Richard Nixon, the 37th president of the United States (1969 – 74), is primarily remembered for the Watergate scandal. During the congressional investigation that led to Nixon’s resignation, more than 3,000 hours of recorded conversations between Nixon and his advisors came to light. Within the small percentage of these recordings that have been studied, the President invokes Greco-Roman antiquity twice in support of the homophobic claim that “homosexuality destroyed” both Greece and Rome. What may seem at first a laughably ignorant view of ancient history looks different when one realizes that these tapes show one of the most powerful men of his time echoing the views of white supremacists.
A conversation recorded on April 28, 1971 between Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who was then Nixon’s National Security Advisor, received attention because in it the President said that gay people are “born that way,” an apparently progressive thing to say at a time when homosexuality was still widely considered a mental disorder. Nixon quickly clarifies that he means only that “the tendency is there.” He then observes that “if you look over the history of societies, you will find, of course, that some of the highly intelligent people, Oscar Wilde, Aristotle, etc. etc. etc. were all homosexuals” before adding that “Nero, of course, was, in a public way, in with a boy in Rome,” referring apparently to Nero’s relationship with the boy Sporus. As Nixon’s chief of staff Haldeman chimes in “there’s a whole bunch of Roman emperors,” Nixon makes clear that he has brought up this history in order to make a homophobic claim that gay rights damage the state: “Once a society moves in that direction, the vitality goes out of that society.” He then engages Kissinger on the topic, asking “now, isn’t that right, Henry?” Kissinger replies “that’s certainly been the case in antiquity. The Romans were notorious homosexuals.” Haldeman jumps in again, saying “the Greeks.” Nixon agrees: “They had plenty of it.”
Nixon's grasp of history is as shaky as it is corrupted by prejudice
Nixon returns to ancient sexuality in a May 13, 1971 conversation with Haldeman and domestic policy advisor John Erlichman in which the President complains that an episode of the sitcom All in the Family that he had just watched “glorif[ied] homosexuality.” That episode, in which the show’s main character Archie Bunker discovers one of his best friends is gay, was in fact a milestone in American television. But Nixon was having none of it: “Most people are outraged [by television ‘glorifying homosexuality’] for moral reasons,” he says, but it “outrages” him “because I do not want to see this country go this way.” He then turns to Greco-Roman antiquity to support the homophobic claim that gay rights are detrimental to a society. “You know what happened to the Greeks. Homosexuality destroyed them. Sure, Aristotle was a homo, we all know that, so was Socrates…Do you know what happened to the Romans? The last six Roman emperors were fags. Nero had a public wedding to a boy.”
What Nixon says next makes clear why we must resist versions of history that legitimize identity-based discrimination. He goes on to endorse political systems that persecute gay people, which he calls “strong societies.” He praises “the Russians” because “they root [gays] out, they don’t let them around.” Stalin had criminalized homosexuality in 1933/34. Nixon’s final remark on the subject, “I don’t know what they do with them,” strikes a particularly dark note given that as recently as 1989 thirty percent of Russians “felt that homosexuals should be liquidated.” Nixon concludes with a paranoid theory that his political opponents are actively seeking the destruction of the United States that is clearly a fore-runner to later claims by homophobic activists about the “Homosexual Agenda” or “Homosexual Recruitment”: “You see, homosexuality, dope, immorality in general: these are the enemies of strong societies. That’s why the Communists and the left-wingers are pushing the stuff: they’re trying to destroy us.”
It is only through a deeply homophobic lens that a comparison between Nero and Archie Bunker's friend can be made meaningful
Nixon’s grasp of history is as shaky as it is corrupted by prejudice. He is correct that Plato represents Socrates as both the seducer and love-object in homoerotic relationships, but it is less clear why he mentions Aristotle twice in this connection. A 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia says that Aristotle had a same-sex relationship with the younger (and otherwise unknown) philosopher Palaephatus of Abydos, but it is hard to see how Nixon or any of his teachers would have known about this obscure reference. Nixon may just be assuming that because same-sex eroticism was so prevalent in ancient Greece, Aristotle would have engaged in same-sex relationships. Certainly he is correct the sexual acts between men, as long as they conformed to certain social codes governing age and status, were more accepted in ancient Greece and Rome than in 20th century America. His use of the term “homosexual,” however, reveals his prejudice, and not just because the term itself should be regarded as offensive.
Most historians now agree that the differences in how these ancient cultures conceived of sex between men should prevent us from applying our term “homosexual” to those cultures. Being “homosexual,” in the sense of having a sexual preference for someone of your same gender, was not an identity members of those cultures recognized. Nixon’s recurring reference to the relationship of Nero to Sporus is an extreme demonstration of how poor a fit the label “homosexual” as we use it is for antiquity. Whatever relationship Nero and Sporus had (assuming it is even historical and not just a product of a hostile biographical tradition) it bears no resemblance to any homosexual relationship in our world, particularly for its imbalance of power: Nero was the most powerful man in the Roman world, Sporus was probably one of his slaves, and according to the biographer Suetonius and the historian Cassius Dio Nero did not just “marry” Sporus but, as he was allowed to do to his slave, “castrated the boy and actually tried to make a woman out of him.” It is only through a deeply homophobic lens, one that regards gay people as perverts, that a comparison between Nero and Archie Bunker’s friend can be made meaningful.
Whether Nixon learned his history from the dominant culture or from white supremacist propaganda, that vision of antiquity can have real-world consequences
As for Nixon’s claim that “homosexuality destroyed” the ancient Greeks and Romans, it is patently prejudice. The Athens of Socrates and Aristotle could be said to have ended with its conquest by Phillip of Macedon, but this can hardly be ascribed to “homosexuality” as Phillip himself is said to have had male lovers and to have praised the “Sacred Band of Thebes” which, according to Plutarch, consisted of male couples. That homosexuality “destroyed” Rome is obviously an attempt to blame an extremely complex political transformation on a group that the speaker wishes to denigrate, just as when misogynist websites blame that same “decline” on feminism. And when Nixon says that “the last six Roman emperors were fags,” whom is he referring to? After bringing up Nero is he jumping ahead in time four centuries to the obscure figures between Libius Severus and Romulus Augustulus who ruled at the end of the Western Empire? Does the president think he knows the sexuality of Olybrius?
Few have been surprised by the homophobic views that Nixon articulates in these and other tapes, which also show racism and anti-Semitism. It is striking, however, that it is to Greco-Roman antiquity that he turns to support his homophobia. It is unclear where he learned this narrative of decline due to homosexuality but what can be said is that his view of Greek history, in particular, corresponds with that of white supremacist groups, who claim that homosexuality led to the decline of Classical Sparta. Richard Nixon is not known for his links to organized white supremacy but his electoral success depended on stoking racism in southern U.S. states.
Nixon’s invocation of antiquity in support of homophobia is exactly in line with how the hate groups Pharos documents use the prestige of the Greco-Roman past to legitimize their politics. But Nixon is not like a hate group operating at the fringe of American values. He was the President of the United States and had the power to impose these hateful politics on the nation. Whether Nixon learned his history from the dominant culture or from the likes of William L. Pierce, that vision of antiquity can have real-world consequences. It is incumbent on all of us to replace it with a better one.