Same Sex Marriage in Ancient Rome

by JoHarrington

Gay marriage is not a modern idea. Throughout the height of the Roman Empire, it was not only commonplace, but sometimes mandatory.

When Antinous died, the whole Roman Empire sank into official mourning. Medallions were struck in his likeness. The city of Antinopolis in Egypt was named after him. He was venerated as a God, with statues placed in public and private shrines alike. Temples were raised in his honor.

He had been the 19 year old lover of the Emperor Hadrian. He drowned in the Nile around 130 CE.

There was no scandal in the relationship. Many Roman men took male lovers, and some married them. It was just one of the spectrum of unions available until Christianity made it one man, one woman.

Antoninous - Lover of the Emperor Hadrian

Head of Antinous, Favorite of Emperor Hadrian

Mark Anthony: Before Cleopatra, There was Curio

Even the prudish Cicero had to get involved in this one, as there were dowry debts to settle.

Image: Roman amphitheaterWe only know bits and pieces about Curio the Younger, but a picture begins to form from them all.

He built the first amphitheater in Rome, ostentatiously to honor his father, a famous orator.

Curio's character was said to be flamboyant, reckless and licentious. He ran up greater debts than he could possibly afford to pay, then persuaded high ranking men to pay them off for him.

Then he married twice.  Once to Fulvia, an aristocratic Roman lady, with whom he had no children, though she did bring a step-daughter with her.  And once to Mark Anthony, of Antony and Cleopatra fame.

Anthony was only a youth at the time and he was affectionately known as Antinous. Curio the Younger so introduced him to the high life, that the young man quickly ran up a lot of drinking debts. Curio the Elder immediately banned him from the house, in fear that his own son would be left to pick up the tab.

Enter Cicero. The straight-laced statesman was a friend of the family, and also a lawyer. Though he didn't approve of the relationship between Anthony and Curio the Younger, he did have some words to say on legal matters.

The fact was that Anthony had been playing the field, until the men were 'united in a stable and permanent marriage'. (Philippic 2.18.45) In doing so, according to Roman law, the 'bride' was owed a dowry payable by the groom's family. It was Curio the Younger who acted 'just as if he had given (Anthony) a matron's stola'.

Curio the Elder just gave up and paid Mark Anthony's drinking debts. In doing so, he merely accepted the marriage.

The whole episode is notable for the complete lack of surprise felt by anyone that two men were effectively spouses in Rome, around 50 BCE. It also demonstrates the degrees of marriage available during the early Roman Empire.

Curio the Younger was married to Fulvia throughout his union with Mark Anthony. After Curio was killed, while fighting in one of Caesar's campaigns, Anthony merely took Fulvia as his wife.

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When Nero Married Sporus

Hadrian might have been the Roman Emperor in the most celebrated gay relationship, but he was by no means the first.

Image: SporusThe nuptials were celebrated in extravagant festivals in both Rome and Greece. The Emperor Nero arrived at the ceremony in full military garb. His husband Sporus did not.

Sporus (pictured left) was only a teenager at the time. He arrived for his wedding in a veil and all the accoutrements of a Roman bride. He received a dowry, and he was 'given away' by a family friend.

As he left the ceremony on a litter, he was wearing the dress of an Empress. All Romans were instructed to refer to him as the Empress, with all honors and titles therein.

But this was no poster boy for sane and safe gay marriage. As soon as Nero took him home, he had Sporus's testicles removed. It was noted by contemporaries that Sporus had a likeness to Nero's first (and female) Empress Sabrina. That marriage ended when the Emperor kicked her to death, while she was pregnant. Even more troubling was the fact that Nero began to call Sporus by her name.

However, many observed that Sporus was a calming influence upon the notoriously psychopathic Nero. His excesses seemed to taper off. But that didn't stop Nero being hounded by a senate uprising within eighteen months of the marriage. The result being that Nero committed ritual suicide rather than being taken alive for public execution.

The problem wasn't the gay marriage.  (Nor was it even the burning of Christians to provide a light source, nor the murder of his mother, nor anything else for which we might question today.) It was because he'd raised the taxes too high for the liking of the senate.

Documentary about Hadrian and Antinous

The discussion of the cult of Antinous begins at 5 mins. It shows just how far reaching his influence became, right into modern history.

The Queens of Noble Birth

If a man is born into a high ranking family, why should he degrade himself by acting like a woman?

Image: JuvenalDecimus Lunius Luvenalis lived at the turn of the 1st and 2nd centuries CE and wrote poetry under the pseudonym of Juvenal. His most famous work was the Satires.

From his writing, it's easy to discern a world where gay marriage raised no eyebrows whatsoever. His Satire 2:132-135 discusses such a ceremony, wherein the protagonist is asked where he is going. "Nothing special," He responds, "a friend is marrying another man and a small group is attending."

But while this is a commonplace union in Roman society, certain considerations did give Juvenal pause.

The fashion (possibly inspired by Nero and Sporus) had become for one spouse to take a more feminine role, while the other was unequivocally the 'husband'. The former would arrive to their nuptials wearing a veil and a matron's stola. He would henceforth act like he was a woman. He'd do all of the shopping and cooking. He would run the house. 

As the Roman world was so hot on ideals of masculinity, this turn of events outraged Juvenal. It wasn't so much that it was happening at all - though that did concern him - but that the part of the 'wife' was too often being taken by men of wealth and high class.

It was one thing for low born pretty boys to be rendered female, but not for the gentlemen of the senator classes!

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When Homosexual Unions Were Practically Compulsory

During the reign of Emperor Elagabalus (218-222) having a husband was the fastest way for a man to gain promotion.

Image: ElagabalusThe problem with Elagabalus, as far as Rome was concerned, was not his homosexuality per se. Less than one hundred years previously, everyone had quite happily accepted Hadrian's love for Antinous.

No, the absolute issue here was that Elagabalus enjoyed flaunting his passive role in his same sex encounters. He played the part of the woman and he was the Emperor!

As has already been hinted at time and again in this historical run through, masculinity was so important in Roman society. As long as you retained your manhood, you could have who you liked.

Elagabalus preferred to dress as an Empress, rather than an Emperor. He married five different women, but there was no evidence that any of those marriages were ever consummated. His only son was adopted.

He also had many, many high profile sexual encounters with men. They were always butch, muscular individuals. But the great love of his life was an athlete (some say gladiator) called Hierocles. It was long-lasting and appeared genuinely loving. Even his contemporary biographer Cassius Dio called Hierocles the husband of Emperor Elagabalus.

During this reign, all of those elevated in social status by the Emperor were gay men with publicly announced marriages to other men. Those were the individuals who received wealth, titles and advancement within the military or senate. It was a policy so blatantly known that heterosexual men would pretend to have same sex partners, just to get ahead.

This did not go down too well with the higher echelons of Roman society, who responded in the usual way. Elagabalus was assassinated on March 11th 222.

Books about Emperor Elagabalus

He enjoyed a heady afterlife in novels, art, film and music, as the young Emperor became a kind of camp icon for boys who love silk robes.

The Brutal End of Gay Marriage in the Roman World

The edict would have come as a major shock, as so many Romans were already in same sex unions when it was announced.

Image: ConstansWhen the Emperor Constantine overtly converted to Christianity, it set in motion a series of events which are still felt to this day.

Initially, the change in religion did not affect same sex unions. Throughout the reign of Constantine, this remained true. But he had raised his sons in the Christian faith and they were taught by their priests that homosexuality was wrong.

Constantine died in 337.  As usual in the Roman world, the succession wasn't entirely smooth, with divisions opening up between the brothers. For a moment there, all efforts were deployed on securing power.

But by 342, Constans was in charge and he was swift to announce some sudden changes to Roman law. The Theodosian Code overturned many Roman traditions and outlawed Paganism. It included this:

'We order the laws to arise, justice to be armed with an avenging sword, so that those shameless persons guilty of (homosexuality) now or in future should be subjected to exquisite punishment.'

In short, same sex unions went from commonplace to punishable by death at the snap of the new Emperor's fingers.

However, we shouldn't read too much into this. There is absolutely no evidence that such punishments were actually carried out. The Christian Emperor had enshrined his values and mores into law, but that didn't mean that any judge was compelled to follow through.

The absolutely bizarre part of this is that Constans himself WAS homosexual. He was ultimately ousted as Roman Emperor when the legions staged an uprising. They were fed up with him conferring honors only onto his favorites - the household guard - and deserted him, as soon as General Magnentius made a bid for power.

Constans was assassinated in a temple in 350, but his anti-homosexual marriage laws remained on the statute books.

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Gifts and Cards for Modern Same Sex Marriages

Are you looking for lesbian wedding gift ideas? Check out this collection of perfect marriage gifts for two brides.
Are you looking for gay wedding gift ideas for two grooms? Check out this selection with presents to match any wallet.
Have you been invited to a wedding with two grooms? Check out these gay marriage cards for men, to find the perfect one to mark their big day.
Been searching in vain for wedding cake decorations for a male gay marriage? Look no further! We have them right here.
Updated: 01/12/2015, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


JoHarrington on 08/08/2013

Ah! I see! What I do is write until the article is finished, however long that is. Right now, I'm struggling because an article that I want to write is too short. I've never had that before! I didn't realise that Wizzley warned you. LOL

Mira on 08/08/2013

Actually, I like the size of your articles because it seems to fit the subject matter just right each time -- holds the attention and all, so they don't seem long. What I had to pause twice was the video. But I'm glad you included it! It added an extra dimension to the article.

JoHarrington on 08/08/2013

You're very welcome; and thanks for coming back to read it so often! I really did write a novel, didn't I?

Mira on 08/08/2013

So interesting, Jo! Thanks so much for taking the time to put such great articles together. I had to come back to this article several times before I had time to finish it, but am so happy I did. I also watched the video -- glad you included that, too.

JoHarrington on 07/21/2013

Indeed! And I haven't even got to Ancient Greece yet. It was very acceptable there. :)

AnomalousArtist on 07/21/2013

Great article! If only people could see there's nothing new under the sun...

JoHarrington on 07/18/2013

Nero was the perfect example of what happens if a human being is allowed to do whatever they want to do, and is a psychopath. It's quite scary when you really begin imagining those scenes.

WordChazer on 07/18/2013

As a Classicist, Nero was completely nuts in every meaning of the word. His antics with burning the Christians for light was my O'Level exam translation text and I seriously thought I had mistranslated! I do enjoy the Classical Roman Emperors, they were the most fun. Anything and everything went. Once Constantine and his ilk arrived, they sobered down a bit.

JoHarrington on 07/18/2013

You're welcome, and thank you.

It has been a lovely discussion. Thanks for stretching my brain with some challenging points of view. See you around Wizzley!

cmoneyspinner on 07/18/2013

Tweeted. That's funny. :) 'The revolution will not be televised'. You just took me back to my days at the University of Miami; 1972 - 1976.

This has been a great discussion, Jo. There's no more for me to add. Looking for ward to reading more of your articles though. See you around Wizzley!

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