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date: 18 May 2021

Historical Views of Homosexuality: Roman Empirelocked

  • Thomas K. HubbardThomas K. HubbardDepartment of Classics, The University of Texas at Austin

Summary

The practice and social construction of homosexual relations in the Roman Empire were particularly important as the immediate background to the early Christian and patristic responses that determined the widespread suppression of same-sex behavior in subsequent Western civilization; this suppression was already manifest in influential Roman legal texts of late antiquity. Although to some degree influenced by earlier Greek and Etruscan models, particularly in the realms of literature and art, Roman culture evolved its own distinctive set of practices and moral responses. Whereas classical Greek elites exalted voluntary pederastic relations between adult males and freeborn adolescents, framing them within a pedagogical context, Romans viewed any form of passivity as unmanly and fundamentally incompatible with the conquering warrior ethos required by the expansionist Roman state. Hence, pederastic attentions were legitimate only when directed toward current or former slaves. Despite the coercive character of such relations, they sometimes became tender and affectionate, leading to the favored slave’s manumission and even inheritance of property.

While literary references in Augustan-era poets like Vergil, Horace, and Tibullus are decorous and idealizing after the Greek style, the treatment of homosexuality in much Roman literature is markedly different, manifesting an anatomical frankness and obscenity seldom found in Greek texts outside of Attic comedy. Accusations of the most extravagant sexual depravity became commonplace in political rhetoric of the late Republic and escalated in the many defamatory biographical accounts of Rome’s emperors, most of whom engendered posthumous infamy from patrician critics. Whether true or not, such accounts contributed to popular perceptions of a hedonistic ruling class more innured to pleasure than the public good.

Not surprisingly, Rome evolved a strong tradition of morally inflected satire and ethical critique of homosexual indulgence. In the early period, this took the form of treating it as a foreign, Greek-inspired vice. More serious was the philosophical response of later Roman Stoicism, which advocated a highly restrictive sexual economy and sought to liberate the soul from enslavement to appetitive desires, particularly if not tied to the providential demands of Nature. Other sources, however, regarded same-sex desire as itself a manifestation of inborn dispositions, and Roman imperial literature features several polarized debates between advocates of boys and women as superior objects of sexual affect, presaging modern conceptions of sexual identity.

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