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The Past

How the ancient Greeks viewed pederasty and homosexuality

In many city-states, it was perfectly acceptable for older men to have sexual relationships with young boys.
Pederasty
Pederasty in ancient Greece is well-documented through writing and art. (Credit: Louvre / Wikipedia)
Key Takeaways
  • In ancient Greece, pederasty was the practice of older men serving as mentors to young boys in exchange for sexual favors.
  • This practice was widespread, though customs and attitudes differed drastically from Greek city-state to city-state.
  • In Sparta, it was part of the culture; in Athens, laws were made to curb pederasty and homosexuality in general.

As the French philosopher Michel Foucault argued in his book The History of Sexuality, the things we consider acceptable and unacceptable are dictated by our cultures and, as such, are subject to change. Behavior that is tolerated in one part of the world might be completely inexcusable in another place or time period, and this is especially true when it comes to sex.

For a good example, look no further than ancient Greece. The way that Plato, Aristotle, and their contemporaries conceived of human sexuality was fundamentally different from the way we do today. Hellenistic scholars doubt the Greeks would have been able to understand the modern distinction between homosexual and heterosexual relationships. In classical antiquity, people didn’t care if you were attracted to men or women; what mattered was whether you were the dominant (active) or submissive (passive) partner in the bedroom.

Not only did the Greeks have a different way of thinking about sexuality, but they also condoned a type of semi-romantic, semi-sexual relationship that would never be permitted in Western countries today: pederasty. Pederasty, as David Bain summarizes in his review of Die griechische Knabenliebe by Harald Patzer, refers to “the practice whereby young men pursue pubescent boys and enter into short-term relationships with them which expire when the boy becomes a man.”

A relief depicting the poet Anacreon and his young lover. (Credit: Quora / Wikipedia)

Pederasty was widespread across the disjointed city-states that made up ancient Greece. In some of his philosophical dialogues, Plato suggests that even Socrates enjoyed the company of young, male lovers. But while pederasty itself was everywhere, social attitudes toward the practice varied from region to region. In some communities, like Sparta, relationships between boys and men were explicitly permitted, even institutionalized. In other places, such as Athens, laws were put in place to eradicate what was slowly being regarded as an archaic, unnatural tradition.

Pederasty in Sparta

Most of what we know about pederasty in Sparta comes from classical texts written by outside observers. One of the characters in Plato’s Laws stresses that homosexuality in the warrior civilization was not just socially acceptable, but universally practiced.

According to Plutarch, who was born long after Greece had been incorporated into Rome, pederasty was deeply embedded in the Spartan ritual system, specifically in the agōgē: the arduous training program that turned boys into soldiers. Describing life in the agōgē, Plutarch writes that shortly after the boys turned 12 years old, “they were favoured with the society of lovers from among the reputable young men.” He continues:

“The boys’ lovers also shared with them in their honour or disgrace; and it is said that one of them was once fined by the magistrates because his favourite boy had let an ungenerous cry escape him while he was fighting. Moreover, though this sort of love was so approved among them that even the maidens found lovers in good and noble women, still, there was no jealous rivalry in it, but those who fixed their attentions on the same boys made this rather a foundation for friendship with one another, and persevered in common efforts to make their loved one as noble as possible.”

In Sparta, pederasty was institutionalized. (Credit: Den Hirschsprungske Samling / Wikipedia)

It has been argued that pederasty originated from coming-of-age rituals that could date back as far as the Stone Age. In Sparta, the practice had adapted to the city-state’s unique culture, which emphasized community over family. Children were raised by the agōgē, not their parents. The older lovers — called erastes in academic literature — had as much authority over their beloveds as their biological fathers did. The idea, as Plutarch puts it, was that “they were all in a sense the fathers and tutors and governors of all the boys.”

Athenian laws

In ancient Athens, things were a little more complicated. While most Athenians believed there was nothing wrong with a man being in love with or feeling attracted to another man, there were, as David Cohen explains in his article, “Law, Society and Homosexuality in Classical Athens,” mixed feelings about males “adopting a submissive role that was unworthy of a free citizen.” There appear to have been no laws prohibiting homosexual relations in general.

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There was, however, a law that prohibited you from committing what was known as hubris: the act of humiliating or dishonoring another person for one’s own gratification. A quintessentially Greek concept, hubris not only encompassed prostitution and sexual assault, but also “consensual” relationships. According to Cohen, men who consented to being the submissive partner were “often described as committing hubris against themselves.” Crucially, the same standards did not apply to slaves who — being slaves — were perceived as lacking both pride and honor.

“Current scholarship on pederasty,” Cohen repeats, “asserts that there was no law prohibiting an Athenian male from consummating a sexual relationship with a free boy without using force or payment.” That said, scholars have found many statutes that seem to address pederasty indirectly. The law against hubris is one example. Another is a law that prevented boys as well their teachers from entering a schoolhouse before dawn or after dusk.

Homosexuality and nature

Why did Athens seek to limit pederasty when so many other city-states, including Sparta, openly permitted it? This question does not have a clear answer. Evidence suggests that Athenians did not have any issues with age differences as time went on — young girls were married to older men all the time — but, rather, with homosexuality itself.

Greek art depicting two men fondling. (Credit: Quora / Wikipedia)

In Laws, Plato argues that homosexuality is unnatural because, in nature, male animals only mate with female partners. Even though this is untrue — research has revealed numerous examples of homosexual and bisexual behavior in other species — Plato’s argument, like all his arguments, had a tremendous influence on Greek society. Aristotle would reach the same conclusion, professing that, because males inseminate females, they must necessarily assume a dominant, active, heterosexual role. If they don’t, adds Xenophon, they would be taking the place of women.

It is notable that Plato, Aristotle, and Xenophon were unable to separate the idea of sex from biological reproduction, rejecting (or failing to consider) the modern notion that it is perfectly okay for people to have intercourse for the sake of pleasure, or that they should pick partners and sexual roles that they feel affirm their personal identities.

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