ancient sexuality

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Book Report: “The Greeks and Greek Love”

Published July 21, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Heh, sorry for the silly “Book Report” title, but I am a student, right? (And you can tell I composed this off-line in a word processor and then copy-pasted, ‘cause I have accented letters! Ooh, fancy! Maybe there’s a sole advantage to my computer being down. Sigh.)

Anyway, since I’ve finally finished reading The Greeks and Greek Love by James Davidson, I thought I’d give you a run-down on the highlights. But the bottom line, of course, is that if you’re interested in the social/homosocial/homosexual history of ancient Greece, you should definitely read this book, because it’s very thoroughly researched, and the writing style is very light and engaging. (Despite how long it took me to read it, which had more to do with the fact that I tend to spend most of my time playing games and blogging than anything to do with the book itself.)

Much of the early historical work on homosexuality in ancient Greece (*cough*cough*Dover*cough*cough*) and most of the current popular perception of the ancient Greeks is that there was one set of homosexual behavioral patterns in use, obeying one theoretical model. One of Davidson’s major points is that just as in all other matters, in their attitudes towards homosexuality, the ancient Greeks were widely varied, because what we now call “ancient Greece” was a collection of independent city-states spread across a number of centuries. There’s a good summary from the conclusion:

 From such wide-ranging explorations we can draw one uncontroversial conclusion straightaway: There were lots of different kinds of homosexuality in ancient Greece rather than one single mos Graecorum. It manifests itself differently in different materials, in paint or in poetry; in different places, Elis or Macedonia; in different times, fourth-century Athens or archaic Lesbos c. 600 BC. It is a rather different thing when the lovers are Spartan women, gods and heroes, comrades-in-arms or master and slave. There is the bloodthirsty self-sacrificing love of Achilles for his “dear companions,” the sweet and playful erōs of the Lyric poets, the patriotic erōs of Pericles’ funeral speech, the eros of Plato’s Academy, ambitious for knowledge, the erōs of the potter’s quarters, exporting to the four corners of the ancient world acclamation of the beauty of local boys, the erōs of the monument to the Tyrant Slayers, the whorish homosexuality of Aeschnes’ speech “Against Timarchus,” and of the strange letters supposed to have been written by Alexander, forcefully rejecting ill-conceived offers to send him the most beautiful boys in the world, the squalid, squabbling homosexual lust of Lysias’ speech “Against Simon,” the rampant katapugones of Aristophanes and the writers of graffiti, the monstrous, seductive, predator kinaidoi, the rather too obvious sexual proclivities of Misgolas and Autoclides mocked in the fragments of the comic poets of the fourth century BC, the same-sex sex acts Plato would like to discourage in Laws on the grounds that they don’t conform with nature.

Yeah, Plato’s on there twice. (He changed his mind as he turned into a bitter old man. As far as anyone can tell, anyhow.)

Due to the computer going down and preventing me from writing this up closer to when I finished the book, it’s already growing fuzzy in my malfunctioning brain cells (well, there’s also the fact that I’ve been going nuts panicking over the computer, and various other things going weird/wrong/crazy since then) I’m having trouble calling to mind all the things I wanted to say about the book, and the order in which I wanted to say them. The really big thing I want to talk about—its impact on my writing, re: the relationship between Achilles and Patroclos—should be its own post, so I’ll give that a teaser and say that he provided an explanation for that particularly erotic Aischylos fragment that I would never have guessed at, and which—while an awesome explanation—would completely shatter a lot of my fiction if I accepted it as “the” version. (Then again, it’s just one ancient author’s version, so it’s not like I’d have to accept it.) Anyway, that’s going to be its own post, so look forward to it. (If you’re into Achilles/Patroclos and/or listening to me whine about my lousy fiction-writing.)

I mentioned a while ago that one of the chapters informed me that men in ancient Greece hit puberty much later, about eighteen years old. They were also strictly protected until they hit puberty, as well. So all the stuff about romancing a “boy” you hear in, say Plato’s Symposium? They’re talking about a “boy” between the age of eighteen and twenty. It was actually punishable by death to talk to a boy under eighteen if he didn’t have a chaperone of some sort around. So what about pots showing men and little boys? Well, Davidson suspects—and all anyone can do is guess, obviously, ‘cause the Greeks, unlike the later Romans, didn’t like to write about sex, so they tended to skirt around the issue—they were probably either “bad boy images” or images of “what not to do,” and “how not to behave.”

 Now it is quite possible that seducing under-Eighteens was a matter similar to the question of taking drugs in our own society, that there were ferocious laws againt it, universal condemnation, yet still it took place on a large scale. But the Peithinos Cup is not a window on reality, a news report. It is a work of art that demands to be read in context. It belongs to the same world of values as the texts, and cannot escape from it, any more than some modern portrait painter, dependent on aristocratic clients, who painted a huge exhibition canvas of schoolboys at Eton shooting up could escape from the context of the “War on Drugs.” Perhaps he might paint a true picture. Nevertheless it would be a gross error for future generations to interpret his image as a straightforward documentary photograph, a window on how things were. It would be, in other words, A Statement.

I think one way to define this book is in terms of what it doesn’t do. He doesn’t try to define the ancient Greeks en masse. He doesn’t try to explain their behavior by analogy to a modern group with no connection to them. He doesn’t try to use tenuous pychological theories to make nonsense out of fact.


Okay, that wasn’t actually such a good way to define the book, after all. (My head is not so much cleared up as I thought it was.) Basically, he looks at the original source texts—histories, myths and philosophical dialogues alike—and actually tries to understand them in context as much as anyone can, and then tries to extrapolate from there what was being said about homosexual behavior in the author’s society. It’s as sound a method as there can be, I think. The results are necessarily flawed, as any human action is, but short of a time machine, what won’t be, when you’re trying to get results about something so private over so many centuries?


Normally, when I read a book focused on only one aspect of something, I tend to find places where I’m like “oh, come on!” because there’s always something the author ignores or forces aside because it doesn’t fit their point. Really, the only thing here that gave me even a moment that approached that was that I felt like he didn’t give any weight at all to the heterosexual myths that had sprung up around characters like Achilles and Heracles in addition to their homosexual myths. (Which is not to deny the validity or antiquity of the homosexual variants. Just that the brushing aside of the bisexual side of the characters seemed a bit dismissive.)

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