ROME—In 2009, the straight world swooned when archaeologists discovered two ancient skeletons from between the fourth and sixth centuries A.D. holding hands in a grave in Modena, Italy. They were dubbed the “Lovers of Modena” and have become synonymous with heterosexual romance, their image now often used in Italy to symbolize undying love.
When they were discovered, archeologists said the bones were in such a state of decay that the usual genetic-based methods used in confirming the biological sex of ancient remains was of no use. Still, one of the figures was slightly smaller than the other, so it was assumed they were male and female. The individuals did not die in situ—their hands were placed holding each other's by whoever buried them, most likely to represent a relationship between the two people. Eleven people were buried in the cemetery where they were found, all initially thought to be soldiers and victims of an ancient war, based on wounds consistent with battles. The consensus among anthropologists was that the presumed female hand-holder was the lover of one of the warriors.
This week, scientists with the University of Bologna announced the “Lovers of Modena” were actually both biologically male, thanks to a revolutionary process they used to examine tooth enamel. A certain peptide that is present only in males was present in all 16 teeth extracted from both skeletons. The scientists also found that only one of the 11 individuals buried in the cemetery was female, and she wasn’t holding anyone’s hand.
Then, suddenly, the hand-holders weren’t lovers at all: Italian archaeologists insisted that surely they were brothers or cousins who died in battle.
Archaeologist Federico Lugli, who led the Bologna study, conceded that while it was impossible to know if the two men were lovers, he highly doubted it. “In late-ancient times it is unlikely that homosexual love could be recognized so clearly by the people who prepared the burial,” he told The Daily Beast by email. “Given that the two individuals have similar ages, they could be relatives, probably siblings or cousins.”
Homosexuality was well documented in Roman times. Emperor Nero married women to bear children, but he had sex with men for pleasure. He publicly married two men, Pythagoras and, years later, Sporo, who was castrated and made to wear a woman’s gown during the ceremony, according to historical accounts by Pliny the Elder, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio, whose writings account for much of what we know about ancient Rome.
The ancient Roman Empire legal tome Lex Scantinia sets out a series of regulations for men having sex with other men, including that freeborn Romans—that is to say those who were not slaves or war prisoners—could not take a passive role when having sex with a man. But by no means did it make same sex relationships illegal and it was quite common for noble Romans to have male lovers in addition to wives who fulfilled the traditional role of childbearing.
In the case of the skeletons of the Lovers of Modena, it seems historians are not willing to concede that two individuals who were once thought to be romantically linked when they were presumed to be male and female are likely not now that their biological sex is the same.
“The burial of two men hand in hand was certainly not a common practice in the late-ancient era,” Lugli says. “We believe that this choice symbolizes a particular relationship between the two individuals, but we do not know the nature of it.”
There are plenty of examples of ancient figures buried in all manner of embrace—most of which have been positively identified through genetic sampling as male and female, but not all. The embracing skeletons found in Petrykiv village in western Ukraine are thought to be from a woman who committed suicide to be buried with her man, but the analysis was made based on jewelry and size. In 2015, a couple of 6,000-year-old spooning skeletons were found in Greece, though no one has any idea yet why they were in such a position. Their bones were identified as biologically male and female. Usually, when couples are found buried together, the first question is why they died at the same time and if one was sacrificed to be buried with the other. Now, thanks to the new dental enamel science, archaeologists can go back to other ancient lovers to find out more about who they were.
“At present there are no other burials of this type,” Lugli says of the two male hand-holders. “In the past several graves were found with pairs of individuals laid hand in hand, but in all cases it was a man and a woman. The link between the two individuals of the Modena burial, instead, remains a mystery.”
Or perhaps the evidence is right in front of them.