Blog Post One: Homosexuality in Ancient Greek Culture

File:Erastes eromenos Staatliche Antikensammlungen 1468.jpg

(Source: Haiduc, Wikipedia) Pederastic scene: erastes (lover) touching chin and genitals of the eromenos (beloved). Side of Attic black-figure neck-amphora, ca. 540 BC.

Some may argue that homosexuality is a product of a deranged world society, that same-gender attraction is unnatural, an abomination, and even a sign of the the end of days as predicted in religious texts.

However, there are others that would argue that same- gender attraction is perfectly normal, healthy even, an expression of affection just as heterosexual relationships.

Ancient Greek society did not consider sexuality to be a preference for one gender or another. It was a completely normal and socially accepted practice for older men to take on a younger male lover, a practice known as pederasty.  The older man would received the physical intimacies of the younger boy while the younger boy would enjoy advancement in education, position, or political standing in return from the older male. Pederasty was accepted and practice by many Greeks of the time, noting that reciprocity in the relationship made it more stable than relationships of heterosexual nature (Nussbaum,17).

In pederasty the two players are known as the lover, the erastes, and the beloved, the eromenos.  The lover is the older man.  His is the role of dominance, of pursuit of the younger boy and enjoying the physical affection of his eromenos.  The beloved is usually a younger male, usually a teenager who cannot grow a full beard, who is to be submissive to his lover. The beloved is not supposed to enjoy the physical intimacy aspects of the relationship, but rather he was to benefit from the political advancements and the opportunities for education(Nussbaum, 14-15).

While this all sounds like the perfect storm for wide-spread pedophilia, that was not supposed to be the case.  The purpose of pederasty was to allow the erastes to enjoy the beauty and talents of the youth and advance the eromenos in secular ways that he could not by himself.

There were many critics of pederastic relationships that included sexually erotic actions.  In his Symposium, Plato encouraged the lover’s affection to be more for the beloved’s talents and abilities and to leave copulation out of the relationship, condemning erotic behavior as immoral.

In the army, some military units used pederastic relationships to their strategic advantage. “My claim is that being found out by [the eromenos] would cause [the erastes] more distress than being found out by his father, his friends, or anyone else… I mean, it goes without saying that the last person a lover wants to be seen by, in the act of deserting or throwing away his weapons, is his boyfriend; however many times he had to choose, he would rather die than that.  And as for abandoning his boyfriend or not helping him when danger threatens- well, possession by Love would infuse even utter cowards with courage and make them indistinguishable from those to whom bravery comes most easily.  The effect that love has on lovers is exactly what Homer described, when he talked about a god “breathing might” into some hero or other,” (Plato, 178d-179b)

Thebes had an elite military unit known as ‘The Sacred Band Of Thebes’ in the fourth century BC supposedly composed of exclusively homosexual couples.   Proving Plato’s theory that lovers would fight most valiantly in defense of their lovers, the Sacred Band, with help from Athens and other major cities, successfully defended Thebes from Spartan invasion at the Battle of Leuctra. So much honor and general respect for The Sacred Band Of Thebes surrounded them at the time of their defeat that there was a monument erected in their honor atop a common tomb after their defeat at Chaeronea (“Sacred Band Of Thebes”).

Sparta, a notably militaristic area of ancient Greece, was also known for their embrace of pederasty and other homosexual relationships.  Due to the militaristic nature of Spartan society, men were often away from their wives for long periods of time.  Homosexual acts were not uncommon in the Spartan army and were seen as a way to satisfy sexual appetites that are natural.

Compared to modern culture, women of ancient Greece had relatively few rights.  However, they did participate in homosexual acts just as the men of ancient Greece did.  Evidence for the existence of female-female relationships can be seen in the poetry of Sappho, a female poet born about 620 BCE.

Even though poets and philosophers often represent counterculture rather than popular culture, Nussbaum said “it’s difficult to believe that [homosexuality] would be put forward to a highbrow audience as something that would be well received if it in no way corresponded to an accepted reality,” (14).

While it is uncertain just how big of a role homosexuality played in ancient Greek life due to the lack of primary sources that clearly represent popular culture of the time, it is clear that homosexual practices were accepted by ancient Greek society. One thing that the reader must consider is that homosexual relationships were looked at with a much different perspective in antiquity than they are in modern society. Pederasty, a homosexual relationship between a man and a younger boy, was one that there is evidence of occurring throughout Greece with varied frequency depending on the region.  The overall role of homosexuality in the Ancient Greek army is unclear, though it is clear that there were military units comprised exclusively of homosexual couples like The Sacred Band Of Thebes.

Works Cited:

Dover, K.J.  Greek Homosexuality. 1st ed.  New York: Random House, 1980. Print.

Haiduc,Erastes and Eromenos,2005-01-21, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Erastes_eromenos_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_1468.jpg&gt;, red-figure pottery,Feb. 8, 2014.

“Homosexuality in ancient Greece.” Wikipedia. Web.  5 Feb 2014.  <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosexuality_in_ancient_Greece. >

Nussbaum, Martha C. “Other Times, Other Places: Homosexuality In Ancient Greece.”Annual Of Psychoanalysis 30.(2002): 9. Academic Search Premier. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.

“Pederasty.” Wikipedia. Web.  5 Feb 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pederasty&gt;

“Pederasty in ancient Greece.” Wikipedia. Web. 5 Feb 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pederasty_in_ancient_Greece&gt;

“Sacred Band of Thebes.” Wikipedia. Web.  5 Feb 2014.  <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacred_Band_of_Thebes&gt;

“Sappho.” Wikipedia. Web. 11 Feb 2014.< http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sappho>

Waterfield, Robin, trans. Plato’s Symposium. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Print.

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