In one of the more memorable scenes in the HBO series Rome, Atia scolds her son Octavian, the future first emperor of Rome, for having not, as she put it, “penetrated” anyone yet. Whether or not Octavian has sex with a woman or a man is just a matter of detail. The only important thing is he becomes, in modern sexual lingo, a top. Not doing so is a distressing sign that Atia’s already shy and nerdy son is truly maladjusted.
This rankles, both as a historian specializing in the history of gender and sexuality and as a gay man myself. It can be described as “no labels history”: The idea that no one or at least very few people had any notion that they might desire and love members of the same sex before the late 19th century when “homosexual” and similar terms were coined by scientists and social commentators. Before then, no one could even conceive of the idea of innate sexual preferences for one sex or the other. To quote no labels history’s most recent champion, journalist and self-described “gay man who wasn’t born that way” Brandon Ambrosino, “Sexual behaviours, of course, were identified and catalogued, and often times, forbidden. But the emphasis was always on the act, not the agent.”
Ambrosino is just a late recruit in a war fought in the ‘80s and ‘90s between those who saw a strong continuity from the sodomites of the past to the gays of today (the essentialists) and the social constructionists, who argued that anything resembling a sexual identity based on same-sex attraction just didn’t exist for most of human history. Of course, very few scholars fell neatly into one camp or the other. One could describe the argument itself as existing on a spectrum.
Nowadays, instead of looking for what the feminist scholar Eve Sedgwick termed the “Great Paradigm Shift” from the sodomite to the homosexual, it seems that a majority of historians of sex, myself included, view the history of sex as a tangled mess of ideas and concepts. “Homosexuals...are not absent from ancient texts, nor is the notion of the sexually fallen sodomite unknown in modernity,” as Helmut Puff, a historian of Reformation Germany and Switzerland, perfectly phrased it. Still, some form of the notion that same-sex attraction wasn’t a basis for identity until some 19th century scientists made it one dominates the realm of literary and queer theorists, and has gained a surprising amount of purchase in the wider culture.
It is difficult to identify the exact point of contamination, if indeed there is a patient zero. However, if I had to guess, I would blame gay avant garde director Derek Jarman’s 1976 film Sebastiane. Extremely loosely based on the legend of Saint Sebastian, a Roman soldier turned Christian martyr in the late third century, Jarman uses the often homoerotic tone of traditional artistic portrayals of Saint Sebastian as the basis for a movie that is visually quite militantly gay. Even so, a modern queerness is mixed in with a no-labels understanding of ancient sexuality. A theme of the film is how the romantic albeit chaste love between Sebastian and his comrade Justin contrasts with the brutal, hierarchy-driven pansexuality of the pagan Romans. In one scene a man fondles a portrait of a naked woman, then immediately molests a male subordinate. In fact, film commentator Kyle Kallgren takes that very scene as a moment to share with his viewers the historical “truth” that “the Romans didn’t have any concept of homo- or heterosexuality.”
Indeed, classical antiquity, still so often cast as a time of sexual anarchy even though the Greeks and Romans were quite stolid in their sexual ethics, is often used as the staging ground for imagining a world with no sexual identities. In lesbian novelist Mary Renaut’s historical novels like The Last of the Wine and The Persian Boy which invariably take place in ancient Greece from the mythological era to the era following Alexander the Great’s death, there is queer love, but it’s always within the framework of a universally bisexual, masculine, and pederastic framework. Same-sex love is always between an older, more powerful man and a younger subordinate or (in the case of The Persian Boy) a eunuch slave without any comments about any preference for the same sex.
Classical antiquity, still so often cast as a time of sexual anarchy even though the Greeks and Romans were quite stolid in their sexual ethics, is often used as the staging ground for imagining a world with no sexual identities.
Less sexually conservative than Renaut’s prose was the recent gloriously excessive TV series Spartacus, whose main cast included an escaped gladiator named Agron. Even though Agron winds up in a monogamous and equitable relationship with another man within the show’s universe, in an interview the show creator Steven DeKnight held the view that homosexuality among Romans was “pretty much accepted among men. The difference was, it was about power.” Gore Vidal’s historical novel Julian about Julian the Apostate, the Roman Empire’s last pagan emperor, has the eponymous, celibate emperor muse, “I suppose that it is natural enough to like boys, but it is not natural or seemly to love anyone with the excessive and undignfied passion that Hadrian showed for Antinous [referring to a first/second century Roman emperor who had an affair with a Greek adolescent].” In a passage from Catalina’s Riddle, one in a series of mystery novels taking place in ancient Rome written by Steven Saylor, the protagonist Gordianus has sex with his wife, and drifting into sleep fantasizes not about his wife or another woman, but on the handsome adolescent Marcus Caelius Rufus. He thinks, “Beauty is beauty no matter the gender.”
While the majority of cases of no-labels history is in fiction delving into antiquity, there are depictions of other time periods in which it is taken for granted as well. A rare example of both a novel set in the so-called Dark Ages and with a queer female protagonist is Nicola Griffith’s Hild, a novel about the seventh century Anglo-Saxon abbess Hilda of Whitby who, in Griffith’s book, before joining the Church was the advisor to her uncle, King Edwin of Northumbria. Hild rather abruptly takes up a sexual relationship with her Welsh slave Gwriad, something which Hild takes to without much or, indeed, any internal commentary.
The most egregious example, though, is the “Judgment” episode of Da Vinci’s Demons. Following an episode in Da Vinci’s real life where he was put on trial for sodomy (but did not, unfortunately, get out of it by staging the judge having sex with a pig and blackmailing him like he does in the show), the question of Da Vinci’s sexuality is brought to the fore. When it turns out that his male lover came forward to testify in an ill-considered attempt to basically out him, Da Vinci just tells him, “I’m curious by nature…It’s not as simple as one sex or the other” and concludes “no one defines me.” Yet, modern biographers of Da Vinci, like Michael White, Charles Nicholl, and Walter Isaacson, unequivocally refer to Da Vinci as exclusively homosexual. To grind salt into the wound, at the end of the episode, the well-built and well-bearded Tom Riley, gets a steamy scene where his Da Vinci shares a bath with sexy co-star Laura Haddock, who plays Lucrezia Donati. It’s as close to a flat-out declaration of “no homo” from the show’s leads as you can get.
It is a stretch to believe these writers intend to dismiss modern gay rights. The creators who tap into this narrative, like Ambrosino and the academics who support it, likely see a genuine appeal in a world without categories and labels. The problem, though, is that the number of anti-gay rights crusaders who unironically invoke this idea and names like Michel Foucault suggests that this interpretation of history is, at the very least, not automatically beneficial to the cause of gay rights. Instead I agree with the theorist Leo Bersani in his book Homos that unambiguous gayness is “a path of resistance far more threatening to dominant social orders…” Beyond that, though, a project where lesbians, gays, and bisexuals deny themselves a history deeply intertwined with the story of human civilization as a whole cannot work on either the level of the firebrand political activist or the awkward, sexually confused teen trying to forge their own persona.
There is also the simple truth that this narrative does not stand up to the historical evidence. Just a few examples: there are ancient astrological guides that refer to individuals being born with exclusive same-sex desire; Robert of Flamborough’s medieval guidebook for priests warns that clerics hearing confessions about sodomy should try not to mention that sodomites have places to meet and ways to identify each other; and there is across different languages and cultures a wide-ranging vocabulary of terms that, while not exactly matching homosexual with its modern scientific and political connotations, are still often descriptive (my personal favorite is an old Russian term for habitual lesbians: “God-insulting grannies”).
Above all, it doesn’t make for very interesting art. Nobody wants to see writers and showrunners fall to the other extreme and start a campaign of bi-erasure, of course. We can’t know how famous historical queers like Queen Christina of Sweden, Rumi, or Christopher Marlowe would have identified today, after all. That said, I think there is room, even a need, for stories about historical figures who had to cope with what the historian Rictor Norton once poetically called “the imperatives of desire.” What about a period drama in ancient Athens about a young man who only falls in love with a man and rebels against the system of pederasty because of that desire? Or a movie about an aristocratic woman in Edo Japan whose interest in only women causes her to fight the intense cultural pressure to marry? That kind of story I would choose over a TV show where Da Vinci just has sex with a random guy out of curiosity any day.