Reports about the “Sex Life” of Early Roman Emperors: A Case of Character Assassination?

  • Jan Meister


The popular image of the early Roman emperors is marked by notions of unbridled sexuality and moral decadence. It is the work of the imperial biographer Suetonius more than any other that has given rise to this image. His biographies include reports about the sex lives of the emperors that leave absolutely nothing to the imagination: Augustus has his wife Livia procure young girls for him to deflower; Tiberius holds wild orgies in the seclusion of Capri; and Caligula indiscriminately rapes his sisters, respectable matrons, and Roman senators.2 Evidence for the broad reception of these reports ranges from erotic engravings of the eighteenth century to the X-rated films of recent years.3 Among scholars, by contrast, for a long time this “frivolous” subject received little attention.4 Earlier scholars on Suetonius embarrassedly regarded the passages in question as merely further proof that Suetonius was a third-rate author interested in scandal and gossip from all kinds of unreliable sources.5 Over the last decades, however, not only has Suetonius enjoyed a nuanced reassessment,6 but also the discursive nature of sexuality itself has been the subject of extensive discussion.7


Sexual Practice Passive Role Sexual Misconduct Roman Emperor Passive Sexual Practice 
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© Martijn Icks and Eric Shiraev 2014

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  • Jan Meister

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