Emperor Nero, who reigned (if you can call it that) from A.D. 54 until his suicide in 68, committed a shocking number of crimes, from matricide to fiery persecution of Christian scapegoats. These acts appalled and frightened his subjects.
But they paled next to his sex life. Addicted to perverse acts, terrified of becoming bored, given full rein by his imperial status, Nero pursued fetishes with single-minded gusto.
None of it was kept secret. But what most shocked everyone was his frank admission that he enjoyed being penetrated as well as doing the penetrating. For elite Roman and Greek males, this was a staggering message. To some, it indicated that the emperor was not a regular male at all but what the Romans called a cinaedus, an effeminate man who invited anal sex. The Greek and Latin languages had nearly a dozen synonyms for cinaedus, all of them abusive.
Today we might be more repelled by Nero’s other proclivities, including a form of bestiality. Writing six decades after Nero’s death, biographer Suetonius described his sexual hungers in this fashion: “He so prostituted his own chastity that after defiling almost every part of his body, he at last devised a kind of game, in which, covered with the skin of some wild animal, Nero was let loose from a cage. He then attacked the private parts of men and women, who were bound to stakes and when he had sated his mad lust, he was dispatched [i.e., given sexual release by anal penetration] by his freedman Doryphorus. For he was even married to this man in the same way he himself had married Sporus, going so far as to imitate the cries and lamentations of a maiden being deflowered. I have heard from some men that it was Nero’s unshaken conviction that no man was chaste or pure in any part of his body, but that most concealed their vices and cleverly drew a veil over them.”
Judging by the testimony of numerous writers, Nero played out every fantasy that occurred to him. And didn’t care who saw it, took part in it, or objected to it.
Around A.D. 65, just after Nero had kicked his third wife Poppaea Sabina (and their unborn child) to death in a rage, the still-mourning emperor happened to glimpse a handsome young freedman named Sporus. The poor man had the huge misfortune to resemble Nero’s late wife. Quicker than you can say “falsetto,” Nero had Sporus castrated and took him to Greece, where he “married” the boy and the couple honeymooned. Sporus had to don a wardrobe of empress wear and endure frequent public kissing sprees with the salacious emperor.
The sad aftermath: Sporus outlived Nero, but notoriety followed him like a cheap perfume. He was forced to become the lover of a subsequent emperor, then another. When the put-upon eunuch was told he’d be playing the part of a maiden being ravished in an upcoming public spectacle, Sporus had had enough. He committed suicide.
Even during Nero’s more conventional marriages, he sought heterosexual liaisons, the more outré and distasteful the better. As mentioned earlier, halfway through his reign, he abducted and raped one of Rome’s vestal virgins. Needless to say, in the cowed political climate of that time, the emperor was never accused, much less punished, for any of these crimes.
During Nero’s tenure, ancient Rome experienced its own “swinging 60s.” During that period, a growing number of male prostitutes called themselves niironas in emulation of Nero’s favored positions and sexual acts.
Nero was not the only emperor to engage in a wide variety of sexual perversions, but he was unique in proclaiming that “anything goes” and anyone could be penetrated, including himself. When Nero was born, his unsavory father, a patrician named Domitius Ahenobarbus, famously said to those who congratulated him: “Any child born of Agrippina and of me will be a disaster and an abomination.” He wasn’t far from wrong. & Light