The Legal Significance of Penetration
Under the reign of the austere Augustus Caesar, Rome passed a series of fornication laws that included adultery. Viewed as a capital offense the punishment for adultery was death by strangling. By mid-century AD, with the death of Augustus, and the rise of Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius, these laws had not been enforced for a generation.
Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD) had risen to power by being the only surviving member of the royal family. After a coup d’etat removed the murderous Caligula from power, the Senators who had conspired against Caligula had hoped that with the tyrant’s death there would be a return to the liberty of republican rule. But the Pretorian Guard (which had been created under the rule of Augustus Cesar, as a personal body guard to the emperor), feared that a return to republican rule would render them superfluous and would result in their disbandment, and reinstatement into the Legions proper. This would then likely result in their transfer away from an easy life in Rome, to the outer borders of the empire; it was this fear that caused the Guard to supersede the Senators plans and to claim Claudius the new emperor of Rome.
Claudius, who since birth, had suffered from scoliosis and was plagued by a stutter, was lame and prone to drool when speaking. These ailments had earned the new emperor, among the populace, the nickname Claudius the Fool. But Claudius’ reign as emperor would surprise even his greatest distractors. His fourteen year reign would prove a high point in Rome’s history. A successful expansion of the empire into Britain, a sound economy, and a decade of peace had endeared Claudius the Fool to the populace at large, and in turn had confirmed the wisdom of the Pretorian Guard’s anointment.
But Claudius was not without his faults; his yearning for young women caused the 70 plus year old emperor to marry a beautiful child-bride of only 20, Messalina. Unfortunately for Claudius, Messalina’s purported beauty was matched only by her unbridled ambition.
Through-out her marriage Messalina proved as promiscuous as was all of Rome and she took a host of lovers to entertain herself; one such lover was a popular young Senator, Gaius Silius. Frustrated by her limited role as merely Claudius’ pastime, Messalina (who thought herself better suited for the role of queen) moved the naive Gaius Silius to treason against her husband.
The young couple’s plan was a simple one, when Claudius took one of his many inspection trips to assess the empire’s frontier troops Messalina would publically announce her divorce from the addled old man who was her husband, and marry the young and popular Gaius Silius. This act would signal the Senate and people of Rome that Claudius the Fool was no longer fit to rule and that she and Gaius Silius would gladly fill the void.
The treasonous couple did not hesitate to put their plan to effect; a wedding and subsequent party was staged. The guest list included all those who were considered supportive of the intended coup.
It would be Narcissus, a Freedman and advisor to Claudius who would save the old emperor from his doom. Narcissus, whose spies had gotten wind of the intended coup, recalled the emperor to Rome and safely placed him in the camp of the Pretorian Guard, who (if only out of self-interest) remained loyal. The day of the wedding the Guard arrested all those who attended the party and the coup collapsed.
It need be noted here that the before mentioned adultery laws pertained only to the men of Rome, adulteress women, children, and slaves were subject to the authority of their husbands, fathers, and masters respectfully, and not the State; and that the authority held included the power of life and death.
Messalina lost her head; with one swipe of the sword she became insignificant.
But how to dispatch the many treasonous Senators and Knights would prove a more difficult matter. So many important men could not simply be executed without trial, and a treason trial before the Senate, where these men held much popularity and sway would prove messy.
It was Narcissus again, by reaching back to the Augustin adultery laws, who took control of the situation. The treasonous wedding party, as with all parties in Rome had degraded into an orgy, and it was this orgy that the Pretorian Guard had raided. Claiming then that the Pretorian Guard would serve as both witness and jury to the adulteries committed, Narcissus placed Gaius Silius and his co-conspirators on trial before the Pretorian Guard. It was at best a fig leaf of justice, but at 4000 strong there stood no power in Rome who could challenge the Guard.
Gaius Silius understood his fate was sealed and by all accounts accepted his fate courageously, as did his fellow conspirators, admitting their guilt they asked only for a quick death. They were obliged.
Only one conspirator, Suillius Caesoninus, offered a defense against the charge. His defense hinged on the technicality of penetration. To Romans, proper social behavior for men and women was clearly defined; this included each’s role sexually. It was a man’s role to penetrate, while a women’s proper role was to be penetrated; a man could not be guilty of adultery without the act of penetration.
The Roman historian Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, “The Fall of Messalina,” explains how Suillius Caesoninus escaped execution:
“The Guardsmen shouted repeatedly for the offenders to be named and punished. Silius was brought on the platform. Without attempting defense or postponement, asked for a quick death. Certain distinguished Knights showed equal courage. Only one escaped the death sentence, Suillius Caesoninus, owing to his own vices, at the repulsive gathering his had been merely a female part.”