Burials in Greek Macedonia: Possible Evidence for Same-Sex Committed Relationships in Early Christianity 1

Valerie Abrahamsen

JHC 4/2 (Fall, 1997), 33-56.


BURIALS of pairs of men and pairs of women in ecclesiastical contexts from the early Byzantine era, along with more expected burials of married couples, families and random groups, have been discovered in excavations at Philippi and Edessa in northern Greece. In the dig literature, the archaeologists and commentators passed over the same-sex pairs quickly, with no speculation as to what they might represent, not even intimating that these pairs were siblings, mother/daughter or father/son groupings, adoptions, people who may have died at roughly the same time or anything else equally commonplace.

Earlier in Philippi's history, a female "pair," Euodia and Syntyche, were active in the church and mentioned in St. Paul's letter to the Philippians (4:2-3). Were those two women "merely" strong leaders in the Philippian church of the 50s C.E.2 or a same-sex committed couple?

The latter possibility was first raised in 1990 by Mary Rose D'Angelo, who commented, "Evodia and Syntyche can be seen as a missionary couple, partners in the mission, rather than as individual members of Paul's missionary team. They may in fact have been independent of Paul.... Second, ...the 'religious conflict' [mentioned in Phil 4:2] is a dispute not between Euodia and Syntyche but between Paul on the one hand and the two women missionaries on the other."3 This tantalizing theory lends support to the possibility that the Byzantine burial evidence demonstrates the existence of same-sex committed couples in the early church.

In addition to D'Angelo, other research on homosexuality in antiquity has recently been published, including the late John Boswell's Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe 4 and Love Between Women by Bernadette Brooten. While Brooten considers both literary and archaeological evidence in an analysis of female homoeroticism in antiquity, most studies have relied almost exclusively on literary sources and have focused on male sexuality.5

At Philippi and Edessa the primary evidence for same-sex unions from the Byzantine period is archaeological and epigraphic. How can the literary evidence, the work of art historians and the contributions of D'Angelo, Boswell, Brooten and others shed light on the material evidence from Philippi and Edessa? Were there same-sex couples in northern Greece in the early Byzantine era and even earlier? These and other questions will be considered in the following pages.

The Evidence from Philippi and Edessa (Macedonia)

THE relevant inscriptions from Philippi are shown in Table 1. In four cases the evidence for same-sex burials is unmistakable: two pairs of women (Euodiana and Dorothea, Pancharia and Posidonia) and two pairs of men (Gourasios and Konstantios, Faustinos and Donatos). In two other cases, because of damage to the inscriptions themselves, the names are not clear. In the case of Kyriakos and Nikan[__], some archaeologists preferred reading "Kyriakos and Nikandra"—male and female—but in the case of Alexandra and Glukeria, both female. In the example of Kyriakos and Nikan[__], the stone was so badly damaged that other interpreters conjectured either Nikandras or Nikanoros. The commentators did not indicate their reasons for deciding one gender over the other in either case.

Table 1. Possible Same-Sex Inscriptions from Philippi

"Sleeping place of Euodiana and Dorothea." Fifth century. From Extra-Muros Basilica.6

"Sleeping place belonging to Posidonia, deacon, and Pancharia, very humble canoness." Fourth to fifth century. Marble stele from the east side of Philippi, now lost.7

"Sleeping place of Alexandra and Glukeria (or Glukerios)." Fifth to sixth century. From Basilica B (Direkler).8

"Sleeping place of the most pious presbyters, Faustinos and Donatos, of the holy catholic and apostolic church of the Philippians." Fourth century. From Extra-Muros basilica; two skeletons found.9

"Sleeping place of the most devoted presbyters, Gourasios and Konstantios, resting in Christ, 14th indiction." Fourth to sixth century. From Extra-Muros Basilica; large number of skeletons and 18 skulls found.10

"Sleeping place of Kyriakos and Nikandra (or Nikandros or Nikanoros)." Fourth to fifth century. From Basilica B (Direkler).11

The context of these inscriptions is critical: all were burials, most in the floors of two of the city's six early Byzantine basilicas, and all were associated with the early Byzantine church. Most of the inscriptions date from the fourth to sixth centuries CE; the approximate date for each example is given in Table 1. Only Posidonia and Pancharia were not basilica burials; rather, the inscription was an old find whose provenance remains unknown. However, the women's titles—deacon and "very humble canoness"—are ecclesiastical, showing that the women were dedicated to the church and probably buried under its auspices.

The archaeologists at Philippi discovered skeletal remains along with the inscriptions. In the crypt of Gourasios and Konstantios, a large number of skeletons and eighteen skulls were found, and in the case of Faustinos and Donatos, two skeletons were found (the evidence does not say explicitly, however, that they were male skeletons). However, this burial evidence was sparse: there were no remarks about cause of death, grave goods found with the bodies, general health or age of any of the individuals, and no mention of gender. This lack of precision hinders the interpretive work and leaves many questions unanswered.

Table 2 contains the evidence from similar finds at Edessa, a city northwest of Thessaloniki in Greek Macedonia. All inscriptions date to the fifth to sixth centuries CE.

Table 2. Possible Same-Sex Inscriptions from Edessa (Macedonia)

"Tomb of Martyrios, presbyter, and Demetrios, lector."12

"Monument of Dionysios, carder, and Demetrios, soldier of the Germanic numerus."13

"Eternal monument of Eudoxios, presbyter, and of the sinner John, deacon."14

"Tomb of ---nos, economist, and of . . ., presbyter."15

"Monument of . . . and of Theodoulis, virgin."16

"Monument of Droseria and Eudoxia and of Anthemios, physician, and his wife Sophia."17

"Monument of Athanasios and Chryseros. Christ, save us and cause us to be reborn anew."18

An examination of the distribution of terms of relationships of individuals commemorated in pagan and Christian epitaphs from Rome shows that 25 percent of inscriptions from Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, Vol. 6, describe no term of relationship; the other 75 percent encompass relationships such as deceased to patron, to slave or freedman, to foster child, to parent and so on. In Roman columbaria, 46 percent of inscriptions describe no term of relationship, and the comparable percentage in the Inscriptiones Christianae Urbis Romae is 65 percent.19 None of these relationships is a same-sex union, which implies that such unions would be unnoted on the inscription. In other words, at least some of the "no term of relationship" inscriptions could be associated with same-sex burials.

What is the likelihood that these pairs were same-sex committed couples and not, for instance, just people who died at the same time? To answer this and other questions, we must discuss the nature of sexuality—heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality—in antiquity.

Sexuality in the Graeco-Roman World

ACCORDING to Boswell and others, love, marriage and other relationships and couplings in the Graeco-Roman world were of a very different nature than what they have traditionally been in the modern West. The difficulty of translating words and phrases between languages and cultures is at the base of the differences. The meanings of the English terms lover, friend, partner, sister, brother and adoption are far from straightforward when translated from the original Greek and Latin. For example, when the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter, written in Latin, uses frater, usually translated in English as "brother," it most often means a "long-standing homosexual partner."20

Heterosexual couplings took four forms: use, concubinage, marriage, and romance. "Use primarily meant women and slaves used by men whom they owned or controlled. Concubinage referred to a man who maintained a long-standing relationship with a woman socially inferior to him.21

Marriage was "the only respectable sexual relationship for women" and took two forms—polygamy and monogamy, the latter being much more common.22 However, while modern Americans and other Westerners automatically think of marriage as the free choice between a man and a woman, based on love and deep affection, in the Graeco-Roman world, a marriage was for all intents and purposes a property arrangement. As a means to maintain and expand the base of wealth for both individuals and families, marriage was "often officially possible only for the propertied classes."23 Marriage was not regarded as a way to fulfill romantic or sexual needs, nor was it usually a relationship of equals, since women were not legally equal to men. Advice on marriage (to men) was "to aspire to a friendly, siblinglike, or parental affection toward a spouse."24 (Lower-class unions were less formal, undertaken for a variety of reasons both sexual and economic, and rarely recognized by law.) Romantic literature attests to love and affection between spouses, but romance was not a primary motivation for men and women to marry.

Of these four types of heterosexual couplings, only marriage was publicly acknowledged and solemnized. The main elements that made for a valid Greek and Roman marriage were consent (of the families, understood, not the woman) and harmony or marital affection—notably not consummation, not intercourse and not children.25 For the most part with regard to marriage, the Christian church adhered to this basic foundation of the law.26

Like heterosexual relationships in the Graeco-Roman world between 400 BCE. and 400 CE, there were also four different types of same-sex relationships:27 exploitation of males owned or controlled by other males;28 homosexual concubinage (the male concubine was dismissed when the other man married); love/ romantic unions, sometimes confused with non-erotic friendship; and formal unions along the lines of marriage. These four types tended to be more fluid and less legalistic than heterosexual unions.29

A wealth of literature from antiquity describes same-sex erotic relationships, mostly among men, that are clearly parallel to heterosexual ones (although modern commentators have tried to rationalize alternative explanations). Such literature includes descriptions of rituals that formalized same-gender unions. Strabo, for example, writing early in the Christian era, described the Cretan custom whereby a young man abducted his male lover. Once the abduction took place, the partnership was formalized by such familiar elements as witnesses, gifts, religious sacrifice, a public banquet, a chalice, a ritual change of clothing for one partner, a change of status for both and a honeymoon.30 Lucian, writing late in the second century, discussed a ceremony by which Scythian males established formal, lifelong relationships with each other.31 A number of other examples of same-sex pairs in antiquity are found in literature and myth.32 This literature clearly describes an atmosphere in ancient Greece and Rome that could best be described as bisexual, at least among men.

In formal unions, the relationship was publicly recognized and there was a definite change of status for one or both parties. The greatest difference between publicly-acknowledged same-sex unions and heterosexual marriage was that "heterosexual marriage was almost entirely a dynastic and property arrangement having to do with descendants and inheritance, with virtually no relation to the sort of emotional ties that inspired same-sex unions."33

The attitudes and mores associated with coupling practices in antiquity are thus significant. Whereas in classical Greece it was common for an adult male to take a male lover between the ages of twelve and seventeen or eighteen—much of the intent being to mentor and educate the youngster into adult male life34—in Rome, at least until Greek encroachment, it was acceptable for the adult Roman male to have sex with (his own) slaves and with male prostitutes, but not with boys of his own class.35 For the most part, male homosexuality was not condemned per se, outlawed or punished in either Greek or Roman culture.

Rather, the homosexual trait most frowned upon in men in the early imperial era was that of passivity, being the "woman" of an adult male pair.36 Such men were the butt of jokes and embarrassments to their wives, and the law, specifically the Pauli receptae Sententiae,37 prescribed severe penalties for passive behavior, even the death penalty.38 As time went on, more and more Roman men were viewed as playing the passive role, including Caesar and Augustus, which resulted in ambiguous social reactions and results.39 In the eyes of later emperors, the burgeoning of passivity came to be seen as a very serious problem. In 342, Constantius and Constans decreed vengeance on passivity, presumably with castration. In 390, Theodosius I ordered passive homosexuals who prostituted themselves in brothels to be burned alive. In 438, the Theodosian Code extended the provision of burning alive to all passive homosexuals, and by Justinian's time (c. 530), the penalty for all homosexuals was death.40

The Case of Women

BROOTEN has amassed considerable evidence for female homosexuality, homoeroticism and same-sex coupling among women, using classical and Hellenistic Greek literature, Latin literature, Greek vase paintings and other artistic and archaeological evidence, Jewish literature, spells and other magical formulae, astrological texts, medical treatises and literature concerning dreams.41 There is no question that female homoeroticism existed in the period under discussion, although it remains difficult to ascertain exactly how the women involved felt in any given situation, since very little of the extant evidence comes from the pen, mouth or brush of the women involved.

The best-known literary source is the corpus of Sappho, the female poet from the island of Lesbos. Even though she dates far earlier than the Christian era (sixth-seventh century BCE), the context in which she wrote her love poems to other women and girls—the thiasoi, or female cultic associations—is instructive. The thiasoi, documented on Lesbos and in Sparta, were groups of women that revered chosen deities and enacted ceremonies and festivals in their honor. Girls lived in these groups prior to marriage and were educated, primarily in music, singing, dancing and gracious behavior.42 In many ways, these communities were similar to those of boys.

Significantly, the thiasoi were also groups in which the girls loved each other and their teachers, and the teachers loved each other and their pupils—sometimes quite passionately. A puberty ritual from seventh-century BCE. Sparta describes unabashedly the girls' erotic attraction to their choir leaders—a female couple named Hagesichora and Agido—as they offer a robe to a goddess. Some of the more noteworthy phrases in the ritual include:

. . . I sing of Agido's light.

. . . Hagesichora's hair blooms like unmixed gold. And her silver face—why should I spell it out?

. . . no, it's Hagesichora who excites me. For Hagesichora of the fair ankles is near her; close to Agido. . .

. . . it is through Hagesichora that girls have reached the peace they long for. . . 43

Elsewhere in the ritual mention is made of other girls or women to whom the girls might be attracted.

Girls' communities, like boys', were located at the edges of cities, where special sanctuaries were established, where the girls were physically and emotionally isolated from men and the rest of society, and where they developed powerful emotional relationships with members of their own group. These liaisons, coming at a time of transition from virgin life to married life, were not initiatory rites leading to marriage, like boys' were, but rather relationships between equals based on love. "Sex between women ...does not involve submission [and] it cannot symbolise the transmission of power.... Homosexuality, in the female sodalities, is not pedagogical: it is an elevated, 'cultured' relationship. It is something which ennobles...."44

It was the girl leaving to be married, in fact, that inspired much of Sappho's most powerful verse: the theme of inevitable pain upon parting from the beloved.45 These examples parallel those of the male poets of antiquity. Therefore, it is obvious that such groups become a locus for female homoeroticism and actual love relationships.

While the thiasoi per se may have declined during the Hellenistic era,46 women's groups and associations did indeed exist during the early Christian era.47 Some goddesses, such as Hekate, were worshipped primarily by women, and many goddess cults celebrated rites or festivals in which only women and girls could participate—Bona Dea, Artemis, Hera. Deities such as Isis, Dionysos, Athena, Demeter, Aphrodite and emperors and empresses included both women and men in their cults, with women often taking primary or leadership roles, and the Vestal Virgins at Rome constituted a vitally important all-women's sodality for centuries.

There are parallels between the ancient thiasoi of Sappho's time and these later women's funerary associations, cults and the Vestal Virgins. First, the women (and girls) were socially if not physically isolated from men and the larger society, though possibly to a lesser degree. Second, except for professional guilds and some other all-adult groups, the associations included girls as well as women. The goddess cults existed in part to initiate girls into womanhood, often at as young an age as five to ten, and Vestal Virgins were chosen as young girls and served for life.

These groups of women and girls constituted viable societies in which women were participants, leaders, role models, teachers, transmitters of tradition and bearers of power. In at least some of these groups, the adult women were unmarried, either through celibacy, widowhood or divorce. Even many married women were effectively single for most of their lives, with their husbands at war or commerce, sometimes for years at a time.

As Christianity took hold, women formed communities or houses closely parallel to those of men. Such groups were governed by specific rules, disciplines and hierarchies, and focussed on such tasks as caring for the poor and sick, educating young girls, copying manuscripts and weaving textiles. Girls lived in many Christian convents from very young ages if they were students, early recruits or orphans. These communities "provided favorable conditions for same-sex love [and] led early Christian writers to a heightened awareness of homoerotic attraction."48 It is clear from the literature that women consciously chose this lifestyle instead of traditional marriage and that this choice was often seen by male church leaders, including John Chrysostom and Augustine, as problematic.49

In addition to evidence from these groups, there is archaeological evidence for female homoeroticism. An Augustan funerary relief from the British Museum depicts two women with their right hands clasped together in the gesture that expresses commitment. D'Angelo writes of this relief:

The inscription gives their names as Fonteia Eleusis and Fonteia Helena, further identifying them as freedwomen of a woman of the gens Fonteia. In late antiquity the stone had been recut; the veils of the women were cut away and the face of one recut to make her look like a man, while the other was given a wedding ring. Presumably the reviser hoped to turn the relief into a conventional funerary portrait of husband and wife.... The recutting was probably suggested by the handclasp, which is frequently (though not exclusively) used to depict the marriage bond.50

This relief, as well as reliefs depicting heterosexual couples of freedwomen and freedmen, is known as a libertini portrait; the inscriptions accompanying such portraits bear the family name of the patron, not that of the birth parents. Art historian Diana Kleiner, in her 1977 work, Roman Group Portraiture: The Funerary Reliefs of the Late Republic and Early Empire, published ten examples of libertini portraits, three depicting two women and seven depicting pairs of men. In this context and given the fact that the women's hands are clasped in D'Angelo's British Museum example, it is hard to argue with D'Angelo's conclusion that Eleusis and Helena had a relationship embodying "a commitment equal to that between husband and wife."51

Also, several female pairs in the New Testament—Tryphaena and Tryphosa in Rom 16; Euodia and Syntyche in Phil 4; and Martha and Mary in Luke and John—may have been missionary couples in the service of the church, on a par with the heterosexual examples of Prisca and Aquila, Andronicus and Junia, Philologus and Julia, and Nereas and his "sister," all named in Rom 16.52 These pairs of women were not only committed to the Christian mission but also to each other. For a number of reasons, one must be cautious in employing the term "lesbian" to describe them or assuming a specifically genital context for these relationships (because relationships between women may or may not have a genital context), but the commitment "can be seen as a sexual choice."53

Other archaeological evidence for women loving women is cited by Brooten. A plate from Thera, dated to about 620 BCE, shows two women in a typical courting position, one placing her hand below the chin of the other.54 An Attic kylix by Apollodoros (ca. 515-495 BCE) depicts a nude woman caressing the clitoris of a standing nude woman and stroking the standing woman's inner thigh with her other hand.55 An Attic red-figure amphora of about 490 BCE. depicts two nude women walking with their arms around each other.56 Finally, a South Italian vase from about 350 BCE shows two clothed women, the one sitting, the other standing facing her at an angle; the seated woman lightly touches the breast of the other.57

Brooten argues throughout her book and earlier articles that the culture strongly disapproved of same-sex relations between women, due primarily to the prevailing belief that men were active and women passive in relationships. Therefore, it was "unnatural" for two women to be in an erotic relationship because both were of the "passive" gender.58 While this is undoubtedly true, it does not necessarily mean that some segments of Graeco-Roman society at certain times and places did not honor such relationships, or at least accept them, as will be discussed below.

Liturgical Evidence for Same-Sex Unions

GIVEN the existence of same-sex unions in antiquity, what was the nature of these unions and how might they have been viewed by the church? Were there gender differences in the church's views? Boswell has uncovered significant evidence for official same-sex commitment liturgies in the church, paralleled by general nuptial offices (see Table 3).59 These ceremonies arose out of the general culture, still heavily pagan. It is crucial to note that the ecclesiastical blessing of a heterosexual marriage, which for all intents and purposes remained a pagan rite, was a favor, not especially sacred or special. For the first Christian centuries, the church did not in any way require that the couple be blessed by the church; in fact, for the first thousand years, Christianity required nuptial blessings only for priests!60

Christians appear to have appropriated as "role models," as it were, a number of same-sex pairs in the Jewish-Christian tradition to construct their rites or amend those they found in the culture. Among these were: David and Jonathan; Ruth and Naomi; Jesus and John, the beloved disciple; Perpetua and Felicitas; Paul and Timothy; Tychicus and Onesimus; Zenas and Apollos; and Polyeuct and Nearchos, third-century Roman soldiers who became saints. This is not to say that there was an erotic component to these relationships, just that the relationships were very close.

In the case of Serge and Bacchus, however, the evidence for a true committed same-sex couple is compelling. Serge and Bacchus were Roman soldiers of high social status who lived in the late third and early fourth centuries and were friends of one of the emperors (it is not clear which one).61 They were also Christians, devoted to the faith (still deemed illegal in some circles) and to each other. What ultimately led to their martyrdom was not their affection for each other but their devotion to Christ.62

The depth of their relationship becomes clear in the relating of their story, which dates between the fourth and sixth centuries. The emperor ordered them to sacrifice to idols. And when they refused, he ordered their military uniforms removed and women's clothing worn. They were then paraded through the city to the palace wearing heavy chains around their necks. This was meant to humiliate them into obedience but failed.63

The emperor then banished them—together—to a remote province and told them that if they repented of their monotheism, they would be restored to their former army ranks.64 They did not repent, so Bacchus was flogged to death and Serge was returned to jail. The story continues:

[T]he blessed Serge, deeply depressed and heartsick over the loss of Bacchus, wept and cried out, "No longer, brother and fellow soldier, will we chant together, 'Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to abide in oneness!' You have been unyoked from me and gone up to heaven, leaving me alone on earth, now single, without comfort."

After he uttered these things, the same night the blessed Bacchus suddenly appeared to him with a face as radiant as an angel's, wearing an officer's uniform, and spoke to him. "Why do you grieve and mourn, brother? If I have been taken from you in body, I am still with you in the bond of union, chanting and reciting, 'I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou shalt enlarge my heart.'

"Hurry then, yourself, brother, through beautiful and perfect confession to pursue and obtain me, when you have finished the course. For the crown of justice for me is to be with you."65

Serge himself was finally executed, with a crowd of people weeping bitterly for him.66

There are several significant aspects of this story. First, the men refer to each other as "brother," but they were not biological or adoptive siblings; the term assuredly has erotic overtones. Second, the text hints that they shared a household, since "their household servants" accompanied them.67 Finally, it is difficult to read Serge's lament without noting the deep love and affection he felt toward Bacchus.

Serge and Bacchus came to be seen in later Christian times as "the quintessential 'paired' military saints: they were usually referred to and often pictorially depicted together (sometimes rubbing halos together and with their horses' noses touching)."68 A monastery was dedicated to them in Euphratesia69 and they also became the special saints of the Byzantine army.70 The feast of Saints Serge and Bacchus is October 7 in the West, and they became the most popular of saints in Arabia and Syria.71

It is clear from examining the liturgies for same-sex union how important Serge and Bacchus were in the Christian culture and how strong the same-sex tradition was. Table 3 lists Boswell's examples of texts that mention Serge and Bacchus, with the date of each text:

Table 3. Same-Sex Liturgies Mentioning Serge and Bacchus

1. Hymn to Sts. Serge and Bacchus, in Greek, sixth century72

2. Office of Same-Sex Union, in Greek, 10th century73

3. Office for Same-Sex Union, in Greek, 11th century74

4. Prayer for Same-Sex Union, in Old Church Slavonic, 11th to 12th century75

5. Office of Same-Gender Union, in Italo-Greek, 114776

6. Order for Solemnization of Same-Sex Union, in Greek, 13th century77

7. An Order for the Uniting of Two Men [or Two Women], in Serbian Slavonic, early 14th century78

8. Office for Same-Gender Union, in Greek, probably 16th century79

9. Office of Same-Sex Union, in Greek, 152280

10. Order of Celebrating the Union of Two Men, in Serbian Slavonic, uncertain date but earlier than 18th century81

The nature of the relationships referred to in these texts is clearly committed and loving.82

The second most noted same-sex pair in these rites were the apostles Philip and Bartholomew, mentioned in rituals 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 of Table 3. In all phrasings, the apostles are linked in a manner similar to Serge and Bacchus.83 Interestingly, there is little about Philip and Bartholomew in the New Testament, so the question arises, where did the tradition of them as a couple originate? Both are named as among the twelve disciples of Jesus (Mt 10:3; Mk 3:18; Lk 6:14). Bartholomew is sometimes identified with Nathaniel, and among the arguments used that Bartholomew and Nathaniel are one and the same is the mention of Philip with Nathaniel in Jn 1:45-46 and with Bartholomew in lists of the Twelve. It is in the apocryphal Acts of Philip that Bartholomew is found accompanying Philip to Hierapolis and Lyconia. Both apostles are interlocutors of Jesus in various Gnostic discourses, including Sophia Jesu Christi, Pistis Sophia, and Books of Jeu.84

These links are surprisingly tenuous to have given rise to so many offices for same-sex union which held them up as models of devoted love and fidelity. Whereas it is easy to see from the story of Serge and Bacchus the depth of these men's affection, it is not at all clear in the case of Philip and Bartholomew. This suggests that there may have been other popular apocryphal traditions circulating, which have not survived, that did depict Philip and Bartholomew as a committed couple.

This could also be the case with the pairing of Peter and Paul in some of the liturgies (Table 3, nos. 4, 6, 7, 10). Peter and Paul were the primary apostles of the early church and were linked in many ways, especially with regard to the church at Rome. However, they also had serious theological disagreements (Gal 2) and traveled in different circles (Acts 1-15). How did they come to be linked as exemplars in same-sex union rites? This liturgical and literary evidence from the sixth to twelfth centuries suggests that the traditions behind the liturgies date to the patristic/apocryphal era, if not earlier, and are no longer extant.

Anthropological Insights on Homosexuality

BECAUSE Graeco-Roman culture is inherently very different from our own—agricultural instead of post-industrial and technological; communal instead of individualistic; superstitious rather than rational/scientific—anthropological studies have been used recently to shed light on the ancients and their customs.85 Such studies demonstrate that in various cultures "homosexual roles had certain valid cultural functions and were acceptable in some societies."86

In the past, most anthropological studies of homosexual behavior have focused on males.87 Recently, work on same-sex relations between women has yielded results that could have a bearing on female homoeroticism in antiquity.

The range of lesbian behavior that appears cross-culturally varies from formal to informal relations.... Informal relations among women are those which do not extend beyond the immediate social context. Examples of such would be adolescent sex play and affairs among women in harems or polygynous households. Formal lesbian relations are part of a network or social structure extending beyond the pair or immediate love relationship, and occur within such social relationships as bond friendship, sisterhoods, initiation schools, the cross-gender role, or woman-marriage.88

Graeco-Roman society was both highly stratified and somewhat democratic. Men ruled, generally speaking, but with regard to women's sodalities and other groups, women had some autonomy and power in certain settings. The anthropological studies show that "in societies where women have control over their productive activities and status, both formal and informal [same-sex] relations may occur. Where women lack power, particularly in class societies, they maintain only informal lesbian ties or build institutions outside the dominant cultures."89

Among the Azande in Africa, women are known to have maintained lesbian relationships with their co-wives; sometimes they kept these relationships secret from their husbands, although the husbands could not forbid the practice. Also, "a relationship between two Azande women could be formalized through a ritual that created a permanent bond." This bond seems to have strengthened trade relations as well as emotional and economic ones.90 In cultures where the men were absent much of the time (e.g., blacks in South Africa, Carriacou in the Caribbean), older married women secured the affections and assistance of younger, often single women. The relationship provided both economic and emotional support and prevented isolation.91

While it may seem far afield to equate African tribes with early Christians and their pagan neighbors, the similarities are important: an agricultural economic base; men often away from the home for long periods of time; sex-segregated childhood and adolescent groups; sex-segregated baths, religious associations and other social structures; the presence of female deities in the religious pantheon; and non-Western sexual mores (i.e., more tolerance for pairings viewed in the West as "unnatural" or "perverted"). Therefore, much can be learned about ancient practices from studying same-sex relationships that are and were common and natural in and often accepted by other cultures.

Same-Sex Burials in Antiquity

LITERARY evidence from antiquity shows that same-sex couples were buried together. In the Odyssey, Achilles and Patroclus were a couple. At death, Achilles' bones were mixed with those of Patroclus in a gold amphora. In the Iliad, Patroclus asks that his bones and Achilles' be interred together; when Achilles also requests it, the request is honored.92

In Aristotle's Politics, the male lovers Philolaus, a great law giver at Thebes, and Dioclese, an Olympic athlete, spent their lives together, maintained a single household, and arranged to be buried beside each other. Their tombs at Thebes were a tourist attaction in Aristotle's day.93 In the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter, where the two protagonists are a male couple, Giton and Encolpius, the pair make plans to be buried together at sea and bind themselves together with a belt.94 Plutarch's male couple from The Life of Pelopidas, Epaminondas and Caphisodorus, were buried together like husband and wife,95 and in the same work, Plutarch speaks of Iolaus, beloved of Hercules who fought by his side; significantly, "the tomb of Iolaus was a place where same-sex lovers plighted mutual faith."96

Do these literary examples prove that the burials at Philippi and Edessa actually belonged to same-sex committed couples? Is it possible, for instance, that these grave monuments belonged to two people who died at roughly the same time and were thus buried together for convenience?97 Other data from both sites may support this theory: some grave monuments have inscriptions indicating the burial of three unrelated people. Several of those people are designated "virgin" and are known to have been members of a convent in the area.98 (The archaeological evidence is unclear as to the actual skeletal remains associated with these inscriptions; in fact, most of the monuments have disappeared.)

However, several factors counter the theory of near-simultaneous death. For one, husbands and wives were buried together but obviously did not die at the same time in most instances. In fact, the Edessan example of the monument to Droseria, Eudoxia, Anthemios and Sophia (Table 2) suggests the possibility that the grave was meant for two couples—a female couple and a married couple. If Droseria or Eudoxia were biological sisters or other relatives of each other or of the other two deceased persons, it is likely that that would have been reflected on the monument.

Second, the norm in antiquity was for women to be married; therefore, a woman's grave monuments usually designated her as someone's wife, even if she were not buried with her husband (who could have had several wives, given the prevalence of early death of women due to childbirth). In other cases, a single woman would generally be interred or memorialized with her biological family. A woman such as those at Philippi and Edessa buried with one other non-related woman (and neither called "virgin") would thus indicate a relatively rare lifestyle choice prior to death—not living with her biological family and not living with a husband or his family. In the case of two men buried together, it is possible that they died married to women—it was not as crucial to a man's identity for him to identify himself as "husband of" in the way that a woman was identified as "wife of." However, it is still relatively rare for a man to be buried with one other non-related man.

A second argument against these pairs being same-sex committed couples is that the emotional, physical or sexual extent of their relationship is unknown. How does one know they slept together? How does one know they kissed and touched one another passionately? How does one know they were not just good friends—roommates, as it were? Could they not have been celibate couples, co-existing entirely "innocently" in the service of the church?

If these people lived together (as opposed to being near-strangers who died simultaneously), then they were not celibate, at least not in the sense that they took a public vow of celibacy. If they were officially celibate, it is very likely that that would have been made clear in the inscription, given the high esteem accorded celibacy in the early church.99 The only situation in which two people may have been cohabiting in a celibate manner and that fact was not specifically designated would be if the two were members of a celibate order or community and that was common knowledge at the time of their death. From early on, "monks were always and everywhere prohibited from entering into same-sex unions, just as they were forbidden to contract heterosexual marriage in both East and West."100 In the Philippian case of Posidonia and Pancharia, their respective designations as deacon and canoness bring this question into high relief, as does the Edessan John, a deacon. What is the probability that these titles suggest celibacy and thus rule out these couples having been in committed relationships to each other?

Although many Christians in the imperial and early Byzantine eras found celibacy attractive and honored it, the "vast majority of Christians continued... to form heterosexual marriages,"101 including ordained persons. During most of the first millenium, male and female canons and deacons, who were ordained, could be either celibate or married. An example from Philippi of a married female deacon was Agatha, married to a man who was a treasurer and linen-weaver.102 Canons and deacons were often in the service of a cathedral, and canons appear to have lived in community.103 Canons "did not take the vow of poverty, ...they could hold a life interest in property," and there does not appear to be a rule concerning celibacy.

The same arguments can be made in the cases of the men designated presbyter in the Philippian and Edessan examples: Faustinos and Donatos, Gourasios and Konstantios, Martyrios, Eudoxios and an unnamed man (see Tables 1 and 2). There is no reason to think that Philippi and Edessa were different from other Christian communities with regard to the issue of celibacy. In other words, there is no compelling reason to assume these people were publicly celibate merely by virtue of their church titles or positions.

Finally, to ask whether these couples truly lived as intimates is to enter into a circular argument. Even in the case of heterosexual couples, ancient and modern, one does not know the nature of their relationship unless the individuals volunteer the information, and the asking becomes an invasion of privacy. Many heterosexual couples, past and present, have cohabited as couples without being sexually active, yet they are still considered married. In the context of sexuality in the ancient world, it is even more likely that same-sex relationships had an emotional and erotic component than opposite-gender pairings did.

A third argument in this debate is that these were committed couples but the church did not know they had an erotic relationship (or turned a blind eye) and most probably did not bless or in any way sanction their unions. The church's ignorance is possible but rather unlikely. As Brooten has demonstrated, the church—like its pagan neighbors and forebears—looked askance especially at female homoeroticism, starting with Paul and continuing throughout history. The culture argued that coupled relationships were always composed of a passive and active member, women were always passive, and thus women could not couple naturally with one another. Therefore, it would be most unusual for the Byzantine church as a general practice to celebrate the union of two women by allowing them to be buried together.

On the other hand, Brooten also argues, as does Boswell, that same-sex relationships, both male and female, did indeed exist and must therefore have been "accepted" by certain segments of the population, if only among the couples themselves and their supporters. This raises the question, then, as to whether it is possible that a few local congregations in certain times during this era had same-sex couples in their midst, accepted them and allowed them to be buried together under church auspices. We know that this is the case in contemporary society and recent Western history: while the heterosexual population as a whole may never have known of homosexual society, it did and does exist. The gay and lesbian movement in 1930's Germany was quite vibrant; the Castro district of San Francisco has long been known as a gay haven, as have West Hollywood, California, and Key West, Florida. Stories such as Patience and Sarah104 set in nineteenth century New England and The Ladies105 in eighteenth century Wales describe female pairs that were "underground." If a gay/lesbian "subculture" can exist in the West, and homosexuality is far more common and accepted in non-Western cultures, as demonstrated by anthropologists, then such a subculture could very well have existed at certain times and in certain places in antiquity, and the church could have been party to that subculture.

Finally, with regard to the Philippi and Edessa examples, the likelihood that any or all of these couples were blessed using commitment rituals is a question which is almost impossible to answer in the absence of concrete evidence. However, since most of these couples were buried in the context of the church, whether inside a basilica or bearing ecclesiastical titles, it is very possible that they had indeed been blessed by same-gender rites.


GIVEN the literary and archaeological evidence cited by Boswell, Brooten, D'Angelo and Kleiner, it is a distinct possibility that most of the same-sex burial inscriptions from Philippi and Edessa point to same-sex erotic unions, or romanticized friendships, known to and possibly approved by the local church. These couples, in which one or the other (or both) may have held positions of authority, can be seen to have been committed to each other and the church in life and in death. Whether or not these couple's relationships were recognized and solemnized by rites similar to those found by Boswell may never be known, but his evidence makes it clear that the possibility can now be entertained. As for Euodia and Syntyche and the other pairs from earlier times, the overall evidence points to the likelihood that their relationships were overtly erotic and intimate.

To continue the dialogue on sexuality in antiquity and explore honestly the possibilities of same-sex couples in the church, scholars must attempt to do the following:

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1 This article is a revised and expanded version of a paper entitled "Same-Sex Couples at Philippi: Evidence from Basilica Burials," which was presented at the First Triregional meeting of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature in Boston, Ma, March 1995.

2 E. Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1983) 170; V. Abrahamsen, "Women at Philippi: The Pagan and Christian Evidence," Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 3 (Fall 1987) 17.

3 M. R. D'Angelo, "Women Partners in the New Testament," Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 6 (1990), 76. See also the discussion in Bernadette J. Brooten, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996) 59f.

4 J. Boswell, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (New York: Villiard Books, 1994).

5See, e.g., J. Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980); K. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978); R. Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual Background for Contemporary Debate (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983); and E. Cantarella, Bisexuality in the Ancient World (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992).

6 C. Bakirtzis, "Ekthesi palaiochristianikon archaiotiton sto mouseio Philippon," Athens Annals of Archaeology XIII (1981), Fasc. 1, 95.

7 P. Lemerle, Philippes et la Macédoine orientale à l'époque chrétienne et byzantine: recherches d'histoire et d'archéologie. Series: Bibliothèque des écoles françaises d'Athènes et de Rome (Paris: Editions de Boccard, 1945), 92ff; P. Collart, "Philippes," Dictionnaire d'Archéologie Chrétienne, Vol. 14 (1939), 734; D. Feissel, Recueil des inscriptions chrétiennes de Macédoine du IIIè au Vie siècle (Athens and Paris: BCH Supplement 8, 1983) 204f;

8 Lemerle, Philippes, 102; Feissel, Recueil, 206.

9 R. Hoddinott, Early Byzantine Churches in Macedonia and Southern Serbia (London: Macmillan, 1963), 103f; Feissel, Recueil, 199f.

10 Hoddinott, Churches, 104; Feissel, Recueil, 200.

11 Lemerle, Philippes, 102; Feissel, Recueil, 205.

12 Feissel, Recueil, #17, p. 38.

13 Feissel, Recueil, #26, pp. 44f.

14 Feissel, Recueil, #16, p. 38.

15 Feissel, Recueil, #18, p. 39. Feissel implies that both persons were male, even though the inscription is damaged in the places where the deceaseds' names would have been.

16 Feissel, Recueil, #24, p. 42. Feissel does not speculate on the gender of the first-named person; however, other examples of virgins show that two or more virginal women were sometimes buried together.

17 Feissel, Recueil, #31, p. 47.

18 Feissel, Recueil, #35, p. 50. Feissel states that a feminine version of Chryseros cannot be ruled out; he chooses the masculine version, however, which is the more common name.

19 Hanne Sigismund Nielsen, "The value of epithets in pagan and Christian epitaphs from Rome," paper read at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, New Orleans, LA, November 1996.

20 Boswell, Same-Sex, 67.

21 Ibid., 30f.      22 Ibid., 31f.      23 Ibid., 32.      24 Ibid., 45.     

25 Ibid., 51       26 Ibid., 51       27 Ibid., 53.      28 Ibid., 54.     

29 Ibid., 54.      30 Ibid., 89ff.      31 Ibid., 94.

32 Achilles and Patroclus (Boswell, 60); Hadrian and Antinoos (Ibid., 64); Nisus and Euryalus in the Aeneid (Ibid., 64); the male heroes of the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter (Ibid., 66); three male couples in the Ephesiaca of Xenophon of Ephesus (Ibid., 72f); Callistratus and Afer in a second-century poem of Martial (Ibid., 80; see also the discussion in Brooten, Love Between Women, 51, 66, 332f); and Berenice, daughter of the king of Egypt, who was passionately in love with and married Mesopotamia (Ibid., 82). From the late Republic and early imperial era came a large body of love poetry: Catullus extolling the kisses of young Juventius (Cantarella, Bisexuality, 121-128); Tibullus writing of an affair with the boy Marathus (Ibid., 128-134); and Propertius celebrating the love of boys in general (Ibid., 134f).

33 Boswell, 83.

34 Cantarella, Bisexuality, 36-42, esp. 42.

35 Ibid., 97-104.

36 See discussion in Brooten, Love Between Women, 1-4 and passim.

37 Cantarella, Bisexuality, 143.

38 Ibid., 145.

39 Ibid., 158-164.

40 Ibid., 186.

41 Love Between Women, passim.

42 Cantarella, Bisexuality, 79.

43 M. Lefkowitz and M. Fant, Women's life in Greece and Rome, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 21992), 283-284 (Alcman, Fr. 1.5-101.G).

44 Cantarella, Bisexuality, 83f.

45 See examples in Cantarella, Bisexuality, 80, and Lefkowitz and Fant, 2nd ed., 3f.

46 Cantarella, Bisexuality, 85.

47 See the examples in Lefkowitz and Fant, 2nd ed., 155-158.

48 Brooten, Love Between Women, 193.

49 Ibid.

50 D'Angelo, "Partners," 65-68. See also Brooten, Love Between Women, 59f.

51 D'Angelo, "Partners," 70.

52 Ibid., 77.

53 Ibid., 68.

54 Brooten, Love Between Women, 57, fig. 1.

55 Ibid., 57, fig. 2.

56 Ibid., 58, fig. 4.

57 Ibid., 58, fig. 6.

58 Ibid., passim.

59 Boswell, Same-Sex, 162-217, 283-363.

60 Boswell, 163-165. The declaration of heterosexual matrimony as a sacrament did not take place in the West until the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. In the East, it had been a public liturgical function for a long time—but so had betrothal and same-sex unions (Ibid., 178f).

61 Boswell, 147.

62 Boswell, 148. It is difficult for us to picture this kind of tolerance in our context of the military's disdain for homosexuality.

63 Boswell, 148. They claimed, for one, that if women could honor God dressed in this manner, they could too; secondly, they expected as Christians to wear the clothing of "new people" anyway. Boswell carefully explains that parading men through the streets wearing women's clothing was "a classic mode of embarrassing males obsessed with warrior masculinity" and had actually been used on the great god Hercules; it had little if anything to do with the fact that they were a pair.

64 Ibid., 149.      65 Ibid., 150.      66 Ibid., 151.      67 Ibid., 151.

68 Ibid., 153.      69 Ibid., 153 n. 199.      70 Ibid., 154 n. 200.      71 Ibid., 155.

72 Ibid., 285-288.     73 Ibid., 291-294.     74 Ibid., 294-298; 345ff.     75 Ibid., 300-306.    

76 Ibid., 312ff; 351ff.     77 Ibid., 314-317; 353-356.     78 Ibid., 317-323.     79 Ibid., 327-331; 356-363.

80 Ibid., 331-334.     81 Ibid., 335-341.    

82 See the following examples: ( From the sixth-century hymn (Table 3, no. 1): "It was not desire for this world that captivated Serge for Christ, nor the empty life of worldly affairs [that captivated] Bacchus; rather, made one as brethren in the bond of love, they called out valiantly to the tyrant, 'See in two bodies one soul and heart, one will and virtue.'" (Boswell, 287) ( From the 10th-century office (Table 3, no. 2): "O Lord our God, . . .who now hast approved thy saints and apostles Philip and Bartholomew becoming partners, not bound together by nature, but in the unity of holy spirit . . .and in the mode of faith, thou who didst consider thy saints and martyrs Serge and Bacchus worthy to be united, bless thy servants, N. and N." (Boswell, 291) ( From the 11th-century office (Table 3, no. 3): "As Thou didst find thy holy martyrs Serge and Bacchus worthy to be united together, bless also these thy servants, N. and N., joined together not by the bond of nature but by faith and in the mode of the spirit, granting unto them peace and love and oneness of mind. . . Vouchsafe unto them to love one [an]other without hatred and without scandal all the days of their lives. . . ." (Boswell, 295) ( From the 11th- to 12-century prayer (Table 3, no. 4): "Lord God omnipotent, . . .whom it hath pleased that thy holy and glorious apostles Peter and Paul, and Philip and Bartholomew, be joined together not by the bond of blood but of fidelity and love, who didst deem it meet for the holy martyrs Serge and Bacchus to be united together, bless Thou also these thy servants, N. and N., joined together not of birth, but of faith and love." (Boswell, 303)

83 E.g.: "thy saints and apostles Philip and Bartholomew becoming partners, not bound together by nature, but in the unity of holy spirit. . . and in the mode of faith" (Boswell, Same-Sex, 291, Table 3, no. 2); "thy holy apostles Philip and Bartholomew be united, bound one unto the other not by nature but by faith and the spirit" (Boswell, 295, Table 3, no. 3); "thy holy and glorious apostles. . .Philip and Bartholomew be joined together not by the bond of blood but of fidelity" (Table 3, no. 4; Boswell, Same-Sex, 303); "thine holy apostles Philip and Bartholomew be joined together, not bound by the law of nature, but in the mode of faith" (Table 3, no. 6; Boswell, Same-Sex, 315); ". . .thy holy disciples and glorious apostles . . .Philip and Bartholomew, to be united not in the bond of birth, but in faithfulness and love" (Boswell, 319, Table 3, no. 7); ". . . with the aid of . . .thy holy, glorious, and most blessed apostles Philip and Bartholomew" (Boswell, 333, Table 3, no. 9); and "thy holy and glorious apostles . . . Philip and Bartholomew, should be joined together in perfect love, faith and love of the heart" (Boswell, 336, Table 3, no. 10).

84 R. Trevijano, "Bartholomew," Encyclopedia of the Early Church, Vol. 1, No. 112 (Cambridge: James Clarke and Co., 1992); ibid., "Philip," Encyclopedia of the Early Church, Vol. II, 680.

85 See, e.g., Jerome H. Neyrey, ed., The Social World of Luke-Acts (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991); Norman R. Petersen, Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul's Narrative World (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985); Derek Tidball, An Introduction to the Sociology of the New Testament (Exeter: Paternoster, 1983).

86 Evelyn Blackwood, "Breaking the Mirror: The Construction of Lesbianism and the Anthropological Discourse on Homosexuality," in Evelyn Blackwood, ed., The Many Faces of Homosexuality: Anthropological Approaches to Homosexual Behavior (New York and London: Harrington Park, 1986) 4.

87 See, e.g., J. M. Carrier, "Homosexual Behavior in Cross-cultural Perspective," in J. Marmor, ed., Homosexual Behavior: A Modern Reappraisal (New York: Basic Books, 1980) 100-122; C. S. Ford and F. A. Beach, Patterns of Sexual Behavior (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1951); and M. Mead, "Cultural Determinants of Sexual Behavior," in W. C. Young, ed., Sex and Internal Secretions, 2 vols. (Baltimore: Williams and Williams, 1961), 1433-1479;

88 Blackwood, "Breaking the Mirror," 10.

89 Ibid., 10.

90 Ibid., 11.

91 Ibid., 13.

92 Boswell, Same-Sex, 59 n. 25.

93 Ibid., 60 and n. 32.

94 Ibid., 66f.

95 Ibid., 88.

96 Ibid., 63f.

97 See discussion in Brooten, Love Between Women, 351, n. 205.

98 Feissel, Recueil, #20, pp. 39f; #22, p. 41; #23, p. 42.

99 Boswell, Same-Sex, 110f.

100 Boswell, Same-Sex, 240.

101 Ibid., 111.

102 Bakirtzis, Athens Annals, 95; and Valerie Abrahamsen, Women and Worship at Philippi (Portland, ME: Astarte Shell Press, 1995), 158.

103 J. Morris, The Lady was a Bishop (New York: Macmillan, 1973) 7; D. Dunford, "Canon," Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. III, 252 (New York: Encyclopedia Press, 1908).

104 Isabel Miller, Patience and Sarah (New York: Fawcett, 1973). 105 Doris Grumbach, The Ladies (New York: Fawcett, 1984). ??

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