HISTORY – Homosexuality in Ancient Greece – Part 1

Homosexuality in Ancient Greece Section One

homosexuality in ancient greece_17Homosexuality in Ancient Greece will be comprised of three sections. They will deal with Greek sexuality in general, adult homosexual activity, pederasty and compares our modern western society to that of ancient Greece. The third section deals with Greek Philosophers and Greek laws pertaining to homosexuality in Ancient Greece. Section two will deal with Greek pederasty, which was mostly limited to the male members of the upper class in Ancient Greece. This first section discusses Ancient Greece sexuality in general, homosexuality in Ancient Greece and the “kinaidos” who was an adult male that took the passive role in homosexual behaviour.

What, then, can we conclude about homosexuality in the modern American culture if one only listens to those on the political left, from those on the political right, or from the various court cases? One may find a fourth view when the issue of homosexuality is on a ballot up for vote. Two contradictory outcomes have been the result depending on whether the question has been an issue of discrimination or the definition of marriage. In an overwhelming majority of times when the vote has been to change the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples the results have been not to change the historical definition of marriage of one man and one woman. There have been more favourable outcomes when the question is discrimination against homosexuals. So then our modern American culture view of homosexuality is very similar to that of ancient Greece as seen in the following quotes by historians David Cohen and Bruce Thornton.

“What, then, is one to conclude about a culture whose laws expressed a deep-rooted anxiety about pederasty while not altogether forbidding it? A culture in which attitudes and values ranged from the differing modes of approbation represented in Plato’s Symposium to the stark realism of Aristophanes and the judgement of Aristotle that homosexuality is a diseased or morbid state acquired by habit and comparable to biting fingernails or habitually eating earth or ashes? A culture is not a homogeneous unity; there was no one “Athenian attitude” towards homo-eroticism. The widely differing attitudes and conflicting norms and practices which have been discussed above represent the disagreements, contradictions and anxieties which make up the patterned chaos of a complex culture. They should not be rationalized away. To make them over into a neatly coherent and internally consistent system would only serve to diminish our understanding of the “many-hued” nature of Athenian homosexuality.” (Cohen, Law, Society and Homosexuality in Classical Athens, p. 21)

“What, then, is one to conclude about a culture whose laws expressed a deep rooted anxiety about pederasty while not altogether forbidding it. A culture in which attitudes and values range from the differing modes of approbation represented in Plato’s Symposium to the stark realism of Aristophanes and the judgement of Aristotle, that in a man, the capacity to feel pleasure in a passive sexual role is a diseased or morbid state, acquired by habit, and comparable to biting fingernails or habitually eating earth or ashes. A culture is not a homogeneous unity; there was no one “Athenian attitude” towards homo-eroticism. The widely differing attitudes and conflicting norms and practices which have been discussed above represent the disagreements, contradictions, and anxieties which make up the patterned chaos of a complex culture. They should not be rationalized away. To make them over into a nearly coherent and internally consistent system would only serve to diminish our understanding of the “many-hued” nature of Athenian homosexuality.” (Cohen, Law, Sexuality, and Society The Enforcement of Morals in Classical Athens, p. 201-202).

“First, most of the writing on ancient sexuality these days grinds the evidence in the mill of an “advocacy agenda” supported by some fashionable theory that says more about the crisis of Western rationalism than it does about ancient Greece. Thus we are told that the Greeks saw nothing inherently wrong with sodomy between males as long as certain “protocols” of age, social status, and position were honoured, an interpretation maintained despite the abundance of evidence, detailed below in Chapter 4, that the Greeks-including pederastic apologists like Plato-were horrified and disgusted by the idea of male being anal ling penetrated by another male and called such behaviour “against nature.” One purpose here is to get back to what the Greeks actually say without burying it in polysyllabic sludge.” (Thornton, Eros The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality, p. xiii)

“There can be no doubt that the development of homosexuality was connected with the rise of the gymnnasis and arenas in which boys practised the five exercises of the pentathlon, which comprised wrestling, the foot-race, leaping, throwing the discus and hurling the javelin. Others were boxing and the pancration, a mixture of fist-fighting and wrestling. The competitors were always naked and watched by admiring spectators.” (Flacelliere, Love in Ancient Greece, p.65)

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“One thing is certain: homosexuality was associated in the Greek mind with the separation of the sexes, military ethos, male nudity, physical culture, and gymnasis. The education of boys consisted of physical training as much as scholarship and the arts, and it took place in the gmnasia. The word comes from gymnos, which means naked. Boys spend a great part of the day racing and wrestling there, naked or lightly clad.” (Karlen, Sexuality and Homosexuality A New View, p.31-32)

“Once one looks beyond the literary apologists for homosexuality in ancient Greece, one finds a widespread attitude of mockery and disgust. Homosexual behavior was probably often practice with shame, false bravado or secrecy.” (Karlen, Sexuality and Homosexuality A New View, p.35)

“The point of all of this is not to prove that homosexuality is vicious or pernicious, but that in ancient Greece homosexuality was considered a deviation; it was given positive value only by a minority of homosexuals, bisexuals and apologists. Neither did its presence in Greece have any relationship to social, artistic or political health. The fact that homosexuality was a factor in the lives of great men only speaks for its prevalence among the leisured, literate elite from which artists and statesmen came. A permissive or positive view of homosexuality must find other grounds than the myth that made everything Greek praiseworthy.” (Karlen, Sexuality and Homosexuality A New View, p. 38)

“If ancient Greeks and Romans were concerned with the social and political implications of their sex acts, modern westerners have become obsessed with desire’s object. The West has been largely preoccupied with whom people had sex, ancients with the question of excess or over-indulgence, activity and passivity.” (Phillips and Reay. Sex Before Sexuality A Premodern History, p. 17)

Sex was viewed as directional, and having two roles active and passive

homosexuality in ancient greece_08While this article is written to discuss the homosexuality, specifically Greek pederasty, a discussion of how the Greek’s saw sexuality must be understood. In our modern understanding of sexuality, except in cases of abuse such as rape, the partners are equals. But this was not the case in ancient Greece. First there was a fundamental inequity in favor of the free male in relationship to boys, women and slaves. Secondly this resulted in sex having a directional quality, with an anatomic imperative, again in favour of the free male. Sex was something he did to someone else and what he used to do it with, his male sex organ, the penis. Thirdly, sex had active/passive roles, one partner was the penetrator and the second partner was penetrated. Thus the ancient Greeks may be seen as having a greater acceptance for bisexuality.

“For the ancients, many historians agree, sexuality was not a separate realm of experience, the core of private life; instead it was directly linked to social power and status. People were judged by public behavior, for which there were clear roles; marriage, for instance, was a duty that bore no necessary relationship to erotic satisfaction. Socially powerful males (citizens) enjoyed sexual access to almost all other members of the society (including, in Greece, enslaved males, younger free males, foreigners, and women of all classes).” (Clausen, Beyond Gay or Straight, p. 51)

“First, the expression of sexuality was centred on a fundamental inequity, not only in male-female relationships, but also between male partners in a homosexual relationship.” (King, “Sowing the Field: Greek and Roman Sexology, p. 29 in Sexual Knowledge Sexual Science: The History of the Attitudes in Sexuality editors Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich)

“ In Greece the sexual relationship was assumed to be a power relationship, where one participant is dominate and the other inferior. On one side stands the free adult male; on the other, women, slaves, and boys. Sexual roles are isomorphic with social roles; indeed, sexual behavior is seen as a reflection of social relationship not as itself the dominant theme. Thus it is important for us to remember that for the Greeks it was one’s role, not one’s gender, that was salient. Sexual objects come in two different kinds – not male and female but active and passive.” (Downing, Myths and Mysteries of Same-Sex Love, p.135-136)

“In the late twentieth century it became fashionable to assume that penile penetration expressed the power of the penetrator and subordination of the penetrated (Foucault 1976/80-1984/6; Keuls 1985; Parker 1992). Many studies then concluded, rightly I feel, that men had sexual access to all those beneath them in society (unmarried females, non-citizen males, slaves; Richlin 1992: xviii; Sutton 1992; 5); only proper women and citizen males were off limits.” (Younger, Sex in the Ancient World From A to Z, p. xiv)

“Although sexual pleasure and marriage were not necessarily linked, sexuality and domination most certainly were. Far from being a mutual experience, sexual activity always had a directional quality for the Greeks. Sex was something one “did” to someone, and anatomic imperative dictated that it was a man (or more precisely the penis) that did the doing.” (Mondimore, A Natural History of Homosexuality, p. 7)


“In both Greece and Rome, as the most recent studies have correctly argued, the fundamental opposition between different types of sexual behaviour was not the heterosex/homosexual contrast, but the active/passive contrast, the former category – activity – being characteristic of the adult male, while the latter – passivity – was reserved for women and boys.” (Cantarella, Bisexuality in the Ancient World, p. x)

“The ancient world, both Greek and Roman, did not base its classification on gender, but on a completely different axis, that of active versus passive. This has one immediate and important consequence, which we must face in the beginning. Simply put, there was no such emic, cultural abstraction as “homosexuality” in the ancient world. The fact that a man had sex with other men did not determine his sexual category. Equally, it must be emphasized, there was no such concept as “heterosexuality”. The application of these terms to the ancient world is anachronistic and can lead to serious misunderstandings. By the fifth time one has made the qualification, “The passive homosexual was not rejected for his homosexuality but for his passivity,” it ought to become clear that we are talking not about “homosexuality” but about passivity.” (Parker, The Teratogenic Grid, p.47-48 in Roman Sexualities editors Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner)

“As we remarked earlier, the Greeks showed a pronounced tendency to attach greatest importance to (indeed, to glorify) the sexual instinct itself rather than the particular object; consequently they were much freer than modern men to vary sexual objects on their relative merits. Greek culture, unlike modern cultures, imposed on adult males no limitations as to the choice of sexual objects per se, and the only “perversions” remarked by the comic poets (reflecting, we may be sure, community opinion) are cases in which sexual acts other than vaginal intercourse, otherwise perfectly acceptable, are pursed to excess (see Cratin. 152, for example) or practiced in an inappropriate setting.” (Henderson, The Maculate Muse, p.205)

“The third, closely related, feature is the importance of penetration; the main distinction in all sexual encounters, heter- or homosexual, was presented as being between penetrator and penetrated.” (King, “Sowing the Field: Greek and Roman Sexology” p.30 in Sexual Knowledge, Sexual Science: The History of the Attitudes to Sexuality editors Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich p. 30)

“Scholarly debates endure on the question of whether Athenians and indeed other Greeks condoned most forms of consensual male-male sexual contact provided they respected broader social hierarchies including age, status and citizenship, or instead celebrated only chaste love between men and were more morally dubious about penetration. Despite ongoing controversy, it appears that in both the early modern Ottoman and ancient Athenian, contexts the active and passive in the sex act were conceived differently. Those prone to committing sodomy exhibited moral failure rather than sexual pathology in ways that will become familiar from the pages below.” (Phillips and Reay, Sex Before Sexuality A Pre-modern History, p. 5)

“The Greeks associated sexual desire closely with other human appetites – the desire for food, drink, and sleep – and saw all these appetites as entailing the same moral problem, the problem of avoiding excess.” (Downing, Myths and Mysteries of Same-Sex Love, p.134)

“The Greek sexual ethic emphasized not what one did but how one did it; it involved not an index of particular forbidden acts but an inculcation to act with moderation.” (Downing, Myths and Mysteries of Same-Sex Love, p.135)

Homosexuality in Ancient Greece

“The ancient Greek and Latin languages have no word that can be translated as homosexual, largely because these societies did not have the same sexual categories that we do. Our concepts and categories of sexual expression are based on the genders of the two partners involved: heterosexuality when the partners are of the opposite sex, and homosexuality when the partner are of the same sex. In other times and among other peoples, this way of thinking about people simply doesn’t seem to apply-anthropologists, historians, and sociologists have described many cultures in which same-sex eroticism occupies a very different place than it does in our own.” (Mondimore, A Natural History of Homosexuality, p. 3-4)

“Ancient Greece is often cited as an example of a civilization in which homosexuality was accepted as normal, even encouraged. This is not quite true. All males were expected to make love to women, to marry, and to sire a family, whether or they had a male lover or not. Moreover, love and sex between adult males was thought to be a bit ridiculous. The norm was for an adult male to have a relationship that lasted several years with an adolescent boy. When the boy reached maturity, he, then, was also expected to take a young lover.” (Goode, Deviant Behavior, p.193-194)

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“Homosexuality was a universally recognized sexual option throughout the ancient world, particularly in Dorian areas, where it seems to have had a religious, ethical, and legal sanction and to have been more a part of man’s everyday public life than was the case in Athens.” (Henderson, The Maculate Muse, p.204)

“The second feature is more applicable to classical Greece culture. Male homosexual activity was, to some extent, seen as normal, but only if it was kept within certain clearly defined social parameters. Relationships between equals in age were frown upon. In classical Athens, homosexual relationships ideally had some features of an initiation rite, between a young, beardless boy and an older mentor. However, even such relationships were hedged round with etiquette regarding the process of courtship and the giving and receiving of gifts and other signals, while a ‘deep-rooted anxiety’ about pederasty was expressed in classical Athenian law. Aristotle argues that any enjoyment of what he saw as the subordinate, defeated role of the passive partner in a homoerotic relationship was unnatural; on Athenian vase-paintings, the passive partner is never showed with an erection. The Athenian figure of the kinaidos, the man who actually enjoys the passive role, is presented as a ‘scare-figure’, both socially and sexually deviant.” (King, “Sowing the Field: Greek and Roman Sexology” p. 30 in Sexual Knowledge, Sexual Science: The History of the Attitudes to Sexuality editors Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich)

“The model of classical Athenian homosexual culture that continues to be the most influential is firmly based on that put forward by Sir Kenneth Dover in his 1978 book, Greek Homosexuality The views he developed there reached an audience beyond that of classical scholarship when they were taken up (in somewhat misunderstood form) by Michel Foucault in his 1984 book, L’usage des plaisirs (translated in 1985 as The Use of Pleasure). The model might be summarized in the following terms. Male homosexual acts normally took place between an erastes (lover), a young man, ideally a bachelor, and an eromenos (beloved), a beardless, adolescent boy between the ages of twelve and eighteen. Both would belong to the elite. The erastes would court the eromenos with such things as hunting gifts and, if successful, consummate his desire through anal sex. As the boy turned to manhood in the period between the ages of eighteen and twenty—the transitional period of life associated with service as an ephebe (a border-guard)—he would himself cease to be a passive partner and pursue other boys in turn. Later on, by around the age of thirty, he would give up homosexual activity altogether in favour of marriage. The role of the erastes was one of dominance, the role of the eromenos one of subjection, and they participated in a zero-sum game of social advantage and disadvantage. As a result, the pursued boy was in a morally precarious situation, but he could retain his honour so long as he was extremely discriminating in his acceptance of a lover, took extravagant gifts for his favours but money on no account, and did not make any show of enjoying the anal sex. The lover would use his dominant position to give the boy valuable help, material or ethical, in becoming a full adult member of the community, as is reflected in Plato’s Symposium. So far as the Athenians were concerned, only an extremely deviant grown man would put himself in the role of the eromenos, and those who did, whether as prostitutes (as Timarchus was alleged to have been in a well-known speech of Aeschines) or as kinaidoi (men who simply enjoyed and sought to receive anal sex, were conceptualized as effeminate and reviled, and at Athens the former group was deprived of at least some citizen rights.” (Gilbert, Conceptions of Homosexuality and Sodomy in Western History, p. 37-38 in A Cultural History of Sexuality Volume I In The Classical World editors Mark Golden, and Peter Toohey Editors)

“Both of these explanations of homosexuality-as either an “unnatural” perversion of sex or an excessive expression of its essential nature-can be found in ancient Greek literary remains. Choosing one of the two to the exclusion of the other, which is often the practice among modern scholars, oversimplifies the complexity of attitudes attested in the evidence.” Thorton, Eros The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality, p.101)

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