Sexuality Throughout the Ages

Explore the history of sexuality.

Sexuality during Byzantine Rule

Justinian and Theodora; courtesy of istock photo

The Byzantine Empire was established at the beginning of the fourth century AD, by the Roman Emperor Constantine. The Empire had a great deal of impact on the legal, artistic, religious, and cultural world today; however, it was only in the 20th century that scholars and historians came to understand its profound impact on Western Europe (Adena, 2008, pg 1).

Sexuality within Byzantine households in the fourth century involved three as a part of a family: the courtesan, the wife, and the concubine. An Athenian orator, Apollodoros, once quoted ‘we have courtesans for pleasure, and concubines for the daily service of our bodies, but wives for the production of legitimate offspring and to have reliable guardians of our household property’ (Sawford, 2010, pg 15)

According to the holy monks of Byzantine Palestine, prostitutes tracked down the monks in their secluded caves near the River Jordan. It was therefore paradoxical: monks–a symbol of sexual holiness, took part in debauchery. A fifth century AD Gnostic hymn from Nag-Hammadi in Middle Egypt explains this predicament: ‘I am She whom one honours and disdains.  I am the Saint and the prostitute. I am the virgin and the wife.  I am knowledge and I am ignorance. I am strength and I am fear. I am Godless and I am the Greatness of God’ (Adena, 2008, pg 80).

According to several texts–particularly those written by the monks of Nitria, Kellia, and Scetis, explained that most cities in the Byzantine Era (Jerusalem, Babylon, Alexandria and Beirut) were a “den of iniquity, of temptation and of sin.” (Sawford, 2010, pg 3)

‘How the faithful city has become a harlot, she that was full of justice!’, –prophet Isaiah (1:21)

‘Clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet, bedecked with gold, with jewels, and with pearls!’ (Rev. 18.16-17) St John describing a Prostitute in Babylon.

By creating a law against married men taking concubines–subjecting those men who did not comply to corporal punishment–Christianity ended the triad of concubine, husband and wife (Sawford, 2010, pg 17).

Adena, Louise (2008). “The Enduring Legacy of Byzantium”. Clio History Journal.

Ahrweiler, Hélène; Laiou, Angeliki E. (1998). “Preface”. Studies on the Internal Diaspora of the Byzantine Empire. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks.


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This entry was posted on March 27, 2012 by in MIDDLE AGES and tagged , .
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