Homosexuality and the Ancient Greeks




"The noble lover of beauty engages in love wherever he sees excellence and splendid natural endowment without regard for any difference in physiological detail." - Plutarch {1}
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Expressions of homosexaulity in ancient Greece were commonplace. The ancient Greeks are widely known for their homosexual exploits. Many ordinary people are aware of Greek homosexual love poetry, the same-sex relations of Greek gods and heroes, and the homosexual relationship between Alexander the Great and Hephaestion.


Achilles tends the wounds of Patroclus, c. 500 BC (Berlin).

This is only a recent development. Until the second half of the 20th century, historians avoided saying much about the sexuality of the ancient Greeks out of sense of propriety. In 1901, an English classicist named John Addington Symonds published A Problem in Greek Ethics addressing homosexuality in Ancient Greece, but it was provided only to "medical psychologists and jurists" and the number of copies was intended to remain under 100. {2}

The first major treatment of ancient Greek homosexuality in English was Greek Homosexuality by K.J. Dover, published in 1978.

By contrast, ancient Greek homosexuality is now a popular topic, and those who argue for full acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle regularly appeal to these practices and attitudes of the widely-respected ancient Greeks.





However, the practices of the ancient Greeks differ significantly from those generally advocated by moderns. Greek homosexual activities were practiced as expressions of love and devotion, but were also firmly embedded in their culture of social status and therefore had distinct limitations.

Forms and Prevalence of Homosexuality in Ancient Greece

Homosexual relationships seem to have been prevalent in ancient Greece. Some believe Achilles and Patroclus of Homer's Iliad were icons of male homosexuality. Aristotle stated that the Cretans encouraged homosexuality as a population controller on the island community in his Politics. {3}

Greek poets wrote of same-sex love and notable philosophers and writers such as Plato, Xenophon, Plutarch, and pseudo-Lucian discussed the topic. Plato is quoted as commenting:

Homosexuality is regarded as shameful by barbarians and by those who live under despotic governments just as philosophy is regarded as shameful by them, because it is apparently not in the interest of such rulers to have great ideas engendered in their subjects, or powerful friendships or passionate love-all of which homosexuality is particularly apt to produce. {4}

Tragedies on the theme became popular, and Aristophanes made comical theater about sexual relationships between males. Vases portray numerous homoerotic relationships and hundreds of inscriptions celebrate the love of youths. Famous politicians, warriors, artists, and writers are believed to have had homosexual relationships. {5}

Diogenes Laeurtius wrote of Alcibiades, the Athenian general and politician of the 5th century BC, "in his adolescence he drew away the husbands from their wives, and as a young man the wives from their husbands." {6}

Similarly, a character in Plutarch's Erotikos (Dialogue on Love) proclaims, "the noble lover of beauty engages in love wherever he sees excellence and splendid natural endowment without regard for any difference in physiological detail." {7}

Physicians casually commented that pleasure between men was more tiring. {8} Only a few examples of apparent same-sex exclusivity are known in ancient Greece, among which are Alexander the Great and Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism.

The form of homosexuality that was most common in ancient Greece was pederasty, meaning a relationship between an adult man and a male youth. For the Greeks, pederasty was more than a sexual pastime or preference - it was nearly a social institution. A same-sex relationship between an older man, probably in his 20s or 30s, known as the erastes, and a beardless boy, the eromenos or paidika, became a cultural ideal. The relationship was regarded as mutually beneficial, as the older man would educate, protect, love, and provide a role model for his lover, while the eromenos offered his partner with beauty, youth, admiration, and love. {9}

The relationship began with a courtship ritual, involving gifts and other norms, and the erastes was to demonstrate that he had nobler interests in the boy rather than a purely sexual concern. The boy was not to submit too easily, and if pursued by more than one man, was to show discretion and pick the nobler one.


Banquet scene painted on a tomb in Paestum, Italy, c. 450 BC.

There is evidence that penetration was often avoided by having the erastes face his beloved and place his penis between the thighs of the eromenos, which is known as intercrural sex. The relationship was to be temporary and should end upon the boy reaching adulthood. {10}

Another common form of homosexuality in classical Greece originated in the symposion, an aristocratic male drinking group. Guests reclined on couches in front of low tables laid with light snacks and a mildly alcoholic water-wine mixture.

The wine was poured by young male or female slaves, often chosen for their beauty. There were games, entertainments performed by the slaves, speeches, and conversations. The evening often ended with a drunken riot through the streets.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World, the symposion was the main reason for the importance of homosexuality in ancient Greece, as it became the focus of expressions of love, sex, and liaisons both physical and spiritual.

Homosexual liaisons occurred both between drinkers and with slave boys, and the "idealization of these emotions inspired some of the highest expressions of love in European literature." {11}

Views of Homosexuality in Ancient Greece

In ancient Greece, same-sex romantic and sexual attractions were often regarded as a matter of taste or preference rather than a moral issue. However, social status was of utmost importance, as was the differentiation between the active and passive roles in male homosexuality.

Given that only free adult men had full social status, women and male slaves were not problematic sexual partners. Sex between freemen, however, was problematic for status. The central distinction in ancient Greek sexual relations was between taking an active or insertive role, versus a passive or penetrated one. The passive role was acceptable only for inferiors, such as women, slaves, or male youths who were not yet citizens. Terms for the passive role were muliebria pati, "to submit to what is done to women" and aselgainein, "to defile oneself." The active role in Greek was hubrizein, "to exert force upon another." {12}

For these reasons, the pederasty described above became the ideal form of homosexual relationships. A free male youth was a more noble partner than a male slave (and perhaps more than a woman as well) because he could be from a noble family and would eventually become a free citizen.

But it also avoided homosexual sex between equals, which was problematic for reasons of status: if two adult citizens were to engage in homosexual activity, the one who played the passive role would lose respect. Women and slaves had no respect to worry about losing, and it appears that a male citzen who had been an eromenos in his youth lost no respect for it - in fact a history with a noble partner could be an honor - but he was expected to take the active role (whether with a women or a man) now that he had become an adult.

One important passage from ancient Greece that speaks against homosexuality is Plato's Laws 636c. Here the character of the Athenian stranger rejects homosexual behavior as "unnatural" (para physin), describes it as an "enormity" or "crime" (tolmema), and attributes it to "unbridled lust." Opinions are divided as to whether this is Plato's own belief, and whether it applies to homosexuality between equals, pederasty, or both. {13}

In contrast, attraction to males and homosexual relationships in the active role with one's social inferiors was common, approved by society, and could even be regarded as a sign of masculinity. There were stories of same-sex exploits associated with Greek gods including Zeus, and other key figures in Greek myth and literature, perhaps including Achilles and Hercules. Plato, in the Symposium, argues for an army to be comprised of same-sex lovers. Thebes did form such a regiment, the Sacred Band of Thebes, formed of 500 soldiers and renowned in the ancient world for their valor in battle. {14}

References

  1. Plutarch, Dialogue on Love, 146.
  2. Introduction to the online text by Sacred Texts Internet Archive.
  3. According to "Homosexuality in ancient Greece," Wikipedia, as accessed October 2005.
  4. Quoted by John Boswell in "The Church and the Homosexual: An Historical Perspective" (1979).
  5. "Homosexuality in ancient Greece," Wikipedia, as accessed October 2005.
  6. Quoted in Greenberg, David F., The Construction of Homosexuality (University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 144.
  7. Dialogue on Love 146, quoted in "Homosexuality," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, August 2002.
  8. Bowersock, Brown and Grabar, eds., Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World (Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 496.
  9. Dover, K.J., Greek Homosexuality (Harvard University Press, 1989, as summarized in "Homosexuality," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, August 2002).
  10. Ibid.
  11. John Boardman et al, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World, 1986, pp. 225-226.
  12. Bowersock, Brown and Grabar, eds., Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World (Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 496.
  13. See for instance "In the Case of Martha Nussbaum."
  14. "Homosexuality," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, August 2002.

Further Reading

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