PEDERASTY IN ANCIENT GERMANY
Presented here is all the evidence as to the practise of male homosexuality in ancient Germany. Though this website’s concern is with Greek love only, in this case the evidence is mostly so ambiguous that there can be no hope of disentangling it without here expanding its remit. The primary sources are presented in the chronological order in which they were written.
The De origine et situ Germanorum (On the Origin and Situation of the Germans), better known simply as The Germania, and written around AD 98 by the eminent Roman historian and politician Publius Cornelius Tacitus is by far the most important surviving source of information about the Germanic tribes who lived outside the Roman Empire. Tacitus may well have been the son of the governor of the adjoining Roman province of Germania, besides which he had access to the since-lost books of other writers on the subject (sometimes cited) and a social circle which included many who served in wars against the Germans. Many of his observations have since been supported by archaeological findings.
The translation is by M. Hutton and W. Peterson in the Loeb Classical Library volume XXXV (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1914).
 At this assembly it is also permissible to lay accusations and to bring capital charges. The nature of the death penalty differs according to the offence: traitors and deserters are hung from trees; cowards and poor fighters and sexual perverts are plunged in the mud of marshes with a hurdle on their heads: the difference of punishment has regard to the principle that crime should be blazoned abroad by its retribution, but abomination hidden. […]
 They do no business, public or private, without arms in their hands; yet the custom is that no one takes arms until the state has endorsed his future competence: then in the assembly itself one of the chiefs or his father or his relatives equip the young man with shield and spear: this corresponds with them to the toga, and is youth’s first public distinction: hitherto he seems a member of the household, next a member of the state. Conspicuously high birth, or signal services on the part of parents win the chieftain’s approbation even for boys in early adolescence: they mingle with the others, men of maturer strength and tested by long years, and have no shame to be seen among his retinue. In the retinue itself degrees are observed, depending on the judgement of him whom they follow: and so there is great rivalry among the retainers to decide who shall have the first place with his chief, and among the chieftains as to who shall have the largest and keenest retinue. This means rank and strength, to be surrounded always with a large band of chosen youths—glory in peace, in war protection:
[12 i] Licet apud concilium accusare quoque et discrimen capitis intendere. distinctio poenarum ex delicto. proditores et transfugas arboribus suspendunt, ignavos et imbelles et corpore infames caeno ac palude, iniecta insuper crate, mergunt. [ii] diversitas supplicii illuc respicit, tamquam scelera ostendi oporteat, dum puniuntur, flagitia abscondi. sed et levioribus delictis pro modo poena: […]
[13 i] Nihil autem neque publicae neque privatae rei nisi armati agunt. sed arma sumere non ante cuiquam moris, quam civitas suffecturum probaverit. tum in ipso concilio vel principum aliquis vel pater vel propinqui scuto frameaque iuvenem ornant: haec apud illos toga, hic primus iuventae honos; ante hoc domus pars videntur, mox rei publicae. [ii] insignis nobilitas aut magna patrum merita principis dignationem etiam adulescentulis adsignant: ceteris robustioribus ac iam pridem probatis adgregantur, nec rubor inter comites adspici. [iii] gradus quin etiam ipse comitatus habet, iudicio eius quem sectantur; magnaque et comitum aemulatio, quibus primus apud principem suum locus, et principum, cui plurimi et acerrimi comites. haec dignitas, [iv] hae vires, magno semper electorum iuvenum globo circumdari, in pace decus, in bello praesidium,
Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos II 3 61-2
The Alexandrian scholar Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos (Four Books), written in the middle of the second century AD, was for many centuries considered the most authoritative on astrology.
Under this arrangement, the remainder of the first quarter, by which I mean the European quarter, situated in the north-west of the inhabited world, is in familiarity with the north-western triangle, Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius, and is governed, as one would expect, by the lords of the triangle, Jupiter and Mars, occidental. In terms of whole nations these parts consist of Britain, (Transalpine) Gaul, Germany, Bastarnia, Italy, (Cisalpine) Gaul, Apulia, Sicily, Tyrrhenia, Celtica, and Spain. […]
However, because of the occidental aspect of Jupiter and Mars, and furthermore because the first parts of the aforesaid triangle are masculine and the latter parts feminine, they are without passion for women, and look down upon the pleasures of love, but are better satisfied with and more desirous of masculine association. And they do not regard the act as a disgrace to the paramour, nor indeed do they actually become effeminate and soft thereby, because their disposition is not perverted, but they retain in their souls manliness, helpfulness, good faith, love of kinsmen, and benevolence.
 Ἐκ δὴ τῆς τοιαύτης διατάξεως τὰ μὲν ἄλλα μέρη τοῦ πρώτου τῶν τεταρτημορίων, λέγω δὲ τοῦ κατὰ τὴν Εὐρώπην, πρὸς βορρολίβα κείμενα τῆς ὅλης οἰκουμένης, συνοικειοῦται μὲν τῷ βορρολιβυκῷ τριγώνῳ τῷ κατὰ τὸν Κριὸν καὶ Λέοντα καὶ Τοξότην, οἰκοδεσποτεῖται δὲ εἰκότως ὑπὸ τῶν κυρίων τοῦ τριγώνου Διὸς καὶ Ἄρεως ἑσπερίων. ἔστι δὲ ταῦτα καθ᾿ ὅλα ἔθνη λαμβανόμενα Βρεττανία, Γαλατία, Γερμανία, Βασταρνία, Ἰταλία, Γαλλία, Ἀπουλία, Σικελία, Τυρρηνία, Κελτική, Ἱσπανία. […]
διὰ μέντοι τὸν ἑσπέριον σχηματισμὸν Διὸς καὶ Ἄρεως, καὶ ἔτι διὰ τὸ τοῦ προκειμένου  τριγώνου τὰ μὲν ἐμπρόσθια ἠρρενῶσθαι, τὰ δὲ ὀπίσθια τεθηλύσθαι, πρὸς μὲν τὰς γυναῖκας ἀζήλοις αὐτοῖς εἶναι συνέπεσε καὶ καταφρονητικοῖς τῶν ἀφροδισίων, πρὸς δὲ τὴν τῶν ἀρρένων συνουσίαν κατακορεστέροις τε καὶ μᾶλλον ζηλοτύποις· αὐτοῖς δὲ τοῖς διατιθεμένοις μήτε αἰσχρὸν ἡγεῖσθαι τὸ γινόμενον μήτε ὡς ἀληθῶς ἀνάνδροις διὰ τοῦτο καὶ μαλακοῖς ἀποβαίνειν, ἕνεκεν τοῦ μὴ παθητικῶς διατίθεσθαι, συντηρεῖν δὲ τὰς ψυχὰς ἐπάνδρους καὶ κοινωνικὰς καὶ πιστὰς καὶ φιλοικείους καὶ εὐεργετικάς.
The Book of the Laws of Countries 25-27
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, whose parents came from Persia, and who himself lived in Edessa, the capital of the nearby kingdom of Osrhoene. Presented here is the comparison he drew between attitudes to pederasty in the lands east of the Euphrates (Persia implicitly included) and those elsewhere.
The book has survived in a manuscript in Syriac, the language of Bardaisan and his countrymen, and another in Greek, which is not necessarily further removed from the original than the Syriac one is. Though only slightly different from the Syriac in most of its content, it differs critically in what matters here, in that it calls the “Germans” of the Syriac version “Gauls.” Not only does this mean that only the Syriac version is relevant, but it casts severe doubt on what Bardaisan or the writer of the Syriac manuscript, living so very far away from any of these western barbarians, really knew about their sexual practices, or even knew how to distinguish between them. Moreover, even the Syriac version is a little confused as to whether Germans or Gauls or both is meant. What Bardaisan claims is much more likely to be true of the latter, simply because they are far better attested by other sources as lovers of boys.
The complete Syriac text 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), pp. 47-53, 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 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” 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” from having sexual intercourse with one another. [p. 53]
Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism III 199
Empiricus was a physician and philosopher of unknown location who wrote in Greek in the late 2nd or early 3rd century AD. It is presumed this remark by him referred to pederasty rather than other male homosexuality simply because every other reference to ancient Persian homosexuality concerned pederasty. The translation is by R.G. Bury in the Loeb Classical Library volume CCLXXIII (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1933).
|For example, amongst us sodomy is regarded as shameful or rather illegal, but by the Germani, they say, it is not looked upon as shameful but as a customary thing.||Οἷον γοῦν παρ᾿ ἡμῖν μὲν αἰσχρόν, μᾶλλον δὲ καὶ παράνομον νενόμισται τὸ τῆς ἀρρενομιξίας, παρὰ Γερμανοῖς δέ, ὡς φασίν, οὐκ αἰσχρὸν ἀλλ᾿ ὡς ἕν τι τῶν συνήθων.|
Ammianus Marcellinus, History, XXXI 9 v
Ammianus Marcellinus was a Greek of Antioch who, between AD 378 and 391, wrote in Latin a history of the Roman empire entitled Rerum Gestarum Libri. Here he is describing the Taifali, a tribe that was probably German (but may instead have been Sarmatian), who were defeated in 377 by the Roman general Frigeridus after crossing the Danube into Thrace.
The translation is by J. C. Rolfe in the Loeb Classical Library volume CCCXXXI (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1939), p. 445.
|We have learned that these Taifali were a shameful folk, so sunken in a life of shame and obscenity, that in their country the boys are coupled with the men in a union of unmentionable lust, to consume the flower of their youth in the polluted intercourse of those paramours. We may add that, if any grown person alone catches a boar or kills a huge bear, he is purified thereby from the shame of unchastity.||Hanc Taifalorum gentem turpem ac obscenae vitae flagitiis ita accepimus mersam, ut apud eos nefandi concubitus foedere copulentur maribus puberes, aetatis viriditatem in eorum pollutis usibus consumpturi. Porro siqui iam adultus aprum exceperit solus, vel interemerit ursum immanem, colluvione liberatur incesti.|
Some modern historians have purported to shed further light on the inconclusive information presented above about ancient German pederasty by referring to later evidence.
Prokopios’s story in his mid 6th century Vandalic War III 2 xv-xvi of the Visigoth King Alaric capturing Rome in 410 through introducing into the homes of Roman patricians outwardly compliant Visigothic pubescent boys who then opened the gates to their beseiging compatriots postdates what is treated as antiquity here: it is about one Christian people attacking another, and tells us nothing about the Visigoths’ own practices as opposed to their knowledge of Roman proclivities.
It is sometimes pointed out that the earliest surviving Germanic legal codes, those of the 7th to 8th centuries, did not prohibit any male homosexual acts with the exception of the Visigothic codes (of which the first was promulgated in 654, shows strong Christian influence and prohibited all male homosexual acts in the same manner as the Roman Empire’s Code of Justinian of the preceding century). The other codes “derived from pre-Christian summary law,” it is pointed out. Perhaps (though where is the proof?), but quite apart from being inadequate evidence for the state of affairs three or more centuries earlier, these codes are almost entirely concerned with how to redress injuries or violation of others’ rights rather than with “moral” or victimless crime.
Finally and so anachronistic that it is only briefly mentioned here because some good historians have mentioned it as supposedly relevant, there is Old Norse literature shedding light on Iceland in particular before its conversion to Christianity in AD 1000, showing that the accusation there of ragr, implying acceptance by a man of the passive role in pedication, was considered so offensive that the accused could kill his slanderer with legal impunity. Various Icelandic sagas illustrate the same stigma attached to men accepting the passive role. This literature is six centuries too late and anyway representative of only the northern extremity of the Germanic world. What excuse is there for assuming no changes had taken place just because these changes would have preceded recorded history? By analogy, one might point out that the evidence for the Celts of pre-Roman Gaul having been enthusiasts of Greek love is very strong, whereas there is not a single allusion to Greek love in the very rich literature of the Celts of Ireland, reflecting society there in the centuries before their fifth century conversion to Christianity. In any case, Old Norse literature adds nothing on this subject to Tacitus, whose information it partly confirms, and does not answer the question of whether the stigma of ragr attached itself to boys as well as men, or whether their androgynous and pre-adult status exempted them from it, as in so many pre-modern societies. This is simply unknown.
Of the two passages in Tacitus, easily the most important source of our information, the first is probably (but not certainly because of difficulties of interpretation) suggestive of Greek love having been to some extent institutionalised amongst the ancient Germans, whilst the second makes it clear that male passives were abominated. These are not necessarily at all contradictory, as it was common amongst ancient (and later) peoples to despise or condemn adult males who took the passive sexual role, whilst appreciating sex with boys and accepting their passive role in pedication on certain varying conditions (amongst the Greeks, for example, that the boy was doing it for his own betterment rather than for money or for the sake of the sex; amongst the Romans that the boy was not a free-born Roman citizen).
The statements of Claudius Ptolemy, Bardaisan (who, as already explained, cannot be taken very seriously on this point) and Sextus Empiricus are all much too vague and sweeping to be considered contradictory to Tacitus.
Ammianus Marcellinus is our only authoritative or clear source besides Tacitus. His description of Greek love amongst the Taifali very much fits in with what is known of its usual practice amongst ancient warrior societies, Crete and Sparta for examples, and again, does not contradict Tacitus. The killing of a wild boar or huge bear is a typical ancient rite of passage from boyhood to manhood (classical Macedon was another example). He would be “purified thereby” from what Ammianus saw as “the shame of unchastity” because, as an acknowledged man, he would suddenly no longer be a loved-boy. However, one should be very hesitant to extrapolate much about ancient Germans in general from the Taifali. Not only is it uncertain that they were German at all, but the fact that Ammianus singles them out for this description of institutionalised pederasty suggests that other German tribes, such as their Gothic allies, did not share this custom, or at least to nearly the same degree.
The weight of the evidence is that the ancient Germans, like all known European peoples before the 20th century, abominated men who took the passive homosexual role, but that at least some Germanic tribes probably institutionalised Greek love. The ancient Germans neither prove nor disprove the contention of some writers that pederasty was an initiation rite common to all ancient Indo-Europeans pre-dating its first recorded appearance amongst the Greeks.
 “The Latin phrase corpore infamis means literally ‘with a bad reputation because of (or with respect to) one’s body’; Tacitus later uses it of an actor . . . and a variation, mollitia corporis infamis, ‘with a bad reputation because of the effeminacy of his body’, of a senator . . . There is little question that the phrase served as a euphemism for the pathicus or cinaedus, an effeminate man who enjoyed taking the passive sexual role with other men. Since such men were assumed to be inherently cowardly, it is likely enough that all three of the terms Tacitus uses here denotes one class of person, rather than two separate classes of cowards and passive homosexuals” (J. B. Rives, Tacitus. Germania. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. p. 174).
 This could be done only in low land. Archaeological discoveries support Tacitus. [Translator’s footnote]
 “Adulescentulis” is the diminutive form of the word for adolescents, ie. little or particularly young adolescents, so Loeb’s mistranslation of it as “very young men” has been amended. [Website footnote]
 The reading and meaning here are not certain [Translator’s note]. Most translations are similar. However, one writer translated it against the mainstream so as to remove any suggestion of pederasty: https://www.proquest.com/openview/dfd75491120f4510dcefa65b3a0dbca8/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=1820382. It is hard though to accord respect to a translator who would "adulescentulis" as "young men", and his views seem to have been ignored in later authoritative translations such as the one followed here. [Website footnote].
 “With men” has been replaced by “masculine” as a much more accurate translation of ἀρρένων.
 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 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) having sex together. This has been omitted here as neither apparently German or pederastic, but it corresponds to VI 46 in Eusebios’s Greek version. [Website footnote]
 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. [Website footnote]
 Presumably this refers to the illegality of pedicating free-born Roman males, which around this time came to mean any free-born male in the Roman Empire. [Website footnote]
 “Sodomy” may be considered an ambiguous translation for ἀρρενομιξίας, which literally means “sex with males”. [Website footnote]
 ‘Prob. not “Germans,” but a Persian tribe, cf. i. 152’, according to the translator’s footnote, but the only feeble basis for this assertion is that Empiricus i.152 said the Persians also practised sex between males. Γερμανοῖς certainly means Germans, and no Persian tribe of this name is recorded. [Website footnote].
 Louis Crompton, Homosexuality and Civilization, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003, p. 152.
 The editor has not checked every one of these codes. Perhaps a reader can shed light on whether they, for example, mention incest as a crime, and, if not, are we to infer that first-degree incest was acceptable to the ancient Germans despite no classical writer thinking this worthy of mention?
 See the adducement of such sources as possible evidence for ancient German attitudes towards homosexuality by, for example, Louis Crompton, Homosexuality and Civilization (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003) p. 152, and David Clark, Between Medieval Men: Male Friendship and Desire in Early Medieval English Literature by David Clark (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 51-53. Unfortunately, the problem of historians making assumptions that any society’s customs and values must have been similar to the earliest record of them hundreds or even thousands of years later is very widespread.
 Athenaios, The Learned Banqueters I 18a: “And Hegesandros says that it was not the custom in Macedon for anyone to recline at dinner unless he had speared a wild boar without using hunting-nets; until they did that, they ate sitting up. Therefore Kassandros, although he was 35 years old, used to sit next to his father at dinner, since he was unable to accomplish this feat, despite being brave and a good hunter.”
 See, for example, Jan Bremmer, "An Enigmatic Indo-European Rite: Paederasty" in Arethusa, Vol. 13, No. 2, Indo-European Roots of Classical Culture, Fall 1980, pp. 279-298.
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