three pairs of lovers with space

ROMAN HISTORY AD 14-70 BY TACITUS

 

Cornelius Tacitus (ca. 56-ca. 120 AD) was  a Roman senator who wrote much the most thorough and authoritative history of Rome in the first century AD. His Histories, written in the first decade of the next century, covered the period AD 69-96.  His Annals was written afterwards, but covered the preceding period back to AD 14. Most of both are lost, leaving only AD 14-70 covered, and that with considerable gaps. The Greek love contents of both works are presented here together, the Annals first.

With some of the anecdotes related by Tacitus, it is particularly hard to determine whether the sex referred to was pederastic or not.[1] In deciding what to include, this website’s policy is to include with a caveat everything to do with homosexuality where the age of the younger participant is unknown, on the grounds that Roman homosexual desire was usually assumed to be directed towards boys. However, where the weight of evidence in a particular case suggests that a boy or unbearded youth was most likely not the object of desire, the passage is excluded. Annals V 3 and XVI 19 are worth mentioning as uncertain passages excluded on these grounds.

The translation of Books I-III of the Annals and all of the Histories is by Clifford H. Moore in the Loeb Classical Library volumes 111 and 249 (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1925-31). That of Books IV-XVI of the Annals is by John Jackson in the Loeb Classical Library volumes 312 and 322 (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1937).

 

Annals I 54

Explaining how there could be “disturbance due to the rivalry of the actors” at the newly-instituted Augustal Games in AD 15:

Augustus had countenanced these theatrical exhibitions in complaisance to Maecenas, who had fallen violently in love with Bathyllus.[2]
Horace, Virgil and Varius at the house of Maecenas by Charles François Jalabert, 1846
Indulserat ei ludicro Augustus, dum Maecenati obtemperat effuso in amorem Bathylli;
The emperor Augustus (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

 

Annals I 73

Recounting the emperor Tiberius’s ominous resuscitation towards the end of AD 15 of the Lex Maiestatis covering “any act … of official maladministration diminishing the ‘majesty of the Roman nation’ "

It will not be unremunerative to recall the first, tentative charges brought in the case of Falanius and Rubrius, two Roman knights of modest position; if only to show from what beginnings, thanks to the art of Tiberius, the accursed thing crept in, and, after a temporary check, at last broke out, an all-devouring conflagration. Against Falanius the accuser alleged that he had admitted a certain Cassius, mime and catamite, among the "votaries of Augustus," who were maintained, after the fashion of fraternities, in all the great houses. To Rubrius the crime imputed was violation of the deity of Augustus by perjury.  Haud pigebit referre in Falanio et Rubrio, modicis equitibus Romanis, praetemptata crimina, ut quibus initiis, quanta Tiberii arte gravissimum exitium inrepserit, dein repressum sit, postremo arserit cunctaque corripuerit, noscatur. Falanio obiciebat accusator, quod inter cultores Augusti, qui per omnis domos in modum collegiorum habebantur, Cassium quendam, mimum corpore infamem, adscivisset, Rubrio crimini dabatur violatum periurio numen Augusti. 

 

Annals IV 1

Describing the origin and character of Aelius Sejanus, the extremely ambitious “prefect of the praetorian cohorts”, who by the year 23 exercised a powerful influence on the emperor Tiberius:

Born at Vulsinii to the Roman knight Seius Strabo, he became in early youth a follower of Gaius Caesar, grandson of the deified Augustus; not without a rumour that he had disposed of his virtue at a price to Apicius,[3] a rich man and a prodigal.
The emperor Tiberius (Museo Ara Pacis, Rome)
Genitus Vulsiniis patre Seio Strabone equite Romano, et prima iuventa Gaium Caesarem divi Augusti nepotem sectatus, non sine rumore Apicio diviti et prodigo stuprum veno dedisse,
Marcus Gavius Apicius, best known as a gourmet
 

 

Annals IV 10

On the death of the emperor Tiberius’s only son Drusus in September AD 23, engineered by Sejanus, the Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, who had seduced Drusus’s wife Livia:

In recording the death of Drusus, I have given the version of the most numerous and trustworthy authorities; but I am reluctant to omit a contemporary rumour, so strong that it persists to‑day. It asserts that, after seducing Livia to crime, Sejanus, by an indecent connection, also attached to himself the eunuch Lygdus,[4] whose years and looks had won him the affection of his master and a prominent place among his attendants; that later, when the conspirators had agreed upon a place and time for the mortal dose, he carried audacity to the point of altering the arrangements, and, giving private warning to Tiberius that Drusus meditated the poisoning of his father, counselled him to avoid the first draught offered to him when he dined with his son; that, falling into the trap, the old emperor, on taking his place at the banquet, accepted the cup and passed it to Drusus; and that when Drusus, in complete ignorance, drained it as a young man would, suspicion only grew the darker — the assumption being that, out of fear and shame, he was inflicting upon himself the doom invented for his father.
Sejanus, depicted in the television series I, Claudius
In tradenda morte Drusi quae plurimis maxi­maeque fidei auctoribus memorata sunt rettuli: set non omiserim eorundem temporum rumorem, validum adeo, ut nondum exolescat. Corrupta ad scelus Livia Seianum Lygdi quoque spadonis animum stupro vinxisse, quod is2 aetate atque forma carus domino interque primores ministros erat; deinde inter conscios ubi locus veneficii tempusque conposita sint, eo audaciae provectum, ut verteret et occulto indicio Drusum veneni in patrem arguens moneret Tiberium, vitandam potionem, quae prima ei apud filium epulanti offerretur. Ea fraude captum3 senem, postquam convivium inierat, exceptum poculum Druso tradidisse; atque illo ignaro et iuveniliter hauriente auctam suspicionem, tamquam metu et pudore sibimet inrogaret mortem, quam patri struxerat.
Drusus, the emperor Tiberius's son (Museo del Prado, Madrid)
 

 

Annals VI 1

In AD 32 and referring to the aged emperor Tiberius:

Caesar crossed the channel that flows between Capreae and Surrentum, and skirted the shores of Campania, in doubt whether to enter the capital or no,—or, possibly, affecting the intention of arrival because he had decided not to arrive. After landing frequently at neighbouring points and visiting the Gardens by the Tiber, he resorted once more to the rocks and the solitude of the sea, in shame at the sins and lusts whose uncontrollable fires had so inflamed him that, in the kingly style, he polluted with his lecheries the children of free-born parents.[5] Nor were beauty and physical charm his only incitements to lasciviousness, but sometimes a boyish modesty and sometimes a noble lineage. And now were coined the names, hitherto unknown, of sellarii and spintriae, one drawn from the obscenity of a place, one from the versatility of the pathic; while slaves, commissioned to seek and fetch, plied the willing with gratuities, the reluctant with threats, and, if a kinsman or parent refused compliance, resorted to force, abduction, and the slaking of their own desires as if in a captured city.  Capreas et Surrentum interluit freto Campaniam praelegebat, ambiguus an urbem intraret, seu, quia contra destinaverat, speciem venturi simulans. Et saepe in propinqua degressus, aditis iuxta Tiberim hortis, saxa rursum et solitudinem maris repetiit, pudore scelerum et libidinum, quibus adeo indomitis exarserat, ut more regio pubem ingenuam stupris pollueret. Nec formam tantum et decora corpora, set in his modestam pueritiam, in aliis imagines maiorum incitamentum cupidinis habebat. Tuncque primum ignota antea vocabula reperta sunt sellariorum et spintriarum ex foeditate loci ac multiplici patientia; praepositique servi, qui conquirerent1 pertraherent, dona in promptos, minas adversum abnuentis, et si retinerent propinquus aut parens, vim raptus suaque ipsi libitia velut in captos exerces bant. 
by Gaston Goor, 1963

 

Annals XI 2

In AD 47, the former consul Decimus Valerius Asiaticus was arrested as a convoluted conspiracy by the emperor’s wife Messalina to take over his pleasure gardens, the senator Publius Suillius Rufus acting as her instrument to secure his execution:

Nor was access to the senate allowed: he was heard inside a bedroom, with Messalina looking on and Suillius formulating the charges: corruption of the military, who, he alleged, were bound in return for money — and worse — to every form of infamy; adultery with Poppaea; and, finally, sexual effeminacy. The last imputation was too much for the defendant's taciturnity:— "Question thy sons, Suillius, he broke out; "they will confess me man!"[6] Neque data senatus copia: intra cubiculum auditur, Messalina coram, et Suillio corruptionem militum, quos pecunia et stupro in omne flagitium obstrictos arguebat, exim adulterium Poppaeae, postremum mollitiam corporis obiectante. Ad quod victo silentio prorupit reus et “Interroga” inquit, “Suilli, filios tuos: virum esse me fatebuntur.” 

 

Annals XI 36

Following the exposure of the promiscuous adulteries of the emperor’s wife Messalina and her plotting with her principal paramour in 48, those guilty of involvement were executed. …

In the cases of Suillius Caesoninus[7] and Plautius Lateranus, the death penalty was remitted. The latter was indebted to the distinguished service of his uncle: Suillius was protected by his vices, since in the proceedings of that shameful rout his part had been the reverse of masculine.[8] Suillio Caesonino et Plautio Laterano mors remittitur, huic ob patrui egregium meritum: Caesoninus vitiis protectus est, tamquam in illo foedissimo coetu passus muliebria.  

 

Annals XIII 17

On the rape and murder of 13-year-old Britannicus Caesar by his adoptive brother, the new 17-year-old emperor Nero in early AD 55:

The assertion is made by many contemporary authors that, for days before the murder, the worst of all outrages had been offered by Nero to the boyish years of Britannicus: in which case, it ceases to be possible to regard his death as either premature or cruel, though it was amid the sanctities of the table, without even a respite allowed in which to embrace his sister, and under the eyes of his enemy, that the hurried doom fell on this last scion of the Claudian house, upon whom lust had done its unclean work before the poison.
Nero as Pontifex Maximus, around the time of Britannicus's murder
Tradunt plerique eorum temporum scriptores, crebris ante exitium diebus illusum isse pueritiae Britannici Neronem, ut iam non praematura neque saeva mors videri queat, quamvis inter sacra mensae, ne tempore quidem ad complexum sororum dato, ante oculos inimici properata sit in illum supremum Claudiorum sanguinem, stupro prius quam veneno pollutum.
1st-century bust, very probably of Britannicus Caesar in his last year

 

Annals XIV 42

In AD 61:

Shortly afterwards, the city prefect, Pedanius Secundus, was murdered by one of his own slaves; either because he had been refused emancipation after Pedanius had agreed to the price, or because he had contracted a passion for a catamite, and declined to tolerate the rivalry of his owner. Haud multo post praefectum urbis Pedanium Secundum servus ipsius interfecit, seu negata libertate, cui pretium pepigerat, sive amore exoleti incensus et dominum aemulum non tolerans.

 

Annals XV 37

On the deeds of the emperor Nero in AD 64:

He himself, to create the impression that no place gave him equal pleasure with Rome, began to serve banquets in the public places and to treat the entire city as his palace. In point of extravagance and notoriety, the most celebrated of the feasts was that arranged by Tigellinus; which I shall describe as a type, instead of narrating time and again the monotonous tale of prodigality. He constructed, then, a raft on the Pool of Agrippa, and superimposed a banquet, to be set in motion by other craft acting as tugs. The vessels were gay with gold and ivory, and the oarsmen were catamites marshalled according to their ages and their libidinous attainments.[9] He had collected birds and wild beasts from the ends of the earth, and marine animals from the ocean itself. On the quays of the lake stood brothels, filled with women of high rank; and, opposite, naked harlots met the view. First came obscene gestures and dances; then, as darkness advanced, the whole of the neighbouring grove, together with the dwelling-houses around, began to echo with song and to glitter with lights. Ipse quo fidem adquireret nihil usquam perinde laetum sibi, publicis locis struere convivia totaque urbe quasi domo uti. et celeberrimae luxu famaque epulae fuere, quas a Tigellino paratas ut exemplum referam, ne saepius eadem prodigentia narranda sit. igitur in stagno Agrippae fabricatus est ratem, cui superpositum convivium navium aliarum tractu moveretur. naves auro et ebore distinctae; remigesqe exoleti per aetates et scientiam libidinum componebantur. volucres et feras diversis et terris at animalia maris Oceano abusque petiverat. crepidinibus stagni lupanaria adstabant inlustribus feminis completa, et contra scorta visebantur nudis corporibus. iam gestus motusque obsceni; et postquam tenebrae incedebant, quantum iuxta nemoris et circiumiecta tecta consonare cantu et luminibus clarescere.
The Romans of the Decadence by Thomas Couture, 1847

                                                                            

Histories III 33

Describing the mayhem that ensued when troops fighting for Vespasian to become emperor captured Cremona in northern Italy on 24 October 69:

Forty thousand armed men burst into the town; the number of camp-followers and servants was even greater, and they were more ready to indulge in lust and cruelty. Neither rank nor years protected anyone; their assailants debauched and killed without distinction. Aged men and women near the end of life, though despised as booty, were dragged off to be the soldiers’ sport. Whenever a young woman or a handsome youth fell into their hands, they were torn to pieces by the violent struggles of those who tried to secure them, and this in the end drove the despoilers to kill one another. Quadraginta armatorum milia inrupere, calonum lixarumque amplior numerus et in libidinem ac saevitiam corruptior. Non dignitas, non aetas protegebat quo minus stupra caedibus, caedes stupris miscerentur. Grandaevos senes, exacta aetate feminas, vilis ad praedam, in ludibrium trahebant: ubi adulta virgo aut quis forma conspicuus incidisset, vi manibusque rapientium divulsus ipsos postremo direptores in mutuam perniciem agebat.
The assault on Cremona, 24 October 69

 

Histories, IV 14

Explaining the uprising in the summer of AD 69, when Vitellius was emperor, of the Batavians, a Germanic tribe inhabiting the delta of the river Rhine:

At the orders of Vitellius a levy of the young Batavians was now being made. This burden, which is naturally grievous, was made the heavier by the greed and licence of those in charge of the levy: they hunted out the old and the weak that they might get a price for letting them off; again they dragged away the boys to satisfy their lust, choosing the handsomest—and the Batavian boys[10] are generally tall beyond their years. These acts aroused resentment, and the leaders in the conspiracy, on which they were now determined, persuaded the people to refuse the levy.  Iussu Vitellii Batavorum iuventus ad dilectum vocabatur, quem suapte natura gravem onerabant ministri avaritia ac luxu, senes aut invalidos conquirendo, quos pretio dimitterent: rursus impubes et forma conspicui (et est plerisque procera pueritia) ad stuprum trahebantur. Hinc invidia, et compositae3 seditionis auctores perpulere ut dilectum abnuerent.
The Batavian revolt, AD 69

[1] This is partly due to the peculiar character of Roman homosexuality. Cultures with a pederastic ethos, such as ancient Greece or Japan, have considered it acceptable for boys both to be desired and to accept lovers, but have tended to draw a clear distinction between them and men, who were expected to have moved on from the passive role and whom it would anyway be in bad taste to desire. No such clear distinction existed in Rome, where it was unacceptable for a freeborn male Roman of any age to take the passive role, but always socially acceptable to take the active role. Hence, though attraction to boys was much more common, no moral distinction was drawn between pedicating them or men and the tone in which both were discussed was unhelpfully similar.

[2] Maecenas was a close friend of the emperor Augustus. Bathyllus was a well-known actor by about 18 BC (Cassius Dio, Roman History LXIV 17 v), but his age is unknown.  That he was a boy when Maecenas was in love with him is thus no more than guesswork based on usual Roman taste.

[3] M. Gavius Apicius, most famous as a gourmet.

[4] Following the fall of Sejanus eight years later, and revelations by his former wife, Lygdus and another slave confessed under torture to Lygdus having been the one who administered the poison, on which grounds Tacitus refutes the “rumour” he is recounting here.  Lygdus’s fate after confessing to murdering the emperor’s only son can only be guessed.

[5] Note here that it is the sex being with freeborn children that outraged Tacitus. The stupris translated by Moore as “lecheries” meant more precisely sexual outrages perpetrated on the pudicitia (sexual integrity) of boys by getting them to take a passive sexual role unfitting to their status as freeborn Romans. In exactly the same way, Cassius Dio’s only mention of Tiberius’s sexual behaviour, also referring to this period, was to observe that “the sensual orgies which he carried on shamelessly with persons of the highest rank, both male and female, brought him ill repute” (Roman History LVIII 22 i). Only Suetonius’s fuller account of the emperor’s sexual antics (The Twelve Caesars II 43-4, qv. on this website) conveys implicit criticism of the cruelty and excess of his lust, and significantly he too only speaks of Tiberius’s time on Capri. In fact, the accident of archaeological discovery has revealed that long before this Tiberius had a collection of pueri delicati (pretty slave-boys, often naked, who performed gentle tasks like pouring wine and were available for sex). Funerary inscriptions from the imperial household include two whose only occupation was beautician to the glabrorum (implicitly-male smooth or hairless ones) or puerorum (boys) of Tiberius Caesar, ie. Tiberius before he became Augustus (emperor) in AD 14 (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum: vol. VI part 4 Inscriptiones Urbis Romae Latinae, edited by Christian Hvelsen (Berlin, 1902) nos. 8956 and 33099). Pedicating one’s slave-boys was not, however, a stuprum or worth remarking on.

[6] Asiaticus’s implication (and counter-insult) is that he has penetrated Suillius’s sons, this being how they know he is a real man.  Note that it was the charge of effeminacy, rather than those of corruption or adultery, that he found insufferable, and that he clearly thought it better to be thought guilty of the stuprum (outrage) of pedicating a freeborn Roman than of this. This is a classic exposition of Roman ideas of what was manly and acceptable. See note 8 to the next passage for why it is quite likely Asiaticus really had penetrated at least one of Suillius’s sons.

[7] Craig Williams, Roman Homosexuality (2nd edition, ) 217 says “he was almost certainly one of the sons of the P. Suillius Rufus” of the last passage quoted.

[8] Williams, op. cit., translates the last phrase more accurately as “he had submitted to the woman’s role”. Williams says “Tacitus’ wording implies that Caesoninus had confessed it himself” and, explaining why he should have done so, says “Perhaps Caesoninus made the revelation in a desperate attempt to clear himself of the suspicion of adultery with the emperor’s wife: he was otherwise occupied. Or he might have been relying on the kinds of prejudices that the two men in Saturninus’ army counted on: Claudius would reckon that if Caesoninus had been so shameless as to play “the woman’s role” openly, he would not have been admitted to the inner circle of conspirators. Or his self-defense could have combined both of these considerations.” Since it was believed, it is surely likely to have been true, in which case it becomes not only even more likely that he was one of the sons of P. Suillius Rufus whom Asiaticus claimed to have penetrated, but also more likely that Asiaticus’s claim was true.

[9] Exoleti, the word here translated as “catamites”, means males worn out either through being past their prime, or through excessive use as prostitutes. Seneca the Younger makes it clear that they could sometimes be adolescents (Epistles 95 xxiv). All else being equal, men who be more likely, but in the case here, it seems highly probable from their being “marshalled according to their ages and their libidinous attainments” that they included both boys and men.

[10] Moore’s “children” is here twice amended to “boys”, which is implied, in the first instance (where the Latin word is impudes, literally pre-pubescents) by the fact that a levy of girls would not have been unthinkable, and, in the second  by pueritia (boyhood).