1500 years ago in the Byzantine Roman Empire the Emperor Justinian enacted a persecution against gay men that created a climate of fear which has echoed down the centuries to this very day. This pogrom of same sex lovers ended a millennium in which men who love men had been prominent in every aspect of community life, from politics and the military to philosophy, art and religion. Queer love, once hailed for its divine qualities, disappeared into the shadows.

The first attacks on queer people came as Christianity became established in the Roman Empire in the 4th century. Emperor Constantine granted toleration for Christianity in the Edict of Milan in 313, before the end of the century it was the official religion. Historian Eusebius praised Constantine for his suppression the effeminate pagan priests of the Goddess temples. Eusebius described a temple:

where men unworthy of the name forgot the dignity of their sex and propitiated the demon by the their effeminate conduct.”

The Emperor ordered the army sent in, “that this building with its contents should be utterly destroyed.” He went further, Eusebius recording that:

inasmuch as the Egyptians, especially those of Alexandria, had been accustomed to honour their river through a priesthood composed of effeminate men, a further law was passed commanding the extermination of the whole class as vicious, that no one might thenceforward be found tainted with the like impurity.”

The persecution stepped up under Constantine’s successors. Roman senator Firmicus Maternus wrote a polemic called ‘The Error of the Pagan Religions’ in 346 which firmly associated pagan cults with sexual immorality and especially homosexuality. He is particularly fired up about the effeminate priests or holy men, writing that those of a Carthaginian love goddess:

can minister to her only when they have feminised their faces, rubbed smooth their skin, and disgraced their manly sex by donning women’s regalia. In their very temples we see scandalous performances, accompanied by the moaning of the throng: men letting themselves be handled as women, and flaunting with boastful ostentatiousness this ignominy of their impure and unchaste bodies…. Next, being thus divorced from the masculine, they get intoxicated with the music of flutes and invoke the goddess with an unholy spirit so they an ostensibly predict the future to fools.”

A law passed in 342 orders ‘exquisite punishment’ for men who have sex with other men, and The Latin word used – nubit – translates as ‘marries’, but most historians agree the term was used in a wider sense. This prohibition was incorporated into the Theodosian Code of 438 and used by the Emperor Justinian in his virulent attack on gay men in the 520s.

The tide turned violently against paganism in the 380s when an imperial edict against sacrifices inspired what has been called ‘an orgy of destruction and spoliation’ when bands of monks and Christian fanatics destroyed temples and statues across the Empire. Thousands of years in which queers had served the holy life of the community came to an end, our ecstatic-erotic practices that opened the gateways to spiritual communion were wiped out.

More laws against gay sex followed. In 390 a law attacked “the poison of shameful effeminacy”, but focussed its attention on male brothels. In 438 this was expanded to call for all who engaged in gay sex to die “in avenging flames in the sight of the people.” The Code of Justinian, issued in 534, sealed the fate and set a legal climate regarding homosexuality that would influence Europe until the 18th century, and his violent actions in 528 against men who loved men established a climate of fear that would last longer. The Justinian Code expanded an old law from the time of Augustus against adultery to include the death penalty for ‘illicit sex with males’ (stuprum cum masculis).

Byzantine historian John Malalas (c 491-578) recorded the great persecution of men who loved men in the late 520s. Justinian issued laws that could be applied to past crimes, not simply ones that occurred after its creation. Note however that the Church did not support his actions, in fact the first victims were prominent men of the Church itself:

At that time, bishops of diverse provinces were prosecuted for the lustful act of sleeping with males. Among them were the bishops Isaiah of Rhodes, formerly the Nycteparchus of Constantinople, and Alexander of Diospolis in Thrace. After they were brought to Constantinople by an edict of the Emperor they were examined by the prefect of the city, stripped of their rank and punished. After he had suffered severe torture, Isaiah was sent into exile. Alexander, on the other hand, has his male organ cut off, and was place in a litter and exposed as a spectacle to the people. Shortly after, the emperor passed a law that the crime of sex with males should be punished by castration. And at that time many androkoitai (men who slept with men) were seized and their genitals were cut off. And a great fear ensued among those who suffered from the evil desire for males.” John Malalas

The Emperor’s court historian, Procopius, left us a ‘Secret History’ in which we read that Justinian:

…prohibited sodomy [paiderastein] by law, not examining closely into offences committed subsequently to the law but concerning himself only with those persons who long before had been caught by this malady. And the prosecution of these cases was carried out in reckless fashion, since the penalty was exacted without an accuser, for the word of a single man or boy, and even if it so happened, of a slave compelled against his will to give evidence against his owner, was considered definite proof. Those who were thus convicted had their privates removed and were paraded through the streets.”

Chronicler Theophanes, writing about 800 CE, said that:

Bishops Isaiah of Rhodes and Alexander of Diospolis in Thrace were deposed from office, as having been discovered to be lovers of boys, and were punished frightfully by the emperor, having their male organs cut off and being paraded through the streets….the emperor instituted harsh laws against the licentious and many were punished. And great fear and caution arose.”

Georgius Cedrenus, wrote in 1060 that : “Many citizens and senators and not a few of the high clergy were found guilty, were castrated and exposed naked in the forum and died miserably.”

1500 years ago the persecution of gay males, which began as attacks against the effeminate priests of the pagan religion expanded into a climate of fear for all men who had sex with men. This darkness intensified in the late Middle Ages and continues to blight the lives of all queer people around the world to this very day.

Sealing the deal, Justinian in 529 forbade non-Christians from teaching positions, and closed the ancient schools of Athens. Plato’s Academy, which had opened in 385 BCE, disappeared and a millennium of philosophical and religious qualities of same sex love disappeared from European discourse. The gay massacres and the clampdown on classical education brought the beginning of the medieval world.

SOURCE: Homosexuality and Civilisation, Louis Crompton 2006.

Published by shokti

i am shokti, lovestar of the eurofaeries, aka marco queer magician of london town. i explore the links between our sexual-physical nature and our spirits, running gatherings, rituals and Queer Spirit Festival. i woke up to my part in the accelerating awakening of light love and awareness on planet earth during a shamanic death-and-rebirth process lasting from January 1995 to the year 2000, and offer here my insights and observations on the ongoing transformation of human consciousness, how to navigate the waves of change, and especially focusing on the role of queer people at this time.

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