three pairs of lovers with space

THE PRAETORIAN PREFECT’S BOY-WIFE, AD 68

 

Apart from Antinous, whose heart-broken imperial lover made him a god when he drowned, the highest-profile loved-boy in Roman history was Sporus, loved in rapid succession by two emperors and, in between them, Nymphidius Sabinus, the powerful prefect of the Praetorian Guard and aspirant to imperial power. It is Sporus’s affair with the latter which is the subject of the brief mention presented here from the Greek historian Plutarch’s biography of the then-reigning emperor Galba.

More is known about Sporus than about Antinous, but still disappointingly little.  The story of his marriage to the emperor Nero was recounted by Suetonius[1] and Cassius Dio.[2] Both relate how Sporus stayed with Nero until the latter killed himself in June 68, well after almost everyone else had deserted him, suggesting an attractive trait of loyalty.  Then, as the story here shows, he was allowed no time to mourn his lover, but was abducted from his funeral pyre by Nymphidius.  His time as Nymphidius’s “consort” cannot have lasted more than three months, as Nymphidius was killed by his soldiers before Galba arrived in Rome in October.  Whether he had another lover to protect him over the next few months is unknown.  The rest of his story, his being taken up by Otho, who overthrew Galba in January 69, and his sad end under Otho’s sybaritic nemesis the following summer, were recounted by Dio.[3]

The Praetorian Guard depicted in a fragment from a triumphal arch, AD 51-2

Sadly, no image of Sporus has survived, on which point the contrast with Antinous could hardly have been greater, but the known facts of his life suggest a boy of quite exceptional sexiness capable of driving hard-headed, ruthless men mad with lust. Nero scandalised Rome by publicly marrying him and showing him off as his wife.  At a critical moment in the revolution that overthrew him, the first concern of the Praetorian Prefect, the main wielder of power in Rome in the absence of an emperor, was to take over Sporus.  Finally Otho, when his hold on imperial power was precarious, “alarmed everybody” to have the boy.

Sporus’s age is unknown, but he is very unlikely to have been more than fifteen when Nymphidius’s boy, and was probably a few years younger.[4]

Plutarch’s Life of Galba was written at the beginning of the second century as one of his Parallel Lives. The translation is by Bernadotte Perrin in the Loeb Classical Library volume CIII (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1926) with one amendment explained in a footnote.

 

 

Plutarch, Life of Galba 9 iii

On the actions of Nymphidius Sabinus, Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, who had brought his soldiers over to Galba’s side once he thought Nero’s cause was hopeless, and now, whilst Galba was still on his way to Rome, made his own bid for power:

[…] he took to himself sole credit for the overthrow of Nero, and thinking himself insufficiently rewarded for this by the honours and wealth which he enjoyed, and by sleeping with[5] Sporus, Nero’s favourite (whom he had sent for at once, while Nero’s body was yet burning on its pyre, and treated as his consort, and addressed by the name of Poppaea[6]), he aspired to the succession in the empire.

[…] ἔργον μὲν αὑτοῦ μόνου τὴν Νέρωνος ἐποιεῖτο κατάλυσιν, ἆθλα δὲ αὐτῆς οὐ νομίζων ἱκανὰ καρποῦσθαι τὰς τιμὰς καὶ τὰ χρήματα καὶ τὸ Σπόρῳ τοῦ Νέρωνος συγκαθεύδειν, ὃν εὐθὺς ἀπὸ τῆς πυρᾶς ἔτι καιομένου τοῦ νεκροῦ μεταπεμψάμενος ἐκεῖνος ἐν γαμετῆς εἶχε τάξει καὶ Ποππαίαν προσηγόρευεν, ἐπὶ τὴν διαδοχὴν παρεδύετο 4τῆς ἡγεμονίας.

 

 

[1] Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars VI 28 i-ii, 46 ii, 48 i and 49 iii.

[2] Cassius Dio, Roman History LXII 28 ii-ii and LXIII 12 ii-13 ii.

[3] Cassius Dio, Roman History LXIV 8 iii and LXV 10 i.

[4] Nero wedded Sporus in the summer of 67.  It is not known how much earlier he had him castrated, but it was after Sabina’s death in 65, and probably well after, since Dio says he kept a woman who also resembled her in the interim. The whole point of castrating boys to be kept for sex was to pre-empt the effects of puberty (in this case to keep Sporus looking like his late wife), so the operation was usually performed well before puberty.

[5] Perrin’s “the company of” has been replaced with “sleeping with” as a more accurate translation of συγκαθεύδειν.

[6] Poppaea Sabina was Nero’s second wife, whom he missed badly when she died. Cassius Dio,  op. cit., LXIII 13 I says Nero took Sporus as his lover and had him castrated because of his resemblance to her, and, as he had her, “solemnly married” him in Greece. Hence Nero called Sporus “Sabina” and Nymphidius called him by the same woman’s other name.