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social sciences

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Frederick the Great (1712-1786)  
page: 1  2  

It was not only through literature that Frederick extolled homosexuality. He collected ancient artwork, notably ancient carved gemstones picturing nude athletes and the Adoring Youth, a Hellenistic bronze that had previously belonged to another famous homosexual general, Prince Eugene of Savoy, which he placed in view of his library window. He commissioned frescoes of Ganymede for his palaces; and, in 1768, inspired by Voltaire's poem bearing that title, had a Temple of Friendship built in his garden at Potsdam, inscribed with the names of lovers and friends of antiquity, such as Orestes and Pylades and his cherished Nisus and Euryalus.

Life at Sans Souci

Voltaire was eventually drawn to reside at Sans Souci, a newly built palace where Frederick surrounded himself with freethinking men--no women were allowed--many of whom, such as Count Algarotti or the philosopher La Mettrie, were homosexual. He describes the utter freedom of their suppers there (for instance, discussing Plato's theory of the ) and the exact way in which Frederick would pick handsome soldiers for his sexual "schoolboy games."

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Although some have insinuated that Voltaire invented these stories of life at Sans Souci to avenge the humiliation he suffered after his quarrel with Frederick, such is unlikely, for their banter picked up as soon as their correspondence started again. One only need read Voltaire's famous letter of May 2, 1759, complimenting Frederick's victory at Rosbach, which deals in a campy way with the "beautiful asses" of the fleeing French soldiers, to understand to what degree the king was open to his close entourage.

Frederick's Lovers

Apart from Katte, a few of Frederick's great loves are known: Fredersdorf, the handsome guard assigned to him after his escape, who eventually became his Majordomo; Count Algarotti, the seductive Italian writer; and the abbé Bastiani, a Venetian who was made Canon of Breslaw (Wroclaw) Cathedral and who did not hesitate to show his compatriot Casanova the love letters he had received from the king.

Close to him also, but showing the same tastes in a more outrageous manner, was his brother Prince Henry. Voltaire called him a Potsdamite (that is, a Sodomite), and he was reputed to recruit only homosexuals in his regiments.

The Homosexual Subculture and Reaction

With such examples from above, it is no wonder that a homosexual subculture developed in Berlin. In 1782, Briefe über die Galanterien von Berlin (Letters on the Gallantries of Berlin), a book exposing the city's sexual underworld, attributed to one Johann Friedel, described public meeting places and even a boy-brothel that testify to the loose morals of the "warm brothers" as homosexuals called themselves.

If Frederick's friends and some of his subjects took inspiration from his homosexuality, his enemies did not hesitate to attack him on that front. Several pamphlets were published containing insinuations of homosexuality, such as Idée de la personne, de la manière de vivre, et de la cour du roi de Prusse, juin 1752 and Les Matinées du roi de Prusse (1766, translated as Royal Mornings, 1798).

The philosopher Diderot, well informed and not prone to exaggeration, wrote in March 1760 a note on Frederick in which he says: "The only one thing that this admirable flute player was missing was a mouthpiece that should have been a little cleaner." He also penned a poem entitled Parallèle between Caesar and Frederick (undated) that includes the statement: "Caesar was generous, Frederick is miserly. When I compare them I see but one point in common, namely that they were both . But there wasn't a Roman lady who was worthwhile with whom Caesar did not sleep, whereas His Prussian Majesty never touched a woman, not even his own wife."

During the Seven Years War, Frederick was almost "outed" by the Duc de Choiseul, the French prime minister. Frederick had written an offensive poem about the love of Louis XV for his mistress Madame de Pompadour; in response, Choiseul had had a poem written that ended thus: "How can you condemn tenderness, you who have known ecstasy only in the arms of your regimental drummers."


In his last years, Frederick, having established Prussia as a major European power, doubled its size, and set the stage for a unified Germany, grew misanthropic and reclusive. After a lengthy illness, he died August 17, 1786, at age 74, attended by a young Italian count.

It is a testimony to the strength of and that such a mass of evidence of the king's homosexuality, of which only the surface is presented here, was obscured or deemed unconvincing for more than two hundred years after Frederick's death.

Louis Godbout

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social sciences >> Overview:  Berlin

Notable in the twentieth century both for its pioneering efforts in homosexual emancipation and for the subsequent Nazi persecution of homosexuals, Berlin is now a major participant in the struggle to gain legal recognition of gay relationships.

arts >> Overview:  European Art: Eighteenth Century

During the eighteenth century, men whom we would now call homosexual, such as Johann Winckelmann, Horace Walpole, and William Beckford, were at the forefront of public taste, championing respectively the fresh interest in Classical, Gothic, and Oriental styles.

social sciences >> Overview:  Europe: The Enlightenment

Although the advocates of the Enlightenment encouraged free thinking, freedom of action, and frank discussion in sexual matters, the legal penalties for homosexual conduct during the period remained severely repressive.

literature >> Overview:  German and Austrian Literature: Before the Nineteenth Century

The treatment of homosexuality in German and Austrian literature was largely negative until the eighteenth century, when the basis was laid for the development of a more positive attitude.

social sciences >> Overview:  Germany

While Germany, until recently, never officially accepted or welcomed members of the glbtq community, German culture and homosexuality have a long and significant history.

arts >> Overview:  Patronage I: The Western World from Ancient Greece until 1900

Patronage--the sponsorship of artists and the commissioning of artistic projects from them--is of central importance to cultural history.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Ganymede

Since antiquity Ganymede, the beautiful Phrygian youth abducted by Jupiter, has served as an artistic expression for homosexuality.

social sciences >> Alexander the Great

One of the most fascinating men of all times, Alexander the Great was not only a great soldier and conqueror, he was also renowned for his love of Hephaestion.

social sciences >> Caesar, Julius

One of the most powerful men of the ancient world, Julius Caesar was frequently reminded, sometimes derisively, of his youthful sexual affair with the king of Bithynia.

social sciences >> Gustav III, King of Sweden

Gustav III, King of Sweden, was an enlightened despot who encouraged a remarkable flowering of art and culture.

literature >> Peyrefitte, Roger

As one of the most famous homosexuals in France in the latter half of the twentieth century, novelist Roger Peyrefitte helped shape the public perception of homosexuals in the days before gay liberation.

literature >> Plato

Among Greek writers on homosexual themes, Plato is preeminent not only as a major philosopher but also as the greatest master of Greek prose.

literature >> Virgil

Virgil wrote approvingly of male love in many works, and his second eclogue became the most famous poem on that subject in Latin literature.

arts >> Wagner, Siegfried

Siegfried Wagner, the son of composer Richard Wagner, was himself a prolific composer and conductor; his bisexuality was the source of both scandal and also of elaborate attempts to erase it from histories of the Wagner family.


MacDonogh, Giles. Frederick the Great: A Life in Deed and Letters. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Peyrefitte, Roger. Voltaire et Frédéric II. Paris: Albin Michel, 1992.

Steakley, James D. "Sodomy in Enlightenment Prussia: From Execution to Suicide." The Pursuit of Sodomy: Male Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe. Kent Gerard and Gert Hekma, eds. New York: Haworth, 1989.

Vogtherr, Christoph Martin. "Absent Love in Pleasure Houses: Frederick II of Prussia as Art Collector and Patron." Art History 24.2 (April 2001): 231-46.

Voltaire. Mémoires pour servir à la vie de M. de Voltaire, écrits par lui-même, suivis de Lettres à Frédéric II. Paris: Mercure de France, 1965.


    Citation Information
    Author: Godbout, Louis  
    Entry Title: Frederick the Great  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated May 19, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
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    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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