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Painting of Messalina

5 salacious sex scandals from Ancient Rome

Image: Peder Severin Krøyer's 1881 portrait of Messalina | (CC BY 4.0)

Sex: A Bonkers History explores how sexual behaviour through the ages has shaped civilisation in ways we are only now beginning to discover. Hosted by Amanda Holden, episode one looks at Valeria Messalina, who many historians believe was the first slut-shamed woman in Ancient Rome

With good reason, Ancient Rome is often thought of as a hotbed of debauchery and decadence. Numerous emperors and aristocrats of that time were embroiled in all kinds of sordid and scandalous antics behind the scenes, as we’re about to see.

1. Julius Caesar - The Queen of Bithynia

One of the juiciest pieces of gossip in Ancient Rome concerned none other than Julius Caesar, and a homosexual affair he allegedly had with King Nicomedes IV of Bithynia (a realm in modern-day Turkey). The story stemmed back to Caesar’s formative years as a plucky young soldier when he was dispatched to the court of Nicomedes and seemed to like it there a little too much.

Rumours of this royal romance dogged Caesar for years afterward, and people certainly weren’t shy about mentioning it. A political rival, Marcus Bibulus, mockingly dubbed Caesar ‘the Queen of Bithynia’, while the great statesman and orator Cicero wrote of Caesar losing his virginity to the king while lying on a golden couch. A military song ostensibly celebrating Caesar even contained the words, ‘Caesar laid the Gauls low, Nicomedes laid Caesar low’.

Were Caesar and Nicomedes really lovers? Historians still speculate and the truth will never likely be known. But there’s no denying this was one of the most enduring scandals of his era.

2. Valeria Messalina - The Imperial Whore

Perhaps the single most notorious woman in Roman history was Valeria Messalina, wife of Emperor Claudius. A ruthless political schemer who engineered the downfalls and murders of her enemies, Messalina was also well known for her sexual appetite. In fact, her promiscuity has been the stuff of legend for thousands of years, inspiring numerous plays, paintings, operas and movies.

She was dubbed ‘the imperial whore’ by the Roman poet Juvenal, while the historian Suetonius wrote that ‘she committed the most shameful excesses’. And then there’s the story reported by the great Roman author Pliny the Elder, who described how she competed with a well-known prostitute to see who could bed the most men in succession. According to Pliny, ‘the empress outdid her after continuous intercourse, night and day, at the twenty-fifth embrace.’

Messalina’s carnal exploits eventually led to her death. When she married one of her lovers, this act of outrageous bigamy demanded official retribution, and she was executed by the Praetorian Guard.

3. Caligula - The Incestuous Tyrant

If there’s one Roman whose very name is synonymous with sexual excess, sadism and aristocratic lunacy in the ancient world, it’s Caligula. As so often with famous Romans, it’s hard to distinguish facts from the hype, but stories abound of Emperor Caligula’s monumental vanity and arrogance. He’d present himself as a living god, have people put to death for sheer amusement and indulge his insatiable sexual urges.

Roman chroniclers delved into Caligula’s reported perversions, with Suetonius writing that the emperor turned his palace into a literal brothel. Suetonius also recounted that Caligula ‘lived in habitual incest with all his sisters, and at a large banquet he placed each of them in turn below him, while his wife reclined above.’

It was said that Caligula would casually help himself to other men’s wives, having them paraded in front of him for inspection and selection in the style of a slave market. According to one story, he even had a bride carried away from her own wedding banquet so that he could have his way with her. ‘Don’t take liberties with my wife,’ the emperor allegedly told the hapless groom. Whether this was a cruel little joke or Caligula had genuinely lost his mind is anybody’s guess.

4. Tiberius - The Island of Depravity

He may not be as universally notorious as Caligula, but Emperor Tiberius may have actually exceeded him in depravity. Initially a wise and temperate ruler who strengthened the Roman Empire, Tiberius later withdrew from public life and retreated to Capri.

According to Roman lore, this idyllic island became an epicentre of perversity. In the words of the great Roman historian Tacitus, Tiberius ‘plunged into every wickedness and disgrace, when fear and shame being cast off, he simply indulged his own inclinations.'

Cooped up in a palace emblazoned with pornographic art, he coerced unwilling men and women into violent orgies.

This behaviour was regarded as beyond the pale even by the standards of hedonistic aristocrats, with Suetonius describing the abuse as ‘an abomination not fit to be mentioned or heard’.

5. Julia the Elder - The Pervert’s Wife

Whether or not Tiberius was quite as diabolical as the stories say, one thing we know for certain is that his wife Julia was also the subject of scandalised gossip.

Their marriage was a purely political union, with Tiberius being obliged to ditch his first wife, whom he genuinely loved, for Julia. She, for her part, was eagerly unfaithful, taking a string of lovers who included luminaries like Mark Antony’s son. The philosopher Seneca reported that she admitted lovers ‘in droves’, and the Roman historian Dio Cassius described her ‘revels and drinking parties by night in the Forum’. She was even said to have been a prostitute for the sheer pleasure of it.

It got too much for her father, Emperor Augustus, who eventually snapped and had her sent into exile on an island where she was forbidden from seeing men or drinking wine. Her punishment continued when Augustus died and was succeeded by her husband Tiberius, who imposed such strict limits on her activities that it’s widely supposed she died of malnutrition.