Given that the gay marriage agenda will be increasingly pressed upon Catholics by the state, we should be much more aware of what history has to teach us about gay marriage—given that we don’t want to be among those who, ignorant of history, blithely condemned themselves to repeat it.
Contrary to the popular view—both among proponents and opponents—gay marriage is not a new issue. It cannot be couched (by proponents) as a seamless advance on the civil rights movement, nor should it be understood (by opponents) as something that’s evil merely because it appears to them to be morally unprecedented.
Gay marriage was—surprise!—alive and well in Rome, celebrated even and especially by select emperors, a spin-off of the general cultural affirmation of Roman homosexuality. Gay marriage was, along with homosexuality, something the first Christians faced as part of the pagan moral darkness of their time.
What Christians are fighting against today, then, is not yet another sexual innovation peculiar to our “enlightened age,” but the return to pre-Christian, pagan sexual morality.
So, what was happening in ancient Rome? Homosexuality was just as widespread among the Romans as it was among the Greeks (a sign of which is that it was condoned even by the stolid Stoics). The Romans had adopted the pederasty of the Greeks (aimed, generally, at boys between the ages of 12 to 18). There was nothing shameful about such sexual relations among Romans, if the boy was not freeborn. Slaves, both male and female, were considered property, and that included sexual property.
But the Romans also extended homosexuality to adult men, even adult free men. And it is likely that this crossing of the line from child to adult, unfree to free—not homosexuality as such—was what affronted the more austere of the Roman moralists.
And so we hear from Tacitus (56-117 AD), the great Roman historian, of the shameful sexual exploits of a string of Roman emperors from Tiberius to Nero. Nero was the first imperial persecutor of the Christians. His tutor and then advisor was the great Stoic moralist Seneca himself. Unfortunately, Seneca’s lessons must have bounced right off the future emperor. When he took the imperial seat, complete with its aura of self-proclaimed divinity, no trace of Stoic austerity remained.
In Nero, Tacitus tells the reader, tyrannical passion, the hubris of proclaimed divinity, the corruption of power, and “every filthy depraved act, licit or illicit” seemed to reach an imperial peak. He not only had a passion for “free-born boys” but also for quite literally marrying other men and even a boy, sometimes playing the part of the woman in the union and sometimes the man.
As Tacitus relates one incident (Grant’s translation): “Nero was already corrupted by every lust, natural and unnatural. But he now refuted any surmises that no further degradation was possible for him. For…he went through a formal wedding ceremony with one of the perverted gang called Pythagoras. The emperor, in the presence of witnesses, put on the bridal veil. Dowry, marriage bed, wedding torches, all were there. Indeed everything was public which even in a natural union is veiled by night.”
Such was only one instance. We also have from historian Seutonius, a contemporary of Tacitus, a report of Nero’s marriage to Doryphorus (who was himself married to another man, Sporus).
Martial, the first-century A.D. Roman poet, reports incidences of male-male marriage as kinds of perversions, but not uncommon perversions, speaking in one epigram (I.24) of a man who “played the bride yesterday.” In another (12.42) he says mockingly, “Bearded Callistratus gave himself in marriage to…Afer, in the manner in which a virgin usually gives herself in marriage to a male. The torches shone in front, the bridal veils covered his face, and wedding toasts were not absent, either. A dowry was also named. Does that not seem enough yet for you, Rome? Are you waiting for him to give birth?”
In Juvenal’s Second Satire (117), we hear of one Gracchus, “arraying himself in the flounces and train and veil of a bride,” now a “new-made bride reclining on the bosom of her husband.” Such seems to have been the usual way of male-male nuptials among the Romans, one of the men actually dressing up as a woman and playing the part of a woman.
The notoriously debauched emperor Elagabalus (ruled 218-222) married and then divorced five women. But he considered his male chariot driver to be his “husband,” and he also married one Zoticus, an athlete. Elagabalus loved to dress up as a queen, quite literally.
Our reports of homosexual marriage from Rome give us, I hope, a clearer understanding of what is at stake. As is the case today, it appears that the incidence of male-male marriage followed upon the widespread acceptance of homosexuality; that is, the practice of homosexuality led to the notion that, somehow, homosexual unions should share in the same status as heterosexual unions.
We must also add that heterosexuality among the Romans was also in a sad state. Both concubinage and prostitution were completely acceptable; pornography and sexually explicit entertainment and speech were entirely normalized; the provision of sex by both male and female slaves was considered a duty by masters. Paeans to the glory of marriage were made, not because the Romans had some proto-Christian notion of the sanctity of marriage, but because Rome needed more citizen-soldiers just when the Romans were depopulating themselves by doing anything to avoid having children.
The heterosexual moral disrepair in Rome therefore formed the social basis for the Roman slide into homosexual marriage rites. We hear of them from critics bent on satirizing such unions. The problem for the Romans wasn’t homosexuality as such, but that a Roman man would debase himself and play the part of a woman in matrimony.
Christians had a problem with the whole Roman sexual scene. We are, of course, not surprised to find that the first Christians accepted and carried forward the strict rejection of homosexuality inherent in Judaism, but this was part of its more encompassing rejection of any sexuality outside of heterosexual, monogamous marriage. Christians are not to be lauded for affirming that marriage must be defined as a union of a man and a woman, because that is the natural default of any people intent on not disappearing in a single generation. What was peculiar to Christianity (again, not just following Judaism, but intensifying it) was the restriction of sexuality only to monogamous, heterosexual marriage.
The Christians found themselves in a pagan culture where there were few restrictions on sexuality at all, other than the imagination—a culture that, to note the obvious but exceedingly important, looks suspiciously like ours.
The first-century A.D. catechetical manual, the Didache, makes refreshingly clear what pagans will have to give up, in regard to Roman sexuality, once they entered the Church. It begins with the ominous words, “There are two ways: one of life and one of death—and there is a great difference between the two ways.” The pagan converts are then confronted with a list of commands. Some of which would have been quite familiar and reasonable to Romans, such as, “You will not murder” and, “You will not commit adultery” (although for Romans, abortion wasn’t murder, and a husband having sex with slaves or prostitutes was not considered adulterous).
But then followed strange commands (at least to the Romans), “You will not corrupt boys”; “You will not have illicit sex” (ou porneuseis); “You will not murder offspring by means of abortion [and] you will not kill one having been born.” Against the norm in Rome, Christians must reject pedophilia, fornication and homosexuality, abortion, and infanticide. The list also commands, “You will not make potions” (ou pharmakeuseis), a prohibition against widespread practices in the Roman Empire which included potions that stopped conception or caused abortion.
I include the prohibitions against sexual practices heartily affirmed by the Romans alongside prohibitions against contraception, abortion, and infanticide for a very important reason. Christians defined the goal of sexuality in terms of the natural ability to procreate. What was different, again, was not recognizing the obvious need for a man and a woman to make a child—Stoics argued along the same lines. What was peculiar to Christianity was removing all other expressions of sexuality from legitimacy (many Stoic men had male paramours). The Roman elevation of sexual pleasure above procreation, and hence outside this tightly-defined area of sexual legitimacy defined by Christianity, led to the desire for contraceptive potions, abortifacients, and infanticide.
It also led to seeing marriage as nothing but an arena for sexual pleasure, which in turn allowed for an equivalency of heterosexual and homosexual marriage.
The Theodosian Code, drawn up by Christian emperors in the fifth century, A.D. made same-sex marriage illegal (referring, as precedent, to edicts published under fourth-century emperors Constantius II and Constans).
We can see, then, that Christians face nothing new in regard to the push for gay marriage. In fact, it is something quite old, and represents a return to the pagan views of sexuality that dominated the Roman Empire into which Christianity was born.
[Editor’s note: The years for the reign of Elagabalus were incorrect in the original posting; his reign ended in AD 222, not AD 212.)