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Sex and the Emperor

Tiberius had a scandalous reputation. He was a sexual predator (Dio, 58.22)  who used his power to secure access to girls and boys. Dio parallels his moral failings with his strict enforcement of moral disciplines upon others. Detail is provided in Suetonius, Tiberius 42-46.

Romans had very different attitudes towards sexual morality than is common in modern societies. They tended to differentiate behaviours according to the status of the person who was the object of the sexual act. Sexual abuse of slaves and even slave children caused far less concern than sexual predation of the free born. There was less concern with the feelings of the victim than the status of the victim.

  • Why was Tiberius’ sexual behaviour a problem for the Romans?

Using his power to abuse the free born was an offence against status. It reduced the bodies of the free to playthings of the emperor. In a most intimate and explicit way, it made the free into slaves. We see a similar pattern in the discussion of Gaius (Caligula) and his career of rape and abuse. Sexual violence is an abuse of power and extreme power led to extreme abuse.

The abuse of slaves raised fewer of these difficulties. The concern was not with the slaves, but with the moral discipline of the emperor who indulged in such activities. Could a man who failed to discipline his most base desires be trusted to run an empire?

For moderns, these accounts cause problems. The first and most basic problem is

  • Can we believe the accounts?

Versions of these stories appear in all our main sources, but that does not make them true. Are we looking at gossip attracted to an increasingly reclusive individual of great power? Might it be a case of the Romans asking themselves what else could he be doing on his island other than engaging in almost unimaginable sexual perversity?

To some degree, truth does not matter, since this is what some (perhaps very many) Romans believed was happening.

  • How do we treat these accounts as history?

Most sensible historians have tended to avert their eyes from such stories, seeing them as untrustworthy or irrelevant to the main themes of history, which are soldiers, politics, administration, and social values.

  • Is Tiberius’ sexual perversion important?

What would one make of a person who thought himself able to treat others in this way? What does it tell us about social values in a society that people could treat others this way? Slaves were, after all, other human beings. Tiberius did not limit his attentions to the slaves. We may note that Tiberius had friends who engaged in similar acts. He was not alone. Even if some of the details were fabricated, what does it tell us about social attitudes that such acts could be imagined and likely believed to have been performed by the emperor?

Such stories tell us something fundamental and worrying about Roman imagination.


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