Image of two men kissingA History of Homophobia

Essays by Rictor Norton on the Historical Roots of Homophobia from Ancient Israel to the End of the Middle Ages

3 The Later Roman Empire & The Early Middle Ages

Heliogabalus, the last truly pagan Emperor, was an initiate into a Syrian sun-cult, and, like the followers of Cybele, he frequently engaged in homosexual temple prostitution. After his murder, his cousin Emperor Alexander Severus (reigned AD 222-35), son of a Christian mother, resolved to put a stop to such decadent pleasures. He deported homosexuals who were active in public life, and heavily taxed the exsoleti — homosexual prostitutes and camp-followers who had a thriving trade in Rome — as well as heterosexual prostitutes and procurers.

Prostitutes Suppressed

Severus refrained from totally suppressing the exsoleti, only because he feared losing the tax revenues needed for the restoration of the Circus, the Amphitheatre, and the Stadium. After his death, Rome was in a nearly constant state of civil war, running through a dozen emperors in as many years. Nearly two-thirds of the Empire's population was Near Eastern — Syrians, Jews, Iberians, and a significantly large number of people who worshipped Cybele. Society became radically fragmented and un-Roman.

The Emperor Philip (reigned AD 244-49), himself the son of a Bedouin chief and a Christian mother, attempted to stem the tide by altogether outlawing the exsoleti, the most visible practitioners of un-Roman practices and "exploiters" of the immigrant population. So once again homophobia was essentially a (semi-)Christian's fear of "foreign ways."

The organized Christian Church began to pass its judgement. In 305-6 the Council of Elvira forbade the giving of last rites to pederasts. In 314 the Council of Ancyra in Asia Minor excluded all homosexuals from receiving the sacrament, and unhappily their decision became the authority for all later ecclesiastical laws. In 323 the Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity, and the doom of homosexuals was sealed.

His worthy sons, the Emperors Constans and Constantius, who ruled respectively the Eastern and Western Empires, in 342 jointly decreed that "the law must be armed with an avenging sword" to rid the land of "passive" homosexuals, "those men who marry men as if they were women." The two doughty sons continued the suppression of the seemingly irrepressible exsoleti.

Church regulations became equally severe. St Basil in 375 and Gregory of Nyssa in 390 demanded of homosexuals a 15-year penitential of self-mortification while going without the sacrament — along with those who committed adultery, pederasty, incest, bestiality, idolatry, witchcraft and murder. In 385 Pope Siricius decreed celibacy for all priests.

Down in Africa, Augustine's boyfriend Alypius died in 386, and Augustine repented of his love for him which had once been more intense than his love for God. He ceased being a Manichaean, converted to Christianity, sublimated his homoerotic emotions and redirected them toward Christ, and exhorted everyone else to do likewise.

Burned at the Stake

In 390 the Emperor Valentinian decreed burning at the stake as a fit punishment for homosexuals — in memory of the purifying flames which devoured the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Five years later the Emperor Theodosius outlawed all religions other than Christianity, and codified the laws against heresy, treason, and homosexuality.

But the Roman Empire was collapsing. In 410 Rome was sacked by the Goths, then re-sacked by the Vandals again in 455. Did that mean that things would get better for homosexuals? Of course not. The Barbarians adopted the laws of the conquered, and in 506 the Visigoth Alaric II decreed burning at the stake for homosexuals. Roman-Christian attitudes pervaded the nearly defunct Empire, i.e. the whole of Western civilization.

The Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 529 closed the Platonic Academy in Athens, bringing to an end the era of classical learning. Justinian preferred superstition. He believed firmly that the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah was an example of how God destroyed cities with homosexual citizens, and feared it would happen again in his realm. So he decided to salvage the Empire by the methodical suppression of homosexuality.

In Justinian's "new laws" he says: "because of such impious conduct cities have indeed perished. . . . Because of such crimes there are famines, earthquakes, and pestilences" (Novellae 77, AD 538). In 543 a plague swept through the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, and probably as a terrified reaction to this, Justinian the following year issued another "new law," exhorting the "sodomites" to repent: "There will be no relaxation of enquiry and correction so far as this matter is concerned" (Novellae 144).


Justinian ordered the Prefect to arrest any homosexual who refused to repent, and to subject him "to the extreme punishments." The punitive correction was brutal: first the convicted homosexual's testicles would be cut off. Then sharp reeds would be thrust into his penis. Then he would be led, or dragged, naked through the streets for public humiliation. Finally he would be burned at the stake. The Bishops Isaiah of Rhodes and Alexander of Diospolis were so mutilated, and dragged in agony through the streets before the frenzied populace.

Procopius in his contemporary Anecdota says that Justinian's laws were carried out ruthlessly and recklessly — that slaves were forced to falsely accuse Justinian's political enemies, and that the streets were filled by the mutilated, castrated, and humiliated victims of his fanaticism. The records are too scarce to positively demonstrate a massive persecution, but the scale on which Justinian performed such public services may be imagined by the fact that he once forcibly converted 70,000 people in a single campaign.

The full weight of such cruelty rests not solely on the Emperor's shoulders. His underling bishops exerted equal zeal to gain the favour of this temporary Pope. And his good wife the Empress Theodora indulged in a variety of extraordinary pleasures including masturbating while watching men being castrated and tortured. Homophobia may be primarily a masculine hatred, but not entirely. It is not even entirely a heterosexual hatred, for some of Theodora's relationships were lesbian as well as incestuous.

The Dark Ages

Despite Justinian's "corrections", the Roman Empire continued to fall for several centuries thereafter, and its Christianized fragments kept on splitting through the period we are about to enter now: the Dark Ages. This era really is not so dark as we used to believe, but for homosexuals it held out few bright spots. The sins of Sodom and Gomorrah were by now irrevocably associated with ideas about the corruption and decay of the state, and "sodomites" were regarded as a threat to unstable medieval societies.

Again, however, written records of persecution are scarce — partly because when a sodomite was burned at the stake, all of his papers and the trial records were burned along with him in order to prevent contagion. Many of the anti-gay laws during this period may be merely re-enactments of older statutes, and theoretically legal dead wood. Occasionally, nevertheless, we find clearly new laws, which probably were applied.

This is especially likely in Gothic Spain, the strongest foothold of Christianity, where, for example, King Kindasvinth in 650 issued an edict against the "execrable moral depravity" and ordered that both partners in a homosexual act either repent or be excommunicated and castrated. It was a very practical law, treating the convicted homosexual as legally dead, and allowing a wife, if any, to remarry, and sons, if any, to receive his property. King Egica at the 16th Council of Toledo in 693 urged further curbing — apparently homosexuality was gaining ground — and the criminal was forced to have his hair shorn and to receive 100 stripes, after which he was castrated and sent into exile.

In due course homosexuality became a civil crime throughout Christianized Europe, a phenomenon aided greatly in the eighth century when the Emperor Charlemagne condemned "sodomy" and Alfred the Great, under pressure from the Church, condemned the "disgusting foulness . . . as contagious as any disease." The real contagion was of course homophobia.

Monastic Vigilance

The most interesting development of homophobia during this period was the Penitential System, which incidentally indicates a better awareness of exactly what homosexuals to in bed, even though the disapproval of such activity is still blinded by prejudice. The authors of the handbooks of penances — written mostly in the puritanical Celtic Churches of Ireland and Wales, then spreading their influence to England, France and Germany from about 569 to 1008 — seem to know what they are talking about, and clearly specify the previously ambiguous "sins" of Sodom.

Every act is ranked according to its degree of sinfulness. The basic penance consists of exclusion from the sacraments, self-mortification (though younger boys were beaten with rods at the hands of older clerics), fasting on bread and water on holy days (which included most days), and general discomfort. The major difference between the penances was the amount of time they were required.

The Penitential of Theodore the Archbishop of Canterbury in 670 required 1 year for inter-femoral contact (penis between thighs); 3 years for all lesbian activity, undifferentiated; 7 to 15 years for anal intercourse; 7 to 22 years for fellatio; and, for comparison, 7 to 10 years for murder; 15 years for infanticide (reduced to 7 years if the mother was a pauper).

If caught kissing, boys under the age of 20 were subject to 6 special fasts; 8 fasts if it was "licentious kissing"; 10 fasts if it was "kissing with emission"; more if it involved mutual masturbation; and much longer if the partners were over the age of 20. Sometimes the penance was greater for the inserter than for the recepter. It should be emphasized that all of these penances are for acts between mutually consenting adults.

It is interesting that the penances were usually greater for "those who befouled their lips" (as Columban described fellatio in 600) than for those who used their or others' bums. When Theodore says that fellatio is "the worst of all evils," he quite literally means just that — that it is worse than murder (maximum 15 years' penance) and deserves up to 22 years of penance and even a lifetime for the habitual offender. Probably this severity is due to the belief that the mouth was ordained to receive the Eucharist, whereas the arse plays no special role in Christian ritual. Or perhaps it is just a regional Celtic oddity, for it seems that even twentieth-century British men had a greater aversion to fellatio than did American men, and felt that anal intercourse was more normal.

It was not until the eleventh century that Bishop Burchard of Worms gives more detailed penances for lesbians, and even then lesbianism was still regarded from the "penis = sex" male point of view: women who use an artificial penis are given a penance of 1 year if use alone; 5 years if used with another woman; 7 years if used by a nun, who, as a Bride of Christ, would be deemed to have committed adultery by using a dildo.

The Penitential System (of which I have noted fewer than 5 per cent of the handbooks) documents the fact that medieval gay men did virtually the same things as modern homosexuals. It also suggests that medieval gay love was widespread enough to be fairly accurately observed. In the context of a history of homophobia, it demonstrates the official anti-gay attitude of the Christian Church toward brother love (kissing) as well as sex. But there is little evidence that these penances were severely applied in actual practice. In a closed monastic community, the confessor may well be as "guilty" as the confessee; the penances may well have been light. The only real indication that this attitude was effective in suppression homosexuality is the fact that joyful expressions of gay love became increasingly rare in medieval poetry while at the same time anti-gay satire increased. Most of the friendship in literature demonstrates that the clergy followed Augustine's advice and attempted to repress their emotions in favour of "spiritual love." In 960 St Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, began a moral reform of the Church and society, and under his influence Church Law became the core of civil law, and "penances" were enforced as punitive sentences through the law courts.

Image of St Dunstan

The Penitential tradition itself came to a head in 1051 when Peter Damiani published his Liber Gomorrhianus (derived from the city of Gomorrah), an entire book devoted to condemning homosexuality in the most horrifying rhetoric imaginable, urging the maximum penance for every homosexual activity (except fellatio, which he unaccountably forgot). His exposure of "rampant vice" among the clergy raised a storm of protest, and his intemperate zeal was rebuked by Pope Leo IX. Leo urged the clergy to apply the penances carefully, with attention to the age of the sinner, whether or not the vice was habitual, and similar extenuating circumstances. Leo questioned only the severity of the penances, not the anti-gay attitude itself, so his epistle codified the Church's homophobia rather than challenged it.

The important point to note is that quite ordinary homosexuals — for example, boys who kiss one another, rather than the mythical monsters of Sodom — came under the vigilance of the Penitential System. Doing penance is a remarkably effective way of internalizing the stigma, and this is one of the origins of the guilt and shame of homosexuals even today. To be castrated is to be a victim of external oppression; to be forced to repent daily is the beginning of self-oppression.

[ continued in Part 4 ]

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Rictor Norton, A History of Homophobia, "3 The Later Roman Empire & The Early Middle Ages" 15 April 2002; updated 28 January 2011 <>.

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