From The New Republic (July 18 1994), 33-41
A Groom of One's Own?
By Brent D. Shaw
Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe
by John Boswell
(Villard Books, 412 pp., $25)
[Brent D. Shaw, currently at the Institute for Advanced Study
in Princeton, teaches history at the University of Lethbridge
in Lethbridge, Alberta.]
We find ourselves, all of us, in a historical crisis of gender.
It has produced highly charged arguments over "Amendment
2" to the constitution of Colorado, and over the various
legal actions that have stemmed from that controversial initiative.
In Ontario, one of the larger provinces in my own country, it
has produced acerbic debate and the defeat of a legislative bill
that would have recognized same-sex unions as "marital"
in nature, and would have granted them comparable rights and duties.
No small part of the disputation is about definitions--What is
a family? What is a marriage?--and about the social and political
consequences of these definitions.
The relationship of historians and their work to this crisis is
fraught and dangerous. The stakes are high. And so the appearance
of a large book by a well-known historian from Yale University
on what are, he says, historical precedents for homosexual marriages
in Christian society and their official recognition by the Christian
church, is bound to find a large readership and to stoke a vigorous
debate. The publisher's announcement excitedly warns that the
work is "bound to be as controversial as the publication
of the Dead Sea Scrolls." For John Boswell claims to have
discovered a series of medieval manuscripts that record Christian
church ceremonials for creating and blessing "same-sex unions"--for
what were, in effect, marriages between men.
Apart from a foray into the problem of abandoned infants in ancient
and early-modern European society, Boswell is best known for his
investigation of the problematic relations between male homosexuals
and the Christian church. His Christianity, Social Tolerance and
Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning
of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, which appeared
in 1980, was a learned and groundbreaking investigation of a subject
that the author rightly categorized as "taboo." More
than twelve years in the researching and writing, his new book
on same-sex unions is similarly intended to reshape our interpretations
of the past and our practices in the present.
Boswell attempts to demonstrate that "gay marriage ceremonies"
were an accepted part of the early Christian church, and that
the rituals that formalized such marriages were only later deliberately
and consciously effaced by the church. He laudably provides the
reader with transcriptions of the documents in the original Greek,
along with his own English translations of them. No less laudably,
he guides the reader through interpretations of his material that
differ from his own.
Since the material that Boswell has uncovered is unfamiliar and
impressive and controversial, it is perhaps best to give the reader
some sense of it--his own English version of the text of one of
these ceremonies. What follows is from an eleventh-century Greek
manuscript labeled Grottaferrata .B. ii, and I have inserted some
of the significant original Greek words in transcription.
Office for Same-Sex Union
[Akolouthia eis adelphopoiesin]
The priest shall place the holy Gospel on the Gospel stand
and they that are to be joined together place their right hands
on it, holding lighted candles in their left hands. Then shall
the priest cense them and say the following:
In peace we beseech Thee, O Lord.
For heavenly peace, we beseech Thee, O Lord.
For the peace of the entire world, we beseech Thee, O Lord.
For this holy place, we beseech Thee, O Lord.
That these thy servants, N. and N., be
sanctified with thy spiritual benediction, we beseech Thee, O
That their love [agape] abide without offense or scandal all the
their lives, we beseech Thee, O Lord.
That they be granted all things needed for salvation and godly
of life everlasting, we beseech Thee, O Lord.
That the Lord God grant unto them unashamed faithfulness [pistis]
sincere love [agape anhypokritos], we beseech Thee, O Lord....
Have mercy on us, O God.
"Lord, have mercy" shall be said three times.
The priest shall say:
Forasmuch as Thou, O Lord and Ruler, art merciful and loving,
who didst establish humankind after thine image and likeness,
who didst deem it meet that thy holy apostles Philip and Bartholomew
be united, bound one unto the other not by nature but by faith
and the spirit. As Thou didst find thy holy martyrs Serge and
Bacchus worthy to be united together [adelphoi genesthai], bless
also these thy servants, N. and N., joined together not by the
bond of nature but by faith and in the mode of the spirit [ou
desmoumenous desmi physeis alla pisteis kai pneumatikos tropi],
granting unto them peace [eirene] and love [agape] and oneness
of mind. Cleanse from their hearts every stain and impurity and
vouchsafe unto them to love one other [to agapan allelous] without
hatred and without scandal all the days of their lives, with the
aid of the Mother of God and all thy saints, forasmuch as all
glory is thine.
Another Prayer for Same-Sex Union
O Lord Our God, who didst grant unto us all those things necessary
for salvation and didst bid us to love one another and to forgive
each other our failings, bless and consecrate, kind Lord and lover
of good, these thy servants who love each other with a love of
the spirit [tous pneumatike agape heautous agapesantas] and have
come into this thy holy church to be blessed and consecrated.
Grant unto them unashamed fidelity [pistis] and sincere love [agape
anhypokritos], and as Thou didst vouchsafe unto thy holy disciples
and apostles thy peace and love, bestow them also on these, O
Christ our God, affording to them all those things needed for
salvation and life eternal. For Thou art the light and the truth
and thine is the glory.
Then shall they kiss the holy Gospel and the priest and one
another, and conclude.
It is this ceremonial, and blessings like these, that Boswell
claims to be part of a lost, or deliberately suppressed, tradition
of church-legitimized same-sex marriages between men.
Boswell's argument stands or falls on his interpretation of a
series of documents relating to a singular ritual practiced in
the Christian church during antiquity and the high middle ages,
principally in the lands of the eastern Mediterranean. The bonds
between men that are confirmed in these church rituals are cautiously
(and a little coyly) labeled by him as "same-sex unions."
For his arguments to have the force that he wishes them to have,
however, the words "same-sex" and "union"
must be construed to mean "male homosexual" and "marriage."
If they signify other sorts of associations that happened to be
same-sex in gender, or unions that were meant for purposes other
than marriage or a permanent affective union, then his claims
For this reason, the narrative chapters of his book are ancillary,
in that they digress on other aspects of the general problems
of marriage and family formation in a way that is designed to
support Boswell's claims about the supposed same-sex marriage
rituals. His larger investigation of the nature of "heterosexual"
marriage and love, and their attendant vocabulary in the Greco-Roman
world, is undertaken to demonstrate that his interpretation of
the "same-sex union" rituals is the most probable one.
Given the centrality of Boswell's "new" evidence, therefore,
it is best to begin by describing his documents and their import.
These documents are liturgies for an ecclesiastical ritual called
adelphopoiesis or, in simple English, the "creation of a
brother." Whatever these texts are, they are not texts for
marriage ceremonies. Boswell's translation of their titles (akolouthia
eis adelphopoiesin and parallels) as "The Order of Celebrating
the Union of Two Men" or "Office for Same-Sex Union"
is inaccurate. In the original, the titles say no such thing.
And this sort of tendentious translation of the documents is found,
alas, throughout the book. Thus the Greek words that Boswell translates
as "be united together" in the third section of the
document quoted above are, in fact, rather ordinary words that
mean "become brothers" (adelphoi genesthai); and when
they are translated in this more straightforward manner, they
impart a quite different sense to the reader.
Whatever effect these liturgical ceremonials were intended to
achieve, it is clear that they used ecclesiastical formalities
to make two men "brothers," and employed various rituals
and symbolic claims to confirm this relationship within the confines
of the church. All of Boswell's documents relate to practices
rooted in the societies of Greece, the Balkans and the eastern
Mediterranean between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries--though,
as he rightly argues, they surely reflect practices that were
current from periods dating back to the end of the Roman empire,
and probably earlier. The original documents that he cites are
therefore in Greek, the ecclesiastical lingua franca of the eastern
Mediterranean. The only Western versions of them are translations
made into Latin from the original Greek prayer and liturgical
books--wherein, notably, it seems that the Latin translators did
not understand the purpose of the originals very well.
The ecclesiastical rituals that bless adelphopoiesis, or the making
of a brother, include prayers and invocations of Christian virtues,
particularly agape, or the Christian concept of love. They note
that conditions of peace, not conditions of hate or vituperation,
should exist between the two parties. Appeal is also made to pairs
of men in the Christian tradition who were thought to exemplify
these virtues: Philip and Bartholomew, among the disciples of
Christ, and Serge and Bacchus, among the martyrs of the early
church. Other elements of the ceremonial include, most significantly,
the shaking or "juncture" of right hands; the exchanging
of tokens; the mutual bestowing of a ritualistic kiss; and the
holding of a celebratory feast or banquet to mark the occasion.
Such agreements and rituals are "same-sex" in the sense
that it is two men who are involved; and they are "unions"
in the sense that the two men involved are co-joined as "brothers."
But that is it. There is no indication in the texts themselves
that these are marriages in any sense that the word would mean
to readers now, nor in any sense that the word would have meant
to persons then: the formation of a common household, the sharing
of everything in a permanent co-residential unit, the formation
of a family unit wherein the two partners were committed, ideally,
to each other, with the intent to raise children, and so on.
Although it is difficult to state precisely what these ritualized
relationships were, most historians who have studied them are
fairly certain that they deal with a species of "ritualized
kinship" that is covered by the term "brotherhood."
(This type of "brotherhood" is similar to the ritualized
agreements struck between members of the Mafia or other "men
of honor" in our own society.) That explains why the texts
on adelphopoiesis in the prayerbooks are embedded within sections
dealing with other kinship-forming rituals, such as marriage and
adoption. Giovanni Tomassia in the 1880s and Paul Koschaker in
the 1930s, whose works Boswell knows and cites, had already reached
This likely interpretation is made more likely by an extensive
modern study of which Boswell appears to be unaware. In 1987 Gabriel
Herman, a professor of history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem,
published Ritualized Friendship and the Greek City. In that book,
and in several papers and articles on the subject published in
leading journals of history and literature, Herman has analyzed
the phenomenon of fictive "brotherhood" and "friendship"
in the context of the world of the Greek city-state, and also
in the cultures of the ancient Near East and in the regions that
would later become parts of Slavonic Europe. In Herman's studies
one finds all the phenomena regarded as indicative of "same-sex
marriage" by Boswell: the ritual of the handshake, the exchange
of tokens and right hands (dexiai), the declarations of love and
friendship and of "no hostility or animosity" between
the two parties, the exchange of a ritualistic kiss and the celebration
of a common feast or banquet at the time of the formation of the
Such ceremonials created ritualized friends who often spoke of
each other as "brothers" and forged a close bond of
brotherhood between themselves. They were "made brothers"
rather than "brothers by nature." Hence the terminology,
in Boswell's documents, of adelphopoiesis, or the ritual connected
with "the making of a brother," and the phrases in his
liturgical documents that specify that the two men "are not
joined by the bond of nature, but rather by means of faith/trust
and spirit," or similar words. This is why the documents
contain references to the right of "protective asylum"
(asylon anepereastos) and "safe conduct" (asphaleia)
as divine attributes.
The kinds of words used to express the new relationship of "brothers"
(words that are also found in Boswell's ecclesiastical rituals)
were employed precisely because the men often entered into these
relationships not out of love, but out of fear and suspicion.
Hence the effusive emphasis on safety and trust. These relationships
form as close a parallel in social institutions and practices
as one could wish to have as background to the church ceremonials
described in the texts cited by Boswell. Although such rituals
did create fictive kinship links between the parties to them,
these links were never mistaken or confused with the union of
marriage. They were not undertaken primarily for erotic or affective
reasons, for household formation, nor, even theoretically, for
the procreation of children and the continuation of household
There is only one segment of one document in Boswell's book that
contains part of a liturgical service designed for a marriage
ceremony: the fifth and sixth sections of the Grottaferrata manuscript
of the eleventh century. Its words, which do refer to a wedding
(gamos) and to the ceremonial use of crowns (stephanoi) in the
ritual "crowning" of the bride and groom, give Boswell
grounds to expatiate on the significance of these terms and the
ceremonials involved. But there is no mention here of a same-sex
union. From even a cursory reading of all of the documents, it
is apparent that the original text of the "making of a brother"
ceremony terminates at the end of section four of the manuscript
in question. What Boswell prints as section five and section six
of this document, as if they were a seamless continuation of the
ritual of adelphopoiesis, belong in fact to an entirely different
and separate document, which was indeed connected with a ceremony
of marriage. The questionable joining of the two documents as
if they were one enables Boswell to appeal throughout his main
text to the totality of the documents as if they are all variant
types of a marriage ceremonial, which they are not.
The rest of Boswell's book does nothing other than provide an
interpretive basis for the erroneous claims made about these documents,
and there is little in it that is new or significant. His first
chapter on "the vocabulary of love and marriage" rightly
emphasizes the ambiguity of the terms used to describe love and
marriage--he discusses, for example, the strong contextualization
of what "to love" or "to kiss" might mean.
But tendentious arguments constantly slip into the presentation.
Two examples will have to suffice.
To justify the reading of "love" in his sources as having
erotic content, Boswell has to demonstrate that the noun agape,
"love," and the verb agapan, "to love," could
be used to describe any sort of love relationship, including a
wholly erotic one. This is clearly not the case. Any thorough
study of the term agape will justify the traditional view that
this was an unusual Christian coinage when applied to love. It
signaled, as a novel virtue, an ability to accept and to embrace
one's entire condition as a part of a millennially transformed
world. As Boswell himself notes, the vocabulary of pre-Christian
physical and sexual love--for example, the verb eran, meaning
to love erotically--is almost wholly absent from the New Testament.
Although the Christian term agape did occasionally enter the discourse
of other late Greek writers as an alternative manner of expressing
physical or erotic love, such usages are extremely rare. But that
is hardly the point. What remains indisputable is the significance
of the word in ecclesiastical, theological and liturgical writings--in
the specific genres of Boswell's "same-sex union" documents.
Another misleading lexical interpretation is Boswell's treatment
of the word adelphos or "brother." He believes that
the word "brother" designates a homosexual lover. "The
term `brother,'" he writes, "was widely understood in
the Roman world to denote a permanent partner in a homosexual
relationship." This is a possible meaning in some genres
(in, say, Greco-Roman romantic novels); but context must be given
priority in interpretation, since it is context that determines
the meaning that was normally to be understood. One cannot abuse
a mere possibility as sufficient grounds for asserting that a
word, in this instance the word "brother," must have
had precisely this significance in a series of Christian liturgical
Boswell's tendency to misconstrue evidence extends beyond simple
matters of definition, however, to the very social institutions
that are central to his analysis. So, in his treatment of "heterosexual
matrimony" in the Greco-Roman world, he is careless not only
with proofs and concepts, but also with modern vocabulary. To
label matrimony in Roman society as "heterosexual,"
as Boswell consistently labels it, is misleading, since it suggests
that there was some form of "homosexual" matrimony recognized
by the same social order. The plain fact is that there never was
such a formally acknowledged alternative. Boswell describes marriages
in Roman society as things that were "primarily a property
arrangement" or "business deals"; he claims that
"divorce was very common"; and, perhaps most astoundingly,
he asserts that "children were not integral to the ideal
of marriage." A brief consideration of some of the best documented
upper-class families of the period, such as the family of Cicero,
will readily demonstrate that even on this highly property-conscious
level of society, marriage and marital relationships can hardly
be reduced to the crude scheme presented by Boswell.
As for the purpose of producing children, what else can one add
when the tabulae nuptiales, or marital agreements, which were
part of the contractual arrangements between the married couple,
specifically stated, in conformity with the norms espoused by
"pagan" philosophers and Christian bishops and theologians,
that marriage was primarily intended for the procreation of children,
or liberorum procreandorum causa? In all these matters, Boswell
creates a portrait of "heterosexual" marriages that
is a caricature, and not at all a fair reflection of the day-to-day
realities of such unions. Although he frequently cites Susan Treggiari's
Roman Marriage, the most recent comprehensive analysis of matrimony
in the Roman world, Boswell ignores Treggiari's basic findings:
that love and affection, a type of (admittedly asymmetrical) sexual
fidelity between the partners, the procreation of children, the
sharing of resources, the hope of a lifelong union only to be
ended by death and other such ideals were central to the Roman
concept and the Roman practice of marriage.
It must be admitted that the problems and readings of family history
faced by Boswell are of a very high order of difficulty. The best
historians who have tried to cope with definitions of marriage
and the family in the past have often found themselves in an obstinate
morass, for past practices were no less diverse and nebulous than
those of the present, and the gap between ideological presentations
of family life and the realities of family life was no less difficult
to gauge. One can no more speak of the model Roman family than
one can speak of the model American family today. The potential
variation was great. Then, as now, the model of what a family
was relied upon tacit negative definitions or assumptions about
what it was not.
Still, the definitions that we do have, the pre-Christian Roman
ones, legal and literary, and the later Christian theological
and canonical ones, are unanimous in regarding marriage or matrimonium
invariably as a union of opposite sexes: male and female. The
core Roman legal definition of marriage is explicit on the matter.
It quite consciously and deliberately does not refer to distinctions
of social status (husband and wife as maritus and uxor), or even
to those of gender (man and woman as vir and femina), but instead
it rather carefully refers to sexual differences, and defines
marriage as the joining of male and female, coniunctio maris et
feminae. (I refer to Digest, 23.2.11, and also 1.1.3, where marriage
is explicitly associated with the procreation of children.)
This sexual definition was explicit and constant, while the romantic,
loving or affective elements were variable. Hence different expectations
of such a union are expressed; but no possibility is ever considered
other than one constituted of these basic elements. Similarly,
what a family was varied in terms of space, time, life cycle,
region, culture and social class. It began with postulates of
marriage and family formation by means of children, but it then
diverged from these central assumptions and legal definitions.
A single man, if he was a legally autonomous person, together
with his household of personal slaves, would constitute a familia.
There were numerous deviations, then, from the core definition,
numerous possibilities; but there were always limits, negative
frontiers were always encountered and beyond them there never
existed any conception that the union of two males could possibly
constitute a family--even in cases of the frereche, the consortium
or sharing of property between two unmarried brothers.
As in most historical societies, formal definitions, elastic practices
and assumed boundaries regarding family and marriage existed simultaneously
in Rome. Some of them stood in manifest contradiction. One of
the dominant models of the Roman familia in the legal codes was
that of a multigenerational male descent lineage under the domination
of a very powerful and senior household head, the "father
of the family" or paterfamilias. But the tendency of most
Roman families that were not in the propertied elite, and that
formed the majority of the population in the cities and towns
of the empire, was to the continual re-forming of small "nuclear"
or elementary families. The power elite, needless to say, lived
in a rather different sexual and familial world, and it is the
world that overwhelmingly dominates our surviving literary records.
It would be a mistake to take the legally prescriptive texts of
the wealthy and the powerful as offering realistic definitions
of family and marriage for most persons in this society. While
recognizing some of the complexity of Roman marriage and family
patterns, Boswell leaves the matter there. He does not advance
to an explicit recognition of the fact that, all the haziness
notwithstanding, there were well-known and firmly set boundaries
to the conception and the conduct of marriage in the Roman world.
To sustain his argument, Boswell must constantly tear words, sentences
and larger statements out of the social and literary contexts
in which they were embedded. Of this, I will give only a single
example, but it is a particularly characteristic one. The essay
titled Toxaris, which was composed by the second-century Greek
writer Lucian, is invoked several times by Boswell to demonstrate
the intense homoerotic content of unions formed between two men,
and to sustain one of his arguments that such "friendships"
were in fact male marriages. The problem is that a few lines or
paragraphs wrenched from the context of the whole work impart
a distorted picture to the reader of what is actually happening.
Lucian's essay is a fictitious dialogue between a Greek called
Mnesippos and a Scythian named Toxaris on the subject of "friendship"
(philia) between men. It is not just any sort of friendship, however,
but precisely the sort of "ritualized" or fictive friendship
between two powerful and potentially hostile men that has been
cogently analyzed by Herman. Whatever homoerotic feelings and
sentiments might have been part of the affective content of such
a relationship, and there is no denying that in some cases homosexual
men may have found emotional satisfaction in such socially sanctioned
"friendship," this does not add up to an understanding
of the social institution itself, and it certainly does not make
it a "same-sex union" in the sense of being a marriage.
It is this kind of decontextualization that permits Boswell to
string together isolated pieces of evidence that lead him in the
The text of Lucian's Toxaris is important, since Boswell uses
it as a critical proof for one of "three types of formal
unions," of which "more detail is known." This
union, he argues at length, was a type of same-sex union of two
men, explicitly stating that it is a strict analogue to "heterosexual"
marriage. The positive evidence that Boswell adduces in support
of same-sex marriage practices is worth examining in detail. As
the Scythian Toxaris makes clear in his summation of Mnesippos's
examples of "friendship" between men in Greek societies
of the time, such friendships permit these men to achieve heroic
deeds. But note what such accomplishments are: marrying an ugly
wife without a dowry, giving money to the amount of two talents
to the daughter of a friend on her marriage, and the sharing of
a period of temporary imprisonment.
When the Scythian Toxaris gives examples of male philia in his
own society, he begins by noting that the Greeks "have no
great occasions at all" on which to display their philia
because they live in conditions of "profound peace,"
or eirene batheia. The Scythians, by contrast, are constantly
involved in war and fighting. The words of Toxaris that follow
are worth quoting not only because Boswell repeatedly avers to
them, but also because they provide us with one of the closest
analogues to the relationship referred to in his ecclesiastical
*First of all, I wish to tell you how we make our friends. Not
through being drinking buddies, like you people do, not because
a man has been in army cadet training with us [synephebos] and
not because he's our neighbor. No. When we see a brave man capable
of achieving great things, it's then that we all become eager
to get close to him. And just as you behave when you are trying
to get married, we think it right to behave in this same way in
forming friends--wooing them at great length and with much effort,
and doing everything to ensure that we do not lose their friendship
and are rejected. Then when the decision has been made to accept
someone as a friend [philos], an agreement is made and a great
oath is sworn that we will live together and, if necessary, even
die for each other. We actually do this. For when we have cut
our fingers, let the blood drip into a cup, dipped our sword points
into it and then, together, both at the same time have raised
it to our lips and have drunk, there is nothing that happens afterwards
that can possibly break the link between us. We are allowed to
enter into three such alliances at most, since we think that a
man who has [too] many friends [polyphilos] is like immoral and
adulterous women, and we consider that the strength of his friendship
is no longer the same when it has been split between [too] many
loyalties [pollai eunoiai].
This is a distorting "colonialist" fiction, a Greek
writer imagining what the barbarians do, and therefore a literary
interpretation of the lived realities of Scythian life. Still,
there is enough in the account that is reliable to make a basic
assumption in it clear: that the fictional Scythian speaker is
not referring to anything like same-sex male marriages, but rather
to an intense social bond that was formed between men of power
for the purpose of coping with the lack of formal institutions
in their society and the violent behavior that pervaded it. He
likens the actions undertaken by Scythian men in forming this
bond to the sorts of rituals used by the civilized and peaceful
Greeks in the pursuit of the women whom they wish to make their
wives. But the comparison is clearly and forcefully signaled as
a metaphor, as a social simile. Scythian "friendship"
is clearly not marriage, since most of the men are described as
having wives and children, and Toxaris's third story of such a
"friendship" involves three "friends" assisting
one of their own to achieve a marriage--to help the man in the
successful pursuit of the woman whom he loves and wishes to wed.
Toxaris specifically states that the purposes of forming such
male alliances are personal protection and violence: raiding;
the conduct of wars and vengeance; the protection of possessions
of herds, pasture lands and wagons; the defense of community.
He provides illustrations of how such ritual friendship or philia
allows men to marshal the resources of kin and friends to assemble
whole armies, and to use the ascribed power of blood rituals,
compacts, promises and exchanges of tokens to control resources
vital to their survival. The details of this philia given by Toxaris
sometimes involve three men simultaneously, though it is clear
that such men also have families, wives and children and other
species of property that these personal alliances were meant to
protect and to subserve. These "friendships" are specifically
stated as giving men power to effect aims that they would not
be able to achieve on their own. But here is Boswell's recapitulation
of these philia relationships between Scythian men:
*They [artificial kinship relations} were often, for example,
symbolic ratifications of peace, pledges of cooperation between
warriors or peoples, or means of forming ties between families
or tribes... But there is absolutely no suggestion of any of these
functions in Toxaris's description of the Scythian practice...there
is no indication that any other family or tribal members are involved;
and the bond is not presented as political or strategic, or as
having any broader social significance than personal emotional
attachment. Its significance is manifestly and unmistakably personal
Apart from Boswell's hyperbolic denials of direct statements in
the Toxaris, there is little I can say except that he and I must
be reading different texts.
Boswell then juxtaposes three texts from Roman legal codes and
claims that they demonstrate his "third type of formal same-sex
union," which involved the legal practice of "collateral
adoption": one man adopted another as his brother and hence
as a marital partner. These matters are legal and complex, and
it is best to take them in turn. The first text (Digest.38.2.59)
says nothing at all about adoption. It merely states the conditions
under which a person can nominate someone as an heir to his or
her property. The jurist Paul then adds that if someone is not
a biological brother but you treat him as one, you may call the
person by the name "brother" when you designate him
as heir, and the testament will still be valid. That is all. There
is nothing said about adopting the person. The second passage
(Digest, 38.8.3) does indeed mention "adoptive brothers,"
but from the context it seems clear that the jurist is treating
nothing other than the ordinary problem of siblings, one of whom
might happen to be adopted, and the consequences that would follow
from this fact for inheritance.
So far, therefore, there is no evidence whatever for adult mails
adopting other adult men as their brothers. The singular reference
to such a possibility is contained in a late third-century legal
decision issued by the Roman emperors (Codex Justinianus, 6.24.7).
It is a solitary case referring to an eastern Mediterranean context
that was not understood by the emperors themselves. In any event,
they denied the legal validity of the attempt at fraternal adoption.
That is it. Boswell then claims that scholars have deliberately
refused to consider the institution of adult men adopting other
men as their "brothers" as a formal type of homosexual
union, "because it could not be honestly considered in the
moral and intellectual climate of Europe or the United States
in the last two centuries." "The only convincing explanation
for collateral adoption," he continues, "would seem
to be its peculiar personal and emotional value, about which scholars
writing in the last century have shown so slight a curiosity as
to border on aversion." This verges on paranoia. Except for
one brief imperial legal decision, there is no evidence for the
supposed institutional practice of adult male adoption as a form
of same-sex marriage. The uniqueness and the lack of context of
that one legal ruling, and not any malign conspiracy of silence,
are more than sufficient to account for the lack of scholarly
Boswell's analysis of the Christian church and matrimony is designed
to downplay the former's concerns with family formation and marriage,
and thus to reduce the latter to a more secular, contractual relationship
that would be more easily transferable to "same-sex unions."
He ends his discussion with an extensive analysis of the late
antique and early medieval hagiographical accounts of the Roman
soldier-martyrs Serge and Bacchus. The data adduced are peculiar
selections that favor his own interpretation. Thus, in Boswell's
words, the public parading of miscreants as a punishment either
by itself, or as a prelude to execution, "does recall the
penalty for homosexual acts described by Procopius, Malalas and
Theophanes." Those authors, alluded to the same ritualistic
punishment for pederastic relations. But the fact is that his
punishment was in no way especially limited to persons committing
"homosexual acts." Public exposure, and the humiliation
achieved by parading criminals through public streets, was habitually
enforced on many types of outcasts in the Roman empire, including
Christians. The use of the punishment might hint at an element
of homoerotic relations between Serge and Bacchus, but not necessarily,
since the entire martyrological account has them executed because
they were Christians, and for no other reason.
Boswell's analysis of "same-sex unions" is on firmer
ground when he creates a typology that extends from males who
were sexually exploited by other men because they were dominated
or owned by them to free and volitional relationships between
male lovers. But the leap to the formation of permanent relations
that were in fact marital - "the fourth type of homosexual
relationship known in the ancient world consisted of formal unions"
- is not underwritten by any solid or persuasive data. Almost
all his examples are ones repeated from his first book - for example,
the vituperative attacks by the imperial biographers Suetonius
and the historian Tacitus on the extravagant behavior of Nero,
including his "marriage" to one Sporus. But neither
Suetonius nor Tacitus regards this "union" as a genuine
marriage, and the entire effect of their explicit condemnation
of Nero's behavior is founded on the assumption that their readers
share the same view.
Language, context and assumed meaning clearly show that the other
Roman authors cited by Boswell, including the satirist Martial,
were never remotely referring to a separate and parallel sphere
of male "same-sex marriages," but rather to what they
perceived as a perversion of the only known, and acceptable, type
of marriage. That is what made their satire work. It was designed,
after all, as an aggressive attack on the character of the disparaged
person. Hence it is astounding to see Boswell reach the conclusion,
on the basis of a single passage from Juvenal's Satires, that
homosexual marriages were "absolutely commonplace."
If that were so, Juvenal's lines would lack the wit and the mordant
punch that were obviously intended by their author. Such lapses
are, alas, too frequent in Boswell's attempt to provide a literary
and historical basis for his argument. Boswell translates a passage
from the Greek historian Xenophon as "the man and the boy
live together like married people," only to admit in a footnote
that "like married people is not literally expressed."
In fact, the words are not in the original at all; they are gratuitously
provided by Boswell.
The practices and the rituals performed by the men in Boswell's
documents, and also the emotional and erotic connections that
are so richly described by him, may seem unusual or frightening
to us, given our codes of civility, morality and masculinity.
There is a nice irony here: the ancient and medieval world about
which Boswell writes was not riven by the same anxieties and repressions
that mark our own. In that world, public and affective bonds between
men were typical, even banal. But this is not the same thing as
the legitimization, or the sacralization, of homosexuality. The
"new" documents that Boswell has unearthed are nothing
more than a few additional texts that shed more light on a primitive
and basic power linkage between men in the ancient Mediterranean,
and the rituals attendant on its formation. By the time Boswell's
ecclesiastical documents celebrated or blessed this type of personal
arrangement, it had been brought at least partially under the
aegis of the Christian church. As the structures of the law and
the civil institutions of the state became more dominant, particularly
in Western Europe, the church wished to divest itself of a ceremonial
that was intended to substantiate a type of personal power that,
in synchrony with the state, it now excoriated. Ritualized friendship
naturally survived much longer in parts of the eastern Mediterranean,
and especially in the mountainous regions of the Balkans, where
more primitive forms of personal power have tended to subsist.
There might well have been homoerotic elements to some of these
"brotherhood" relationships, and a rather alien Greek
ritual may have been misunderstood by some of its Latin translators;
both of those possibilities deserve more attention than they have
received by historians. But same-sex marriages forged with the
approval of the Christian church, and with its rituals? No. Such
a reading is very misleading.
The data of the past may not be all that happy for the liberationist
movements of our time. Why else would these movements come into
being? But what the sources record is, for better or for worse,
what the sources record. A good part of what they record, certainly,
is made up of systematic and successful repressions, but tinkering
with the moral balance of the past is a disservice to the study
of history and to the reform of society. The past is dead. We
cannot change it. What we can change is the future; but the way
to a better future requires and unsentimental and accurate understanding
of what happened in the past, and why. A more civil and humane
modernity will not be achieved by tendentious misreadings of antiquity.