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.

Homosexuality and the abuse of psychology

Homosexuality throughout history has been a matter of concealment, adapting or risking an open expression of your sexuality. In the last hundred years, it’s clashed head on with the relatively new science of psychology.

My parents both worked in psychiatric care in the 1960s and I recall a particular book they had about gay men called – The Homosexual Outlook. It was a classic work of post-war psychology that would be laughed at now – by most people.

That psychology tome on homosexuality had an unintentionally hilarious chapter titled On the gayest street in town and it detailed, as if describing the mating rituals of an animal species, how gay men hook up.

Two strangers approach each other gingerly and then one chap might say – ‘say fellow, have you got the time?’ Apparently, they would then analyse how the other person was holding their cigarette and on the basis of that decide whether to take things further!

Ironically, this 1953 psychology study was actually a defence of homosexuality – but you’d struggle to think so today. This was a time when American gay men were still firmly in the closet with a few heroic exceptions. And the world of psychiatry still treated same sex relationships as a disorder.

Early psychology and homosexuality

Go back another 50 years and you have the best selling work on psychiatry – Degeneration – by Max Nordau. He thought that human beings were gradually degenerating as a result of urbanisation.

Writing in the 1890s when Europe was enjoying a cultural and artistic boom, all Nordau could see was decadence and the destruction of human minds. And he saw the open display of homosexuality as a big part of the problem.

He had several targets and one of them was – Oscar Wilde. Nordau was particularly offended that Wilde had “walked down Pall Mall (an upmarket street in London) in the afternoon dressed in doublet and breeches with a picturesque biretta on his head and a sunflower in his hand”.

Nordau – speaking for many conservative chaps in the world of psychology – angrily dismissed this very visible expression of homosexuality as “anti-social ego mania”.

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Dressing up for the sake of it is mental illness!

In a rather curious abuse of psychology, Nordau attempts to argue that human dress is primarily about exciting the opposite sex in order to encourage procreation.

Because Wilde is dressing just to annoy people, he “evinces a perversion of the instinct of vanity”. Say that phrase with a Germanic accent and you capture the flavour of Nordau!

Psychology versus the homosexuality of Oscar Wilde

And he goes on: “Oscar Wilde apparently admires immorality, sin and crime”. Nordau was particularly shocked that when Wilde was asked about the real-life murder of a woman called Helen Abercrombie, he blithely remarked: “Yes, it was a dreadful thing to do – but she had very thick ankles”.

He puts this all down to Wilde’s uncontrolled ego and – in a more sinister observation – says that Wilde “is a pathological aberration of a racial instinct”.

Oscar Wilde – flamboyant or mentally ill?

In truth, Nordau wasn’t a great psychiatrist. In fact, he was a conservative snob and bigot who cloaked his prejudices in the upcoming science of psychology.

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But, incredibly, up until the 1960s, homosexuality was still viewed as a mental disorder with some linking it to narcissism and a dysfunctional ego. The American Psychiatric Association only voted in 1973 to de-classify same sex relationships as a mental illness.

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And incredibly, the World Health Organisation only removed homosexuality from its ICD classification in 1992. ICD stands for “ego-dystonic sexual orientation”.

Nordau would have approved of that classification! But thankfully the world of psychology has mended its bridges these days with the reality of homosexuality.