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"Born Eunuchs" Home Page and Library
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.
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:
Regardless of what homosexual Christians may feel today about Jesus's status as God, it is clear that in the fourth century they were identified as powerful enemies of Catholic doctrine. This is not the place to examine the merits of official Church doctrine -- to discuss whether Jesus was more or less like other human beings, or whether the male role in a procreative act can properly be attributed to God. Suffice it to say, the early supporters of the Nicene creed saw homosexual men as dangerous rivals.
Now, in addition to being spiritual authorities and palace servants, eunuchs had a traditional role as sexual passives. Because they were not "male," this behavior was legal in both pagan and Biblical law throughout all prior history. A sympathetic historian in the time of Constantius II noted that the emperor himself was sexually devoted to his eunuchs, courtiers, and wives; while, "content with these, he was never defiled by any transverse or unjust lust." It was Constantius, a Christian, who issued the aforementioned decree implicitly recognizing homosexual marriage (as long as it did not involve a "male" partner in a passive role). Remember that this decree was issued in a period when palace eunuchs were powerful and influential in the imperial court.
At the same time, we notice the definition of eunuch is beginning to shrink. In the early third century, Clement of Alexandria had defined the eunuch as one not unable, but unwilling to have sex. Basilides (quoted by Clement) had defined the born eunuchs of Matthew 19:12 as persons who "from their birth have a nature to turn away from women, and those who are naturally so constituted do well not to marry." Now, in the fourth century Epiphanius of Salamis claims the born eunuchs are incapable of doing anything sexual "because they lack the divinely created organs of generation."And they get no credit or heavenly reward for their abstention from sex, for "they have not done the thing not because they didn't want to but because they couldn't" and therefore "they have no experience of the struggle" (committing the sin is a physical impossibility for them). Nonetheless, "they have felt desires." This is a flat reversal of Clement's and Basilides's statements.
This reduction of eunuch status to a physical defect is but one churchman's tactic (eventually superseding all others) within a general fourth-century ecclesiastical strategy to deprive physically whole, natural eunuchs, i.e. homosexual men, of their religious credibility. Gregory Nazianzen adopted a different rhetorical means towards the same end. In his case, he admitted that natural eunuchs lacked desire to procreate, but, like Epiphanius, Gregory too denied them credit for their abstinence because it was natural for them and had not resulted from a fierce internal struggle. Rather than abstain from procreation, Gregory instead called on Christian natural eunuchs to avoid prostituting themselves and thus dishonoring Christ.
All those whose shameful habit it is to condemn the male body to
The old crime of passive male homosexuality was thus expanded to include passive "non-male" homosexuality by the focus on the "male body" [virile corpus]. The universality of the law is reinforced by the word omnes ["all those"]. Heretofore, those known in law as natural eunuchs were not considered "male," but they certainly had male bodies. Prior Roman law had already established that, with natural eunuchs, "there is no bodily defect" [corporale vitium non est]. Finally, the emphasis on the effeminacy of the perpetrators makes clear that this law is specifically targeted at those "non-male" types -- i.e. natural eunuchs -- who had been exempt from all prior laws against homosexuality.
Rather, the Church continued to use the oppression of homosexuals (of whom, like Jesus's living water, there is an unending supply) as a tool to consolidate power. When Justinian enacted the next laws against homosexuality, in 538 and 544, ]he returned to characterizing the crime as a corruption of "males" (as opposed to male bodies), but since the term male was beginning to be applied to homosexuals already in the fourth century -- a trend that the Church supported since it preferred to define maleness based on anatomical organs rather than procreative libido -- it can be assumed that the New Constitutions 77 and 141 against homosexuality were meant to include all those with a male body as well. In case the real target of the laws was unclear to anyone, No. 77 also castigated blasphemy. Perhaps 150 years had not been enough time to silence eunuch theologians who insisted on Christ's full humanity -- and even labelled Him a fellow eunuch? What is interesting and new about No. 141 is its insistence that those who were guilty must "not only refrain from sinning," but "confess their faults in the presence of the Most Blessed Patriarch," thereby averting punishment but ruining their reputations and putting an end to any hope of an ecclesiastical career.
The seventh century Visigothic Code ultimately solved the ambiguity around natural eunuchs by ordering the castration of every man guilty of a homosexual act -- which certainly gives the Spanish obsession with cojones a whole new dimension. The closet was thus constructed, and with it a new definition of masculinity as well -- based not on the fulfillment of the procreative role, but rather on the preservation of bodily integrity. A male was now identified merely by an intact penis and testicles.
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