Emperors and Empresses of Rome

44 unRoman Emperors and Empresses

C. 40s CE; identification has been challenged.

The concept that if an Emperor did something, it was indicative of such behaviour being acceptable in Rome was simply not true. The Emperors and — to a much lesser extent — empresses of Rome were often not held to the standards of other elite Romans… nor, in fact, the standards of people in general. That does not make an exploration of their unRoman behaviour any less interesting, though!

The Emperor Claudius married Messalina as his second wife. In the following, concerns about Messalina’s perceived prostitution mirrors anxieties about the weakness of Claudius’ household.

Do the concerns of a private household and the doings of Eppia disturb you? Then look at those who rival the gods, and hear what [the Emperor] Claudius endured. As soon as his wife [Messalina] perceived that her husband was asleep, this august whore was shameless enough to prefer a common mat to the imperial couch. Assuming a night-cowl, and attended by a single slave, she went out; then, having concealed her raven locks under a blonde wig, she took her place in a brothel reeking with long-used blanks. Entering an empty cell reserved for herself, she there took her stand, under the feigned name of Lycisca, her nipples bare and gilded, and exposed to view the womb that bore you, O nobly-born Britannicus! Here she graciously received all comers, asking from each his fee; and when at length the keeper dismissed the rest, she remained to the very last before closing her cell, and with passion still raging hot within her went sorrowfully away. Then exhausted but unsatisfied, with soiled cheeks, and begrimed with the smoke of lamps, she took back to the imperial pillow all the smells of the slums.

Juvenal, Satire 6

Roman Emperors did not have to follow convention, and rebelling against it was — if they desired — a way to show their power and unique status as the most powerful men in the Roman Empire.

52.1 In his clothing, his shoes, and the rest of his clothing [the Emperor] Caligula did not follow the tradition of his country and his fellow-citizens — not always even that of his gender or, in fact, that of an ordinary human being. He often appeared in public in embroidered cloaks covered with precious stones, with a long-sleeved tunic and bracelets; sometimes he wore silk and a woman’s robe; sometimes slippers or actors boots, again in boots, such as the emperor’s body-guard wear, and at times in the low shoes which women wear. He also frequently showed himself with a golden beard, holding in his hand a thunderbolt, a trident, or a caduceus — emblems of the gods — and even in the dress of Venus. He frequently wore the dress of a triumphing general, even before his campaign, and sometimes the breastplate of Alexander the Great, which he had taken from his sarcophagus.

Suetonius, Caligula 52.1

The Emperor Nero was also accused of dressing in ways that broke with Roman norms, including growing his hair long and artificially curling it.

Nero was utterly shameless in the care of his person and in his dress, always having his hair arranged in tiers of curls, and durng his trip to Greece letting it grow long and hand gown behind; he often appeared in public in a dining-robe with a handkerchief bound about his neck, unbelted and not wearing shoes.

Suetonius, Nero 51.1


The Emperor Commodus was famously known as being the only Emperor to fight as a gladiator in the arena — was considered to be ‘mad’ at the time because of this. Many of the Emperors were known for pushing the envelope of what was considered acceptable behaviour in Roman society, such as Nero and Elagabalus, but for a sitting Emperor to participate in a profession worthy of Infamia status in an incredibly public and undisputed way was almost unheard of. Commodus loved gladiators, which was very improper by “traditional” Roman values. He enthusiastically participated as one, and wanted to inaugurate the year 193 CE dressed as a gladiator. He was assassinated before he could do this, but not before appearing as one countless times before the public.

    In public he nowhere drove chariots except sometimes on a moonless night, for, though he was eager to play the charioteer in public, too, he was ashamed to be seen doing so; but in private he was constantly doing it, adopting the Green uniform.[1] As for wild beasts, however, he slew many both in private and in public. Moreover, he used to contend as a gladiator; in doing this at home he managed to kill a man now and then, and in making close passes with others, as if trying to clip off a bit of their hair, he sliced off the noses of some, the ears of others, and sundry features of still others; but in public he refrained from using steel and shedding human blood. Before entering the amphitheatre he would put on a long-sleeved tunic of silk, white interwoven with gold, and thus arrayed he would receive our greetings; but when he was about to go inside, he put on a robe of pure purple with gold spangles, donning also after the Greek fashion a chlamys[2] of the same colour, and a crown made of gems from India and of gold, and he carried a herald’s staff like that of Mercury. As for the lion-skin and club, in the street they were carried before him, and in the amphitheatres they were placed on a gilded chair, whether he was present or not. He himself would enter the arena in the garb of Mercury, and casting aside all his other garments, would begin his exhibition wearing only a tunic and barefoot.

    Cassius Dio, Epitome 73.17

The lack of restrictions at the emperial level trickled down to the upper class, who followed suit in their own unRoman behaviours. Cassius Dio and Tacitus both mention elite men and women appearing as gladiators (which was costomarily prohibited as the position was infamis) under Nero in 63 CE.

    There was another exhibition that was at once most disgraceful and most shocking, when men and women not only of the equestrian but even of the senatorial order appeared as performers in the orchestra, in the Circus [Maximus],[3] and in the hunting-theatre, like those who are held in lowest esteem. Some of them played the flute and danced in pantomimes or acted in tragedies and comedies or sang to the lyre; they drove horses, killed wild beasts and fought as gladiators, some willingly and some sore against their will.

    Cassius Dio, Roman History 61.17.3

    To the Roman equestrians he assigned places in the circus in front of the seats of the people, for up to that time they used to enter in an indiscriminate mass, as the Roscian law extended only to fourteen rows in the theatre.[4] The same year witnessed shows of gladiators as magnificent as those of the past. However, many prominent matrons[5] and senators disgraced themselves by appearing in the amphitheatre.

   Tacitus, Annales 15.32

While women fighting as gladiators took place under the watch of many Emperors, it wasn’t seen as ordinary by some Romans. Here is the historian Suetonius writing about games held by Domitian, where he felt the need to point out that women were involved:

    He constantly gave grand costly entertainments, both in the amphitheatre and in the Circus, where in addition to the usual races between two-horse and four-horse chariots, he also exhibited two battles, one between forces of infantry and the other by horsemen; and he even gave a naval battle in the amphitheatre. Besides he gave hunts of wild beasts, gladiatorial shows at night by the light of torches, and not only combats between men but between women as well.

    Suetonius, Life of Domitian 4.1

Along with the wealthy women who participated as gladiators for fun, there were also professional female gladiators. Emperor Titus’ games at the inauguration of the Colosseum included staged hunts with trained female hunters.

    There was a battle between cranes and also between four elephants; nine thousand animals both domestic and wild were killed and women (not those of any prominence, however) took part in dispatching them.

    Cassius Dio, Epitome 66


Elagabalus was a member of the Severan Dynasty and ruled from 218-222. He was only fourteen when he came to the throne and he ruled about as well as one would expect a fourteen year old to do; in other words, he rather resembled Joffrey from Game of Thrones. He surrounded himself with a range of people the average Roman would not have thought fit company for an emperor, most of whom his successor, Alexander Severus, got rid of:

All the dwarfs belonging to Elagabalus, both male and female, fools, catamites [6] who had good voices, all kinds of dinner entertainers, and actors of pantomimes he made public property; those, however, who were not of any use were assigned, each to a different town, for support, in order that no one town might be burdened by a new kind of beggar. The eunuchs, whom Elagabalus had had in his base councils and had promoted, he presented to his friends, adding a statement to the effect that if they did not return to honest ways, it should be lawful to put them to death without authority from the courts. Women of ill repute, of whom he arrested an enormous number, he ordered to become public prostitutes, and he deported all catamites, those with whom that scourge had carried on a most pernicious intimacy, being drowned by shipwreck.

Historia Augusta, Alexander Severus 34.2

The Emperor Caligula went so far as to threaten to drown one specific group of sex workers, the spintriae, whom you could hire to entertain yourself or guests, and whose speciality was having group sex with each other before entertaining others:

He banished from the city the sexual perverts called spintriae, barely persuaded not to sink them in the sea.

Suetonius, Caligula 16

Media Attributions

  1. Roman chariot-racers were divided into four main teams, all represented by a colour: Green, Red, Blue and White.
  2. A short cloak.
  3. The biggest stadium in Rome; it held chariot races. It literally meant "The Biggest Circle"
  4. Lucius Roscius Otto was a Roman tribune. Roscian Law reserved 14 rows in Roman theatres for equestrians, behind the 4 rows already reserved for senators.
  5. Powerful women.
  6. The receiving sexual partner of Roman homosexual relationships, often a prepubescent boy, but can also be also an insult when directed towards adult men.


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