Origins of the name
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Sporus derives from the ancient Greek word σπορά spora, meaning "seed, sowing," related to σπόρος sporos, "sowing," and σπείρειν speirein, "to sow." In all references about this story, he is always called Sporus, a male name, when the female would be Spora.
According to the Roman naming conventions, he would gain the nomen and praenomen of his former master retaining his former name as a cognomen. In that case, assuming that it was Nero who freed him (which is not clear), his full name would be Nero Claudius Sporus (after Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus).
Little is known about Sporus' background except that he was a young man to whom Nero took a liking. He may have been a puer delicatus, who were sometimes castrated in an effort to preserve their youthful qualities. The puer delicatus generally was a child-slave chosen by his master for his beauty and sexual attractiveness. Cassius Dio identifies Sporus as a freedman.
Marriage to Nero
Nero's wife, Poppaea Sabina, died in 65, supposedly kicked to death by Nero. In the beginning of 66, Nero married Statilia Messalina. Later that year or in 67, he married Sporus, who was said to bear a remarkable resemblance to Poppaea.
Nero had Sporus castrated,[a] and during their marriage, Nero had Sporus appear in public as his wife wearing the regalia that was customary for Roman empresses. He then took Sporus to Greece and back to Rome, making Calvia Crispinilla serve as "mistress of the wardrobe" to Sporus, epitropeia ten peri estheta. Nero had earlier married another freedman, Pythagoras, who had played the role of Nero's husband; now Sporus played the role of Nero's wife. Among other forms of address, Sporus was termed "Lady", "Empress", and "Mistress". Suetonius quotes one Roman who lived around this time who remarked that the world would have been better off if Nero's father Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus had married someone more like the castrated boy.
Suetonius places his account of the Nero–Sporus relationship in his scandalous accounts of Nero's sexual aberrations, between his raping a vestal virgin and committing incest with his mother. Some think Nero used his marriage to Sporus to assuage the guilt he felt for kicking his pregnant wife Poppaea to death. Dio Cassius, in a more detailed account, writes that Sporus bore an uncanny resemblance to Sabina and that Nero called Sporus by her name.
Shortly before Nero's death, during the Calends festival, Sporus presented Nero with a ring bearing a gemstone depicting the Rape of Proserpina, in which the ruler of the underworld forces a young girl to become his bride. It was at the time considered one of the many bad omens of Nero's fall.
Sporus was one of the four companions on the emperor's last journey in June 68, along with Epaphroditos, Neophytus, and Phaon. It was Sporus, and not his wife Messalina, to whom Nero turned as he began the ritual lamentations before taking his own life.
After Nero and death
Soon afterward, Sporus was taken to the care of the Praetorian prefect Nymphidius Sabinus, who had persuaded the Praetorian Guard to desert Nero. Nymphidius treated Sporus as a wife and called him "Poppaea". Nymphidius tried to make himself emperor but was killed by his own guardsmen.
In 69, Sporus became involved with Otho, the second of a rapid, violent succession of four emperors who vied for power during the chaos that followed Nero's death. (Otho had once been married to Poppaea, until Nero forced their divorce.) Otho reigned for three months, until his suicide after the Battle of Bedriacum. His victorious rival, Vitellius, intended to use Sporus as a victim in a public entertainment; a fatal "re-enactment" of the Rape of Proserpina at a gladiator show. Sporus avoided this public humiliation by committing suicide. He was probably under 20 years old.
In 1735, Alexander Pope wrote a satirical poem that mocked the courtier Lord Hervey, who had been accused of homosexuality a few years earlier. He scoffs at using so strong a weapon as satire upon a weak and effeminate target like Sporus, "that mere white curd of ass's milk", and in a famous line Pope poses the rhetorical question: "Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?"
- Dion Cassius. Ixii. 28, Ixiii. 12, 13, 27, Ixiv. 8, Ixv. 10;
- Suetonius. Nero. 28, 46, 48, 49;
- Sextus Aurelius Victor. De Caesaribus. 5, Epit. 5;
- Dion Chrysostom. Oratio. xxi;
- Suidas, s. v. "Sporus”
- Smith, William (1849). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. 3. C. C. Little and J. Brown; [etc., etc. ]. pp. 1411, 2012. LCCN 07038839.
- Champlin, Edward (2005). Nero. Harvard University Press. p. 346. ISBN 978-0-674-01822-8.
- Woods, David (2009). "Nero and Sporus". Latomus Revue d'etudes latines. 68 (1 ed.). Editions Latomus. pp. 73–82. ISSN 0023-8856.
- History of same-sex unions
- Homosexuality in ancient Rome
- Pythagoras (freedman)
- Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?
- SUET., Nero 28,1: "Puerum Sporum exsectis testibus etiam in muliebrem naturam transfigurare conatus cum dote et flammeo per sollemnia nuptiarum celeberrimo officio deductum ad se pro uxore habuit"
"He castrated the boy Sporus and actually tried to make a woman of him; and he married him with all the usual ceremonies, including a dowry and a bridal veil, took him to his house attended by a great throng, and treated him as his wife" – The expression exsectis testibus, literally "to have the testicles removed", does not imply that the entire genitalia were removed.
- Ancient History Sourcebook: Suetonius: De Vita Caesarum—Nero, c. 110 C.E.
- Cassius Dio Roman History: LXII, 28 – LXIII, 12–13
- Champlin, 2005, p.145
- Smith, 1849, p.897
- Vout, Caroline, Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome (Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 136
- Manwell, Elizabeth (2007). "Gender and Masculinity". A Companion to Catullus. Blackwell. p. 118.
- Champlin, 2005, p.146
- Champlin, 2005, p.108-109
- Champlin, 2005, pp. 147–148
- Moore, Lucy (2000). Amphibious Thing: The Adventures of a Georgian Rake. Penguin Books. p. 376. ISBN 9780140273649.
- "The Gay Love Letters of John, Lord Hervey to Stephen Fox". Gay History and Literature – My Dear Boy. Retrieved 3 August 2012. – Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton
- Pope, Alexander. "Pope's Caricature of Lord Hervey – 1765". Gay History and Literature – Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England. Retrieved 3 August 2012. As first published the verse referred to Paris, but was changed to Sporus when republished a few months later.