Homosexuality in Ancient Rome – A paradise in literature

Homosexuality in the Roman empire lost its political meaning throughout the centuries, yet found a safe haven in literature.

HomoCulture LGBT History Silvia Hildebrandt

This article was published on March 13th, 2019

When the Romans conquered the Greek world, they not only took over their territory, but also their culture. Most obviously, they adopted the mythology and simply renamed the Gods. Concerning the social norm of pederasty and homosexual relationships for political purposes, scholars used to believe Roman culture imposed restrictions on men for loving each other. But new evidence shows the picture is more complex than previously assumed. 

Similar to Greek culture, it was socially accepted for a man to have sex with other men as long as he took the penetrative role. Pederasty as an upper class way of a career starter for teenage boys became outdated, even forbidden at certain time periods. But whereas homosexuality in all its forms lost its political meaning, it gained popularity on the fictitious level in Roman literature. The Roman language offered a high variety of definitions and descriptions of men having sex with other men. The most common ones in everyday language – mostly vulgar – were cinaeduspathicusexoletusconcubinus(male concubine), spintria(analist), puer(boy), pullus(chick), pusiodelicatus(exquisite boy), mollis(soft), tener(delicate), debilis(weak), effeminatusdiscinctus(loose-belted), pisciculi,spinthriae,and morbosus(sick). 

The more homosexuality was frowned upon in society, the more it gained importance in literature.  Poets such as Virgil, Horace, and Ovid included passages about same-sex love, queer-coded characters and used homosexuality as a trope in their work. Although homosexual love was prohibited in the Roman military, Virgil included the couple of Euryalus and Nisus in his Aeneis, portraying their love as a reference to Greek military structure where gay relationships were encouraged among the soldiers in order to build a stronger military bond. In his Eclogues 2 and 3, Vergil both discusses homosexual love linked to the imaginary paradise of a rural shepherd ideal, establishing a utopia for the perfect Roman way of life: 

Homosexuality in Ancient Rome – A paradise in literature

Corydon, the shepherd, was aflame for the fair Alexis, his master’s pet, nor knew he what to hope. As his one solace, he would day by day come among the thick beeches with their shady summits, and there alone in unavailing passion fling these artless strains to the hills and woods:

“O cruel Alexis, care you naught for my songs? Have you no pity for me? You will drive me at last to death. […]”

“You scorn me, Alexis, and ask not what I am – how rich in cattle, how wealthy in snow-white milk! […]”

“O if you would but live with me in our rude fields and lowly cots, shooting the deer and driving the flock of kids with a green hibiscus switch! […]

“Come hither, lovely boy! See, for you the Nymphs bring lilies in heaped-up baskets; for you the fair Naiad, plucking pale violets and poppy heads, blends narcissus and sweet-scented fennel flower; then, twining them with cassia and other sweet herbs, sets off the delicate hyacinth with the golden marigold. My own hands will gather quinces, pale with tender down, and chestnuts, which my Amaryllis loved. Waxen plums I will add – this fruit, too, shall have its honour. You too, O laurels, I will pluck, and you, their neighbour myrtle, for so placed you blend sweet fragrance. […]”[1]

But the most popular story about gay love is that of emperor Hadrian and his lover Antinous. Hadrian fell in love with the young Antinous on one of his travels to Bythinia. From then on, they were inseperable. Sadly, Antinous found an early death while drowning in the Nile. Devastated by this loss and deeply grieving, Hadrian established a quasi-religious cult status about Antinous. Statues depicting his deceased lover were widespread all over the empire, showing him as a God or an Egyptian Pharaoh. While homosexuality was considered a weakness among men in Hadrian’s times, the emperor didn’t care about social restrictions. It is known that Hadrian wrote many poems about his favorite, but sadly, none of these survived. 

After the socially established forms of homosexual bonds in military service and the special form of pederasty were prohibited as the Roman Empire gained power, literature became the safe place for expressing homoerotic feelings. 

But as soon as the Roman Empire became a Christian realm, homosexual behavior completely became a crime against God.   

[1]    Virgil. Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid. Translated by Fairclough, H R. Loeb Classical Library Volumes 63 & 64. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. 

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