Romans, Historians and Me

Out there in Internet Land there is a website called Write Where It Hurts. It bills itself as, “A Community for Scholars doing Deeply Personal Research, Teaching, and Service.” Inevitably that means a lot of trans stuff. One of the things they want to do is to get trans people writing critical reviews of research about trans people done by cis people, because this is very much a thing that needs to be done.

I have written them a piece about Roman history which, for length reasons, has been divided into two parts. Modern historians can be quite clueless when discussing trans issues, but with Rome we have the additional complication that almost all Roman texts that have come down to us were written by well-to-do, white-ish men who lived in a society that could be deeply misogynistic. They are not exactly reliable when it comes to matters of gender, any more than Caesar could be trusted when describing the barbarian depravities of the people he wanted an excuse to conquer.

Part 1 of the essay concerns the Emperor Elagabalus, who allegedly offered a massive reward to any surgeon who could transform him into a woman. Did he really say that? Or was that just a story made up to discredit him? Do our own feelings about such a statement make us more or less likely to believe that he really said it?

Part 2 will appear next Wednesday. It is rather more spicy as Nero is in it. I’ll be talking mainly about his wife, Sporus who, depending on how you read the history, was either a pathetic victim of the Emperor’s depravity, a scheming gay man, or a trans girl who was made an offer that she couldn’t refuse.