Thus begins the long and interesting history of homosexuality in Europe. Because of the amount of information and instances of same-sex relationships in European history, I’ve broken it down to sections, starting with ancient Greece and Rome.
The earliest modern documentation concerning same-sex relationships shows up in Ancient Greek culture. Relationships with women and young males was part of a man’s love life. It was a show of power when a man had multiple young male lovers.
Same-sex relationships were accepted within Greek culture, looked upon as a role of dominance and was also considered a form of population control. Initially, Plato praised its benefits, but upon the introduction of Christianity, later spoke against homosexuality. In his writing, the Symposium, he compares the acceptance of homosexuality with democracy, and its suppression with despotism.
Also in the Symposium, Aristophanes presents a story explaining the creation of a third gender, the homosexual. You can read the story here: http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/sciencemedicine/a/072309SoulMates.htm
Not much exists in regards to documented female homosexuality. Sappho, born on the island of Lesbos, was a poet who was later included in the canonical list of the Nine Lyrical Poets. The terms sapphic and lesbian, taken from her name and her place of birth, were applied to female homosexuality beginning in the 19th Century. Her works focused on love for both genders. She also identified Aphrodite as the patron of lesbians.
The reason female homosexuality was never well documented despite its obvious existence is the fact that male writers and philosophers were not interested in the female sexual life. Females were considered on the passive spectrum and thus ‘subordinates’, and as one’s role in a sexual relationship was based on power, women were not documented, as they wielded no power.
Homoerotic situations were also prominent in Greek mythology, with Dionysus being the patron god of hermaphrodites and transvestites. Other gods, like Heracles and Hermes, bestowed qualities of beauty, loyalty, strength, and eloquence onto male lovers.
In ancient Rome, the young male body was the focus of male sexual attention, and relationships existed between older
free men and slaves or freed youths. It was looked upon as a form of pedagogy, where the older would teach the younger in the ways of life, and maintained an unspoken sexual relationship with the slave or youth.
All Roman emperors, with the exception of Claudius, took male lovers. This practice continued until the reign of the Christian emperor, Theodosius I, who decreed into law on August 6, 390, condemning passive males to be burned at the stake. Justinian, in 558, extended this law to encompass active males as well. He warned that this conduct among men would cause the destruction of cities at the ‘wrath of God.’ However, taxes were still collected on brothels with boys available for homosexual sex.
No words existed in Latin that translate precisely to ‘homosexual’ or ‘heterosexual’, but more to dominance and submission. The idea that sex was a tool of power prevailed in both ancient Greece and Rome. Men showed their dominance, and thus their power, through having numerous submissives, both men and women. Again, as with other cultures, the focus was more upon lifestyle and behaviors than sexual preference.
It is interesting to note that also, like many other cultures, same-sex relationships, transgenderism, and homosexuality were openly accepted until the introduction of Christianity. Only then was it looked at as a sin.
The next post will look at homosexuality during the Renaissance and the rest of European history.