Roman Historians: Unreliable Narrators? Part 2 of 2

Cheryl Morgan is a trans woman, a writer, publisher and broadcaster. She is co-chair of OutStories Bristol, an LGBT local history organisation. She has delivered papers on many aspects of trans history and trans characters in literature, and is a regular speaker at LGBT History Month events. She tweets from @CherylMorgan.

In Part 1 of this essay I looked at how historians, both Roman and modern, treat the suggestion that Emperor Elagabalus might have been a trans woman. In this section I will be focusing on another really interesting trans character from Rome. Sporus was a young person who, for one and a half years, was Nero’s wife and effectively Empress of Rome. Suetonius tells us (Suetonius Nero:28):

“He castrated the boy Sporus and actually tried to make a woman of him; and 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.”

Nero, in one of his periodic fits of rage, had viciously kicked his pregnant wife, Poppea. She had a miscarriage and died. Whether Nero intended to kill her or not is uncertain, and it is not clear whether he loved her, but he did miss having her around and he wanted to have her back. Sporus was the solution that his courtiers came up with, because of a physical resemblance to the dead Poppea.

To read Suetonius, and also Cassius Dio, tell the story, this is yet another of Nero’s depravities. Some poor lad is plucked from obscurity because of his resemblance to the dead empress, is forcibly castrated, and required to play the role of Nero’s wife.

Reading between the lines, however, Sporus appears to have taken to femininity like a duck to water. Nero named her Sabina, and I shall continue to use female pronouns for her because her actions, and her treatment by other Romans, demand them.

Here’s Cassius Dio (Dio 63:12):

Calvia had been entrusted with the care of the boy and with the oversight of the wardrobe, though a woman and of high rank;

And this (Dio 63:13):

“[Sporus], in addition to other forms of address, was termed “lady,” “queen,” and “mistress.”

Another contemporary historian, Dio Chrysostom, notes (Chrysostom 21:7)

“… that youth of Nero’s 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.”

Chysostom goes on to suggest that Nero, in anticipation of Elagabalus, offered a reward for anyone who could make Sabina fully female.

Because it was necessary to keep the senate happy, Nero married a noblewoman called Statilia Mesalina. The two don’t seem to have spent much time together, and knowing what happened to her predecessor she doubtless wanted to keep well clear of her husband. Nero and Sabina, in contrast, took themselves off to Greece, got married very publicly, and reportedly had a fabulous honeymoon together. Cassius Dio notes (Dio 63:13):

“All the Greeks held a celebration in honour of their marriage, uttering all the customary good wishes, even to the extent of praying that legitimate children might be born to them.”

When Nero’s behaviour finally became too much for the Romans and he had to flee for his life, Sabina was one of the few loyal courtiers to accompany him. Nero’s secretary, Epaphoroditus, was later executed for the crime of helping the emperor take his own life. One might have expected an eunuch to have just been quietly disposed of. Nothing of the sort happened.

Instead Sabina became a pawn in Rome’s dynastic struggles. This was the Year of the Four Emperors, and many more pretenders to the throne. One unsuccessful claimant was Nymphidius Sabinus who, according to Plutarch (Plutarch Galba:9), sought to solidify his claim by marrying Sabina. As it turned out, Galba took the throne, but Sabina survived.

Galba didn’t last long, and was succeeded by Otho. He too fell quickly, and Cassius Dio reports (Dio 64:8) that one of the causes of his unpopularity was, “his intimacy with Sporus.” It was not until the reign of the next emperor, Vitellius, that Sabina’s political career came unstuck (Dio 64:10). She took her own life rather than be forced to become an actress (and inevitably a sex worker). Any other noble Roman matron would have done the same.

What are we to make of all this? To a cisgender historian, cross-dressing men might seem all the same. To someone familiar with the trans community, however, differences are obvious. There is a critical difference between someone who cross-dresses occasionally, and someone who commits wholeheartedly to life as a woman.

Sabina’s actions do not appear to me to be those of someone who was being forced to play a role. Nor does she sound like what we would now call a gay or bi man[i], acting out femininity to attract male suitors. She might have been in it for the money, but how many men would do that just to get rich? Sabina went all-in on being a woman, and for two years did very well in difficult circumstances. Had she been assigned female at birth she might now be famed as a shrewd political operator.

But, of course, she was assigned male at birth, and modern historians therefore look no further than the surface story of a forcibly castrated boy. In his biography, Nero, Edward Champlin finds the whole story utterly incredible. He says (Champlin p146):

“Nero died within a year and a half of their marriage, but – astonishingly – Sporus was compelled to go on playing the role of Sabina.”

Compelled: that’s a loaded word right there, one he gets from taking the contemporary historians at face value. Champlin also can’t believe Sabina’s loyalty to Nero (Champlin p 147).

“Did he for his part grow to love the man who had castrated him, who forced him to dress and act like a woman, and who longed to transform him surgically from male to female, an operation which would undoubtedly have killed him? No one thought to record his feelings.”

There are a number of points to note here. Firstly, Champlin continues with the narrative that Sabina was an unwilling victim in all that occurred. After all, why would any man want to be made to play the role of a woman?

Secondly, there is the assumption that further surgery would have killed Sabina. This sort of statement tends to be made about ancient trans women by modern men who find the idea of having your genitals removed deeply disturbing. In fact, the Romans were very practiced at castration. Normally only the testicles were removed, and patients usually survived. For full castration, the survival rate was much lower, around 25%, but Sabina would have had the best surgeon and care available. It is only the construction of a vagina that the Romans didn’t know how to do.

And finally, Champlin says that no one thought to record Sabina’s feelings. Strangely, however, he is convinced that, at almost two millennia removed, he knows exactly how she must have felt. I have a rather different take on that.

The reason for Champlin’s attitude becomes very clear when he goes on to say (Champlin p149):

“When readers first encounter the story of Sporus, usually in the pages of Suetonius, they react with a mixture of emotions: shock, disgust, perhaps even horror, but inevitably, also, laughter – it is just too outrageous.”

It is pretty clear that the feelings of shock, disgust, horror and derision that Champlin reports are, in fact, his own. They are a product of his transphobic view of the world. To anyone who would have leapt at the opportunity to simply live as a woman, never mind becoming the wife of the emperor, the way you interpret the historical sources is very different.

What we have seen here are two opposite reactions to the ancient sources. Icks has elected to ignore suggestions of Elagabalus having a trans identity because he doesn’t think people really do that. Champlin, on the other hand, wants to point and laugh at Sabina because he finds trans women risible. On the one hand Icks chooses to dismiss his sources, and on the other, Champlin takes their disgust and doubles down on it.

If a narrator is unreliable, however, many interpretations are possible. All it takes to have a trans-positive reading is to believe that trans identities are real, and worthy of respect.

[i] The Romans had no concept of being gay or bi as we understand the terms. Powerful men were entirely comfortable slaking their lust on anyone they took a fancy to. Julius Caesar was celebrated by his troops as, “Every woman’s husband and every man’s wife.” A Roman wanting sex with men had no need to act overtly effeminate, and would be thought less of for doing so.

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