Nearly every age reinvents Greece in its own image. Rome appropriated Grecian glory to ornament Roman grandeur. The rediscovery of Greek literature and art gave the Renaissance a new aesthetic and propelled Europe from the medieval into the modern age. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Greece was the ideal upon which many modern nations modeled their systems of education, ethics, and government, and even their architecture. Now, at the turn of the century, ancient Greece is still popularly lauded as the ideal democracy, and the ancient Greeks as the best examples of physical and moral achievement, to which all men and nations ought to aspire.
Figuring in the imaginative re-creation of Greek antiquity has been the perception of those centuries as a golden age in which homosexual behavior was not just condoned but associated with the highest social, spiritual, and moral values. The idea of Greece as a utopia in which homosexual love flourished without blame or censure has been central to the defense of same-sex love from the Renaissance to the present day. And that view contains much that is true. The reality, however, is more complex.
Classical Greek had no word for "homosexuality" nor any word equivalent to our "homosexual," though a number of terms described those who engaged, frequently or exclusively, in homosexual behavior. Nor was there a Greek word to express the special concept of homophobia, at least not as we understand it today. But even without a word for it, antiquity may have known something verymuch like homophobia; men who engaged in certain homosexual acts sometimes became the objects of general derision and abhorrence. Indeed, as we will see, many believed that the sexual activities and the demeanor of such people were indubitable signs of a differentand contemptiblesexual nature.
Locating Greek homophobia in antiquity means locating it in Greek writing. It is best to note, however, that the Greek texts available to us are only a small part of a literature now mostly lost. And as the classicist John J. Winkler cautions, the surviving Greek texts do not represent ancient society as a whole. Rather, they reflect the conventions of a small coterie of educated upper-class adult male citizens and the theories of a few philosophers whose ideas and writings may have been ignored or even ridiculed by most Greeks. When we say that we know what the Greeks believed about homosexual behavior, we are saying that we know what Plato and Xenophon, Aristophanes and Aristotle wrote about the matter. For the sake of brevity, I will refer to "the Greeks" when in fact I am usually concerned with those few writers whose texts have been taken over time to speak with that people's collective voice.
The Greek voice is far from uniform. Much of the extant Greek literatureepics and dramatic tragedy, for exampleretells ancient myths and legends. Some reflects the contemporary concerns of philosophers, scientists, or politicians. The poetry, lyric, erotic, and romantic, embodiesor perhaps inventsthe social conventions that governed both affectional and sexual attitudes. Attic comedy, on the other hand, often satirizes those same attitudes. To better understand what kinds of homosexual behavior generated anxiety among the Greeks, we must first begin with an overview of what some ancient writers said about love and sexual relations between men.
1 Imagining Eros
In ancient Greece the ideal of same-sex desire was encompassed within the philosophical concept of paiderastia, a term derived from the combination of pais (boy or child) and the verb eran (to love), the source of eros (desire). This ideal imagined a relationship between an older and a younger male, the former an adult citizen, experienced in life, conversant with proper conduct and civic duty, wise in the ways of warfare, exemplary in his management of his household and of his wealth, dutiful to his parents, virtuous, brave, honorable, and devoted to truth. The younger male, commonly described as a youth whose beard had not yet begun to grow, was expected to be modest in demeanor, athletic and brave, eager to improve himself, and willing to learn what his mentor and lover could teach about the general conduct of life and love. Paiderastia implied a relationship that combined the roles of teacher and student with those of lover and beloved, and it carried the expectation of sex between the two.
The Greek language provided specific terms for each role. The beloved or desired boy is sometimes called pais or the related paidika. Often he is eromenos, "one who is loved or desired"; aitas, "the listener, receiver"; or kleinos, "the famous" or "the admired." The mentor is called erastes, "the lover"; or eispnelos, "the inspirer"; or philetor, "the befriender" of the kleinos. The erastes was presumed not only to woo and seduce the eromenos but also to instruct him in the arts of the hunt and of war, in the right conduct of life, and in proper behavior as a citizen. It was assumed that the erastes would also eventually take a wifewhich did not necessarily mean that he would abandon homosexual practiceand that the eromenos in his turn would become an erastes to other youths. According to Greek legend, this pederastic or transgenerational homosexual relationship was invented either by Zeus, when he kidnapped the young Ganymede, or by Laius, father of Oedipus, when he kidnapped the youth Chrysippus.
Paiderastia, which should not be confused with pedophilia, did not involve the sexual use of children, a practice that antiquity viewed with as much horror as we do today. When men pursued younger males, those they pursued were theoretically ready for the chasethat is, they had reached puberty. Such relationships were governed by centuries of tradition handed down from father to son, ratified in an extensive philosophical, heroic, and erotic literature, and, it is claimed, ordained in law by Solon the lawgiver himself, who decreed that before marrying, a citizen had the obligation to take as a lover and pupil a younger male and train him in the arts of war and citizenship. Many ancient sources suggest that the erotic relationship between a man and a boy was both a social ideal and a common practice; this judgment, confirmed by modern classical historians, is based on a substantial body of visual evidence (Greek vase paintings, of older and younger males in various relationships, including sexual intimacy), and on ancient literature (the poems of Book Twelve of the Greek Anthology, for example, are almost exclusively dedicated to the love of boys). Of course, our knowledge of paiderastia comes primarily from the literature and visual art produced by the literate, the aristocratic, and the wealthy. Because what we know about many Greek homosexual customs comes from such sources, it can be argued that paiderastia was an idealized convention, even a toy, of a handful of Greek upper-class males. What men who were not literate or who were not aristocrats, who could not write about their desire or did not have the means to picture it, may have done is a matter for speculation. This having been said, however, in recent years classical historians have produced extensive evidence to show that the homosexual behavior that the Greeks called paiderastia was a common and even conspicuous feature of Greek daily life among all classes by the sixth century B.C.E. Speaking about classical Athens, David Halperin observes that no one who studies classical antiquity will doubt that "paederasty was a social institution in classical Athensan institution often thought, moreover, to serve a variety of beneficial purposes." Nor, he continues, should anyone doubt that it was also "an expression of a deeply felt sexual desire."
But paiderastia was not the only kind of homosexual relationship in the ancient world. Love and sex between adult males are evident in literature and visual art, and there is ample evidence that intimate and permanent relationships existed between men of relatively close ages. Age may have mattered to some Greeks; to others it apparently did not, for Socrates loved the adult Alcibiades. Some men remained lovers into mutual adulthood: Pausanias and Agathon, speakers in Plato's Symposium, appear to have been lovers of long duration. In the second century C.E. the poet Strato confessed that though he liked boys at any age from twelve to seventeen, he knew very well that when they were older the relationship became more serious, for "if anyone likes older boys, he is not playing any more, but desires someone to respond." Obviously, youth enhanced male beauty and spurred desire, butperhaps summarizing a general opinion of his time about the age at which men could be desirableXenophon observes, "Beauty is not to be condemned ... that it soon passes its prime, for just as we recognize beauty in a boy, so we do in a youth, a full-grown man, or an old man."
Greek visual art also shows scenes of sex between men of near equal ages and, presumably, status. The historian K. J. Dover discovered several vase paintings that show such couples: in one, two youths are wrapped in a cloakthat is, they are about to have sex; in another, two youths lie together, one caressing the other as he swings his leg over him in preparation for sex.
Whether literary and pictorial evidence reveals, in Dover's words, "what actually happened" or instead reflects "an ideal pattern of sentiment and practice that dominated public utterance and convention," there can be no doubt that homosexual activity was an accepted part of the lives of Greek males at an early age and that it could continue without qualm in adulthood. If an adult male introduced a handsome boy to sexand if, in doing so, he introduced his young lover to a world of responsible citizenshipthen the ideal was served and desire satisfied. Since much Greek literature, such as the poems in the Anthology, suggests that sex and not altruism was the more driving motive, it may be naive to imagine that a handsome face provoked only the contemplation of philosophy. Nevertheless, lust was not all that motivated Greek men. If that were the case, then Achilles would not have lamented Patroclus with so much anguish nor would ancient literature detail valor, love, and fidelity between male couples like Harmodius and Aristogiton, Orestes and Pylades, or Damon and Pythias, who liveand diefor each other. Nowhere in Greek thought can we find condemnation of homosexual activity between two males of any age, as long as it conformed to fairly simple guidelines of sexual propriety, which prohibited prostitution, sex with underage boys or slaves, and certain forms of lovemaking.
2 Legitimating Eros
The Greek preoccupation with appropriate forms of homosexual activity is reflected in discussions that attempt to define "legitimate" eros, the proper sexual and social conduct between lovers. The most comprehensive and detailed theory of the origins, nature, social value, and metaphysical meaning of homosexual love appears in Plato's dialogue the Symposium.
The Symposium, written sometime around 385 B.C.E., concerns the nature and the right conduct of an erotic relationship between the lover and the beloved. The piece is cast as a conversation at a drinking party given by the tragic poet Agathon about 416 B.C.E. The topic of love is addressed in turn by Phaedrus, a writer; by Pausanias, the lover of Agathon; by the comic poet Aristophanes; by the doctor Eryximachus; and by Socrates himself. In the Symposium, love is always construed to be homosexual love, and it is the unquestioned presumption that love between males is the highest form of love. While it can beand, according to Socrates, even should beexpressed spiritually rather than physically, none of the speakers are troubled that such love can be accompanied by sex.
Phaedrus proposes a parallel between healthy love-relationships and the healthy life of the state. He argues that Love is the oldest of the gods and "the most powerful to assist men in the acquisition of merit and happiness." Love between a youth and his lover promotes virtue in the youth, he argues, inspires ambition in the lover, and leads to happiness for both, as each sets an example of merit and worthiness for the other to follow. Phaedrus declares that "there can be no greater benefit for a boy than to have a worthy lover ... nor for a lover than to have a worthy object for his affection." In such a relationship, both lovers will acquire not only virtue but also the "ambition for what is noble," without which "[neither] a state nor an individual can accomplish anything great or fine." Phaedrus expresses his high opinion of the value of intimate relationships between male lovers when he asserts that a state made up only of lovers and their beloveds "could defeat the whole world" (178b-180e).
Pausanias adds to Phaedrus' praise of male love by explaining the circumstances under which it is permissible for a beloved to gratifythat is, to have sex withhis lover. He claims, first, that love between males is not only different from love between men and women but superior to it, because it is discriminating, faithful, and permanent and because men are superior to women in both intelligence and strength. Pausanias makes a distinction between men attracted by both women and young men and those only "attracted by the male sex"; this distinction suggests the existence in ancient Greece of men who engaged exclusively in homosexual acts. These men, indeed, "do not fall in love with mere boys" (that is, certainly not with underage boys, nor even with youths who had reached the accepted sexually available age of fourteen), but wait until "they reach the age"about seventeen or eighteen"at which they begin to show some intelligence, that is to say, until they are near to growing a beard." For these men's "intention is to form a lasting attachment and a partnership for life" (180e-182a). Pausanias considers love between males that has as its object both intellectual satisfaction and the creation of a lasting partnership to be nobler than the indiscriminate search for temporary and merely sexual satisfaction with women or boys.
Like Phaedrus, Pausanias links love between men to the presence of democracy in the state. He asserts that "in parts of Ionia ... and elsewhere under Persian rule," such love is condemned because of "the absolute nature of their empire; it does not suit the interest of their government that a generous spirit and strong friendships and attachments should spring up among their subjects, and these are the effects which love has an especial tendency to produce" (182a). But in Athens, "the universal encouragement which a lover receives is evidence that no stigma attaches to him; success in a love-affair is glorious, and it is only failure that is disgraceful" (183b-183c).
Pausanias observes that "the truth about every activity is that in itself it is neither good nor bad." This theme of circumstantial morality is central to his view that the beloved can without dishonor grant favorsthat is, sexto the good man, the "man of noble nature."
There is, as I stated at first, no absolute right and wrong in love, but everything depends upon the circumstances; to yield to a bad man in a bad way is wrong, but to yield to a worthy man in a right way is right.... According to our principles there is only one way in which a lover can honorably enjoy the possession of his beloved.... If a person likes to place himself at the disposal of another because he believes that in this way he can improve himself in some department of knowledge, or in some other excellent quality, such a voluntary submission involves by our standards no taint of disgrace or servility.... This is the Heavenly Love which is associated with the Heavenly Goddess, and which is valuable both to states and to individuals because it entails upon both lover and beloved self-discipline for the attainment of excellence (184d-186a).
Athenian intellectuals devised various theories to explain same-sex desire; in the Symposium, the comic poet Aristophanes recounts (or invents) a legend to explain sexual difference. When the human race was created, he says, there were three sexesthe androgynous, the female, and the maleand each sex had four hands, four feet, one head with two faces, and two sets of genitals. The gods, angered by these formidable and proud creatures who dared to attack them, split them in two, thus creating new beings. Those who were the male half of the original androgyne became lovers of women, the female half lovers of men. Women who were halves of the female "direct their attention towards women and pay little attention to men," and "those [men] who were halves of a male whole pursue males." Aristophanes' explanation of the existence and the nature of men who love men, like Pausanias' remarks, suggests that exclusive homosexuality was a category of desire recognizable to the Greeks. Because such men are exclusively devoted to the male sex, Aristophanes continues, "when they grow to be men, they become lovers of boys, and it requires the compulsion of convention to overcome their natural disinclination to marriage and procreation; they are quite content to live with one another unwed." Aristophanes argues that it is physiology and nature that prompts their exclusivity: "Such persons are devoted to lovers in boyhood and themselves lovers of boys in manhood, because they always cleave to what is akin to themselves.... The reason is that this was our primitive condition when we were wholes, and love is simply the name for the desire and pursuit of the whole" (191c-192e).
When it is Socrates' turn to speak, he proposes a theory of love from which sex seems to be absent, although, like the other speakers in the Symposium, he assumes that significant love relationships are those between men. Socrates reports a dialogue with the wise woman Diotima, in which she leads him to agree to two essential points: first, that love is the desire for the perpetual possession of the good and the true; second, that the highest wisdom lies in the attainment of the knowledge of absolute beauty. Diotima also argues that all men desire immortality. For most men, immortality is achievable only through procreation. But since procreation perpetuates only the flesh, it has no part in the ideal world of truth and beauty. However, there are those who seek to engage in a nobler kind of procreation, men "whose creative desire is of the soul, and who long to beget spiritually, not physically, the progeny which it is the nature of the soul to create and bring to birth. And if you ask what that progeny is, it is wisdom and virtue in general." Those who beget such progeny include "all poets and such craftsmen as have found out some new thing" as well as those who seek the "greatest and fairest branch of wisdom," which is concerned with the "due ordering of states and families" and with "moderation and justice." Diotima makes it clear who such men are:
When by divine inspiration a man finds himself from his youth up spiritually fraught with these qualities, as soon as he comes of due age he desires to procreate and to have children and goes in search of a beautiful object in which to satisfy his desire.... If in a beautiful body he finds also a beautiful and noble and gracious soul, he welcomes the combination warmly, and ... takes his education in hand. By intimate association with beauty embodied in his friend, and by keeping him always before his mind, he succeeds in bringing to birth the children he has long desired to have, and once they are born he shares their upbringing with his friend; the partnership between them will be far closer and the bond of affection far stronger than between ordinary parents, because the children that they share surpass human children by being immortal as well as more beautiful (205e; 208c-209e).
However, Diotima continues, even such noble procreation is only a prelude to setting forth on the road to enlightenment that leads from the love of individual beauty to the comprehension of moral or absolute beauty. The lover who attains the enlightened state will understand that true love is not the possession of a beautiful person but the "desire for perpetual possession of the good," and that the highest form of wisdom is the contemplation of "absolute beauty." In Socrates' speech, then, Plato legitimates homosexual eros by making it the source of aesthetic inspiration and right conduct. But there should be no doubt that, even for Plato, what ends in chaste meditation has had its origin in the consummation of desire.
3 Greek Homosexuality and Homophobia
Greek custom did not condemn nonprocreative sex, nor did Greek law comment on same-sex relationships, except for specific prohibitions such as rape and congress between slaves and freeborn boys or between adults and underage boys. Nor did the Greeks find homosexual desire or practice to be a matter for religious regulation. However, they did pass judgment on homosexual acts and relationships in terms of their effect on social convention, and on the status of Greek society's most important individual, the adult male citizen.
For the Greeks, warrior, citizen, husband, and lover of boys were all facets of masculine identity. The ideal male who appears in heroic, romantic, popular, and philosophical literature is warlike and brave, scrupulous in his duty to his wife, family, and parents. He is pious and eager to serve the city and participate in civic life, through political activity and through marriage by which he perpetuates his own line and creates new members of the body politic. He practices self-control and moderation in all that he does, conserves and increases his inheritance, and avoids extreme behavior in public and personal life. He does not demean his manhood by selling his body for sex. He does not allow himself to be implicated in any sexual act other than as the dominant partner, nor does he exhibit any mannerisms, adopt any costume, or engage in any activities that might suggest effeminacy by imitating the activities, the mannerisms, or the appearance of women. He enjoys sexual relations with his male lover only under the "right" circumstances, at the right time, in the right situation, and in the right way.
We now generally tend to think of homosexuality as irreducibly opposed to heterosexuality, as a preoccupation with same-sex desire and dedication to same-sex practice. The Greeks, however, would have been perplexed by the idea that one could judge a person by exclusive reference to the object of sexual desire, without reference to a particular sex act, or that one could be "a homosexual" or "a heterosexual."
The Greeks attached more importance to the sexual instinct than to the sex object. What most concerned the Greek male was not whether the object of desire was male or female, but what place that object occupied in the social and sexual hierarchy. Boys and women, so some modern commentators assert, taking their cue from Michel Foucault's argument in The Uses of Pleasure, were socially defined as passive and were thus legitimately desirable. As Foucault explains, "For the Greeks, it was the opposition between activity and passivity that was essential, pervading the domain of sexual behaviors and that of moral attitudes as well." Some evidence suggests that the Greeks believed that it was the duty of passive malesthat is, boys and sexually available younger mento accept penetration, but not their obligation to enjoy it. Only women were imagined to naturally receive pleasure from being penetrated. For younger men it was a necessary indignity, associated with their inferior sexual status.
Adult males were expected to take the activethat is, penetrativerole in sex, because as adult males they had superior status in society. As David Halperin points out, sex in classical Athens was not "knit up in a web of mutuality." Instead it was "a deeply polarizing experience," which divided, classified, and distributed its participants into "distinct and radically opposed categories." It was "a manifestation of personal status, a declaration of social identity," not a sign of some presumed sexual identity or even of an inclination. Within those boundaries, the propriety of active homosexual activity was seldom questioned. In any sexual encounter, whether between males or between male and female, the adult male had the unquestioned right to penetrate and dominate his presumably weaker, usually younger, and socially inferior partner. Indeed, most Greeks would probably have described such a right as derived from the observable fact that adult males were physically stronger than women and young men; they were temperamentally more aggressive and warlike than either, and as citizens enjoyed many rights denied to them.
Some recent commentators, however, have argued that the active-passive theory misreads Greek practice and reflects instead a "modern way of looking at sex" as an act of "domination, aggression, and subjugation." In Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens, James Henderson insists that the Greeks did not "see a gulf between a desire to penetrate and a desire to be penetrated" and considered both pleasurable sex acts. Henderson's assertion is intriguing. Nevertheless, Greek literature and art overwhelmingly suggest that the relationships between men and women or youths, while possibly a source of pleasure to each, were neither socially nor sexually equal.
Few Greeks would have considered "proper" homosexual activity to be in any sense unnatural. More likely, they would have believed male superiority and male prerogative in these areas to be appropriate to the "nature" of the male. It may be that not all Greek males engaged in homosexual relationships, but nothing in Greek society, religion, or law would have condemned the desire to consummate those relationships. Homosexuality was not problematic as long as it was manly, active, and controlled. Some men's exclusive devotion to homosexual liaisons, however, even as active participants, could make them vulnerable to condemnation, because it might lead them into resisting the conventions of proper conduct. On the question of exclusivity and convention, Aristophanes comments in the Symposium, as we have seen, that for some men "it requires the compulsion of convention to overcome their natural disinclination to marriage and procreation; they are quite content to live with one another unwed."
Not only the Symposium but much other Greek literature praised long-term and faithful relationships between men. It was not exclusivity, as we shall see, but sexual passivity, insatiability, and effeminacy that were not considered natural or acceptable. Though it was presumed that most men could not, and probably should not, enjoy being penetrated, the Greeks also believed that some men did enjoy it. It is upon this question of what was pleasurable to whomwhat was the nature of that pleasure and the nature of that individualthat much of the structure of Greek homophobia rests.