If you happened to be wandering the streets of ancient Rome at dusk (or, in the summer months, the seaside resort of Baiae on the Bay of Naples), you might be accosted by a slave inviting you to an imperial banquet. All rich Romans were expected to be fabulous entertainers — the more extravagant their feasts, the more powerful they were perceived — and the emperors were obliged to be the most over-the-top hosts of all. On most evenings, hundreds of complete strangers — males and females of all social classes, although with a bias towards the well-dressed and the good-looking — would be lured to events in splendid, marble-floored villas, where they would be bombarded with food and wine to the accompaniment of flute music and erotic Asian dancers. Prostitutes of both sexes would be on offer in the back rooms, and there is no question that many all-night celebrations became drunken debauches. And yet the sort of indiscriminate multiple coupling we associate with Roman orgies was quite rare: The erotic artists of Pompeii only occasionally depict group sex, mostly of boys penetrating one another in “chains,” and there are surprisingly few references in Latin erotic literature or even graffiti.
The Emperor Caligula’s parties became particularly famous during his brief, four-year reign, largely thanks to his eye for culinary theater: He took a childish delight in “display foods,” like loaves made of pure gold, fish dyed blue to make them seem as if they were still swimming in the sea, and exotic meats molded into statues of lions and elephants. But the orgy experience was decidedly stressful.
Even the most libidinous guests would have had problems getting into the mood when the host was both certifiably insane and unpredictably violent. On one occasion, Caligula chuckled to himself at the dinner table, and when asked why, explained: “Because if I nodded once to my guards, I could have all your throats cut.” A slave who was caught stealing silver had both his hands chopped off and hung around his neck, then paraded before the guests — a disconcerting sight even for Romans hardened by gladiatorial displays. And while sex was certainly on the menu, Caligula’s own foreplay also left something to be desired: According to Suetonius, he would invite attractive aristocratic couples to dine, then inspect the wife as if she were a slave up for auction, lifting her skirt to examine her legs and holding up her face if she dropped it in embarrassment. After a forced liaison in a private parlor, the emperor would return to the table and offer a blow-by-blow critique of her figure and performance for the guests.
The god-emperor himself was no prize: He was balding, thin, and pallid, with hollow eyes and an elongated forehead, and so self-conscious about his exuberant body hair that he refused to have the word “goat” used in his presence.
SOURCES/FURTHER READING: Barrett, Anthony, Caligula: The Corruption of Power (London, 1989); Clarke, John E., Roman Sex 100 BC-AD 250 (New York, 2003); Johnson, Marguerite and Ryan, Terry, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Society and Literature: A Sourcebook, New York, 2005; Langlands, Rebecca, Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome, (Cambridge 2006).