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Reviewed by:
  • Homosexuality and Civilization
  • Gary P. Leupp
Homosexuality and Civilization. By Louis Crompton. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003. 623 pp. $35.00 (cloth).

This exquisitely weighty tome is less comprehensive than its name suggests. It gives little attention to ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia or to homosexuality within Islamic civilization, except in passing in the section on Arab Spain (pp. 161–172); virtually ignores South Asia on the grounds that "Hindu teachings on sex still remain largely unexplored" (p. 213); and devotes only seven pages (pp. 314–320) to New World peoples (mostly Caribs and Mayans, with slight allusion to the Inca) from the eyes of the Conquistadores. Concluding curiously in the year 1810 (when the Napoleonic Code lifted longstanding anti-sodomy laws), it largely ignores colonial North America. It is not a world history of same-sex relations, but rather a history of homosexuality in preindustrial Europe, interrupted by comparative chapters on China and Japan and an occasional foray into Persia, which throw the long, sad saga of Western homophobia into sharp relief.

Within its parameters, however, the work succeeds wonderfully. Crompton begins with ancient Greece, building upon Kenneth Dover's Greek Homosexuality (1978) but covering a far wider range of literary and legal material. A short second chapter deals with Judea and is followed by four chapters on the Greco-Roman world through the rise of Christianity and the persecutions of Justinian. Chapter 6 ("Darkness Descends") traces the development of homophobia in Visigothic Spain and the Carolingian Empire, with a detour to tolerant Arab Spain; it is followed by a chapter on late medieval Europe, where sodomy in high places was alternately celebrated in poetry and punished by castration or the stake. We shift then, abruptly, to Imperial China, encountering [End Page 522] "unselfconscious acceptance of same-sex relations" from 500 B.C.E. to the nineteenth century (p. 215). Chapter 9 looks at Italy during the Renaissance, where man-boy relationships were widely in evidence and figured prominently in the arts. Widely condemned, they were inconsistently punished. By contrast, in early modern Spain (the subject of chapter 10) the Inquisition allowed no liberalization of medieval homophobia. Chapter 11 addresses early modern France, wherein Calvinism coexisted with homo-friendly courts—finally, some rays of light.

Then to Tudor-Stuart England, with more homo-friendly courts and homoerotic poetry but religious intolerance. Chapter 13 shifts to Japan from 800 to 1868, where male homosexuality was even more widely accepted than in China and celebrated especially among the samurai. Chapter 14 returns us to Europe during the brief period 1700– 1730, when gay subcultures emerged in England and the Netherlands, but in which religious movements and state authority sought to cruelly suppress them. Chapter 15, the only one specifically on lesbianism, deals with "sapphic lovers" from 1700 to the execution of (the possibly bisexual) Marie Antoinette in 1793. The final chapter examines the discourse on homosexuality during the Enlightenment, rooted in reason rather than religion, culminating in the French Revolution that swept aside the antisodomy laws (p. 533). A very short conclusion follows.

The work is filled with insights, challenges to conventional wisdom (Crompton argues that Plato, among others, recognized homosexuality as something people were, not merely what they did), and such pithy observations as "The spread of slavery [in Rome] had a paradoxical effect, preventing any general prohibition against male homosexuality per se from taking root but casting a special stigma on the passive partner and preventing Romans from idealizing male passion as the Greeks had" (p. 80). It offers the plausible thesis—contra John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980)—that classical acceptance of some forms of homosexual desire and behavior, comparable to the tolerance found in China and Japan, fell victim to Christian homophobia as soon as the new faith was legitimized in the Roman Empire. Indeed, the thesis operative throughout is that Judean homophobia as set down in Leviticus 20:13, harshly promoted by the Jewish philosopher Philo (pp. 43–46), made its way into nascent Christianity via St. Paul (Romans 1...