222: THE COMMON TOUCH
FORTEANA FROM THE ANCIENT WORLD
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…