Constantine the Great and the persecution of ‘androgynoi’
The idea that hermaphrodites in premodern Europe were persecuted on a regular base has featured several times in this blog, as it is still a common misconception. Indeed, it may be called a myth, and in several cases, this myth is quoted to support a dangerous narrative of progress: if hermaphrodites were killed as prodigies in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and adult hermaphrodites were persecuted in the later Middle Ages and in the 16th and 17th centuries, so the argument runs, then the Englightenment model that there were no ‘true’ hermaphrodites was great progress; true, it re-defined double-sexed humans as ‘pseudo-hermaphrodites’, but this pathologicalisation was still better than persecuting them, wasn’t it?
There (still) is a lot to be said against this model. As a historian I am also interested in how this narrative was constructed in the first place. It became part of modern historiography, and there was a certain perceived need to quote primary sources in favour of the above model. Unsurprisingly, in my view, only very few primary sources were ever quoted to this end, so it is quite possible to study a significant part of them in detail. Duong-Iseler, for example, in 2012 did this with Foucault’s ‘Antide Collas’, by comparing the archival sources to the accounts of nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars.
For this blogpost today, I chose another primary source which is less prominent than Foucault’s ‘Antide Collas’ but played an important role in 18th and 19th century lexicography. Here, it was often asserted that Emperor Constantine (d. 334) ‘made laws against hermaphrodites’ or, more specifically, had hermaphrodites killed simply for being hermaphrodites. An influential book repeating this claim (I’ve not yet tried to establish the early history of this idea in detail) was Parsons’ 1741 monograph on hermaphrodites, widely quoted in 18th c. literature including the Encyclopédie. As Parson asserts,
Constantine, according to Eusebius, made Laws against them […] the Law made against them was, that they should be looked upon as a spurious Breed, and destroyed.
Fortunately for the modern historian, Parsons quotes his primary source with precision: Euseb’s Life of Constantine, book four, chapter 25; indeed, he even provides the passage in question in the footnote. The Greek text is not the problem; the most recent critical editions have no significant variant to the text quoted by Parson. It
all depends on the translation of the term genos androgynon, and also the context. Here the same passage in the Schaff translation from 1890:
Consistently with this zeal he [Constantine] issued successive laws and ordinances, forbidding any to offer sacrifice to idols, to consult diviners, to erect images, or to pollute the cities with the sanguinary combats of gladiators. And inasmuch as the Egyptians, especially those of Alexandria, had been accustomed to honor their river through a priesthood composed of effeminate men [androgynon genos], a further law was passed commanding the extermination of the whole class as vicious, that no one might thenceforward be found tainted with the like impurity. And whereas the superstitious inhabitants apprehended that the river would in consequence withhold its customary flood, God himself showed his approval of the emperor’s law by ordering all things in a manner quite contrary to their expectation. For those who had defiled the cities by their vicious conduct were indeed seen no more; but the river, as if the country through which it flowed had been purified to receive it, rose higher than ever before, and completely overflowed the country with its fertilizing streams: thus effectually admonishing the deluded people to turn from impure men, and ascribe their prosperity to him alone who is the Giver of all good.
So the context of the alleged persecution of the androgynon genos (here rendered as ‘effeminate men’) is the suppresion of pagan rites. The androgynoi are but one several groups of pagan priests and worshippers who are targeted by Constantine’s laws. So the persecution of hermaphrodites in fact turns out to be a persecution of pagan worshippers, androgynoi or not. The Egyptian priests are singled out by Euseb as ‘vicious’ and ‘impure’ – but from the text itself it is difficult to say why.
A modern translation, while retaining the ‘effeminate men’ translation, gives a different explanation for the persecution (tr. Cameron and Hall, 161):
Hence it is not surprising that in successive laws and ordinances he [Constantine] prohibited everyone from sacrificing to idols, from practising divination, from having cult-figures erected, from performing secret rites, and from defiling the cities by the carnage of gladiatorial combat.
To those in Egypt and especially Alexandria, who had a custom of worshipping their river through the offices of effeminate men, another law was sent out, declaring that the whole class of homosexuals should be abolished as a thing depraved, and that it was unlawful for those infected with this gross indecency to be seen anywhere.
Whereas the superstitious supposed that the river would no longer flow for them in its customary way, God cooperated with the Emperor’s law by achieving quite the opposite of what they expected.
The addition of ‘homosexual’ is an interpretation that clearly goes beyond what it found in the Greek. Apart from the problem with ‘homosexuality’ (indeed, ‘The Greeks didn’t have a word for it‘) the information is only derived from the androgynoi – in other words, the translators assumed that androgynoi was a metaphor not only for effeminate behaviour but indeed for sexual acts which we today would refer to as ‘homosexual’, and that this was real resason behind Constantine’s (and Euseb’s) special attention for these priests.
Although I am not happy that this interpretation is passed off as a translation, there is something to be said in favour of the argument that it was sexual deviance that was at issue. In their comment, Cameron and Hall refer to another passage in Euseb’s Vita Constantini, namely 3, 55 (tr. Cameron and Hall, 144):
Womanish men, who were not men but had rejected the dignity of their nature, propitiated the spirit with their sick effeminacy, and unlawful intercourse with women, stolen and corrupt sexual relations, and unspeakable, infamous practices went on at this shrine as in some lawless and ungoverned place.
Here, no mention is made of hermaphrodites or androgyny, but terms like ‘men who were not men’ are clearly used to refer to deviant sexuality, although not exactely what we would call homosexuality (‘unlawful intercourse with women’ is mentioned in one go). If the first passage with the androgynoi should indeed be interpreted in light of the latter passage, one has to conclude that it was the violation of gender expectations (effeminacy) and sexual deviance, but not bodily sex (‘intersex’) that was behind the persecution of the Egyptian priests. In other words, while the passage is tricky, and while the term androgynoi may be used pejoratively by Euseb, the Vita is certainly not to be understood the way Parson interpreted it: There were no laws against hermaphrodites, and Constantine did not persecute double-sexed humans because they were hermaphrodites.
Eusebius’ life of Constantine. Transl. and comm. by Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall, Oxford 1999.
Eusebius von Caesarea, De vita Constantini / Über das Leben Konstantins. Übers. und komm. von Horst Schneider (Fontes Christiani 83), Turnhout 2007.
The life of Constantine by Eusebius […]. A revised translation […] by Ernest Cushing Richardson, 1890. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.iv.i.html
James Parsons, A mechanical and critical enquiry into the nature of hermaphrodites, London 1741. http://books.google.de/books?id=F8PtsDwlE2IC
Sophie Duong-Iseler, ‘Lumières sur le prétendu «hermaphrodite» Antide Collas (ou Colas) de Michel Foucault’, Dix-septième siècle 256 (2012), 545–556. http://www.sphere.univ-paris-diderot.fr/spip.php?article972&lang=fr