Axel and Eigil Axgil are commonly considered the first couple who legally entered a same-sex partnership, in Denmark in 1989. The history of legal same-sex unions, however, dates back far beyond the modern era of civil partnerships and gay marriage.
One of Roman emperor Elagabalous’s least eccentric traits was styling himself the wife of one of his slaves and requiring his senators to refer to to said slave as the true emperor. (He once invited a number of distinguised guests to dinner and killed them by dropping enough rose petals on their heads to smother them where they sat.) When he was bored of his first “husband,” Elagabalous married an athlete named Zoticus in an extravagant public ceremony.
Elagabalous wasn’t, however, the first Roman emperor to marry another man. Two centuries earlier, Nero (he who fiddled while Rome burnt) first married a freed slave, Pythagoras (not the mathematician), in a public ceremony in which Nero took the part of bride:
…he stooped to marry himself to one of that filthy herd, by name Pythagoras, with all the forms of regular wedlock. The bridal veil was put over the emperor; people saw the witnesses of the ceremony, the wedding dower, the couch and the nuptial torches; everything in a word was plainly visible, which, even when a woman weds darkness hides.
Later Nero also wed (as husband) a boy whom he took to replace a female concubine he had killed. Again, the marriage was a public ceremony and thereafter the boy adopted the role of the dead girl and acted as Nero’s wife on public occasions.
The right to marriage in Roman law, “conubium,” existed only between a Roman man and Roman woman (a “civis Romanus” and a “civis Romana”), and didn’t extend towards slaves or same-sex unions, thus rendering the ceremonies of Nero and Elagabalous, however extravagant and public, meaningless in law (although the will of the emperor in those instances no doubt gave them an exception of legal standing). Moreover the state of matrimony (“matrimonium“) required a female in its very etymology — “mater” meaning “mother,” referenced the fact that a man took a wife in order for her to bear his children.
Nonetheless, historians are in agreement that same-sex unions were a part of the legal and social make-up of the Roman empire from its earliest days. However, with the advent of Christianity, Rome’s liberal attitude changed, and the Christian emperors who ruled a hundred years after Elagabalous specifically prohibited same-sex unions in Rome, under penalty of death (the Theodosian Code).
If the evidence of same-sex unions from Rome is sketchy, it becomes almost impossible to follow through the medieval period, for which less documentation exists. A marriage between two men was conducted at a small chapel in Spain on 16th April 1061, which we know because the documents pertaining to the wedding were discovered at the Monastery of San Salvador de Celanova, but that was a rare find indeed. We have no way of knowing the circumstances surrounding the marriage, or how common such events were during that period.
John Boswell, a historian who specialised in pre-modern same-sex unions, pointed out that “marriage” has many modern connotations of love and fidelity, etc., which would have been alien in earlier societies. A marriage was a social contract between two people, usually non-exclusive (polygamy was common), and posited that same-sex contracts existed as counterparts to the myriad opposite-sex contracts used to bind people for status, wealth, or sexual gratification and reproduction.
Early Christian mythology tells of a number of same-sex paired saints –Nearchos and Polyeuct, Ruth and Naomi, Serge and Bacchus — whose ties may or may not have been romantic. Early Christianity privileged celibacy over progeny and marriage in those societies was largely devalued and asexual marriages were common, and even encouraged. Marriage was only declared a sacrament and regulated by canonical law after 1215. Prior to that point, it was just one of many forms of social contract undertaken for myriad reasons. A surviving eighth(?) century liturgical manuscript contained four separate ceremonies for sacramental union, one of which was to be performed between two men, providing tantalising evidence that the early Christian church endorsed same-sex marital unions.
Today, much is lost to time and translation, so we will probably never be sure if these early ceremonies were indeed “marriages” with the sexual connotation we understand now, or if they were more akin to fraternal bonding ceremonies. In much the same way, we will never be entirely sure if “brother” was always platonic in Ancient Greek and Latin, or if — as it certainly seems — it was also a euphemism for “lover.” What we do know is that the earliest and greatest secular and religious societies saw a need to unite same-sex pairs with the same social and legal status as subsequent civilisations afforded opposite-sex married couples.