Homosexuality In Classical Antiquity

Angelo di Berardino, O.S.A.
President of the Augustinianum Patristics Institute, Rome

The ethical values of classical antiquity were not usually based on religious norms, which merely indicated ritual purity and impurity, nor on any precise authority. Their more or less binding moral force was based on social consensus, which led to a sense of honour or shame, psychological repercussions extremely strong in ancient society. In specific cases the transgressor could be accused of infamia, which entailed partial or total exclusion from society and from the enjoyment of the civil rights reserved to citizens. Spiritual guides were not priests but philosophers, and in certain respects, poets and writers in general. Aided by extant works, we can only partially reconstruct the ancient mentality and corresponding behaviour, which moreover, were not those of the plebeian masses, of which we know little. Furthermore, any discussion of classical civilization is always somewhat imprecise, since we have no way of comparing the differences between cities and between peoples. This introduction helps us understand the relativity of ancient local moral codes, which cannot be generalized in an overall reconstruction.


Ancient Greece

The Romans called male homosexuality practiced with adolescents or, more precisely, ephebic love, the "Greek vice" (Horace, Ep. 2, 1, 156). They rightly said that it was unknown in more ancient Roman times. It was something totally foreign to the traditional Roman mentality; therefore they absolutely condemned it. However in Horace's time it had gained a certain foothold in Rome, where it took various forms. Cicero wrote: "It seems to me that this habit of loving boys originated in the Greek gymnasiums, where these love affairs are free and tolerated" (Tusculanae 4, 33). Scholars dispute the origins of the pervasive practice of male homosexuality in classical Greece: whether it developed as a consequence of ancient initiation rites or from the custom of completely separating men from "decent" women, who were enclosed and inaccessible in the gynaeceum, i.e., the living quarters reserved for their use. The boys being trained to take full part in the city's political and social life would be educated in the city gymnasiums, from which girls were excluded.

Female homosexuality was virtually unknown; the only information we have concerns the period when Sappho lived in Greece, the seventh to sixth centuries B. C. Later, since it was not socially acceptable, it was not mentioned. On the other hand, male homosexuality in the form of ephebic love was widespread and highly praised, particularly in classical Athens. Not every type of homosexual love was socially acceptable, only what corresponded to certain moral norms of the city-state. First of all, it was only permissible between free citizens. The courting of a free citizen by a slave and vice versa was not approved, because loving a slave, even if he were young, did not achieve the goal of training and education, since the slave was not a citizen; nor was male prostitution tolerated by society. Homosexual love, which could also be expressed physically, was primarily spiritual and intellectual; the adult involved had pedagogical goals for the adolescent.

A Beroean law forbade certain categories of people from attending the gymnasium where the boys were, to avoid "unworthy" love affairs. The boy was to be courted with seriousness and commitment, even with gifts, and he had to be shown the sincerity of one's love and intellectual involvement. Only adolescents (eronomoi) from 12 to 17 years were eligible to be loved, and not younger boys or adults. It was a disgrace to seduce little boys, since they were not considered capable yet of choosing their own lovers. If a boy who had been the object of love since adolescence continued to have a passive role as an adult, he would be sharply criticized. Society accepted homosexual relationships only between an adult and an adolescent. The adult could be married and have a wife and children as well as his pais, his boy. Only someone who took a passive role with his partner was considered depraved, not the homosexual as such. Moreover, only the male prostitute, who sold his love, was condemned. Male prostitution was punished with the loss of political and civil rights but the client was not penalized. The ancients did not oppose heterosexual love to homosexual love, which could exist simultaneously, as much as the passive and active roles. The latter was typical of male adults, while the former, instead, was typical of women and boys (paides).

At the root of this Greek concept, probably dating to an earlier period, was the idea that heterosexual relations gave physical life to an individual, but only the relationship between a mature adult and a boy prepared the latter for social and political life. However, such a relationship was socially and legally acceptable only if it did not last beyond the age limit prescribed for the adolescent, who was then obliged to adopt a different attitude. This different sexual attitude was expressed both as husband, hence in a heterosexual relationship, and as erastes, that is, the lover and educator of a young favourite for the sake of his involvement in city life. Classical-era Greeks were passively homosexual in their youth and heterosexual as adults, while continuing to have homosexual relationships with adolescents. This love was also sought for an intellectual exchange with adolescents, since this was impossible with women, who were held in low esteem as being incapable of fruitful spiritual and cultural communion. For this reason, an ordinary Greek man was tempted by boys rather than by women. When beauty was discussed, it was usually that of young men, not that of women. For many Greek thinkers homosexual love for boys was superior to heterosexual love, because the latter stemmed from the natural need for procreation and thus was inferior to homosexual love, whose sole aim was aesthetics and communion. There was a widespread conviction that true love was impossible with a woman; marriage was regarded as necessary and for this reason protected by law, but it was not considered as the fruit of love, nor sought with love in mind. Nevertheless, all that has been said does not mean that Greeks were permitted to express their bisexuality freely, even if they were men. Indeed, men were permitted neither to express their feelings nor to follow their personal urges. The Greek adult man had to have his homosexual experiences at the proper time, with the proper individuals and according to the proper rules" (E. Cantarella, Secondo natura, Milan 1995, p. 171).

The law regulated and restricted homosexual love, so that it would only further the citizen's formation and not degenerate into "vulgar" affairs. Since lesbian love had no importance for the life of the city, if it existed it was not mentioned and was not regulated by law. For this reason almost nothing is known about it. The "decent" woman in the gynaeceum, physically and spiritually separated from men, was not a person with whom a communion of life could be established. She was meant to continue reproduction and was useful to the city only insofar as she bore citizens. The normal woman was destined to marry a man she had not chosen; she had no escape, except to something worse. However, although this matrimonial union was imposed on the wife, it could blossom into a sincere love for her husband. Since the woman was unable to imagine a situation different from what was her lot, she spent her married life in submission and dedication to her husband with absolute respect for him. The non-slave women who had the greatest freedom were the hetaerae, the courtesans, who provided musical entertainment and dancing at banquets, which were also a time and place for love. Basically, in ancient Greece there was no "marital morality" as we find in imperial Rome. Since ephebic love did not exclude relationships with women, it was very different from the modern concept of homosexuality and is difficult for us to understand, as it must have been difficult to live it in the context of Athenian civilization with its own rigorous moral code.

It is not easy to say how socially or geographically widespread this ephebic love was in a given city. As a typical phenomenon of the city-state at the peak of its splendour, it was a feature more of the "elite" than of the mass of citizens, and it decreased with the decline of the city-state and of the gymnasium's social and educational function. In the Roman era, there was open hostility, with some exceptions, to this kind of love, until it was explicitly condemned by law.


The classical Roman world

In Rome, the cultural, political and family environment gave rise to a different attitude towards male homosexual love; the "Greek vice" was criticized, as has already been said. In the Roman tradition, the purpose of education was to train a truly virile citizen capable, also sexually, of dominating and never of being dominated. Thus ephebic love never acquired the role, importance and extent it had in the cities of Greece; this was also because, in Rome, the period of adolescence was shorter. Homosexuality was primarily a personal and private matter, determined by the individual's inclinations or by fashion, and so not to be displayed publicly. As such, it was not socially or legally accepted. It was sometimes practiced among slaves; the master (dominus), as an absolute power with unlimited authority in his own large family, could take advantage of his slave girls as well as his slave boys. Its practice was therefore very restricted, because it was not socially encouraged and because of the freedom of movement enjoyed by the free citizen. In some cases, the master, as an expression of his own authority and to humiliate the person beneath him, slave or free, could abuse him. Even when ephebic love become more common in Rome among the upper classes and as a result of the influence of Greek culture, it never acquired the ethical and pedagogical justification it had had in Greece; it had no rules or regulations.

Freeborn boys, i.e. the children of citizens, were protected by Roman law from being courted, as though they were the children of married women - which was not the case in Greece- as well as from any abuse. The law punished pederasty with free boys, even if they consented (stuprum cum puero), but not with slaves, who were not taken into consideration by society or its legislation; male prostitution and sexual passivity were also prohibited (lex Scatnia). This law in fact, at least with regard to the second aspect, was not often enforced. Male and female prostitutes were considered infames and, as such, were deprived of certain civil rights. The term stuprum meant any kind of sexual relations that were not with one's wife or official concubine.

The Roman attitude during the first century of our era was summarized in the following way by the lawyer of a freedman accused of having a relationship with his former master: "Indecency (the passive relationship with another man) is a crime for a free man, a necessity for the slave and a duty for the freedman" (Seneca, Controversiae, 4 praef. 10). The very fact that they wanted to try a freedman, who was still bound to the man who had violated him, shows that there were legal ambiguities; a free man, however, who had a relationship with another free man committed a crimen, and therefore even without a denunciation the magistrate was obliged to try him.


Later developments

This was the situation in Rome when the Greek concept of homosexuality, then in decline in Greece itself, had reached the point of its greatest influence. The law had tried to control it but had not succeeded. As a more effective deterrent, there was widespread disapproval of this conduct. When men of letters came to speak of love for boys, did they do so merely to follow a Greek fashion or was something else involved? The lex Scatinia mentioned above was completely forgotten. But during the second and third centuries of our era, the imperial authorities developed a greater aversion to male prostitution as something disgraceful and reprehensible. This aversion came about through a general change in mentality which occurred even before the possibility of Christian influence, in both the Greek and Roman worlds. In fact, a common ethic had been spreading throughout the Roman Empire.

The most widespread philosophical schools taught the practice of abstinence, especially from sex. The medical texts of this period insisted on the importance for man's health (there was no concern for women in this area) of a sound physical life and advised, in particular, moderation in sexual activity (cf. A. Rousselle, Sesso e societa, Rome/Bari 1983, pp. 11ff.). Sometimes doctors themselves did not recommend homosexual relations for reasons of physical and mental health rather than on the basis of moral values. Soranus, a second-century physician, considered homosexuality the disease of a corrupt mind (Cantarella, p. 260). Even if philosophers, the true spiritual guides of the age, and famous doctors were addressing society's upper class, nevertheless a common tendency to asceticism and self-control was spreading. In this context Christian preaching, which in sexual matters was rooted in the Jewish tradition, was most successful. In the fourth century times and sensitivities had undergone a profound change and imperial legislation - it is hard to know whether or not this was due to Christian influence - began to intervene heavily in the area of homosexuality.

In 342 (Codex Theodosianus, 9, 7, 3,) the first law was enacted in Milan regarding passive homosexuals. Harsher penalties were introduced by Theodosius I in a law addressed to the prefect of Rome in 390, with execution by burning for "those given to the infamy of condemning the male body, transformed into the female, to the toleration of practices reserved for the other sex" (Coll. Legum Mos. et Rom., 5.3). This law was inserted in the Theodosian Code of 438 (9, 7, 6), but substantially modified and with a wider scope. The new compilation condemned to burning all passive homosexuals without distinction. With the Emperor Justinian the legislation was broadened; every kind of homosexuality was repeatedly condemned with the death penalty. Theodosius gave as his reason the desire to rid Rome, "the mother of all virtues", from all contamination. Justinian also added religious reasons. The Theodosian laws, followed by those of Justinian in the Corpus Iuris, represent the heritage which late Roman law was to leave to posterity.

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Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
19 March 1997, p.10


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