Written by: Lisa Doyle
Sexual relations between men are amongst the most remarked upon features of ancient Greek society. It is indeed prevalent in the various sources we have for this period, including literary and visual. Although much of the scholarship and research on this subject uses the term ‘homosexuality’ to describe these relationships, this modern terminology is not strictly applicable to the ancient Greek world as the Greeks did not define themselves as such. This term carries connotations which simply do not apply to a society which was wholly different from our own. I hope to demonstrate that the conception of male sexual relations in Greece was a fluid one, and not subject to the rigid definitions which are typical of modern culture.
For the purpose of this article though, and for the sake of clarity, I shall continue to use this term. Unfortunately, this topic will have an inevitably male focus as our sources for women in antiquity, especially related to this topic, are virtually non-existent. As women were very much second-class citizens at this time, we have very little primary evidence by women relating to the female experience. It is worth mentioning, though, the Archaic poet Sappho and the speculation surrounding her sexuality. Regarding homosexuality between males, it took a very specific form in ancient Greece – the institution of pederasty, which involved the relationship between a young male and an older, wiser male companion and was very much sexual in nature. Pederasty was considered an established practice with educational benefits, and resulted in the transmission of values and learning between partners which led to the younger male becoming more informed of his very pivotal role within the polis or community. Moreover, pederasty was an effective system with which to educate and incorporate élite men into the polis. These men would, of course, go on to marry women and produce children, as befitted their role. As Andrew Lear and Eva Cantarella have argued, ‘Pederasty was practiced on a more widespread basis and with greater public approval than any other form of homosexual relations at any time in any Western culture’.
The pervasiveness of pederasty in Ancient Greek culture is evident in the many literary examples, such as in Aristophanes and Plato, and in artistic depictions of the practice which confirm its regularity and normality in Greek life. There are also, however, numerous mythological exemplars which serve only to confirm the many manifestations these relationships can take. Much of our evidence involves reinterpretations of mythological stories to fit the accepted ideal of male homo-erotic relations at the time the evidence was created. For example, one of the most famous male couples in Greek culture is Achilles, the warrior-hero, and his companion Patroclus. Their story features in the Iliad, the epic poem by Homer. The story of Achilles, and his wrath, is very much the focus of this poem, and there is much debate as to the true nature of his relationship with Patroclus. Whatever Homer’s intended depiction of the relationship was, however, is almost irrelevant, as the relationship itself was consistently depicted as homoerotic in nature thereafter. Perhaps the most convincing example from the poem is the events which follow the death of Patroclus at the hands of Hector, as Achilles’ mourning is both intense and profound, attesting to the closeness of his relationship with Patroclus. One cannot underestimate the significance of Achilles’ supposedly homo-sexual relationship as he is the ultimate warrior, exhibiting ideal notions of manly virtue, and his relationship with Patroclus, featured in a poem which was revered in Greek culture, was very much a part of that male identity.
Other examples from Greek myth and culture are plentiful. The tale of Zeus’ abduction of Ganymede, the young prince of Troy, is a very popular motif in Greek vase-painting, and illustrates another facet of male sexual relations as conceived by the Greeks. Indeed, the tale is so ingrained in mythology that the image of Ganymede being carried from Troy by Zeus as an eagle has pervaded the art and literature of subsequent periods. Not only does this example – also mentioned by Homer in the Iliad – show us that Zeus’ promiscuity is not just limited to women, it enlightens our understanding of male relationships in Greece. Similarly to other relationships typical of this pederastic culture, vase-paintings often depict the bearded Zeus pining after the fresh-faced youth. However, there are also differences with the human version of such courtship – Ganymede appears to be much younger than the standard age at which males usually engage in such relations, and there is no evidence of the mutual affection often seen in painted depictions of homosexual relations and pederasty. Indeed, the presence of the god Eros in such vase-paintings depicting pederasty would almost seem to give divine validation to the institution itself.
Further examples include the mythological hero Heracles and his companion Iolaus, another example of male companionship within a heroic model, as Iolaus travelled the world with Heracles and helped him complete some of his twelve labours. A parallel courtship can be found in the historical example of Alexander the Great and Hephaestion, a general in his army and member of his personal guard. They might be considered as one of the original power couples, as Alexander conquered the known world with Hephaestion by his side and exhibited an undeniable passion for him. They both served as exemplars, and were admired and worshipped across the Greek world. This relationship could be compared to that of Achilles and Patroclus, something Alexander was very much aware of, I am sure, as he went to bed every night with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow. Following Hephaestion’s death, Alexander engaged in the same level of mourning as Achilles, and he himself died only months later.
I hope to have demonstrated, then, the pervasiveness and varied nature of homosexual relations in ancient Greece. This phenomenon and the institution of pederasty were not received so warmly in Republican and Imperial Rome, but slaves were ultimately utilised for male sexual relations by masters. As time progressed, another noteworthy male companionship would emerge in the form of the emperor Hadrian, notable for his ‘Hellenic’ qualities, and his partner Antinous. Homo-erotic relations between males existed in this form until the Christian period.
Image: Zeus and Ganymede, 450 BC, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Ferrara
Davidson, J. (2008) The Greeks and Greek Love
Dover, K.J. (1989) Greek Homosexuality
Larson, J. (2012) Greek and Roman Sexualities
Lear, A. and Cantarella, E. (2008) Images of Ancient Greek Pederasty