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Homosexuality and Civilization [Hardcover]

Louis Crompton
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Book Description

5 Dec 2003
How have major civilisations of the last two millennia treated people who were attracted to their own sex? In a narrative tour de force, Louis Crompton chronicles the lives and achievements of homosexual men and women alongside a darker history of persecution as he compares the Christian West with the cultures of Ancient Greece and Rome, Arab Spain, imperial China and pre-Meiji Japan. Ancient Greek culture celebrated same-sex love in history, literature and art making high claims for its moral influence. By contrast, Jewish religious leaders in the sixth century BC branded male homosexuality as a capital offence and, later, blamed it for the destruction of the biblical city of Sodom. When these two traditions collided in Christian Rome during the late empire, the tragic repercussions were felt throughout Europe and the New World. Louis Crompton traces Church-inspired mutilation, torture and burning of "sodomites" in sixth-century Byzantium, medieval France, Renaissance Italy, and in Spain under the Inquisition. But Protestant authorities were equally committed to the execution of homosexuals in the Netherlands, Calvin's Geneva and Georgian England. The root cause was religious superstition, abetted by political ambition and sheer greed. Yet from this cauldron of fears and desires, homoerotic themes surfaced in the art of the Renaissance masters - Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Sodoma, Cellini and Caravaggio - often intertwined with Christian motifs. Homosexuality also flourished in the court intrigues of Henry III of France, Queen Christina of Sweden, James I and William III of England, Queen Anne and Frederick the Great. Anti-homosexual atrocities committed in the West contrast starkly with the more tolerant traditions of pre-modern China and Japan, as revealed in poetry, fiction and art and in the lives of emperors, shoguns, Buddhist priests, scholars and actors. In the samurai tradition of Japan, Crompton makes clear, the celebration of same-sex love rivaled that of ancient Greek.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 640 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (5 Dec 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067401197X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674011977
  • Product Dimensions: 24.4 x 15.2 x 4.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 169,556 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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His majestic survey... is truly the culmination of a lifetime's commitment. -- THES, 3 September 2004

About the Author

Louis Crompton is Professor of English, Emeritus, at the University of Nebraska. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book well worth reading ! . 8 Sep 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Brilliant book and a total education on what homosexuals went through in times long past.Many surprises in the information on how some countries were much more acceptable to a different pattern of life than others .Although life is never easy for homosexuals reading this made me realize how much this world has altered ,but in some aspects not so much for the better .
10 out of 10 for the author.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
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I have been asked to rate Louis Crompton's " Homosexuality and Civilization", having read only through half this monumental work, the fruits of a lifetime's study. His historical approach to the subject matter is most enlightening since there have been times and cutures in the past that have tolerated homosexuality in one form or another, until the Judeo-Christian worldview took root in Europe when the condemnation, and demonization, started which has lasted until this day among rightwing Christian groups.

The most interesting finding for me was that there seems to be no inherent or genetic distate for samesex practices. All is a matter of culture and social conditioning. This book should be appreciated by a wide audience, and should especially be read by professionals, such as doctors, to give them a proper prospective on the subject matter.
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1 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This book was required by my masters advisor 19 Mar 2013
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I haven't read it yet, but considering it was a recommended by my professor, I think it must be good.
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Amazon.com: 4.8 out of 5 stars  27 reviews
91 of 97 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, incredilbly well researched history 30 Oct 2004
By Jesse Liberty - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
While the book is highly academic and authoritative, it is also very accessible and enjoyable to read. Here is a very brief summary:

The book begins with a chapter on Early Greece (776-480 BCE). Crompton points to the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus (in the Iliad) as "exemplars of male love." He goes on to point out:
Greek poets sang of male love from almost the earliest fragments down to the end of classical time.
Mythology provides over 50 examples of homoerotic love, especially love by Gods of male youths
"Man-boy relations played a significant part in the social organization of such Dorian communities as Crete and Sparta"
In some Greek communities it was the boy's physical beauty that was desired, in others it was his character that was admired
In nearly every classical Greek community, the homosexual relationship between an older man and a younger boy was not only accepted, it was admired and held as a civic virtue and a bulwark against tyranny.
Man-boy love was used in many communities (e.g., Sparta) as a means of military training and indoctrination

In the second chapter, on Judea, he points out that the early Jewish customs and laws were strongly opposed to homosexuality, though he does show that the destruction of Sodom was originally attributed to failure of the city to live up to its obligations of hospitality, and only much later (in Catholic teaching) was Sodom's destruction associated with homosexuality.

The third chapter focuses on Classical Greece (480-323 BCE) and shows that here too, Homosexuality and bisexuality were not only considered perfectly natural, but were acclaimed at every level of society. Many Greek writers, playwrights and philosophers not only practiced homosexuality and pederasty, they praised it and held it up as an ideal. Plato was a notable exception who held boy-love as an ideal as long as it was not consummated.

In Thebes, a general argued that pairs of man/boy lovers would make great warriors because they would fight for one another's safety and would fear cowardice in the eyes of their beloved. He created the "Sacred Band of Thebes" which became the most powerful army on earth, and which made Thebes the greatest military power.

Chapter 4 turns to Rome, where homosexuality was more constrained: it was considered fine to have homosexual sex with a slave so long as the free man was dominant, but it was shameful to have homosexual sex with a free born person or as the passive partner. Crompton notes that homosexuality was seen as part of the "will to power" and a type of dominance. He also notes that the famous Roman poet Ovid wrote many homoerotic poems, though he decried Lesbianism as unacceptable.

Chapter 5 turns to the early Christians, and here everything changes. While homosexuality was not a central issue in early Christianity, Paul's Epistle to the Romans began 2000 years of virulent prejudice against homosexuality.

Clement of Alexandria created the "Alexandrian rule" which held that "pleasure sought for its own sake, even within marriage, is a sin..." He also held that it is a sin for men to shave.

For the first two centuries of Christianity, however, Roman custom continued to accept homosexuality, and Plutarch wrote that the "mortal reflections of the divine [derive from] young men radiant in the prime of their beauty."

Beginning with Constantine, however, Roman law changed, and became much harsher in its persecution of homosexuals. It was around this time (390 CE) that the understanding of the story of Sodom changed and in the City of God Augustine described Sodom's destruction as a result of homosexuality among the populace.

Saint John Chrysostom "ranks as the most influential of (Christian) Greek fathers, second only to Augustine" and he instituted organized persecution of homosexuals as a Christian obligation. He denounced male love as "monstrous, Satanical, detestable, execrable and pitiable." (He also denounced Jews as "sensual, slippery, voluptuous, avaricious, possessed by demons, drunkards, harlots and breakers of the law.")

Chapters six and seven focuses on the medieval period Throughout this period homosexuals were persecuted and murdered relentlessly in Christendom. Medieval Islam, however, held a more ambivalent attitude. Like Judaism and Christianity, it prohibited homosexuality, but Moslem cultures were pervaded by homoerotic poetry and art. Nonetheless, the theologian Malik of Median whose "school of jurisprudence became the dominant one in Spain and North Africa, endorsed the death penalty" for homosexuality. Crompton states, "Muslim religion paradoxically forbade, allowed and exalted homoerotic desire... sexual contact was forbidden, but the man who admitted to love for another male might still be respected."

St. Aquinas endorsed Augistine's opinion that homosexuality is the "worst" of sexual sins, and specifically stated that consensual homosexuality is worse than the rape of a woman (because such rape might lead to procreation). By the same logic, he held that masturbation was worse than rape, because of the loss of the seed.

France at this time began to consign homosexuals to the flames and mutilation was common. English law was severe but not as barbaric as France or Spain.

Chapter 8 turns to Imperial China (500 BCE to 1849 CE). Crompton shows that homosexuality was a central aspect of Chinese culture for nearly 2,000 years.

He traces canonical anecdotes about homosexual love through Chinese history, and tells three famous anecdotes (the story of the peach, the story of Lord Yang and the story of the cut sleeve). Each of these involve emperors with male lovers. The first emperor confirmed by historians to take a male lover was the "Yellow Emperor" a central figure in Taoism. The first ten Han emperors also had male lovers according to the famous historian Sima Qian.

During the Ming dynasty, homosexuality was a central part of the culture. Xie Zhaozhe wrote in the 16th century CE, "in today's Peking there are young boy singers who go to all the gentry's wine parties... everyone uses them." He goes on to describe rampant, explicit male prostitution at every rank of society.

A shocked Portuguese missionary wrote that for the Chinese "unnatural lust was neither forbidden by law, nor thought to be illicit, nor even a cause for shame." Crompton writes "Chine, indeed, provides us with the longest documented period of tolerance in human history - two thousand years extending from 500 BCE to the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644.

Chapter 9, Italy in the Renaissance shows that "Greek Love" became more fully understood, at least among the intellectuals of the Renaissance, ,but this came at the same time as an increase of efforts to suppress homosexuality, and a surge of unprecedented violence against offenders. Crompton states "In the end, more men and women fell victim to homophobia in the three centuries from 1400 to 1700 than in the Middle Ages."

At the same time that a record number of homosexuals were being tortured, beheaded and burned, Donatello was creating his homoerotic sculpture of David that stands as a landmark of Renaissance art; the first free-standing nude in a thousand years. "For the first time since antiquity we are asked to admire the beauty of a naked image." This was followed by homoerotic art by Botticelli and Michelangelo.

Michelangelo attempted to "present himself as a lover of male beauty who was Platonically chaste" but the record documents that he was an active bisexual, as were Cellini and Carvaggio.

Chapter 10 turns to the Inquisition. This is, of course, the most painful part of the book to read. While the horrific deeds of the Spanish Inquisition are detailed, there is little that is surprising. What is interesting is that the disgust for homosexuality was used by Spanish leaders to justify persecution of the American Indian tribes, some of whom tolerated or actively incorporated homosexuality.

Chapter 11 discusses France from 1517 to 1715 and chapter 12 is on England from 1533 - 1702. Crompton states that legal oppression was "fiercest in Spain, severe in France and Italy and rare in England, and seem to have been almost totally lacking in such northern states as Russia, Denmark and Sweden. The myth in England, for over two hundred years, was that homosexuality did not exist in Britain and was entirely a Continental phenomenon. While this drove homosexuals underground, it did avoid the persecution seen in Spain and France.

The final chapters discuss homosexuality in ancient Japan and then provide an historic overview of the role of homosexuality in civilization.
65 of 72 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Civilized Scholarship 29 Oct 2003
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Homosexuality and Civilization is a monumental yet compendious book. The fruit of decades of scholarship in primary documents, it is written in Louis Crompton's customary, classy style: easy, open, colloquial. Some of you may know his excellent book on Shaw. Especially interesting is this book's focus on various cultures' laws concerning homosexuality because it enables Crompton to get around the claims of certain cultures that homosexuality barely exists within them. Belknap Press has done itself great credit in providing enriching (and expensive) art work illustrations yet keeping the book's cost very reasonable.
64 of 74 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Brilliantly Researched, Illustrated and Written History 22 Feb 2004
By Grady Harp - Published on Amazon.com
Louis Crompton has produced in HOMOSEXUALITY & CIVILZATION a definitive book about same sex relationships from the beginning of civilization to the present. Not only is this 624 page compendium thoroughly documented with copious footnotes, bibliography, valuable indices on both written content and illustrations, it is presented in an elegant format by Belknap Press of Harvard University Press - all of which become s additive but secondary to the brilliance of Crompton enlightened writing style. No dry treatise this, though the scholarly ethic is always in evidence. Crompton relates his reportage and commentary in a fluid, highly readable fashion, a fact that makes this book read like the great historical novel.
Although others have written excellent 'justifications for homosexuality' on various platforms that usually seem to border on glorified gossip for a hungry audience of fellow travelers, Crompton relies on myriad quotaions from historical documents, poetry, stories, myths, histories, and intact evidence of teachings of the great minds from twenty-four centuries. He wisely begins with Early Greece then Classical Greece where love between males was glorified and honored, to Rome where same sex relationships were an integral part of the Roman warriors' lives. He quotes liberally from the poetry of Sappho, Homer, Plato, Ovid, Cicero etc and integrates the lyrical with the writings of Caesar and Alexander and other emperors and leaders.
Then comes the change. With the introduction of 'Christianity which was born when Rome was stood at the peak of its power and Greek culture still dominated the Mediterranean world.' The single most destructive concept of homosexuality as an abomination and a crime worthy of (and receiving) the death penalty is the brief story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Even though Crompton demonstrates that the inception of the hate campaign resulting from this Judaic story may have originated from an incorrect translation from the Bible, this Levitical evidence was the reference used to torture, imprison, slaughter, and burn at the stake countless men and women who were even suspect of same sex love or who engaged in the act of sodomy. The Story marches forward like a pestilence through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance with the Inquisition only an example of the fury that the Church used to destroy sodomites, considered to be the cause of all misfortune in battles, disease, and civic unrest because of God's fury at peoples who allowed this crime.
Make no mistake; Crompton does not march against the Church as the source of all evil in telling the story of the homosexuals' plight. He writes lyrically of the wonders of the Renaissance and the Papal patronage of the great master works of art in the history of Western Civilization. He quietly continues to demonstrate that these holy works were from the minds and hands of homosexual artists such as Michelangelo, da Vinci, Caravaggio, Botticelli, and Donatello. He talks about the Popes, the kings, the emperors, the famous men and women of the political and religious and artistic world who were known to be homosexual.
Crompton does not exclude Eastern Civilization in his massive book. As a matter of fact his beautifully written accounts of Chinese and later, of Japanese histories provide a welcome breath of dignity to the ongoing slaughter and genocide of the homosexuals in Western Civilization. Because the Judaic Bible was not part of the culture of these civilizations, there was no rule or law against same sex relationships. Influenced by the Oriental mind being at one with nature include being at one with all beings in nature, and while it was accepted that unions between man and woman were necessary for the proliferation of their civilizations, more often than not the purer 'love and passion' stories were those between men. The Samurai are shown to be deeply involved with male lovers who were the driving force for valour on the battlefield.
Once the atrocities of the Inquisition began to fade and the Age of Enlightenment and Reason altered man's view of the law as at least equal to the dogma of both the Papal authority and the Protestant Reformation, Crompton writes of the gradual decriminalization of homosexuality, examining the differences between the timelines of France, Spain, the Netherlands, England and the United States and leaves his thorough investigation in the Supreme Court ruling of June 26, 2003. "Our story concludes here, at the moment when executions finally cease in Europe. Looking back over twenty-four centuries, what pattern can we see in the dozen societies we have examined? Most striking, certainly, is the divide between those that called themselves Christian and those that flourished before or independently of Christianiy. In the first we find laws and preachings which promoted hatred, contempt, and death; in the second, varying attitudes, all of them (barring Islam, which, like Christianity, inherited the lethal tradition of the Hebrew scriptures) to a radical degree more tolerant."
This book is not a light read; reading one chapter a day is about all we can fully absorb and relate to our own knowledge of history. But Crompton is both knowledgeable and a thoughtful writer. His book is generously illustrated with examples of paintings, sculptures, images of the people under discussion, and extant documents. One could comfortably use this book as a text for the general study of Civilization. The fact that Louis Crompton has added the parallel history of homosexuality to his intellectual tracing is a welcome addition to scholars and to all readers who long for an understanding of a topic that has rarely been more relevant than it is today. This is a brilliant book and an extraordinary achievement. Highly Recomended!!!
24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars GAY HISTORY RECLAIMED: THE KEY SURVEY 21 Dec 2004
By John Stahle - Published on Amazon.com
Crompton's "Homosexuality and Civilization" seems destined to become the definitive one-volume history of same-sex relations--and it comes at a critical period. Essential to the suppression of gay people in the West was the denial that they contributed positively to history; that history came very close to being effaced altogether. Just as the first gay historians after Stonewall began to reclaim that history, gay French philosopher Michel Foucault mischievously denied that homosexuality existed at all before the term was coined in the 1890s. This academic fashion caused many to refuse to consider fascinating new same-sex testimony from the past just as it appeared--a skepticism heteros would never dream of applying to their own sexual history. Crompton is post-theory, post-faction: instead of denying gay men had a history, he says, just read the first-person accounts from different times and places and respect what they plainly say. He does just that in this elegant, readable journey through Christian, Islamic, and Asian same-sex history.

But Crompton also makes two landmark contributions well beyond the requirements of survey. First, he fingers the one person who actually invented Western homophobia: Philo Judeus. Jewish philosopher in Alexandria and contemporary of Christ, this titanic figure is at least as important to history as St. Augustine, and like Augustine, presents both light and dark sides. On the good side, he created the template for Christianity. Responding to the mounting fashion for monotheism in the ancient world, and to the deep respect Romans had for the Jewish equation of law with divinity, Philo sought to reinvent Judaism as a Gentile-friendly universal religion released from its tribal particularity. He was blocked in this effort by purists in Jerusalem who insisted on circumcision (meaning, for the convert, adult circumcision without anaesthetic) and obeisance to the Temple, which on high holy days turned into the largest assembly-line slaughterhouse in the world. Both requirements were deal-breakers for pagans. But Philo's student St. Paul successfully applied this template to the new cult of Christianity. On the negative side, it was Philo who first interpreted the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah as punishing homosexuality, which no one else, including Jesus, thought it was. His interpretation became, to this day, the key rationale for the persecution of gay people in Christendom. Thanks to Crompton, now we know who did it.

Crompton's second great contribution is to extend same-sex history, virtually for the first time, to China and Japan. Gay men often ask, what kind of society would result if there were no taboos, if men could love whomever they want? For two thousand years, until the 19th century, this answer could be found in China and Japan. As long as a man did his dynastic duty siring children, he could do anything else he wanted sexually. The result was a broad middle area of opportunistic bisexuality flanked by strong purist traditions of hetero and homo sex. All three had their own philosophy and literature, and Crompton quotes extensively from an enormous, unsuppressed gay literature which the West has yet to sample.

This book is the single finest one-volume survey of same-sex history on the market and deserves a wide audience.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 4.5 Stars for a Fascinating Reading on Well-Researched Chapters of Homosexual Civilization - Lacking Some Chapters 23 May 2008
By Bonam Pak - Published on Amazon.com
I read the original hard cover edition of 2003. It has 640 pages, some 100 color pictures and some 450 regular text pages.

It covers Greece, Judea, the Roman Empire, Western Europe (mainly Italy, Spain [Christian and Muslim], France, England, the Netherlands and Prussia [historic part of Germany]), as well as China and Japan. That seems to be Crompton's (or the publisher's) definition of civilization. Considering that once the biggest cities were located in (sub-Saharan) Africa, that there were urban societies in the pre-Columbian Americas and that civilization's early roots are located in countries such as Babylon, Persia and Egypt, virtually all of which with known homosexualities, this book is not as exhaustive as its page number suggests. Did I mention EASTERN Europe? Maybe it's just an ill-advised title.

The book sheds light on the various forms of persecutions and shares one and the other surprise. For example the most deadly persecution before Hitler having occurred in today's model country, the Netherlands. Today's most homophobic state of Germany, Bavaria, adopting Prussia's anti-homosexual laws not before the German unification of 1871 and Japan of all the places (i.e. the somewhat un-colonized ones) across the globe doing the same two years later. Of course, more positive episodes of the last some 25 hundred years are covered also. It would have been much more positive, if earlier times would have been included, such as ancient Egypt. Please be aware that Greek-Egyptian Cleopatra is closer to the Space Shuttle than the erection of the pyramids, i.e. that a lot of civilization isn't only lost in this book geographically, but also on the timeline.

Overall, this book is a very good introduction into the issue. Just don't think it's exhaustive, just because you can outweigh your local phone book with it. You may be interested in Colonialism and Homosexuality, Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature, Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities, and "leaving civilization", in the myriad concepts of love life in Ritualized Homosexuality in Melanesia (Studies in Melanesian Anthropology). Louis Crompton criticizes John Boswell's classic Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, yet in principle, I find it worth to read nevertheless. You may attempt to outweigh Crompton's book with Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (Stonewall Inn Editions).
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