In the second instalment of her regular column, Semtex discusses male on male love through the sexual peccadillos of Emperor Nero. The emperor who ruled Rome for thirteen years has become a byword for sexually sadomasochistic leanings as detailed in his relationship with the tragic figure of Sporus. Ultimately, Semtex argues that all men are closeted raving homos and/or haters of women!
Nero and Poppaea Sabina (Episode 2)
In the annals of fucked up relationships, there are a plethora of relationships to turn to in order to make oneself feel slightly better about their own pathetic situation (particularly if one is on the pining side of things). It’s pure schadenfreude. The strongest, most shining example of such a dynamic was the one that existed between Emperor Nero and Poppaea Sabina.
Poppaea Sabina was not masculine-looking, per se, but in the end she had to be interchangeable with Sporus (so perhaps Sporus was effete-looking instead). Soon, Sporus would become Nero’s ultimate beloved because he could dress him up, so to speak, just as he wanted. This was the zenith of gestures-remaking a lover to one’s exact specifications: Sporus’ castration at the “request” of Nero.
Everything about Nero’s behavior toward Sporus addresses an underlying and latent desire on the part of men to be with, well, another man.
Now, of course, these were different times, and whatever an emperor wants, an emperor gets. Thankfully, we can’t all have our way, otherwise there might be a lot of castrated boys out there (literally as opposed to just metaphorically). Men the world over would get the societally accepted opportunity to turn their ex-girlfriend into a man.
Everything about Nero’s behavior toward Sporus addresses an underlying and latent desire on the part of men to be with, well, another man. And this isn’t to say, or rather, goad about the fact that all males are flaming homos. They put on the airs of a woman’s so-called “best traits” via stylized gait and voice, so much so, that they can’t really relate to what a woman is all about: compassion, loyalty and the joy of shared experiences.
To Nero, Poppaea’s mind was not worth the full-time headache of “dealing with,” but her body, her face, well, that was another story. That it could be so effortlessly re-created in the form of another man makes one wonder why Nero even bothered to become susceptible to Poppaea’s machinations to be his second wife. As the tale goes, she only married her first husband, Otho, a close friend of the emperor’s seven years her junior, to get close to Nero.
But like any wife that a man can truly enjoy, Poppaea was Nero’s first mistress (you know, you got to test out the merchandise first and see if it’s worth the legal binding). Poppaea didn’t do much to improve Nero’s likely already low opinion of women. It was generally believed that she was the one who urged him to kill his mother, Agrippina, to speed along the marriage. Then again, the dates don’t quite line up to corroborate this. Poppaea had already married Nero by the time he decided to commit matricide, ergo she would have no legitimate reason to get her out of the way other than to ensure their union. Let’s not forget that this is a history told by men. It’s also just as likely that she was overly vilified for the sake of this myth. It’s a good one though, speaking to the psychologically timeless idea that all men’s girlfriends/wives are in competition with the mother, who will never believe that anyone can take care of her son as well as she can. This idea is especially true if she happens to be an Italian matriarch.
Then there was Nero’s first wife/stepsister, Claudia Octavia, to rid themselves of. Significantly, Poppaea is accused yet again of stirring the pot and manipulating Nero into ideas that Claudia needed to be killed so they could be together. So, it was. And yet, the outcome of Poppaea’s life, death by being stomped upon by Nero (at least, that’s how the legend goes in most historical texts), leads one to believe that maybe she wasn’t the knave in all of this.
At the time she was pregnant with his second child (the first, a girl named Claudia Augusta– died at four months of age) when Nero decided a swift kick to the stomach was deserved. Alas, despite being a congenital sociopath as a result of being male, Nero clearly must have felt some semblance of remorse for his actions. His descent into madness became very much solidified in the wake of Poppaea’s death. Possibly a reason why his servant Sporus became his emotional and physical release.
This wouldn’t be the first time that Nero had dabbled with the same sex. He married another freedman by the name of Pythagoras and played the role of the “bride” in the ceremony. Again, I tell you, men just want to be with other men for simplicity’s sake. Plus, assholes tend always to be tighter than a, to use an Italian word, fessa. (which, not so coincidentally amid the misogyny that pervades Italy, can also occasionally mean “broken”).
Even so, Pythagoras would be nothing compared to sweet, malleable Sporus. To boot, in Nero’s mind, Sporus was a dead ringer for Poppaea and once he was castrated it was smooth sailing for Nero. Sporus, on the other hand, who had to endure being addressed by a deceased woman’s name, among other far worse cruelties, could speak his mind, apparently only through symbolism, famously giving Nero a ring during the Calends festival that featured an etching of the Rape of Prosperina. For those unfamiliar with the tale, it’s about a girl forced to be the bride of the man who rules the underworld (a.k.a. the devil). Sporus may have been a bitch boy, but he was still cheeky as fuck for the time.
And yet, even with the supposed “freedom” that came with Nero’s death, Sporus was given further poetic punishment by being subjected to the lechery of, quelle horreur, Poppaea’s first husband, Otho, who was briefly emperor for a few months post-power vacuum that occurred after Nero died. Like Otho, Sporus, too, would kill himself to avoid further humiliation by being treated as part of a re-enactment of The Rape of Prosperina in a gladiator spectacle.
So, what does this tragic love story tell us? We should probably work out a system that detaches us entirely from the corporeal to avoid such disparate obsessions and returns of affection. Oh and also, that every man is gay/hates women!