three pairs of lovers with space

CASSIUS DIO’S ROMAN HISTORY: AD 33-69

 

Cassius Dio, a Greek who was twice Roman consul, wrote the eighty books of his Roman History down to the year 229 in the years down to that date and after 22 years of research.  On this page is presented the Greek love content of Books LXI to LXV, covering the period from the accession of the emperor Nero in AD 54 to the death of Vitellius in 69.

The translation is by Earnest Cary and Herbert Foster in the Loeb Classical Library volumes  125-126 (Harvard, 1924-5) with two amendments explained in footnotes.

 

LVIII 22

On the emperor Tiberius in AD 33:

But the sensual orgies which he carried on shamelessly with persons of the highest rank, both male and female, brought him ill repute.[1]

ἐκ δὲ δὴ τῶν ἐρώτων, οἷς ἀνέδην καὶ τῶν εὐγενεστάτων καὶ ἀρρένων καὶ θηλειῶν ὁμοίως ἐχρῆτο, διεβάλλετο. 

 

LXI 9 ii

On the excesses of the 18-year-old emperor Nero, as he proceeded to gratify himself without restraint in AD 55:

[…] secretly, however, he carried on nocturnal revels throughout the entire city, insulting women, practising lewdness on boys, stripping the people whom he encountered, beating, wounding, and murdering. He had an idea that his identity was not known, for he used various costumes and different wigs at different times; but he would be recognized both by his retinue and by his deeds, since no one else would have dared commit so many and so serious outrages in such a reckless manner.  […] κρύφα δὲ νύκτωρ ἐκώμαζε κατὰ πᾶσαν τὴν πόλιν, ὑβρίζων ἐς τὰς γυναῖκας καὶ ἀσελγαίνων ἐς τὰ μειράκια, ἀποδύων τε τοὺς ἀπαντῶντας, παίων τιτρώσκων φονεύων. Καὶ ἐδόκει μέν πως λανθάνειν (καὶ γὰρ ἐσθῆσι ποικίλαις καὶ κόμαις περιθέτοις ἄλλοτε ἄλλαις ἐχρῆτο), ἠλέγχετο δὲ ἔκ τε τῆς ἀκουλουθίας καὶ ἐκ τῶν ἔργων· οὐδεὶς γὰρ ἂν τοσαῦτα καὶ τηλικαῦτα ἀδεῶς οὕτως ποιῆσαι ἐτόλμησεν.
Nero and his tutor Seneca, by Eduardo Barrón, 1904 (Museo del Prado, Madrid)

LXI 10 iii-v

On the philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca “the Younger” who had been the future emperor Nero’s tutor when he was in his early to mid teens as well as his advisor on his succession, but whose influence by this stage, AD 58, was in decline:

In stating thus much I have also made clear what naturally went with it—the licentiousness in which he indulged at the very time that he contracted a most brilliant marriage, and the delight that he took in boys past their prime, a practice which he also taught Nero to follow. And yet earlier he had been of such austere habits that he had asked his pupil to excuse him from kissing him or eating at the same table with him.

For the latter request he had a fairly good excuse, namely, that he wished to carry on his philosophical studies at leisure without being interrupted by the young man’s dinners. As for the kiss, however, I cannot conceive how he came to decline it; for the only explanation that one could think of, namely, his unwillingness to kiss that sort of lips, is shown to be false by the facts concerning his loved-boys.[2]

[iii] τοῦτο γὰρ εἰπὼν καὶ τἆλλα τὰ ἀκόλουθα αὐτῷ δεδήλωκα, τάς τε ἀσελγείας, ἃς πράττων γάμον τε ἐπιφανέστατον ἔγημε καὶ μειρακίοις ἐξώροις ἔχαιρε, [iv] καὶ τοῦτο καὶ τὸν Νέρωνα ποιεῖν ἐδίδαξε, καίπερ τοσαύτῃ πρόσθεν αὐστηρότητι τῶν τρόπων χρώμενος ὥστε καὶ αἰτήσασθαι παρ᾿ αὐτοῦ μήτε φιλεῖν αὐτὸν μήτε συσσιτεῖν αὐτῷ.

[v] καὶ τούτου μὲν καὶ πρόφασίν τινα ἔσχεν, ἵνα δὴ καὶ φιλοσοφεῖν ἐπὶ σχολῆς δύνηται, μηδὲν ὑπὸ τῶν δείπνων αὐτοῦ ἐμποδιζόμενος, τὸ δὲ δὴ τοῦ φιλήματος οὐκ ἔχω συννοῆσαι διότι ἐξέστη· ὃ γάρ τοι καὶ μόνον ἄν τις ὑποπτεύσειεν, ὅτι οὐκ ἤθελε τοιοῦτο στόμα φιλεῖν, ἐλέγχεται ἐκ τῶν παιδικῶν αὐτοῦ ψεῦδος ὄν.

The Suicide of Seneca (ordered to kill himself once he had fallen from imperial favour) by Manuel Domínguez Sánchez. 1871 (Museo del Prado, Madrid)

LXII 6 iv

In AD 61, Boudica Queen of the Iceni led a British revolt against Roman rule. Before the battle in which the Romans defeated them, and after a speech to her army, she addressed herself to Andraste, a British goddess, saying amongst other things …

“I supplicate and pray thee for victory, preservation of life, and liberty against men insolent, unjust, insatiable, impious,—if, indeed, we ought to term those people men who bathe in warm water, eat artificial dainties, drink unmixed wine, anoint themselves with myrrh, sleep on soft couches with boys for bedfellows,—boys past their prime at that,[3]—and are slaves to a lyre-player[4] and a poor one too.” τοιούτων οὖν ἀνδρῶν καὶ τοιούτων γυναικῶν βασιλεύουσα προσεύχομαί τέ σοι καὶ αἰτῶ νίκην καὶ σωτηρίαν καὶ ἐλευθερίαν κατ᾿ ἀνδρῶν ὑβριστῶν ἀδίκων ἀπλήστων ἀνοσίων, εἴ γε καὶ ἄνδρας χρὴ καλεῖν ἀνθρώπους ὕδατι θερμῷ λουμένους, ὄψα σκευαστὰ ἐσθίοντας, οἶνον ἄκρατον πίνοντας, μύρῳ ἀλειφομένους, μαλθακῶς κοιμωμένους, μετὰ μειρακίων, καὶ τούτων ἐξώρων, καθεύδοντας, κιθαρῳδῷ, καὶ τούτῳ κακῷ, δουλεύοντας. 

 

Boudica rouses the Britons against Rome by Thomas Stothard, 1812

LXII  28 ii-iii

On how the emperor Nero reacted to the death of his second wife Poppaea Sabina in AD 65:

Nero missed her so greatly after her death that on learning of a woman who resembled her he at first sent for her and kept her; but later 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,[5] he formally “married”[6] Sporus, and assigned the boy a regular dowry according to contract; and the Romans as well as others publicly celebrated their wedding.

While Nero had Sporus, the eunuch, as a wife, one of his associates in Rome, who had made a study of philosophy, on being asked whether the marriage and cohabitation in question met with his approval, replied: “You do well, Caesar, to seek the company of such wives. Would that your father had had the same ambition and had lived with a similar consort!”—indicating that if this had been the case, Nero would not have been born, and the state would now be free of great evils.[7]

Nero (contemporary bust in the Museo Nazionale, Rome)

[28 ii] καὶ οὕτω γε αὐτὴν ὁ Νέρων ἐπόθησεν ὥστε μετὰ τὸν θάνατον αὐτῆς τὰ μὲν πρῶτα γυναῖκά τινα προσφερῆ οἱ μαθὼν οὖσαν μετεπέμψατο καὶ ἔσχεν, ἔπειτα καὶ παῖδα ἀπελεύθερον, ὃν Σπόρον ὠνόμαζεν, ἐκτεμών, ἐπειδὴ καὶ αὐτὸς τῇ Σαβίνῃ προσεῴκει, τά τε ἄλλα ὡς γυναικὶ αὐτῷ ἐχρῆτο καὶ προϊόντος τοῦ χρόνου καὶ ἔγημεν αὐτόν, καίπερ Πυθαγόρᾳ τινὶ ἐξελευθέρῳ γεγαμημένος, καὶ προῖκα αὐτῷ κατὰ συγγραφὴν ἔνειμε, καὶ τοὺς γάμους σφῶν δημοσίᾳ οἵ τε ἄλλοι καὶ αὐτοὶ οἱ Ῥωμαῖοι ἑώρτασαν.

[iii] Ὅτι τὸν Σπόρον τὸν ἐκτομίαν ἔχοντος τοῦ Νέρωνος ὡς γυναῖκα εἷς τις τῶν ἐν Ῥώμῃ συνόντων αὐτῷ, καὶ πρὸς φιλοσοφίαν παρεσκευασμένος, ἐρωτηθεὶς εἰ ἀρέσκεται τοῖς γάμοις καὶ τῷ συνοικεσίῳ, “εὖ γε” ἔφη “ποιεῖς, ὦ Καῖσαρ, τοιαύταις συνοικῶν. αἴθε καὶ ὁ σὸς πατὴρ τὸν αὐτὸν ζῆλον ἔσχεν καὶ τοιαύτῃ συνῴκησε γαμετῇ,” δεικνὺς ὡς εἰ τοῦτο ἐγεγόνει, οὐκ ἂν οὗτος ἐτέχθη καὶ μεγάλων κακῶν ἠλευθεροῦτο ἡ πολιτεία.

Poppaea Sabina (Palazzo Massimo alle Terme)

 

LXIII 12 ii – 13ii

In AD 67, the emperor Nero went to Greece accompanied by his loved-boy Sporus and Ofonius Tigellinus, the prefect of the Praetorian Guard, leaving Helius, a freedman, in charge in Rome.

As regards Tigellinus, I consider him a mere appendage of Nero, because he was constantly with him; but Polycleitus and Calvia Crispinilla, apart from Nero, plundered, sacked and despoiled everything that it was possible to pillage. The former was associated with Helius at Rome, and the latter with the “Sabina” who was known as Sporus. Calvia had been entrusted with the care of the boy and with the oversight of the wardrobe, though a woman and of high rank; and through her all were stripped of their possessions.

Now Nero called Sporus “Sabina” not merely because, owing to his resemblance to her he had been made a eunuch, but because the boy, like the mistress, had been solemnly married to him in Greece, Tigellinus giving the bride away, as the law ordained. All the Greeks held a celebration in honour of their marriage, uttering all the customary good wishes, even to the extent of praying that legitimate children might be born to them.

After that Nero had two bedfellows at once, Pythagoras to play the rôle of husband to him, and Sporus that of wife. The latter, in addition to other forms of address, was termed “lady,” “queen,” and “mistress.” Yet why should one wonder at this, seeing that Nero would fasten naked boys and girls to stakes, and then putting on the hide of a wild beast would attack them and satisfy his brutal lust under the appearance of devouring parts of their bodies? Such were the indecencies of Nero.

[12 iii] τὸν γὰρ Τιγελλῖνον ἐν προσθήκης μέρει τοῦ Νέρωνος, ὅτι σὺν αὐτῷ ἦν, τίθημι. χωρὶς δὲ ὅ τε Πολύκλειτος καὶ Καλουία Κρισπινίλλα ἦγον ἐπόρθουν ἐσύλων πάνθ᾿ ὅσα ἐνεδέχετο, [iv] ἐκεῖνος μὲν μετὰ τοῦ Ἡλίου ἐν τῇ Ῥώμῃ, αὕτη δὲ μετά τε τοῦ Νέρωνος καὶ μετὰ τῆς Σαβίνης τοῦ Σπόρου. τήν τε γὰρ φυλακὴν αὐτοῦ καὶ τὴν ἐπιτροπείαν τὴν περὶ ἐσθῆτα, καίπερ γυνὴ καὶ ἐπιφανὴς οὖσα, ἐπεπίστευτο, καὶ δι᾿ αὐτῆς πάντες ἀπεδύοντο.

[13 i] Ὠνόμασε δὲ Σαβῖναν τὸν Σπόρον οὐ κατὰ τοῦτο μόνον ὅτι διὰ τὴν ὁμοιότητα αὐτῆς ἐξετέτμητο, ἀλλ᾿ ὅτι καὶ ἐγήματο αὐτῷ, ὥσπερ καὶ ἐκείνη, ἐν τῇ Ἑλλάδι κατὰ συμβόλαιον, ἐκδόντος αὐτὸν τοῦ Τιγελλίνου, ὥσπερ ὁ νόμος ἐκέλευε. καὶ τοὺς γάμους αὐτῶν πάντες οἱ Ἕλληνες ἑώρτασαν, τά τε ἄλλα οἷα εἰκὸς ἦν ἐπιλέγοντες, καὶ γνησίους σφίσι παῖδας γεννηθῆναι εὐχόμενοι.

[ii] κὰκ τούτου συνεγίνοντο ἅμα τῷ Νέρωνι Πυθαγόρας μὲν ὡς ἀνήρ, Σπόρος δὲ ὡς γυνή· πρὸς γὰρ τοῖς ἄλλοις καὶ κυρία καὶ βασιλὶς καὶ δέσποινα ὠνομάζετο. καὶ τί τοῦτο θαυμάσειεν ἄν τις, ὁπότε καὶ μειράκια καὶ κόρας σταυροῖς γυμνὰς προσδέων θηρίου τέ τινος δορὰν ἀνελάμβανε καὶ προσπίπτων σφίσιν ἠσέλγαινεν ὥσπερ τι ἐσθίων. τοιαῦτα μὲν ὁ Νέρων ἠσχημόνει.

 

LXIII  22 iv

In the speech of Gaius Julius Vindex to his fellow Gauls in AD 68, which instigated the rebellion that finally led to Nero’s overthrow:

Many murders, robberies and outrages, it is true, have often been committed by others; but as for the other deeds committed by Nero, how could one find words fittingly to describe them? I have seen him, my friends and allies,—believe me,—I have seen that man (if man he is who has married Sporus and been given in marriage to Pythagoras), in the circle of the theatre, that is, in the orchestra, sometimes holding the lyre and dressed in loose tunic and buskins, and again wearing high-soled shoes and mask.[8]  σφαγαὶ μὲν γὰρ καὶ ἁρπαγαὶ καὶ ὕβρεις καὶ ὑπ᾿ ἄλλων πολλαὶ πολλάκις ἐγένοντο· τὰ δὲ δὴ λοιπὰ πῶς ἄν τις κατ᾿ ἀξίαν εἰπεῖν δυνηθείη; εἶδον, ὦ ἄνδρες φίλοι καὶ σύμμαχοι, πιστεύσατέ μοι, εἶδον τὸν ἄνδρα ἐκεῖνον, εἴγε ἀνὴρ ὁ Σπόρον γεγαμηκώς, ὁ Πυθαγόρᾳ γεγαμημένος, ἐν τῷ τοῦ θεάτρου κύκλῳ καὶ ἐν τῇ ὀρχήστρᾳ ποτὲ μὲν κιθάραν ἔχοντα καὶ ὀρθοστάδιον καὶ κοθόρνους, ποτὲ δὲ ἐμβάτας καὶ προσωπεῖον. 

Denarius minted during the brief rebellion of Vindex, March-May 68, its obverse inscription an implicit appeal to Mars Ultor against the shamefulness of Nero

LXIII  27 iii

On 9 June 68, Nero, declared an enemy by the Senate, perceived that even his bodyguard had deserted him, …

Accordingly, he put on shabby clothing, mounted a horse no better than his attire, and with his head covered he rode while it was yet night towards an estate of Phaon, an imperial freedman, in company with Phaon himself, Epaphroditus and Sporus. ἐσθῆτά τε οὖν φαύλην ἔλαβε καὶ ἐπὶ ἵππον οὐδὲν βελτίονα ἀνέβη, καὶ ἐπ᾿ αὐτοῦ κατακεκαλυμμένος πρὸς χωρίον τι Φάωνος Καισαρείου, μετά τε αὐτοῦ ἐκείνου καὶ μετὰ Ἐπαφροδίτου τοῦ τε Σπόρου, νυκτὸς ἔτι οὔσης ἤλασε.

LXIV 4 ii

Having become “more and more exasperated” with the new emperor Galba, in early AD 69 the soldiers in the Germanies sought a leader to overthrow him:

They placed Aulus Vitellius, governor of Lower Germany, at their head, and revolted. All that they had regard to in him was his noble birth, for they ignored the fact that he had been a loved-boy[9] of Tiberius and was living a life in keeping with that licentious beginning; or perhaps they believed that on this very account he would suit their purposes all the better. 

προστησάμενοι γὰρ Αὖλον Οὐιτέλλιον τῆς κάτω Γερμανίας ἄρχοντα ἐπανέστησαν, πρὸς μόνην τὴν εὐγένειαν αὐτοῦ ἀπιδόντες, ἐπεὶ ὅτι γε παιδικὰ τοῦ Τιβερίου ἐγεγόνει καὶ ὅτι ἀκολούθως τῇ ἀσελγείᾳ ταύτῃ ἔζη οὐκ ἐνενόησαν, ἢ καὶ μᾶλλον δι᾿ αὐτὸ τοῦτο ἁρμόζειν σφίσιν αὐτὸν ἐνόμισαν.

 

LXIV 8 iii

Explaining why the efforts to please of the new emperor Otho, who took over in January 69, “did not succeed in winning the attachment of any save a certain few who were like himself”:

For there were several circumstances, such as his restoration of the images of those under accusation, his life and habits, his intimacy with Sporus[10] and his keeping in his service the rest of Nero’s favourites, that alarmed everybody.
Denarius of Otho, AD 69
[iii] τό τε γὰρ τὰς τῶν ἐπαιτίων εἰκόνας ἀποκαταστῆσαι, καὶ ὁ βίος αὐτοῦ καὶ ἡ δίαιτα, τό τε τῷ Σπόρῳ συνεῖναι καὶ τὸ τοῖς λοιποῖς τοῖς Νερωνείοις χρῆσθαι πάνυ πάντας ἐξεφόβει.
Denarius of Vitellius, AD 69

 

LXV 5 i

Describing the new emperor Vitellius in the spring of 69:

Vitellius, however, furnished many with material for amusement. They could not restrain their laughter when they beheld wearing a solemn face in the official religious processions a man whom they knew to have played the strumpet,[11]  Γέλωτα μέντοι ὁ Οὐιτέλλιος πολλοῖς παρεῖχεν· ὁρῶντες γὰρ ἄνδρα σεμνοπροσωποῦντα ἐν ταῖς δημοσίαις προσόδοις ὃν ᾔδεσαν πεπορνευκότα,

 

LXV 10 i

Describing the new emperor Vitellius’s reaction to news of serious revolt against him in the summer of 69:

Vitellius, when he heard about it, remained where he was and even then went on with his luxurious living, among other things arranging gladiatorial combats. In the course of these it was proposed that Sporus should be brought on to the stage in the role of a maiden being ravished, but he would not endure the shame and committed suicide beforehand.  Ἀκούσας δὲ ταῦτα ὁ Οὐιτέλλιος αὐτὸς μὲν κατὰ χώραν ἔμεινε, τῇ τε ἄλλῃ τρυφῇ καὶ τότε χρώμενος καὶ ἀγῶνας μονομαχίας τιθείς (ἐν οἷς καὶ ὁ Σπόρος μέλλων ἐν κόρης ἁρπαζομένης σχήματι ἐς τὸ θέατρον ἐσαχθήσεσθαι οὐκ ἤνεγκε τὴν ὕβριν ἀλλ᾿ ἑαυτὸν προαπέσφαξε), 

 

A spectacle in the Games, such as Sporus chose to die rather than play the role of a ravished maiden in

[1] Note the emphasis on the high rank of Tiberius’s paramours.  Sexual penetration of any freeborn Roman not one’s wife was an outrage, and of a high-ranking one worse still, whereas a vast literature makes it clear that it was simply assumed that a master would have sex with his young slaves of both genders. Tiberius’s sexual antics in old age were most vividly described by Suetonius in his Twelve Caesars III 43-44, qv.

[2] Cary and Foster’s translation of παιδικῶν as “favourites” has been amended to “loved-boys”, “favourites” being too vague for a word only used for the boy in a Greek love affair.

[3] Craig Williams, Roman Homosexuality (2nd edition, Oxford, 2010) p. 89 implies that Dio’s being Greek may have influenced him to attribute to Boudica this contempt for Romans for sleeping with boys past their prime. Whilst Romans too were far more commonly attracted to boys, they sometimes went for young men and could do so without reproach so long as they took the active role. In any case, Williams also thinks the criticism attributed to Boudica is not about sex with boys per se: “It is probably significant that Dio has her speak of Roman men literally sleeping with them (καθεύδοντας) in a phrase immediately preceded by a reference to their luxurious sleeping habits in general (μαλθακῶς κοιμωμένους): in other words, Boudicca’s slur is not primarily directed against the fact that Roman men had sexual encounters with lads, or even with outgrown ones, but that they wasted their time lolling about in bed with them, just as they enervated themselves with warm baths, perfumes, and wine.”

[4] By the “lyre-player” is meant the emperor Nero, whose public performances on the lyre drew the contempt of many Roman writers. One might be sceptical as to whether Boudica really shared their viewpoint.

[5] Pythagoras was a man with whom Nero in his late twenties played the role of wife, as explained in the next passage presented here.

[6] Despite the theatrical behaviour, for which Nero was famous, Sporus was not his wife in a legal sense. Romans were legally monogamous and even emperors had to divorce an existing wife in order to marry another, yet Nero’s third wife, Statilia Messalina, retained her position and appeared on coins.

[7] The same joke was recounted by Suetonius in his Twelve Caesars VI 28 I (qv.) without the explanation Dio provides for his slower-witted readers.

[8] Craig Williams, Roman Homosexuality (2nd edition, Oxford, 2010) p. 285 draws attention to the hierarchy of outrages in Roman eyes revealed by this passage: “The ultimate disgrace is that the emperor has appeared on the public stage as an actor. Vindex cites Nero’s two marriages parenthetically, by way of firing up his audience’s outrage, but the pressure of his rhetoric is clear: Nero’s taking a male bride and being one himself were bad enough, but his appearance on stage was beyond the pale.” He also explains, op. cit., p. 286, that the implied criticism of Nero with respect to Sporus cannot have been about their sexual relationship, since Nero played the proper male role in that, but was because “Nero feminized Sporos to an extreme, even shocking degree. This public flaunting of Sporos’ demasculinization may well have been perceived as a significant threat to masculine privilege, and it may not be coincidental that among the male couples to which surviving texts allude, Nero and Sporos constitute the only example in which the “husband”rather than the “wife” is the specific object of criticism from outsiders.”

[9] Cary and Foster’s euphemistic translation of παιδικὰ as “favourite” has been amended to the clearer “loved-boy”.  Dio’s statement is backed up by Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars IX 3 ii (qv.), which says Vitellius spent his boyhood and early youth in Capri as one of Tiberius’s boys.

[10] Otho was thus the third known lover of Sporus, who had been the boy-wife, first of Nero, as described above, and then, immediately after the latter’s death, of the recently-killed Nymphidius Sabinus, Prefect of the Praetorian Guard (Plutarch, Life of Galba 9 iii). Nero had loved Sporus for his resemblance to his deceased wife Poppaea Sabina.  As Otho had also loved Sabina (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars VIII 3 i), to whom he had also been married at one time, this may have been part of Sporus’s appeal to him too.

[11] No other instance being known of Vitellius either prostituting himself or having sex with another male, this surely refers to his having been Tiberius’s loved-boy, as mentioned above by Dio, and which Suetonius, op. cit., IX 3 ii, says he had been for his father’s advancement.