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How Queer Was the Roman Empire? Very.

How Queer Was the Roman Empire? Very.

How Queer Was the Roman Empire? Very.

Someone should tell Speaker Mike Johnson that while the Roman Empire was pretty queer, according to historians, that wasn't what caused its fall.

Almost every day since Mike Johnson was elected speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, some evidence of his virulently anti-LGBTQ+ views has emerged. Among the latest is that he promoted the familiar trope that the fall of the Roman Empire was caused by homosexuality.

Homophobes have been parroting this for years, while historians have debated just how queer the empire was. Most historians have concluded that there was some acceptance of gay sex in ancient Rome, but they vary in opinions about the degree of acceptance — and they’re pretty much in agreement that no, the gays didn’t cause the great empire to crash.

Same-sex activity in the empire was all tied up with issues of class and who was doing what to whom, according to some notable historians. “Men were free to engage in homosexual relationships, so long as they were the active partner with the penetrative power, and the submissive partner was considered to be lower in society than them,” ancient history expert Ollie Burns wrote in a 2021 blog post for the University of Birmingham in the U.K. “For example, a free Roman man would not be subject to any form of discrimination if he engaged in sexual activity with a male slave, former slave, prostitute, or actor, but coitus with another man of the same social class would be taboo, as the act of being penetrated as a male was seen to encroach on a man’s integrity and compromised his status.” It was seen as feminine — the gods forbid!

Harry F. Rey, a gay Scottish author, echoed this assertion. In ancient Rome, he wrote in a 2020 blog post, “It was normal to have sexual relations with other men; slaves, prostitutes, or other non-citizens. The issue for Romans, unlike for the Greeks, was whether or not the man was a bottom, or a top.” Having too much sex, he continued, was frowned upon to the same degree as bottoming, whether the partner was of the same sex or opposite.

Burns and others have noted that being gay was not seen as an identity in ancient Rome. In Latin, Burns pointed out, there is no word for homosexuality or heterosexuality. So the Romans might have agreed with Mike Johnson’s view that being gay is not something you are but something you do, even though modern LGBTQ+ people and allies recognize how wrongheaded this idea is.

Burns added that males in their teens were the most acceptable partners for older men. Antinous, a lover of Emperor Hadrian, died by drowning at age 20, and there has been speculation that the drowning was not an accident but murder, as Antinous was aging out of the range in which the relationship would be approved by society. However, it seems unlikely that Hadrian was the perpetrator, as he was said to have suffered great grief at Antinous’s death, and he elevated his late lover to the status of a god.

Several other emperors have been reported to have had gay relationships, including Trajan, Nero, and Julius Caesar. Rey contends almost all of them did. “Of the roughly 70 Roman Emperors across 500 years, from Augustus to Romulus Augustulus, perhaps only one, Claudius, is someone who we could say with some certainty was straight,” he wrote.

As the empire was a male-dominated society, less is known (or speculated) about relationships between women. But Hadrian’s wife, Sabina, was close to her lady-in-waiting, Julia Balbilla, a poet who extolled “the beloved figure of our queen” in one of her verses. “Was Balbilla Sabina’s lover as well as her lady-in-waiting?” the Museum of London’s senior archeology curator, Francis Grew, asked rhetorically in an article for the museum’s website.

Elagabalus, who was emperor for four years in the third century C.E. — from age 14 to 18 — was “perhaps the gayest emperor of all,” according to Rey. Elagabalus could be described as a “twink” and may have been nonbinary or a transgender woman, Rey wrote. The young emperor was married four times, once to a male chariot driver, and “often wore makeup, wigs and dresses, often used female pronouns, and offered vast sums to any doctor who could perform bottom surgery,” the writer noted. Elagabalus was put in power by their grandmother (Rey uses gender-neutral pronouns for the emperor), and the grandmother later ordered their assassination.

Eighteenth-century Englishman Edward Gibbon, who wrote the monumental work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, painted Elagabalus as depraved and incapable of ruling, therefore bearing much responsibility for the fall. This is unfair, in Rey's view. “They are hardly a consequential emperor,” he wrote. “Rome was already rushing headlong into its crisis phase, brought about as much as by internal inability to deal with external threats than the threads stitched by emperors like Caracalla and Elagabalus. It was thanks to a series of generals who were unable to stop rebelling against each other and effectively deal with the Gothic invasions from the north and east which precipitated the dangerous decline, not a young queer emperor quite likely immensely enjoying themselves among the gladiator class.”

Some historians have continued blaming the fall on the gays. Roberto De Mattei, an ultraconservative Italian author and professor, trotted out the idea as recently as 2011, saying the invaders were God’s justice visited on the queer empire. “The invasion of the barbarians was seen as punishment for this moral transgression,” he said on a radio show that year. “It is well known effeminate men and homosexuals have no place in the kingdom of God. Homosexuality was not rife among the barbarians, and this shows God’s justice comes throughout history.”

De Mattei was widely criticized for his remarks. The same year, he said a major earthquake and tsunami in Japan were divine punishment as well.

At any rate, economic problems, internal dissension, and invasions were what caused the fall of Rome, not the gays, most reputable historians say. The end of the empire is generally placed at 476 C.E. The empire had already been split between eastern and western portions, and the eastern one, governed from Constantinople (now Istanbul), became known as the Byzantine Empire and lasted until the 15th century.

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