Sunday, December 10, 2006


By Walter Scheidel (Stanford)

Despotism and differential reproduction

In the Roman literary imagination, one-man rule and despotic power are intimately associated with polygyny and the forcible accumulation of sex partners. A few salient examples will suffice to illustrate this point. Caesar had a reputation as a major womanizer (Suet. Caes. 50-2); Augustus even ?as an elderly man is said to have harboured a passion for deflowering girls, who were collected for him from every quarter, even by his wife - (Suet. Aug. 71; cf. above, section 2.3.1, on the wife of Zimri-Lim of Mari); Tiberius comes across as hopelessly debauched, abducting freeborn girls to corrupt them; Caligula reportedly likewise spoiled married matrons (Suet. Cal. 36); Claudius is credited with insatiable sex drive and many affairs (e.g., Dio 40.2.5-6), and again, his wife - Messalina - procured mistresses for him (Dio 40.18.3); Nero put married women into brothels (Suet. Nero 27); Vespasian, in his role as a more
restrained "good" emperor, kept several mistresses after the death of his principal freedwoman concubine (Suet. Vesp. 21), whereas his son Domitian, designated one of the "bad" emperors, constantly engaged in sexual activities, which he referred to as "bed-wrestling" (Suet. Dom. 22). Commodus, also "bad", "herded together women of unusual beauty, keeping them like purchased prostitutes in a sort of brothel for the violation of their chastity" (HA Comm. 5.8); in this way, he acquired 300 concubines, "gathered for their beauty and chosen from both matrons and harlots" (ibid. 5.4.). Even the "good" emperor Pertinax, having at first dismissed Commodus's entourage, had many of them brought back "to administer to the pleasures of the old man" (HA Pert. 7.8-9). Elagabalus, beyond the pale even by the standards of "bad" rulers, "never had intercourse with the same woman twice except with his wife", and installed a palace brothel (HA Elag. 24.2-3). In a more exotic flourish, he is also made to hitch chariots to women of the greatest
beauty, driving them "usually himself naked" (ibid. 29.2).

Asking "how much was the economic and political inequality in the Roman empire matched by
reproductive inequality, or polygyny" (310), Betzig 1992b: 313-20 makes much of these stories. At first sight, her willingness to accept them as reliable evidence will seem naive to the literary critic. Strictly speaking, her suggestion that the internal consistency of such anecdotes confirms their credibility remains a non sequitur: the reverse interpretation " that sexual conduct of this kind was a topos that could indiscriminately be ascribed to different individuals " seems at least as plausible. Then again, her point that the Roman biographical tradition tallies well with what is more reliably known about other premodern kings and emperors may carry greater force. The one thing we can be sure of is that Roman upper-class authors consistently associated the despotic use - for them, abuse - of monarchical power with promiscuity in general and with transgressive sexual behaviour in particular. Thus, while reasonably "good" rulers (such as Caesar, Augustus or Vespasian) are merely credited with strong sexual appetites
and polygynous affairs, their "bad" counterparts are portrayed as violating social norms by compelling sex from non-consenting free or even married women. From a Darwinian perspective, this explicit link between political inequality in its most extreme form and reproductive potential is in itself of considerable interest, given that it mirrors faithfully a fundamental principle of differential male reproductive success.

The close match between what Romans thought, or found expedient to claim, their rulers did and what we know rulers in more overtly polygynous cultures actually did is similarly striking (see above, sections 2.2-3).

Even so, it remains difficult to resolve the tension between these underlying realities and the
creative power of literary representation. For a literary critic, the actual conduct of Roman emperors may be of secondary importance or even irrelevant, and it is perfectly feasible to dissect the biographical tradition as a patchwork of complementary stereotypes that could be re-arranged in a limited number of constellations in keeping with the biases of the observer. Intertextual relationships also come into play: when the Roman aristocrat Fabius Valens is said to have advanced "with a long and luxurious train of harlots and eunuchs" when he campaigned for Vitellius (Tac. Hist. 3.40-1), we are immediately reminded of such quintessentially "oriental" characters as Dareios III or Surenas, the victor of Carrhae (see above, section 2.3.3). By contrast, the student of reproductive variance must address a more intractable - and less
fashionable - question: does the literary tradition reflect existing mechanisms of creating mating
opportunities for powerful Romans? Are we to believe that the Romans would have created lurid images of the reproductive consequences of despotic power that are both perfectly plausible in Darwinian terms and compatible with comparative evidence if they had lacked any practical experience with these consequences? Without proper contextualisation, this common sense "no smoke without fire" approach will seem simple-minded; when judged against the background of evolutionary theory and comparative data, it may become more respectable. However that may be, Roman elite authors inhabited a world of habitual sexual coercion; they were men for whom the sexual availability of disempowered women - slaves - was a given. In their search for a definition of the "tyrant", it seems to have been attractive to model the relationship between disempowered citizen/subject and ruler/master (dominus) on their own relationship with their slaves. Reducing respectable - i.e., free and/or married women - to the status of
sexually available slaves, the tyrant-emperor overturns the social order by re-staging in the sphere of the free (and upper-class) citizenry patterns of interaction that are unquestioningly accepted between owners and slaves.

Given their immense wealth and the correspondingly large number of women at their disposal -
from female slaves and freedwomen to women who would have been attracted by their status - Roman emperors cannot have found it difficult to mate with as many women as they wished.84 Whether certain emperors chose to display their power by interfering with the reproductive rights of their subordinates - a central theme of the biographical tradition - remains open to debate. In my view, this tradition is instructive for two different reasons. First, it shows that with regard to the correlation between cultural success and the proximate determinants of reproductive variance, the literary imagination operates within a conceptual framework that puts heightened emphasis on critical evolved behavioural mechanisms. In this regard, Roman biography resembles Homeric myth (see above, section 3.3.1). And second, by likening the sexual conduct of emperors to that of slaveowners, this particular strand of the literary tradition helps corroborate our model of chattel slavery as the primary means of translating cultural into
reproductive success in societies which upheld SIM (see above, sections 3.2-3 and 3.5.2).
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