three pairs of lovers with space



The Book of the Laws of Countries is a dialogue written by Philip, a disciple of Bardaisan (AD 154-222), the founder of the long-lasting Bardasainite sect of Christian Gnostics. The main speaker is Bardaisan himself.

Presented here is what Bardaisan said about the radically varying customs regarding pederasty in different lands. He mentioned them to a questioning disciple as one of many examples ranging from the Hindus to the Romans of how “that not all people over the whole world do that which the stars determine by their Fate and in their sectors, in the same way. For men have established laws in each country given them from God.”

Bardaisan was born and mostly lived in Edessa, the capital of the kingdom of Osrhoene. He also stayed some time in Babylon and Armenia, his parents were Persian, and he informed himself in depth about India from a visiting deputation of Indian holy men. Thus, when he compared customs in these lands east of the Euphrates with those in the remote west, it may thus fairly be presumed that he was much better informed about the former.

The book has survived in a manuscript in Syriac, the language of Bardaisan and his countrymen, and another in Greek, which is slightly different and not necessarily further removed from the original than the Syriac one is. Both versions are given here.


1.  Syriac version

1st page pf the Syriac manuscript of the Book of the Laws of Countries

The complete text in the local Syriac language was first published in 1855 from a sixth or seventh century manuscript in the British Museum. It was translated from the original Syriac into Dutch by H. J. W. Drijvers, and then further translated from the Dutch into English by Mrs. G. E. van Baaren-Pape in The Book of the Laws of Countries: Dialogue on Fate of Bardaişan of Edessa (Assen, the Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1965), from which the following passage concerning Greek love is taken.

On the further side of the Euphrates, towards the East, no man called a thief or a murderer will become very angry. But if a man is accused of having had sexual intercourse with boys, he revenges himself and does not even shrink from murder. Laws ……………….. among ………………………. boys ………………… us and the law does not accuse them. Further, all over the Orient those who are openly reviled (therefore) and are known to be such, are killed by their fathers and brothers, and usually these do not even let their graves be known. These were the Laws of the Orientals. In the North, however, in the territory of the Germans[1] and their neighbours, the boys who are handsome serve the men as wives, and a wedding feast, too, is held then. This is not considered shameful or a matter of contumely by them, because of the law obtaining among them. Yet it is impossible that all those in Gaul who are guilty of this infamy should have Mercury in their nativity together with Venus in the house of Saturn, in the field of Mars and in the Western signs of the Zodiac. For regarding the “men”[2] who are born under this constellation, it is written that they shall be shamefully used, as if they were women. [pp. 47-49]

Fate does not [prevent] the Gallic “men”[3] from having sexual intercourse with one another. [p. 53]



2.  Greek version VI 10 xxv-xxvii, xxxv, xlv-xlvi

The Greek version was preserved in Book VI of Eusebius of Caesarea’s Preparation for the Gospel, begun in about 313, and unsurprisingly had greater circulation than the Syriac.

The translation is by E. H. Gifford in his ὐσεβιου του Παμφιλου Εὐαγγελικης Προπαρασκευης λογοι ιεʹ. Eusebii Pamphili Evangelicæ Præparationis libri XV. Ad codices manuscriptos denuo collatos recensuit, anglice nunc primum reddidit, notis et indicibus instruxit E. H. Gifford (Oxford, 1903), but like many translations of that era, it is often inaccurate in the cause of euphemism, so five amendments have been made, all explained in the footnotes and all in harmony with the text’s translation into French by Édouard des Places in Eusèbe de Césarée. La Préparation Évangélique (Paris, 1980).

From the river Euphrates, and as far as the Ocean towards the East, he who is reviled as a murderer, or a thief, is not at all indignant: but he who is reviled for sodomy avenges himself even to the death: among the Greeks, however, even their wise men are not blamed for having boy beloveds[4].

In the same East those who suffer outrage, if it become known, are put to death by brothers, or fathers, or kinsmen, and are not thought worthy of burial in open day.

Among the Gauls the youths[5] give themselves as wives[6] openly, not regarding this as a matter of reproach, because of the law among them. Yet it cannot possibly have been the lot of all in Gaul who thus impiously suffer outrage to have the morning-star with Mercury setting in the houses of Saturn and regions of Mars at their nativities. […]

Thus their nativity does not compel […] the Gauls to cease from giving themselves as wives,[7] […]

And what shall we say concerning the sect of the Christians? […] And neither in Parthia do the Christians, Parthians though they are, practise polygamy, […] nor among the Bactrians and the Gauls do they profane marriage,[8]

[xxv] άπό Εύφράτου ποταμοί» καί μέχρι τοϋ 'Ωκεανού ώς έπί άνατολάς ό λοιδορούμενος ώς φονεύς ή ώς κλέπτης ού πάνυ άγανακτεΐ, ό δέ ώς άρσενοκοίτης λοιδορούμενος έαυτόν έκδικεΐ μέχρι καί φόνου παρ' "Ελλησι καί οί σοφοί έρωμένους έχοντεςού ψέγονται.

[xxvi] έν τη αύτη άνατολη ύβριζόμενοι έάν γνωσθώσιν, ύπό άδελφών ή πατέρων καί συγγενών φονεύονται καί ταφής προδήλου ούκ άξιοϋνται.

[xxvii] παρά δέ Γάλλοις οί νέοι γαμοϋνται μετά παρρησίας, ού ψόγον τοΰτο ηγούμενοι διά τον παρ' αύτοΐς νόμον. καί ού δυνατόν έστι πάντας τούς έν Γαλλία ούτως άθέως υβριζομένους λαχεϊν έν ταΐς γενέσεσι Φωσφόρον μεθ' 'Ερμου έν οϊκοις Κρόνου καί όρίοις "Αρεος δύνοντα. [...]

[xxxv] καί ούκ άναγκάζει ή γένεσις […] τούς Γάλλους μή γαμεϊσθαι [...]

[xlv] τί δέ έροϋμεν περί της των Χριστιανών αίρέσεως, [… xlvi]  ούτε οί έν Παρθία Χριστιανοί πολυγαμοϋσι, Πάρθοι τυγχάνοντες, […] ού παρά Βάκτροις καΐ Γήλοις ψθείρουσι τούς γάμους,


A mosaic in Edessa, Bardaisan's city, 2nd century AD

[1] The repeated contrast of Gauls (rather than Germans) with eastern peoples in the rest of the text suggests a confusion between these two neighbouring peoples from the distant barbarian lands of the west, who may have seemed much the same thing to a Syriac writer. The fact that the Greek text speaks only of Gauls leaves little doubt that it is “Germans” that is a mistake. Moreover, it is known from other ancient writers that the Gauls were enthusiastic lovers of boys, while the evidence for ancient German pederasty is little and ambiguous.

[2] The editor of this page cannot read Syriac, so can only guess (and would be most grateful if anyone who can read it would tell him either way), but he has put “men” in inverted commas because he very strongly suspects that it is an inaccurate translation of the Syriac word, probably for “those”, or possibly for “males”. In other words, the implication that sex between men was involved is false. The main reason is that the alternate Greek text also given here says nothing about “men” and supports a translation as “those”. Secondly, it does not make sense to speak of “men” having been used as women when the narrative is clearly referring back to its description of boys being thus used.
     It is lamentably very common to mistranslate ancient religious texts in this manner. Consider, for example, the historically most famous prohibition of male homosexuality, that in Leviticus 18: 22, which appears in almost all English bibles as something like “Thou shalt not lie with mankind”, though the operative word, זָכָר means “males” as does its Greek equivalent, ἄρσενος, used in the Septuagint.
     In this context, it should be added there is one further brief mention (on p. 61 of van Baaren-Pape’s translation) of Gallic “men” (presumably the same mistranslation) not having sex together. This has been omitted here as not pederastic, but it corresponds to VI 46 in Eusebios’s Greek version given here.

[3] The translator’s “men” has been put into inverted commas to indicate doubt about it as an accurate translation, for reasons set out in the preceding footnote.

[4] Instead of “boy beloveds” adopted here, Gifford translates “έρωμένους” as “favourites”, an old-fashioned euphemism too vague for present purposes.

[5] Gifford translates “οί νέοι” as “the young men” but it is simply the masculine form of “the young”, ie. he has invented “men”.

[6] Gifford translates “γαμοϋνται” as “give themselves in marriage” (rather than “give themselves as wives”) which misses the point.

[7] Gifford translates “γαμεϊσθαι” as effeminacy (rather than “giving themselves as wives”), which is hopelessly inaccurate.

[8] Gifford translates “ψθείρουσι τούς γάμους” as “form unnatural unions”, but nothing is said about nature; “profane marriage” is much more accurate.

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