Monday, February 16, 2004
I've arrived at the section in the John Boswell book that deals with same sex unions during the early Christian years of the Roman Empire. The topic is now the official pairing of saints and the interesting fact that these are male couples who served in high positions in the Roman legions, can be proven to have been romantically and sexually involved, and who were originally venerated in terms that unquestionably recognized the homoerotic nature of their earthly and even heavenly unions. Boswell deals particularly with Saints Sergius and Bacchus and Saints Polyeuct and Nearchos while listing many more.
The point here is that these saints have little identity in terms of having churches named in their honor or having their story told except as couples--they are forever linked in early Church iconography and that link continues today. Their veneration is particularly strong in the Eastern Orthodox Church, which makes sense in the light of the strong tradition of valuing male couples as warriors in the ancient Greek military. Sergius and Bacchus lived together and were martyred one day apart, Bacchus having been beheaded first. The night before his own execution Sergius had a dream which forms the center of the original devotion as reported in the Greek manuscript. Bacchus came to Sergius as a vision and urged him to remain resolute as his reward in death would be eternal union in heaven with Bacchus. NOT eternal union with Christ, NOT the Beatific Vision of God which Catholics are told is the ultimate reward for living a virtuous life, but eternal union with his earthly lover. Boswell mentions that he will go on to demonstrate that Sergius and Bacchus are specifically invoked as models in the early Church's own marriage ceremony for male couples.
Polyeuct was not a Christian but his lover Nearchos was. Polyeuct was also married, with children, to the daughter of the local Governor. But like many Roman men of a certain class, he had a deeply committed homosexual relationship as well. When Nearchos was condemned to execution as a Christian (this is in the early 3rd century in the province of Armenia), Polyeuct left wife and children and elected to join Nearchos in death on the basis that he once had a dream that he was Christian and sought judicial sentencing on the basis of that. The men died together. In the 19th century, Polyeuct's story was made into
a five act French grand tragic play and eventually into a very popular Italian Romantic opera by Donizetti (POLLIUTO), albeit with the homosexual content toned down considerably.