The ancient world of Greece and Rome differed vastly from the world today. Laws, economy, religion, society- all were a stark contrast to the way of life we now take for granted. While some ideals and norms have been adapted, others, such as the social acceptance of homosexuality, have been crushed so fiercely and for so long that it is easy to forget that they were ever acceptable at all, and more importantly why they fell. The rise of Christianity in ancient Rome was the cause of the decline of social acceptance of homosexuality in the western world.
Today homosexuality is an uncomfortable, even scary topic for many, but in the ancient world it was commonplace. In Greece, men and women were expected to marry to produce offspring, but society did not necessarily encourage love between them. Men and women lived very separate lives, and had little in common. Society considered love between males to fall in line with other social values like athletic skill, military courage and the idealized male form (horse shoe). Eventually, a relationship became about who was in charge rather than about the genders of the members; as long as the dominant member was male, the passive member could be either male or female. Greeks, especially aristocrats, often practiced pederasty, in which an older man, dubbed erastes, would form a relationship with a younger boy, eromenos. The older lover would care for the younger, mentor him and shower him with gifts in the hopes of returned affection until the younger was old enough to be married, at which point the relationship would end. The Greeks were also known to use homosexuality as a military advantage: the Sacred Band of Thebes, an elite military group, consisted of pairs of male lovers who fought and died together. Reports from a military perspective indicate that the Theban Band was exceptionally powerful and prestigious. Not much is known about female homosexuality at this time, though the poet Sappho and author Plutarch both wrote of it.
When Rome gained power, its society borrowed much from the Greeks, including the concept of homosexuality. Though acceptance of homosexuality in Rome waxed and waned depending on the era, it was no less present than in Greece. The emperor Hadrian, though married to a woman, was openly homosexual and had a male lover, Antonius, who became revered as a cult figure. Many Roman poets, too, wrote love poetry to and about both men and women. Greeks and Romans were not often strictly homo- or heterosexual, but rather were bisexual. Though this dynamic may seem bizarre today, it is important to remember that in the ancient world, marriage was more of a business or social contract than a commitment based on love.
Though for years homosexuality had been socially acceptable, it became more and more unpopular with the rise of Christianity. Beginning in 324 AD, the Roman emperor Constantine found success in battle and began to attribute it to the Christian god. With the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, he officially ceased all persecution of Christians and helped to encourage its growth. Within the next 200 years, Christianity grew to be the majority religion in Rome, and with it grew the popularity of its social values. Early Christians were often celibate, refusing any type of sexual relationship. Even those who weren’t held the idea that any physical liaison that doesn’t result in children is sinful. Moreover, homosexuality threatened the dynamic of a nuclear family which was so important to the Christian way of life. Though condemnation of homosexuality is found primarily in the Old Testament of the Bible, Christians have maintained criticism of the act through the years, so that even in a modern world homosexuality is largely frowned upon.
Before the rise of Christianity, homosexuality was widely regarded as socially acceptable. Today, though Christianity is no longer the majority religion, society looks down on the idea. Furthermore, the masses respond to homosexual individuals with ridicule, contempt and judgment. While it is true that the Old Testament of the Christian Bible has several references to the evils of homosexuality, the Christian God, especially in the New Testament, offers a message of unconditional love which is not at all represented by the actions and words of those who treat homosexuality with such hatred. Perhaps, then, though homosexuality will most likely never be as accepted in the modern west as it was in ancient times, those who jump to hatred and judgment so easily may remember the past and use it to check themselves, rather than make a judgment they are not entitled to make.