"Homosexuality," Plato wrote, "is regarded as shameful by barbarians and by those who live under despotic governments just as philosophy is regarded as shameful by them, because it is apparently not in the interest of such rulers to have great ideas engendered in their subjects, or powerful friendships or passionate love-all of which homosexuality is particularly apt to produce." This attitude of Plato's was characteristic of the ancient world, and I want to begin my discussion of the attitudes of the Church and of Western Christianity toward homosexuality by commenting on comparable attitudes among the ancients.
To a very large extent, Western attitudes toward law, religion, literature and government are dependent upon Roman attitudes. This makes it particularly striking that our attitudes toward homosexuality in particular and sexual tolerance in general are so remarkably different from those of the Romans. It is very difficult to convey to modern audiences the indifference of the Romans to questions of gender and gender orientation. The difficulty is due both to the fact that the evidence has been largely consciously obliterated by historians prior to very recent decades, and to the diffusion of the relevant material.
Romans did not consider sexuality or sexual preference a matter of much interest, nor did they treat either in an analytical way. An historian has to gather together thousands of little bits and pieces to demonstrate the general acceptance of homosexuality among the Romans. One of the few imperial writers who does appear to make some sort of comment on the subject in a general way wrote, "Zeus came as an eagle to godlike Ganymede and as a swan to the fairhaired mother of Helen. One person prefers one gender, another the other, I like both." Plutarch wrote at about the same time, "No sensible person can imagine that the sexes differ in matters of love as they do in matters of clothing. The intelligent lover of beauty will be attracted to beauty in whichever gender he finds it." Roman law and social strictures made absolutely no restrictions on the basis of gender. It has sometimes been claimed that there were laws against homosexual relations in Rome, but it is easy to prove that this was not the case. On the other hand, it is a mistake to imagine that anarchic hedonism ruled at Rome. In fact, Romans did have a complex set of moral strictures designed to protect children from abuse or any citizen from force or duress in sexual relations. Romans were, like other people, sensitive to issues of love and caring, but individual sexual (i.e. gender) choice was completely unlimited. Male prostitution (directed toward other males), for instance, was so common that the taxes on it constituted a major source of revenue for the imperial treasury. It was so profitable that even in later periods when a certain intolerance crept in, the emperors could not bring themselves to end the practice and its attendant revenue.