History Boys
3 min

Five historical homosexual rulers

The power of gay love in high places dates as far back as ancient Greece

I was surprised that we were kings. When I was in my teens and first learning about gay history, it made sense to me that we were authors, actors and musicians. But I for some reason didn’t expect to hear that we’d also on occasion been dukes, sultans, princes — rulers of the world. Maybe it was some sort of internalized homophobia that made me think that while sick creatures like me might have been famous, we’d never really led people or made major, civilization-swaying decisions. But we did, and I came to relish these figures’ inspiring and often silly or sexy lives. Here’s my take on five homosexual rulers for anyone else who has trouble believing we could be great.

Alexander the Great

This is that elusive relationship between ancient Greek males of similar age and (nearly) similar social status. Alexander the Great became king of Macedon, a northern state in ancient Greece, in 336 BCE. Before setting out to build an empire, the ambitious twenty-something and his lover, Hephaestion, ran a nude race in honour of the famous lover-heroes Achilles and Patroclus. Hephaestion became invaluable to Alexander in his conquest of the Persian Empire, earning the rank of second-in-command. When Hephaestion died, Alexander was inconsolable. He banned music, slaughtered some people and spent a fortune on a funeral pyre. He too died only a year later.

Emperor Hadrian

This man could grieve with the best of them. Hadrian was emperor of Rome from 117 to 138. Later known as one of the Five Good Emperors, he seemed to prefer building things to waging war. He’s responsible for such marvels as Hadrian’s Wall and the Pantheon. While traveling his empire he met and fell in love with a Greek boy name Antinous. It seemed to him that he owed the peace and prosperity of his rule to his love for the boy. When Antinous drowned, Hadrian was devastated. He minted coins bearing the boy’s image, built a city called Antinopolis near where the boy died in Egypt, and even had his lost beloved deified.  

King Edward II

You really can’t beat this guy when it comes to making bad decisions. King Edward II ruled England poorly from 1307 to 1327. He was particularly notorious for giving inappropriate gifts to one of his lovers, Piers Gaveston, the lowly son of a knight. He enraged his father, and later (when he became king) his nobles by heaping titles on Gaveston that were reserved for royalty. He offended his wife, the daughter of the king of France, by fawning over Gaveston during her coronation. This, along with his habit of picking cruel advisors and reputation for losing battles eventually resulted in his symbolic hot-poker-up-the-butt murder.

Grand Duke Gian Gastone de’ Medici

A homosexual is responsible for the end of the Medici family’s rule in Florence. It was plain to see that Gian Gastone de’ Medici preferred men, but his family needed heirs. Marrying him off to a very ugly German woman in 1697 didn’t do the trick — they hated each other, and he escaped her castle in Bohemia whenever he could to chase boys in Prague. When an heir seemed impossible — she described him as “absolutely impotent” — his father recalled him to Italy. Gian became Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1723, but after a brief productive period spent his time boozing, brooding and boy-chasing. When he died heirless his family’s 300-year rule died with him.

Pope Julius III

And the award for hilarious historical meet cute goes to a 16th century homosexual pope. When Pope Julius II was still only Giovanni Maria Ciocchi del Monte, he came across a beggar boy fighting an ape on the streets of Parma. It was love at first sight. When he became pope in 1550, he took the ill-mannered Innocenzo with him, having his brother adopt him and making the boy a cardinal. A pleasure-loving pope like the Renaissance popes before him, Julius III was said to have bragged about Innocenzo’s sexual prowess. After the pope’s death, the meet cute story spawned Innocenzo’s insulting nickname of Cardinal Monkey. He is buried near his lover-uncle in Rome.

(A previous verion of this column stated Hadrian ruled from 177 to 138. He ruled from 117 to 138. It has been fixed.)

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(Original illustration by Stephen McDermott)