Everyone who writes historical fiction must enjoy research and want to reflect in their writing the customs of their chosen period of history. I'm not referring to the 'historicals' read by devotees of the romance shelves back in the days when I was a junior in the library – their only connections with history were usually long skirts, carriages rather than cars, and no electricity – although I do remember we whiled away boring late-opening nights by looking for glaring anachronisms in the cheaper end of the market. The advent of the internet has made research much easier and leaves the author with no excuse for not checking facts, although I must admit that I still prefer books; indeed, Fiona and Morgan have complained for years that I love research more than writing! They may have a point, otherwise it wouldn't have taken me more than thirty years to complete THE EAGLE'S WING. The story itself, though, actually first emerged twenty years before that as a 6th Form project, after 'A' Levels were over and when we needed an occupation – apart from the 6th Form play – until the end of the term. Some of that original survived into the finished novel, so coming from a long line of pack-rats definitely has its advantages! However, as other people have already discussed the joys of research in these guest blogs, Fiona suggested that perhaps I might explore homosexuality in the ancient world – and, after knowing her for nearly forty years, I know when to take the hint!
Because very few non-religious texts survive from classical times, it is impossible to make any definitive statements. Opinions differ over the social norms regarding sexual life, and in any case there must have been considerable variation throughout the centuries and civilisations from Sumer to the Hittites. In the few texts mentioning homosexuality in Ancient Egypt, for example, only the New Kingdom Book of the Dead implied that it was condemned. As may be expected, some scholars believe that this was only aimed at priests and other personnel who were banned from any form of sex on temple premises.
Egyptian society expected every male to marry early and produce children, so both prostitution and homosexuality were officially frowned upon but probably flourished regardless. Once a man was married, with a household of his own, he no doubt lived the rest of his life precisely as he pleased. As with all ancient civilisations, however, our knowledge is based on the upper classes; the hoi polloi were too busy scraping a living to become educated or to leave much evidence of their lives.
It's in the myths of the Egyptian gods where the topic of homosexuality takes a starring role; Seth and Horus were not condemned for their night of passion so much as that it developed into complicated infighting in the hierarchy of the gods, an all-too-common occurrence in the pantheons of ancient civilisations.
There is a funeral stele showing two young men face-to-face – and, likewise, two theories. The simple one is that they were a gay couple, the other that they were twins buried together as they were born together and thus creating the balance the Egyptians lived by. Take your pick; expert opinion, as always, is deeply divided!
Another story is straight out of the defunct tabloid newspaper 'The News of the World'; a pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom was observed sneaking out of the palace at night to visit his lover, a general in the army. Funnily enough, it wasn't his choice of paramour that incensed people; their complaint was that he brought the kingship into disrepute by sloping out under cover of darkness.
By the time of the Greeks, and then the Romans, there are plenty of texts including laws, literature and graffiti. In Greece the heterosexual relationship wasn't the centre of social life; women were uneducated and confined to the home, while men conducted their lives in public. Educating a youth to become a man, a worthy citizen, was the responsibility of an older man – a relationship bound by strict rules of courtship and behaviour which was only supposed to last a specific period of time. Continuing in the passive role as an adult was frowned upon but not unknown; once maturity was reached and facial hair sprouted the youth was supposed to abandon the passive role – both cultural and sexual – to take his place in civic life, marry, raise children and become the educator of his own beloved youth. It was a way of life which had started as an initiation rite in pre-classical times and reached its peak in the last few centuries before Rome conquered Greece. The Greeks didn't differentiate between homosexuality and heterosexuality so much as between active and passive patterns of behaviour.
Rome held no truck with the Greek way of courting a beloved, or of educating the object of desire; to an upper-class Roman, this was merely lack of virility. A male Roman had to be the active one in any sexual encounter, regardless of the gender of his partner, and the passive male sexual partner of a Roman had to be of a class lower than his own – whereas in Greece the chosen beloved had to be freeborn and from a good family.
Rome rejected the Greek tradition of 'courtly love', as losing oneself in love and sensuality was considered moral slavery and thus a dark shame – especially if it affected public deportment and social relations. It was felt that a well-born man must never submit himself either physically or morally to an inferior of either sex – and all women were by nature considered inferior!
By the late Republic and early Empire standards had slipped, and Rome embraced pleasure with enthusiasm. Augustus introduced laws attempting to restore morality to his city – without much effect, as the upper-class man, including Augustus himself, continued not to distinguish between male and female partners. There was no such thing as privacy in Rome; the Romans had no need of the internet – their 'social networking' came in the form of household slaves. Members of the ruling class were never alone, and their slaves gossiped – at the fountain, in the markets and shops, and while attending their masters in public. Gossip must have spread widely to reach the ears of the masters and mistresses, and thus it's no wonder that the literature of ancient Rome comprises such a vast amount of scandal.
Sadly, however, in time the more open attitudes of the pagan world died out; belief in the old gods faded, and the harsh laws of the new religions of Christianity and Islam were enforced with a severity that had never previously been encountered. Sic transit gloria mundi.