Violent debate, enthusiastic writings, shamefaced silence, flights of fantasy. Few aspects of ancient society are so hotly contested as Greek pederasty, or – as we shall see below – homosexuality. Since the British classicist K.J. Dover published his influential book Greek Homosexuality in 1978, an avalanche of new studies has appeared. We can discern two approaches:
- The historical approach: scholars are looking for the (hypothetical) roots of pederasty in very ancient initiation rites and try to reconstruct a development. Usually, a lot of fantasy is required, because our sources do not often refer to these ancient rites.
- The synchronistic approach: scholars concentrate upon homosexuality in fifth and fourth-century Athens, where it was integral part of social life.
In the present article, we will use the second approach, although we won’t ignore the first one. There are many sources of evidence: lyrical poetry, vases, statues, myths, philosophical treatises, speeches, inscriptions, medical texts, tragedies, comedies, curses (example), and anecdotes in which homosexual practices are mentioned, lauded, ignored, and sometimes discouraged.
The often outspoken poems and the philosophy of Plato (427-347) have resulted in our expression “Greek principles” to describe male homosexuality. Unfortunately, we know hardly anything about female homosexuality. Of course, this does not mean that it did not exist (cf. the lyrical poetess Sappho), but we simply don’t know much about lesbianism. Therefore, in this article, we will have to focus on male homosexuality.
Let’s start with the word “homosexual”. It looks like an ancient Greek expression, but word and concept are modern inventions: the expression was coined in 1869 by the Hungarian physician Karoly Maria Benkert (1824-1882). It took several decades for the word to become current. In ancient Greece, there never was a word to describe homosexual practices: they were simply part of aphrodisia, love, which included men and women alike.
The French social critic and philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) has asked whether our modern concept, which presupposes a psychological quality or a proclivity/identity, can be used to describe the situation in ancient Athens. Foucault’s often-quoted answer is in the negative. He assumes that the early nineteenth century was a discontinuity with the preceding history.
And it is true: the Jewish and Christian attitudes and obsessions have never played a role in the sexual lives of the ancient Greeks. In their eyes, it was not despicable when a married man had affairs with boys. Although the Athenians expected a man to have children -especially sons- with his lawful wife. The Athenian man was, according to Foucault, a macho, a penetrator. The one who forced others to do what he wanted them to do.
This view now seems outdated. Not all Athenian women have been passive and not all men were dominant. Prostitution, which was an important aspect of Athenian life, had little to do with male dominance. Nor was – and this is important – Greek homosexuality restricted to pederasty between a dominant adult and a shy boy.
Those scholars who prefer the historical approach are convinced that pederasty originates in Dorian initiation rites. The Dorians were the last tribe to migrate to Greece. They are usually described as real he-men with a very masculine culture. According to the proponents of this theory, pederasty came to being on the Dorian island Crete. There grown-up men used to kidnap (consenting) adolescents. It is assumed that this practice spread from Crete to the Greek mainland. In the soldiers’ city Sparta, it was not uncommon when a warrior took care of a younger recruit and stood next to him on the battlefield. The two bravely protected each other. Especially in aristocratic circles, pederasty is believed to have been common.
There are, indeed, a great many pictures on vases that show how an older lover, the erastes, courts a boy, the eromenos. They appear not to be of the same age. The erastes has a beard and plays an active role. The adolescent has no beard and remains passive. He will never take an initiative, looks shy, and is never shown as excited. It is assumed by many modern scholars that as soon as the adolescent had a beard, the love affair had to be finished. He had to find an eromenos of his own.
A man with a beard must not be the passive partner
It was certainly shameful when a man with a beard remained the passive partner (pathikos). It was even worse when a man allowed himself to be penetrated by another grown-up man. The Greeks even had a pejorative expression for these people, whom were called kinaidoi. They were the targets of ridicule by the other citizens, especially comedy writers.
For example, Aristophanes (c.445-c.380) shows them dressed like women, with a bra, a wig and a gown, and calls them euryprôktoi, “wide arses”. In this scholarly reconstruction of ancient sexual behavior, the older lover is presented as some sort of substitute father. He is there to help his beloved one on his way to manhood and maturity. And to initiate him in the customs of grown-up people. He showed his affection with little presents, like animals (a hare or cock), but also pieces of meat, a disk, a bottle of oil, a garland, a toy, or money. This type of love affair was, according to this modern theory, based upon (sexual) reciprocity.
Meanwhile, however, this image of “pedagogical pederasty” has been challenged by a series of important publications like Charles Hupperts’ thesis Eros Dikaios (2000). It is now clear that homosexuality was not restricted to pederasty, and that we have to study our evidence more carefully.
For example, not every older erastes had a beard, and it turns out to be a modern fairy tale that the younger eromenos was never aroused. From literary sources, we know that boys had their own sexual feelings. The sixth-century Athenian poet Theognis, for example, complains about his lover’s fickleness and promiscuity. Several vases show young men with an erect penis. Even when he pretends to shy away, he does not protest and does not obstruct his lover’s attempt to court him.
Another objection to the traditional reconstruction of Athenian homosexuality is that there is simply no evidence that the presents shown on vases had any pedagogic or didactic value. They are just meant to seduce.
It also appears that the difference in age did not really matter. Not youth, but beauty was important. (The ancient ideal of male beauty: broad shoulders, large chest, muscles, a wasp’s waist, protruding buttocks, big thighs, long calfs. A man’s forehead was not supposed to be too high, the nose had to be straight, and he had to have a projecting lower lip, a round chin, hawk eyes, and hair like a lion. His genitals had to be small; men with big penises looked like monkeys.)
Not an aristocratic phenomenon
There are several pictures of boys courting boys, boys playing sexual games, and adult men having intercourse. Yet, the latter was probably unusual or not spoken about, because the passive partner (pathikos) was -as we have already seen- subject to ridicule.
It is not true that homosexual love for boys was an aristocratic phenomenon. The repertory of vase paintings does not change when, in 507 BCE, democracy was introduced in Athens. On the contrary, there appears to be an increase of pederastic and other homosexual representations.
We find many pictures of schools for martial arts, which often had a statue of the god Eros and where people exercised undressed. They were considered to be a fine place to meet one’s lover. There was a law that prohibited grown-up men to stay near the dressing rooms, but if the behavior of the philosopher Socrates (469-399) is typical, this law was ignored. In fact, it seems that much of Athenian love life took place in public places: many vases show how people are looking when two people are having intercourse. There is, prior to Plato, not a single written statement that people objected to public sex. (Although it is possible that the vases are just as unrealistic as modern pornography – but see below.)
Schools for martial arts
The schools for martial arts were not the only places to pick up a lover. There were brothels and casinos or kybeia. The port of Piraeus and the cemeteries outside the city seem to have been popular “cruising areas” as well. The border between ordinary love and prostitution was arbitrary. (The difference is, of course, payment, but coins were a recent invention and in the early fifth century, attitudes towards money still had to develop.) Citizen boys often received money -as payment or as present?- which might cause some problems if they embarked upon a political career. But not everyone had this ambition or the possibility to play a decisive role in the People’s Assembly.
Yet, a decent citizen was supposed not to sell his body, and in c.450 BCE, when the Athenian economy had become fully monetarized, a law was proposed that people who had once prostituted themselves could not run for an office. Someone who had once sold himself was believed to be capable of selling the interests of the community as well. From now on, we find no vase paintings on which the erastes offers money to an eromenos anymore, which shows that these paintings are more or less realistic representations of what actually happened.
Later, this law was no longer applied. In the fourth century, it was not uncommon when two grown-up men shared a home. There must have been jokes about these men. They found this an acceptable price to pay for living with their beloved one. There was a large discrepancy between the official morals, which were expressed in the ancient laws, and everyday life.