Sex & the Eternal City
(Image courtesy of Sophie Hay)
Regular readers of this blog, all two of you, will confirm that I like it to keep it clean. There’s no gratuitous smut. There won’t be any gratuitous smut here, either. But I’ve been researching a first-century-B.C. Roman called C. Memmius, and he’s a rum cove. My main concern is with his philosophical beliefs, how committed he was to Epicureanism (deeply committed, I want to prove), and from the evidence he comes across as an odd mixture, on the one hand a politician thoroughly immured in the graft and malpractice of late-republican Rome (to the extent that he was eventually exiled for electoral corruption), but with flashes of something like high principle compatible with a philosophical outlook, occasionally, too.
However, another thing that it’s hard to ignore in accounts of Memmius’ behaviour, and this is at first sight less compatible with enlightened philosophical detachment, is his voracious sexual appetite.
The ancients seemed to enjoy telling anecdotes about Memmius’ erotic adventures. In 60 B.C. Cicero shared news of a scandal with Atticus (Ad Atticum 1.18.3): the annual festival of Iuuentas, Youth, which was possibly when young Roman men celebrated their coming of age, was presided over by members of the Lucullus family. But it had been suspended because “Memmius had initiated M. Lucullus’ wife in some rights of his own,” as Cicero waggishly puts it, leading to the divorce of Lucullus and his wife, which apparently disqualified Lucullus from staging the festival. But Cicero has more gossip to share. “Menelaus took this hard and filed for divorce. But while that shepherd of Ida in olden times had only injured Menelaus, our modern Paris had as little respect for Agamemnon as for Menelaus.” Memmius is Paris, stealing Menelaus/Lucullus’ wife; but there were two Lucullus brothers, M. Lucullus and the elder (and more successful) L. Lucullus (= Agamemnon). Cicero’s implication is that Memmius had had his wicked way with the wives of both of them.
He was less successful with Pompey the Great’s wife, though not for want of trying. Curtius Nicias was a Greek scholar who, like many Greek intellectuals, depended on the patronage of powerful Romans, and he received it, we’re told, from both Memmius and Pompey. In the latter case this may have had a lot to do with an expertise Nicias had in the works of C. Lucilius, the poet who effectively invented verse satire. Lucilius had also been Pompey’s great-uncle, and since his satires could be felt by Romans to encapsulate some of their most cherished values, he was a useful association for an ambitious politician like Pompey to advertise. Memmius also had literary and scholarly interests, but he had other uses for Nicias, too. Pompey’s patronage gave Nicias access to Pompey’s house, and Memmius somehow persuaded him to carry a billet doux to Pompey’s new wife Cornelia, 20 years old but already the widow of P. Licinius Crassus, son of Crassus the triumvir, killed by the Parthians at Carrhae. Unfortunately for Memmius, Cornelia immediately informed Pompey. It was unfortunate for Nicias too, since naturally enough he was barred from ever entering Pompey’s house from that day forward (Suet. Gramm. 14).
But the loose sexual mores of the Roman elite could cut both ways. We enter seriously farcical territory with Valerius Maximus’ story (6.1.13) of what Memmius did to the man who cuckolded him. Memmius had married Fausta, daughter of Sulla the dictator (and ward of L. Lucullus, whose permission Memmius must have asked to marry her!), when Fausta was around 15 years old and Memmius a decade older, a pretty typical Roman arrangement (though Pompey was thirty years older than Cornelia). Fausta had a reputation for infidelities of her own, although if we always need to be sceptical of claims of sexual misbehaviour in our ancient sources, women with powerful connections like Fausta (or Clodia, the target of Cicero’s misogynistic attack in the Pro Caelio) were particularly likely to attract outrageous claims about their sexual morality. The story, at any rate, is that Memmius discovered Fausta in flagrante delicto with one L. Octavius and “pummelled him with hams (pernis contudit)”. The interpretation and indeed the Latin text is controversial here, but no one has come up with a better solution, so a bludgeoning with cured legs of pork is as likely as anything.
Memmius and Fausta divorced around this time, after about 17 years of marriage, and this may have been the catalyst (it certainly wouldn’t been Memmius’ serial infidelities that did it, given Rome’s firm double standards), but marriages, divorces, infidelities and sex at Rome in general were more often than not a pursuit of politics by other means, and the connection to Sulla that Fausta represented had perhaps become a liability at that point of Memmius’ political career. It certainly looks like no coincidence that at the time he was trying to seduce Cornelia Memmius was facing conviction under a law passed by Pompey, her husband, and was trying to avoid exile by turning state’s evidence and prosecuting L. Metellus Scipio, her father. His affairs with the wives of the Luculli also followed a long political feud between Memmius and the Lucullus brothers, his former allies, pursued by Memmius (according to Plutarch, Cato 29.3) “more to gratify Pompey than out of private enmity”, so that didn’t work.
On another occasion, when Memmius claimed (and provided names of witnesses to back his claim) that Julius Caesar had played the part of cupbearer to Nicomedes king of Bithynia, in other words had been Nicomedes’ passive sexual partner (cf. Ganymede, the archetypal cupbearer), it was one way of countering Caesar’s overwhelming influence in the 50s B.C. In Roman political culture, a perception of sexual potency equated pretty easily to political authority, and we could read all of Memmius’ sexual activity and sexualised rhetoric as methods of asserting his greater claims as a man and a politician. Mind you, it’s hardly surprising he had so little support when he found himself faced with exile.
C. Memmius features in two of Catullus’ poems, and they happen to include some of the most obscene language in Catullus’ whole collection (which is saying something). Catullus had served on Memmius’ staff when he governed Bithynia and Pontus, in modern Turkey, in 57 B.C. In poems 10 and 28 he describes Memmius’ mistreatment of his staff in luridly sexual terms, in both cases metaphorically attributing to Memmius, whom he catchily and untranslatably christens the irrumator praetor, a sexual act that I shall leave you to investigate for yourselves. This is actually one of those fleeting hints of principle one finds in Memmius’ record: what Catullus appears to be objecting to is Memmius’ refusal to allow his staff, Catullus included, to fill their boots at the expense of the people of Bithynia and Pontus. Memmius seems to have been unusually respectful of the culture of Rome’s Greek subjects. But is the extreme obscenity of Catullus’ language, especially in 28, which implies an overcharged male assertiveness on Memmius’ part, also picking up on his boss’s notorious sex drive?
Well, returning to where I started, this all seems quite hard to square with Epicureanism, which for all its modern associations was an exacting philosophy. Lucretius’ great Epicurean poem De Rerum Natura, which he addresses to a Memmius who is generally assumed to be the Memmius we’re talking about, delivers a brutally disillusioned indictment of romantic passion in his fourth book. But perhaps that’s the key. What Lucretius objects to is not so much sex itself, but the distress that sex can cause, essentially when sex becomes complicated by emotion. To put that another way, Epicureans approved of sex, but not of love: “Nor does he who avoids love lack the fruit of Venus,/ but rather he takes the rewards which come without penalty” (DRN 4.1073-4). An austere creed, as I say. Memmius also wrote erotic poetry, but I’m not sure he’d count as a love poet. His poetry was notoriously explicit, according to Ovid, Tristia 2.433. I think we can assume that Memmius didn’t readily allow romance to enter his numerous sexual liaisons.
Philosophical is one word for that. Or perhaps C. Memmius was just a