Toward the start of Episode VI, Return of the Jedi, in the original Star Wars trilogy, on the desert in Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine, Carrie Fisher shows up in the metal bikini. Chained up in the palace of a massive slug-like sentient, the Bloated One, the Outer Rim crime lord Jabba the Hutt, she waits for a chance to choke him to death. “I hated wearing that outfit.”
Across hyperspace the emperor, Darth Sidious, strides up and down the sterile passageways of his ultimate weapon, the Death Star, a moon-sized deep-space mobile battle station. He hangs out with his apprentice, Darth Vader, with tens of thousands of stormtroopers, with hundreds of thousands of members of the imperial army and navy, and with another 2 million combat-ready personnel. There isn’t a sex slave on the ship.
By which I mean to say, George Lucas messed up. Jabba the Hutt comes pretty close to historical type, but Emperor Palpatine is way off. Provincials can turn out to be predators; but emperors are almost always worse. And sex is never irrelevant.
For instance. When the Venetian traveller, Marco Polo, dictated his memoirs from a Genoese prison in around 1299, he said a few words about the bloated ones he knew. Along the coast of the subcontinent across from Sri Lanka, he found naked fish-charmers and naked oyster-divers, who worked under an overlord in a loincloth. He wore gold bracelets on his wrists and ankles, and gold rings on his toes; his necklace strung together 104 pearls or rubies, and he’d collected 500 pretty girls. “For whenever he hears of a beautiful damsel, he takes her.”
Over a thousand years before Polo, in the last generation of the Roman republic, Marcus Tullius Cicero—who breathed his last as an advocate for the first Roman emperor, Augustus—prosecuted his own outer rim crime lord. Gaius Verres had spent 3 winters in Syracuse (“the short days were devoted to parties, the long nights to debauchery”), and travelled around Sicily in the spring (“there is not a single community in which some women of decent family was not selected to satisfy his sexual inclinations”). In summers, the provincial governor had always holed up on the beach—in a string of linen pavilions accessible to nobody but his pimps, and to an unbelievable number of women. “Considerations of decency deter me from giving details of these loathsome manifestations of his lusts.”
Augustus would have been more dissolute. When Suetonius mined the imperial archives for his Lives of the Caesars, he found this note from Marc Antony addressed to the first emperor. “Good luck if, when you read this letter, you haven’t been in bed with Tertulla, or Terentilla, or Rufilla, or Salvia Titisenia—or all of them. Does it matter where and in whom you have your erections?” Antony remembered how Augustus’ friends acted like Toranius, the slave dealer, in another letter: “They would strip mothers of families, or grown girls, of their clothes, and inspect them as though they were for sale.” Trends that evidently went on, long after Antony was gone. “The charge of being a womanizer stuck, and as an elderly man he is said to have still harbored a passion for deflowering girls—who were collected for him from every quarter, even by his wife.”
The founder of the Mongol dynasty in China, the emperor Kublai Khan—who put up a summer palace at Xanadu, or Shangdu, with 100,000 rooms; inspired Coleridge (“For he on honeydew hath fed/And drunk the milk of paradise”); and entertained Marco Polo for around 17 years—was probably more prolific. In his Travels, the Venetian remembered how the Mongol kept 6 women at a time in his bedroom: “And so throughout the year, there are reliefs of maidens by 6 and 6, changing every 3 days and nights.” Many of those women had children, but nobody ever counted them all up. It took Tatiana Zerjal and her 21st-century team of geneticists to guess that a Y chromosome star cluster found in 8% of Asian men, and in 1/200 of all men worldwide, has been passed down by the male line descendants of Genghis and his grandson, Kublai Khan.
Betzig, Laura. 1992. Roman polygyny. Ethology and Sociobiology, 13: 309-49.
Betzig, Laura. 2017. Eusociality. In L. Workman, W. Reader and J. Barkow, eds., Cambridge Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Yan, S. et al. 2014. Y chromosomes of 40% of Chinese descend from three Neolithic super-grandfathers. PLoS One, 9(8): e105691.
Zerjal, T. et al. 2003. The genetic legacy of the Mongols. American Journal of Human Genetics, 72: 717-721.