A Queer History: Outlawing Homosexuality
Part 3: The Roman Empire Outlaws Homosexuality
As the Roman Empire expanded, the need for centralised control became greater. Polytheism did not serve the political ends of government, and so it turned to the monotheistic Christianity. The Romans reinvented Christianity from its core texts in the 4th century. Homosexual practise was one of its victims.
The first 12 Roman emperors, if Suetonius is to be believed, were anything but exclusively heterosexual. Tiberius even brought live fish in as a sexual fetish, which had something to do with their nibbling …
Written around 120 CE, Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars weaves a history out of the political biographies in circulation. He is straight-forward in describing the emperors’ sexual histories.
Julius Caesar went as an ambassador to King Nicomedes IV when he was 20, in 80 BCE. Of this time Suetonius writes,
There was no stain on Caesar’s reputation for chastity except his intimacy with King Nicomedes IV. Cicero indeed has written in sundry letters that Caesar was led by the king’s attendants to the royal apartments, that he lay on a couch arrayed in purple, and that the virginity of this son of Venus was lost in Bithynia.
Suetonius • Lives of the Twelve Caesars, 120 CE
With Caligula, Nero and Tiberius, it was a case of anything goes. Suetonius does not hold back, and it is impossible to know what is history and what gossip. That said, Nero did castrate a young man and crown him his empress. He is equally frank about the later emperors, and recounts how the young Domitian sold himself to a consul, and was later attached to Earinus, a eunuch.
There is one Roman emperor about whom there is a wealth of evidence concerning same-sex relations. Hadrian was enamoured of a beautiful young man called Antinous. By all accounts, he travelled extensively with Hadrian. Antinous drowned when he was 19, and Hadrian was inconsolable.
In his History, written a century later, Dio Cassius writes:
Accordingly, he honoured Antinous, either because of his love for him or because the youth had voluntarily undertaken to die (it being necessary that a life should be surrendered freely for the accomplishment of the ends Hadrian had in view) by building a city on the spot where he suffered this fate and naming it after him; and he also set up statues – or rather sacred images of him – all over the world.
Dio Cassius • History, c. 225 CE
As the Roman Empire progressed, so did Christianity. The first gospels were written around 60 years after the birth of Christ, but Christianity was not ‘invented’ as such until it was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire.
It was essentially through a series of 4th century synods that the religion was organised. Doctrine was established in an era of intense literary criticism as the core texts were redefined – read up on the conflict between Pelagius and Augustine to get a real flavour of that.
In that era the standing of homosexuality was determined for the centuries that followed. And to do that the critics had to decide which remnants of the Mosaic Law from Old Testament would remain and which cast off.
Jesus had nothing to say about homosexuality. There have been speculations across the centuries, in fact, that Jesus and John were lovers. It was this heresy that got Christopher Marlowe killed. St Paul, an angrier figure than Jesus, was more emphatic about the sexual practises he did not like, and it was Paul’s teachings that determined the shape of Christianity. In the introduction to her book The First Christian, Karen Armstrong wrote of Paul:
he created Christian theology, and sometimes it seems as though he were more important to Christianity than Jesus Christ.
Karen Amstrong • The First Christian, 1983 CE
The attitudes toward homosexuality changed fundamentally with the ascension of the emperor Constantine. The Hellenic religions were therein persecuted, and the persecution of homosexual behaviour went hand in hand with that. This continued under the leadership of his sons, Constantius and Constans, both of whom used the religion as a stick to beat their enemies with.
The Errors of the Pagan Religions, a work that justified the new tyranny, established the link between pagan religions, sexual immorality and homosexuality.
In their very temples one may see scandalous performances, accompanied by the moaning of the throng: men letting themselves be handled as women and flaunting with boastful ostentatiousness this ignominy of their impure and unchaste bodies.
Firmicus Maternus • The Errors of the Pagan Religions, c.346 CE
The last stand against the conversion of the Roman empire to Christianity was the emperor Julian, the successor to Constantius. It was nevertheless too late to stem the tide and with the reign of Theodosius the campaign against homosexual practise inaugurated under Constantine was consolidated.
Theodosius was emperor in the East from 379 – 392 CE, and absolute emperor from 392 – 395 CE. His reign saw the end of classical paganism. The Roman empire was in crisis, and so Theodosius struck out at homosexuality on the grounds that effeminacy would weaken the masculine imperial state. In 390 Theodosius issued an edict that conforms to Mosaic Law, and invokes the death penalty for the passive partner in homosexuality. It brushes aside the fact that Christianity superseded Mosaic Law (in much the same way as the Christian Right still does today). Its objective was to,
… punish all those who criminal practise it is to condemn the male body to the submissiveness appropriate to the opposite sex … [and] purge them with avenging flames in the sight of the people, so that they will understand that the lodging of the male soul must be sacrosanct nor without incurring the severest penalty shall they shamefully renounce their own sex.
Theodosius • Collatio, 390 CE
In the city of Thessalonica, the people took a stand against Theodosius. A popular charioteer was drawn to a slave boy owned by the general, Botheric, and acted on that attraction. Of the incident, Edward Gibbon writes:
The insolent and brutal lover was thrown into prison by the order of Botheric; and he sternly rejected the importunate clamors of the multitude, who on the day of the public games lamented the absence of their favorite, and considered the skill of a charioteer as an object of more importance than his virtue . . . Botheric and several of his principal officers were inhumanly murdered.
Edward Gibbon • The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1781 CE
The games were more important than the puritanical whims of Theodosius. The good Christian that he was, Theodosius responded with a massacre of 15,000 of the city’s citizens.
The construction of Christianity under the Roman emperors was not about the religion. It was about power. The reinterpretation of the story of Sodom was typical of that drive.
Before the 4th century CE, the story of Sodom was about inhospitality and had nothing to do with homosexuality (the threatened rape against of the angels was just that – a threat from an inhospitable people). It was St Augustine in The City of God who determined the standing of Sodom in the Christian teachings, and to do so he looked back to Philo’s exegesis On Abraham.
Not only in their mad lust for women did they violate the marriages of their neighbours, but also men mounted men without regard for the sex nature the active partner shares with the passive.
Philo • On Abraham, 538 CE
Augustine aligned the inhabitants of Sodom with the pagans that Theodosius had been so eager to crush. He wrote of Sodom that it was a place,
… where sexual intercourse between males had become so commonplace that is received the license usually extended by laws to other practices.
St Augustine • The City of God, 412 CE
The middle-aged Augustine, incidentally, wrote his assault on sexual practises (and history) after he was finished with it himself, after years of ‘experimenting’ with prostitutes, dabbling in homosexuality, and living it up in a way that he would deny others in the name of God.
On the theological grounds laid down by Augustine, and his contemporary John Chrysostom, the emperor Justinian enshrined the prohibition of homosexuality into law. The Code of Justinian, issued in 534 CE, was built on Mosaic Law and the reinterpretation of the Sodom story. It instituted the death penalty for both the active and passive partners (where previously Roman laws referred to the passive partner).
The laws of Justinian were not so much about religion as they were about providing scapegoat for political instability, and even geographical instability. Following a spate of earthquakes, homosexuality was invoked as the cause, because it had incurred God’s wrath:
… for as crimes of this description cause famine, earthquake, and pestilence, it is on this account, and in order that men may not lose their souls, that We admonish them to abstain from the perpetration of the illegal acts above mentioned.
Justinian • Novella 77, 538 CE
The laws of Justinian were instituted to provide a theological justification for persecution. The accusation of homosexuality was used as a tool to power, and Justinian wielded that tool whenever he needed it.
The legacy of the opportunistic laws of Justinian determined social attitudes toward homosexuality in the West.
The next part of ‘A Queer History’ looks to Imperial China and tells a very different tale.
Part I – A Queer History: First Words On Homosexuality