At last a conservative Catholic source has admitted what I and others have often pointed out: same – sex marriage is not, after all, new, and legal recognition is not “redefining” it.
Under the heading Gay Marriage—Nothing New Under the Sun, Benjamin Wiker writes:
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.
What Christians are fighting against today, then, is not yet another sexual innovation peculiar to our “enlightened age,” but the return to pre-Christian, pagan sexual morality.
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.
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.
Wiker is of course, opposed to marriage equality, and so continues to quote Roman sources to prove that even they were disgusted by the practice. The examples he quotes deserve close attention, because there’s an important point he misses (or avoids), one which clarifies for me the real lesson behind the apparent condemnation of same – sex relationships in Paul’s letter to the Romans.
In every one of the examples Wiker quotes, it is not both parties in a same – sex marriage that evoke disgust, but the one who presents himself as a bride.
It’s not difficult to find examples of Nero’s moral decadence, but the extract from Tacitus Wiker describes how “The emperor, in the presence of witnesses, put on the bridal veil. Dowry, marriage bed, wedding torches, all were there”.
He continues with two well – known epigrams from Martial, one of which (I.24) describes a man who “played the bride yesterday,” and In another (12.42) he says mockingly, “Bearded Callistratus gave himself in marriage to…Afer, in the manner in which a virgin usually gives herself in marriage to a male.
Then there’s Juvenal’s Second Satire (117), with Gracchus, “arraying himself in the flounces and train and veil of a bride,”
Finally, Wiker describes the emperor Eliagabulus, who “considered his male chariot driver to be his husband,” and loved to dress up as a queen
It is not surprising that with all his quotations from the Romans to demonstrate the supposed revulsion of contemporary moralists against the practice of same – sex marriage, Wiker does not produce a single one that is critical of the man taking the part of the groom, for the simple reason that there was no such condemnation. For the Romans, as Wiker makes clear, sexual relationships between men were commonplace, and seen as entirely natural. What was shameful was for a male citizen to take a subordinate sexual role to a social inferior – to women, to slaves, or even to other men.
Wiker is writing specifically about gay marriage, so he can be excused for not drawing attention to another element of the Roman literary tradition, but which is important for queer Christians who need to understand the context of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Where the conventions on appropriate sexual roles and relative status were observed, sexual relationships between men were not only acceptable, but could even be praised. Vergil, for instance, portrays the love between Nisus and Euryalus as pius, and endorsing it as “honorable, dignified and connected to central Roman values.”
In Romans I, Paul describes how men gave themselves up to lust and “shameful acts” with each other. But he is writing after all, to the Romans – who, as we know did not see sexual acts between men as inherently shameful in themselves, but only where the sexual roles were taken by men of inappropriate status. So, as in the examples above, a man taking the part of a bride was derided – but not his partner taking the groom’s part. A citizen making sexual use of a male slave, or of a freedman, would have been seen as normal and natural – but a man who took the passive part, and allowed himself to be penetrated by a slave, or by a male prostitute, was scorned. For women, in the same way, “unnatural lusts” were not necessarily for other women, but could also include sexual practices with their husbands in which they took the dominant role, or anything outside the classical missionary position.
Wiker’s description of gay marriage in ancient Rome turns out to be helpful, in illustrating how Paul’s letter to the Romans may not be the clear condemnation of homosexuality it is commonly assumed to be.