Saturday, 19 May 2018

The Eunuch That Would Be Empress by L.J. Trafford

The list of the crimes of Nero runs something like this: He had his first wife executed, he had his mother executed, he kicked his pregnant second wife to death , he castrated a boy and made him to pretend to be his dead wife, he cheated in the Olympics, he allegedly fiddled whilst Rome burned, he was responsible for the first persecution of the Christians.
Nero


I want to look at just one of these in detail. I want to look at the castrated boy made to dress as Nero's deceased wife. His name was Sporus.

In 65AD Nero fell into an argument with his wife Poppaea Sabina, in a fit of anger he kicked her in the stomach. She was heavily pregnant at the time and this moment of temper killed her. There were naturally rumours that Poppaea's death was suspicious, she was said to have been poisoned. Nero had ordered his mother Agrippina to be killed, he was surely capable of anything. 

Tacitus, surprisingly for he accounts all other crimes to Nero and sees nothing in the way of positive traits in the emperor, takes issue with this. He does not believe it ,"For Nero wanted children and he loved his wife"

Nero was absolutely devastated by Poppea's death. She was not cremated , as was standard in Rome, but rather embalmed with spices. Her widower spoke at her state funeral, praising her looks and virtues.
And here enters Sporus, or rather here enters a boy that will be known as Sporus.


The Replacement
 


Bust said to be of Poppaea who Sporus
greatly resembled
Cassius Dio tells us: 


"Nero missed her so greatly after her death that on learning of a woman who resembled her he at first sent for her and kept her; but later he caused a boy of the freedmen, whom he used to call Sporus, to be castrated, since he, too, resembled Sabina, and he used him in every way like a wife."

Sporus was handed over to Calvia Crispinilla, Nero's mistress of the wardrobe, who took care of the boy and was responsible for turning him into an Empress. 

 "He actually wore his hair parted, young women attended him whenever he went for a walk, he wore women's clothes and was forced to do everything else a woman does in the same way." 
Dio of Prusa


This was no private hobby.
“ This Sporus, decked out with the finery of the empresses and riding in a litter, he took with him to the assizes and marts of Greece, and later at Rome through the Street of the Images,fondly kissing him from time to time. “
Suetonius 


Sporus even accompanied Nero on his tour of Greece where:
 “He married him with all the usual ceremonies, including a dowry and a bridal veil, took him to his house attended by a great throng, and treated him as his wife.” 

Suetonius


But what are we the modern audience to make of this? What is Sporus to Nero? 
Does Nero truly believe Sporus is his dead wife, Poppaea? Is Sporus’ role to keep Nero’s grief at bay by the pretence that Poppaea isn’t dead?

I rather doubt this. Nero wasn’t so wrapped up in grief that he couldn’t see the imperative of remarrying and producing a much needed heir. Shortly after Poppaea's demise he took Statilia Messalina as be his third wife. Indeed she appears on the coinage with her husband, the emperor. Nero was certainly aware that Poppaea was dead. He was not deluded into thinking Sporus actually was Poppaea.
So let’s go back to our question: what was Sporus to Nero? 

The Actress
Coin of Nero and Poppaea

One important point to note is that Sporus was the name Nero gave to the boy.
Sporus in Greek translates as seed /semen or if we take it coarser, spunk. Nero castrates a boy and then names him spunk. How cruelly apt and one that begs the question, was it a joke? Is castrating a boy, dressing him up as your dead wife and parading him round the city Nero’s idea of fun?

There’s a certain theatrical element here that is very Nero; the dressing up, the extravagant public kisses, the wedding.
This wasn’t Nero first ‘unofficial’ wedding. There’s been a previous one to his freedman Doryphorus. Only this time Nero had been the bride not the groom


“He was even married to this man in the same way that he himself had married Sporus, going so far as to imitate the cries and lamentations of a maiden being “ 
Suetonius

This puts the Sporus wedding in another light. A bit of play acting?
It seems likely. Nowhere in any of the accounts of Sporus does it state that Nero loved him. Early in his reign Nero had fallen deeply in love with a freedwomen named Acte. So much so that:

"He all but made his lawful wife, after bribing some ex-consuls to perjure themselves by swearing that she was of royal birth." 
Suetonius
Forbidden by the differences in their class from marrying Nero here is desperately trying to make it legitimate. There is no such attempt in the marriage to Sporus.
This is a faux wedding, a faux marriage.
A bit of sexual role play?

A rather odd scenario described by Suetonius suggests that Nero had incorporated dressing up and role play into his pleasures:

“He at last devised a kind of game, in which, covered with the skin of some wild animal, he was let loose from a cage and attacked the private parts of men and women, who were bound to stakes, and when he had sated his mad lust, was dispatched by his freedman Doryphorus” 

“Dispatched” in this case has a double meaning. This appears to be some sort of role play based on the beast hunts of the arena. The participants being Nero's household slaves and freedmen. Note again Doryphorus is present, Nero’s ‘husband’.

Sporus to Nero was part of an act, an elaborate play with defined roles. Sporus the bride. Nero the husband.
Interestingly both Richard Holland and Edward Champlin in their biographies of Nero are doubtful on whether the relationship between Nero and Sporus was sexual.

Holland states:
"The Emperor may only ever have pretended to have sex with his Poppaea-substitute as part of the protocol sustaining the fantasy." 

Note that in the wedding to Doryphorus Nero 'imitated' the noises of a maiden being flowered. However the wild beast scenario very definitely involves actual consummation, Nero's lusts are said to be sated. 


The Eunuch's Tale

In 68AD Nero's fantasy world came crashing down. A revolt in Gaul had rapidly spread. Galba had been named emperor. Nero was declared an enemy of the state. On the morning of 9th June Nero awoke to find the palace empty. His praetorian prefect Nymphidius Sabinus had convinced his private body guard to desert. Nero fled the city, with him went two of his freedmen and Sporus. They holed up in a villa outside the city, here Nero "would beg Sporus to begin to lament and wail, and now entreat someone to help him take his life by setting him the example" Suetonius
Sporus did not set the example. Nero stabbed himself in the throat, aided by his freedman, the artist was dead.
Emperor Otho, another of Sporus' conquests


What did Nero's death mean for Sporus?
Apparently business as normal, for he pops up almost instantly in the company of Nymphidius Sabinus, the Prefect who had aided Nero's overthrow.

"Whom he had sent for at once, while Nero's body was yet burning on its pyre, and treated as his consort, and addressed by the name of Poppaea), he aspired to the succession of the empire. " 
Plutarch

And then after Sabinus meets a sticky end there is a short pause and here new emperor Otho is described as having 'intimacy with Sporus' Cassius Dio.

There's somewhat of a profession empress air about this. We've been asking what was Sporus to Nero? We've examined what Nero might have felt about the eunuch. At no point have we asked what Sporus' view was. 
 That Sporus pops up twice later playing exactly the same role suggests that either he was irresistibly gorgeous to both Sabinus and Otho or maybe just maybe he offered himself as 'Empress'. 
Perhaps even if Nero didn't truly buy the fantasy of his reborn Poppaea, Sporus did. When Nero was forced to flee, maybe Sporus accompanied him as a dutiful wife.

After Otho's death in the spring of 69AD Vitellius became emperor. He did not require an empress. He had quite different plans for Sporus.



"It was proposed that Sporus should be brought on to the stage in the rĂ´le of a maiden being ravished" Cassius Dio.

If Sporus was purely the play thing in a succession of emperor's fantasies wouldn't we expect him to play along with this? He'd participated in his public marriage to Nero. He'd paraded about on the arm of Nymphidius Sabinus. But Sporus doesn't. Tragically this is what happens

"He would not endure the shame and committed suicide beforehand." 
Cassius Dio

Was this the final escape for a much abused slave? Or was it to do with the role itself, one as a maiden and not the Empress Sporus felt himself to be? 

There are a lot of perhapses and maybes here. We shall never truly know exactly what role Sporus performed for Nero and others. We shall never know how he felt about this performance. Was he sadly abused slave who could take it no longer or was he the lowly born eunuch enjoying his moment in the light of the distinctly glamorous palace life?

What we do know is that he was, for a brief but wondrous period, Empress in name.


L.J. Trafford is the author of the Four Emperors series of books that features Nero and Sporus. 





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