LGBTQA+ history has been filled with tragedy, through the stripping of basic human rights from queer men and women. However, the oppression of individuals on account of their sexuality is – comparatively – a modern phenomenon, arriving alongside religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam. In the Ancient world, homosexuality was not only accepted, but often encouraged; so long as your social class provided you the freedom to choose your partner. The gender of your partner mattered little. Rather, status mattered.
Roman society was of course patriarchal (there’s honestly no surprise there) so a free-born man had had total liberty to have homosexual relationships without a loss of dignity or social status, even if he was already married – as long as he took the dominant role. In fact, there were no Latin words for homosexual or heterosexual. Rather, sexuality was divided into dominant/masculine and submissive/feminine. Those men who took the submissive role were often frowned upon, in a strictly patriarchal society which took ‘feminine’ behaviours to be inferior.
Socially acceptable male partners were considered to be slaves, entertainers and prostitutes, although Roman men in general seem to have preferred youths between the ages of 12 and 20 as sexual partners. Freeborn male minors however were strictly off limits. (The ‘Roman censors’ were a committee of officials who determined where in the strict social hierarchy someone’s family belonged, and occasionally removed individuals from the upper ranks of society for sexual misconduct.) In general, though, same-sex relationships among partners of the appropriate social status were considered normal and acceptable.
With this social context in mind, I’ll now introduce Sporus; the young boy who was married to Emperor Nero, a man long considered to be one of the most depraved rulers of all time. Nero’s life was filled with violent episodes, including murdering his mother, and beating to death his pregnant wife Poppaea. However upon encountering Sporus – a young boy raised to be a ‘puer delicatus’, a child slave with effeminate beauty – he reportedly fell in love with him on account of his resemblance to his late wife. On account of his unlimited power, he ‘freed’ Sporus, thus trapping him in a life that was arguably no better than slavery.
Nero had Sporus castrated to maintain his boyish good looks, and then he married him, making him his formal wife and having him addressed as ’empress.’ Some attribute this to a guilt over the death of Poppaea at his hands, though others believe that the feminisation of Sporus was a means of establishing his role as a dominant conqueror over his spouse in a time of great patriarchy. Sporus was dressed always in luxurious female robes, with his long hair parted, and was even married in a bridal veil. He always had an entourage of women to attend to him. However, his role was absolute servitude, much like any wife of the time. He was always at the mercy of his husband, and in spite of extravagant public kisses and shows of affection, their relationship was likely one of rape and cruelty. Most notably, the name that Nero gave him upon ‘freeing’ him from slavery was a sign of complete indignity, as Sporus quite literally translates to ‘semen.’
Their marriage was ended abruptly by Nero’s death. It was at this time that Sporus showed his fire, as he creatively revealed that he had never loved the emperor – his abuser – when he gave his body a ring engraved with the rape of Proserpina; showing what he felt his position had been in their marriage. One of rape, captivity and helplessness. (The rape of proserpina is more commonly known by the Greek myth of Hades kidnapping persephone to be his wife in the underworld. The original tale – of the brutal rape of young persephone – is a lot more grim and non-consensual than Hercules and Percy Jackson would have us believe.)
However, when you may think Sporus had been rescued, and that this poor boy’s life couldn’t get any worse, he was taken by a member of the Emperors guard known as Nymphidius, who had plans to usurp the throne with Nero gone. He took Sporus to be his wife by force, seeing him as no more than property to be handed over. However, there was already a candidate for the throne; Otho, the first husband of the late Poppaea. Otho murdered Nymphidius, and himself became emperor.
Sporus’ resemblance to Poppaea had now become his curse. Otho, too, took Sporus forcefully as his wife, but this marriage lasted only three months, when Otho suffered a defeat and took his own life. His successor – Vitellius – brought Sporus into possibly the worst episode of his life so far. After being traded like cattle, used, raped and abused by several ‘husbands’, Sporus – as a part of the emperors property – became a possession of Vitelius. Vitelius however had no interest in marrying him for a taste of the life of Nero. Seeing him as a treasure of the three previous rulers, he planned to publicly humiliate Sporus as a display of his ultimate power, by re-enacting the rape of Proserpina publicly in a gladiator show, through a disgraceful display of violence.
Sporus was less than twenty years old when Vitelius became Emperor of Rome, close to my own age, and yet had lived a life of slavery and cruelty, having never really tasted freedom – until his death. This, he decided, he wanted to control himself, not allowing Vitelius the pleasure of humiliating him further. To avoid this fate, Sporus took his own life at around 19 years of age, having likely – from a modern perspective – suffered from years of depression and trauma on account of the daily cruelties he faced, as well as years of dysphoria, forced to adopt an identity that harmonised with his social position and pleased whichever husband he belonged to; even facing great mutilation to achieve a state of androgyny. Sporus’ life story is a dark part of queer history, and history in general, but is far less a consequence of any LGBT discrimination than it is a product of classism and patriarchy. Sporus was forced to fit a mould. Sexuality was a binary between the box of masculinity, or the box or femininity, and the boy was crushed in every way into the latter, and forced to submit to men of power and status on account of being born with neither.
Due to modern religion often denying that Ancient Rome was quite so accepting of homosexuality, few know of Nero’s inclinations, and even fewer know the tragic tale of Sporus; though a number of lessons can be learned from it. He was overall a brave young man, who took his power back the only way he could, and who personally I believe should be remembered for the boldness of placing a ring upon the body of his dead abuser, both mocking him and sharing his own truth. Were he alive today, I like to believe he would be able to discover his own sexuality and gender identity without pressure or force, and that he would be able to love, freely and boldly, whoever he chose to.