We might think of this person when we follow the course of Capella as it rounds the northern sky. It marks a great charioteer led not by horses but by 3 kids: goats of the immature religio-political sort. We don’t know the charioteer’s name. It could have been Auriga like that of the constellation. It could be another. But this 4th century charioteer of Thessalonica was known to be effeminate, every bit like transwomen might be described, especially in early transition. Such a person changed the disposition of Europe for centuries through an act of passion.
Of course, in those days no words described the many variations of phenomena represented in the transgender peoples. Some had been called “eunuchs” and nobody differentiated whether they might be transgender or cis-gender. But transgender eunuchs had embodied many priesthoods of the eastern Mediterranean up to the time of Constantine when he pretentiously embraced the eastern cult of Christianity. His conversion meant those priesthoods would be in decline for 3 generations prior to the incident of the charioteer. The ministrations of eunuchs would be replaced with monastic priesthoods loyal to the Orthodox Church till so that the former orders had largely been forgotten.
Rome already had been a divided empire, cut between the East ruled from the City of Constantine (Konstantinopolis, Constininople, or Byzantium) and the Augustus of Rome ruled the West. The eastern and western emperors who bore “Augustus” as a title often ruled side by side as brothers for they had descended from the same (mostly Christian) families.
It didn’t mean that no commerce or travel existed between East and West. Much of this continued as before the division of the Roman Empire. In fact both Eastern and Western rulers had a stake in the development and maintenance of each other’s armies because the condition of those armies effectively determined the rule of East and West. The military made Roman law “legal”.
The year 378 CE became a decisive one, leading to a temporary and inauspicious restoration of the full Roman Empire and would lead to another crisis 12 years later.
The Western Augustus, Valens, was an Arian. Arians held a doctrine shared by today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses that Jesus was not divine, that He was “one in agreement” with the Father, instead of the Trinitarian view that Jesus and the Father are “one in essence.” The same Valens persecuted Orthodox Christians. But he fought the Goths at the Battle of Adrianople and died without a successor.1 The Eastern forces led by Gratian decisively defeated Italian-Gothic forces called the Alemanni in the same year at the Battle of Argenotvaria.2 The death of Valens and the victory of Gratian put the latter in the position to rule both East and West.
Gratian’s religion followed that of Nicea on Asia Minor’s Black Sea coast. Nicea’s council in 325 CE, popularly called the “Nicene Council,” had established much of the orthodoxy that persists in today’s Christianity including the canon of the Bible. Gratian, upon learning of the death of Valens, invited Theodosius to take command of the Balkan Army, making Theodosius a de-facto co-Augustus at Constantinople.3
Theodosius was baptized in Thessalonica by the Nicean bishop Acholius during an illness and later expelled Arian officials. Then in 383 Gratian met his own death while putting down a rebellion. Theodosius appointed his son Arcadius as co-Augustus for the East.4
The empire had always thrived because of military excellence. Romans needed their armies whether they be eastern Byzantines or western recruits. In those days, the empire had suffered a large influx of Goths. Goths had held periodic lotteries when their local Scandinavian populations grew too large for local resources to sustain them. Losers moved southward, forcing a major burden upon the empire, a situation not very different from the mass migrations to the United States from Mexico in recent decades.
While the armies of the empire constantly needed new recruits to enforce submission, the new Gothic peoples often were reluctant to fight other Goths and so Gothic recruits accepted military service very slowly. But one Goth who joined the Balkan Army was Butheric. He advanced sufficiently in rank to govern Thessalonica.5
Thessalonica had been a large, diverse, and prosperous city centuries before Butheric and still thrives as a Greek city today. Thessalonica shared a trait with other large cities. They hosted grand sporting events that commanded the adoration of fans. The Thessalonians adored this one particular effeminate charioteer. Such characteristics may be preferable for a charioteer if such had a light but strong stature such as what one might encounter in many of today’s transpeople. This charioteer desired a cupbearer in that city as a lover. Butheric learned of this affair and imprisoned the charioteer for homosexual rape.6
Greeks had accepted homosexuality since at least the time of the pre-Socratic philosophers. This had especially been accepted by Pagans. Besides, Roman sexual mores had winked at homosexual relationships between master and slave and brothels had their share of male prostitutes. But the new rising sexual mores of Orthodox Christianity had been adopted by many in the Army after Constantine.
The imprisonment of the beloved effeminate charioteer filled many Thessalonians with indignation, leading to insurrection. They demanded the release of the charioteer. Butheric refused. Thessalonians rose up and slew him and stoned other magistrates of the city. This occurred in April, 390 CE.7
When news of the insurrection reached Theodosius he seethed in anger and hurriedlydispatched forces to destroy the insurrection by slaughter of the Thessalonians. But then Theodosius recovered from his fit of wrath and realizing the ramifications of his rashness sent messengers to rescind the order. However the order reached his officers too late. The church historian, Theodoretus, estimated 7000 perished in the Massacre of Thessalonica at the hands of forces loyal to Theodosius.8
News of the massacre spread rapidly and Ambrose, Bishop of Milan heard it. Ambrose, a pious teacher and friend of Theodosius was appalled at the injustice and tragedy of the massacre. Theodoretus said that when Theodosius tried to enter a Milanese assembly in which Ambrose was about to celebrate mass, the latter stopped and rebuked the former, saying:
“You seem, sir, not to know the magnitude of the bloody deed that has been done. Your rage has subsided, but your reason has not yet recognized the character of the deed. Peradventure your Imperial power prevents your recognizing the sin, and power stands in the light of reason. We must however know how our nature passes away and is subject to death; we must know the ancestral dust from which we sprang, and to which we are swiftly returning. We must not because we are dazzled by the sheen of the purple fail to see the weakness of the body that it robes. You are a sovereign, Sir, of men of like nature with your own, and who are in truth your fellow slaves; for there is one Lord and Sovereign of mankind, Creator of the Universe. With what eyes then will you look on the temple of our common Lord — with what feet will you tread that holy threshold, how will you stretch forth your hands still dripping with the blood of unjust slaughter? How in such hands will you receive the all holy Body of the Lord? How will you who in your rage unrighteously poured forth so much blood lift to your lips the precious Blood? Begone. Attempt not to add another crime to that which you have committed. Submit to the restriction to which the God the Lord of all agrees that you be sentenced. He will be your physician, He will give you health.”9
Theodosius, knowing that priests handled some affairs and emperors others, returned “weeping and sighing” to Constantinople.10
Ambrose further wrote to the emperor:
“There was that done in the city of the Thessalonians of which no similar record exists, which I was not able to prevent happening; which, indeed, I had before said would be most atrocious when I so often petitioned against it, and that which you yourself show by revoking it too late you consider to be grave, this I could not extenuate when done. When it was first heard of, a synod had met because of the arrival of the Gallican Bishops. There was not one who did not lament it, not one who thought lightly of it; your being in fellowship with Ambrose was no excuse for your deed. Blame for what had been done would have been heaped more and more on me, had no one said that your reconciliation to our God was necessary.”11
But the repentance of Theodosius had nothing to do with the charioteer. It had everything to do with the massacre. On August 6, 390 CE Theodosius together with his son and co-Augustus Arcadius and Valentinian II who had risen to the Augustus of the West issued an Edict to the Vicar or Rome to condemn transwomen in Rome in the most vicious manner:
“We cannot tolerate the City of Rome, mother of all virtues, being stained any longer by the contamination of male effeminacy… Your laudable experience will therefore punish among revenging flames, in the presence of the people, as required by the grossness of the crime, all those who have given themselves up to the infamy of condemning the manly body, transformed into a feminine one, to bear practices reserved for the other sex, which have nothing different from women, carried forth- we are ashamed to say- from male brothels, so that all may know that the house of the manly soul must be sacrosanct to all, and that he who basely abandons his own sex cannot aspire to that of another without undergoing the supreme punishment (death by fire).”12
Months passed from Ambrose’s initial excommunication of Theodosius till the time of Christmas. Rufinus, the controller of the affairs of the imperial household offered to entreat for Theodosius. The emperor followed is controller again to Milan. But Ambrose answered:
“Rufinus, your impudence matches a dog’s, for you were the adviser of this terrible slaughter; you have wiped shame from your brow, and guilty as you are of this mad outrage on the image of God you stand here fearless, without a blush… Rufinus, I tell you beforehand; I shall prevent him from crossing the sacred threshold. If he is for changing his sovereign power into that of a tyrant I too will gladly submit to a violent death.“12
Rufinus sent a message to Theodosius who replied, “I will go and accept the disgrace I deserve.” He continued to the sacred precinct where he and Ambrose held this conversation as related by Theodoretus:
Ambrose: “Your coming is the coming of a tyrant. You are raging against God; you are trampling on his laws.”
Theodosius: “No. I do not attack laws laid down, I do not seek wrongfully to cross the sacred threshold; but I ask you to loose my bond, to take into account the mercy of our common Lord, and not to shut against me a door which our master has opened for all them that repent.”
Ambrose: “What repentance have you shown since your tremendous crime? You have inflicted wounds right hard to heal; what salve have you applied?”
Theodosius: “Yours is the duty alike of pointing out and of mixing the salve. It is for me to receive what is given me.”
Ambrose: “You let your passion minister justice, your passion not your reason gives judgment. Put forth therefore an edict which shall make the sentence of your passion null and void; let the sentences which have been published inflicting death or confiscation be suspended for thirty days awaiting the judgment of reason. When the days shall have elapsed let them that wrote the sentences exhibit their orders, and then, and not till then, when passion has calmed down, reason acting as sole judge shall examine the sentences and will see whether they be right or wrong. If it find them wrong it will cancel the deeds; if they be righteous it will confirm them, and the interval of time will inflict no wrong on them that have been rightly condemned.”13
Theodoretus tells how Theodosius set forth the edict and spent time praying, weeping, and plucking out his hair. When the time had come Theodosius approached the inner precinct and asked for “participation in the divine mysteries.” Ambrose sent word through a deacon, “The inner place, sir, is open only to priests; to all the rest it is inaccessible; go out and stand where others stand; purple can make emperors, but not priests.” Theodosius accepted this.14
While Theodoretus commended both Ambrose and Theodosius for this outcome, this would prove to be neither ultimately happy for transpeople nor commendable in terms of social justice because the state set a precedent to enforce a religious decree. The Emperor submitted to the Church in such a manner as to secure for the Church a position of authority in which Church and State were united. This fusion would be represented in the symbol of the double-headed eagle, a symbol that would represent the Byzantines and their successors, even finding adaptation in Russia. For ever since the fall of Constantinople to the Turk on May 29, 1453, the Russians believed Moscow to lead the “remnant” as the “Third Rome” and have ever since coveted Constantinople for themselves, especially those who hungered for a return to “Holy Russia” throughout the Atheistic Soviet era.15 The issue of the separation of church and state persists as a theme in the history of the United States and has been an issue virtually from the framing of the Constitution.
The 30-day suspension secured by Ambrose did not negate the Edict to the Vicar of Rome on August 6, 390. The edict against transwomen continued in Roman law as part of the Corpus Juris Civilis. This would prove to be too useful to the Church in their oppression of transpeople. The Corpus Juris Civilis in turn would set a precedent for centuries, not only in Europe, but also the Americas and all European colonies throughout the world.16
What began as a flashpoint with a hapless effeminate charioteer continued to codify European discrimination against transpeople for centuries thereafter. It might have happened anyway. But history shows this that legally established a culture of hate and violence against those who didn’t fit the gender dichotomy. Transwomen in the northern countries most particularly could remember it in the start in a nearly circumpolar constellation in which Capella, one of the brightest stars of the sky is led in long circle by 3 small Augustī and scarcely finds rest on the cold northern horizon.
- Potter, David. Prophets and Emperors: Human and Divine Authority from Augustus to Theodosius (1994) Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Print quoted by Joosten, Jaimie. Theodosius and the Relationship Between Church and State (n.d.) Web: Ambrose University: https://www.sau.edu/The_Academy_for_the_Study_of_St_Ambrose_of_Milan/Students_and_Scholars/Joosten.html. Retrieved November 19, 2016.
- Williams, Stephen, and Gerard Friell. Theodosius: The Empire At Bay. (1995) Yale University Press. Print, Ibid.
- Op cit.
- Op cit.
- Digeser, Elizabeth DePalma; Stephens, Justin; and Frakes, Robert M. The Rhetoric of Power in Late Antiquity: Religion and Politics in Byzantium, Europe and the Early Islamic World (2010) Library of Classical Studies, Vol 2, I.B. Taruis, Publisher. ISBN: 9780857719195, p. 47f.
- O’Culleanain, Cormac. Bisexuality in the Ancient World (1992). Yale University Press, New Haven p. 180.
- Theodoretus, Historia Ecclesiastica
- Letter 51 (390 CE) Web: Early Church Texts: http://www.earlychurchtexts.com/public/ambrose_and_thessalonica_massacre.htm. Retrieved November 19, 2016.
- Rominarum et Mosaicarum Legum Collatio, Vol. III, translated and quoted by Eva Cantanellla in Bisexuality in the Ancient World, by Cormac O’ Culleanain. Yale University Press, New Haven (1992) p. 177.
- Theodoretus, 877.
- Ibid, 878.
- The writer relies upon her own interactions with Russians both in the United States and the former Soviet Union in which she had served as a missionary.
- O’Culleanain, p. 177