History Of Homosexuality

History Of Homosexuality

Youth females. Depicted as surrounding Sappho. In this painting of Lafond. “Sappho sings for Homer”, 1824

Over the course of human history, homosexuality and sodomy have been studied and depicted extensively by writers and artists. Not unexpectedly, the work on these two terms has revealed many aspects of the why, when, and where they occurred. Through piecing together research from various records and sources, we can begin to understand the reasons why homosexuality occurs as well as stories of convicted homosexuals and how these Florentine communities that practiced sodomy became regarded from the outside. 

As early as ancient Greece, Plato thought deeply and wrote about homosexuality in his Symposium. In one passage, Plato presented a conversation between his mentor, Socrates, and Diotima, who teaches Socrates about the art of Love, wherein they first discuss the forces that drive love and desire. Diotima points out that all animals: “are plagued by the disease of Love”.

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And questions why wild animals dare to sacrifice so much for intercourse and nurturing their young that they would starve, battle, and even die for their sake (Plato, 54). While “[human beings] understand the reason for [their sacrifices],” it is curious what “causes wild animals to be in such a state of love” as well. 

Diotima believes that humans and animals alike are driven to make sacrifices for their offspring because “mortal nature seeks so far as possible to live forever.”

In a way, reproduction is a mechanism that allows a mortal to be immortalized through “[leaving] behind a new young one in place of the old.”1 The younger self may renew the physical aspects and personality traits of the older mortal, which seemingly extends the existence of the parent into their child’s life, their grandchild’s life, and so on. Clearly, this is not the same effect of divine immortality. But leaving behind attributes to one’s offspring is a great form of immortality. One that can be reached and may logically explain the wild love and protectiveness that parents exhibit. 

Diotima connects this idea of love stemming from a strong desire for immortality to homosexuality through figurative language. She states that some men “turn more to women and pursue love… providing themselves through childbirth with immortality” while others are even more “pregnant in soul.”1 She defines the latter as men in search of what is fitting for their soul to bear and birth rather than finding a woman that can physically bear and birth a child. For these men, certain attributes such as wisdom and virtue can be so fitting for one’s soul that they seek out a male partner that will fulfill the needs of their soul rather than fulfill the physical needs of seeking a woman and reproducing. 

When a man finds a partner that can satisfy the needs of his soul, i.e. a virtuous and noble man, they engage and try to keep them company.

Eventually, when both men find the beauty in each other’s souls, they can remember that beauty and carry it around forever, whether or not the two are still together. That beauty is the figurative “child” that they conceive together. As they nurture that “child” together, the bond that they form is “more beautiful and more immortal” than a bond that a human child brings to their parents.”

This child, generated from the unity of the two beautiful souls that seek out honor and virtue, grants “their parents with immortal glory and remembrance.”

In history, it is through being the most honorable and virtuous that one becomes remembered and immortalized. Thus the soul of honor and virtue that the parents create may become respected. And worshiped by future generations. Which is the greatest form of immortalization that a mortal can achieve.

Michelangelo’s artwork during the Renaissance also provided ideas about homosexuality. Barkan’s study of the artworks. Ganymede. Tityus. Revealed homosexuality depicted by Michelangelo. The painting, Ganymede, of an eagle abducting Ganymede, was “about as explicit an image of anal penetration as a sixteenth-century picture could be (Barkan, 89).” Barkan states that “one could go further, as some have, to say that Michelangelo is giving the boy a vagina so that the penis we see is really that of the eagle penetrating him.”

Thus, the abduction of Ganymede is intended by Michelangelo to contain sodomy.

Furthermore, this can be contrasted with the work, Tityus, which is a mirror-opposite. In Tityus, Michelangelo depicts Tityus “pinned to the floor of hell” as he is “punished for having previously satisfied earthly lust.” It is important to notice that Ganymede consists of homosexual acts, but Ganymede is seemingly being brought up to heaven and “anticipating divine ecstasy.” At the same time, Tityus is punished by being raped, which portrays sodomy in a negative light. The works of Tityus and Ganymede contain parallel aspects of sodomy and homosexuality, but the emotions from the pieces are opposites as Tityus is chained down to hell while Ganymede ascends to heaven. The stark contrast between the artworks could mean that Michelangelo sees good and bad in homosexuality and sodomy.

Michelangelo also wrote about the appeal of homosexuality in a sonnet. Wherein he states that women are “too unlike” men and that it is not wise for the “manly heart to burn for her,” which is similar to what Diotima believes. Diotima claims that the lover in his youth must begin by “[devoting] himself to beautiful bodies,” but after loving a woman and realizing the beauty there, it is foolish not to see that “the beauty of all bodies is one and the same” and to continue that same pursuit of women.1 Instead, the lover must grow and realize that the pursuit of a beautiful soul. Is what will lead to the greatest fulfillment and immortalization. In summary, the pursuit of immortalization. Which begins with intense love and desire in animals and humans alike is the root of homosexual love. 

In his symposium, Plato logically pieced together why some men may pursue homosexual relationships.

But that did not mean it became morally accepted in cultures. Specifically, during the Renaissance, the Florentines witnessed intense persecution of homosexuals and those that committed acts of sodomy. Sodomy was declared so abominable that Pope Gregory XI, in 1376, “[dared] not even mention it (Rocke, 3).” The Church, a driving force in society, deemed it “the most evil and dangerous of carnal vices” and “unspeakable.” Although sodomy was unmentionable and unapproved in the public eye, there were still smaller bodies of Florentines that commonly practiced it. These smaller communities were known, and the ruling class of Florence “identified [sodomy] as one of the city’s most pressing moral and social problems.”

In response, the Florence government “in 1432 created an innovative judiciary magistracy solely to pursue and prosecute sodomy” known as the Office of the Night. From 1432 to 1502, the Office of the Night “carried out the most extensive and systematic persecution of homosexual activity in any premodern city.”

Yet, by doing this, brought to light a thriving culture that was already “solidly integrated into the broader male world of Florence.”

Roman man penetrating a youth, middle of the 1st century AD. Found in Bittir, near Jerusalem

Moreover, sodomy became so widespread that “the majority of local males at least once during their lifetimes became officially incriminated for engaging in homosexual relations.”

Given the already deep-rooted, but small culture of homosexuality in Florence. The Republic’s attempt to rid the region of sodomy through the Office of the Night was a failure. One that, in many cases, caused sodomy to become more prevalent. Even after establishing “the most severe penalties for sodomy, including castration and death by burning.”

It was this standoff between the communities that continued to practice sodomy. Furthermore, the fierce legislative councils that passed reform after reform of penalties prescribed to prosecute sodomy. That caused sodomy to become “one of the most turbulent issues in the spectrum of Florentine criminal justice and public morality.”

Eventually, the mass convictions began to lose their purpose in Florence.

Furthermore, “by the middle of the sixteenth century… official concern over sodomy subsided considerably.”

The days of harsh judicial punishment were over as “the law of 1542 marked its conclusion.”

However, the documents and stories that obtained by the Office of the Night over the years and years of convictions “contain information on some 10,000 persons incriminated for homosexual activity and on their various sexual relations.”

The court records have the quality and unusual range of evidence. One that makes it such an important source for the research of Florentine’s sodomy communities. It provides “biographical data on incriminated individuals and detailed information on sexual relations.”

Which are so valuable to find in mass to piece together the overall culture of homosexuality in Florence. The records also contain “hundreds of the accusations that Florentines made against people they claimed engaged in sodomy.”

Which provide insight on the values and mentalities towards sodomy from the general public. These records shed light on sodomy in Florentine. With a more “lively personal and social context” that can’t be produced from the “mechanical images produced by the court.”

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As the court that processed several hundred suspects brought to their attention every year, the Office of the Night maintained records and reports numbering in the thousands that researchers can use to piece together a clearer picture using both the detailed personal and legal aspects of the culture of sodomy in Florence. 

From Plato to Michelangelo to the Office of the Night, homosexuality has had a large cultural impact around the world. And that is clear in the research by many scholars on the documents and artworks of the past. As people throughout time have pondered the reasons why homosexuality exists or persecuted those who practice it, history has certainly given scholars a better understanding of various aspects of homosexuality.

Written by Jiming Xu


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History Of Homosexuality