Sabina, known as Sporus

Great trans women in history: Nero castrated Sporus, gave her the name Sabina, and married her as his Empress.

The historian Dio Chrysostom (it means “golden mouthed”, or eloquent) says that she wore her hair parted in a feminine style, wore women’s clothes, and young women attended her when she went for a walk. Nero offered riches and honours to anyone who could make Sabina a woman. Dio comments this is as impossible as flying, another miracle of the 20th century.

Suetonius records that Nero too enjoyed dressing as a woman in public, appearing in operatic tragedies in the parts of heroines and goddesses, wearing masks modelled on the face of his mistresses.

At their wedding, attended by the whole court, Nero treated Sabina as his empress, with a dowry and bridal veil, dressed in the clothes and the jewels of the empress. They rode together in a litter to every Greek assize and fair, and through the Street of Images at Rome, amorously kissing.

I wondered what the Street of Images was. Was it one of the great streets of the city, one of temples perhaps? But the only references I can find to the Street of Images refer to this story.

David Wood suggests that Nero married her because she resembled his former wife, Poppaea Sabina, whom he had kicked to death. Wood suggests he thought Sabina (Sporus) was descended from the emperor Tiberius, so marriage to her strengthened his claim to the throne. Nero dominated the descendants of previous emperors, in the same way as he had sexually assaulted Britannicus, Claudius’ son. However, Suetonius appears to believe Nero loved Sporus. Wood quotes M. Griffin suggesting that Nero had loved Poppaea so much that Sporus was an art project or dramatic conceit, so that Nero had the image of Poppaea in his palace, acting and appearing like the original. Griffin claims that Nero ‘may only ever have pretended to have sex with his Poppaea-substitute’.

Wikipedia goes further, suggesting that Sporus was fictional. Suetonius wrote during the reign of Hadrian, and Mary Beard has suggested his work is propaganda rather than history, written to discredit earlier emperors. However Hadrian was gay, so might object to Suetonius making up an allegation of sex with a “man” being uniquely defamatory. Suetonius was Hadrian’s chief secretary.

Wikipedia suggests that the name Sporus is intentional mockery, meaning “seed”, which can be used to mean semen. The name is an insult Alexander Pope used to mock Lord Hervey. Nero called her Sabina, so I will too.

We have no idea what Sabina looked like. This portrait bust was formerly identified with the original AFAB Poppaea Sabina, but her hair is worn curled.

The Praetorian prefect Nymphidius Sabinus persuaded the Praetorian guard to forsake Nero, and took Sabina to wife, calling her Poppaea. He tried to become emperor but was killed by his own guards. Nero was succeeded in the year of four emperors by Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian. Otho had been married to the AFAB Poppaea, and now took care of Sabina. Vitellius wanted to kill Sabina in a gladiatorial show, so Sabina committed suicide, perhaps before her twentieth birthday.

Three men loved Sabina. They saw her as a woman, and we should too. See also Elagabala, proclaimed as Roman Emperor, who proclaimed herself Empress.

What were those regalia of an empress? Roman women would wear a sleeveless tunic, then a stola, like the one the Statue of Liberty wears. Over this they would wear a palla, a woollen shawl up to 11×5’, fastened by a brooch. Livia Drusilla here wears a stola and palla.