On the House of Augustus.
Augustus preferred a perpetual play of radiance and shadow to be evident across his face. His image was as tightly controlled as it was charged with ambivalence. The portrait of him fashioned by sculptors offered to the Roman people a fitting reflection of the infinite subtleties and paradoxes of the man himself. In the jug ears of his statues it was possible to catch the glimpse of a thoroughly human Princeps: one whose eyebrows met above his nose, whose teeth were bad, and whose anxieties about his height were such that he wore platform heels. Yet he was a handsome man for all that; and it was his conceit, one that plenty were willing to flatter, that he had only to fix people with ‘his clear and brilliant gaze for them to lower their eyes, as though before the sun. In his statues, the jugeared Princeps appeared as beauteous as Apollo. Suspended midway between youth and maturity, between melancholy and triumph, between the mortal and divine, he was a Roman in every sense.
There was certainly to be no place in his portraits for the thinning hair and sagging jowls that once, in the heyday of the Republic, had served as the markers of high-achieving statesmen. What need for Augustus to emphasise his experience? All stood in awe of his achievements. He had accomplished more than any number of senators scored with wrinkles. The close association between ugliness and virtus, always cherished by conservatives, was hardly one to appeal to Augustus. The Princeps, rather than reining in his taste for self-promotion, aimed instead to mould tastes to the contours of his own. Never before in history had so many portraits of a single man been manufactured, disseminated and put on public display. A new orthodoxy was being marketed to the Roman people: that power should be good-looking. Evident to all those who gazed upon the statues of Augustus, it could increasingly be read as well in an even more prominent sphere: the fabric of the city.
Or did it? There was, perhaps, for those up to speed with the times, something just a little bit provincial, just a little bit musty about an antique sexual taboo. ‘How like a rustic, to get upset when your wife cheats on you.’ So Ovid, a man with his finger on the pulse of high society, observed with practised smoothness....The various prohibitions and perils erected by custom in the path of the adulterer were liable to strike the seasoned connoisseur of erotic pleasure less as deterrents than as incentives, spicing up the fun. ‘We always want what we’re not allowed.’ Ovid, in offering this sage observation, was putting his finger on a mocking truth, Forbidden fruit tasted the sweetest. ‘Prohibitions, trust me, only encourage bad behaviour. This, in a city as addicted to gossip as Rome, was a paradox that plenty were prepared to swallow. Speculation as to what might be going on in the city’s most exclusive bedrooms naturally transfixed the public. That adultery was regarded by the upper classes as one tremendous game, in which the rules were there to be broken, and the measure of cool was to smuggle a lover into the marital bed, was widely taken for granted. No smoke without fire, after all. Proofs of the adulterous and effeminate character of Rome’s fast set were everywhere to be seen. In the dandyishly loose way they wore their togas; in their clean nails, sprucely clipped nasal hair and sinister lack of body odour; above all, in the oiled sheen of their limbs. For a man to shave his armpits was, everyone could agree, simply good manners; but to do as Augustus was said to have done, and depilate the legs, was disgusting, plain and simple. Body hair was the mark of a man. Everyone knew, though, that adulterers cared nothing for that. Smooth skin, not a pelt, was what they brought to seduction. It was all most deviant and alarming. Even Ovid might sometimes be provoked to pontificate: ‘Men are all such fashion victims these days that, really, we can hardly blame women for feeling the pressure.’
None of which stopped the poet himself from cheerily offering grooming tips to his male as well as his female fans. Ovid, though did not have the care of Roman morals in his charge. Frivolous metrosexuality, in the opinion of the man who did, was part of the problem, not a solution. Augustus, who had brought order where previously there was chaos, who had lavished on his fellow citizens the riches of conquered kingdoms, who had transformed their city into a capital of unrivalled beauty and splendour, did not care to think that his labours might merely have contributed to a softening of their ancestral virtues. Such a prospect was too appalling to be borne. The Romans were either the heirs of their upright forefathers or they were nothing. The Princeps’s ambition was simple: that his fellow citizens should be true to all that was best about their past. They were the Romans: the lords of the world, the people of the toga. This, in the mirror that he had set up to his fellow citizens, fashioned out of monuments, and festivals, and all the various fruits of peace, was the reflection that he wished them always to catch of themselves.
Yet what if they caught something else? Perhaps there lay a warning in a recent scandalous development in the field of interior decoration. In bedrooms across Rome, walls and ceilings were coming to be lined with mirrors. Even beyond the limits of the city, out in his rural retreat among the Sabine hills, Horace had signed up to the craze. Notoriously, so had a billionaire by the name of Hostius Quadra. The mirrors on his walls boasted a particularly distinctive feature: everything reflected in them appeared larger than .it actually was. ‘So it was that the freak made a show of his own deviancy.’As one girl gave him a blow-job, and he licked out a second, so his anus, in a hideous desecration of all that a Roman should properly be, was shafted by a man with a giant cock -which, seen in the mirror, appeared possessed of truly gargantuan size, ‘larger than his capacity to take’ To groom, depilate and titivate like a woman was one thing; but to be fucked like one was a hideous extreme of degradation. What else was it, after all, but the willing surrender of everything that made a Roman a man?
‘lt takes courage to advance into a forbidden realm of shadow.When Drusus, on his final campaign, had found himself hundreds of miles east of the Rhine, on the banks of a second mighty natural barrier, a river named the Elbe, a spectre in the form of a colossal woman had materialised before him and forbidden him to cross it. That the lands of the north were the haunt of phantoms and hideous monsters came as no surprise. In the gloomy forests which covered vast reaches of Germany, giant bull-like creatures roamed, and mysterious entities named elks, without ankles or knees; in the icy waters of the Ocean, which would retreat and then advance twice a day, tearing loose oak trees and engulfing entire plains beneath their flood-tides, there shimmered ‘the outline of enigmatic beings half-men, half beast’.Just as Ovid, peering askance at the Tomitans, had fingered them as lycanthropes, so in the savage reaches of Germany were the borders between animal and human even more unsettlingly blurred. Chieftains who wished for a policy briefing, it was reported by Roman scholars who had made a close study of German customs, were likeliest to consult a horse. Conversely, ‘the towering stature of the Germans, their fierce blue eyes and reddish hair’ spoke of a nature barely less bestial than that of some steel-clawed bear, padding over mountain slopes. Geography could not be bucked. Their bogs and trees shrouded in a perpetual drizzle, Germans were the spawn of their environment. The gods, who had considerately endowed Rome with a climate ideally suited to the growth of a mighty city, had doomed the inhabitants of the chilly North to a backwardness that was at once torpid and ferocious, dull and intemperate. Landscape. weather, people: Germany was unredeemably savage.
Or was it? Much the same after all could be said Gauls. Bad memories of them in Rome ran very deep. Back in 390 BC, a Gallic horde had erupted into Italy, annihilated six whole legions and sacked the city itself. Only with the conquests won by Augustus’s deified father had Gaul finally ceased to be a place of dread. Now, fifty years on. great changes were afoot beyond the Alps. Roman rule had brought to a people once notorious for their trousers and their gravy-soaked moustaches, their drunken brawling and their taste for collecting heads, a very different way of life. The grandsons of Chieftains who had hurled themselves half-naked against the invading legions now draped themselves in the toga and rejoiced in the name of ‘Julius’. Rather than guzzle wines indiscriminately, they were coming to develop a nose for the classiest Italian and Eastern grands crus and even, remarkably, to plant the odd vineyard themselves. Most promisingly of all, dotted across a landscape that had previously boasted only villages and rough stockades perched on hills, cities were starting to appear: islands of civilisation complete with flashy monuments and street-grids.
Bad enough as it was to be trapped on the wrong side of the Rhine, how much more terrifying was the prospect of being stranded on the wrong side of the Ocean. Few knew much about Britain --but what they did know was deeply off-putting. The natives were, if anything, even more barbarous than the Germans. They painted themselves blue; they held their wives in common; they wore hair on the upper lip, an affectation so grotesque that Latin did not even have a word for it. Nor were their women any better. They were reported to dye their bodies black, and even on occasion to go naked. Savages capable of such unspeakable customs were clearly capable of anything; and sure enough, just as it was part of the terror of the Germans that they practised murderous rites in the depths of their dripping forests, so did the Britons have priests who, in groves festooned with mistletoe, were reported to commit human sacrifice and cannibalism. These ‘Druids’, as the priests were called, had once infested Gaul as well, until their suppression on the orders of Tiberius; but across the Ocean, beyond the stern reach of Roman law, they still thrived. ‘Magic, to this very day, holds Britain in its shadow.’ No wonder. then ordered to embark for a land of such sorcery and menace, that many soldiers should have blanched.
The art of attracting an emperor’s attention was a fine one.
When Calpurnia came into Claudius’s presence, she was accompanied, for good measure, by a second of his concubines. Those who wanted his ear often made sure to exploit his sexual tastes, for everyone knew that he only ever slept with women. Like his concern that people should feel free to break wind at table, or his insistence on adding three new letters to the Latin alphabet, the complete lack of interest he had always shown in forcing himself on male partners marked Claudius out as a true eccentric. Not that people particularly disapproved for it was the way of the world that different men had different foibles, and just as some might prefer blondes and others brunettes, so were there a few who only ever fucked females, and a few who only ever fucked males.“ That Galba, for instance, was the mirror image of Claudius liking as he did ‘mature, hard-muscled men never did any harm to his standing as a model of martial rectitude. Seasoned soldier that he was, he well knew what it was to seize control, to thrust hard, to take possession.
Which was, it went without saying, the responsibility of every citizen who chose to have sex. Nothing was more shocking to Roman sensibilities than the man who, as Hostius Quadra had so notoriously done, submitted for his own pleasure to being fucked. The sword-stab of a penis was, of course. precisely what the female body had been shaped by the gods to receive: but the male body too was not lacking in orifices. Pay obeisance with the mouth or the anus to another man’s cock, and a citizen was doubly shamed. It was not just that in was playing the part of a woman (although that was of course bad enough) it was also that he was playing the part of a slave. Just as it was the privilege of the free-born. male and female alike. to have any violation of their bodies condemned as a monstrous crime. so was it the duty of slaves to serve a master‘s every conceivable sexual need. For some, indeed, it might be their principal responsibility. Pretty boys, long-haired, smooth-shaven and glistening with oils were must-have accessories at any fashionable soiree and all the more so if twins. One senator, in the time of Augustus. had abandoned subtlety altogether, employing waitresses who served entirely in the nude. Every slave knew, as a matter of course. that the threat of rape. like that of corporal punishment. might he realised at any moment. This did not mean that a master was necessarily incapable of tenderness: Lucius Vitellius, for instance. ended up so besotted with one of his slavegirls that not only did he free her. but he took to mixing up her spit with honey and using it as a throat medicine. Such eases. though, were the exception that proved the rule. In general. the right of a master to glut his sexual appetites on a slave. rather as he might blow his nose or use a latrine, was taken for granted. It was a perk of ownership, plain and simple. ‘No sense of shame is permitted a slave.“ Except that freedom itself, in a city where even senators had been subjected to the rack and whip was no longer all it had been. The implications, even for the grandest, were unsettling in the extreme. In AD 47, a year before Calpurnia came calling on Claudius at Ostia. one of the Senate’s most flamboyant and charismatic figures had been destroyed. Valerius Asiaticus, charged with a variety of crimes, had been arrested in the pleasure resort of Baiae and hauled hack to Rome in chains. His prosecutor had been an old associate of Germanicus's. a man as opportunistic as he was remorseless. by the name of Publius Suillius Rufus. His talent, given a victim. was for sinking his jaws deep and sure enough, at a private trial attended by both Claudius and Lucius Vitellius, Suillius had done just that. Rounding off the various charges, he had accused Asiaticus, for good measure, of the very ultimate in deviancy: of being ‘soft and giving, like a woman’. The prisoner, silent until then, had found this particular slander too much. ‘Ask your sons, Suillius,’ he had yelled. ‘They will confirm that I am all man.’ Desperate, aggressive banter -but also something more. The scorning of Suillius, a father to sons used by Asiaticus as women, had been the scorning too of an order so rotten that it had given power to such a man. Later, once Asiaticus had been sentenced to death, but permitted, on the recommendation of Lucius Vitellius, to choose how he died, he had made his contempt for Claudius’s regime even more explicit. He would rather, he had declared, have perished at the hands of Tiberius or Caligula than on the say-so of the smooth-tongued Vitellius -whose mouth was rancid from his addiction to lapping at genitals. And then, having made sure that the flames of his pyre would do no damage to the trees of his beloved garden, Asiaticus had slit his wrists.
Defiant assertion of his own masculinity and suicide: no other means had been available to him, in the final reckoning, of maintaining his dignity as a citizen. That Claudius, paranoid and insecure, had feared to let him live was clear enough; but that was hardly the Whole story. Senators, convinced as they were that the Emperor was mentally deficient, saw in Asiaticus’s fate confirmation of all their darkest suspicions: that he was the gullible plaything of perverts, and Even worse. ‘He, more conspicuously than any of his peers, was ruled by slaves -and by women." Certainly, when it came to identifying the person ultimately responsible for the downfall of Asiaticus, the consensus was clear. Messalina had envied him his gardens and wanted them for herself. Worse: he had died to satisfy her passion for Mnester, former paramour of Caligula and Rome’s most famous actor, who was rumoured to have been conducting affairs with both Messalina herself and an equally high-ranking beauty named Poppaea Sabina. The prosecution of Asiaticus had enabled two birds to be killed with one stone: for among the charges levelled against him had been one ofadultery with Poppaea. Messalina, far from keeping discreetly to the sidelines. had been present at his secret trial; and she had deployed her agents, even as Asiaticus was being condemned, to bully her rival into suicide. Nothing, in short, could possibly have been more demeaning or grotesquely sordid. One of the most eminent senators in Rome, a man who had once aspired to rule the world, had been sacrificed upon the altar of a woman’s jealousy.
‘How shaming it is to be submissive to a girl." Ovid’s maxim was one that Roman moralists had always taken for granted. Whether on the battlefield or in the bedroom, so clearly had men been intended by the gods to hold the whip-hand that very few of them ever thought to question it. ‘An unhappy state indeed it would be which saw women usurp masculine prerogatives -be it the Senate, the army or the magistracies!" The very prospect was incredible. Nevertheless, in a city where a feminine tiff over an actor appeared to have ended up destroying a two-times consul, it was clear that something had gone badly wrong. That women of wealth and breeding might exploit their influence on behalf of their menfolk was one thing; that they should openly flaunt it quite another. No matter the rumours whispered of Livia, she had always made a point, before ascending into the heavens and taking her place beside Augustus on his celestial throne. of operating from the shadows. Certainly, she had never thought to play her husband for a fool. That, though, it seemed -if the increasingly feverish swirlings of gossip were to be trusted -was precisely what Messalina was doing. A few days after the suicide of Poppae Sabina, Claudius had invited her husband to supper and asked him «here his wife was. Told that she was dead, he had simply looked bemused. Messalina, it seemed to those who despised the Emperor had him wrapped around her finger. As gullible as he was besotted. he had delivered the great and the good into her hands. Consuls, a Praetorian prefect, the granddaughter of Tiberius: all had been eliminated as a result of her manoeuvrings. Those who prized their skin5 made sure to crawl to her. Lucius Vitellius, that veteran trimmer, had even begged permission to take oil her shoes, ‘and once he had removed her right slipper. he slipped it between his toga and tunic. Carrying it round with him the whole time, and every so often kissing it'. Not merely degrading. it was emasculating in the extreme.
And perhaps, for that very reason, truth be told, just a bit erotic, Ovid, had he lived to see the former governor of Syria raining kisses on a woman's slipper. would not have been unduly surprised. He had always enjoyed exploring the paradoxes that hedged propriety about.
Don ’t be ashamed (though shameful it is which is why it's fun)
To hold a mirror in your hand as though you were a slave
As with adultery, so with role reversal: the greater the taboo, the more of a thrill it might be to break it. The pressure on a male always to take the lead, always to exact submission, served to close off whole dimensions of pleasure. That it was the responsibility of a respectable matron, while being fucked, to lie back passively and leave the action to her partner, was taken for granted by moralists; but that did not prevent some women, greatly daring, from spicing things up during sex by actually moving -almost as though they themselves were the males. Shocking, yes, and threatening to the masculinity of any self respecting citizen, to be sure; but there were, for the man who found his partner bucking her thighs in time to his thrustings. or grinding her buttocks, or sucking and licking his cock, undeniable compensations. That a woman might be so sexually aggressive as to play the role of a man was certainly, for any self-respecting citizen. a most unsettling possibility; but there was rarely anything so deviant that some would not find it exciting. A woman such as Messalina was pie tamed to be, predatory in her ambitions and demonic in her taste to: blood, was a figure fit to stalk fantasies as well as fears. Young. beautiful and dangerous. she was the very stuff of pornography.