Palaiologos-Dynasty-Eagle_svgWere there queens in Byzantium?

September 22, 2013

Were there queens in Byzantium?  What an odd question, I thought when I read it.  Of course there were gay people in the Byzantine Empire – we were and are everywhere, no? The Byzantine Empire, the Greek speaking Eastern Roman Empire, has long been associated with the Orthodox Church.  Its capital, Constantinople, has been the ecumenical throne of the “first among equals’ patriarch since the fourth century. The Byzantine realm, which lasted 1,000 years, produced great luminaries for the Church such as St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory Nazianzus. But were there any queens in Byzantium?

That peculiar question is addressed by Dr. Dion C. Smythe, lecturer in Byzantine history at Queen’s University in Belfast, N. Ireland.[1] The word queen may raise a few eyebrows for some people in that it is frequently viewed by many people, gay and straight, as having negative connotations. The term homosexual is quite clinical and the word gay is a very modern innovation, and so Professor Smythe chose the word “queen” to indicate those homosexual men who were very open about their same-sex desires.  Therefore he concludes his research with the statement that there were no queens in Byzantium, because those who expressed same-sex desire were not visible. Because gay people could not be open about their same-sex desires, Byzantium was the first closeted society, Smythe concludes. But that raises another question- were there any homosexuals who were closeted in Byzantium?

For most historians of social history the question is somewhat problematic. On the one hand there is little exact historical evidence for same-sex desire in the Byzantine Empire. On the other hand why would Byzantium be any different than any other historical time or geographical location?  Homosexuals and expressions of homosexual love and desire have always existed in every time and place since the beginning of time. The only question that truly remains when studying homosexuals during the Byzantine period is, “were the desires and passions of the Byzantines not like those of other people throughout the history of mankind?”[2] This is a question raised by Dr. Alexander Kazhdan, a Soviet-American scholar of Byzantine history[3]. The answer is of course that they were.

From historical documents we know that castration was the listed form of punishment for “passive” homosexuality in the Empire. No punishment is listed for “active” homosexuality. The Code of Emperor Theodosius (438) listed burning alive as a penalty for all “passive” homosexuals.[4] And so we must conclude that if there laws prohibiting homosexual behavior and punishments bestowed, especially upon “passive” homosexual acts, there must have been those who had and expressed same-sex desires. Desire enough to risk being castrated or burned alive in order to express such desire for another of the same sex.

It never seizes to amaze me to what extent intelligent people went, and will go, to deny the existence of homosexual love and desire. Some of my favorite examples come from the Soviet era. The writer Maxim Gorky stated in 1934, “eliminate homosexuality and you will make fascism disappear.”[5] Perhaps that is why Hitler and Mussolini fell from power because the Soviet Union was able to eradicate homosexuality. The Soviet Medical Encyclopedia, published in 1929, suggested quite a remarkable “cure” for homosexuality, to transplant the testicle of a “healthy” heterosexual onto the “diseased” homosexual.[6] I guess that no sacrifice was too great to eliminate the horror of homosexuality. I wonder how many straight Russian men volunteered a testicle to save the “Motherland”?  As late as 1990, a Moscow AIDS specialist was advocating a cure for lesbianism via a surgical procedure. Since lesbianism was viewed as a type of schizophrenia, psychiatric medication and electro-shock therapy was two of the recommended treatments.

If castration, burning alive, and medical experimentation did not eradicate same-sex love and desire then will anything change who God made us to be? No, for every gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered person knows in their heart that they were created with desires that cannot be eradicated, for they are sacred and given to us by our Creator. We also know that we have been called to share our love and same-sex desires with another person. It is a love, desire and expression that is holy.

As I write this reflection, Pope Francis has commented that the Roman Catholic Church spends too much of its time and energy focusing on gay people instead on preaching and living the Gospel of Jesus Christ.[7]  While not changing church doctrine or calling for a more liberal interpretation of church teachings on morality, he has set a different tenor and called for a sharper focus on what truly matters in the Church. Gay and lesbian Roman Catholics should welcome the change in tone which is a stepping stone to authentic listening and dialogue. His Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew greeted Pope Francis on his election as Bishop of Rome and called for a dialogue that is based in love and truth.[8] Why not begin such a dialogue with Orthodox gays and lesbians many of whom are being beaten alive in the streets of Russia as if it were the Dark Ages? The Orthodox brother needs to listen to the advice of His Catholic brother but take it a step further.  As gays and lesbians we are not going away – so embrace us, listen to us, and accept us as Christ has. It is His will that we are still living and loving. Yes, there will always be “queens” in Byzantium.

[1] Dion C. Smythe, In denial: same-sex desire in Byzantium IN Desire and Denial in Byzantium, ed. Liz. James (Hampshire, Great Britain, 1999).

[2] A. Kazhdan and G. Constable, People and Power in Byzantium: An introduction to Modern Byzantine Studies (Washington  DC, 1982), 16-17.

[3] Alexander Kazhan (1922-1997) was editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium and former professor at Princeton University

[4] E. Cantarella, Bisexuality in the Ancient World, (New Haven and London, 1992), 186.

[6] History of Homosexuality in Europe and America.  ed. Wayne R. Dynes and Stephen Donaldson. Routledge, 1992. p. 176


  1. Noel Warren Said,

    The comments of Pope Francis are encouraging. Hopefully he will translate it into some action. Unfortunately do not expect anything soon. For the past 30 years Popes Jean Paul and Benedict have appointed conservative bishops and cardinals. As well as the gay issue ,his other challenges are allowing the clergy to marry, approving contraception and approving the remarriage of divorced persons. He has to come to terms with the fact that studies in the USA now estimate that up to 70% of the clergy there are gay and over 50% of priests are not celibate. Most Catholics have sex before marriage and use contraceptives, and parish priests happily offer communion to remarried divorced persons. Regular mass attendance and financial giving is collapsing in the US. The US used to be the largest sorce of money for the Vatican.I wish him luck.

  2. andre Said,

    Thank you for your comment. At this point any positive statement or movement is to be greeted with great joy in my opinion. The Holy Spirit some times moves slowly. I am curious as to where you go the statistics on the number of gay and sexually active gay clergy in the US. The numbers might be accurate and I am not questioning them, I just wonder if there was a survey that I might have missed.
    I wish you well. Stay in touch,

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