Fortean Times - - Classical Corner - COM­PILED BY BARRY BALD­WIN

Our royal fam­ily (pre­fer the Royles, my­self) has come a long way from forc­ing Princess Mar­garet to jet­ti­son her beloved Group Cap­tain Peter Townsend to ac­cept­ing (pub­licly, at least) Meghan Markle, an Amer­i­can of mixed Afro-An­glo an­ces­try, with Catholic back­ground and one divorce un­der her belt af­ter a sev­enyear dal­liance with­out ben­e­fit of clergy to a Hol­ly­wood ac­tor-pro­ducer.

Egyp­tian pharaohs by­pass the is­sue by ha­bit­u­ally mar­ry­ing their sis­ters. So, also, the Ptolemies from Alexan­der the Great’s time down to Cleopa­tra, her­self mar­ry­ing two brothers, pos­si­bly bump­ing off both.

Apart from a very early and (both to them and us) misty re­gal pe­riod, Athens was roy­alty-free. Dur­ing its fifth-cen­tury BC apogee, the near­est it had to a ruler (as Thucy­dides, bk2 ch65 para9, acidly ob­served) was the num­ber one demo­crat, Per­i­cles. Orig­i­nally mar­ried to a rel­a­tive (name un­known), he di­vorced her in 445 BC, af­ter fix­ing her up with a sec­ond hus­band, and spent the rest of his life liv­ing ‘over the brush’ with As­pa­sia, a no­to­ri­ous woman from a no­to­ri­ous city – Mile­tus, a raff­ish place cred­ited with in­vent­ing dil­dos and dou­ble-beds – where (so claim Aristo­phanes and fel­low-co­me­di­ans) she was both pros­ti­tute and brothel-mon­ger. Plutarch (Per­i­cles, ch24) pro­vides a full sur­vey, with lav­ish quo­ta­tion and half-hearted apol­ogy for in­clud­ing such ma­te­rial. Per­sian prince Cyrus was so gaga over her that he named his favourite mis­tress As­pa­sia, and when he was killed, she was taken to the new monarch and ac­quired Mrs Kep­pel-like in­flu­ence over him.

Rome pro­vides richer pickings. No sur­prise that Caligula heads the list. Af­ter con­duct­ing a clan­des­tine af­fair, he mar­ried Milo­nia Cæ­so­nia, a woman of mod­est back­ground, nei­ther young nor beau­ti­ful, and an un­pop­u­lar choice – any­one say Camilla? Caligula also had a pas­sion­ate re­la­tion­ship with the ac­tor Mnester, sub­se­quently a lover of both Pop­pæa’s (Nero’s fu­ture em­press) mother and Claudius’s third wife Mes­salina – great Hello! fod­der – also rou­tinely shag­ging his trio of sis­ters. Ic­ing on the mar­i­tal cake: pre­mar­i­tally preg­nant, Cæ­so­nia gave birth on the wed­ding day – pre­sum­ably ki­bosh­ing hon­ey­moon-night bliss, although with Caligula you never know. Sue­to­nius says Caligula loved her madly, this ero­to­ma­nia the re­sult of her caus­ing his in­san­ity by dos­ing him with an aphro­disiac (Ju­ve­nal, Satire 6,vv615-20). Be­ing Caligula, he ex­pressed his love in ways that var­ied from show­ing her naked to his close friends to threat­en­ing to have her tor­tured or killed. And, killed she was, with him in the as­sas­si­na­tion of 24 Jan­uary AD 41, the killers (Caligula’s dis­con­tented guards) for good mea­sure dash­ing out their in­fant daugh­ter’s brains against a wall. As theVic­to­rian lady is sup­posed to have said af­ter watch­ing Antony and

Cleopa­tra: “How very dif­fer­ent from the home life of our own dear Queen.”

Although linked to roy­alty as sec­re­tary to Claudius’s mother, one might say of Cæ­nis as Kitty Mug­geridge said of David Frost: Risen With­out Trace. Cæ­nis as­cended from slav­ery to maitresse en

titre for em­peror Ves­pasian, then af­ter his em­press died, she be­came “his wife in all but name.” Fa­mous for her pho­to­graphic (nowa­days called ‘ei­de­tic’) mem­ory when amanu­en­sis, she dom­i­nated V esp asian who winked at the for­tune she amassed by sell­ing favours, hon­ours and of­fices. So­cially, she was snubbed byVes­pasian’s son Domi­tian, a bit rich from one who con­sorted with and had a ma­nia for de­pilat­ing his cho­sen pros­ti­tutes.

The best-laid plans of mice and em­per­ors… V esp asian’ s son and suc­ces­sor Ti­tus was madly in love with Jewish princess Berenice, promised her mar­riage, but was forced to re­nege by vi­o­lent pub­lic op­po­si­tion. Such an al­liance, of course, was hardly pro­pi­tious, it be­ing hardly a decade since the hard-fought Ro­man-Jewish War. And, a re­minder that em­per­ors fre­quently had to bow to vox pop­uli. This pair of doomed star-crossed lovers re­gresses to Mar­garet–Townsend, on whom, and the wider ques­tion of royal suit­abil­i­ties, see

Craig Brown’s Ma’am Dar­ling: 99 Glimpses

of Princess Mar­garet (2017). Tra­jan mar­ried the well-con­nected but non-royal Plotina. Un­like him, she had a bent to­wards Greek phi­los­o­phy, which she prob­a­bly needed to cope with a hus­band fa­mously ad­dicted to drink and boys – ob­vi­ous rea­sons for their hav­ing no chil­dren. Plotina was ac­cused of forg­ing his dy­ing adop­tion of Hadrian, in ca­hoots with her lover At­tianus (mil­i­tary type), also with poi­son­ing him. The lat­ter charge, though, is stan­dard, be­ing also lev­elled against (e.g.) Livia and Agrip­pina.

Bishop Am­brose was the first to de­scribe He­lena, wife of em­peror Con­stan­tius, mother of Con­stan­tine the first Chris­tian em­peror, as stab­u­laria, which can in­di­cate ei­ther a bar­maid or sta­ble-girl. Ei­ther way, a pre­dictable source of amuse­ment to Ed­ward Gib­bon, a ma­jor in­flu­ence on Waugh’s novel He­lena (1950), still the best in­tro­duc­tion to her.

Last and most en­ter­tain­ing is Theodora, taken to wife by Byzan­tine Em­peror Jus­tinian in 525. Jus­tinian’s im­pe­rial un­cle Justin I com­pla­cently re­pealed the law ban­ning mar­riage with ac­tresses. Theodora was as low so­cial drawer as you could get, daugh­ter of a cir­cus bear-trainer and part-time tart. As a pre­pubescent, her idea of a good time was anal in­ter­course. Upon ma­tur­ing “for real sex”, she grad­u­ated to din­ner-par­ties-cu­mor­gies with a dozen lusty lads whom she would shag sense­less be­fore tak­ing on their slaves, this im­pres­sive tally leav­ing her “still un­sat­is­fied”. Whilst be­ing pen­e­trated in all three ori­fices, she wished Na­ture had added more to her nip­ples. Her spe­cial set-piece was to lie on her back in pub­lic, have slaves sprin­kle bird­seed over her gen­i­tals and have trained geese pluck them off and eat them. Quite puts Fergie and her toe-suck­ing paramour in the shade.

Once em­press, though, this stopped. Apart from a few discreet mur­ders, she now devoted her­self to wifely du­ties – once steel­ing Jus­tinian to re­sist a riot of cir­cus hooli­gans de­mand­ing his ab­di­ca­tion, pro­mot­ing the Mono­physite heresy, and with the con­vert’s tra­di­tional zeal forc­ing pros­ti­tutes into a Con­vent of Re­pen­tance, from whose walls many jumped to their deaths in de­spair­ing frus­tra­tion. Theodora died in 548, the ear­li­est doc­u­mented vic­tim of breast can­cer.

The Red-Tops would have loved her…

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