Historiography Saturday: Caligula

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Caligula (“little soldier’s boot”) was the nickname of Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, one of the more notorious Roman emperors. While the firsthand accounts of his reign have nearly all been lost to history, the surviving contemporary and posthumous accounts do not paint a flattering picture: over a short period the new emperor went from a beloved favorite of the army to a leader known for irresponsible spending habits and wanton cruelty. When he planned to move to Alexandria from Rome, a political play that would have crippled the Senate, he was assassinated.

From the initial biographies to an infamous film adaptation, Caligula’s story has been used as a morality play for the past two millennia, making it difficult to discern what his reign was really like. The more outrageous claims, like his relationship with his favorite horse, were likely rumors, but broader accusations of sexual deviancy (incest and homosexual relations, for example) are more difficult to address, along with the assertion that he was insane, in part due to a Roman cultural meme that paired perversity and madness with poor governorship. (Seneca’s description of Caligula as appallingly ugly and pale might be a more accessible ad hominem to a modern audience.) It is possible that Caligula was bisexual, but not impossible that accounts of him as the passive partner in same-sex intercourse were intended as slander given the Roman expectations for adult male sexuality.

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Zeus

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The Grecian “Father of the Gods and Men” gained his title after freeing his siblings from their cannibalistic father’s digestive tract, then banishing him and his fellow Titans to the underworld. As he is a mythological figure, there are no shortage of tales and variations on his deeds: Wikipedia’s list reads like a series of Chuck Norris jokes, with each legend more outrageous than the last. (“When Hera gave birth to Hephaestus, Zeus threw him off the top of Mount Olympus because of his repulsive appearance.”)

Zeus’s extensive (and often upsetting) sexual history is a story in itself. The mating practices of the Greek gods combined the drama of a human soap opera with the fantastical, creating scandals like the birth of Athena, goddess of wisdom, who sprung fully-formed from Zeus’s head after he swallowed her mother whole. Nowadays Zeus might be classified as bisexual because his liaisons included the pedaristic relationship he shared with Ganymede, the world’s most handsome boy, whose Latin name Catamitus was the origin for the term catamite. (Interestingly, Zeus also plays a pivotal role in Plato’s speech on the origin of love in his Symposium, in which he inadvertently creates both hetero- and homosexuality, along with the opening number of the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch.)

Emperor Hadrian

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Though he is now known for the massive, eponymous wall he constructed that defined the boundaries of Roman Britain, it took more for Hadrian to earn his place as one of the Five Good Emperors of Rome. Machiavelli hypothesized that Hadrian’s adoption was the key to his benevolent dictatorship, which was marked by a patronage of the arts and a scaling back of conquered territories. His philhellenism (obsession with Greece) spawned the revival of the beard as a fashion choice, which endured among the Romans for generations after his death. This is not to suggest that his reign was without bloodshed: his occupation of Roman Judaea was especially nasty, and rife with anti-Jewish policies.

As with all figures from historical Rome who engaged in same-sex relationships, Hadrian’s sexual orientation is difficult to translate into a modern paradigm. Online sources vary on how much interest he had in women, but he is known to have had such a close bond with a male youth, Antinous, that upon the teenager’s death from drowning, Hadrian mourned by erecting a city – and a cult – in his honor. Due to the ambiguity, he is tagged ‘bisexual’, ‘gay’, and ‘pederasty’.

Heracles/Hercules

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Boasting astonishing physical, mental, and sexual prowess, Heracles (his original Greek name) was the paragon of fictional heroism. Over the course of his Twelve Labors he captures and slays a full menagerie of mythical beasts and cleans out the raunchiest stables in all the Mediterranean, then moves on to joining the quest for the Golden Fleece, which he ditches after his love affair with a male companion takes a tragic turn – a common thread in his stories, as curses from the goddess Hera repeatedly force him to kill those he loves the most. (She had ample cause for complaint: he was born after her philandering husband Zeus tricked a mortal woman into sex by pretending to be her husband, and – after another round of trickery, this time from Athena – Heracles nursed from Hera so violently that her breast milk sprayed into the sky and formed the Milky Way.)

Heracles’s legendary accomplishments are far too extensive to list in a short blog post, and his list of lovers poses a similar problem. Following one of his Labors he – no pun intended – impregnated 49 women in a single night. His same-sex affairs were celebrated, to the point where one of his lovers was worshipped alongside him by the Thebans; King Eurystheus, for whom he performed the Labors, is treated in some interpretations as his lover as well.

 

 

Megillos

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Megillos is a fictional character created by Lucian, a second century Assyrian rhetorician, as part of his Dialogues of the Courtesans series. One sex worker tells another of a pair of clients she’d had who she assumed were both women. However, over the course of the transaction, one had removed a wig, and insisted that he was a man despite having “a body entirely like that of all women”; when the courtesan argued with him, he rebuked her, saying, “Don’t you effeminate me!” The two of them, along with the remaining woman (Demonassa, Megillos’ wife), then had sex, which the courtesan, ashamed of the encounter, refuses to speak to her colleague about in any detail.

Though commonly described as a lesbian story (including here, where the full translated text is stored), Megillos’ self-expressed identity as a man means that the story better fits a transgender mold. For a longer scholarly takedown of the linguistic evidence, see here.