Same Sex Desire in Times Past - Ancient Greece
Compiled by Chris Park
It can be easy to forget that ‘homosexuality’ and ‘gay’ are comparatively modern concepts and that, prior to the late 1860s, men might indulge in same-sex behaviour but were unlikely to have a homosexual identity, even if they had the words to describe it. Having said that, the mollies of 18th century England were a early form of the broader homosexual identity of the 20th and 21st centuries. This article is the first of a proposed series based on notes taken from a 6 volume work on the history of sexuality (1). I hope that I’ve got you hooked and waiting with bated breath for the next 5 editions of Past2Present!
When we talk in modern times of 'Greek love', we most often think of the form of pederasty practised among the elite of Athens, but this was not the only model of male-male behaviour and it was certainly not typical of the ancient Greek world as a whole.
The Athenian Model
In ancient Athens, male same sex desire revolved around the erastēs (the lover) and the erōmenos (the beloved). The erastēs was ideally a young, unmarried man; the erōmenos would be a beardless boy aged between 12-18. Both belonged to the elite class of Greek society.
|The Agora in ancient Athens|
The erastēs's role was one of dominance and that of the erōmenos of subjection, in a 'zerosum' game of social advantage/disadvantage. The erastēs mentored his erōmenos, to enable him to become a full adult member of the community. For his part, the erōmenos only retained his honour by being careful in whom he accepted as a lover, by accepting extravagant gifts (but NOT money) and by not enjoying the sex. Indeed, the sexual pleasure of the passive, younger partner was somewhat irrelevant.
For Athenians, an adult male who took the role of erōmenos was a deviant. Such men, whether they were prostitutes or simply enjoyed being a 'bottom' (2) (kinaidos), were viewed as effeminate and were reviled.
This describes the ideal situation, but there are known examples that suggest that the age boundaries were porous:
● There are pots by the black-figure painter known as the Affecter which show bearded erōmenoi The Agora in ancient Athens receiving anal sex.
● In Plato's Protagoras, set in 428 BCE, Agathon was erōmenos to Pausanias – and still was in his Symposium, set 12 years later. Indeed, Plutarch mentions that at the age of 40 Agathon was erōmenos to Euripides, who was 72.
It is worth remembering that there is little actual proof of of what went on in private, so a lot is based on what society believed. Apart from the Affecter, contemporary vase paintings only showed intercrural sex (between the thighs), although the comic poet Aristophanes talks only of anal penetration.
A key part of the ethics of the system seems to have been self-mastery, as in:
● don't give yourself to the erastēs too easily, and certainly
● don't yield to too many lovers at once or at random.
Accepting money to yield would have been seen as prostitution.
There is some indication that the kinaidos was considered womanish because he was uncontrolled in his sexual desires. The Greeks seem to have viewed women as incapable of sexual self mastery because their desires could never find satisfaction in a conclusive ejaculation.
A Military Angle
In other Greek societies, homoerotic love was often part of warfare and military organisation.
In Thebes, in Boeotia, the Sacred Band ('hieros lochos') described by Plutarch was an elite infantry force of 300 men. Founded by Gorgidas (3) as early as 378 BCE, it was made up of 150 pairs of erastai and erōmenoi, who stood side by side in the battle line. Their bond was meant to encourage bravery in defending their partner. The Sacred Band remained unbeaten until it was annihilated by Philip of Macedon (Alexander the Great's father) at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE. King Philip was impressed by the Band's steadfast courage and apparently was moved to say, “May those that suppose that these men do or suffer something shameful perish!” (4)
There may have been a precursor to the Sacred Band in the 5th century BCE. Diodorus refers to a Theban elite force of 300 in 424 BCE. They were known as the hēniochoi kai parabatai (chariot-drivers and chariot-fighters). So, they were clearly divided into cooperative pairs and could have consisted of erastēs/erōmenos couples.
In contrast to the Athenian system, because only adult men served in Greek armies, both the erastai and the erōmenoi of the Sacred Band must have been adult.
The Eleans had a similar elite force. Xenophon (6) mentions their custom of placing erastai and erōmenoi side by side in the battle line. They are also known to have held beauty competitions for boys – the prize was a set of arms, which the winner would immediately dedicate to warrior-goddess Athena.
In Crete (7), the erastēs would approach the friends of the boy he desired. If they felt that he was worthy of their friend, they would assist the erastēs in ambushing him in a ritual capture.
The erastēs would take his erōmenos (8) to the men's house, or mess, present him with gifts and then take him and his friends to the country, where they would hunt and feast for two months. After that, the erastēs released the boy with traditional gifts of a military cloak, an ox for sacrifice and a drinking cup. Back in the city, the boy would feast on the ox and tell his adventures. He would decide if he was pleased with his erastēs, and whether the relationship would continue.
Handsome, well-born boys who failed to acquire an erastēs would be considered disgraced.
In Sparta, males aged 7-30 lived in the military mess, apart from the women. As they spent their life in training, the whole citizen army was an elite force, and the military culture was inevitably favourable to a culture of same sex love. It was normal for couples to fight side by side, and when Spartan leader Anaxibius sought his death in battle, his erōmenos remained at his side to the end.
Spartan vocabulary for what we now refer to as ‘homosexuality’ is not fully understood but seems to imply that the erastēs transmitted military prowess, and possibly therefore masculinity, to his erōmenos via his semen.
The erastēs was also referred to as the ‘eispnēlas’; literally, it means either ‘the one who blows in’ or ‘the one who is blown into’. The former meaning would suggest that the erastēs inseminated his erōmenos anally, the latter that it was done by fellatio. Each method has parallels to this day in tribal societies of the Keraki Indians and the Marind-Anim of New Guinea. (9) The Sambia, also of New Guinea, parallel the second possible system in their ‘flute players’ (10). In fact, same sex behaviour among the Sambia shows great similarity to that ascribed to Sparta in ancient sources, giving those sources added credibility.
Plato notes that anal sex was widely practised in Sparta and Crete and that the Spartans’ fondness for it was known to Athenian comic poets (11). They seem to have coined the term kysolakōn (translated as ‘arse-Spartan’) because of it.
Women in the Ancient Greek World
There is far less evidence for female same sex behaviour in the literature and none at all in the iconographic record. The little literary evidence available implies that sexual relations between women were often based on the male pattern and were typically institutional, though not military.
|Women drawing water at the fountain house, belly of a terracotta|
Attic black-figure hydria (vessel for carrying water), c 510-500 BCE.
In many ways, it is not surprising that Spartan women should have turned to each other, seeing so little as they did of the men.
However, the richest evidence for female same sex love comes from Sappho (14) - perhaps unsurprisingly. Sappho (known in her local dialect as Psap-phō [Ψάπφω]) is, of course, famous for her poetry of female desire and due to this English gained two words to describe female same sex behaviour: Sapphic and lesbian - the latter derived from her island home, Lesbos.
Several of Sappho's poems (usually surviving in only fragmentary form) seem to refer to sexual encounters with young girls. (15) Only one complete poem survives, the “Hymn to Aphrodite”. In it Sappho summons the goddess, who asks which girl she should compel to love Sappho this time. The language used implies erotic pursuit.
Some of her work celebrates marriage (to men), sometimes in a ribald way, but they also celebrate virginity. This virginity is not about sexlessness or deprivation for Sappho, but represents quite the opposite, the highly sexualised condition of the unmarried girls with whom she has her affairs.
Evidence for similar behaviour in other parts of the Ancient Greek world is thin on the ground. But there are a very few hints in the literary record. Around 530-520 BCE, Anacreon (16) wrote a comic poem about his desire for a girl. However, because she is from Lesbos and does not care for his head of white hair, she yearns for another. The words used allow for some ambiguity in the intent. The Greek for 'head of hair' is a feminine word and 'another' is written in a feminine form; this means in the Greek version, 'another' could refer to 'another man's head of hair' or 'another, female, person' (17). All of which tells us that Lesbos was at that point linked to female same sex behaviour.
Another poet, Asclepiades (18), working on Samos, makes a mock complaint about a pair of Samian women who refuse to follow the 'practices of Aphrodite' according to her rules, but instead prefer to do things which are not kalos ('good' or 'beautiful') and asks the goddess to punish them. It seems to be a (probably not very serious) complaint about the women's sexual preferences, but it is worth noting that elsewhere he vociferously proclaims his own desires for his own sex (19).
- Hidden History - ed. by Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus and George Chauncey Jr (New American Library, 1989) - pages 17-64
- Homosexuality & Civilisation - Louis Crompton (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003) - pages 1-31, 49-110
- Gay Life and Culture: A World History - ed. by Robert Aldrich (Thames & Hudson, 2006) - 29-55
- Homosexuality: A History - Colin Spencer (Fourth Estate, London; 1995) - pages 26, 39-52
- Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women - Leila J Rupp (UBC Press, 2009) - see chapter 3, In Ancient Worlds (3500BCE-800CE)
- The Greeks & Greek Love: A Radical Appraisal of Homosexuality in Ancient Greece - James Davidson (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2007)
- Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents - ed. Thomas K Hubbard (University of California Press, 2003)
- Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece - William Armstrong Percy III (University of Illinois Press, 1996)
- Bisexuality in the Ancient World - Eva Cantarella (Yale University Press, 1992) - pages 3-93
- Greek Homosexuality - KJ Dover (Duckworth, 1978)
- Passions of the Cut Sleeve - Brett Hinsch (University of California Press, 1990)
- Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities - ed. Stephen O Murray and Will Roscoe (MacMillan Press, 1998)
- Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History - ed. Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai (MacMillan Press, 2000)
1. For this article, the notes are based on Homosexuality, by Daniel Ogden (chapter 3 of A Cultural History of Sexuality: In the Classical World, ed by Mark Golden and Peter Toohey, published by Berg of Oxford & NewYork, 2011).
2. Bottom: a passive or receptive sexual partner; antonym: ‘top’ or ‘active’.
4. The reference is given as: Plut. Pel. 18-19.
5. Phaedimus, Anth. Pal. 13.22
7. From a piece by 4th century BCE historian, Ephorus; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ephorus
8. In Crete, he was a parastatheis or 'stander beside'; cf. the early Theban parabatai.
9. Paul Cartledge, Spartan Reflections (University of California Press, 2003), p. 100
10. GH Herdt, Guardians of the Flutes: Images of Masculinity, 2nd edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987)
11. Pl. Leg. 636b, 836ac.
13. See DA Campbell's Greek Lyric, vol 2 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, Loeb Classical Library, 1988)
17. Anacreon F358 Page/Campbell
19. Asclepiades, Anth. Pal. 5.207
|Red-figure vase by the Group of Polygnotos, ca. 440–430 BC.|
Seated, Sappho is reading one of her poems to a group of three student-friends.
National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Wikimedia Commons
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