A Byzantine ancestor to same-sex marriage?


Hailed as ”Mother of the Emperor”, Danelis goes to Constantinople to meet with Emperor Basil I.

You might think same-sex marriage is something completely new. You would be mostly right, but history has other things to show us. History is not as familiar as we sometimes think it is.

by Mark Masterson

First published in The Conversation

Spiritual brotherhood in the Byzantine Empire of the Middle Ages is an ancestor to our same-sex marriage. In the Byzantine Empire men became spiritual brothers and some scholars believe that sexual intimacy did or could occur. There is some controversy about this. For some it is a bridge too far to speak of sex, for we cannot know for sure. My position is that it was a possibility at all times and the Byzantines were aware of this.

Brothers for life

First, how did men become spiritual brothers? In church two men would be blessed by a priest who would say a prayer over them. Many of these prayers survive and more are being located all the time. Spiritual brotherhood was popular.

Here is a portion of a prayer from the 800s:

… these your servants who love one another with spiritual love have come to your holy church to be blessed by you: grant them faith without shame, love without suspicion (Rapp, pg. 294)

After this blessing from the priest, the men were brothers for life. The Orthodox Church and Byzantine writers on law were nervous about the rite. There were questions about men’s motives for entering into these spiritual brotherhoods. Was it for sex with each other, easy access to each others’ households and women, or for criminal purposes (see Rapp, pg. 235)?

Experts have been divided about the question of sex between brothers joined in the rite. While there is not a lot of evidence and the rite was clearly not meant to allow men to have sex with each other, there is enough evidence to suggest that Byzantines thought affection and sexual feelings were possible.

It was well known that Emperor Basil I (mid-800s), who rose to the throne from modest circumstances, had a series of spiritual brotherhoods that were advantageous for him. The Byzantine historians writing in the mid-900s are not shy about noting that his good looks caught other men’s eyes:

Having gazed upon him, Theophilitzes [a member of the imperial court who was going to enrol Basil in his circle momentarily] desired Basil. (Pseudo-Symeon, Chronographia 656/11)

[Emperor Michael] was loving [Basil], gazing upon those [physical] qualities of his that surpassed all the others. (Anon., Life of Basil 13)

In the case of his first brotherhood, after Basil and the other man got back from the church, they “rejoiced in one another”. It is what it sounds like, especially as this rejoicing recalls Proverbs 5:18: “Rejoice in the wife of your youth”.

Beneficial liaisons

Prior to becoming emperor, Basil joined himself as brother to John who was the son of the fabulously rich widow, Danelis. This was Danelis’ idea. Basil benefited from Danelis’ resources and she later benefited from having her son associated with the emperor.

Later when Basil was emperor, Danelis visited the imperial court and was treated with great honour including being called “mother of the emperor”.

But that is not all. Just as we see in the histories, surviving letters that men wrote to each other show a culture of great warmth between men. The old language of male love that goes back to the ancient Greeks was used constantly. A handsome physique could inspire male desire.

Culture of male love

Another story will demonstrate this warmth. Here is the tale of four men around St. Mary the Younger. The Life of St. Mary the Younger, an anonymous text, was written probably in the 900s or 1000s.

St. Mary, who lived in the 800s, had a son, Vaanes. Vaanes, a soldier, was loved by the other soldiers. He was also particularly close to his friend Theodoros:

Vaanes had a certain Theodoros as … helper in all his excellent exploits … a man brave and strong in military matters but braver still in conducting his life for God. Yoked to him, like a bull of good lineage and strong, they were plowing in one another as though into rich farmland, and they were sowing the seeds of excellence, as though the best of farmers. (Life of St. Mary the Younger, pg. 279)
They are conducting their lives for god, but more is going on than that. “Yoked” is often used to refer to married couples and it is difficult to suppress thoughts of anal sex as they plow in one another. A spiritual life can be pretty bodily, it seems.

But it is not only Mary’s son. Her husband Nikephoros had a close relation with another man, named Vardas.

Vardas was married to Mary’s sister and he suggested to his friend Nikephoros that he marry Mary. A marriage connection would bring them closer together:

Since, O dearest of men to me, we have become deeply involved with each other and are bound by our intimate relationship. I think it right to make this, our bond of love, stronger and more perfect and to apply the ties of kinship to it, so that we may be joined in two ways, forging a family connection along with our intimate relationship. (Life of St. Mary the Younger, pg. 256)

When Vardas describes their relationship as intimate, again it is what it sounds like. If you ask, “intimate how?” you are asking the right question.

They could be and sometimes were

The take away is that two generations of men in the life of a saint had strong relationships with other men. The anonymous writer is not shy about making us think about sex either.

I also think it likely the writer of Mary’s life is signalling that these men were spiritual brothers as well as saying they were intimate with one another, just as Emperor Basil I was with his first brother.

A spiritual brotherhood was not same-sex marriage but it is an ancestor to it. It has a number of things in common with same-sex marriage. The relation is blessed by a priest (as a same-sex marriage can be). An intensity of emotion can be present, as well as desire and sex.

The great medieval empire was surprisingly unfussed.

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Eastern Roman gold coins found in 1,500-year-old Chinese tomb

Two Eastern Roman gold coins were found in a 1,500-year-old Chinese tomb in Xian, Shaanxi Province. (Photo: China News Service)

Two Eastern Roman gold coins were found in a 1,500-year-old Chinese tomb in Xian, Shaanxi Province. (Photo: China News Service)

Continuing the theme of the trade between the eastern Roman empire and China, this report points towards active trade and travel between Constantinople and China in the 6th Century.

First published in the GB Times 7 July 2017

Two Eastern Roman gold coins were found in a 1,500-year-old Chinese tomb in Northwest China’s Xian City, the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology (SPIA) said on Thursday.

Chinese archaeologists believe that one of the gold coins was minted during the reign of Anastasius I who was the Eastern Roman Emperor from 491 to 518.

The other gold coin however is a more rare one and bears stylistic similarities to coins minted during the reigns of both Anastasius I and Justinian I, who ruled the Byzantine Empire from 527 to 565.

The Chinese tomb also included a silver coin minted during reign of Peroz I, who was the king of the Sasanian Empire between 459 and 484.

“The discovery of Eastern Roman gold coins and the Sasanian silver coin proves the long history of international trade on the Silk Road,” said Xu Weihong, a researcher at SPIA.

According to the inscription on the memorial tablet, the tomb belonged to Lu Chou who died in 538. Lu was a nobility in the Western Wei Dynasty (535-557).

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Good Friday in Medieval Jerusalem

Dear Readers, I wish you all, wherever you may be, a happy and peaceful Easter. Please enjoy this beautiful spiritual music from Cappella Romana on this special day, the day that Christ laid down his life for us all.

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The first Byzantine Museum in the Peloponnese opens in Argos

Just in time for your summer holiday visit to the Peloponnese, a new museum dedicated to Byzantine history and culture has opened its doors in Argos.

It opened its gates to the public on 9 March 2017.The foundation of the Argolida Byzantine Museum is part of the Ministry of Culture and Sports’, and of the Argos-Mycenae municipality, and is aimed towards the establishment of a dynamic cultural network in the city of Argos. The museum is located in a building that was once a barrack, “Kapodistrias Barracks”, which was built in the 17th century and was originally used as a hospital by the Venetians. It occupies a wide area in the city centre.

Exhibits include ceramics and sculptures, as well as coins, mosaics, frescoes and a variety of other objects. The visitor is apparently introduced to characteristic aspects of Argolida, stretching from the 4th century to the modern period.

The museum will be open from Tuesday to Sunday, 9 am to 2 pm. It will be closed on Mondays.

Admission (until March 3):General admission: 2,00 €Reduced: 2,00 €
Admission (April 1 onwards):General admission: 4,00 €Reduced: 2,00 €

Address: Kapodistrias Barracks, 212 00 Argos
Email: efaarg@culture.grwww.byma.gr
Tel: 27510 68937 – 27520 27502 • Fax: 27510 68977

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A very long way from home: early Byzantine finds at the far ends of the world

Distribution of early Byzantine items and contemporary imitations found outside of the boundaries of the mid-sixth-century empire, along with a depiction of the empire during the reign of Justinian (c. 565 AD). The numbers refer to sections in the text, below (image: C. R. Green)

Through the wonders of the complex web and links of social media I came across this post the other day by Dr Caitlin Green on her personal website. She is a historian and writer whose professional interests lie in the history, archaeology, place-names and literature of late Roman and early medieval Britain. You may recall a post from 2016 about Byzantine coins found in Japan. The article below has some fascinating details about the extent of known Byzantine objects in Europe, Asia and Africa. Dr Green’s website has many interesting articles and is well worth adding to your favourites.

A very long way from home: early Byzantine finds at the far ends of the world

By Dr Caitlin Green

The following brief post is once again offered largely for the sake of interest, being concerned with the furthest limits of the distribution of early Byzantine material in Eurasia and Africa. What follows consists of a distribution map of fifth- to seventh-century AD Byzantine finds and contemporary imitations accompanied by a brief discussion and illustration of some of the items that have been found in the far west, far east, far north and far south of the ‘Old World’. Needless to say, the extensive distribution of early Byzantine material shown here is of interest for a number of reasons from the perspective of this blog, not least the light that it sheds on early medieval Britain’s Byzantine and Indian Ocean imports and connections discussed in previous posts.

Read more here.

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When the Vikings met the Greeks: Lion of Piraeus etched with Nordic runes

The mere utterance of the word Vikings, or Northmen as they were also known, used to strike fear in the hearts of the British just before and during the high middle ages, once these raiders found their way to the west and mainland Europe. Their contact with the French and British has been a subject of extensive research, not to mention successful movies and TV series. They fought bloody battles with both the French and Britons and slaughtered many monks along their marauding raids on Monasteries.

From Protothema

But for the Byzantine Greeks in the south of Europe, these northmen, who became known as the Varangians, and never caused a problem. On the contrary, they were sought after as fighters for the Emperor’s Guard. In the 10th Century Byzantine Emperor Basil II of Constantinople first enlisted Varangian fighters to serve as imperial personal bodyguards. Known as the Varangian Guard, they were legendary for their fierce loyalty to the emperors they served and the wealth bestowed upon them for their service.

The Varangian mercenaries were so well-paid for their services in the Byzantine army, that their homelands at one point experienced an unprecedented exodus of men seeking their fortune in Greece. This lead to some Scandinavian lands enacting a law denying inheritance rights to any one who “dwelled in Greece”. Their history is corroborated in the south by writings on Scandinavian runestones -raised stones bearing inscriptions in runic alphabets commenting about people and their adventures.

From the extant Scandinavian runestones of the Viking Age, 10% are called the “Greek Runestones”, and describe the sagas of the “Varangian Guard” members who died in Greece or returned home with great wealth.

One of four Lions of Piraeus at the Arsenale, Venice

An interesting story involves the famous Lion of Piraeus, taken as plunder by Francesco Morosini in 1687 in the wars of Venice against the Ottoman empire. The astonishing thing about the 3-meter high, white-marble statue is that runes were carved onto it describing the conquest of the port.

On the right side of the lion it wrote:



Asmund cut these runes with Asgeir and Thorleif, Thord and Ivar, at the request of Harold the Tall, though the Greeks considered about and forbade it.

On the left side:



Hakon with Ulf and Asmund and Örn conquered this port. These men and Harold Hafi imposed a heavy fine on account of the revolt of the Greek people. Dalk is detained captive in far lands. Egil is gone on an expedition with Ragnar into Romania and Armenia.

As best one can tell, these Vikings were most likely a small party of raiders that decided to have some fun and boast of their great victories by writing on the Lion of Piraeus. Surely an interesting piece of history.

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Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes

The goddess is back with a remarkable history of our favourite city!

Istanbul has always been a place where stories and histories collide and crackle, where the idea is as potent as the historical fact. From the Qu’ran to Shakespeare, this city with three names – Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul – resonates as an idea and a place, and overspills its boundaries – real and imagined. Standing as the gateway between the East and West, it has served as the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman Empires. For much of its history it was known simply as The City, but, as Bettany Hughes reveals, Istanbul is not just a city, but a story.

In this epic new biography, Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities, Hughes takes us on a dazzling historical journey through the many incarnations of one of the world’s greatest cities. As the longest-lived political entity in Europe, over the last 6,000 years Istanbul has absorbed a mosaic of micro-cities and cultures all gathering around the core. At the latest count archaeologists have measured forty-two human habitation layers. Phoenicians, Genoese, Venetians, Jews, Vikings, Azeris all called a patch of this earth their home. Based on meticulous research and new archaeological evidence, this captivating portrait of the momentous life of Istanbul is visceral, immediate and scholarly narrative history at its finest.

Buy Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities

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