Saturday, June 30, 2012

We've Been Warned (Again): Gayness Destroyed Rome!

Yep, unless they're MARRIED.  Silly Catholic Church!
From the mind of Roman Catholic ethicist Benjamin Wiker comes an interesting article about same-sex marriage and homosexuality in Ancient Rome.  He attempts (quite miserably) to prove that same-sex marriage and acceptance of homosexuality in a society leads to that society's demise, and pleads with us not to repeat the mistakes of Rome.

Wiker is a colorful character.  In 2009 he authored a book entitled The Darwin Myth: the Life and Lies of Charles Darwin, in which he claims that Darwin was part of a 19th-century conspiracy to remove God from science and tear down biblical foundations of morality.  He claimed that Darwinism (and, by extension, all of modern science and medicine, since these fields are based on the premise and findings of evolution) completely undermines the foundations of Christianity because it is "incompatible with natural law"1.  Yep, all aboard the crazy train!

He also co-authored Architects of the Culture of Death, claiming that Enlightenment thinkers destroyed the sanctity of life.  In other words, Wiker is already on my shit list, so to speak.

So now let's peruse Wiker's warning of perpetual doom and collapse in the very footsteps of Rome, brought about by... wait for it... same-sex marriage, of course!

(Following are snippets of Wiker's article, appearing in italics, which I've numbered.  I've added my responses along the way in blue text.  If you wish to view Wiker's full article you can do so by clicking here (external link to


1.  "Given that the gay marriage agenda will be increasingly pressed upon Catholics by the state (actually by democratic constitutions which do not show favoritism among the citizenry), we should be much more aware of what history has to teach us about gay marriage—given that we don’t want to be among those who, ignorant of history (wow, now there's irony for you), blithely condemned themselves to repeat it." 

 » To his credit, at least Wiker doesn't put the word 'marriage' in quotations the way that some frightened conservatives do.  I suppose they think that if they write 'gay "marriage"' it somehow means it's not real; it's just a bad dream or boogeyman that will go away if they pray hard enough.  It's kind of cute actually.  But sad.

2.  "Contrary to the popular view—both among proponents and opponents—gay marriage is not a new issue.  It cannot be couched (by proponents) as a seamless advance on the civil rights movement, nor should it be understood (by opponents) as something that’s evil merely because it appears to them to be morally unprecedented."  

» True, same-sex marriage is not a "new" issue.  Anthropology shows us that same-sex unions have been recognized in many different cultures through the centuries in one form or another2.   In the modern world, however, it is new, and it is precisely an advancement of civil rights.

3.  "Gay marriage was—surprise!—alive and well in Rome, celebrated even and especially by select emperors, a spin-off of the general cultural affirmation of Roman homosexuality. Gay marriage was, along with homosexuality, something the first Christians faced as part of the pagan moral darkness of their time."  (Isn't it nice and Christ-like of Wiker to equate monogamous, loving, same-sex couples with "pagan moral darkness"?) 

» Sure same-sex marriage was alive, in a manner of speaking, butsurprise!it wasn't legally binding and it wasn't extremely common3.  It was celebrated to a certain degree within the elite upper class, but often mocked satirically by the commoner.  Same-sex marriage was actually never legally sanctioned in ancient Rome; there were no laws either for or against it until 342 CE4. 

Unlike today, Roman marriages were not officially registered, did not require permission from the state, and did not require a priest or magistrate to declare the couple as married.  The ceremony simply consisted of the couple declaring themselves to be married before a group of close friends and/or family.  Such ceremonies (and subsequent banquets) were expensive, however, and this is why they were usually a luxury reserved for those who could afford them.
» Marriages in Ancient Rome were really about one thing:  procreation5.  Love didn't factor into the equation.  Marriage was a necessity for social existence, and the primary purpose of marriage was to produce offspring who would carry their father's name and inherit his assets.  In the upper classes marriage might also be arranged for political reasons, i.e., for two powerful families to become more closely allied.

» Roman culture never affirmed homosexuality because Roman culture neither knew of nor recognized sexual orientation6.  Sex (and sexual relations) were based purely on the social status of the participants:

Today, if a man sleeps exclusively with other men, we would consider him to be gay.  Such was not the case in Ancient Rome.  It didn't matter if a freeborn male citizen slept with women, men, or both, as long as the free male citizen was always the penetrator, i.e. the one "on top."  If a free male citizen were ever to be penetrated orally or anally, a sexual violation known as stuprum would have been committed, and he would lose his status as a man.  An adult male's desire to be penetrated in any way was considered morbus: a sickness, because it ran contrary to the ancient concepts of virility and power, and he would be labeled as lacking virtus, the quality that made men, men.

A man could sleep exclusively with men, yet still maintain his status as a 'macho manly man,' as long as he was always doing the penetrating.  To the Romans it didn't matter whom you screwed, it only mattered that you were always on top when you were doing it.  This is why two, freeborn male citizens would not be in a serious public ("out") relationship together, let alone marry, and after the year 342 CE they could not, under penalty of death.  (Though a man marrying a eunuch7 or a foreign, passive male slave would have been tolerated and acceptable, as the penetrated male was not fully male according to the law; he would be considered as somewhere in between male and female.)

4.  "So, what was happening in ancient Rome? Homosexuality was just as widespread among the Romans as it was among the Greeks (a sign of which is that it was condoned even by the stolid Stoics). The Romans had adopted the pederasty of the Greeks (aimed, generally, at boys between the ages of 12 to 18). There was nothing shameful about such sexual relations among Romans, if the boy was not freeborn. Slaves, both male and female, were considered property, and that included sexual property."

» Actually, homosexuality has always been just as widespread as it was in the Greco-Roman world.  Wherever you find humans, you find homosexuality.  The difference here is that Wiker categorizes all physical contact between two people of the same sex as "homosexuality," without taking into account that much of the same-sex activity in Ancient Rome involved heterosexual men8.  That is not homosexuality; it is straight men seeking nothing more than sexual pleasure from both women and lower-status men:  treating them as sexual objects.  

Of course there were - as there always have been - men who were sexually and romantically attracted only to other men, but they were not known as "homosexuals."  There was no Latin word (or Greek word for that matter) for "a gay man" because there was no modern scientific understanding of sexual orientation9.  People were described according to the specific sex act(s) they engaged in, for example, fututor: literally 'he who fucks,' describing a virile man who is always on top, whether with women or men.  Or fellator: literally 'cock sucker,' something an adult male citizen would never be, though he would gladly enjoy receiving oral sex from a woman, a slave of either sex, a prostitute of either sex, or a eunuch. 

5.  "But the Romans also extended homosexuality to adult men, even adult free men. And it is likely that this crossing of the line from child to adult, unfree to free—not homosexuality as such—was what affronted the more austere of the Roman moralists."

» No, they didn't.  This is historically inaccurate.  There was a strong sense of shame connected with an adult free male being penetrated orally or anally (though none with being a man who does the penetrating).  Public relationships between two freeborn male citizens were very taboo.  They undoubtedly existed of course, but would have had to have been carried out "in the closet," in secrecy.  The two would not publicly marry unless one was willing to endure public ridicule by losing his status as a man and becoming "the woman" in the marriage10, which some in the wealthier upper class were apparently willing to do.

6.  "The first-century A.D. catechetical manual, the Didache, makes refreshingly clear what pagans will have to give up, in regard to Roman sexuality, once they entered the Church. [...] Some of which would have been quite familiar and reasonable to Romans, such as, “You will not murder” and, “You will not commit adultery” (although for Romans, abortion wasn’t murder, and a husband having sex with slaves or prostitutes was not considered adulterous).

"But then followed strange commands (at least to the Romans), “You will not corrupt boys”; “You will not have illicit sex” (ou porneuseis); “You will not murder offspring by means of abortion [and] you will not kill one having been born.” Against the norm in Rome, Christians must reject pedophilia, fornication and homosexuality, abortion, and infanticide. The list also commands, “You will not make potions” (ou pharmakeuseis), a prohibition against widespread practices in the Roman Empire which included potions that stopped conception or caused abortion."

An original copy of the Didache, ca. 100 CE
» If you've ever read any of Wiker's works you'll know he's not a fan of women having the right to decide what to do with their own body, which is why he works his "pro-lifeyness" into the conversation here (and literally everything else he's written).  That's a whole other, unrelated topic, though, and I'll not explore it here.  

What needs to be pointed out here is that, in the Didache, "You will not corrupt boys" and "You will not have illicit sex" speaks against the Three P's:  pederasty, pedophilia, and porneia, or rampant, lust-filled, sexual trysts11.  These things apply to everyone:  don't have sex with or molest little boys and underage youths (hello Vatican officials, are you listening?), and don't be a 24/7 party slut jumping from one person's bed to the next.  Why Wiker thinks this targets LGBTs alone, and even reads "...and homosexuality" into it, is beyond me.  It doesn't even warrant rational review.  He literally added "homosexuality" into his commentary.  And he has the nerve to blame others for having an agenda??

7.  "The Roman elevation of sexual pleasure above procreation, and hence outside this tightly-defined area of sexual legitimacy defined by Christianity, led to the desire for contraceptive potions, abortifacients, and infanticide.  [ he goes again with his anti-choice babble...]  It also led to seeing marriage as nothing but an arena for sexual pleasure, which in turn allowed for an equivalency of heterosexual and homosexual marriage."

» No, it didn't.  Same-sex marriage was not equivalent to opposite-sex marriage in Ancient Rome.  The former were not legally binding but were purely "blessing ceremonies," if you will, performed in the presence of friends of the upper class participants.  Furthermore, Romans viewed marriage solely as an arena for producing offspring which would be legal citizens capable of inheriting their father's wealth, not an arena for sexual pleasure.  It was a wife's primary duty to produce children for her husband.  Love was irrelevant and, in many ways was seen as somewhat ridiculous in a marriage.  

It is commonly known that, for those who could afford it, Roman men had wives for dowry, procreation, and raising children, had concubines (or visited prostitutes) for erotic, intimate sex, and had younger 'pet' male slaves (usually in their teens or early 20s) for satisfying pleasurable urges.  It was perfectly acceptable for a married man to have sex with infames: slaves, prostitutes, entertainers, and people lacking social standing.  It was not considered adultery and was not scandalous; it was "just sex."

8.  "Our reports of homosexual marriage from Rome give us, I hope, a clearer understanding of what is at stake.  (Naturally, in Wiker's mind gay people living openly in society automatically = a pink apocalypse.)  As is the case today, it appears that the incidence of male-male marriage followed upon the widespread acceptance of homosexuality; that is, the practice of homosexuality led to the notion that, somehow, homosexual unions should share in the same status as heterosexual unions."

» This is simple twisting of historical facts.  Same-sex unions, as previously mentioned, did not share in the same status as heterosexual unions - not in society or in the eyes of the law.  For a few emperors, yes, because emperors were able to do as they pleased and demand that it be accepted, even if the average citizen on the street laughed behind his back.

Same-sex marriage rites were banned by co-emperor brothers Constantius II (who himself had male courtesans12) and Constans (who was bisexual13) in the year 342 CE, but as the law spelled out, this specifically targeted unions between two freeborn Roman male citizens and did not immediately affect ceremonies between a freeborn male and a eunuch, for example. [See note 4 below for further details.]

Roman family
9.  "We must also add that heterosexuality among the Romans was also in a sad state. Both concubinage and prostitution were completely acceptable; pornography and sexually explicit entertainment and speech were entirely normalized; the provision of sex by both male and female slaves was considered a duty by masters. Paeans to the glory of marriage were made, not because the Romans had some proto-Christian notion of the sanctity of marriage, but because Rome needed more citizen-soldiers just when the Romans were depopulating themselves by doing anything to avoid having children."

» And this was the fault of gay people?  For the record, depopulation in the Roman Empire was due to endless wars and invasions, a series of plagues, and a very high infant mortality rate spurred by deteriorating standards of living in urban areas.  Roman citizens weren't "doing anything to avoid having children."  The main purpose of Roman marriage was to have children14, and if a man's wife was barren he could easily divorce her and find a new wife who could bear him offspring.   

Three children per family were expected if one was to be successful in Rome.  Having three children also carried its rewards:  the mother gained full legal independence by bearing three children and the father received promotions in his job.  Outside of Rome a couple must have four children to acquire these privileges, and in the provinces, five children was the minimum15.

The birthrate among the aristocracy did steadily decline, and they typically had smaller families (two or three children).  There was also an understandable fear of giving birth among many aristocratic women, because many women did not survive childbirth in those days16.  This was one of the main reasons that contraceptives became more popular among the upper classes, especially if at least one male son had already been born (if I had been a Roman woman you can bet your ass I'd be "contraceptively active," too!).  However, most Roman families were quite large, having five or six children.  Due to poor health standards, though, an average of only three survived to adulthood.

10.  "The heterosexual moral disrepair in Rome therefore formed the social basis for the Roman slide into homosexual marriage rites. We hear of them from critics bent on satirizing such unions. The problem for the Romans wasn’t homosexuality as such, but that a Roman man would debase himself and play the part of a woman in matrimony."  

» Exactly, because sex was a zero sum game in the ancient world, as were the relationships that accompanied it.  One of the men would lose status (the penetrated) while the other gained it (the penetrator).  If one of the men was not a eunuch, cinaedus (a typically passive, legally 'half-male,' transgendered person), slave, or foreigner, it would have been culturally unacceptable.  This long-existing cultural taboo was later codified in Roman law, making same-sex union rites illegal and punishable by death if both the men were freeborn citizens [see note 4].

11.  "The Christians found themselves in a pagan culture where there were few restrictions on sexuality at all, other than the imagination—a culture that, to note the obvious but exceedingly important, looks suspiciously like ours."

» Yeah... not so much.  As much as conservative Christians like to repeat it ad nauseum, modern Western culture is simply not like the culture of Ancient Rome - not by a long shot - and Wiker's own words spell that out.  

We do not practice concubinage, and prostitution is not legal in the majority of places.  We do not consider husbands sleeping with prostitutes and slaves as morally okay.  We do not own slaves in our homes and, by extension, we do not rape slaves or force them to sexually gratify us.  We do not leave our infant children exposed to the elements if they are ill or handicapped.  We do not worship our presidents and prime ministers as being divine.  I could go on, but I think you get the point.

Wiker also comments on the fact that emperors Tiberius (ruled from 14 - 37 CE), Nero (37 - 68 CE), and Elagabalus (218 - 222 CE) were participants in their own marriages to other men - how they gave themselves "as brides," complete with wearing veils, according to satirical authors of the day, namely Tacitus, Martial, and Juvenal.

What Wiker fails to note, however, is that these three emperors were tyrants who were hated, dreaded, and (except for Tiberius, though this is debated) eventually assassinated.  There is simply no way to prove these satires, for they do not stand recorded in official imperial dockets or anywhere other than satirical jabs from men who despised them.  But these three emperors were very flamboyant and flaunting of their power, and as emperors they could basically do anything they pleased.  They each also married multiple women, mind you.  

None of them were incredibly stable either, mentally speaking.  Nero, for instance, had sex with his own mother before having her murdered, and also ordered the murder of one of his generals because he wanted to marry his wife.  He then divorced (and later executed) her because she didn't give him any children, whereupon he married another woman whom he reportedly kicked to death in a jealous rage when she was pregnant with their second child17.  Not exactly a normal fellow was Mr. Nero.

And yes, Nero married a man named Pythagoras, taking on the role of the bride in the ceremony18.  He also wed his 14-year old "boy-toy" named Sporus, whom Nero had castrated in order to preserve his youthful beauty [ibid.].  In that wedding, Sporus was presented as the bride, and Nero the groom.  There is convincing scholarship suggesting that Nero's taking of Sporus as a bride had nothing to do with love or even lust, but with Nero's belief that Sporus may have been of illegitimate imperial descent and thus a threat to his reign.  What better way to nip the potential problem in the bud than for Sporus to be castrated and dominated as a bride19.  How very 'alpha male' of Nero.

Let's face it:  Nero, for all intents and purposes, was not a rational fellow.  For goodness sake, he once covered his own naked body in animal skins at a banquet, then leaped out of a cage and attacked the private parts of male and female prisoners who were bound to stakes20.  This was the man's idea of a good time.

Elagabalus, as portrayed in a National Geographic special
Elagabalus, the other emperor used by Wiker as an example, was only 14 when he ascended to the throne.  Like any rich, spoiled, teenage, Roman royal, he loved sex (lots of sex), parties, orgies, and power.  Recorded as being extraordinarily handsome, he married and divorced five women by the time he reached the age of 18, when he was assassinated in a plot laid forth by his own grandmother.  

He was known for his lavish, expensive lifestyle and huge palace parties, and was fond of having his subjects kneel and kiss his feet.  He is said to have chosen personal slaves and courtesans based purely on their ability to, in modern vernacular, "give a good blow job."  Remember, he was a teenager with unlimited power and free time, so this isn't too surprising.

His most stable relationship (if a horny, immature teenage boy can actually have such a thing) seems to have been with his chariot driver and slave, Heriocles, whom he referred to as his husband.  Elagabalus is also reported to have married an athlete named Zoticus in a public ceremony in Rome when he was 17, for no other reason than that he had "a beautiful body and a large member"21.  He soon kicked Zoticus out of the palace, though, because he was unable to get an erection on demand!

But Elagabalus was fond of spitting upon rules and traditions, which he felt he was above.  He often did things "just because he could," and many of the things he did outraged the public and even his own family22.  Using him as proof that same-sex marriage was accepted and flourishing in Rome makes no sense at all.

So in my assessment, Wiker's argument, from top to bottom, is an epic fail.  It doesn't leave us with an understanding that "same-sex marriage leads to national collapse;" it leaves us wondering how on earth a man like Benjamin Wiker can actually believe the babble he writes.

NB:  For those who would like to read more on sex and sexuality in the Roman Empire, I highly recommend the excellent book Roman Sexualities by Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner (Princeton University Press, 1997).  The book was part of my Biological Anthropology studies in university, and is an invaluable resource for properly understanding Ancient Greco-Roman and Near Eastern views on sexuality.  It also, accordingly, sheds great light on the cultural context of certain Bible verses that have been incorrectly used by modern conservative Christians to condemn LGBTQ people and same-sex relationships.


1. National Center for Science Education 2009.

2. Encyclopedia of Anthropology.  Ex.: Ancient China, the Asia-Pacific, tribal Europe (pre-7th century CE), tribal Africa, several Native American tribes (both North and South American), Ancient Greece and Rome, and several European jurisdictions up until the mid-14th century CE (whose unions were even blessed and sanctioned by the Church).

3. Hallett and Skinner, Roman Sexualities.

4. a) In 342 CE, Emperor Constantius II and his brother Emperor Constans, declared same-sex union rites to be illegal in the Empire (Code of Theodosius 9.7.3).  The law was not a blanket ban, though; it specifically forbid two freeborn male citizens from marrying (because such a union would violate the "impenetrable masculinity" of one of the Roman men).  The law did not forbid the union of a freeborn male with a eunuch (legally a half-male) or a foreign male slave, as long as the freeborn male was classified as the husband and his body would never be subject to penetration by his "wife."  In any case the law seems to have had little real effect, for there is no evidence for its enforcement.

b) In 390 CE, Emperor Theodosius, under the guidance of Ambrose the Bishop of Milan, issued a decree that all manner of same-sex acts were illegal and punishable by death (Code of Theodosius 9.7.6).  The old law against passive male homosexuality was thus expanded to include passive "non-male" homosexuality (see note 8), "for they appear to be in no way different from women" (ibid.).  This law specifically targeted eunuchs who were incredibly powerful in imperial courts and hellenistic religious cults, and were, as such, a threat to the rising Christian church which labeled eunuchs (and by unfortunate extension, all men engaging in same-sex behavior) as heretics.

5. Treggiari, Roman Marriage. Balsdon, Roman Women.  Roman marriage contracts explicitly stated that marriage existed for the procreation of children.

6. Hallett and Skinner.

7. According to Roman law (Lex Julia Et Papia, Book 1, Digest 50.16.128 and 28.2.6.) there were two classifications of eunuchs:  crushed and natural.  Crushed eunuchs (also called "man-made" eunuchs) had had their testicles crushed or removed, either by their masters or themselves, in order to serve in palaces or as religious functionaries (e.g. androgynous priests).  They were typically feminine, long-haired, and often wore women's robes and perfumes.  Natural eunuchs (also called "born eunuchs"), however, had no physical defects (were intact and could reproduce if they wished), yet had no innate desire for females.  They also served at court or as (often transvestitic) priests in the many ancient cults.  Both classifications of eunuchs were legally defined as semiviri, or half-men.

8. Hallett and Skinner.

9. Williams, Roman Homosexuality.

10. Hallett and Skinner.

11. Milavec, The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary.

12. Sextus Aurelius Victor, Epitome of the Caesars 42:18-19:  "He [Constantius II] was devoted to his eunuchs and courtiers, and also his wives; but he was never defiled by any transverse or unjust lust."  In other words, he was always the penetrator.

13. DiMaio, Constans (337-350 A.D.); Canduci, Triumph & Tragedy: The Rise and Fall of Rome's Immortal Emperors.  Constans was known for hand-picking his bodyguards based more on their beauty than their competence, and had a reputation for scandalous behavior with "handsome, young, barbarian hostages."  His sexual trysts reportedly greatly offended the legions, whose respect and support he gradually lost.  Constans was assassinated in 350 CE. »It has also been noted by scholars and historians that Constans may have signed on to the law of 342 (see note 4) as a mocking gesture to the increasingly-powerful, prudish Christian moralists of the time, or to placate a public scandalized by his own behavior. (Neill, The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies.)

14. The sign and seal of a successful marriage was a male child.  Balsdon, Roman Women.

15. ibid. 

16. ibid. 

17. Farquhar, A Treasure of Royal Scandals

18. Champlin, Nero.  This also highlights Ancient Rome's concept of same-sex marriage as being very different from our modern concept.  In their understanding of "real men" who penetrate and "half men" or "non-males" (i.e. essentially a third gender) who get penetrated, one of the couple would automatically have to become the woman in the relationship, i.e. the bride.  This concept is very similar to other ancient cultures around the world where gender roles are clearly defined, which have had, or in some cases still do have, forms of same-sex marriage (e.g. Native American and Inuit societies, Asian-Pacific Islander societies, Ancient Near Eastern societies, etc.).

19. Woods, Nero and Sporus (

20. Champlin, Nero.

21. Augustan History, Life of Elagabalus 10.

22. Elagabalus "abandoned himself to ungoverned fury," as historian Edward Gibbon noted.  He had no respect for the senators (whom he referred to as 'slaves in togas') or the law.  He dishonored and disrespected the Roman gods and their place in society.  He built a new temple and declared there to be a new chief god, El-Gabal (a minor god in whose honor he was named), declared himself the cult's high priest, then forced the senators to watch each morning as he danced around the alter in priestly garments.  He raised a statue of himself, which he instructed the people to adore, and he put a brothel inside the royal palace.  He then took as his second wife a Vestal Virgin, a flagrant breach of Roman law, as Vestal Virgins were dedicated to the gods and required by law (under penalty of death) to remain celibate.  Elagabalus simply didn't care.  He did what he wanted at every turn, and his relationship with Heriocles was reportedly the last straw.  It wasn't long before his egotism got him assassinated. (Dio LXXX.12.22; Halsberghe, Le culte de Deus Sol Invictus; and Icks, The Crimes of Elagabalus: The Life and Legacy of Rome's Decadent Boy Emperor.)


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