Judging by his Lives of the Twelve Caesars, which luckily has survived nearly intact, Suetonius was a keen observer and an avid collector of the personal idiosyncrasies, favorite sayings, personality quirks, and habits both virtuous and embarrassing of the imperial rulers and their families. He also had access to imperial files and primary source documents, and included what was said about a given emperor, dishing the dirt with brevity and eloquence but without taking sides. The end result: despite the gossipy, unsavory nature of many anecdotes, Suetonius comes across as strangely impartial, with no particular ax to grind.
Here is a jaw-dropping excerpt from Suetonius’s entry on Emperor Tiberius: “In his retreat at Capri there was a room devised by him dedicated to the most arcane lusts. Here he assembled from all quarters girls and perverts, whom he called spintriae (the term comes from the Greek word sphinkter), who invented monstrous feats of lubricity, and defiled one another before him, interlaced in series of threes, in order to inflame his feeble appetite. He also had several other rooms adapted to his lusts, decorated with paintings and bas reliefs depicting scenes of the most lascivious character, and supplied with the books of Elephantis [a female pornographer who did an illustrated book on sex postures—see the entry elsewhere in this book], that no one should lack a model for the execution of any lustful act he was ordered to perform.”
Tiberius had crummy luck in most of his marriages, but that didn’t justify his perversity. As emperor, he set up a rancid sex retreat on Capri, where he abused youngsters for years.
So—what precisely were those “monstrous feats of lubricity”? Spintriae were young sex workers, females and effeminate males, who performed daisy-chain group sex, each submitting to different ways and places of penetration. In his late sixties, Tiberius was much more of a voyeur than an active participant.
His other fetish, however, was a great deal more repugnant. It’s described by Suetonius in a later paragraph: “Still more flagrant and brazen was another sort of infamy which he practiced … He taught children of the most tender years, whom he called his ‘little fishes,’ to play between his legs while he was in his bath. Those which had not yet been weaned, but were strong and hearty, he set at fellatio, the sort of sports best adapted to his inclination and age.”
Occasionally this sixty-eight-year-old child abuser had enough energy to actively chase youngsters on land. As Suetonius notes, “One day during a [religious] sacrifice, he was so smitten by the beauty of a boy who swung a censer [the incense burner] that he was hardly able to wait until the rites were over before taking him aside and abusing him as well as his brother, who was playing the flute; and that soon afterwards he had the legs of both of them broken because they were reproaching each other with the disgrace.”
There was a chilling aftermath to Tiberius’s child perversion activities. One of his spintriae, a young boy from Rome, spent his boyhood and early youth on Capri as a student of depravity. He may have been at Tiberius’s service from age eleven to eighteen or so. According to Suetonius, he may have even become the old man’s plaything to advance his father’s career.
Decades after Tiberius died, that young man—now in his fifties— became Roman emperor. Called Vitellinus, he was one of the three who wore Caesar’s crown, ever so briefly, during A.D. 68-69, the year of the revolving emperors.