Part 2: The Roman Empire Starts to Turn Against Homosexuality
The classical era came to an end with the death of Alexander the Great. Over the following three centuries power and control in the West shifted from Greece to the Roman empire. The Pax Romana brought order and prosperity to the new provinces. Yet the repression and slavery sustaining it introduced social and cultural changes that started to change the standing of homosexuality. By the time of the Emperor Theodosius (379 – 392 CE, emperor in the East; 392 – 395 CE, absolute emperor) Christianity was the official religion, and the edicts of Leviticus were used mercilessly to outlaw homosexuality and ensure that its practise incurred the death penalty. As the empire started to fall apart, and the identity of the state faltered, a scapegoat was found. This is precisely what is going on in Russia right now as the Orthodox Church leads a crackdown on dissidence and inexplicably brands homosexuality a Western problem that must be stamped out.
Where the Greeks had philosophy and art, the Romans had civic administration. The empire was powered by bureaucracy, not philosophy. From 323 BCE, the Roman empire absorbed Greece, but it did so selectively. Although homosexuality was acknowledged, it had no place within the social structure, as it had in Greece. To the conquering Romans, it was about power.
In the early Roman comedies, homosexual relations occurred not between freemen but master and slave. There was nevertheless a conflict within Roman society about love and sexuality that was not resolved until Christianity became the official state religion.
In his Satires, Juvenal adopted the paranoid (and misogynist) style. In the second satire, he depicted the evils of homosexuality within the framework of effeminacy.
The Scantinian laws before all the rest,
men and not women,
Scrutinise first: they behave worse,
but then they have safety, In numbers,
united behind their phalanx of close-linked shields.
Great is the union of effeminates, nor will you find,
So detestable an example set by any one of our sex.
Juvenal • Satires, c. 100 BCE
The Scantinian Law, the dates of which are uncertain (but could be as early as 226 BCE), stated that punishment for homosexuality was reserved for the passive male. Juvenal also complains about men who are in the closet, “who, at home, in private, wear/ Wide bands on their brow, necks all decked out in jewellery”.
Allegations of homosexuality did not end careers in Ancient Rome. Sulla, Pompey, Catiline, Caesar, Mark Antony and Octavius: all were accused of practising homosexuality. One of the Roman Senate’s greatest orators, Cicero, used homosexuality as a stick to beat his opponents. Again, the practise was dismissed as effeminate. He accuse the Governor of Sicily of financial misconduct, and worse, of being “a degraded contemptible woman among men”. After the murder of Julius Caesar, Cicero accused Mark Antony of enslaving the Roman people when he had offered Caesar the crown. He talked of Antony’s boyhood love for his friend Curio, and said of slavery of the Roman people:
You should have asked for it yourself alone, whose life from boyhood showed you would submit to anything, and would lightly be a slave.
Cicero • Phillipics, 43 BCE
In his great work, the Aeneid, Virgil went against the grain. The love of Nisus and Euryalus is equal to that of Achilles and Patroclus. The lovers are united in a Greek ideal of war.
Nisus guarded a gate-a man-at-arms
With a fighting heart . . .
Euryalus was his comrade, handsomer
Than any other soldier of Aeneas
Wearing the Trojan gear: a boy whose cheek
Bore though unshaven manhood’s early down.
One love united them, and side by side
They entered combat, as that night they held
The gate on the same watch.
Virgil • Aeneid, 29-19 BCE
The lovers die in battle (naturally) and there was no happy ending to be had. Incidentally, Virgil’s first biographer noted that he “was especially given to passions for boys” (meaning, of course, young men).
The state line may have been conservative, but Latin erotic poetry was influenced by Greek traditions. This is a typical poem by Valerius Aedituus:
O Phileros, why a torch that we need not?
Just as we are we’ll go, our hearts aflame.
That flame no wild wind’s blast can ever quench,
Or rain that falls torrential from the skies;
Venus herself alone can quell her fire,
No other force there is that has such power.
Valerius Aedituus • In Aulus Gellius’Attic Nights, (c. 140 CE)
The first major Roman poet was Catullus (84-54 BCE). His work demonstrates how deeply divided Roman society was when it came to love and sex. In this poem he is addressing not a slave but a freeman, Juventis.
If I should be allowed to go so far as kissing
Your sweet eyes, Juventius,
I would go on kissing them three hundred thousand times;
Nor would it ever seem I had had enough,
Not if I harvested
Kisses as numerous as the ears of standing corn.
Catullus • Poetry:48, c. 50 BCE
All does not go well for Catullus in this poem. And his dramatising of the fact that the course of love and sex never did run smooth includes hurling the word cinadeus (faggot) as abuse, and threatening pedicabo (anal rape) when it is assumed he is the passive partner.
Virgil’s successor, Horace, was far less romantic, and far more graphic, than his predecessor in his depiction of homosexuality.
If you’re dying of thirst,
do you ask if the goblets are golden?
Or if you’re famished and starving, refuse every food in the world save Peacock and turbot?
Then why, if your groin is distended, and right at Hand is a slave girl or slave lad of yours that you crave in the moment’s
Urgency, why should you choose to endure the discomfort of passion?
I’m for a love that’s accessible, easy to come by.
Horace • Satire 1.2, 35 BCE
References to women loving women are rare in the literature of the period. There is a mention in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, in an albeit roundabout way, in the tale of Iphis and Ianthe. The sex of Iphis is concealed at birth and she is raised as a boy. The 13 year old Iphis is promised to Ianthe.
They were of equal age, they both were lovely,
Had learned their ABCs from the same teachers,
And so love came to both of them together
In simple innocence, and filled their hearts
With equal longing.
Ovid • Metamorphoses, 8 CE
As the wedding draws near Iphis is disgusted with herself for her “monstrous and unheard of” love. Then the goddess Isis turns her into a boy.
The standing of homosexuality within Roman society changed with the ascension of Christianity. The following article in the series will look at the lead up to that change, and the harsh laws it ushered in.