Louis Crompton is a pioneer of gay studies. He helped organise perhaps the first such course in 1970, which prompted a state legislator to propose a bill that would ban such courses except at the state medical school (the bill failed). But, as Crompton says, it was a reminder of sodomy as peccatum mutum, the silent sin (p.xi).
His Homosexuality and Civilization cannot, of course, cover its declared subject matter. The author restricts himself to Classical antiquity, Christendom, medieval Islam, Imperial China and pre-Meiji Japan. But that is still an enormous range, which he covers magnificently, clearly the results of decades of research.
A fundamental problem in covering homosexuality across such a cultural and historical range is the problem of definition—is homosexuality just a social construction or is there a continuing human type? Crompton focuses on the enduring. In his words whatever the vocabulary, two elements are present—the sexual fact and the possibility of human love and devotion (p.xiv). Which is enough to be getting on with.
Greeks and Jews
Crompton starts with Early Greece 776—480 BCE, taking us through literature and biography. Two same-sex lovers, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, the original tyrannicides, were the enduring icons of Athenian democracy. Associating love between men with free politics was a rhetorical commonplace in Classical Greece: including a popular drinking song sung for at least seven centuries after the original act (Pp25ff).
Then to Judea 900 BCE—600 BCE: or Leviticus, Sodom and all that. Crompton points out that the Levitical prohibition extended to any stranger that sojourneth among you, so is one of the Noachid precepts, binding on all humanity. Crompton notes that the shifting characterization of the sin of Sodom: What we may call the “Sodom of selfish wealth” considerably predates the later Philonic-Patristic conception of the “homosexual Sodom” (p.39).
Dismissing as dubious the “keep population up” explanation for the Levitical prohibition, and the Sodom story as scarcely relevant, (p.39) Crompton considers the kedeshim or “holy ones”, temple prostitutes, arguing that the Levitical prohibition makes sense as reflecting concern for religious and tribal solidarity (p.43) given the use of “third sex” priests in various of the surrounding polytheisms.
Crompton properly gives considerable attention to Philo of Alexander, a Jewish philosopher at the time of Christ and St Paul who sought to reconcile Mosaic law with Platonic philosophy (particularly Platonic natural law philosophy), the only Jewish writer from antiquity (that has come down to us) who dealt with homosexuality in any detail. Though a faithful Jew all his life, Philo was so widely read by Church fathers as to be regarded as almost a Father of the Church himself (Pp 43-4).
Philo’s intellectual importance is that he brought together Jewish and Greek thinking. Indeed, it is very likely that St Paul’s use of the term unnatural (para physin)—which occurs nowhere else in Scripture other than Paul’s Epistles—was due to Philo’s influence. St Paul was, after, very interested in speaking to Gentiles, so Philo’s interweaving of Platonic thinking and the Judaic Scriptural tradition had to be an attractive model.
It is to Philo that the Western world owes the marriage of Plato’s notion that same-sex activity is unnatural (i.e. is not done by animals: a claim that is quite false) to the Levitical prohibition and the story of Sodom. Philo was very firm that men who acted like women deserved death, thought apostates from Judaism should be killed by mob action, was homicidally revolted by effeminate priests parading through Alexandria and justified the Levitical prohibition applying to both active and passive partner because such sexual activity renders cities desolate and uninhabited by destroying the means of procreation (p.46). Philo’s homicidal intolerance—his damning of same-sex activity as unnatural, his construal of the sin of Sodom being same-sex activity, his insistence that death was the appropriate penalty—became the basic template for Christian attitudes to homosexuality.
Hebrew scriptures make no mention of lesbianism and the Talmud explicitly states that female-to-female sexual activity is no bar to marrying a priest (p.46). Crompton suggests that if female-to-female sexual activity had no role in the surrounding religions, then it did not raise issues of defining Jewishness. Male homosexuality continued to be condemned—indeed, the penalty was stoning—though the Talmud characterises not so much as a sensual indulgence, rather as an indignity a Jewish male might suffer: for example, as a captive (pp 46-7).
Crompton notes that prominent Jewish intellectuals such as Magnus Hirschfeld and Sigmund Freud spoke up for homosexuals, that Reform Judaism has been far more friendly to homosexuals than most Christian Churches, even if Orthodox Judaism has not been so, that Israel is one of the more gay-friendly countries.
Taking the world as a whole, Judaism in itself had very little influence on the fate of homosexuals. Indirectly, however, through the prejudices it passed on to Christianity, its influence has been enormous … Above all, it was one of the tragedies of world history that the Jewish convert to Christianity who did most to shape the theology and ethics of the new religion—Saint Paul—was to approach the subject with Philo’s vehemence rather than in the spirit of the new faith’s founder (p.48).
From one of the root cultures of Western civilisation, we move back to the another Classical Greece 480—323 BCE, covering literature and philosophy before concluding with a discussion of the Sacred Band of Thebes and Philip and Alexander of Macedon. The Jews associated homosexuality with effeminate idolatry, the Greeks with warrior heroism.
Crompton then examines Rome and Greece 323 BCE—138 BCE. Roman culture never privileged male friendship in the way that Greek culture did. Romans did openly acknowledge same-sex desire, though typically as an expression of dominance (p.80). Crompton ascribes to the view that the rather obscure Lex Scantinia protected freeborn boys as part of the defence of the authority of the paterfamilias (p.81). He takes us through the different characterisation of same-sex desire and relations in various Latin writers before finishing with one of the great same-sex love affairs of all time: Hadrian and Antonius which spawned a popular religious cult that persisted for some centuries—more than 200 hundred portraits of Antonius have come down to us (p.110).
But a far more enduring religion was taking hold in the Roman Empire at this time. In Christians and Pagans 1—565 CE, Crompton takes us through the rise of Christianity and its achievement of power in the Roman Empire.
Jewish references to homosexuality from the early Christian period are hostile, if generally terse, often denouncing it as part of pagan iniquities. St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans continues this tradition—though with Philo’s vehemence, not the more typical terse aside—rather than the conspicuous silence of the Gospels. Crompton notes the continuing debate over Christ’s sexual orientation (there is a long tradition of suggesting that Jesus was same-sex oriented) but judges any conclusion as speculative.
The Rise of Christianity
The Christian tradition of erotophobia was established very early. Notably Clement of Alexandria’s “Alexandrian rule” of sexual conduct that pleasure sought for its own sake, even within marriage, is a sin and contrary to both law and reason, so to engage in intercourse without intent to produce children was to outrage nature (p.117). Crompton helps show how the Christian tradition of brutal anathematisation of same-sex activity owes (literally) nothing to the word of Christ and everything to the homicidal intolerance of Philo of Alexandria since his thought, refracted through St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and then directly to Church Fathers such as Clement, meant that the sexual prohibition of Leviticus (repeated nowhere else in the Hebrew scriptures) survived the New Testament’s rejection of the rest of the Levitical Holiness Code (rejected particularly emphatically by St Paul himself, notably in Galatians).
Compton traces how the Greek tradition continued on into late Antiquity in literature and philosophy. While pre-Constantine Roman Law included several judgments that civically degraded adult passives and made seduction of a freeborn male a “capital” crime, liable to punishments such as exile.
With the Christianisation of the Empire came the Christianisation of Roman law, and increasingly harsh penalties for same-sex activity (Pp 131ff). (The Jews were also subject to increasing legal penalties.) The story of Sodom became firmly established in theology as being about same-sex activity (Pp 136ff). In a redolent irony of history, St John Chrysostom both purveyed the homicidal vehemence of anti-same sex activity of Philo of Alexandria—right down to using the same metaphors—while engaging in anathematisations of Jews which are the most intense in Christian tradition (Pp 139ff).
Of course, the problem with the propagating the language of moral degradation and the rhetoric of abomination, is that one has no control over whom it may be used against.
Crompton concludes with the persecutions of Justinian (Pp 142ff). With the laws of Justinian, the medieval world was inaugurated (p.149). The next chapter is simply called Darkness Descends 476—1049 and takes us through theological, and consequent legal, persecution, with an interlude to the male-male love poetry of Arab Spain. A hadith from Muhammad that he who loved and died without expressing this love is a martyr provided an avenue for accepting expression of same-sex desire (Pp 163ff). (It is very likely that Omar Khayyam’s refrain a loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou was part of the genre of extolling the beauty of wine-boys.) Christendom was far more brutally against same-sex acts, and more intensely hostile to same-sex desire, than Islam until the C20th.
I would argue that that was, in part, because Christianity was more consistently universalist. Christianity deemed there to be one moral law for all, so any group cast outside that moral law (in whole or in part) had to have a particularly intense story of anathematisation told against them. Hence the Primal Woman (Eve) became the avenue whereby sin entered the world, the Jews were Christ-killers and the “sodomites” abominable traitors against the natural order. Islam’s more layered morality meant was it less concerned with such narratives: particularly if it interrupted the sexual benefits of conquest to Muslim men—as Crompton points out, Islam did not (unlike Christianity) bar sexual relations with slaves (p.172). This also meant that Islam replicated far more closely than Christendom the social patterns of Classical Greece: respectable women being excluded from public society, a warrior ethos and lower-status males (particularly slaves) available for the pleasure of higher-status males.
Crompton them continues into The Medieval World 1050—1321 in which theology, law and literature all anathematised same-sex acts and desire. This was the period when a medieval “best-seller”, the Golden Legend, compiled by a beatified Archbishop of Genoa, declared that Jesus refused to incarnate in a world with sodomites in it, so when Jesus was born all the "sodomites" died. Crompton does explore a striking exception: Dante’s surprisingly lenient characterisation of sodomites in Inferno as “admirable sinners” (Pp 208).
Moving on to something completely different, Crompton shifts to Imperial China 500BCE—1849, exploring its long literary and historical tradition of celebrated same-sex loves. There was a brief period of sexual Puritanism under the early Qing emperors, but this did not persist. The Maoist takeover rejected Chinese literary traditions, characterising homosexuality (in the standard Leninist way) as a corruption of capitalism (p.244).
Italy in the Renaissance 1321—1609 was a paradoxical period. On one hand, the self-conscious classicism led to an awareness of Greek attitudes, positive literary and artistic references to same-sex love and desire: indeed, to some blatantly homoerotic iconic art. On the other hand, murderous legal repression intensified. About which we begin to get the first systematic studies (which regularly reveal how much victims were a cross-section of society). Classicism also meant wider use of Roman law—but of the Christianised variety. While a period of increasing change also meant a period of increasing anxiety.
In the case of Spain and the Inquisition 1497—1700, repression of the same-sex active both defined Catholic Spain against other cultures (Andalusian Islam, Amerindian cultures) as well as helped to justify war and conquest.
France from Calvin to Louis XIV 1517—1715 takes us through the effects of the Reformation and the establishment of the image of French homosexuality as aristocratic vice. England from the Reformation to William III 1533—1702 explores the English self-image of a country where that sort of thing didn’t happen along with the introduction of various secular laws against buggery. In both chapters, Crompton also explores the irony that, in a culture which so excoriated same-sex acts and desires, the hereditary principle repeatedly put homosexual rulers on thrones (such as Henri III, James I, Louis XIII, William III), even if biographers (particularly favourably disposed ones) have often not been able to face clear evidence of such orientation—particularly in the case of William III, in many ways an admirable monarch.
Then Crompton provides another relief from intense cultural hostility against same-sex love and desire with Pre-Meiji Japan 800—1868 where same-sex love became associated with warrior heroism (samurai), religion (Buddhism) and high culture (literature, art and theatre). With the coming of European influences, same-sex activity became illegal for a while (as part of Japan showing itself to be “modern”) and has since become more something not much talked about (p.443). Between Christianity, “being modern” and Leninism, the West has managed to export anathematisation of same-sex desire, love and activity across much of the globe.
Crompton is quite specific on how the examples of Muslim Spain, Imperial China and pre-Meiji Japan throw into sharp relief the intensity of Christian anathematisation.
The Modern Era
With Patterns of Persecution 1700-1730, Crompton takes us through fluctuating patterns of tolerance and persecution—the latter typically taking the form of murderous moral panics of varying duration. Of course, from Justinian on, Sodom-as-wrath-of-God was the ultimate moral panic. In the case of France, the moral panic burned itself out so that, by the second half of the C18th, the notion that sodomites should be burned was the butt of satire.
Britain, meanwhile, moved in the other direction, with the use of hanging and pillory if anything intensifying as the C18th marched and into the early C19th. The Netherlands also experienced murderous bursts of persecution. In all three countries, there is also a growing self-awareness among the same-sex attracted of being a distinct group.
In Sapphic Lovers 1700-1793 Crompton tells the increasing awareness of same-sex attraction among women, largely via biographical sketches of female couples of varying degrees of fame. Accusations of “Sapphism” were also wielded during the French Revolution against Marie Antoinette.
In his penultimate chapter, The Enlightenment 1730—1810, Crompton examines the slowly developing intellectual attack on the anathematisation of homosexuality. So Montesquieu’s search for mundane explanations of homosexuality worked to normalise it, as did that of Diderot, while Cesare Beccaria’s seminal book on law reform discredited torture as part of applying critical method to law.
The burden the anathematisation of homosexuality could place even on the mighty is examined through the tragic early life of Frederick the Great. Voltaire is an example of very mixed attitudes—anticlerical yet happy to invoke homosexual slurs in satire—while Sade was an extreme freethinker whose advocacy was probably counterproductive.
The decriminalisation of sodomy by Revolutionary France in 1791 was the first great reform of laws against same-sex activity, spread across much of Europe via the Napoleonic Code of 1810. A breakthrough, but one Crompton cautions against over-celebrating, since police persecution continued: The special department set up by the police in Paris to control homosexuals was not abolished until 1981 (p.528).
The chapter concludes with the section Bentham vs. Blackstone. Jeremy Bentham thought the criminalisation of sodomy completely unwarranted, but so intense was public feeling that he felt unable to publish anything to that effect (Pp 530ff). There was no equivalent in England of public advocacy for reform that existed in France or Italy. Indeed, the tempo of judicial murder (hanging) and public scorn in the pillory intensified into the early C19th.
Much more representative was Sir William Blackstone in his magisterial Commentaries on the Laws of England who thoroughly approved of the death penalty for a crime that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah “proved” was part of God’s universal law (p.529).
Crompton concludes with a whirlwind trip through decriminalisation, ending the chapter with some pointed comments about American tardiness: In Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) the US Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of sodomy statues by a vote of five to four, though Justice Lewis Powell, who cast the deciding vote, later admitted that he had “made a mistake.” As a result, sixteen American states entered the third millennium with laws that Montesquieu thought archaic a generation before the French Revolution though he notes that the Court has since changed its mind (Pp 534-5).
Though it is not covered in Crompton’s book, there were considerable ironies in Powell J’s deciding vote in Bowers v. Hardwick. Mr Justice Powell claimed at the time that he had never met a homosexual: in fact, he had a history of employing (entirely unwittingly) homosexual law clerks – one of his law clerks at the time of Bowers v. Hardwick was gay and later suffered some anguish over not having revealed this to the good Justice when the case was under consideration.
In his brief Conclusion, Crompton summarises the book, noting the lack of equivalent legal prohibitions in civilisations not dominated by the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), the importance of Philo of Alexandria in Christian attitudes, the depths of brutality the anathematisation of descended to, concluding that no Christian can claim ignorance of this legacy any longer (p.540).
Louis Crompton’s book is a magisterial achievement, telling an often horrific history with clarity and in a style more effective for its measured tone.