Top Ten Scandals of the Greek and Roman World

Duck houses, cash for questions, dodgy donations, sometimes our politicians give us reason to think that they are all corrupt. Yet it was ever thus and compared to some of the scandals of the ancient world, our home-grown politicians are more like Vestal Virgins. We could compose a list of the scandalous activities of the Roman emperors alone. However here is our definitive list of the greatest scandals of the Greek and Roman world. I am shocked, I tell you, shocked.

 10 Artemisia at Salamis. Queen Artemisia of Caria was one of Persian king Xerxes’ key allies in the second invasion of Greece. At the battle of Salamis she supplied five of the best ships in the Persian navy but facing defeat and trapped by Greek ships she charged an ally ship to escape, sinking it and leaving its crew and captain to drown. Bad acts shouldn’t pay but they did for Artemisia. Herodotus tells us that the Greek captain, Amenias, seeing this stopped his pursuit assuming that the ship was on the Greek side; meanwhile Xerxes, who was watching the battle proclaimed: "O Zeus, surely you have formed women out of man's materials, and men out of woman's."

9 The Trial of Miltiades. Miltiades was the Athenian hero of Marathon. After the first Persian War he led the Athenian navy against the Aegean islands who had supported the Persians. While laying seige to the island of Paros flames from the mainlands, which he though was a sign of a Persian attack, forced him to retreat. This failure and the accusation that he had attacked Paros on false pretences and of accepting bribes from the Persians by his political enemies led to his political downfall, trial and conviction. He died in prison from a wound he had sustained during the seige. A popular politican accused of lying to go to war and financial avarice who ends up being hated by his people? It couldn’t happen today. *Coughs*

8 Caligula’s brothel. When Gaius ‘Calugula’ became princeps many Romans assumed  it was the beginning of a new golden age after Tiberius’ reign. However it was not to be. Instead, accordimg to souces, his rule descended into murderous insanity with accusations of murder and incest. Perhaps most scandalously, according to Suetonius, he turned the palace into a brothel, and sending out his pages to invite men of all ages to enjoy themselves… for a certain price. He even arranged for loans for potential clients. How kind. Luckily sex at the heart of government could not happen these days.

7 The fall of Sejanus. Perhaps one of the most dramatic scandals was the fall of Aelius Sejanus, the powerful Head of the Praetorian Guard under Tiberius. In AD 31 at the height of his power he was denounced on the floor of Senate in a letter from the emperor, arrested and executed. Why? Some historians say that he was plotting a coup to seize power, others that he was trying to put the emperor’s young gradson on the throne so he could act as regent. The main impact of Sejanus’ fall was that Tiberius solidified his grip on power by naming as his heir the son of the popular general Germanicus, Gaius Caligula. That worked out well then. 

6 The Banishment Julia. Julia (the Elder) was the only child of the princeps Augustus. Married three times, she was arrested in 2 B.C. for adultery and treason. The scandal was made greater, and more embarrassing, by the fact that her father was promoting anti-promiscuity legislation  and he felt compelled to banish her. ‘Back to Basics’ anyone? 

5 Themistocles is ostracised. Can there have been a greater fall from grace than that of Themistocles? Coming from a family of little consequence, it was Themistocles who devised the famous ‘wooden walls strategy’ which saved Athens from the Persians in 480 BC. But success not only breeds hubris but also resentment and political enemies. First he was implicated in a suspected plot by the Spartan general Pausanias to bring Greece under Persian rule then he was accused of accepting bribes in return for allowing exiles to return to Athens. In 472/471 he was exiled.

4 Messalina's Downfall. Thanks to Suetonius, Tacitus and Juvenal, the name Messalina has become a by-word for sexual licentiousness. According to them, the wife of Claudius had an array of lovers, and even competed against a prostitute in an all-night sex romp. Her end came when, without her husband's knowledge, she married her latest lover Gaius Silanus in what could have been an attempted palace coup. Claudius survived but Messalina was executed on his orders and the on orders of the Senate her name removed from all public documents. Has anyone else noticed that, as so often, it is men who are making all these accusations? 

3 The Trial of Verres. Gaius Verres was the governor of Sicily, whose trial in 70 BC for corruption became a symbol for the decadence of the political establishment of the Roman Republic: the charges against him included extortion, misappropriation of public funds and misuse of his powers of punishment. Cleverly the ambitious young prosecuting lawyer used the trial in front of his Senatorial peers to put the whole system on trial, thus making a guilty verdict more likely. So powerful were his speeches that Verres pleaded 'no contest' and went into exile. Every loss also has a victor, and in this case the young lawyer was entitled to take the guilty's Senate seat. Sorry. Did I forget to mention his name? Marcus Tullius Cicero.

2 The Mutilation of the Hermai. Athenian toff Alcibiades was perhaps the original Bullingdon boy. He was also a brilliant military strategist who promised to turn around the Athenians' war against the Spartans with an audacious expedition against Sicily. However on the eve of adventure the hermai were found smashed around the city, a sacrilegious act and bad omen. Alcibiades was denied the opportunity to clear his name and his enemies used his absence to stir up further accusations which ended with his exile. This scandal didn't finish him off  he defected to Sparta then the Persians before he was recalled to Athens... Can't keep a good man down, eh?

1 The Bona Dea Scandal. This has it all! Each year the wives of prominent Senators conducted a secret rite of the Bona Dea. Only women were admitted. In 62 BC the event was hosted by Pompeia, wife of pontifex maximus Julius Caesar, but it was noticed that one of the guests was in fact... a man! He escaped unidentified but rumours flew around that he was in fact the rabal-rousing tribune Clodius. Conservative and religious opinion in Rome was truly shocked, and outrageous rumours of sexual promiscuity in Rome's upper escelons began to take hold. Caesar divorced his wife and Clodius was put on trial. Massive bribery secured his acquittal but mud - especially when thrown by Cicero - sticks. Ten years later Clodius was dead, and not long after that the Republic fell.