Remarriage and Arsenokoetia: Shifty Byzantine Views of Sex (Stephen Morris)

NOTE: The following article is taken from Something Wicked this Way Comes: Essays on Evil and Human Wickedness, pp. 143-165

 Something Wicked this Way Comes

Abstract: Patristic canon law condemned remarriage, under any circumstances, in no uncertain terms. Penance for remarriage demanded repudiating the wicked sexual relationship and decades of excommunication. Penances for remarriage were gradually reduced and two Byzantine political/theological crises in the 8th and 10th centuries allowed these condemned sexual relationships to be eventually tolerated and even accepted. Same-sex behaviour was condemned as satanic and diabolic by many of these same patristic authorities, often in the same breath and with the same words as they condemned remarriage. Penances assigned were virtually identical. During the 6th century, however, these penances for sex between men (especially “anal sex”) were reduced to little more than a slap on the wrist. These reduced penances suggest that just as remarriage was eventually able to be accepted into polite Byzantine Christian society, same-sex relationships might also come to be accepted in Byzantine/Eastern Christian society.

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“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” warned Laocoön in Virgil’s Aeneid and the medieval West took his warning to heart. Western mistrust of the Byzantines led to the negative stereotype of Byzantine bureaucracy, so much so that the modern epithet “Byzantine” describes any complex, difficult-to-navigate, apparently unstable body of rules – such as those at New York City’s City Hall. As a slur, “Byzantine” stands for both “shifty” and “shifting;” perhaps better, “shifty,” in both popular senses – shady as well as unstable – can stand as a synonym for ”Byzantine” in Western perceptions. The medieval West did not always understand how or why Byzantine Christian theology, liturgy, and practice could vary so markedly from Western norms.

One area of such difference involved marriage and sexuality. Western canonists and theologians were baffled by how Byzantine apprehension of evil or wicked sexual behaviour could differ so from theirs. The body of Byzantine canonical rulings was simply allowed to grow like topsy and was never systematically codified as was common in the West during the latter Middle Ages (resulting in what we know today as the Vatican’s Code of Canon Law.) The redundancies, repetitions, and conflicting answers simply hung together in the practice of the Eastern Church; the Eastern canonical tradition was “talmudic,” in that it maintained the practices and rulings of all the sages and conciliar bodies that preceded whatever the “current” situation might have been and then required a current sage to apply these rulings as appropriate. It is this Byzantine approach to divorce, remarriage, and “homosexual” behaviour that I wish to turn.

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Individual fathers and early Christian thinkers began to grapple with questions concerning Christian sexual behaviour before the New Testament itself was completed.1 Some authorities were satisfied to stress the need to confine sexual expression to heterosexual marriage (Didache, Hippolytus2) while others (Athenagoras, Tertullian3) felt the need to confine the definition of “marriage” proper to the first such union a Christian experienced. According to these authors, the death of a spouse did not free the survivor to remarry; any further sexual relationship was considered inappropriate and an act of infidelity to the spouse who had died but whose death did not end the marriage. (It was the later Byzantine refusal to acknowledge that death of a spouse ended a marriage which constituted one of the differences the medieval West found difficult to comprehend.) If remarriage and further sexual relationship was improper for the survivor, how much more so if the other spouse was not even dead but merely separated or divorced – practice which was allowed by Roman law. The early apologists stressed that simply because an action was legal did not make it proper, especially for Christians who were held to a higher standard of behaviour.

The practice of public penance, which patristic sources take for granted, evolved as the mechanism for reintegrating members of the Christian community who had sundered their participation in the community’s life and who wished to be restored to full membership and participation – as evidenced primarily in the reception of Holy Communion at the Divine Liturgy. The sins and transgressions, which served to sunder participation in the communal life of the Church, had to be renounced and – upon ceasing the behaviour – the penitent would begin the penance (epithemia) which had to be fulfilled before the penitent could be restored to participating in the Eucharist. The penance, or epithemia, was considered a therapeutic or medicinal tool. It was not a juridical sentence that “paid off” the debt a criminal owed society. Rather, it was a method – similar to surgery – that might prove painful in the short term but which aimed at restoring the (spiritual) health of the patient; it should be remembered that the Greek terms for “health” and “salvation” have the same root and the Gospel miracles of healing were considered paradigms of salvation by the same preachers who gave their “canonical opinions.”

This system of years of penance was predicated on the practice of an extended catechumenate of three years or more preceding the baptism of the candidate who wished to enter the Christian community in the first place. The division of the penitents into a variety of ranks, indicating their distance from or proximity to full Eucharistic participation, was indicated by their position in the church building (relative to the altar-table). As can be seen in Table I, the view that remarriage was virtually identical with adultery remained the canonical pastoral response; in order to be reconciled with the community, the couple would need to repudiate their subsequent marriage and live separately before the epithemia would commence.

Constantine VI (right to the cross) presiding over the Second Council of Nicaea. Miniature from early 11th century.
Constantine VI (right to the cross) presiding over the Second Council of Nicaea. Miniature from early 11th century.

Two revolutions occurred in the eighth and tenth centuries to change this approach. The first was the “Moechian Schism” of 795 A.D. in which the emperor Constantine VI divorced his wife and married again; he was eventually permitted to begin the epithemia for a second marriage without repudiating or separating from his second wife. The second was the “Tetragamy affair,” the dispute – probably the “most dangerous crisis between the Emperor and the Patriarch in the middle Byzantine period”4 – which rocked Byzantine society from 903 – 923 A.D. over Leo VI’s fourth marriage, resulting in an official truce between the Church and the remarried. Shifting allegiances, changes in civil law, early or unexpected deaths, clergy both willing and unwilling to comply with imperial designs, secret negotiations, pious public sentiment, loud-spoken monastics, differing interpretations of how to apply oikonomia5 – the principle of pastoral discretion in applying canonical penances more rigidly or more freely, in manner that seems appropriate – all contributed to the chaos. It was the Tome of Union, summarized in Table I, which resolved the issue and led to the use of a different wedding service for those embarking on a second/third marriage. (This was a considerable difference from the Western Christian practice, which used the same service for all weddings and refused to ever officially countenance “remarriage.”) Not only were second and third marriages regularized, but the various epithemia could all be undergone while the couple began their new life as husband and wife. Rather than serving as the means of reintegration with the larger Christian community, the epithemia became the “price” a couple paid to be able to live together in a sexually suspicious relationship which was disapproved of but tolerated.

A mosaic in Hagia Sophia showing Leo VI paying homage to Christ
A mosaic in Hagia Sophia showing Leo VI paying homage to Christ

During this same period, a variety of responses to same-sex behaviour developed. The oldest canons, those of Basil, stipulate that several sins were considered moral equivalents and subject to the same penance of 15 years: bestiality, murder, sorcery, adultery, idolatry, and arsenokoetia.6 (Arsenokoetia is derived from the root “male” and the verb – koitai, which “is a coarse word, generally denoting base or licentious sexual activities (see Romans 13:13), and in this and other compounds corresponds to the vulgar English word “fucker,” i.e. a person who, by insertion, takes the active role in intercourse.”7

(The modern Latinate “coitus” may well be derived from this as well.) In the canonical literature, therefore, it appears that arsenokoetia is the technical term for what we now refer to as “anal sex.”

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Arsenokeotia, as a specific act, was not singled out as being necessarily worse than a wide variety of other activities.8 However, John Chrysostom’s Homily IV on Romans decries what we now call “homosexual behaviour” in no uncertain terms.

“All these affections then were vile, but chiefly the mad lust after males; for the soul suffers more and is more dishonoured in sins, than the body is when diseased.”9

Arsenokoetia is clearly inspired by the Devil.

“But when God has left one, then all things are turned upside down. Not only was their doctrine satanic, but their life was also diabolical.”10

Their beliefs and behaviour go hand-in-hand, one reflecting the other. Same-sex behaviour is also inherently violent.

“… [T]hey become enemies to themselves and to one another, bringing in a pernicious kind of strife, and one even more lawless than any civil war, rife in divisions, and of varied form…. It was appropriate that the two should be one; I mean the woman and the man. For “the two” it says, “shall be one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24) But this desire of intercourse affected, and united the sexes to one another. This desire the devil having taken away, and having turned the desire in another direction, he thus sundered the sexes from one another, and made the one to become two parts in opposition to the law of God. For it says, “the two shall be one flesh;” but he divided the one flesh into two: here then is one war.”

“These same two parts he provoked to war both against themselves and against one another. For even women abused women, and not men only. The men stood against one another, and against the female sex, as happens in a battle by night. You see a second and a third war, and a fourth and a fifth; there is also another, for beside what we have mentioned they also behaved lawlessly against nature itself. For when the Devil saw that this desire it is, principally, which draws the sexes together, he was bent on cutting through the tie, so as to destroy the race, not only by their not copulating lawfully, but also by their being stirred up to war, and in sedition against one another.”11

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Instigated by the devil, same-sex behaviour portends the end of the human race not only because normal reproductive processes cease but because men and women begin to fight one another. The men, fighting each other, would eventually come to blows while the arguments with women would be the cause of friction, anger, resentment – all the attitudes which conspire against a common household or urban life. Fighting against each other, each would also – in Chrysostom’s view – be fighting against each person’s own true, inherently heterosexual, desires. Not only would this aspect of the universal warfare unleashed by the devil be fought by each against himself but it would be a fight against nature: against the heterosexual nature of mankind and against the natural cycle of birth and reproduction. There would be as many wars let loose in the world as there were individuals engaged in same-sex behaviour.

St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen

As can be seen in Table II, the practice of arsenokoetia (anal sex) was the primary sexual act between men which prompted discussion. It was compared to adultery and was penanced accordingly: St. Basil gave an epithemia of 15 years to both adultery and arsenokoetia while his younger brother Gregory of Nyssa suggested an epithemia of 18 years to both behaviours. Both presumed that the behaviour would cease when the epithemia commenced. Although it is arsenokoetia (anal sex) which receives Basil and Gregory’s attention, they make no distinction in assigning penance to either the “active” or “passive” (“top” vs. “bottom”); the word itself implies the “top” role as the most blameworthy, however.

This condemnation of arsenokoetia apparently remains constant for approximately 300 years. Although it is not repeated by other canonical authors, neither is it repudiated or altered. St. John the Faster, Patriarch of Constantinople (582-595 A.D.), is credited with a new approach to penances. In general, he adds ascetic exercises as well as deprivation of Communion to the epithemias and significantly reduces the time a penitent would spend doing “penance.” He adds masturbation and intercural sex between men (“between the thighs,” the equivalent of the heterosexual “missionary position”) to the acts which concern him but he suggests the epithemias involved be reduced to little more than a “slap on the wrist.” The epithemias for masturbation and intercural sex vary from 7 to 80 days while the epithemia for arsenokoetia is reduced to three years, thanks to the introduction of a certain number of prostrations during the penitent’s daily prayers as well as fasting during the day with xerophagy (“dry eating,” i.e. no animal products and those vegetables or fruit that were eaten were not to be cooked) after 3 p.m. It should be noted that this “double masturbation” of intercural sex between men is a significantly less grave transgression than heterosexual fornication (to which he assigns a penance of two years with xerophagy and 250 daily prostrations. The wicked sexual acts between men that had previously cost 15 years estrangement from the community were suddenly reduced in severity to less than a third of the time involved. Not only is the epithemia for arsenokoetia reduced, that for adultery is also reduced from fifteen to three years but adultery is taken to be a more serious offence as 250 prostrations, as opposed to the 200 assigned to “perfect arsenokoetia,” is stipulated. A later manuscript, used by leading medieval canonical authorities, adds a series of subcategorizations of arsenokoetia: between brothers, with a brother-in-law, and with women. A leading 18th century Greek canonist comments that, in general, arsenokoetia between men was preferable to that between a man and a woman while anal sex with a “strange woman” was “less reprehensible …than [with a man’s own] wife.”12

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 The behaviours of heterosexual divorce and remarriage constituted sexually suspicious relationships that were wicked, condemned, finally tolerated, and even gradually accepted. Although condemned by the canons, a service which acknowledged this paradox developed to bless these second and third marriages. Condemned in many of the same ways, same-sex behaviour – especially arsenokoetia – was deemed wicked but eventually tolerated as the reduced epithemias for the various grades of arsenokoetia indicate. The satanic sexual behaviour of men with men was always castigated in tandem with the diabolic behaviour of divorce and remarriage. As the one was finally admitted and integrated into polite Eastern Christian society, might this not show the way to eventually include the other as well?

Notes

  1. Didache 2, 3.3; English translation in Cyril Richardson, Early Christian Fathers. (New York: Macmillan.) 1970, 1975. See also Athenagoras Plea, 33; English translation in Cyril Richardson, Early Christian Fathers. (New York: Macmillan.) 1970, 1975 and Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, ii.23; cited in Pat Harell, Divorce and Remarriage in the Early Church: A History of Divorce and Remarriage in the Ante-Nicene Church. (Austin: R.B. Sweet Co.) 1967. p. 177.
  2. Apostolic Tradition 15; English translation in Geoffrey Cuming, Hippolytus: A Text for Students. (Bramcote Notts: Grove Books.) 1976.
  3. Tertullian, Exhortation to Chastity, 5; English translation in Ante-Nicene Fathers (ed. A. Roberts and J. Donaldson.) (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson ) 1885, 1995. Vol. 4, p. 53.
  4. Steven Runciman, The Byzantine Theocracy. (London: Cambridge University Press.) 1977. p. 102.
  5. Patricia Karlin-Hayter, “Further Notes on Byzantine Marriage: Raptus – αρπαγή or μνηστείαι?” in Dumbarton Oaks Papers 46 (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection) 1992. pp. 133-134.
  6. Basil the Great, Canon 7.
  7. John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press.) 1980. p. 342. See also Steven Greenberg, Wrestling With God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.) 2004. p. 84.
  8. See Origen, Homily 11 on Leviticus (11.3-4). English translation available in Gary W. Barkley, Origen: Homilies on Leviticus, 1-16. (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.) 1990. pp. 212-213; also John Chrysostom, Homily XVI on I Corinthians (16.8). NPNF, vol. 12, p. 93 and his Homily II on I Timothy (2.1). NPNF, vol. 13, p. 414.
  9. John Chrysostom, Homily IV on Romans (4.1). NPNF, vol. 11, p. 355-256.
  10. John Chrysostom, IV Homily on Romans (4.1). NPNF, p. 356.
  11. John Chrysostom, IV Homily on Romans (4.1). NPNF, p. 356-357.
  12. John the Faster, The 35 Canons. English translation in D. Cummings, The Rudder (Pedalion). (Chicago: Orthodox Christian Educational Society.) 1957, 1983. pp. 942-943.

Stephen Morris is an independent scholar living in New York City.