The Roman Orgy Was Taboo, But Not Fictional (Part 4, Orgies at Aristocratic Banquets)

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The last great line of evidence for the existence of orgies involves subversive aristocratic parties. Although some of these stories seem most outrageous of all, the fact that so many of the sex parties in question were said to be held publicly, especially in the era of the Julio-Claudian emperors, makes it difficult to imagine that writers would be so audacious to completely fabricate their existence. Historians like Suetonius, Tacitus, and Dio Cassius, who all held high offices of state, would have been in a position to be called liars by their contemporaries if they were dishonest in their accounts of the recent past. But for all of the modern discourse about the unreality of the ancient sources, not a single voice survives from antiquity claiming that ancient historians were completely fabricating the idea of imperial orgies. In fact, while the historian Tacitus began his Annals by complaining that many historians of the early Roman empire exaggerated their accounts of the past and he explicitly promises not to do this in his own work, he nonetheless goes on to describe several examples of sex parties. This suggests that his accounts of the facts of Messalina and Nero’s notorious banquets must not have been considered especially controversial or untrustworthy by the historian.[1]

Allegations of group sex at aristocratic banquets extend into early periods of the history of Italy. The historian Theopompus of Chios wrote in the fourth century BC that banquets attended by both freeborn women and men were customary among the Etruscans, as was the practice of sharing wives. He insists that it was common to have sex with women and young men alike after dinner, sometimes in the open, but most of the time hidden by screens. Intercourse in public or in groups was par for the course after drinking parties.[2] Theopompus is an obscure author, and none of these claims can be definitively proved, though Plato also seems to have alluded to the “immorality” of the Etruscans, and a sarcophagus housed in the Louvre portrays group sex, as does an erotic engraving on a cup illustrating a homosexual male threesome next to a couple engaging in oral sex.[3] The “Tomb of the Floggings,” a famous Etruscan site, includes paintings of sadomasochistic whippings and group intercourse on its walls. Thus, a cultural and even artistic memory existed of casual group sex between free people in parts of Italy, albeit once upon a time. Interestingly, the scandal concerning the Bacchic orgies that we encountered earlier in this paper was also said to have originated in the permissive atmosphere of Etruria.

During the chaos of the first century BC, political invective in the courtroom sometimes evoked the atmosphere of sex parties for shock value and to slander political opponents. Cicero’s speech Pro Caelio of 56 BC describes wild aristocratic bashes and insinuates lascivious goings-on in an effort to discredit the aristocratic Clodia:

“If any unmarried woman has opened up her house to the passion of everybody and openly set herself up in the life of a prostitute and made it her habit to take advantage of the banquets (conviviis) of totally unknown men, if she does it in the city, in gardens, in the mobs at Baiae, if at last she carries herself in this way not just with her gait but by her way of styling herself and by her attendants, not just by the flashing of her eyes, nor the freedom of her conversation, but even by her embrace, her way of kissing, at beach parties (actis) and sailing parties (navigatione), at banquets (conviviis), so she might seem like not just a prostitute but even an aggressive and insolent one at that, I ask, Lucius Herrenius, if by chance a young man should sleep with her, whether he would seem to be an adulterer or a lover, to have assaulted her chastity or to have wanted to fulfill his libido (libidinem).”[4]

According to Cicero, Clodia was throwing parties which were associated with adulterous liaisons, and he compares her in front of a jury to a prostitute for doing so. Cicero might have been being completely facetious when it came to Clodia’s vices, and the speech is clearly a problematic source. However, it seems to me unlikely that charges of debauched parties in themselves would have seemed out of left field when this speech was delivered, or the orator would never have dared to make these allegations in front of a jury. In whatever way the historical Clodia was behaving, it is clear that sex parties were considered plausible in some contexts, especially those involving prostitutes. Otherwise Cicero’s association between these feasts and prostitution would not have made sense.

Other independent sources describing the collapsing Republic suggest that sex parties were indeed being held by the aristocracy, and that these parties were explicitly imitating the ambiance and set of behaviors characteristic of brothels. Valerius Maximus 9.1.8 describes how:

“equally outrageous was the banquet which Gemellus, a tribunician messenger free by birth but by employment base below servile condition, prepared for Consul Metellus Scupio and the Tribunes of the Plebs to the signal shame of the community. He set up a brothel in his house and in it as prostitutes Mucia and Fulvia, both famous through their husbands and fathers, and a boy of noble birth, Saturninus. Bodies infamously patient, destined to be playthings for drunken lust! Feast for a Consul and Tribunes not to attend but to punish!”[5]

While Valerius Maximus’ account is not necessarily accurate, it must at least be taken very seriously. The boy’s ancestor Cnaeus Saturninus was consul in 19 BC, and this kind of slander against a noble family would not have been made lightly.[6] At the same time, the action of setting up a brothel in one’s home and stocking it with aristocratic freeborn women is a highly specific accusation that seems to transcend generalizing slander about the sexual perversity of an author’s subject; indeed, such a charge comes up only once in all of Valerius Maxmus’ work. If all this discourse about orgies is just a trope blindly applied to all powerful people, why do the extant historical sources only bring up the charge in highly specific circumstances? The accusation of simulating a brothel in one’s house only comes up on occasion, in scandals famous enough to be on the public record. While it is possible that all this is slander, it seems equally plausible that a characteristic feature of an aristocratic Roman sex party might have involved imitating the ambiance of a brothel, with all of its attendant traditions and rituals. After all, the historical records attest that besides the questionable actions of mystery religions, this was the only other context in which group sex was imagined as taking place. As we shall see, long after the death of Valerius Maximus, Caligula, Messalina, and Nero were also accused of holding exactly these kinds of parties, with exactly the same kind of highly specific features evoking a bordello.

Other evidence for sex parties in the late Republic exists in the form of discourse between the future emperor Augustus and his brother-in-law Mark Anthony before their civil war against each other. Suetonius, who worked at the imperial court of the emperor Hadrian and had access to historical imperial documents, quotes a letter from Anthony accusing Augustus of committing adultery with women named Tertulla, Terentilla, Rufilla, Salvia Titisenia, or all of them at once.[7] Suetonius also describes Anthony’s reaction to a masquerade held by Augustus. It was a banquet at which guests were dressed as the twelve Olympians. Anthony spitefully referred to all the guests by name in a letter, and anonymous verses accused the party of being an orgy, with the future emperor “in the midst of new debaucheries of the gods.”[8] The fact that Suetonius quotes a popular ditty about the event shows that word of the festivities spread to the masses, who interpreted the feast as a pretext for group sex. Perhaps the commonality of group sex in certain contexts (including, increasingly, aristocratic banquets) made these stories plausible.

Even after Augustus became emperor, accounts of orgiastic parties continued into the era of the Julio-Claudian emperors. Again, it is possible that no sexual misconduct was actually taking place, and that when individuals were accused of participating in orgies, everything was being made up for the sake of political slander. But the implications of Augustus’ moral legislation criminalizing adultery, unprecedented in Roman history, cannot be denied—something about the state of Roman sexual norms must have inspired this aggressive law, which saw members of the emperor’s own family condemned and exiled under it.[9]

There is a good deal of evidence that Augustus’ daughter, Julia was banished for adultery committed in public, including even the accusation of an orgy in the Forum itself on the speaker’s platform. Velleius Paterculus 2.100 includes a catalogue of Julia’s lovers who were punished for adultery with the princess: Iulus Antonius, Quintius Crispinus, Appius Claudius, Sempronius Gracchus, and a certain Scipio. Seneca the Younger, a polymath who advised the emperor Nero and wrote both tragedy and philosophical works, confirmed the nature of the charges against Julia in On Benefits 6.32:

“The deified Augustus banished his daughter, who was more shameless than the term “shameless” can describe, and made public the scandals of the ruling house: her lovers admitted in packs, her nightly rambles through the city in drunken revelry, her choice of the forum itself and the rostra from which her father had proposed the law on adultery as favorite places for debauchery, and her daily visits to the statue of Marsyas, where turning from a mistress into a whore she sought the right to absolute license with partners she did not even know.”[10]

Rhetorically charged as they are, Seneca’s words cannot be dismissed on face as fancy. He was an imperial counselor, and his works would have been widely read at court. Moreover, the emperor Nero, for whom he worked, was Julia’s great-grandson. Pliny the Elder’s NH 21.9 similarly calls Julia “a paradigm of licentiousness” (exemplum licentiae), and the author expresses disapproval of her adultery at 7.147, with the additional charge that she had plotted against her father’s life. Dio 55.10 confirms that some sort of a political conspiracy was going on, since Iullus Antonius (the son of Mark Anthony) was forced to commit suicide for designs on the monarchy. When it came to Julia herself, however, Dio explains that “when (Augustus) at length discovered that his daughter Julia was so dissolute in her conduct as actually to take part in revels and drinking bouts at night in the Forum and on the very rostra, he became exceedingly angry.”[11] Dio even mentions that so many other women were also accused of “similar behavior” that the emperor was forced to put a statute of limitation on all the charges. Tacitus and Suetonius both agree about Julia’s fate and the fact that her sexual promiscuity is what precipitated her fall.[12] The late antique antiquarian Macrobius records an interesting anecdote in which, when asked how it was that Julia’s children resembled her husband despite her many lovers, she answered that “she only took on passengers when the ship was full.”[13]

Some years later, Julia’s daughter was also banished for adultery, and the poet Ovid too, whose Ars Amatoria seemed to flout imperial legislation against promiscuity. As the dynasty progressed, the princess Livilla, two of Caligula’s sisters, Messalina, and Nero’s wife Octavia were all implicated in charges of adultery, some on less grounds than others. In the case of Augustus’ daughter, contemporary scholarship affirms the ancient suggestion that she was probably involved in a plot against her father’s life, but sensitive to the misogyny of the ancient sources, almost uniformly downplays the accusations of orgy-going.[14] However, the fact remains that it is precisely Julia’s devotion to sex parties rather than her political aims which is accentuated by the majority of ancient historians. Forced to marry three men in succession at the emperor’s bidding, one can perhaps understand her rebellion against her father’s power over her. The fact that Dio mentions that many other women were also accused of similar “crimes” is also significant, since it implies that the “crimes” involved attending sex parties, and not political conspiracy against the emperor.

Under the next emperor, Tiberius, there existed several accusations of group sex by prostitutes known as spintriae, but only in the privacy of the monarch’s private retreat on the island of Capri. Suetonius describes the palace (which survives to this day, in ruins) as the “seat of secret lusts” (sedem arcanarum libidinum):

“Teams of wantons of both sexes, selected as experts in deviant intercourse and dubbed analists (spintriae), copulated before him in triple unions to excite his flagging passions. Its many bedrooms he furnished with the most salacious paintings and sculptures and stocked with the books of Elephantis, in case any performer should need an illustration of a prescribed position…He trained little boys (whom he termed minnows) to crawl between his thighs when he went swimming and tease him with their licks and nibbles. And unweaned babies he would put to his organ as though to the breast, being both by nature and age rather fond of this form of satisfaction.”[15]

While all of this seems incredible and the private actions of Tiberius on his island cannot be known for certain, we know that the next emperor Caligula publicly banished Tiberius’ spintriae at the start of his reign, so they were presumably real people.[16] In book 3 of his biography of Vitellius, Suetonius even records the rumor that the future emperor was once one of the spintriae, though the innuendo might simply be based on the fact that the young Vitellius spent time on Capri with the emperor. If Vitellius was really teased at the start of his reign, however, it is clear just how deep-rooted discourse was about what went on in Tiberius’ private life even decades later.

Whatever Tiberius’ activities on his island, during the reigns of the final three Julio-Claudian emperors (Caligula, Claudius, and Nero), members of the imperial family are described as openly holding orgies in public to flaunt their power over the aristocracy. Participation in what had once been dangerous private parties seems to have become suddenly obligatory. As usual, the ambiance of prostitution and party games which, as we have seen, are usually associated with brothels are consistently evoked in the descriptions of the parties. Suetonius wrote of Caligula:

“To leave no kind of plunder untried, he opened a brothel (lupanar) in his palace, setting apart a number of rooms and furnishing them to suit the grandeur of the place, where matrons and freeborn youths should stand exposed. Then he sent his pages around the for a and basilicas to invite young men and old to enjoy themselves, lending money on interest to those who came and having clerks openly take down their names, as contributors to Caesar’s revenues.”[17]

Dio Cassius also mentions forced prostitution in the palace at 59.28, asking “how could one keep silent about the rooms set apart in the very palace, and the wives of the foremost men as well as the children of the most aristocratic families that he shut up in those rooms and subjected to outrage, using them as a means of milking everybody alike?”[18] The more obscure writer Aurelius Victor repeats the accusation about Caligula: “In his palace, he subjected noble matrons to public wantonness.”[19]

The orgies of Messalina during the reign of the next emperor, Claudius, will be considered in the final part of this paper. The emperor after Claudius, Nero, was similarly accused of sponsoring public sex parties. Suetonius describes Nero’s actions, including forcing free born women into simulated brothels and even arranging faux marriages:

“Whenever he drifted down the Tiber to Ostia, or sailed about the Gulf of Baiae, booths were set up at intervals along the banks and shores, fitted out for debauchery, while bartering matrons played the part of inn-keepers and from every hand solicited to come ashore…He castrated the boy Sporus and actually tried to make a woman of him; and he married him with all the usual ceremonies, including a dowry and bridal veil, took him to his house attended by a great throng, and treated him as a wife…He so prostituted his own chastity that after defiling almost every part of his body, he at last devised a kind of game, in which, covered with the skin of some wild animal, he was let loose from a cage and attacked the private parts of men and women, who were bound to stakes, and when he sated his mad lust, was dispatched by his freedman Doryphorus; for he was even married to this man in the same way that he himself had married Sporus, going so far as to imitate the cries and lamentations of a maiden being de-flowered.”[20]

Dio Cassius 62.15 confirms the story of pubic orgies, mentioning a banquet arranged by Nero’s henchman Tigellinus incorporating the forced prostitution of free born matrons:

“They would also enter the brothels and without let or hindrance have intercourse with any of the women who were seated there, among whom were the most beautiful and distinguished in the city, both slaves and free, courtesans and virgins and married women; and these were not merely of the common people but also of the very noblest families, both girls and grown women. Every man had the privilege of enjoying whichever one he wished, as the women were not allowed to refuse anyone. Consequently, indiscriminate rabble as the throng was, they not only drank greedily but also wantoned riotously; and now a slave would debauch his mistress in the presence of his master, and now a gladiator would debauch a girl of noble family before the eyes of her father.”

Later, Dio Cassius 62.28 corroborates the public marriage to Sporus and a certain “Pythagoras,” perhaps a misnomer for the man Suetonius called “Doyphorus”:

“He caused a boy of the freedmen, whom he used to call Sporus, to be castrated, since he, too, resembled Sabina, and he used him in every way like a wife. In due time, though already “married” to Pythagoras, a freedman, he formally “married” Sporus, and assigned the boy a regular dowry according to contract; and the Romans as well as others publicly celebrated their wedding.”[21]

Finally, Tacitus 15.37 also confirms the existence of orgies attended by aristocratic matrons and mentions a simulated marriage to “Pythagoras”:

“On the margin of the lake were set up brothels crowded with noble ladies, and on the opposite bank were seen naked prostitutes with obscene gestures and movements. As darkness approached, all the adjacent grove and surrounding buildings resounded with song, and shone brilliantly with lights. Nero, who polluted himself by every lawful or lawless indulgence, had not omitted a single abomination which could heighten his depravity, till a few days afterwards he stooped to marry himself to one of that filthy herd, by name Pythagoras, with all the forms of regular wedlock. The bridal veil was put over the emperor; people saw the witnesses of the ceremony, the wedding dower, the couch and the nuptial torches; everything in a word was plainly visible, which, even when a woman weds darkness hides.”[22]

It is striking that the kinds of parties described by Valerius Maximus as taking place in the late republic, complete with aristocratic matrons staffing faux-lupinars, continue to be described over the course of the entire Julio-Claudian dynasty. Comic references to sex parties including competitions between prostitutes and even sham marriages (as we saw, for example, in the works of Juvenal and Petronius) are repeated with grave seriousness in accounts of the careers of Caligula, Messalina, and Nero. Contemporary scholars are highly dubious of the charges, pointing out the hostility of ancient historians to these individuals. But sometimes, where there is smoke, there is fire. For years, many doubted Dio Cassius when he mentioned at 59.28 that Caligula expanded his palace by joining it to the Temple of Castor and Pollux in order to keep the heavenly twins as his gate keepers. However, it was recently discovered that Caligula’s palace really was connected to the temple of Castor and Pollux.[23] All of these descriptions of humiliating public orgies held by members of the Julio-Claudian dynasty cannot be categorically dismissed as rhetorical exaggerations. These accusations were not universalizing tropes, since not all hated emperors were described as holding such parties. The emperor Vitellius, for example, is often described as a glutton, but he is never portrayed forcing women of senatorial families to prostitute themselves. Tellingly, literary references to imperially sponsored orgies die out after the discredited Julio-Claudian dynasty fell. It seems that only later emperors who toyed with the imagery of personal divinity re-adopted the old patterns, if the biographies in the fanciful Historia Augusta are to be believed. Commodus 5.4-5.8 talks of an emperor forcing matrons and prostitutes alike into a harem. Pertinax 7.8-7.9 mentions the next emperor selling off the members of the harem, except for its freeborn members. Elagabalus 24 claims that the emperor “opened brothels in his house for his friends, his clients, and his slaves.”[24] All of this might be dismissed as the repetition of slanderous gossip, but the preponderance of evidence suggests that modern historians should take the charges seriously enough to interpret them as potentially factual. Indeed, considering the violent nature of the imperial orgies which were described as degrading spectacles often involving rape, to completely insist upon the sources’ lack of veracity may be to deny justice to the institution’s historical victims.

***

[1] See Tac. Ann. 1.1.

[2] Theopompus, Hist.115 FGrHist F204 = Athenaeus 517d-518a. G.

[3] Georges Marbeck, Orgies (New York: Ipso facto, 1999). Pp. 227.

[4] Cic. Cael. 49.

[5] Translation by D. R. Shackleton Bailey in the Loeb Classical Library edition.

[6] For this suggestion, see Maximus Valerius and D. R. Shackleton Bailey, Memorable Doings and Sayings, 2 vols., Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000). Pp. 301.

[7] Aug. 69.

[8] Aug. 70.

[9] See Susan Treggiari, Roman Marriage : Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian (Oxford ; New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 1991).

[10] Translation by R. J. Tarrant in class pack for Literature and Arts C-61 (The Rome of Augustus), Spring 2002, Pp. 88.

[11] For translation, see http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/55*.html

[12] See Aug. 65, and Tac. Ann. 1.53.

[13]  Macrobius Sat. 2.5, 9-10.

[14] For the suggestion that allegations of sexual misconduct against powerful imperial women might be used as a pretext to eliminate dynastic rivals, see Edwards, The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome.

[15] For all translations of Suetonius, see J. C. Rolfe’s work in the Loeb Classical Library.

[16] Calig. 16.

[17] Calig. 41.

[18] Dio 59.28 at http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/59*.html.

[19] Aurelius Victor 3.7. See http://www.roman-emperors.org/epitome.html.

[20] Nero 27-29.

[21] See http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/62*.html.

[22] See http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/tac/a15030.htm.

[23] See http://news.stanford.edu/pr/03/caligula910.html.

[24] See http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Historia_Augusta/Elagabalus/2*.html.

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