Saint Nero, Patron of Gay Marriage

Regard this essay as a qualified mea culpa. I have long maintained that there is no point in arguing against “gay marriage,” because there are no arguments for it. To argue that a “homosexual” has no right to marry another man is not unlike arguing that a unicorn has no right to be a computer programmer. The proposition is absurd on its face, and so to argue against it is to offer it unwarranted credibility. As evidence, I have remarked that at no time before the late twentieth century—at least within the boundaries of Western civilization—had anyone contemplated marriage between two individuals of the same sex.

Alas, on this second point, historical memory had failed me. Here is Suetonius in the Lives of the Caesars VI: Nero: “Having castrated the slave boy Sporus and willing even to change his nature to feminine, [Nero] took him to wife by the usual ceremony of marriage with a dowry and bridal veil.” The Roman historian continues: “This Sporus, adorned with ornaments of an empress and conveyed in a litter, he accompanied around the courts and markets of Greece and later around the image makers’ mart in Rome, kissing him fondly again and again” (VI.28).

Despite the judgmental language of Suetonius—it was, after all, an intolerant, benighted era—it is clear from his account that Nero was ahead of his time in recognizing the social construction of gender and the mobility of desire and acting upon this perception, so he would seem to be a suitable role model for today’s gender warriors:

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Having prostituted his own sense of decency to such an extent that almost every part of his body was defiled, he at last thought up a kind of game in which, covered in the skin of a wild beast, he was released from a cage and assailed the groins of men and women bound to a stake and, when he had amply worked off his fury, it was finished off by his freedman, Doryphorus. To him, Nero gave himself as a bride, even as he had taken Sporus, imitating no less the cries and wailing of virgins suffering forcible violation.   (VI.29)

Another Roman historian, Tacitus, also mentions (in regrettably similar opprobrious terms) that Nero, “who had omitted no form of depravity, gave himself in marriage to one of that herd of degenerates that go by the name of “Pythagorean” with full nuptial rites” (Annals XV.37).

Neither Suetonius nor Tacitus, however, condemns all of Nero’s actions, and their approval marks another feature of his reign that ought to recommend him gender-equality activists.   After giving an account of the great fire, which destroyed much of Rome in A.D. 64, Tacitus points out that Nero had fallen under popular suspicion of having ordered the fire:

In order, therefore, to dispel the rumor Nero substituted as culprits and tormented with exquisite punishments men loathed for their outrageous behavior, whom the mob calls Christians. … [A] vast number of them were convicted less for the crime of arson than for hatred of the human race. And ridicule was added to their perishing, as they were covered in the hides of wild beasts and ripped apart by dogs, or attached to crosses or pinioned for burning, and when daylight failed were set ablaze in order to illuminate the night. (Annals XV.44)

To be sure, Tacitus goes on to admit that Nero’s savagery was such that it earned even the “guilty” Christians some pity.

Nevertheless, Nero’s zeal will surely recommend itself to contemporary guardians of tolerance and activists who wish to make certain that hatred is banished from the world. Nero certainly would have found a more suitable punishment than Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian for the Oregon couple, Aaron and Melissa Klein—who used to own a bakery—than a trivial $135,000 fine. If you consider the “emotional and mental suffering” that the Kleins inflicted upon Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer (I am not making that name up) by declining to bake a cake for their lesbian nuptials, then destroying the business of a family with five children and imposing a paltry monetary penalty seems a mere “slap on the wrist.” Brad Avakian—and for that matter, Justice Anthony Kennedy—could learn something from the Emperor Nero about how to repress hatred and intolerance. After all, what is the fate of five children when hurt feelings and the dignity of alternative lifestyles are at stake?

Of course, it may be more humane, even prudent, to follow the moderate program of Pliny, the Roman governor of Bithynia-Pontus half a century after Nero during the reign of the Emperor Trajan. In his report to Trajan on his dealings with the Christians (Epistulae X.96), Pliny says that he had erected images of the gods and of the Emperor and supplied incense and wine so that those accused of being Christians might worship the idols and “in addition speak ill of Christ” (“praeterea male dicerent Christo”). Since no Christian would do so, those who submitted to the procedure would be exonerated.

Nowadays secular society has its own equivalents of forcing reluctant Christians to worship the gods and the Emperor: diversity training sessions, anger management classes, re-education camps—and baking cakes. So far these procedures have not been enforced, as Pliny’s were, by the threat of the death penalty (“supplicium minatus”). But who knows what the future holds?

Despite his easy-going tolerance, like his contemporaries Tacitus and Suetonius, Pliny makes it clear in the same letter that he found Christianity to be a “vicious, unrestrained superstition” (“superstitionem pravam et immodicam”). He confirmed the information gleaned from interviews with apostates through questioning two slave girls, who were called deaconesses (“ministri’), by means of torture (“per tormenta” – moderation has its limits). Here is the dreadful truth that he uncovered about the “tenacity and unbending stubbornness” (“pertinaciam … et inflexibilem obstinationem”) of Christians:

This was the sum of their guilt or error, that they were accustomed to meet before dawn on a fixed day, and to sing a hymn to Christ as to a god and among themselves to take a mutual pledge, not to engage in some wickedness, but to refrain from theft, robbery, and adultery, not to break faith, nor to refuse to restore a deposit that was called for. After having done these things, it was their custom, once they had dispersed, to come together again for taking some food—just ordinary, innocent food.

In the face of such depravity, Pliny’s moderation and tolerance are, doubtless, commendable. Still, as any enlightened progressive can see, Christians are obviously a threat to sound social order for refusing to worship the gods—Eros and Aphrodite, for instance, who are so important to tolerant modern citizens—and the Emperor, who provides the bread and circuses. Therefore, we ought not to dismiss Nero’s salutary example.

Even ancient Christians grudgingly admired him after their own fashion. The historian Eusebius, for example, gives Nero credit for being “the first of the emperors who showed himself the enemy of divine religion” (Church History XXV), and he quotes Tertullian as saying, “We even glory in having such a founder of our condemnation. For whoever knows him can understand that nothing was condemned by Nero unless it was something very good” (Apologeticus 5). They thus admit that this emperor knew what he was about.

Nero seems, then, the ideal patron of “gay marriage,” which, as he would have known, has little to do with “marriage equality,” but is indispensable as a tool for suppressing once and for all Christian superstition. It is outrageous that modern men and women on the right side of history should still have to put up with this obstacle to the creation of a loving, tolerant, hate-free society of limitless diversity and absolute equality! Hence my “apology” for assuming that same-sex “marriage” lacked an historical precedent. Today’s activists have a wonderfully fitting model in a man whose attitude toward both human sexuality and Christian morals anticipated theirs. As for the want of rational argument—Nero shows that it is hardly necessary when the power of the government and, in our time, the weight of elite opinion, are on your side.


  • R.V. Young

    R. V. Young was for many years a professor of Renaissance Literature and Literary Criticism in the English Department of North Carolina State University. He is the co-founder and co-editor (with M. Thomas Hester) of the John Donne Journal, and author of multiple books and articles primarily related to the study of literature. He was editor of the conservative quarterly Modern Age from 2007 to 2017.

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