The genderqueer tragedy of Sporus, Roman Emperor Nero’s last “empress”

The genderqueer tragedy of Sporus, Roman Emperor Nero’s last “empress”

A strikingly beautiful young man was forcefully castrated and made to live in an emperor’s palace as his “queen” draped in veils. The story is so dark, fantastical, and profoundly queer it seems ripped directly from a Ryan Murphy series, but it is—according to ancient and modern historians, anyway—truth far stranger than fiction. 

Emperor Nero was, if you recall high school history, the infamous ruler of Rome during the 1st century AD. A student of the great philosopher Seneca and adopted son of beloved Caesar Claudius, Nero displayed none of the emotional maturity or political savvy his mentors did. He ascended the throne as a teenager after his ambitious mother poisoned his step-daddy Claudius. 

By most accounts, Nero cared more about starring in plays, writing mediocre poetry, and cheating at chariot races than he did statesmanship, leaning heavily on murder as the key to complex interpersonal problems. He even had his mother and first wife killed, both for interfering in his entanglement with the already-married woman who became his second wife, a stunning, scarlet-haired Pompeiian named Poppaea Sabina. 

Despite going to deadly lengths to make Poppaea Sabina his second Empress, Nero appears to have killed her in a rage during a marital spat one night, kicking Poppea in the stomach while pregnant. The resulting miscarriage removed Nero’s true love and unborn child from his life entirely, leaving him alone and grief-stricken. 

Which is how poor Sporus enters the story. 

If ancient historians Tacitus and Suetonius are correct—and there are questions about their trustworthiness as narrators—Sporus was a freedman of around 16 when the bereft Emperor Nero laid eyes on him. Feminine and smooth-faced, Sporus allegedly bore an uncanny resemblance to Poppaea Sabina.

And so Nero decided toying with the teenager was an ideal distraction from his self-inflicted suffering.

As we’re reminded constantly today, sexual “norms” flow in and out of fashion as arbitrarily as over-tweezed eyebrows or high-waisted pants. Though Ancient Greece is widely remembered for its acceptance of homosexuality (specifically bear-on-twink dynamics between erastes-eromenos lovers), Rome, at the time of Nero’s rule, derided gay sex even while its armies used it liberally.  

Fixated on Sporus, Nero took three terrible steps to “normalize” their relationship in his own unhinged way. First, he commanded Sporus to be castrated, offering obscene wealth to any wizard or surgeon who could transform him fully into a woman. (Since it was 67AD, no one did.) Next, he dressed Sporus in his dead wife’s clothes and jewelry, assigning maids and servants to style him like a queen. 

Finally, he married Sporus, commanding everyone to refer to him as “Empress.” This wedding was not a small or secret affair, either. Suetonius wrote: 

“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 went so far as to call this newest bride by his dead wife’s name, “Poppaea Sabina.”

Sporus was not thrilled by any of this. He appears to have been attempting to live his best life, moisturized and unbothered when the Emperor decided to “use him in every way like a wife,” as Cassius Dio puts it. Though described as effeminate and graceful, there’s no evidence he suffered from gender dysphoria. His castration was technically a crime since it was illegal then to perform the act on Romans—eunuchs existed but were imported to the city like exotic animals. 

“Sporus” was also not the poor young man’s real name. Its translation means “seed” or “semen” and seems to have been a debauched nickname that stuck for 2000 years. 

Some historians suggest because he didn’t flee the city and Nero’s psychosexual games, Sporus consented to be mutilated and used as a sociopath’s prop. This is a pretty pedantic take, especially given Nero’s history of killing family and Sporus’ limited resources as a lowborn resident of Rome. 

We also know Sporus threw heavy shade at his “husband” at the start of 68AD, gifting Nero a bejeweled ring adorned with scenes of the Lord of the Underworld raping an innocent virgin in Hell. Consenting lovers don’t typically drop by Kay Jewelers to get a commemorative rape ring for people they’re happily partnered with, so it seems plausible Sporus was just trying not to be murdered by the same guy who’d already castrated him. 

Fortunately for Sporus, Nero’s reign lasted only a few months beyond their disturbing jewelry exchange. A revolt broke out, with the senate and Praetorian Guard treating Nero as an enemy of the state. The emperor fled the city, bringing only a freedman and Sporus with him to a countryside hideout. There, Nero begged Sporus to pray and help him commit suicide, but his last empress declined. The disgraced king stabbed himself in the neck with the other freedman’s assistance and died in a pool of his own blood.

Being famously castrated and put on such public display radically shaped the rest of Sporus’ short life. Before Nero’s body had even been burned, he was taken as a “consort” and called Poppaea by one of the men who’d overthrown Nero. When that guy was killed in a power grab, Sporus was given to the new emperor, Otho, who “had intimacy with Sporus” before dying.  (Because Ancient Rome was just a telenovela with togas, Otho was the real Poppaea Sabina’s ex-husband.)

Sporus’ painful tale of gender-bending survival ends in 69AD, when Rome’s new new caesar, Vitellius, ordered he star in a gladiatorial reenactment of The Rape of Proserpina—the same tragedy depicted on the ring Sporus gave Nero. Vitellius cast the traumatized former empress as the titular Proserpina, possibly as punishment for Sporus’ closeness to the now-reviled dead caesar.

This was, understandably, the last straw for Sporus. Rather than be sexually assaulted and humiliated in front of a literal stadium of onlookers, Sporus took his own life. 

It’s important to note we’ve no idea how much of Nero’s legendarily bad behavior really happened. Curators at The British Museum assert that much of what the layperson learned in school about Emperor Nero is untrue—he did not fiddle maniacally as Rome burned around him, for example, because violins hadn’t been invented yet. That said, there’s no denying Nero was a murderous little prat with some bizarre fetishes, one emboldened by absolute power and weirdly bound by roleplay to Sporus during the last years of his life. 

As a result, Rome briefly feted a man as its empress, regarding him as the slave who rose to the side of not one but two different kings.

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