Bisexual tyrants and courtiers disregard cautious philosophers and physicians



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Fancying himself a gladiator, Commodus (180 192), butchered cripples dressed as snakes and other handicapped or shackled adversaries before seventy or eighty thousand cheering spectators in the Coliseum. Beginning with Caesar's games, noble youths had entered the arena to prove their prowess against wild beasts, who may have been handicapped (Suetonius, Caes., 39). But the innovations reported of the bisexual Commodus, were indeed, if true, unprecedented and revolting beyond belief. He is also said, according to a not very reliable source ( ), to have prostituted himself to men and kept a harem of 300 boys and 300 girls. Fearing his paranoia, his Praetorian Praefect was inspired by his clever mistress to have Commodus's wrestling partner strangle him.
Commodus's successor, the sixty six year old City Prefect Pertinax, son of a freedman "pertinaciously" (hence his name) successful in the wool business provided with a Greek grammar teacher who had held many civil, military, and consular offices under his two predecessors, chosen by the Praetorian Guard, was murdered after only 87 days.
He held an auction of Commodus' possessions, even

ordering both the youths and the concubines to be sold,

except for those who appeared to have been introduced

into the palace by force. Many of those whom he

ordered to be sold were subsequently brought back to

service and ministered to the old man's pleasures.

Some of them even reached senatorial rank through

other principes. . . . About his wife's chastity

he cared little, although she was openly in love

with a lyre player. He himself, besides, is said to

have had a love affair with Cornificia {a daughter

of Marcus Aurelius}, in a most disgraceful fashion.

(Aug. Hist., "Pertinax")
The Guards put the empire up for auction. The highest bidder, the hen pecked senator Didius Julianus, commanded no respect, his elevation provoked revolts in Britain, Syria, and Pannonia, and he was murdered after only two months. Although his great  grandfather had twice been consul, in his desperation he had the insane idea of performing many acts through magicians, having boys gaze in mirrors with bandaged eyes after their heads were consecrated with spells. After several years of civil war the governor of Pannonia, Septimius Severus, vanquished all pretenders and founded Rome's first African (Semitic) dynasty.
The stern measures of the Severi briefly stemmed the decline by sacrificing the liberty and economic opportunity so fundamental to the Principate to secure pay for the troops.

Septimius began to use the title dominus ("lord" implying lord and master) from which the Dominate was coined to describe the new Oriental despotism that only took its final forms with Diocletian (284 305) and Constantine (306 337). The fifty years of total chaos that separated the last of the Severi, Alexander, assassinated in 235, from Diocletian, had utterly obliterated the old order that the early Severi had tried so hard to prop up.


A Latin speaking equestrian whose great grandfather had patronized Statius and who at 18 delivered an oration in his Punic speaking hometown of Leptis Magna before going to Athens to complete his studies, Septimius Severus (193 211) was the first Emperor to learn Latin as a foreign tongue. Septimius exemplified in his mature years the old Roman virtues that he tried to impose on what he regarded as a degenerate society: frugality, duty, and courage. However, "he did a lot of wild things in his youth, not all of them innocent. He was sued for adultery and spoke in his own defence, being acquitted by the proconsul Julianus," by which we must think pederasty was involved (Aug. Hist. "Severus"). But after the death of his first wife from Leptis, Severus's new Syrian wife Julia Domna, daughter of the priest of Baal in Emesa, and her family came more and more to dominate her weak imperial nephews after the early death of her own sons by Septimius. Julia introduced not only the mysticism favored by her family but more and more Oriental despotism. What connection did this have with the tradition of Scipio, Cicero, and Augustus?
Septimius's elder son and successor Caracalla (211 217) treacherously murdered his brother and co emperor Geta in their mother's arms and later the Prefect Papinian, "sanctuary of the law and treasury of legal learning" (Aug. Hist., "Severus"). In spite of his madness, he built the most magnificent baths in Rome and continued his father's reforms, making citizens of all the free inhabitants of the Empire in 212. An unforeseen consequence of this Antonine Edict, motivated, according to Dio Cassius, more by avarice to collect more citizens's inheritance taxes than by statesmanship ( ), was to make it harder to find a legal passive homosexual partner, since only slaves, freedmen, and foreigners were now fair game, provincials with some exceptions having now become citizens forbidden to assume the passive position. The great nephew of Julia Domna, Elagabalus (218 221) was a bizarre married transvestite, who derived his name from the god at Emesa whose priest he had become by heredity. He attempted to popularize his religion, worshipping a black conical stone with eunuch priests in saffron robes and cymbals and abstaining from pork. According to the Augustan History, a late and dubious source, though more reliable for the first half of his life as for earlier reigns, Elagabalus had agents search for men with "large organs and bring them to court so he could enjoy their amours" ("Heliogabalus," 5.3). His extravagances or orgies and his placing of his grandmother, Julia Maesa, in the councils, giving her a greater and more public role than any previous Roman woman, alienated the conservative senators and army and led to his murder. Even the "effeminate" Elagabalus married twice, once to a Vestal Virgin! ("Effeminacy" in both Rome and Greece often meant men who loved women too much and made love too frequently.) 28
Dominated by his mother Julia Mammaea, who was the sister of Soaemias and daughter of the Syrian Maesa, Alexander Severus (221 235), the cousin and adopted son of Elagabalus, is described as tall, handsome, virtuous, brave, and temperate by the unreliable Augustan History. This account was followed by Gibbon and even Burckhardt, and not corrected until 1889 by Dessau, in a rhetorical attempt to contrast him with Elagabalus: "Learning, and the love of justice, became the only recommendations for civil offices; valor, and the love of discipline, the only qualifications for military employments." 29 Alexander Severus ascended the throne at 14 rather than at 17 as Gibbon claimed 30 and at 17 married Oribana, the daughter of a Senator, whom a few years later his jealous mother had banished to Africa. He remained unmarried for the rest of his life. Mammaea, proclaimed the Mater Augusta, did appoint the distinguished jurist Ulpian head of the council, but though she may have tried to replace Elagabalus's worthless creatures with virtuous and able administrators, Alexander hardly rid Rome of the foreign superstition and luxury remaining from his predecessor's caprice. At Antioch on his Persian expedition Alexander is said to have punished some soldiers found in the women's baths. With the aid of historian Dio Cassius as consul, Alexander reformed the army which had been spoiled by the liberality of the earlier members of his dynasty. These reforms provoked numerous mutinies culminating in his assassination. A lack of funds due to reduction of taxes also contributed to his lack of popularity.
Julia Domna had had a literary salon upon the Palatine trying to restore classicism. It included the poet Appian, Aelian whose Historiae Variae has important anecdotes, the poet Gordian before he became emperor, Sammonicus Serenus the erudite doctor and book collector, and the elderly Galen who was often too sick to attend, as well as others who are mentioned in Atheneus's Doctors at Dinner. Atheneus also alluded to Philoenis, a poetess of obscene lesbianism, or perhaps a stock name in comedy for a lesbian. Hermogenes the orator tried to prune away overemphasis on rhythm on musical effects from orators. Julia Domna entrusted the memoirs of Damis, a Babylonian who claimed he had known Apollonius of Tyana the greatest of sorcerers and a follower of Pythagoras who lived under the Flavians, to Philostratus (c.170  245), a native of Lemnos and a habitue of her salon who tried to divert the empress from favoring old fashioned literary purism. He embroidered Damis's outline to emphasize Apollonius's pity for human suffering, love of his fellow men, deep religiosity evidenced in his worship of all the gods, particularly the Sun, and his Pythagorean prohibition of sacrificing living creatures. Apologist for Greek culture, Philostratus exploited the story of Apollonius, setting it against the Gospels as an example of an upright, noble, unselfish man conspicuous for his miracles and good works.
During the Persian War, Julia Mammaea had Origen brought to her headquarters so that he could acquaint her with his philosophy. Despite a tradition dating from Eusebius and the story of his biographer that Alexander erected a statue of Christ in his chapel, neither Mammaea nor her son Alexander were Christian, although they probably tolerated Christians with benevolence because there were many of them in the Palace ( ). Hippolytus of Rome (c.150 c.235) dedicated to Mammaea a treatise on the resurrection.
Raised by shepherds, the foundlings Daphne and Chloe fell in love and, after many adventures, including kidnapping by pirates, found their real parents and married as virgins. This heavily rhetorical Greek romance was perhaps composed by Longus c.200. The author probably had the Idylls of Theocritus before him because of the prominence of the bucolic tradition and scenery. The work contains yet another proof of the continuation of insouciant bisexuality of nymphs and shepherds, in love in idyllic but promiscuous circumstances. They were sometimes threatened with anal rape by satyrs. It is regrettable that the majority of these romances, ranging from the skepticism of the Pseudo Lucian to the religiosity of Apuleius, have perished. Full of magic and sex, they portrayed more of the opinions and conduct of the majority than did the austere Stoics or physicians who advised caution and abstention.
Restoring order after the dissipation of Commodus, the early Severi undertook the moral reformation of the Empire. The jurist in their council Paulus (f.c. 220) commented, "Anyone who soiled a free male by violating him suffers capital punishment. He who voluntarily submits to the infamous dishonor loses half his goods and cannot freely dispose by testament of the other half" (Mosaicarum et romanorum legum collatio, V, {in C.I.R.A.}). Because the active partner was thus still not punished if he did not violate free males, either the Lex Scantinia was not enforced

or, more likely, it had never covered cases without violence or undue pressure involving free males. If both consented, and the passive was unfree or freed, only the passive was penalized but surely no one punished slaves for submitting to masters, and in any case most slaves, having no goods, would not suffer. Death was also prescribed for heterosexual adultery (for both parties) even when consented to. So male active homosexuality without undue force or influence upon the freedmen or slaves was not punished before the Christian triumph and no laws concerned lesbianism.


Except for Gaius whose Institutes, an introduction to Roman Law, appeared under Hadrian, and the Greek speaking Modestinus (f.c. 250) from Illyria, the famous jurists whose opinions predominated in Justinian's sixth century Digest, all flourished under the Severi, Paulus and Papinian (d. 212) serving Septimius Severus and Ulpian (d.228), Caracalla and Alexander. Attempting to prop up the tottering system by resorting to the rationality, empiricism, and humanitas that had prevailed since their triumph in the Late Archaic Age, they all defined terms and refined the law for sexual and other areas so brilliantly that modern jurists still stand in awe. Augustus's Lex Julia had long compelled a husband to prosecute his wife's infidelity. The judge could now examine the accusing husband's morals "because it would be a great inequity that a husband could demand of his wife a modesty which could not be proven of himself" (Ulpian, Digest, 48, 5, 14). Three crimes, incest, (then comprehending sexual relations with adopted family or in laws), stuprum, and adultery, jeopardized a citizen's familial and social position. Any man who had sexual relations with a free boy or a free girl of good family and repute, was guilty of stuprum. A man could not have sexual relations with a free woman not registered as a prostitute, other than within marriage or concubinage, without incurring the penalties of stuprum covering young girls, widows, and wives as well as divorced or separated women and free boys (Modestinus, Digest, 48, 5, 35). In cases of sex with a virgin girl from a good family, both violator and violated were punished, unless rape could be proven, when one half of the rapist's goods were seized. If guilty, a widow with the status of mater familias still suffered the penalties of stuprum. Homosexuality as such, like fornication, still bore no penalties as long as the classical spirit of rationality that originated in Late Archaic Greece lasted.

NOTES CH.X


1. MacMullen (1982) 493.


2. Gibbon (1899)
3. {Book on eunuchs in Byzantine Empire}
4. Rousselle (1983) 29.
5. Richlin (1983) 44.
6. Verstraete (1987) 100 101.
7. Ibid. 96 97.
8. MacMullen (1982) 493 494.
9. MacMullen (1966) 46 48.
10. "Veyne {1978} pp. 52 and 62 n.6, denies the whole notion of "l'amour contre nature" in antiquity; still more emphatically, Boswell {1980} pp. 11 16, 21 n.40 (having to translate 'unseemly', though it is applied to things like cannibalism!), 109 113 and elsewhere denying any perception of homosexuality as unnatural. He does not mention the probative words in the very lines he has cited for other purposes, e.g. pp. 58 (Plut.), 63 (Dion. Hal.), and 82 (Juv.), 77 (Epict.), and 152 (Ovid)." MacMullen (1982) 494.
11. See Foucault (1986)
12.
13. MacMullen (1966) 141.
14. Lefkowitz and Fant (1982) 136.
15. Fox (1987) 57.
16. Dynes (1985) 11.
17. Richlin (1983) 258 fn. 2."At times Boswell {1980} ignores the difference felt by the Romans to exist between pederasty and "pathic" homosexuality (72), though he explains it himself (74 75); in his discussion of the lex Scantinia he speaks of 'homosexuality' without distinguishing between slave and ingenuus (68 70), as if the sexual use of slaves implies that the sexual use of the freeborn must be legal, or socially approved." See also MacMullen (1966) 84 ff.
18. MacMullen (1982) 499.
19. Verstraete (1987) 105.
20. Ibid. 102.
21. Veyne (1987) 2.
22. Fox (1987) 341.
23. Veyne (1987) 54.
24. MacMullen (1982) 500.
25. MacMullen (1966) 115 120.
26. Cambridge Ancient History XII 582.
27. Gibbon (1899) I 316.
28. Veyne (1987) 178.
29. Gibbon (1899) VI 406.
30. Gibbon (1899) VI 404.
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