Messalina Returning by Aubrey Beardsley
Sure, there are greater sluts to be found in our historical annals and arguably greater leaders, but if you're going for slutty and accomplished, you can't beat these guys. A perusal of their stories highlights the role of sex in politics, and also raises the question: How ever did they have the time?
Born to an aristocratic family in Rome in 79 B.C. (when power was still in the hands of elected officials), Julius Caesar was a bold and bloodthirsty military leader who ushered in the Roman empire by becoming Rome's first true dictator.
A tall dark-eyed man, Caesar was meticulous about his personal appearance (his detractors claimed he had excess body hair plucked out) and vain about his receding hairline. The Roman historian Suetonius describes Caesar's comb-over in lurid detail and charges that he wore his famous crown of laurels chiefly to hide his bald spots. The man was evidently a fashion maven, favoring fringed sleeves and an unusually baggy girdle that earned him the nickname "the ill-girt one".
He was kidnapped by pirates and escaped, subdued Gaul, drove back the Germanic hoards, and extracted tribute from the wild Britons (whom Rome had not yet conquered). Though he originally rose to political office through the typical Roman confluence of plotting and election fraud, he seized ultimate power by igniting a civil war with his rivals. Upon vanquishing his enemies, he mounted the Capitol, flanked on each side by 40 elephants and carrying, among the spoils of war, the inscription "Veni, vidi, vici" (I came, I saw, I conquered). He was eventually named dictator for life. But it wasn't all bloodshed and mayhem: he redistributed government land to 20,000 Roman citizens who had three or more children, granted a rent-free year to low-income renters, doubled the pay of the Roman legions, and ordered libraries opened to the public.
in the bedroom:
Although Caesar spent most of his adult life as a married man (he was engaged four times and married three times), he had diverse sexual tastes. The orator Curio scathingly called him "every woman's man and every man's woman". The rumor that he lost his virginity to King Nicomedes of Bithynia plagued him to the end of his days, prompting the general Publius Cornelius Dolabella to call him, "the queen's rival, the inner partner of the royal couch". But his dalliances with women caused more problems in the long run--his affairs with the wives of senators and aristocrats certainly aggravated his unpopularity in political circles.
Although a citizen once mockingly addressed him as Regina (Queen), Caesar romanced several queens himself, most famously Cleopatra, whom he showered with lavish gifts. Suetonius writes,
"They say that he was led to invade Britannia by the hope of getting pearls, and that in comparing their size he sometimes weighed them with his own hand; that he was always a most enthusiastic collector of gems, carvings, statues, and pictures by early artists; also of slaves of exceptional figure and training at enormous prices, of which he himself was so ashamed that he forbade their entry in his accounts."
Valeria Messalina managed to become notorious for plotting and promiscuity in a Rome that had already survived Caligula. Deeply entwined in the blood ties of the Roman imperial family (Augustus was her great-uncle, Marc Antony was her great-grandfather, Nero and Caligula were her cousins, her own parents were also cousins, and her grandmothers were half sisters) she married her older cousin Claudius in A.D. 37 or 38. He was crowned emperor three years later. They had two children, Octavia and Britanicus, who were murdered later in life.
Slightly portly, Messalina had a large chin and big close-set eyes. She wore her hair in the tightly coiled coif popular at the time.
Valeria Messalina's accomplishments run not so much to civics or military victories but rather to complex manipulations that resulted in the exile or murder of her perceived enemies. The list is long and includes the philosopher Seneca (whom she ordered exiled), Claudius' neice Julia (whom she exiled and then ordered murdered), Marcus Vinicius (whom she poisoned), and various possible political rivals to her son Britanicus. But she sometimes used her influence to save those who were condemned: for example, she rescued her lover the German Sabinus from death in the arena. In terms of lasting accomplishments, her sexual appetites have inspired degenerates throughout history, including Aleister Crowley (who wrote the poem Messaline) and Talouse-Lautrec (who immortalized Messalina in a series of paintings), and Aubrey Beardsley (who illustrated an edition of Juvenal's Sixth Satire, which tells of Messalina's nights at the brothel). She appears as a fictional character in Bulgokov's The Master and Margarita.
in the bedroom:
As a young woman, Valeria Messalina was a popular figure in the court of her cousin Caligula, and she may have picked up some of her sexual habits in Caligula's debacherous halls. Once crowned empress she was truly able to flex her sexual creativity. According to Pliny the Elder's Natural History, Messalina challenged a popular prostitute to a contest: Messalina boasted that she could take more men in a stretch than her rival. She won with 25 men. Another story has her creating a brothel where she and other members of the aristocracy anonymously serviced the men of the city. These stories sound unbelievable and were likely exaggerated by her enemies, but we must remember that this was the Rome that had just suffered through the reign of Caligula, so elaborate sexual excess by rulers was not exactly unheard of. Her liaisons with Vettius Valens and Plautius Lateranus are well documented. In fact, Messalina disposed of the commander of the Praetorian Guard because he was planning to disclose her activities to Claudius. Her final affair was with the handsome young nobleman Silius. She chased away his wife Junia, and was quite public about her adultery. As the Roman historian Tacitus describes,
"...she went continually with a numerous retinue to his house, she haunted his steps, showered on him wealth and honours, and, at last, as though empire had passed to another, the slaves, the freedmen, the very furniture of the emperor were to be seen in the possession of the paramour."
In a mind-boggling move, she actually arranged a for a public marriage to Silius while her unsuspecting husband was away on business. Tacitus captures her motivations in this delicious turn of words, "But she craved the name of wife, for the sake of the monstrous infamy, that last source of delight to the reckless." Claudius returned and discovered Messalina's public betrayal. Messalina and Silius were singing bawdy songs at a drunken party when a messenger informed them that Claudius was seeking revenge. Messalina fled to the gardens of Luculus where she was discovered and decapitated.
Catherine the Great
Despite being German-born and having no real claim to the throne, Catherine seized power from her addled husband and ruled Russia from 1762 till her death in 1796.
Russia's empress was tall and full-figured with thick brown hair, pale skin, and prominent blue eyes. Although slender as a girl, she grew quite fat later in life.
You don't get "the Great" tacked on to your name by sheer luck. Well-read and intelligent, Catherine realized during the early years of her marriage that she was a pawn in an intricate ploy for royal power and hardly more than a prisoner in a succession of drafty palaces. She began plotting herself. The French diplomat Baron de Breteuil offered an apt description:
"This princess seems to combine every kind of ambition in her person. Everything that may add luster to her reign will have some attraction for her. Science and the arts will be encouraged to flourish in the empire, projects useful for the domestic economy will be undertaken. She will endeavor to reform the administration of justice and to invigorate the laws; but her policies will be based on Machiavellianism; and I should not be surprised if in this field she rivals the king of Prussia. She will adopt the prejudices of her entourage regarding the superiority of her power and will endeavor to win respect not by the sincerity and probity of her actions but also by an ostentatious display of her strength."
Baron de Breteuil was dead on. After seizing power from her husband in a well-executed coup, Catherine's veneer of enlightenment never entirely obscured her steely will. Although she had an interest in reform and was a patron to controversial philosophes such as Voltaire, the Empress of Russia didn't hesitate to use force. During her first fifteen years in power, she squelched several revolts and won a war with Turkey, gaining new territory for Russia. Later in her reign she poured money into the arts and education; under her direction St. Petersburg grew into a dazzling and sophisticated city and Russia became one of the great powers of Europe.
in the bedroom:
Let's get this out of the way: Catherine the Great did not die while having sex with a horse; her interests ran more toward grooms and stable boys. The story, like so many scandalous rumors about powerful figures, was spread by political rivals and maintained over centuries by humanity's taste for the picaresque.
In fact, Catherine developed a wandering eye during the first years of her marriage to the Grand Duke Peter, who was not interested in sex with his young wife and instead played with toy fortresses and delighted in dressing his courtiers in uniform so that he might watch them perform military exercises. As Peter was exceedingly foul, perhaps his obsession was in Catherine's favor. She wrote of Peter, "...seeing his feelings, I was more or less indifferent to him, but not to the crown of Russia."
When Catherine was 23 she had her first affair, with the exceptionally handsome chamberlain Sergei Saltykov. Next in line was the aristocrat Stanislas Poniatowski, secretary to the British ambassador. According to Virginia Rounding, author of Catherine the Great: Love, Sex, and Power, Catherine would dress as a man in order to sneak out and rendezvous with her paramour. Years later, when Catherine was empress, she'd help make Poniatowski king of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. She had a a daughter by him in 1757, and five years later gave birth to a son by another man, Count Grigory Orlov. Her husband Peter was deposed three months after the birth of her son. Orlov would be her favorite until 1772. By 1774 she'd taken up with Grigory Potyomkin, one of her conspirators in the coup. She made him her advisor, and by association he became the most powerful man in Russia. When their affair grew tepid, they remained friends and allies; it was rumored that he procured young lovers for the empress, and that these boys were first tested on her ladies in waiting. By her waning years, Catherine was a full-fledged cougar; her last lover, Prince Zubov, was forty years her junior.
Although he is largely remembered for murdering Alexander Hamilton, and his reputation was further tarnished by Thomas Jefferson's accusations of treason (for which he was acquitted), the laconic Burr was perhaps the most subtle and amusing of the American founders. His intellect certainly equaled Jefferson's, and he had a much better sense of humor.
Burr was slender and rather short, with fine features and expressive brown eyes.
A hero of the American Revolution, Burr served nearly four years on the front lines and engaged in various secret missions. He was made a lieutenant Colonel in 1777, and though he resigned in 1779, he continued to engage in espionage missions for Washington.
Burr was well-read and worldly, with impeccable manners. He led the 14-year fight to abolish slavery in New York and was one of America's first outspoken defenders of women's equality; for most of his life wore an amulet depicting the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, whom he considered a genius. At age 26, he married Theodosia Prevost, a brilliant widow ten years his senior, with whom he enjoyed discussing literature and feminist philosophy, and he made sure that his daughter (also named Theodosia) received an education highly unusual for a woman of the time (or for anyone in this country today, for that matter): she learned Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Spanish, German, French, botany, natural history, and political theory.
A successful lawyer, he was elected to the United States senate in 1791 and served until 1797. In the presidential election of 1800, he received as many votes as Jefferson, but accepted the vice-presidency instead.In 1804, after suffering years of slander from Alexander Hamilton, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel and killed him.
in the bedroom:
Although he was devoted to his wife Theodosia during their twelve years of marriage (she died of cancer in 1794), Burr was quite popular with the ladies. He once wrote, "The rule of my life is to make business a pleasure, and pleasure my business."
According to Nancy Isenberg (author of Fallen Founder: the life of Aaron Burr) his affairs tended to have a romantic/intellectual element. When he departed for his duel with Hamilton, Burr instructed his daughter to burn all of the letters he had marked with red ribbon, as well as his correspondence with a certain Leonora Sansay, who may have been his mistress. Evidently it was the sentimental nature of these letters he found embarrassing--several years later, while wintering in Paris, he had no problem writing his daughter frank (though not graphic) accounts of his liaisons with various ladies (some probably of ill repute).
As in the cases of Caesar, Messalina, and Catherine II, Burr's detractors had a field day with his libertine ways. Burr's political rivals (including Thomas Jefferson) employed sleazy tabloid writer James Cheetham, who wrote daily epistles accusing Burr of everything from bisexuality to black magic. Despite his own wanton ways, Alexander Hamilton was probably his biggest critic, and admitted in a letter to his wife, "On different occasions I.... have made very unfavorable criticisms on particular instances of the private conduct of this gentleman."
An early biographer claimed to have destroyed some of Burr's more salacious letters, and pompously defended his action, writing,
"It is a matter of perfect notoriety, that among the papers left in my possession by the late Colonel Burr, there was a mass of letters and copies of letters written or received by him, from time to time, during a long life, indicating no very strict morality in some of his female correspondents."
And in 1838, a journalist sniffed,
"But even in his personal conduct, that want of principle, which was his bane as a politician, degraded him into a libertine and a voluptuary. The selfish gratification which was his object, found the price of pleasing in indulgences, for which honor, reputation, and morality, were sacrificed without a scruple. No man was ever socially more corrupt."
Actually, as Roger Kennedy points out in his informative but poorly organized book, Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson, there is no evidence to suggest Burr was gadding around taking advantage of hapless servant girls or, ahem, slaves; he was true to his own testament that he had no interest in women who weren't already ready and willing to meet him "half way".
Next time: Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and Francisco "Pancho" Villa.
Images are in the public domain and courtesy of wikimedia commons.
Annals (Chapter 11); Tacitus
Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson; Roger Kennedy
Catherine the Great: Love, Sex, and Power; Virginia Rounding
The Columbia History of the World; edited by John A. Garraty and Peter Gay
Fallen Founder: the life of Aaron Burr; Nancy Isenberg
Heroes of History; Durant, Will
The Historians of Ancient Rome; edited by Ronald Mellor
The Lives of the Twelve Caesars; Suetonius
The Memoirs of Catherine the Great; Catherine II; translated by Mark Cruse, Hilde Hoogenboom
The Private Journal of Aaron Burr, during his residence of four years Europe; with selections from his correspondance; Aaron Burr