Part 1: From The First Written Words to Alexander the Great
The term “homosexuality” was invented in the 19th century. It was first used in 1869 by the campaigner Karl Maria Kertbeny. Homosexualität. It was only then that homosexuality became a scientific category. The homosexual, as the French philosopher Michel Foucault argued, became “a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood.” Before this categorisation, homosexuality had been simply a behaviour, a sin, and one that was confined to men: sodomy. “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.”
The history of homosexuality is, nevertheless, richer, more interesting and far more complex than Foucault’s oversimplified word games would suggest. It is a history of women and trans people as well as men.
The language for homosexual behaviour dates back to the first days of writing, to the time when cultures in the East and the West transformed from an oral to a written culture, around the 7th Century BCE. In fact, the oldest known work of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, predates this transformation, and the first version, the “Old Babylonian” text, dates back to the 18th Century BCE. This Mesopotamian narrative is a love story, and it follows what happens to King Gilgamesh when the man he loves, Enkidu, dies.
In Early and Classical Greece, homosexuality was part of the culture, and there were laws that governed its expression. The following is a snapshot of that world, a snapshot of the fragments that are left of it, and an insight into a time when sexuality was considered more fluid, less compartmentalised than it was to become from the early days of the Roman Empire.
In Early and Classical Greece (776 – 323 BCE) the expression of homosexuality was bound up with militaristic ideals. An older man would enter into a relationship with a younger man to train him.
The older man was know as the erastes (lover) and the younger man the eromenos (beloved). This is the context in male homosexuality found expression.
In Plato’s Symposium, the character of Pheadrus characterises the idealistic Athenian portrayal of male love. Plato idealised chaste relationships, hence the word platonic, although late in life he turned against these ideas.
If there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonour, and emulating one another in honour; and when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world.
Plato • Symposium, 385-380 BCE
In The Republic, Plato’s ideal for the political state is a community built, in effect on equality.
Our object in the construction of the State is the greatest happiness of the whole, and not that of any one class.
Plato • The Republic, 370 BCE
The love of Achilles for Patroculus in Homer’s Illiad (dated roughly between 800 and 700 BCE) is legendary. Phaedrus characterises the pair as erastes and eromenos in the Symposium. Achilles desires that he and Patroclus should conquer Troy. When his lover is killed his grief brings about his downfall.
Achilles attends wounds of Patroclus, Red-Figure Kylix 500 BCE
For I would, O father Zeus, and Athene, and Apollo, that no man of the Trojans might escape death, of all that there are, neither any of the Argives, but that we twain might escape destruction, that alone we might loose the sacred diadem of Troy.
Homer • The Illiad, 800-700 [?] BCE
The evidence for male homosexual love is greater in the artefacts than it is in the surviving texts. The quotes from Early and Classical Greece are as much visual as they are written.
Red-Figure Kylix, 470 BCE
Two collections of the work of the poet Sappho have been left to history. There were as many as nine, but Christians who were angered by Sappho’s same-sex sensuality destroyed them.
Plato called Sappho “the Tenth Muse”, and she was considered Greece’s greatest of lyric poet.
You asked me then what most of all I wanted
In my wild heart, and said: “Whom shall I conquer?
What pretty girl must I now lead to love you?
Sappho, who harms you?”
“For though she shuns you, soon she will pursue you;
Though she rejects your gifts, she’ll soon be giving;
Though now she loves you not, she soon will love you,
Though first unwilling.”
Come to me now as then you did! Release me
From all my sorrows, speedily fulfilling
My heart’s desire! Fulfill it! You yourself
Fight in my battle!
Sappho • Throned in bright colours, deathless Aphrodite,
The Mesopotamian deity Ishtar dates back to 5300 BCE. In classical times, the equivalent goddess was Cybele. Ishtar, Innana, and Cybele, all had trans priests, sometimes known as a “third sex”, who at times dressed as half a man, half a woman, and at times were shown as changing from man to woman as a demonstration of the goddess’ supernatural power.
In later years, Ovid wrote about the wild processions of the priests, and St Augustine referred to them snidely in The City of God. In a surviving lamentation to Ishtar, the goddess says:
I go at the front. I am lofty.
I proceed from the rear. I am wise.
I make right into left.
I make left into right.
I turn a man into a woman.
I turn a woman into a man.
I am the one who causes a man to adorn himself as a woman.
I am the one who causes the woman to adorn herself as a man.
Anonymous • [?] BCE
The idea of an army of male lovers found form in the hieros lochos, the Sacred Band of Thebes, in the 4th Century BCE. The only substantial historical account of the Band is in Plutarch’s ‘Life of Pelopidas’centuries later.
It was natural, then, that the band should also be called sacred, because even Plato calls the lover a friend ‘inspired of God’.
Plutarch • ‘Life of Pelopidas’, Parallel Lives, 100 CE
In Parallel Lives, Plutarch included the volume, ‘Life of Alexander’. It was Alexander’s father, Philip, who smashed Thebes. At the age of 18, Alexander broke the Sacred Band of Thebes, and from there became the master of Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt, Persia and northwestern India.
The story of Achilles and Patroclus had great sway over Alexander the Great, who saw himself as Achilles, and his coeval (and probably his lover), Hephaestionas as Patroclus. When Hephaestion died, Alexander was inconsolable, and the funeral was one of the most spectacular in all of history. With Alexander, the classical era came to an end, and Greek culture now had two intellectual capitals, Athens and Alexandria.
Writing about the importance of homoeroticism in the classical world, Louis Crompton concludes in his ground breaking book Homosexuality and Civilisation:
In art and literature homosexuality had left its mark abundantly, while inspiring the subtlest and most daring philosophical speculations. Wherever the spotlight of history shines in this brilliant world, we find the love of male for male.
Louis Crompton • Homosexuality and Civilisation, 2003 CE
Read the Introduction to A Queer History:
The Way We Live Now