A theory on ancient Greek homosexuality?

**Preamble: ** There is still a modern controversy about the role and level of acceptance of homosexuality in ancient Greece. I have found that modern Greeks can be among the most homophobic of people in their reaction to this idea. For example, there was an attempt by modern Greeks to ban the recent Oliver Stone movie about Alexander the Great because his relationship to Hephaestion was shown as having a sexual side.

It seems obvious that what we are hearing is modern Greeks conditioned to homophobic thinking by 2000 years of Christianity and Greek Orthodoxy.

Also, when we hear about the attitudes of ancient Greeks, often what we are really talking about are Athenians and to a lesser degree other Greeks like Corinthians and Thebans. But we know that marriage, sexuality and social interaction were very different in Sparta.

My question: So keeping in mind that what I am saying is perhaps mostly appropriate to ancient Athens, can anyone tell me if historians have considered whether the marriage patterns of Athenian men and women might not account for the tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality in that society?

I refer to the fact that Athenian men (at least of the upper classes) rarely married until they were 30, and then they married young girls of about 12 or 13!

Add to this the fact that Athenian custom and law gave fathers the right to abandon newborn children they did not wish to raise, and the fact that many families prefered not to raise girls. This would of course have created a population in which there were many more males than females.

So we end up with the following demographics:

A population in which most young males from puberty to 30 (remember that males reach their sexual peak at 19) are not married. Lotsa ragin’ hormones there! :smiley:

A population in which almost all females from puberty on are already married, and jealously guarded by their husbands.

So what are all these young, horny Athenian lads supposed to do for the first 18 year of their active sex life?

Sex with another man’s wife is difficult, and would create great social disruption and conflict.

We also have a situation in which young men make a cult of perfecting their bodies through sporting events in the nude (“gymnasium” comes from the Greek word “gymnos” meaning “naked”).

Add all this up and what would you expect? A society that is very tolerant of homosexual behaviour because it takes up a great deal of the “slack” with a minimum of social disrupotion, and also very tolerant of female prostitution (for those who are incurably straight or bisexual). One would expect that many prostitutes, far from being shuned or deprecated, would become famous and respected practitioners of their art.

In fact, this is exactly what appears to have been the case in ancient Athens and other Greek city-states as well.

Does this theory make any sense?

Your theory rests on the assumption that the majority of ancient Athenians followed similar marriage patterns. In practice, this was not the case. Athenians were typically divided into four social classes. Among the elite, your analysis is more convincing. Women were frequently cloistered in the gynaikeon, married at age 12, and had very little practical education. As you descend lower down the social ladder, this picture changes tremendously. Women married older and had substantially more freedom.

Furthermore, there was no shortage of prostitutes in classical Athens. Even a cursory survey of ostraka and vase painting reveals a very lively sex trade. I do not think that the evidence supports a belief that a dearth of eligible women yielded greater acceptance of homosexuality.

And Athens, at least, wasn’t all that tolerant of homosexuality. What it was tolerant of was homosexual pedophilia and ephebophilia. So, you see a lot of relationships between men and “beardless youths”, but not so much homosexual relationships between equals.

[QUOTE=Captain Amazing]
What it was tolerant of was homosexual pedophilia and ephebophilia. QUOTE]
Hopefully I wasn’t the only one who had to look up “Ephebophilia”


Somewhere between a quarter and a third of the Athenian population were slaves and could have a rather tough life - (some of these slaves were the babies left outside the walls).

Reagrdless, re the OP some of the sexual steam could have been let off via slavery - esp. in wealthy households that had probably had many slaves.

The idea of any sexual relationship as involving equals would be hard to find in ancient Greece or Rome; the stigmatised sexual behaviour was to be penetrated; to penetrate was OK, regardless of gender (but not regardless of social or marital status).

This does not mean, of course, that sexual relationships between equals (eg, speculatively, soldiers on campaign) did not occur.

Weren’t a couple of Plato’s comrades (mentioned in the Symposium) rather famously gay? The impression I got from that work was that homosexual relationships between adults were regarded as uncommon, but not stigmatized.

Maybe. I recall Richard Sennett wrote in Flesh and Stone, “Homosexuality between adults was considered ridiculous.”

There are also some interesting insights on Greek love (and art, and politics, and culture, and philosophy) in Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, by Thomas Cahill.

Regarding the OP: Remember also that a Greek boy would grow inspired by gay-themed cultural memes like the Achilles-Patroclus relationship in the Iliad, the story of Harmodios and Aristogeiton, the myth of Zeus and Ganymede, the myth of Pan and Daphnis, etc. That’s bound to have some influence on a young man’s mind. And a boy of the citizen class would see female non-relatives of his own class only at festivals (the rest of the time they were shut up in the house); otherwise all the women he would see in the streets would be slaves, foreigners or prostitutes. Obviously one couldn’t have any kind of meaningful relationship with them! Meanwhile he’s encouraged to go as often as possible to the public palaestra with other free young Hellenic citizens and strip naked and rub olive oil all over his body and work out . . . putting the shot . . . hurling the javelin . . . wrestling in the sand . . .

It’s important to draw a distinction between the two. Up until the 20th century, it was not uncommon to consider 12-14 to be “marrying age” for girls – mainly because our life expectancy was so short, girls HAD to marry young in order to still be alive when their children reached maturity! Also, the age of puberty was a few years older than today. It’s only been in recent times – the last few decades, in fact – that sexual relationships between adults & adolescents was considered equivalent to raping six-year-old children.

Indeed, the ancient Greek practice of pederasty was limited to boys no younger than 12 or 13 – I don’t think anything younger than that was tolerated. As far as I know, true blue pedophilia (attraction to children under the age of puberty) has NEVER been tolerated in ANY human culture…except, perhaps, the most primitive of societies.

I’ve heard a similar attitude prevails today in Europe and the Arab world; no cite.

BTW, in the same book, Sennett mentions that in the decorous form of pederasty, there was a strict no-penetration rule (much honored in the breach, I’m sure). You wouldn’t expect your young eromenos to suck it or take it up the ass – that was the kind of thing a gentleman did to his slaves. It was demeaning for a citizen. Instead they were supposed to limit contact to petting and frottage and such.

Furthermore, Greek pederasty was not merely an amusement but an actual social and educational institution; the elder was expected to be his lover’s tutor and mentor and role model in all things.

Of course, the idea of a “gay lifestyle” or “gay community” or “gay marriage” would have completely astonished the Greeks. A citizen’s homosexual love affairs must never be allowed to interfere with his duties to his family and polis, including the duty to get married and sire children.

The one thing that always gets me about these conversations is that the timeline given to “The Ancient Greeks” spans 1000 years. Trying to label the whole period seems ridiculous to me. Even taking a small slice from Socrates’ birth (c. 470BC) to Aristotle’s death (c. 322bc) covers 150 years. Doncha think that some attitudes could have changed just a little in this time? I mean, look at the changing attitudes towards queers in the last 30 years!

Also, we are also speaking about an area that covers most of the Meditteranean…In our age of instant communication, cultural change still takes a long time to spread. Athens might have been one way, for one period of time, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the area followed in those steps. Or are we to assume that as soon as a ship sailed into Ephesus from Athens that an immediate cultural change happened? “Oh, those bearded young men are soooooo last week. Athenians are only gang-banging boys 15.5 years old, dahlink!”


Eh? Europe? Any particular bit? London? Istanbul?

Not often we see the words ‘Europe’ and ‘Arab world’ mentioned in the same breath when talking about homosexuality!

The OP very explicitly referred to the Athenian polis.

Yeah, that made me laugh too. :slight_smile:

I’ve heard the same about the middle east. No cite except my roommate who was in the navy.

Here’s a question to consider: what comic sense would Aristophanes’ greatest play, “Lysistrata,” have made if the great majority of Greek men weren’t passionately heterosexual?

How could the women of Athens hope to use sex as a weapon to end the Peloponnesian War, if Greek males were really buggering boys as fequently as you suppose?

You underestimate the power of the male’s sexual desire, grasshopper. Just because you’re getting some doesn’t mean you don’t want more, hell, it may only exacerbate it.

‘Lysistrata’ is also, let us not forget, a comedy. In another comedy on gender-related themes (Ecclesiazusae), Aristophanes has women take over the Athenian assembly and completely change the social structure of the city!

No one is, I think, disputing the primacy of the marital relationship to Athenian male sexuality - it was, after all, the only way to produce legitimate offspring. But the fact was, Athenian citizen males had a very wide range of sexual outlets: wives, slaves (of both sexes), prostitutes (of both sexes), and young citizen boys (probably, as has been said, only for ‘intercrural’ intercourse).

In the interest of fighting ignorance, I took a surf through the craiglist m4m personals in my small (50,000) California college town. Accounting for lifespan changes, if you consider college being the new adolescence, and the amount of patronage implied or stated, future generations might draw some parallels.