After posting my recent articles on the biblical view of homosexuality, I was once again confronted with the argument that the biblical writers had no concept of same-sex love and, thus, could not have been condemning the type of homosexuality that is prevalent in America today. The primary claim made in this argument is that first century Roman culture viewed homosexual activity as being the result of wildly uncontrolled lusts. Supposedly, the Romans of that time period had never considered the possibility that people could have a sexual orientation which causes them to be genuinely attracted to members of the same sex.
Support for this claim is usually provided in the form of quotations from Roman philosophers. For example, the philosopher Dio Chrysostom once compared the lust which produces homosexuality to the insatiable desire that a drunkard has for alcohol. Here’s what he wrote:
The seduction of women — especially, one might almost say, of the freeborn and virgins — has been found easy and no task for a man who pursues that kind of game with money; and even against the highly respected wives and daughters of men really respected, the libertine who attacks with the device of Zeus and brings gold in his hands will never fail. 151 But the further developments, I presume, are perfectly evident, since we see so many illustrations. The man whose appetite is insatiate in such things, when he finds there is no scarcity, no resistance, in this field, will have contempt for the easy conquest and scorn for a woman's love, as a thing too readily given — in fact, too utterly feminine — and will turn his assault against the male quarters, eager to befoul the youth who will very soon be magistrates and judges and generals, 152 believing that in them he will find a kind of pleasure difficult and hard to procure. His state is like that of men who are addicted to drinking and wine-bibbing, who after long and steady drinking of unmixed wine, often lose their taste for it and create an artificial thirst by the stimulus of sweatings, salted foods, and condiments.
In his book The Moral Teachings of Paul, Victor Paul Furnish relied in part on Dio Chrysostom’s statement in order to claim that
In Paul's day, the critics of homoerotic activity invariably associated it with insatiable lust and avarice … Although Paul's Bible and many of his contemporaries had much to say about sexual conduct, the ancient world had no conception of sexual orientation. Both Musonius and Dio Chrysostom, for instance presumed that the same lusts that drove men to engage female prostitutes could drive them eventually to seduce other men.
The flaw in this claim is that it ignores a great deal of contradictory evidence. It is true that most of the philosophers viewed homosexuality as being the result of uncontrolled lusts, but the philosophers only make up a small part of the picture that we have of first century Roman culture. The writings of the philosophers were attempts to impart wisdom into the culture of that time period, and as such, they can be helpful in forming a picture of the culture. However, if we really want to learn about the culture of that time, we should focus our study on the popular literature which was written for the entertainment of the average individual. When we turn our attention to this genre of literature, we find a much different view of homosexuality than that which was presented by the philosophers.
One example of this can be found in the Satyricon by Gaius Petronius. This first century novel presents several different types of homosexual "love," and it demonstrates quite clearly that the culture of that time period viewed homosexuality as being something more than just the result of uncontrolled lust. This novel references a wide variety of forms of sexual intercourse, but the "love" between the hero, Encolpius, and his male lover, Giton, is portrayed as genuine love and not mere uncontrolled lust.
In addition to the Satyricon, there is also the poetry of Catullus in which he wrote:
It is the same with a man wounded by Venus’ arrows,
whether they come at him from a girlish boy
or from a woman whose whole body hurls love at him;
He runs at the person who shot him and wants to copulate
and to plant in that body the fluid from his own body;
His dumb desire suggests it will give him pleasure.
That is Venus for you, it is that which we call love
which is the source of sweetness which Venus pours
drop by drop in our hearts: and then we are worried.
If what you want isn’t there, there are always images
of her, and her sweet name will ring in your ears.
The description of this "love" which follows this stanza reveals that Catullus is referring to what most Americans identify as love and not to uncontrollable lusts. It is also interesting to note that Catullus refers to these desires as coming from Venus, the goddess of love, rather than from a man’s own insatiable lusts. He also identifies these desires as being the “sweetness” of love.
Then there are the poems of Tibullus who devoted one of his poems to instructing an older man in the art of seducing a teenage boy. Tibullus introduces this theme with the phrase:
Oh beware of trusting the crowd of tender boys:
since they always offer a true cause for love
The seduction described in this poem is similar to that which would be attributed to the efforts of many an American male attempting to woo the girl of his affections.
Tibullus also wrote a poem entitled "Treacherous Love" in which he lamented that his male lover had left him for another man. One cannot read this poem without recognizing in it all the themes of the stereotypical Country song in which the man cries in his beer over the fact that his female lover has gone off with another man.
We could give many more examples, but I think that these are sufficient to establish the point. The Romans of the first century actually had a view of homosexual desires that is very similar to that which is held by many Americans today. It is true that the philosophers viewed homosexuality as the vile product of uncontrolled lusts, but the entertainment industry of that day portrayed homosexual desire as just an alternative form of romantic attraction. Personally, I think that the philosophers were closer to the truth, but the fact that the popular literature conveys a different view shows us that Paul could have described homosexual attraction as either genuine affection or vile affection, and he consciously chose the latter.
Note: Links have not been provided to the actual content of the popular literature portrayals of homosexual activity in first century Rome because of the explicit nature of the descriptions found in that literature.
"Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning." (Proverbs 9:9)