Considerable attention has been paid in both ancient and modern accounts to Gaius’ sexual behaviour. There are parallels with the accusations of sexual perversion levelled at Tiberius, and at what was to happen with Nero.
How seriously should we take these stories?
There is a source question. Can we trust our sources? Romans, like many moderns, found that salacious sexual material enlivened narratives. Matters of the bedroom are always to some extent private, though perhaps less private in an ancient palace than in a modern house. Yet, an emperor lived his life in public and there is reason to think that Gaius exploited his sexual desires for political purposes. There was a close link between political power and predatory sexual behaviour.
Gaius attended the marriage of Gaius Piso to Livia Orestilla. Having taken a fancy to her, he ordered her to be carried off to his house and later issued a proclamation that he had taken a wife in the manner of Romulus (by rape) and Augustus (Suetonius, Gaius 25). At banquets, the women brought by their husbands were inspected. If it amused the emperor, he left with them and on his return would discuss openly their charms (Suetonius, Gaius 36). He obliged women of all statuses to have sexual relations with him.
Gaius’ behaviour deviated from Roman norms of sexual behaviour (Suetonius, Gaius 36). Romans did not disapprove of homosexual activity in itself, and they did not see it as a sign of moral weakness. They were, however, suspicious of sex between adult men of equivalent status. They also were of the view that men should penetrate the object of their affection. Gaius’ supposed affair with Lepidus, his brother-in-law, reflected badly on Lepidus, not on Gaius, except in so far as Gaius might have employed his imperial power to gain sexual access to Lepidus and in so doing corrupted a man who was both his sister’s husband and a leading member of the Roman elite. Since the actor Mnester was of low social status, his affair with was only an issue if people suspected that Mnester whispered of politics in their embraces Only then would the emperor’s lover have mattered. In conventional moral terms, Valerius’ Catullus’ claims of what he and Gaius were up to were more significant.
Sexual relations with hostages was more obviously important. Regimes sent junior members of their royal households to Rome as hostages to their good behaviour. The practice brought benefits to those families: the hostages met many Romans and learnt their ways. From that experience in Rome, they would be in a much placed to negotiate with the imperial power once they had assumed positions of authority in Rome. They were kept well, often in the imperial palace, and educated. They may also have been safer in Rome than in their local courts. Having sexual relations with the emperor was not part of that deal however.
On a rather more mundane level, his cross-dressing was also a boundary crossing (Suetonius, Gaius 52). In Roman culture, clothing marked status. Gaius dressing as a woman breached those conventions. Dressing as god or goddess similarly broke with conventions: just because he dressed as god does not mean that he believed himself to be a god, but it was a deliberate offence against the conventions of Roman society.
The closeness of Gaius’ relationship with his sisters and the way he behaved with them in public gave rise to gossip. Was this gossip just malicious?
Gaius appears to have done nothing to deflect that gossip. The association of Drusilla with Venus may have been somewhat more innocent than first appears: Venus was the ancestral goddess of the Julian family. Queens of Egypt had associated themselves with Venus/Aphrodite over extended periods. But the sexual connotations of an association with Venus are obvious.
There were some benefits to Gaius in being thought of as incestuous. The Olympian gods were prone to marrying their siblings, a tradition that marks them out as being different from humans. The Ptolemies of Egypt practised sibling marriage (as did many of their subjects). The rationale is not clear, but it was a way of preserving the inheritance of the family and ensuring that there was no proliferation of cousins of the royal blood. And if you are a living god, who else should you marry but one who shares your divine parentage? Incest marked the imperial family as being above the human.
And the reality? Conventionally, modern historians dismiss the stories out of hand. But the court of Gaius was a very strange and frightening place. The emperor’s play at being a god demanded that he be treated as a god. If he played at incest, who knows when the pretence stopped?
Shock and Horror
Splitting fact and fiction in dealing with the sexual activities of emperors is a fool’s task. The reality of his behaviour mattered a great deal to those close to Gaius and to the victims of his sexual rapacity, and this was almost certainly a contributory factor to his assassination. But what we can analyse are the narratives that circulated about his sexual behaviour.
Those narratives show that Gaius
- broke with all conventional morality.
- used sex to display his personal authority over individuals, through humiliation and violence.
- was rapacious in his sexual activity.
- paid no attention to conventional gender roles.
- linked his sexual rapacity to his claims to divinity.
For Romans, one of the key markers of tyranny was the use of political power to gain sexual access to the body of the free citizen. It is difficult not to conclude that Gaius was advertising his tyranny through sexual deviancy. This may seem perverse but we must remember that even in the twenty-first century powerful men can boast of their ability to sexually assault women.
There is a two-way street between power and corruption. If power allows corruption and absolute power, absolute corruption, what better way to display your absolute power than by demonstrating, in the most and intimate manner, your absolute corruption? The sexual behaviour of Gaius suggested that he was beyond all control, perhaps even beyond reason.