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“Sex and Homosexuality in Suetonius’ Caesares”

Molly M. Pryzwansky

            B. Baldwin declared that Suetonius is “adamantine in his hostility towards male homosexuality” (503). Rightly cautioning against psychological inferences, Baldwin continues that since “diatribes against homosexuals are such a Roman commonplace,” Suetonius’ “tone need not be more than a conventional motif” (503).  While Baldwin’s verdict initially appears valid, a reconsideration of key passages in the Caesares together with scholarship on Roman imperial ideals both in- and outside Suetonius’ text (e.g., Wallace-Hadrill, Bradley, Noreña) leads to a more nuanced assessment.  Arguably it is not homosexuality per se towards which Suetonius is hostile.  Homosexual acts should not be decontextualized from other sexual deeds in the Caesares.  Suetonius is hostile to a range of sexual practices, whether hetero- or homosexual, that exhibit cruelty, lack of moderatio, disregard for social hierarchy, and/or passivity, whether to a male or female.

            The most titillating, and most discussed (e.g., Champlin, Williams, Vout, Woods, Griffin), homosexual acts in the Caesares are Nero’s marriages to Sporus as groom and Doryphorus as bride (Nero 28-29).  Scholars have emphasized, inter alia, artistic themes in the literary accounts (Tacitus and Dio included), theatrical elements, the historical reality of male-male marriages, religious rites, and political motives.  While these are valuable contributions and there is room to ask “what really happened,” a closer analysis of Suetonius’ presentation is warranted. The episode with the castrated Sporus (puerum Sporum, Nero 28, simultaneously connoting his youth and servility) does not stand alone, but is embedded in a passage on Nero’s violent sexual crimes including his seduction of free-born boys, sex with matrons, rape of a Vestal Virgin, relationship with his freedwoman-concubine Acte (whom he nearly treated like a proper wife), and incestuous desire for Agrippina (Nero 28).  The paragraph before dealt with Nero’s feasting and forced prostitution of respectable women (Nero 27), and the following with his submission to the freedman Doryphorus during a violent game (Nero 29).  Thus, Nero’s homosexual acts are not isolated, but are part of broader sexual misdeeds.  Arguably Suetonius is more interested in Nero’s viciousness, lack of self-control, and (as the abundance of words connoting social status suggest) his violation of the norms of social hierarchy: here is an emperor who has no respect for the free-born, matrons, priestesses, or the taboo of incest; who allows himself to be dominated by a freedman; and who treats a concubine like a lawful wife (iusto…matrimonio, Nero 28).

            The Iulius, Claudius, and Galba also illuminate Suetonius’ attitudes.  Caesar is chided for effeminate dress and for staining his pudicitia by submitting to Nicomedes (Iul. 2, 45, 49), but immediately following he is criticized for his “unrestrained” affairs with women (Iul. 50-52), among his other problems with moderate behavior.  Suetonius remarks that Claudius’ passions inclined towards women over men (Claud. 33), as if this were newsworthy, but this Life best illustrates Suetonius’ censure of an emperor who is dominated by others, in this case by wives and freedmen (Claud. 25, 26, 28-29, some of it sexual with the wives).  Thus, it is not perhaps an emperor’s submission to men that is the end-all-and-be-all; passivity to women also prompts criticism.  Suetonius similarly criticizes Galba for bending to others, among them his lover the “libertus Icelus” (Gal. 14).  Opposite Claudius, Galba is marked for his sexual preference for men, especially strong adults (Gal. 22).  He is said to have kissed Icelus passionately and openly (artissimis osculis palam, Gal. 22), reminiscent of Nero’s open conduct with Sporus (Nero 28).  With Galba, the openness confounds interpretation of his acts.   

            These readings show that a more nuanced understanding of Suetonius’ attitudes towards homosexuality is needed.  Heterosexual misdeeds can offend equally, and all sexual acts are mingled.  There are usually other factors to consider; homosexuality is typically not the sole issue, but the contributing factors of violence, failure to respect social boundaries, lack of moderation, and public display of private acts must also be considered.

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Stifling Sexuality?

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