Updated: Jul 4, 2021
“Homosexuality” as a Modern Term
Both “homosexual” and “homosexuality” are modern terms that were created in the late nineteenth century in relation to the study of abnormal psychology. The way we categorize sexualities and make distinctions now is different from ancient times. Some scholars would argue that since people in ancient Europe classified sexual behaviors or identities not by the gender of the participants but by the sexual role each plays, the term “homosexual” doesn’t really fit. However, for simplicity and clarity, it is the term that will be used here. Just understand that what we usually associate with the term in modern-day doesn’t necessarily apply to ancient Europe.
Homosexuality in Ancient Greece
Homosexuality has existed throughout history, although differently than modern day. One of the most well-known examples of ancient homosexuality is in Ancient Greece. The most common and well-recorded form of homosexuality was the relationship between two upper-class males: one youth and one adult. This became an institutionalized practice in many regions of Ancient Greece called pederasty. When a boy reached age twelve or so, he became the erotic companion of a young man. For Spartans, the focus of this was the military training of the boys. For Athenians, the purpose was more for intellectual, character, and athletic training. There were also sexual aspects involved in this relationship. When the boys reached adulthood and therefore became citizens, this relationship ended and they took a boy of their own. When they finished training at around age thirty, the man would then marry a young woman, usually eighteen. At the time, marriage was less a romantic practice and more an institutional one.
According to the practice, homosexual relations were supposed to end after marriage. However, this wasn’t always followed, and men often continued visiting male prostitutes and brothels or even taking a new “eromenos'' to train. Eromenos is the ancient Greek word for the young boy in this partnership. Homosexual relationships between two male citizen adults were discouraged and less recorded. This is because of social status and Greek ideals of beauty. The “passive” role in a relationship was only socially acceptable for the non-citizen: youth, slaves, and females.
A similar pederasty system might have also existed for women, with the writing of Sapphos being the main source of recorded information of this. However, since mainstream society and culture placed men as most important, most of the surviving texts and arts are male-centric. Therefore, not much is known about ancient female homosexuality.
Homosexuality in Ancient Rome
Homosexuality was different for Romans as there was no institutional practice. Like Sparta, Rome was highly militarized. At first, the concern of homosexual relations was only about status and power. Like the Greeks, homosexual relationships were only acceptable between men of different social statuses, so free men could only be with slaves, former slaves, prostitutes, or young men. However, the most common relationship was with slaves rather than with young boys. This “relationship” was often more about conquering and gaining power over a person than any sort of mentorship and was often non-consensual.
Introduction of Christianity to Ancient Rome
The Christian takeover of the Roman Empire in the early 4th century criminalized and demonized all homosexuality. This began when the emperor, Constantine, used Christianity as his basis for ruling. The first enactment of the death penalty for sodomy was in 342 AD. After his death, the next emperor, Valentinian, divided Rome into East and West. In 476 AD, the West was overthrown and signaled the fall of Rome. However, Eastern Rome, or Byzantine, went on to survive for centuries after. In 533 AD, homosexuality became outlawed in Eastern Rome by the Justinian Code. The emperor, Justinian, then castrated those found guilty of homosexuality. The law was to punish those guilty by death, but that was rarely carried out.
The incomplete picture of Ancient sources
What we know about ancient homosexuality in Europe is largely based on texts written by older, upper-class male perspectives. Therefore, we largely lack the voice of women, younger men, slaves, etc. It’s also important to remember that an ancient period text does not represent the entire period’s feelings of a given subject, but the feelings of one particular writer, shaped by things like their upbringing. We can see this in our modern-day too. So, overall what we do know about ancient European homosexuality is very broad and missing certain perspectives. People of all different sexualities and genders exist throughout all of history and in all places.
Dynes, W. R., & Donaldson, S. (1992). Homosexuality in the Ancient World. Garland.
Karras, R. M. (2012). Sexuality in Medieval Europe: doing unto others. Routledge.
Zive, G. A Brief History of Western Homosexuality. California State University, Stanislaus.