Ed Simon is the associate editor of The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University, and is a regular contributor at several different site. He can be followed at his website, or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.
During the fourth-century, Sergius and Bacchus, two inseparable Syrian soldiers in the Roman emperor Galerius’ army, were outed as secret Christians when they refused to pay homage to the god Jupiter. The incensed emperor ordered them beaten, chained, and then, as their fourth-century hagiographer explained, paraded through the barracks with “all other military garb removed… and women’s clothing placed on them.” Both men were sent to trial; Bacchus refused to abjure his faith in Christ and was beaten to death by his fellow Roman soldiers as punishment. The night before Sergius was to be similarly asked to recant his Christianity, the spirit of Bacchus appeared before his partner. With his “face as radiant as an angel’s, wearing an officer’s uniform,” Bacchus asked, “Why do you grieve and mourn, brother? If I have been taken from you in body, I am still with you in the bond of union.”
Bacchus continued to offer his protection to Sergius, stealing the resolve of the later, so that when he was tortured and murdered the following day, he did it steadfast in his faith and love, the very voice of God welcoming the martyred saints into heaven as a pair. Historian John Boswell explained that in writings about the two, they were often referred to as “sweet companions” and “lovers,” with Sergius and Bacchus representing “to subsequent generations of Christians the quintessential ‘paired’ military saints.” There’s an anachronism to the term perhaps, but there’s credible reason to understand both Sergius and Bacchus as a gay couple. And, most surprisingly for some, the early Church had no issue with that reality.
Sergius and Bacchus were not a token example of same-sex love countenanced by the Church in the first millennium; there are several other pairs of canonized romantic partners, and both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches allowed for a ritual of same-sex confirmation called Adelphopoiesis. This ritual sanctified unions of “spiritual brothers” that was common among monks in the Latin rite West until the fourteenth-century, and that continued in the East until the twentieth-century. Boswell wrote in his (not uncontroversial) 1994 study Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe that far-from the blanket homophobia which we often see as tragically defining Christianity, adherents of the early Church saw much to “admire in same-sex passion and unions.” In his book, Boswell argued from his extensive philological knowledge of sources in a multitude of original languages that Adelphopoiesis was not dissimilar to marriage, and that it allowed men to express romantic feelings towards their partners in a manner not just allowed by the Church, but indeed celebrated by it.