The early Empire has become almost a locus celeberrimus for popular histories of same-sex marriage, and the attraction is not difficult to understand. Regardless of polemical allegiance, the activist who chooses to focus on the occurrences of such a practice in the early Empire is afforded two advantages. Firstly, Christianity had not yet become an influential moral code in mainstream society, and therefore arguments for the acceptance or rejection of the practice gain extra weight from being non-sectarian. Secondly, the depictions and verbal forms in the extant literature are unambiguous, so there is no need for evidential pleading. Yet a clear cut answer to the question 'Did the Romans have gay marriages?' is surprisingly unhelpful. If one says yes, does it mean that Roman society fully condoned the practice? If one says no, does it mean that homosexuality was opposed by the common populace? The texts that have come down to us depicting same-sex marriage and the opposition which they detail are not simple and simple answers will likewise not suffice. Yet even in academia, lines are sometimes drawn too quickly. As Richlin summarizes: (1)
A review of the literature in the field shows a dialogic process,
in which statements at one extreme produce opposing statements;
probably all could be modified. Jasper Griffin writes in opposition
to the New Critical approach that denies any reality to the
homoerotic expressions in Roman texts. Ramsay MacMullen argues that
the mainstream of Roman culture deplored all forms of
homosexuality, to counter John Boswell's thesis that Rome condoned
homosexuality. David Cohen, among others, on the Greek side and I
on the Roman side respond to the Foucaultian attempt to define
ancient sexuality as completely separate from modern. Perhaps the
most important conclusion to take away from all these studies is
what comes out in the surveys of ancient material: these cultures
were not monolithic.
It should be clear that extreme positions on the topic of same-sex marriage in the Early Empire should not easily be taken. (2) These are, on the one extreme, the opinion that references to the practice have a basis only in literature and that the practice was rare and condemned, and on the other, that the practice was common and unproblematic. (3) I submit instead that, while same-sex marriage certainly had a form of existence in Roman society, the widespread opposition to it had deep roots in the Roman conception of masculinity vis-a-vis homosexual desire, and that such opposition, being both sociocultural and legal, precluded an institutional existence. In what follows, three references to the practice in Martial, Juvenal and Suetonius are considered. I have chosen to focus specifically on these three authors since they present the clearest references to same-sex marriage which also contain some form of authorial opinion. They are also the only texts from the early Empire that refer explicitly to the practice. (4)
Martial Epigram 12.42
Like Catullus, Martial's sharp and explicit wit is oft exercised against the pathic homosexual. (5) In Epigram 12.42, he derides a same-sex marriage:
barbatus rigido nupsit Callistratus Afro
hac qua leqe viro nubere virgo solet
praeluxere faces, velarunt flammea vultus,
nec tua defuerunt verba, Thalasse, tibi
dos etiam dicta est. nondum tibi, Roma, videtur
hoc satis? expectas numquid ut et pariat?
Bearded Callistratus has married stern Afer
with that law wherewith a man is accustomed to marry a maiden.
Torches light up the way, veils cover the face,
and words to you, oh Thalassius, are not lacking.
Even a dowry is announced. Is this yet not enough for you,
oh Rome? Are you waiting for him to give birth?
Forming a doubled set around the marital verb nubere, Martial denotes the couple first by appearance and then by name. The prior is uncharacteristically symmetrical, given that hairiness was a standard mark of masculinity. …