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.