Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Around the World in Another 80 Gays: Part 34) Burning Desires

Previously on “Another 80 Gays” : 70) Count Francesco Algarotti (1712-1764) was involved in a love triangle with 71) Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu (1689-1762) and 72) John Hervey, Lord Hervey (1696-1743), who was satirised as a Roman emperor’s boy husband called 73) Sporus (c.49-69).

When Alexander Pope satirised 72) John, Lord Hervey, in “An Epistle from Mr Pope to Dr. Arbuthnot” in 1735 he chose to identify him as 73) Sporus very deliberately because of Hervey’s openly effeminate, flamboyant, bisexual “macaroni” behaviour which made him an obvious target. In his turn Lord Hervey wrote insulting comments about Alexander Pope, mocking his physical deformities and his non-aristocratic background.

One of the reasons for the antagonism between the two is that Pope was jealous of Lord Hervey’s friendship with 71) Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu. In one of his letters Pope referred to Hervey and Lady Mary as “Lord Fanny” and “Sappho”.

Lord Hervey’s political career brought him into direct contact with the king and the royal family. Several modern government ministers are still hold of offices in the Royal Household. Lord Hervey was appointed Vice Chamberlain to King George II, a government appointment made by the Prime Minister. Hervey’s job was to report directly to the King on proceedings in the House of Commons every day. The current Vice Chamberlain is Andrew Stevenson, and openly gay Conservative MP, and his responsibilities are much the same. In 1740 Lord Hervey was “upgraded” to Lord Privy Seal, one of the highest offices of state in England, again a political government appointment, as it still is.

So, who was 73) Sporus? We don’t know much. What we do know comes from the last two years of his short life. He is said to have been about 20 years old when he died. Even his name isn’t his real one, but a nickname given to him by the man who married him, 74) Emperor Nero (37-68). Sporus is a name derived from the Greek word for “sowing a seed”, the inference of sex being deliberate.

Sporus may have been a freed slave. Whether Nero was his master isn’t known but Sporus certainly came to the emperor’s attention after the death of his wife Poppea.

Imperial politics was very complicated in Roman times. There was no properly defined laws on succession and many emperors died at the hands of their successors. One tactic was to marry into, or be adopted by, the reigning imperial family. That’s how Nero himself became emperor.

Although descended from several previous emperors himself Nero gained the throne through the machinations of his mother Agrippina, niece of Emperor Claudius. To ensure her son’s succession she married her uncle and, in due course, Nero became his successor.

Nero had several wives – and husbands. First was his step-sister, Claudius’s daughter. After executing her over false adultery charges Nero married his mistress Poppea in 62. In 64, the year of the Great Fire of Rome, Nero married Pythagoras (not the famous Greek mathematician), so now he had a wife and husband (Nero is known to have taken the passive role with Pythagoras). The following year Poppea died. It is usually said that Nero kicked her to death when she was pregnant, but historians now think she died in childbirth. Whatever the reason, Nero was devastated by her death. But with Sporus she could be with him forever.

Nero married Sporus in 65 because of his resemblance to Poppea. To give Sporus an unusually high profile in public life Nero had the boy castrated and demanded all citizens treat him as his empress. He was dressed in the empress’s royal regalia at public events. As for Pythagoras, non-one knows what happened to him. But Nero married yet again. In 66 he married Statilia Messalina, who wisely kept a low profile and outlived both Nero and Sporus.

Sporus seems to have actually loved Nero, even though there was a 12-year age gap. He was one of the few people who remained loyal to the emperor right up to Nero’s death in 68.

The Senate and the army eventually rebelled against Nero and he committed suicide. Sporus, however, was spared and treated as an imperial “wife” by two other Romans vying for the throne. However, when Vitellus became emperor in 69 Sporus was planned as the victim in a gladiatorial show. Thankfully, Sporus chose suicide was a less painful death.
Let’s go back to Nero and the Great Fire of Rome. In an earlier article on Nero I mentioned that he was in Antium when the fire took place. This is one of several locations where ancient writers place Nero at the time. One writer puts him in the Gardens of Maecenas. These were part of a villa on the Esquiline Hill in eastern Rome which came into the possession of the emperors after the death of the villa’s builder, a Roman statesman called 75) Gaius Maecenas (68 BC-8 BC).

Over the centuries Maecenas’s name has become a byword for a generous patron of the arts. He came from a wealthy, influential family and a glittering political career could have been his for the asking. Instead, he refused all invitations to become a Senator and spent his life and wealth in promoting the arts. He also built his villa which included the first heated swimming pool in Rome. It also had places where plays and songs were performed in a sort of theatre. It was from a temporary platform or stage that Nero is said to have watched Rome burn, dressed in his theatrical costume and singing of the destruction of Troy.

Maecenas was primarily a patron of the performing arts rather than the visual arts. He loved all types of performance, and he loved a pantomime performer called 76) Bathyllus (c.60 BC-pre 2 BC).

Next time : From Rome to Britain – the pantomime tradition gets an Oscar nomination.

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