The Roman soldiers, lovers and martyrs Sergius and Bacchus are well known examples of early queer saints. Polyeuct and Nearchos are not as familiar – but should be. John Boswell (“Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe“) names the two as one of the three primary pairs of same-sex lovers in the early church, their martyrdom coming about half a century after Felicity and Perpetua, and about another half century before Sergius & Bacchus .
Like the later pair, Polyeuct and Nearchos were friends in the Roman army in Armenia. Nearchos was a Christian, Polyeuct was not. Polyeuct was married, to a woman whose father was a Roman official. When the father-in-law undertook as part of his duties to enforce a general persecution of the local Christians, he realized that this would endanger Polyeuct, whose close friendship with Nearchos could tempt him to side with the Christians. The concern was fully justified: although Polyeuct was not himself a Christian, he refused to prove his loyalty to Rome by sacrificing to pagan gods. In terms of the regulations being enforced, this meant that he would sacrifice his chances of promotion, but (as a non-Christian) not his life. Christians who refused to sacrifice faced beheading. When Nearchos learned of this, he was distraught, not at the prospect of death in itself, but because in dying, he would enter Paradise without the company of his beloved Polyeuct. When Polyeuct learned the reasons for his friends anguish, he decided to become a Christian himself, so that he too could be killed, and enter eternity together with Nearchos.
Up to this point, I have been careful to refer to the two men as “friends”, not as “lovers” – but this is an entry for queer saints and martyrs. What was the truth of the relationship? As with any couple so remote from the present, precise sexual details are unknown. However, there are clues. Boswell notes that in the early biographies, the Greek words used to describe their friendship are the ones commonly used in marriage ceremonies; these biographies describe several instances of close bodily contact (“Polyeuct leapt up and wrapped himself around Nearchos”); both were soldiers, with strong associations in the Hellenistic world between the military and homoerotic affections.
The most compelling evidence though is in the story itself. Polyeuct embraced Christianity to enter eternity with Nearchos – thereby choosing separation from his wife on earth. Even if we disregard the other evidence, any man who chooses to die in the company of a male friend rather than live with his wife cannot be seen as a conventional, red-blooded heterosexual. This alone is enough to mark the pair as queer.
There are two further telling pieces, which need to be assessed in the historical context. Before declaring his intention to follow Christ, Polyeuct announced that he had seen Him in a vision, using a word (translated as “youth”) which had strong erotic overtones.
Polyeuct’s vision of Christ as a “youth” – using a word common in other Greek sources for a young mn in his prime as a sexual object – might suggest , at least subliminally, a homoerotic ambience of the story.-Boswell, Same sex Unions
The near contemporaries of the two certainly saw something remarkable in their friendship. As the church formalise liturgies and rituals for blessing same-sex unions in church, their names were among many paired saints who were invoked in many of these liturgies. In this, they should be thought of today as possible patrons of gay marriage or civil unions in a modern counterpart to the early rite of adelphopoesis.
Other sources are less certain that they were lovers: the useful “God is Wonderful in His Saints” Orthodox Resources website describes them simply as “friends”. Before dismissing Boswell’s claim though, we should remember that “friends” has sometimes served as a euphemism for “lovers”, just as to “sleep with” someone in modern English usually means more than to share a snooze.
Note: Both the Calendar of LGBT Saints at the LGBT Catholic Handbook, and the Orthodox Resources website, list January 9th as the feast day of “Holy Martyr Polyeuctus” (Orthodox Resources), or SS. and Nearchus, martyrs (LGBT Catholic Handbook). Other sources give Feb 13th.
Boswell, John, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe
O’Neill, Dennis: Passionate Holiness
- Symeon of Emessa and John, Desert Hermits, Saints and Lovers (Queer Saints and Martyrs)
- Sergius & Bacchus, Roman Soldiers, Lovers and Martyrs (Queer Saints and Martyrs)
- Was Jesus gay? Mark, and the Naked Young Man (Queering the Church)
- Nov 1st: All (Gay) Saints(Queering the Church)
- The Story of the “Queer Saints and Martyrs”: Taking Shape(Queer Saints and Martyrs)
- Brothers by affection: Saints Polyeuct and Nearchus (Jesus in Love Blog)
- Boris and George, United in Love and Death) (Jesus in Love Blog)