam was far more tolerant a thousand years ago than it is in many countries today. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get back to that version of the faith with its inclusivity and joyousness. Let me give you some examples of LGBT people in Muslim history.

Abu Nuwas was a poet whose full name was Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn Hani al-Hakami and he lived most of his life in Baghdad – the incredible capital of the Abbasid Empire. Much of his poetry is too racy to quote here but this is one of his milder verses:

He sports a short tunic over his slender thighs
But his shirt is long of sleeve.
His feet are well-shod, and under his coat
You can glimpse rich brocade.

Other Muslim poets in history who publicly declared their homosexuality included the Persian Ibn Dawud (868-909 CE), the Andalusian Ibn Quzman (1080-1160 CE) and Ibn Hamdis (1053-1133 CE) who lived in Sicily when it was under Muslim rule. None of them faced a real threat of being put to death because in the “Golden Age” of Islam (when Muslim culture influenced the whole of Europe), the authorities turned a blind eye.

So why did things change?

The usual explanation is that the European powers introduced harsh anti-homosexual legislation in Middle Eastern countries when they ruled them in the 19th and early 20th centuries. That’s, however, part of the story. Because since then, the same European powers have liberalised their attitudes and laws towards LGBT people – while in contrast the Middle East has, if anything, got way more intolerant.

Why?

The main reason is the emergence of political Islamism which has characterised homosexuality as a western decadent phenomenon. Since the 1979 Iranian revolution – but even before that – there’s been a movement against LGBT rights that we can see getting worse in countries today like Indonesia.

It’s very sad to see countries that once had a vibrant LGBT scene – even if it was underground – now becoming fiercely homophobic. Take for example the detention in Lebanon last year of the organiser of a Gay Pride march. This in a country where the capital Beirut was once described as the “Paris of the eastern Mediterranean”.

This leaves many LGBT Muslims feeling marginalised and some even coming to believe that they might even be undermining their own faith by “tainting” it. Mercifully, there are those prepared to speak out bravely and advocate a reconciled Muslim and LGBT identity. Groups like Imaan in the UK come to mind.

And in many ways, they are helping to revive a traditional, pluralist and tolerant Islam that if revived, could help us all to move forward together in harmony.

Now isn’t that a nice idea?

LGBT men hanged in London – in 1743

Attitudes towards LGBT people have changed over the centuries. Sometimes there have been periods of relative tolerance followed by extreme cruelty. The eighteenth century was incredibly camp when it came to fashion and manners but you could be hanged by the neck for being an active homosexual.

I know because two LGBT men were hanged for the crime of sodomy near where I live in the year 1743. They had basically cruised each other in central London and then been caught in the act.

LGBT men hanged for their sexuality

Kennington and the surrounding area has a big LGBT population these days but being gay in 1743 could have landed you in terminal trouble. In fact, the sorry scene that unfolded in August of that year reminded me of the hangings of gay people recorded in Iran in recent years.

But this was London – and barely 250 years ago. The scene of the execution was near Kennington Park pictured below in the mid-winter.

Kennington Park (formerly Common) where executions once took place

LGBT men hanged in public

James Hunt and Thomas Collins were accused of the crime of “sodomy”. The two men were from the parish of Saint Saviour’s in Southwark and had committed an act “not fit to be named among Christians” in June that year.

Both denied the charge. Hunt was 37 and Collins was 57, so both mature, grown men. Not that their age made the slightest bit of difference in an eighteenth century courthouse.

Hunt was born in Rotherhithe, reasonably well educated, apprenticed to be a barge builder when young, raised as an Anabaptist but deemed to be a bit bolshy.

While in prison, he was preached at by an Anglican vicar who reminded him that his soul was in danger of eternal torment. Hunt responded that it was those who had brought the false charges against him who had truly sinned. With the prospect of being hanged in public, it’s not surprising that Hunt continuously denied being gay.

Who wouldn’t?

Men hanged for being LGBT in public

Collins was from Bedfordshire and had served in the army, been married and a father to several children. His wife was from Southwark. Coming back to London, having been away, he was walking across London Bridge on his way to see his granddaughter. As he turned into Pepper Alley, he saw Hunt walking in front of him.

Collins asked Hunt if there was a “necessary house” nearby – for which read, public toilet. They both went in together but then two other men entered and Collins claimed they set about mugging them but found no valuables to take. Or as Collins put it – here is no feathers to pluck.

Unfortunately, the account given by Hunt put himself in the privy before Collins so their accounts clashed a bit on detail. Enough to result in a death sentence by the court.

Hunt had given his version of events to the aforementioned Anglican vicar who then passed on the damning testimony. Unsurprisingly, when the time of execution arrived, Hunt was in no mood to pray with the man of the cloth who had brought him and Collins to the gibbet.

Hunt said he was glad to be rid of this life. And he and Collins both died together. They were strung up to a tree, then the cart that had brought them drove away from under their feet. After half an hour they were cut down. Collins’ body was taken for dissection – a common practice in those days – but he was returned as his body revealed signs of venereal disease.

Terrible and brutal times for the LGBT community. Happier days now. A sad story of two gay men hanged for the crime of love.