BMCR 2008.05.12

Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome

, Power and eroticism in Imperial Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, c2007. xiv, 285 p. : ill. ; 26 cm.. ISBN 0521867398 $90.00.

Table of Contents

The author herself says it best when she writes that: “Crudely this book is about the sex lives of Rome’s emperors” (p. xiii). Instead of merely cataloguing imperial debaucheries, and thus providing a more scholarly form of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius and Claudius the God, themselves owing not a little to the tales of Cassius Dio, Suetonius and Tacitus, Vout seeks to make us examine “why it is worth thinking about the sex lives of the emperors” (p. xiii). Vout largely succeeds, but this is mainly because the sex lives of the emperors are intrinsically interesting, especially among an audience who might fondly remember reading the naughty bits of Suetonius’ Caesares when they should really have been contemplating Tiberius’ dissimulatio in the Annales. It is important to note that “Imperial Rome” refers, here, mainly to the Julio-Claudian era, the Flavian period, the reign of Hadrian, and that of Marcus Aurelius/Verus. Some material from later eras is adduced, e.g., the Historia Augusta‘s treatment of the third-century emperor Elagabalus and the almost certainly apocryphal Christian tradition relating to Hadrian’s lover Antinous, but Vout’s emphasis is clearly on the comparatively well-documented Early Principate.

Vout’s book represents a handsome hardcover volume, with dust-jacket, glossy white pages, plenty of white space to aid readability, and a reasonably generous number of illustrations, fifty-two in toto, all of which are black and white. The illustrations mainly take the form of photographs of sculptures depicting either the emperors or their sexual favourites (with a raft of photographs of sculptural representations identified as Antinous), although some line drawings are also included. Informative notes are provided at the end of each chapter — this is clearly better than collecting notes at the end of the volume, but still less useful (at least for scholars) than footnotes.

The book, which began life as a doctoral thesis, presents a series of case studies from which we may gain greater insight into the themes under investigation. Yet Vout’s interest in Antinous almost gives the impression that the central character of the book is indeed Hadrian’s lover, with the other case studies merely providing contextual reference points. While the first chapter, viz., “The erotics of imperium” (pp. 1-51), sets up the theoretical framework, the following chapters, viz., “Romancing the stone: The story of Hadrian and Antinous” (pp. 52-135), “Compromising traditions: The case of Nero and Sporus” (pp. 136-166) and “A match made in heaven: Earinus and the emperor” (pp. 167-212), deal with the same-sex relationships carried out by the emperors Hadrian, Nero and Domitian respectively. There is no rationale for why these cases are presented in reverse chronological order. The final chapter, viz., “Mistress as metaphor: a dialogue with Panthea” (pp. 213-239), which deals with female sexual subjects, provides a welcome balance to the predominately same-sex narratives of the preceding chapters. A very brief conclusion (or, rather, coda) entitled “And so to bed …” (pp. 240-242) contextualizes the material further by drawing the reader’s attention to Prince Charles and his relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles. A suitably comprehensive bibliography is provided from pp. 243-271. It is followed by a useful index nominum et rerum (pp. 272-280) and an index of passages referred to in the text and notes (pp. 281-285).

Vout’s book devotes more attention to same-sex liaisons than to other relationships of the emperors. Perhaps the concept, for example, of Queen Elizabeth II openly flaunting a younger lesbian lover is still so far removed from popular expectations of propriety in the Western world (at least for royalty and heads of state) that a commensurate examination of Hadrian’s desire (or love?) for Antinous is still suitably titillating for modern audiences. Yet some attention could have been paid to Claudius’ relationships with the nymph-like Messalina, with whom Claudius was said to have been besotted, in addition to the more matronly Agrippina the Younger, who allegedly used Claudius’ uxorious nature for political advantage. Moreover, what of the sources’ obsession with imperial incest? Witness the case of Gaius and his sisters, Nero and his mother, and Domitian and Julia. What might imperial incest tell us about ‘power and eroticism’ without limits, or at least contemporary perceptions thereof?

Chapter 1 (“The erotics of imperium“) introduces many of the important themes. Vout is especially keen to show that her work largely treats of appropriations of reality. And in this she does well. The interest, here, is precisely why so much attention is given in the literary record to the sex lives of the emperors. The simple notion of sex as power is dismissed (p. 6), yet Vout subscribes to the view that ” imperium equals sex”, and that “sex is a way to talk about imperium (p. 5). This seems somewhat schizophrenic. Yet it is made clear that subjects of the empire may indeed have viewed imperium and intimacy with its source as the ultimate aphrodisiac — even if acting thus compromised their own status (see p. 168). Of interest is Vout’s assertion that “stories of intercourse between emperors seem to have been an important way of conceptualising the passage of power from one to another” (p. 3). Vout cites the examples of Vitellius and Hadrian, yet does not mention the reverse case of Nerva and Domitian. In this instance, it was not the passive Nerva who succumbed to the virile Domitian1 — rather, Nerva’s buggery of the Flavian prince emphasizes the latter’s morally unfit nature and thus justifies his deposition.2

Chapter 2 (“The story of Hadrian and Antinous”) is perhaps the most authoritative chapter of the book, especially given Vout’s previous research on the topic (as recorded in the bibliography). Where Vout really excels is in her treatment of the sculptural record of imperial eroticism. Vout’s engaging analysis of various statues of Antinous is most certainly welcome. The chapter places Antinous “within the context of representations of the young, male body in Roman art and literature” (p. 67). Possibly the most interesting remarks are those concerning the objects of imperial lust as visual representations of Roman hegemony. Thus exotic slave boys from Asia Minor are comparable to tigers procured from faraway India, or giraffes from Africa. Such objects could be subjected to the desires of the conqueror. They could be destroyed, thereby emphasizing Rome’s sway over the physical world, or privileged as playthings, thereby also confirming Roman mastery. I agree with Vout’s view that Hadrian and Antinous’ ostensibly Hellenic relationship should not merely be seen in a Greek context (p. 68). Rather, it is also important to understand it in the context of Roman behaviour.

Two minor point of criticism emerge. First, Vout writes that it is unusual that neither Antinous’ sculpture nor his coinage tend to represent him with Hadrian, except in the writing on the obelisk now in Rome (p. 106). Yet what of the hunting tondi reused on the Arch of Constantine? These are normally thought to represent Hadrian in Antinous’ company.3 Second, Vout rather oddly refers to Antinous’ “status as a slave — if indeed he is a slave” (p. 67). As far as I am aware, it is now generally accepted that Antinous was freeborn.4 If he were not, it is difficult to comprehend a) the dynamics of the relationship in any sort of Hellenic mould, and b) Vout’s statement that having a “boyfriend” (as she puts it) might be “part of one’s claim to culture” — like having a beard, or cultivating an Attic accent (even though this could also be source for ridicule) (p. 137). Athenian men, for example, were (ideally) meant to conduct relationships with boys/youths of the citizen class — not slaves or even freedmen. To act otherwise was not in the best interest of the polis. Rather, it was regarded as an indecorous display of primal lust.

Chapter 3 (“The case of Nero and Sporus”) goes over much ground already passed over by Champlin inter alios.5 Still, there is much of interest here. In particular, Vout’s examination of the implications of castration is revealing. Vout wonders whether Suetonius’ “resentment of Hadrian” (p. 138) finds a voice in his depiction of Nero. Perhaps some further background to this assertion might have been welcome, especially for those without formal historiographical training. Yet Vout sensibly concludes that any comparison between Nero/Sporus and Hadrian/Antinous is not a valid one. Why Vout characterizes Suetonius as a “Roman historian” is puzzling (and also surely misleading), while describing Hadrian as an “emperor of Spanish descent” (p. 138) also raises an eyebrow. I found Vout’s treatment of Poppaea Sabina to be of greater interest than the emphasis on Nero’s same-sex relations. In particular, Vout notes that Poppaea was cast as the exotic ‘other woman’ to Nero’s more ‘Roman’ first wife, Octavia (pp. 158-159). Indeed, Vout observes that Poppaea is given an eastern feel, although she was Roman by birth. The implications are important. Nero’s predilection for the supposed softness of the East is thus exhibited not only by his same-sex unions, but also by his choice of female partners.

Chapter 4 (“Earinus and the emperor”) provides some highly insightful close reading of Martial and Statius, our main sources for Domitian’s relationship with the eunuch Earinus. This chapter raises the question of whether the verse of these two poets was really as encomiastic as it might ostensibly appear, or whether there is a hint of subtle criticism contained within. Vout handles this contentious issue well. In an earlier chapter, Vout holds that safe criticism only leads to “nihilism” (p. 61). Some will undoubtedly contest that notion, but I also have strong reservations about the readings of literary scholars such as Ahl and Garthwaite on matters pertaining to Domitianic court poetry, sexual propriety, and castration.6 Vout explains that “History reels with warnings about emperors killing on impulse” (p. 170), e.g., the death of the younger Helvidius in Domitian’s case.7 There must obviously be limits to safe criticism, especially since the verse was “contemporary and presumably performed in the emperor’s circle” (p. 170). Despite this initially strong position, Vout equivocates by saying that “get it right, and Domitian can follow one level of meaning and the knowing reader another” (p. 170). I remain unconvinced — was Domitian really so poorly trained in literature, or else blinded by praise?8 I agree that, as Vout contends, the language used in the verse of Martial and Statius can combine “extreme praise”, yet at the same time be “advisory” (p. 171). It is here that verse approximates panegyric, which, by its very nature, seeks to laud the achievements and actions of the honorand, yet also establish and confirm appropriate behaviours.9

Chapter 5 (“Mistress as metaphor: a dialogue with Panthea”) is perhaps, at least for this reviewer, the least interesting section. The choice of Lucian’s Panthea (in the Imagines and Pro imaginibus) as representative of imperial mistresses is slightly unexpected, even though Vout does explain that the subjects were chosen on account of their “Greekness” (p. 15). Furthermore, the previous chapters dealt with lover and the beloved, yet the discussion of Panthea is almost all about Panthea, with very little said about her lover Verus. Although the analysis that Vout provides is admirable, the treatment is somewhat jarring from a structural point of view, especially since the reader, by the final chapter, has become used to a particular method of treatment. Panthea is interpreted as a construct rather than a person. Vout concludes that, despite not being Greek per se, “Panthea stands for conquest or more specifically the conquest of Greek culture by Roman” (p. 229). On women and the emperor, I would have been interested in an examination of the reactions of imperial wives to the same-sex dalliances of their husbands. Just what was expected? Perhaps this is an issue worth exploring elsewhere.

In all, this is an easily accessible and, dare I say it, ‘fun’ book to read (and I do not remotely mean that in a disparaging sense). Vout employs a racy and fresh style. For example, Antinous is described as “the most notorious pretty boy from the annals of classical history” (p. 52), while an attractive farm-hand was “a potential pin-up” (p. 67). While some might frown on this kind of verbal adventure, it is certainly a welcome change to some of the more stolid prose written on the theme. I did react, however, to Earinus being described as Domitian’s “boyfriend” (p. 169). The term ‘boyfriend’, at least in contemporary Western usage, surely implies some kind of free will with respect to being in a relationship. Earinus, then, was no more the emperor’s ‘boyfriend’ than the slave Sally Hemings, held to be worth no more than $50 at 56 years of age,10 was the ‘girlfriend’ of Thomas Jefferson.11 While Earinus may have been officially freed in due course (unlike Sally while Jefferson was alive), he surely was not able simply to walk away from the relationship — most certainly not at the beginning. It is here that using modern words to make concepts pertaining to ancient sexuality less opaque may turn out to be somewhat misleading.

A rather puzzling feature of this book is the inclusion of long passages of Latin and Greek. Given that there is little philological discussion of the original sources, their inclusion merely provides a visual hurdle over which the reader must jump. Where some philological discussion is warranted, as with P.Oxy. 471 (pp. 142-148), it would surely suffice to insert the more interesting/problematic Greek phrases into the English translation. Scholars, of course, will have no problems with Vout’s method, but it does seem unnecessarily awkward and better suited to academic journals. As with most volumes of this ilk, there seems to be a slight problem regarding the intended audience, which usually leads to some unusual structural choices. The interested academic will chase up the original sources in order to check the interpretation of the Latin or Greek, while other readers will surely be content to follow Vout. This is a minor matter, but it is one that needs to be addressed in books of this kind.

To conclude, despite some rather minor gripes, Vout is to be congratulated on making a very readable, accessible and enjoyable book, even if it is a little more disjointed in parts than one would ideally like. Vout asks that “the evidence for Panthea, Earinus, Antinous and friends be reintegrated into mainstream historical narrative” (p. 247). This book goes a considerable way to ensuring that.


1. Suet. Dom. 1.1.

2. On this, see M. B. Charles, “Suetonius Domitianus 1.1: Nerva and Domitian”, Acta Classica 49 (2006), 79-87.

3. On the likely depiction of (a re-carved) Hadrian and Antinous on tondi re-used on the Arch of Constantine, see A. R. Birley, Hadrian: The Restless Emperor (London/New York, 1997), 240-241 and 285; R. Lambert, Beloved and God (New York, 1984), 93, 231 and figs. 12-13, with R. Turcan, “Les tondi d’Hadrien sur l’Arc de Constantin”, in Académie des Inscriptions & Belles Lettres: Comptes Rendus (Paris, 1961), 53-82.

4. On this view (i.e., Antinous being a freeborn Bithynian), see Birley, Hadrian, 2, 158 and 179; Lambert, Beloved and God, chapter 7.

5. E. Champlin, Nero (Cambridge, MA/London, 2003), especially 145-150.

6. See especially J. Garthwaite, “Martial, Book 6, on Domitian’s Moral Censorship”, Prudentia 22 (1990), 13-22; Id., “The Panegyrics of Domitian in Martial Book 9”, Ramus 22 (1993), 78-102; Id., “Statius, Silvae 3.4: On the Fate of Earinus”, ANRW 2.32.1 (1984), 111-124. For more general discussions on subtle criticism, see F. Ahl, “The Art of Safe Criticism in Greece and Rome”, AJPh 105 (1984), 174-208; Id., “The Rider and the Horse: Politics and Power in Roman Poetry from Horace to Statius”, ANRW 2.32.1 (1984), 40-110; S. Bartsch, Actors in the Audience: Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian (Cambridge, MA/London, 1994), chapter 3, especially 67-71; W. J. Dominik, The Mythic Voice of Statius: Power and Politics in the Thebaid (Leiden/New York/Cologne, 1994), chapter 4. Contra Ahl and Garthwaite, see M. Johnson, “Martial and Domitian’s Moral Reforms”, Prudentia 29 (1997), 24-70.

7. Suet. Dom. 10.4. Helvidius supposedly wrote a farce that touched on the emperor’s divorce from Domitia.

8. On Domitian’s ability to detect literary criticism, see Cassius Dio 67.13.2; Plin. Ep. 7.19.5; Suet. Dom. 10.1 and 3-4; Tac. Agr. 2.1. Suetonius ( Dom. 20) asserts that Domitian was not particularly interested in literature, but this is surely nonsense (cf. Dom 2.2, where Domitian gives verse readings in public); on this, see B. W. Jones, Suetonius: Domitian (London, 1996), 144. Cf. Plin. NH praef. 5 (where the author compares Titus’ poetry to that of his brother — it is even implied that Domitian is really the superior poet); see also, e.g., Mart. 8.82.6, Quint. Inst. 10.1.91 and Val. Fl. 1.12-13.

9. On the notion of Mahnschriften, or the genre providing a fonction véhiculaire with respect to conveying information and advice to the sovereign, see R. Rees, Layers of Loyalty in Latin Panegyric AD 289-307 (Oxford, 2002), 7; G. Sabbah, “De la rhétorique à la communication politique: Les Panégyriques Latins“, BAGB 22 (1984), 372. Readers interested in these problems might well refer to my article on Domitian, which examines the problem of subtle criticism and the last Flavian prince in further detail; see ” Calvus Nero : Domitian and the Mechanics of Predecessor Denigration”, Acta Classica 45 (2002), 19-49. I hope to do more work on this theme in the future.

10. E. M. Halliday, Understanding Thomas Jefferson (New York, 2001), 122.

11. If, of course, a sexual relationship really did occur between them.