Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.09.45

Louis Crompton, Homosexuality and Civilization.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2003.  Pp. xv, 623.  ISBN 0-674-01197-X.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by Fiona Hobden, University of Liverpool (
Word count: 1455 words

Crompton's Homosexuality and Civilization explores the history of same-sex relationships and attitudes towards them across a variety of periods and places. Beginning with Judea, Greece and Rome, the so-called founding cultures of western society, it documents evidence for homosexual activity amongst men and (where the evidence permits) women and examines cultural responses to it. The investigations continues into dark-age and medieval Europe, Italy during the Renaissance, Spain, France and England in the 1500-1700s, and finally eighteenth-century Europe. This narrative on 'western civilization' is interrupted by two sojourns eastward, to imperial China and pre-Meiji Japan. With this broad but predominantly western focus, the author embarks on a wide-ranging and detailed investigation which simultaneously constructs a powerful pink polemic. By examining the origins and development of negative assessments of homosexuality, exposing the cruelty of homophobic persecutions, and demonstrating alternative (positive) responses to those which until recently dominated Europe and North America, Crompton challenges the notion of homosexuality as 'unnatural'. Homosexuality is a constant which we might universally embrace, if only we allow ourselves to step beyond, by implication, the impositions of our cultural heritage.

Crompton's work compiles a wealth of evidence for same-sex relationships and desires from the past. The religious texts, poetry, drama, letters, philosophical treatises and artwork of the societies under consideration demonstrate the pervasiveness of homosexuality throughout the period, whether openly discussed and admired, forbidden, or flaunted in rebellion against condemnatory norms. Moreover, this same material yields information concerning the development of societal attitudes towards homosexuality. Arguing for the prevalence of a general tolerance towards same-sex relationships amongst the Greeks and Romans, the author proposes that the spread of Jewish-influenced religious and cultural authority constructed a discourse in which homosexuality became aligned against good Christian conduct (chapters 1-6). This resulted ultimately in violent and widespread persecutions across medieval Europe (chapters 7, 9, 10). This vehement intolerance placed the countries of Europe in stark contrast with contemporary China (500 BCE to 1849 CE) and Japan (800 to 1868 CE) (chapters 8, 13; see also chapter 6, pp. 161-172 on 'Love in Arab Spain'). While homosexual behaviour and its persecution were drawn into the power struggles within the European church and states, the courts, religions, poetry and drama of these two Asian countries celebrated passion between males. Furthermore, in modern Europe, while France, the Netherlands and Britain stepped up their policing and persecution of homosexual deviancy, relationships between men and between women flourished (chapters 12, 14, 15). Meanwhile, through inconsistency, omission and open campaigning, prominent intellectual figures of the Enlightenment used their plays, poems and moral-political writings to challenge the official line on sexuality (chapter 16). Yet, it was Napoleon's decriminalisation of homosexuality, followed by a few liberal-minded contemporaries, which provided the first practical movement away from persecution and intolerance.

This framework is reinforced by a dazzling and colourful tour of Europe and the Far East, from the boudoirs of the Han dynasty to the torture chambers of the Spanish Inquisition, from the courts of medieval kings to the workshops of renaissance artists, and from Shakespearean England to the Japanese kabuki stage. Two key notions underlie the relationship between homosexuality and civilization which Crompton thus constructs. On the one hand, he seeks to convince his reader of the universality of homosexual experience, a constant across cultures. On the other, the developments in thought, practice and belief which he traces emphasise the culturally contingent facet of responses to homosexuality: relationships between members of the same sex may permeate many societies, but attitudes towards them are determined by the societies in which they operate. Hostility originally arose within the Judaeo-Christian movement through misunderstanding of earlier Jewish proscriptions against gentile cults involving temple prostitution and transvestism; gradually, these views interacted with ambivalent Roman attitudes towards effeminacy, associations between paganism and Hellenic homosexuality, and the affiliation of church with state, provoking violent reactions to the 'sin' of homosexuality. Embedded as it was in the general psyche as morally repugnant and manipulated by kings and courtiers to political ends, only when intellectual thinking challenged established hierarchies such as the relationship between the church and state and the morality of sexuality did homosexual activity escape state-sponsored persecution. In the 'private' arena, the movement towards tolerance is, of course, still an on-going process.

The scale and scope of this reading presents a nuanced account of how, under the influence of the Christian Church, sexual behaviour became bound up in discourses of power and was placed at the mercy of political thinking and religious moralizing. In this respect, Homosexuality and Civilization makes an important contribution to on-going scholarly debates. However, the universalizing component of the work impinges on Crompton's thesis in two respects. Firstly, rejecting Foucault's assertion that the 'homosexual' is a modern invention, the author prefers to join all practitioners of same-sex relationships into one distinct and pervasive segment of all societies, claiming that over the years, only perceptions of homosexuals have changed.1 Since this assumption is crucial to his entire enterprise, Crompton denies the cultural differences which are so apparent in the reactions and responses of the societies he studies. For example, a Greek man who had sex with young boys at the training ground or drinking party may have constructed a personal and communal identity for himself through the sexual act. However, he did so within the wider framework of the gymnasion or the symposion, participation within which itself contributed towards his sense of identity. Thus, he may have loved and desired males, but his cultural sphere of reference was completely different from that of the modern 'homosexual'. Further, Crompton does not address the distinction that some cultures (not only modern ones but also the ancient Greeks) find important based on the age of the parties involved in the same-sex relationship. Omitting this distinction seems at odds with the author's more political intentions. Over the last century the association between pederasty and homosexuality in the public imagination has been a key feature in the demonization of male homosexuals. While upper-class intellectuals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries may have been keen to view themselves as disciples of 'Greek love', how many gay men today would feel comfortable with this association?

In addition, by positing the Judaeo-Christian tradition as the ultimate source of homophobia in the west, Crompton downplays ambiguities within at least one of the societies he discusses: classical Greece. For example, following Dover, Crompton observes that sexual relations between males in fifth- and fourth-century Athens were problematic for the pathic partner: his male citizen status was threatened through his penetration by another man. The Athenians made allowances for this by assigning this role to youths who would grow up and become penetrators themselves. Yet, recent studies have suggested that insults and jokes relating to homosexual activity are concerned with more than just demasculization. For Hubbard, they are tied to Athens' social make-up: pederasty is an elite vice ridiculed by comic writers for amusement of lower status audiences. Alternatively, Davidson connects accusation of 'wide-buttockery' to moral concerns with moderation and self-control.2 In addition, Crompton focuses on Plato's Symposium as evidence for the general acceptance of homosexuality. But, although he notes carefully some problems surrounding the dialogues' utility as a source, he does not notice that Pausanias' speech reinforces the problematics associated with pedersatic relationships: while promoting his own ideal of 'heavenly' love between man and youth, Pausanias criticizes men who take as their lovers boys of the wrong age. For Crompton, the existence of such men support the existence of 'homosexuality' in ancient Athens, but he ignores the censorious nature of the statement, reinforced by Pausanias' complaint that fathers and friends conspire against young men who want to satisfy their older lovers.3

Certainly, Crompton's chapter on classical Greece emphasizes the diversity of possible homosexual experience within Greece; but it underplays the complexity of attitudes towards such activities. On the one hand, the scope of Crompton's work necessitates such simplification. However, the possible ambiguities and contradictions within Greek society (and perhaps other societies covered which are outside the reviewer's ken) could add greater resonance and colour to his argument concerning the clash between 'homosexuals' and the societies within which they have lived over the past 2,500 years.

Homosexuality and Civilization is a lively, diverse and coherent work with much to offer popular and academic readers as it introduces them to a huge variety of people and places, literary texts and artistic works, thus providing them with a synthesis of material relevant to the history of sexuality. But perhaps most importantly, given the author's overtly political agenda, it highlights strongly the cultural contingency of contemporary attitudes towards homosexuals and homosexuality; it awakens the Western reader to the manifold horrors perpetrated by his or her ancestors and reminds them that there can be another way.


1.   Crompton, 2004, pages xiv, 173-4. Contra Foucault, M., 1985, The History of Sexuality, volume 2: The Use of Pleasure, New York.
2.   Dover, K., 1974, Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle, Oxford; Hubbard, T., 1998, 'Popular Conceptions of Elite Homosexuality in Classical Athens', Arion n.s. 6: 48-78; Davidson, J., 1997, Courtesans and Fishcakes. The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens, London.
3.   Crompton, 2004: 56-57, 59. Plato, Symposium 180c-185c.

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