Byzantium is the name given to both the state and the culture of the Eastern Roman Empire in the Middle Ages. Until the seventh century, it preserved the basic structures of Late Roman Mediterranean civic culture: a large multiethnic Christian state, based on a network of urban centers, and defended by a mobile specialized army. After the Arab/Muslim conquest of Egypt and Syria, the nature of the state andculture was transformed. Byzantium became much more a Greek state, most of the cities except Constantinople faded away to small, fortiﬁed centers, and the military organization of the empire came to be based on a series of local armies. Under the Macedonian dynasty (867–1056), Byzantium’s political power reached its apogee as former territories were incorporated in the empire, and an element of multi-ethnicity was restored. This period is also signiﬁcant as the time in which Byzantine culture was spread among the Slavs and other Balkan peoples. Following massive Turkish attacks in the late eleventh century, the empire was able to maintain a lesser but still signiﬁcant political and military power under the Comnenian dynasty: the cost was a social transformation which exalted a powerful military aristocracy, and gradually enserfed the previously free peasantry. In 1204, internal Byzantine politics and the resurgent West effectively ended the imperial pretensions of the Byzantine state. The Fourth Crusade (1204) succeeded in conquering Constantinople and making it a Latin principality for half a century. The Greek political leadership, under the Palaeologan dynasty, regained Constantinople in 1261, but the “empire” was just one state among many in the area for the ﬁnal 200 years of its existence. Byzantine studies, reﬂecting their classical heritage, are still much more dominated by philological and art-historical concerns than Western medieval history, and only very recently has the history of women or the study of concepts of masculinity come to the fore. As yet, analyses of gender have not transformed our understanding of Byzantine society in the way we have seen with earlier cultures.
In one crucial area of gender-related research, Byzantium has been the focus of recent scholarship that transforms our perception of both past and present – the existence and functioning of “ﬁctive kinship.” Modern Westerners tend to assume thathuman relationships fall into categories of “kin” (family) or “voluntary” (friendship).In 1994 the historian John Boswell ignited a ﬁrestorm by claiming the Byzantines had celebrated liturgical unions for members of the same sex. Boswell’s claims derivedfrom his rediscovery of a ceremony called adelphopoiia (literally “brother-making”) and his interpretation that this functioned as a kind of homosexual marriage. Critics were quick to point out that Roman law, with its clear deﬁnition of marriage (as a “union of male and female”), prevailed in Byzantium. Moreover, from the time of Justinian, perhaps earlier, sodomy was illegal in Roman, and hence Byzantine, law. There could not have been, they concluded, any such “same-sex union” in a Roman and Christian state. Normative legislation is not, however, a good guide to social reality, and Christian invective was usually directed at pederasty rather than the equal relationships suggested by the adelphopoiia liturgies. Boswell’s claims could not be sustained in full, but he had clearly brought to light something that did not ﬁt into modern social categories.
There was without a doubt a ceremony called adelphopoiia in Greek, which was also known to have parallels in Slavic countries, and among Greek-speaking Catholics in Italy, which celebrated the “uniting” of two men as brothers. This ceremony wasusually conducted in church as a blessing. Most surviving texts seem to envision itas taking place between two men, although there are indications that it could occa-sionally involve two women, or more than two people. In Slavic countries it mightalso have been used between men and women. Many commentators, even thosehostile to Boswell, acknowledge that the ceremony may have been used by homo-sexual couples but without any ofﬁcial Church sanction of sexual activity.
In a careful review of the subject, Claudia Rapp (1997) took a look at Boswell’s claims and investigated other sources he had not considered in order to attempt a “history of adelphopoiesis ” – an examination of how the ritual developed and changed over time. She was able to show that adelphopoiesis was ﬁrst evident in saints’ lives, was later used by the imperial family to create bonds with supporters, and eventually acquired a use in wider society where it was discussed as a rights-creating relationship by legal commentators. The rite created a lifelong bond, almost always between two people (usually two men), and the wider society considered this bond as a form of kinship. No evidence persists, however, that afﬁrms the ceremony conferred status on a sexual relationship. Rather than a form of marriage, Rapp notes that there were other Byzantine rituals and roles which created other forms of ﬁctive kinship, for instance the institution of co-godparenthood (synteknia). She thinks that adelphopoiesis functioned as a form of “ﬁctive kinship” and that in the range of ﬁctive kinships in Byzantium it functioned more like synteknia than marriage.
Rapp’s view of adelphpoiesis is that it was an essentially cold, contractual, unemotional form of social bonding of much less weight than marriage. The problem hereis that the number of liturgical manuscripts clearly suggests a much broader user of the ceremony, at least after the tenth century, than among the imperial and aristo-cratic elites she documents. If, for instance, we were to discuss marriage among these groups, we might come to the same conclusions. In a text overlooked by Boswelland Rapp, we do ﬁnd a much warmer evaluation of the ceremony. Writing in his Life of St. Cyril of Philea (twelfth century) Nicholas Kataskepenus presents adelphopoiesis as the height of human connection:
Cyril teaches: There are seven manners and seven kinds of prayers, as says the Abbot Anastasios. Three of them exist under the rule of fear and chastisement; the four othersare used by those who are assured of their salvation and have a share in the kingdom of God. When a man is plunged into voluptuousness he holds to a prayer as a man condemned and without conﬁdence, asa man touched by the pain of death; in the second manner, a man takes himself before God and speaks to him as a debtor; the third manner differs from the two preceding, for one presents oneself to the master as a slave, but a slave remains under the rule of fear and the fear of blows; in the fourth, the man carries himself in regard to God as a freed servant, freed from servitude and waiting to receive a recompense because of the mercy of God; in the ﬁfth manner, better than the ﬁrst four, one holds oneself before God and speaks to him as a friend; in the sixth manner,superior to that, the man speaks to God in all conﬁdence as a son “for I have said that you are of the gods, you are of the son of the Most High”, you all who want it; in the seventh manner, which marks a progress and which is the best of all, one prays among those who have undergone adelphopoiia with Christ.... [Nicholas Kataskepenos, La Vie de Saint Cyriulle le Philéote, moine byzantin ( + 1110) , ed. and trans. Etienne Sargologos, Brussells; Société des Bollandistes ,1964; this English version by Paul Halsall]The concept of “ﬁctive kinship” plays an important role in Rapp’s analysis. This is an essentially anthropological term, although useful. Because of her close attention to the texts, Rapp avoids almost entirely any discussion of adelphopoiesis in terms of sexuality, though she notes that adelphopoiesis was associated with a relationship of equality between the participants. Now there is little question that “equality” was not a deﬁning characteristic of the predominant classical discourse on same-sex sexual relationships. There the deﬁning language was that of pederasty, an age-differentiated relationship between a penetrator and a penetrated – sometimes valorized, atother times condemned. And it was within such an understanding that condemnations of homosexual sex took place – especially with the Greek Christian notice of the “abuse of boys.” But such a range of discourse clearly had no contact with whatlittle we can grasp of the realities of adelphopoiesis . There is little doubt, I think, that at some stages in its history adelphopoiesis was used by men who were sexually active with one another.
With its varieties of “ﬁctive kinship,” Byzantine society, so often overlooked in thehistory of Western civilization, affords us an opportunity to probe genderedrelationships distinct from marriage, sex, and genetics and yet also to gain insightinto those associations. Byzantium is an example of a society where affective bonds between members of the same sex, treated as unregulated friendship in many other cultures, were brought within the kinship system. While it is a commonplace of standard anthropology that kinship boundaries vary from culture to culture, some degree of blood connection is usually at issue. Byzantium shows that this need not be the case, and indeed since the uproar surrounding Boswell’s work, scholars such as Alan B ray (forthcoming) have begun to explore the ways other cultures incorporated same sex affectivity within socially-acknowledged kinship conventions. [Paul Halsall in A Companion to Gender History pp. 298 - 300]