SPIRITUAL PAGES - HISTORY OF HOMOSEXUALITY
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On May 14, 390, an imperial decree was posted at the Roman hall of Minerva, a gathering place for actors, writers and artists, which criminalized for the first time the sexual practice of those whom we call "homosexual" men -- this had never happened before in the history of law. The prescribed penalty was death by burning. This law was promulgated by an emperor who at the time was under a penance set by St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, and the law was issued in the context of a persecution of heresies. Homosexual men at the imperial court had been powerful opponents of Catholic doctrine during the fourth-century conflicts over the nature of Jesus Christ, known as the Arian controversies. Prior to 390, both religious and secular laws had targeted only one particular form of homosexuality: when a man or youth who otherwise exhibited a virile attraction toward women nonetheless agreed to or was forced to play a female role in intercourse with other men. For example, Biblical laws against homosexual acts call it an abomination and prescribe death as a punishment when "a man lies with a male the way one lies with a woman." Meanwhile, only heterosexually-oriented men (including bisexual men) would properly be called "male," since potency with women was the primary proof of masculinity. Augustus Caesar's law against adultery likewise prohibited intercourse with "males," and may well have provided the impetus for a widely-attested wave of castrations in the early empire -- in order to supply sex partners who were not "male." As late as 342, Constantius II issued a decree imposing an "exquisite punishment" for the crime which occurs "when a male gives himself in marriage to an effeminate [femina, literally 'a woman'] and what he wants is for the effeminate to play the male role in sex [literally 'project the male parts']," thus for himself to play the female role.
Men lacking desire for or potency with women, like today's homosexual men, were never intended by these laws -- they would not have been deemed, on the whole, to be male. Maleness implied playing the role of penetrator and procreator. Those who did not, failed to meet the ancient criteria for being called male. One could say that the very concept of masculinity or virility was defined throughout the ancient Mediterranean, not in contrast to women, but to homosexual men. Innumerable loci can be adduced to show that exclusively homosexual men were called non-male, half-male, neither male nor female, androgynous, or third sex -- but never male. It is a very little-known fact that there was a category of men in the ancient Mediterranean who were called "natural" or "constitutional" eunuchs. It is even less known that these eunuchs are defined in early third-century Roman laws as having no physical defects -- at most they had a peculiar mental orientation. They were evidently what we call "born homosexuals." In the laws, they are differentiated from castrated men and others, who do have physical defects. Natural eunuchs were entitled to marry women, adopt, and bequeath property, since "there is no bodily defect present as an impediment to that", while castrated men were prohibited from doing all these things. Nonetheless, Juvenal had found that "when a eunuch marries a woman, it is hard not to write satire." [For a more detailed discussion of the definition of natural eunuchs, see my article on the subject on this website.] From early Babylon down to the late Roman empire, eunuchs had played two major roles in ancient society -- as priests in pagan temples, and as domestic servants in wealthy households and royal palaces. Thus eunuchs had a tradition of spirituality, and of being close to power. In the fourth century, this combination made them a great help to bishops whom they supported, and a potent threat to those whom they opposed. The eunuch Eusebius, the grand chamberlain of the Byzantine palace under Constantine and then under his son Constantius, was considered to wield virtually imperial power due to his ability to control access to the emperor, especially during the son's reign. Eusebius was an active proponent of the Arian doctrine, which held that the Almighty God was not the Father of Jesus in a procreative sense (notwithstanding the virgin birth), but rather that God adopted Jesus as His Son through grace. In his History of the Arians, St. Athanasius, a virulent advocate for Catholic doctrine, recounted Eusebius's mission to Rome allegedly to bribe and threaten the pope Liberius into accepting communion with Arian Christians. Afterwards he summed up:
10 Digest of Justinian 220.127.116.11, 18.104.22.168, 22.214.171.124, 28.2.6.
22 Code of Theodosius, 16.5.17.
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