of Homosexuality: From Greek to Grim to Gay
York Times, December 13, 2003
229 W. 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036
By Edward Rothstein
In Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” which
concludes tomorrow night on HBO, homosexuality is associated with religious
martyrdom; salvation is found in the embrace of sexual identity. In American
courts, homosexuality is being associated with bourgeois family life;
salvation is being sought in social routine.
And in Louis Crompton’s sober, searching and somber new
history, “Homosexuality and Civilization,” homosexuality is associated
with the inner workings of civilization itself. The book provides the
background to the resentments and passions that erupt in Mr. Kushner’s play
and haunt debates about gay marriage, and it, too, offers a promise of
It begins in the gladness of early Greece, where
homosexuality had an “honored place” for more than a millennium and
concludes with the madness of 19th-century Europe. In between is what Mr.
Crompton calls a “kaleidoscope of horrors” lasting more than 1,500 years.
In the 13th century, a French law stated: “Whoever is proved to be a
sodomite shall lose his testicles. And if he does it a second time, he shall
lose his member. And if he does it a third time, he shall be burned.”
Beginning in 1730 in the Netherlands, 250 trials of “sodomites” took
place, followed by at least 75 executions. Between 1806 and 1835, 60
homosexuals were hanged in England.
Mr. Crompton, an emeritus professor of English at the
University of Nebraska and the author of “Byron and Greek Love,” a
much-praised study of Byron’s sexuality, was one of the first American
professors some 30 years ago to teach the history of homosexuality, a project
that was at the time both daring and inherently polemical.
But this is a restrained, careful, clear book of
scholarly exposition; it is no martyrology. It also hopes to be a post-mortem.
Mr. Crompton ends the book “at the moment when executions finally cease in
Europe,” promising both the fading of homosexuality’s stigma and the slow
healing of its stigmata.
But what led to this “kaleidoscope of horrors”? In
ancient Greece, homosexuality was philosophically praised and institutionally
sanctioned, associated with virtues of courage and mentorship. In ancient
Rome, it was primarily cultivated in relationships between masters and slaves,
but homosexual behavior was common to Pompey, Caesar, Mark Antony and Octavius.
“Of the first 15 emperors,” Gibbon pointed out, “Claudius was the only
one whose taste in love was entirely correct.”
Why did such indulgence, tolerance and even sanction
disappear? Mr. Crompton offers a very different interpretation from the
influential theory outlined by the French philosopher Michel Foucault. In Mr.
Crompton’s view, the concept of homosexuality was not something created in
19th-century Europe when it was first considered a medical condition, nor was
it, despite cultural variations, so drastically different in other times and
Mr. Crompton argues that Christianity created the most
radical change in attitudes toward homosexuality. “The debt owed by
civilization to Christianity is enormous,” he writes; but so, he believes,
have been Christianity’s sins. In Japan, for example, before the
mid-19th-century Western influence, homosexuality was “an honored way of
life among the country’s religious and military leaders so that its
acceptance paralleled, and in some respects even surpassed, ancient Athens.”
It was common among Buddhist sages, part of samurai culture and an accepted
aspect of the Kabuki theater world.
Christianity attacked such customs when it gained access,
Mr. Crompton argues, but its assault began in the West as early as the 4th
century (not the 12th century, he says, as the historian John Boswell
Mr. Crompton traces Christian hostility to Leviticus,
which may have been written around 550 B.C., at the very time that homoerotic
poetry was thriving in Greece. It mandated death for homosexual acts. Mr.
Crompton suggests that this law was an attempt to differentiate the Jews from
Mediterranean cults in which transvestite priests, eunuchs and sexual activity
played a central role in ritual and worship.
As filtered through the severity of the writings of the
Apostle Paul, though, that condemnation became central to Christianity,
strictly distinguishing it from Roman and pagan cultures. In Mr. Crompton’s
view, it also ended up influencing the later criminal codes of France, Spain,
England, the Holy Roman Empire, the Italian states and Scandinavia.
Judging from this history, though, prohibition seems to
have been unable to quash the practice in any social class; in the European
aristocracy, at any rate, it flourished. In 1610, when Louis XIII came to the
French throne, Mr. Crompton notes, “one ‘sodomite,’ James I, ruled
England, Scotland, and Ireland; another, Rudolph II, presided over the Holy
Roman Empire; and France had its second homosexual king within a
The relationship between homosexuality and political
liberty is also marked by peculiarities. Mr. Crompton points out that by the
Enlightenment, in Roman Catholic countries anticlerical feeling swept ancient
antisodomy laws away, along with the church’s authority. But countries
already affected by the Reformation had no need to rebel; their antisodomy
legislation remained intact. So by the 19th century, homosexuality was
tolerated far more in countries like France, Spain and Italy than in England,
the Netherlands or the United States.
What, then, does contemporary salvation consist of? For
Mr. Crompton, it is heralded by figures like Jeremy Bentham, who argued for
reform of antisodomy laws in the late 18th century. But history, while it
provides context for contemporary debates, offers no clear guidance.
Homosexuality in ancient Greece and Rome, for example, involved pederasty, and
in Rome, slavery. Liberal democracy has recognized that neither is compatible
with human autonomy; both take advantage of those unable to exercise their
will and reason fully. So whatever evolves in coming years will not be based
on past models but on ones yet to evolve, models in which martyrdom, at the
very least, should become superfluous.