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The Historic Origins of Church Condemnation of Homosexuality

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On May 14, 390,[1] an imperial decree was posted at the Roman hall of Minerva, a gathering place for actors, writers and artists,[2] 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,[3]  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."[4] 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,"[5]  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."[6]  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.[7]

   Men lacking desire for or potency with women, like today's homosexual men, were never intended by these laws -- they would not have been deemed, on the whole, to be male. Maleness implied playing the role of penetrator and procreator. Those who did not, failed to meet the ancient criteria for being called male. One could say that the very concept of masculinity or virility was defined throughout the ancient Mediterranean, not in contrast to women, but to homosexual men. Innumerable loci can be adduced to show that exclusively homosexual men were called non-male, half-male, neither male nor female, androgynous, or third sex -- but never male.

    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.[8] 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.[9]  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"[10], 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."[11] [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:

                    It was the eunuchs who instigated these proceedings against all
                    [i.e., pressure tactics against Nicene Christians in various cities].
                    And the most remarkable circumstance in the matter is this; that
                    the Arian heresy which denies the Son of God receives its support
                    from eunuchs, who, as both their bodies are fruitless, and their
                    souls barren of the seeds of virtue, cannot bear even to hear the
                    name of son...The eunuchs of Constantius cannot endure the
                    confession of Peter [Matthew 16:16], nay, they turn away when
                    the Father manifests the Son, and madly rage against those who
                    say that the Son of God is His genuine Son, thus claiming as a
                    heresy of eunuchs that there is no genuine and true offspring of
                    the Father.

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."[13] 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.

   The gender of eunuchs, until the fourth century, was typically described as it is in Lucian's dialogue The Eunuch: "neither man nor woman, but something composite, hybrid, and monstrous, alien to human nature."[14] Or as in Aristotle's assertion that eunuchs "fall but little short of the idea of the female."[15]  Or in Pliny's categorization of eunuchs, alongside hermaphrodites and castrati, as a third gender.[16] However, by the early fourth century the first signs appear of an expansion of the definition of masculinity to include eunuchs. To Firmicus Maternus, an astrologer and Christian convert, eunuchs are "males without seed and who cannot copulate, obscene, disreputable, filthy, lewd passives"[17] -- the point being that he calls them males, something writers in prior centuries had never done.

    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.[18] 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."[19]  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."[20] 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.[21]

   So it is against the backdrop of a concerted effort by Nicene proponents to debase their powerful enemies that we must assess the outlawing of the sexual life of homosexuals. In 389, one year before the anti-homosexual decree mentioned at the start, the emperor had taken away the right of heretical neo-Arian eunuchs to make or benefit from wills.[22]  This exemplifies the targeting of eunuchs through imperial laws as a way of combating heresy. Early the next year, having committed an atrocity against the residents of Thessalonica, the emperor Theodosius was excommunicated by St. Ambrose. His august majesty came crawling to the bishop, theoretically an imperial subject, and begged for forgiveness and reinstatement. The bishop relented and promised reinstatement after the emperor had completed a penance, which lasted eight months. It happened to be during the first month of this penance that the law against sex acts by homosexuals was promulgated. Initially unsuccessful due to the unexpectedly high number of violators,[23] the decree was reissued in August at Trajan's Forum as follows:

                    All those whose shameful habit it is to condemn the male body to
                    suffer an alien sex in the manner of women, for they appear to be
                    in no way different from women, shall expiate a crime of this kind
                    in avenging flames in the sight of the people.

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.

   Having once established power over imperial legislation regarding religion, Catholic authorities never looked back. With the outlawing of heresies, enforced by imperial power, no one was in a position to contradict the established doctrine of the Church. If the Church decided that Jesus meant only persons suffering from anatomical birth defects in Matthew 19:12, who would have been in a position to object? If the now imperial Church found that a homosexual engaging in his own natural sexuality was guilty of the sin of Sodom, who would stand up to argue?

    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,[25] 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?[26] 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[27] -- 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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Visit Born Eunuchs Home Page for lots more information about homosexuality in ancient cultures.

[Help! I believe this is information that people everywhere should have access to. If you would be willing to translate this paper into your language, I will post it on the website as well. I would really like to thank Luqman, who translated this into Spanish. Allah's blessings be upon him always.]


1 Rev. M. Hyamson, ed. and tr., Mosaicarum et romanarum legum collatio, London, 1913 (reprint Buffalo, 1997), pp. 82-83. (Coll. leg. mos. et rom. 5.3.1-2)

2 Columbia Encyclopedia, 5th edition, New York, 1993, s.v. Minerva, p. 1782.

3 Wilhelm Ensslin, Die Religionspolitik des Kaisers Theodosius des Grossen, Munich, 1953. In: Sitzungsberichte der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische Klasse, Year 1953, No. 2.

4 Leviticus 18:22, 20:13.

5 Institutes of Justinian 4.18.4.

6 Seneca, De ira 1.21; Juvenal 6.371-373, 10.306; Martial 6.2, 9.6.4, 9.8.5; Statius, Silvae 4.3.16; Suetonius, Nero 28, Domitian 7.

7 Code of Theodosius 9.7.3.

8 Matthew 19:12; Digest of Justinian 50.16.128.

9 Digest of Justinian in conjunction with 21.1.5-6 and

10 Digest of Justinian,,, 28.2.6.

11 Juvenal 1.22.

12 Athanasius, History of the Arians, 5.38.

13 Sextus Aurelius Victor, Epitome of the Caesars, 42.19.

14 Lucian, The Eunuch, 6.

15 Aristotle, Generation of Animals, 4.1.

16 Pliny, Natural History, 11.49.

17 Firmicus Maternus, Mathesis, 3.9.1.

18 Clement of Alexandria, The Educator, 3.4.26.

19 Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies, 3.1.1.

20 Epiphanius of Salamis, Basket of Heresies, 4.3.2-5.

21 Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 37, 16-17.

22 Code of Theodosius, 16.5.17.

23 Otto Seeck, Geschichte des Untergangs der antiken Welt, Stuttgart, 1920-1922 (reprint 1966), vol. 5, p. 531, note regarding p. 229, line 9.

24 Code of Theodosius, 9.7.6.

25 New Constitutions of Justinian, 77 and 141. For the dates I rely on Derrick Sherwin Bailey, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition, London, 1955 (reprint 1975), pp. 73ff.

26 As Tertullian had done, for example, in Monogamy, 3: "The Lord Himself opened the kingdom of heaven to eunuchs and He Himself lived as a eunuch. The apostle [Paul] also, following His example, made himself a eunuch and indicated that continence is what he himself prefers."

27 Visigothic Code 3.5.5-6.