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Homosexuality in Ancient Greece

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Many stereotyped images around homosexuality in ancient Greece have been hanged down until these days and still resist in the collective imagination, hiding a much more complex and profound reality about which there are lots of open questions even now.

Through the works of poets, philosophers and playwrights, the classical period provides us with a large amount of sources, many of which express a good judgment about gay relationships while at the same time many others contradict this favourable inclination: what was then the social consideration of homosexuality in ancient Greek communities and how did the traditions involving it vary from one polis to another?

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Starting from the premise that the Greek one was a strongly male chauvinist society where women didn’t enjoy any juridical or political right, homosexuality, but heterosexuality as well, was a continuous research for Beauty irrespective of the partner’s gender: one sexuality wasn’t alternative to the other and men and women could be loved indistinctly without exceptions as long as they could be described as “kalòs”, that is beautiful.

Ancient Greek people never worried to criticize or convict gay love as such, and possible acclaims or disapprovals were addressed to the individuals not the practice itself: they condemned the excess, the over-indulging in the pleasures of a gross and low kind of love whose only goal was the mere satisfaction of the carnal desire.

The high level of gay practices’ diffusion is testified by the abundance of sources regarding homosexuality, starting from any kind of written text (mythological, philosophical, theatrical), up to the vast finding of artifacts frequently picturing explicit scenes of intercourses between men.

Painted pottery provides us the clearest example of that, depicting the recurring places and elements concerning these customs: typical locations are the gymnasium, banquets, the gym and hunting environments, where the portrayed subjects are adult male recognizable by the beard and young boys usually hugging or getting touched by their older lover. Rather than images of sodomy, the vases mostly show a coitus executed face to face with the man’s penis set between the adolescent’s thighs, a common practice also described and celebrated in a collection of rhymes by Theognis of Megara, who in verses 327-1328 of his Elegiac poems states:

“My lad, so long as thy cheek be smooth I will never cease to pay my court, no, not if I have to die. ” Relationships between men were not all of the same type depending on the lovers age and social status, and although homosexuality was a common habit, allowed by the law, celebrated in rituals and literature, it could raise many problems especially when in the form of “perfect love”, the one involving an adult (active partner) and a little boy (passive partner) who still hadn’t completed his education.

The theoretical construct asserted that a full-grown man could have a young lover, an adolescent (ephebos), aged between 12 and 18 years old: the first one was called erastes, ideally a teacher and a role model for the teenager disciple called eromenos, and was supposed to instill in him civic and fighting virtues such as courage, loyalty and respect.

Moreover an essential part of this social and moral instruction called paideia, literally meaning “love for the youngsters”, entailed the initiation of the young boy to love and sexual life so that, at the end of his adolescence, he could take a complete active role as an adult in the polis and one day he himself be an educator to someone else.

This characteristic kind of homosexual relationship called pederasty, deriving from the Greek words pais/paida (boy) and erastes, was surely very common and widespread, nevertheless it was submitted to many precise and strict rules: firstly the lover had to show his passion without exaggerating, serve the loved one and give him gifts; the eromenos was instead supposed never to display any sexual excitement, neither to take the initiative nor disclose to take delight in the intercourse.

He only had to reward the erastes for his presents and favours, not give himself nonchalantly but test and stimulate his master. Furthermore Greek homosexuality was based on a definite division between the active and passive role, both physically and ideally: an adult who would have willingly chosen a passive role would have been criticized as effeminate, ridiculous and unfit to fulfill a public position; the active role was instead glorified as a demonstration of supremacy on the partner.

Even though this kind of concept operated well when the counterpart was a woman or a slave, the first naturally inferior and the latter considered exactly as an object, it was however problematic when it concerned a young boy who sooner or later would have take part in the administration of the polis. Hence the various approaches about the elationship between a man and an adolescent: it was exalted by some as the greatest expression of love and purest contemplation of Beauty, discredited by others because it feminized a future free man. The social disapproval regarding adult homosexual intercourse was instead common in the whole ancient Greek world, and in every city laws sentenced very harshly men who practiced it, especially those who agreed to be the passive partner (pathikos) who could even be convicted to death.

The attitude towards gay love in the form of pederasty was however diverse from one polis to another, and so were the modalities of the relationships as well as the role of sex in them. Crete provides us with the oldest example of pederasty expressed through the so called arpaghé, the ritual kidnapping of a young boy performed by a full-grown man who for the next two moths would have been teaching him how to become a great hunter and fighter so that the child could then return to his community as an adult.

Since it was considered normal for the young scholar to give himself to his teacher as a sign of gratitude, during this period if the boy did consent to it, the two of them could engage in a sexual relationship that usually ended with their comeback. Moving from the Greek island to the city of Athens this tradition began to turn from an aristocratic institution for the youth education to a custom where men competed and paid for the boys’ attentions, giving birth to a sort of prostitution market powerfully criticized by many, Plato in primis.

The philosopher explained his conceptions about the erastes-eromenos relation in two of his most famous dialogues, the Symposium and the Phaedrus: developing Socrates’ lesson he claims that love can be earthly or spiritual and that, since the latter is placed at higher cultural level, the true erastes won’t be blinded by low carnal desires but will always prefer the beauty of the soul rather than the attractiveness of the body.

As well as any other matter in Sparta homosexuality was regulated by the laws of Lycurgus, and exactly to the Doric populations hailing from this polis belong the first inscriptions attributable to the Greek alphabet that can be found near the temple of Apollo Karneios on the island of Santorini; the writings show the early existence of a cult of the god culminating in a ritual called Gymnopaedia which involved homosexual intercourses among the participating adolescents.

Besides we know that male Spartans were used to ive in military compounds, separated from the women population since their childhood up until the retirement from the soldierly life at about the age of thirty-five: therefore gay relations should have been common and probably encouraged too, with the objective of strengthening the bonding between the fighters. Despite these dissimilarities, generally speaking everywhere in classical Greece a man was supposed to form a family and have kids in his adulthood because wedding was considered a social duty detached from our modern conceptions of love and sexual preferences.

Thus heterosexual intercourses were fostered by society and coexisted with gay practices: we could say that an adult male had a two-faced sexual life, one private, conventional, involving a straight marriage with children maybe supplemented by affairs with prostitutes and paramours, and one public, in which he celebrated his culture and virility showing himself in company of beautiful adolescents considered the greatest expression of kalòs.

Whence I think we can say that Greek men were generally bisexual, even if this kind of classification doesn’t really apply to the classical antiquity because there wasn’t a sharp and conscious distinction between what we now intend with hetero and homosexuality, and in a matter of fact they’d rather use the general term aphrodisia (love, sexual desire) to categorize these practices.

In conclusion I believe we can’t really express about pederasty’s social consideration a definitive judgment that could work throughout the whole Greek antiquity because the perspective from which it was pondered did of course keep changing over history, and besides we always need to keep in mind that the sources available to us are the product of a specific and privileged minority, that didn’t share the same point of view with the rest of the population whose voice will probably remain unheard.

What we can certainly say though, is that Greeks didn’t evaluate homosexuality for itself because to them it was complementary to heterosexuality: they were both a legitimate manifestation of a man’s desire for love and beauty and both equally disapproved when they led to violence, prostitution or any other kind of excess; an interpretation all in all more progressive than many contemporary ones.

Cite this Homosexuality in Ancient Greece

Homosexuality in Ancient Greece. (2016, Oct 09). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/homosexuality-in-ancient-greece/

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