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Same-sex relations in the ancient world

Just what are the differences between the Pilling majority report and Bishop Keith Sinclair’s dissent? Clearly they differ over interpreting scripture. There is, though, another area of difference and it matters greatly: the ancient Greco-Roman context in which the letters of Paul in particular were written.

For Bishop Keith this context is complex, with widely-ranging behaviour and attitudes. The Pilling majority envisages something simpler and outlines just one pattern of ancient same-sex behaviour. So, who is right? The answer: Bishop Keith, by a country mile.

This piece will explain why Bishop Keith is right. We will conclude by considering some consequences.

First, we must outline the positions of Bishop Keith and the Pilling majority in more detail. Bishop Keith notes the complexity of the issue in the ancient world, and how there could be local variations. He speaks of ‘the full range of sexual behaviour’ and points out how older man/youth relations could be socially regulated. He rightly cites both Greek and Roman authors and describes how views diverged on same-sex relations in the Greco-Roman world.

He argues this matters because this wider range of same-sex behaviour means one cannot simply assert that the kind of contemporary same-sex relations that impress the Pilling majority were unknown to the Greco-Roman world, and therefore outside Paul’s contemplation.

By contrast, the only real description the Pilling majority provides of the Greco-Roman context comes at paragraphs 180 and 243. The latter is particularly pertinent. The majority comments on a paper provided by David Runcorn. Runcorn draws on the widely accepted claim that homosexual relationships in antiquity were characterized by abusive power and were seen as ‘unmanning’ the passive (male) partner.

We must observe how all-encompassing this claim is: it speaks of ‘homosexual relationships in antiquity’ with no qualification. We are apparently talking about all such relationships without significant exception. The term ‘characterised’ reinforces this: all homosexual relationships, it seems, share the qualities that the rest of the sentence then specifies. This is what same-sex relationships were like in the Greco-Roman world, so runs the argument. The majority apparently endorses this account of same-sex relations in the Greco-Roman world, since earlier in paragraph 180 they cite this same set of ideas as they explain what can underlie homophobia.

There are two key ideas: that of power associated with genital penetration; and that of unmanning the one (male) who is penetrated.

Does the evidence show this is what ‘characterised’ homosexual relationships in antiquity without significant exception? We shall examine why it does not by expanding on material Bishop Keith cites. As we do so, we remember that what falls to be demonstrated is that Greco-Roman same-sex relationships went beyond exploitative relationships in which power is shown by penetration and the passive (male) partner is unmanned.

We begin with the Greek poetess Sappho of Lesbos (fl 600 BC.). Sappho is unsurprisingly associated with female same-sex relations since some of her richly-textured lyric poetry addresses other women as lovers. She was highly regarded in antiquity as a poetess (very deservedly) and from her we derive two English words describing same-sex female relations, lesbianism and sapphism. This tells very strongly against any idea that antiquity knew nothing of female same-sex relations, as of course does Romans 1:26-27, where female same-sex relations along with same-sex male relations are envisaged as part of human sin.

It is therefore baffling that the Pilling majority’s account is blind to female same-sex relations in antiquity. The material from paragraphs 180 and 243, which focuses on ‘unmanning’ the male passive partner, excludes female same-sex relations. Such an account is necessarily male-centred. Sappho’s voice as a woman with same-sex attraction is simply silenced.

We move next to Plato’s Symposium (mid 4th century BC). This comprises several speeches praising love and, as Bishop Keith rightly notes, has been highly influential, including in the first century. It is therefore of the greatest importance.

A persistent theme is the love between an older man and a male youth (not a male child). Several speeches argue that this love can be dishonourable, when either party is simply out for his own ends. But such relationships are honourable where there is faithfulness to and support for each other.

The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in Homer’s Iliad is cited precisely as showing that the younger man (Achilles) behaves honourably in avenging the death of the older man who loved him (Patroclus), even when this would entail his own death later. So the Symposium speeches recognise exploitation can happen and deplore it, but also recognise there can be faithful long-term relationships, carrying obligations, which they laud.

This clearly goes beyond the simplistic picture of exploitation and unmanning that the Pilling majority propose. Apart from anything else, Achilles – an archetypal male warrior-hero – is not unmanly and the Symposium speakers clearly have no difficulty in seeing Achilles as both the beloved youth and also as virile hero.

However, the Symposium goes further. One speech, by Aristophanes, argues that in love one looks for completion as one seeks what one lacks. Aristophanes suggests that human individuals inevitably search for relationship with their platonic ‘others’ who will ‘complete’ them. For some men, who are the most manly, their ‘other’ will be another man. For some women, their ‘other’ would be another woman. For others, again, their ‘other’ will be someone of the opposite sex.

Aristophanes’ speech is highly significant. First, he clearly does not see same-sex male attraction as inevitably unmanning one party. Rather the reverse. Secondly, this is again evidence that the ancient world was well aware of female same-sex relations. Thirdly, in Aristophanes’ portrayal, same-sex attractions result from ‘nature’: this is how some people are. This is well outside the paradigm of the Pilling majority, which turns on exploitative power and unmanning.

We move next to Plutarch’s biography of the Theban soldier, Pelopidas. Plutarch wrote in the late first century detailing the achievements and moral qualities of great Greeks and Romans. Pelopidas led Theban forces to victory over the Spartans in the battle of Tegyra (ca 375 BC). This was no mean feat and Plutarch comments on the Sacred Band, an elite Theban military unit (Pelopidas 18.1). He notes how a military unit composed of same-sex lovers can be more formidable than one bound by kinship alone (Pelopidas 18.2-3).

In this he follows the same arguments about same-sex relations and valour used by speakers in the Symposium. The Sacred Band showed the very manly virtues of courage and fortitude in the direst circumstances. Plutarch continues that male same-sex lovers plighted mutual faith to each other (Pelopidas 18.4) and that Philip of Macedon (Alexander the Great’s father) recognised the valour of the Sacred Band after decimating it in battle at Chaeroneia (Pelopidas 18.5), feeling that their steadfastness facing death refuted any allegations of dishonour arising from their same-sex relations.

This depicts male same-sex relations as sometimes embodying faithfulness and fortitude, highly-rated manly virtues. This fits the Pilling majority’s generalised depictions of exploitation and unmanliness very poorly. Further, this commendation of same-sex relations appears in a prominent Greco-Roman moralist, in a context where he apparently thinks he is discussing well-known matters.

Next we must consider the Satyricon of Petronius, one-time master of revels at Nero’s court (ca. AD 60). Petronius’ text is incomplete, but chronicles various kinds of sexual encounter enjoyed by the major actors. Some are same-sex, but not necessarily exploitative of the passive partner. Rather, there are depictions of coquettish behaviour by youths towards older men (dishonourable behaviour in the categories the Symposium describes) in which older men are manipulated or sexually exhausted by younger and more energetic partners.

As for unmanning, the male narrator, Encolpius, is at one point anally penetrated with a dildo wielded by a woman. But in the context, which is admittedly uncertain, this does not seem to unman him. Given that Encolpius is the one penetrated, and by a woman at that, yet is presented elsewhere as properly a man (with both male and female lovers), this suggests a far more complex range and understanding of sexual behaviour than the Pilling majority contemplates. Rather, this parade bears out the justice of Bishop Keith’s remark about the full range of sexual behaviour in the Greco-Roman world.

Slightly later, the poet Juvenal (fl AD 100) provides numerous pointed, if jaundiced, descriptions of sexual behaviour at Rome. Thus, in Satire II he lampoons what we might call the gay scene at Rome. He points to the hypocrisy of those posing as puritanical Stoics while energetically involved in same-sex relations as well as the hypocrisy of condemning women for adultery, while committing male same-sex acts themselves.

Intriguingly, Juvenal says the effeminate (‘unmanly’) eunuch priests of the Great Mother are preferable because they are at least honest about their sexual desires. He goes on to describe a highborn Roman who is betrothed to another man, and how there are same-sex marriages, apparently behind closed doors, which he fears will soon be celebrated publicly (lines 129-136).

In Satire VI he notes lesbian behaviour by wives while Satire IX is a dialogue between Juvenal and the male prostitute Naevolus. Naevolus is not, however, the passive partner in his encounters. Rather, he is the active penetrator. Satire IX describes the problems Naevolus has with the long-term male lover who hires him. In this relationship, the passive partner is the exploiter. Juvenal provides a much more complex picture than the Pilling majority allows. Instead, Juvenal substantiates Bishop Keith’s case.

Male marriage appears elsewhere in this period. Thus Suetonius in his life of Nero describes two same-sex marriages by Nero. One was with a youth whom he had castrated, Sporus, in which Sporus played the part of bride (Nero 28), and Suetonius emphasises both the formal element – ‘the rites of marriage’ (sollemnia nuptiarum) and how public it was. In the second, with one Doryphorus, Nero was the bride (Nero 29).

Perhaps surprisingly, Sporus remained loyal to Nero up to the latter’s understandably popular suicide (Nero 49). Of course, Nero did not confine himself to same-sex marriages. But it is intriguing that someone so concerned with his public image (Nero 53) indulged in same-sex marriages so openly, and also that his relationship with Sporus was more durable than one might expect.

Lastly, there is the emperor Hadrian’s passion for his youthful lover Antinous. The latter mysteriously died in the Nile round about AD 130, but what should attract our attention is Hadrian’s response. Had this been a same-sex relation on the pattern suggested by the Pilling majority (about power, unmanning and exploitation) we would expect Hadrian to show little emotional depth in his reactions.

In fact, the relationship was apparently lasting, and Hadrian showed every sign of grief. He wanted Antinous deified and named a city in Egypt after him to honour him. The non-Christian Augustan History describes Hadrian as ‘weeping like a woman’ over his beloved Antinous. Again, this sits far outside the Pilling majority’s paradigm.

This brief review indicates how clearly right Bishop Keith is: no doubt some male same-sex relations in the Greco-Roman world featured sinful exploitation, unmanning and power. But there is much, much more to consider. It is particularly disconcerting that the Pilling majority apparently ignores same-sex female relationships in the Greco-Roman world.

It is also odd that after lauding same-sex relations in our own day for manifesting certain virtues, the majority is blind to the way ancient same-sex male relations could be associated with the very positive and ‘manly’ virtues of courage, loyalty and patriotism, as well as long-term faithfulness. Why recognise virtue in the 21st century but not back then?

This matters for at least two reasons. First, when this question has been handled so conspicuously poorly, doubts multiply over the Pilling majority’s ability to weigh evidence and argument elsewhere. Secondly, this undercuts reasons frequently cited for rejecting traditional interpretations of scripture.

One such argument is that Paul, set in the Greco-Roman world, could know nothing of same-sex relations characterised by faithfulness and commitment and accordingly does not condemn them. This is clearly not the case. Paul’s near contemporary Plutarch would incredulously point us to the Theban Sacred Band.

No doubt same-sex relations now and in the Greco-Roman world are not coterminous: but, as Petronius’ Satyricon indicates, more overlap exists than we might think. This inevitably supports the view that when Paul wrote against same-sex sexual relations, he actually meant same-sex sexual relations.

Mike Ovey

Mike Ovey
07 January 2014

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