There is a wry little footnote in Gibbon where he reflects that of the first fifteen Roman Emperors, “Claudius was the only one whose taste in love was entirely correct.” Even if we assume that Kinsey’s inflated “one in ten” statistic is accurate, we should only expect that 1.3 of these men would be homosexual/bisexual in his inclinations. Two would be within normal statistical deviation, three would be a little odd but perhaps explicable if we theorized that the Claudians were carrying a male homosexuality gene, but twelve of thirteen does seem a little improbable. Here I take a look at six of them.
Julius. If Julius Caesar had homosexual relations, it is generally thought that they were politically motivated. He was willing to indulge his political patrons in order to gain prestige and dignitas within the Roman world. He was also willing to receive such favours from his inferiors as a way of securing their political loyalty and establishing his dominance over them. He is what we would call an “opportunistic homosexual.”
Tiberius. Tiberius, by all accounts, was a sex addict. In his case it’s not even likely that these were just scurrilous rumours spread by his worst enemies: we have the incriminating evidence of the mosaics in his palace at Capris. If you ever go to a “sexaholics anonymous” meeting you will quickly discover that sex addiction often crosses gender lines. It has nothing to do with sexual orientation, but rather with seeking the largest possible pool of sexual partners and experiences.
Caligula. Caligula was severely messed up. Half of his family and their political allies were murdered under the reign of Tiberius, largely because the house of Germanicus enjoyed ever increasing political influence as Tiberius’ popularity waned. Caligula was groomed by Tiberius from a young age at the aforementioned pleasure-palace in Capris. His sexual activity was erratic and seems to have included incest. Today, we would see Caligula as a trauma victim, similar to pedophiles whose pedophilia is caused by their own sexual victimization as children.Nero. Nero seems to have been a somewhat effeminate boy who was pushed into an ultra-masculine role in an ultra-masculine society by an overbearing mother. He’s the perfect stereotype of a homosexual as presented within homophobic literature: angry, smothered, frivolous, spoiled-rotten, effeminate, intensely narcissistic and lacking in self-control. If there is anything to the Freudian tropes, Nero is their poster-boy.
Hadrian. Hadrian seems to have been a reasonably well balanced human being (for a Roman Emperor – that kind of power will tend to unbalance anyone) who fell in love with a man reasonably similar in age to himself. They had a long-term relationship, they were emotionally close and their love seems to have been mutual. When Antinous died Hadrian’s grief was so profound that he raised statues to his lover throughout the Empire. Of the Roman Emperors, Hadrian comes the closest to the popular modern notion of “gay” — that is, someone who prefers men both romantically and sexually and who wants to have relationships, not just sex.
Elegabalus. I mention him because his sexual exploits are not what brought attention to him but rather his extravagant displays of extreme effeminacy. Although his sexuality is widely debated in scholarly circles, there is a strong argument to be made that Elegabalus was transgender.
Note that these are six completely different personalities. They have a tremendous amount in common: they share the same cultural background, they’re all obscenely wealthy, they’re all ambitious, four of them are related by blood, and they were all leaders of the most powerful Empire in the ancient world. Yet even still there’s a huge amount of diversity in terms of their sexual behaviour, the reasons for that behaviour, their likely sexual orientation, their sexual motivations and what it would mean to refer to them as “homosexual” or even “bisexual.”
So a reductive genetic explanation doesn’t seem to be true, at least not for all homosexuals. But that doesn’t eliminate the possibility, or perhaps the probability, that biology does play a role at least for some.
Adapted from Sexual Authenticity: More Reflections
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