Desire between Men in the Byzantine Imperial Court: Some Evidence from Symeon the Logothete, Letter-Writer and Historiographer

By Mark Masterson

All translations are the author’s own.

The Byzantine Empire’s glorious Macedonian dynasty, beginning in 867 and ending in 1056 saw the empire experience both territorial expansion and an efflorescence in learning. The culture of men in the upper reaches of this society was a milieu that featured homoeroticism and same-sex desire. As I show at length in my forthcoming book, Between Byzantine Men: Desire, Homosociality, and Brotherhood in the Medieval Empire, one way to reveal the presence of same-sex desire and homosociality in these circles is to read epistolography and historiography together.

Symeon the Logothete, an important political figure and author from the tenth century, is a handy figure for this strategy. He was born about 925, held a number of high offices in the imperial government in the middle decades of the century, and left behind a sizable corpus of letters and a history called the Chronographia.

Many of Symeon’s letters feature strong expressions of same-sex desire. Letter 111 is typical in this regard:

Foolish in reality and filled with silliness is he who does not choose this thing before the others and makes much of it, [namely] to be with you all the time. And, like the mythological creatures who had two heads grown together on one body, wouldn’t this also be the case with us, if it were possible somehow to be constructed to fit (sc. with each other), and that the inventive constructor (, i.e., Hephaestus,) of supernatural marvels could be seen? On account of our love, solid and understood in the same way to the greatest degree, I think even the imperial halls to be sweet because of you, not before having such an opinion about them, and I say that every thing, whatever it may be, that carries you to me is good and most beneficial. But, when we have been deprived of this [sc. closeness of physical association] through reversals of affairs, we will not fall far from the concord of our souls.

Symeon desires to be around his friend all the time and mentions Plato’s famously homoerotic Symposium. His friend even makes work not so much of a chore. Symeon continues with souls and bodies:

For souls, inasmuch as they are bodiless and are not enslaved to bodily necessities, and indeed not hindered by any physical impediment, mingling with each another, they grow, on the one hand, as they will and are joined to each other at the root, and, on the other hand, they, dripping the sweetness of love in our hearts, rekindle, enflame, entirely arouse them [sc. our hearts] to bodily affection. Thus I am with you for all time, and I will be with you, having set up you, all of you, in my mind, and rejoicing thoroughly in the Graces emanating off of you. And may you be undivided from me for all time, being envisioned in my mind, visualized in a dream, seen in a waking vision, being together always in the other’s totality—intelligible as to the unifying (mental) part, and sensible as to the part that sees [each of us] at one and the same time—so that I will be able to take pleasure in you that is pleasure via both (ways [i.e., in my mind and through your physical presence]), if I may but find a remedy of consolation in my other.

This letter has much homoerotic warmth. Because of the addressee, whose name has not been transmitted to us, the tiresome corridors of power are a delight. And when Symeon and his friend are separated, their mental concord, depicted in lavish physical imagery, will keep the memory of their physical togetherness fresh in their minds, and impel them to renew it. The references to Plato’s Symposium, i.e.,both the mythological figures with two heads, and Hephaestus, who offers to fuse men in love together so they need never be separate ever again, emphasise the physical dimension to these men’s relations. With these things in mind it is interesting to see what Symeon says in the Chronographia about one of the ritual brotherhoods of Emperor Basil I, who would begin the Macedonian dynasty in the century previous to the writing of this historiography. 

            Symeon writes about how Nicholas, a cleric, finds a young bedraggled Basil asleep outside his church. He takes this young man, who will eventually rise from utter poverty to the imperial throne, to the baths to clean him up, and then becomes ritual brothers with him:

And so, going out, trembling with purpose, and finding Basil with his pouch and staff, he (Nicholas) led him into the church. And on the next day, having gone out with him to the baths, he transformed him, and, having gone to the church, made [with him] a ritual brotherhood, and they were rejoicing together in/within one another. (Chronographia 131.14)

This passage is important as evidence for one of Basil’s ritual or spiritual brotherhoods. The connections Basil made with other men helped him in his rise to power, for Nicholas had connections to the imperial court and Basil was soon a member of it. This passage is also significant for its depiction of homosocial intimacy. The pouch and staff are sexy. They recall a scrotum and glans, as Shaun Tougher noted in a collection of essays published in 1999. The pouch and the staff can also be associated with Cupid, god of desire, in earlier poetry (Greek Anthology 16.200), and with the sexually free Cynic philosopher, Diogenes, in writings about him. Furthermore, when Symeon says that Nicholas and Basil were rejoicing in or within one another, it is a double-entendre for anal sex, which the obvious reference to Proverbs 5:18 drives home. In that book from the Septuagint, a young man is exhorted, in a clear sexual reference, “to rejoice in the wife of his youth.” And later, as Basil was impressing the court, the description of his wrestling prowess in one of the other tenth-century historiographies seems very carnal, a thing the illustrator of the famous Madrid Skylitzes manuscript from the eleventh century clearly took to heart:

Figure 1. Basil I “wrestling,” from the Madrid Skylitzes manuscript.

This history written by Symeon and the other narratives from the tenth century were important to John Boswell in his noted Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe of nearly 30 years ago. In this book he controversially insisted that spiritual brotherhood or adelphopoiesis, which Basil clearly used to associate himself with important men on a number of occasions, was tantamount to gay marriage. This interpretation was an overreach, and it set back discussion of same-sex desire between men in Byzantine Empire for decades. But if we read the history within the broader context of homoeroticism of court life visible in Symeon’s letters — something that Boswell did not do, and which accounts since then have not done either — the presence of same-sex desire between men is undeniable. Nicholas had close connections to the imperial court. Basil shortly became a notable man in a milieu that is of a piece with the happier imperial halls Symeon depicts in Letter 111. I believe Symeon imagined relations between elite men in earlier times in terms familiar from his own life.

Mark Masterson is Associate Professor of Classics at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. His book, Between Byzantine Men: Desire, Homosociality, and Brotherhood in the Medieval Empire, will appear from Routledge in June 2022. He also is author of Man to Man: Desire, Homosociality and Authority in Late-Roman Manhood (Ohio, 2014).

Cover Image. A scene from the imperial court during the time of Basil I, from the Madrid Skylitzes manuscript. Available through Wiki Commons.

Figure 1. Basil I “wrestling,” from the Madrid Skylitzes manuscript. Available through Wiki Commons.

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