Homosexuality in Ancient Greece - One Big Lie?
You may have heard that homosexuality was celebrated in ancient Greece more than any other place and time. Some scholars have even called ancient Athens a gay paradise, where same-sex romance flourished without discrimination and prejudice. However, sexuality was framed very differently in ancient Greece than it is in the modern Western World.
A Closer Look at Homosexuality in Ancient Greece
In recent years, we have witnessed an undeniable advancement of the LGBT rights through several legal cases and political campaigns. For many years, LGBT people had to remain silent and hide their sexual preference, but that’s not the case anymore. Sociologists suggest that this is nothing but the result of decades of oppression. Like other oppressed minorities, gay people have a reason to voice their hardships and accomplishments. However, violating and altering history in the name of gay pride is not necessary.
One historical situation that is often sourced in the name of gay pride is the ancient Greek society and several ancient Greek historical figures that are falsely portrayed as gay in pop culture. The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is an example of this. In the Iliad, Homer describes a deep and loving friendship between the two men, but never explicitly casts the two as lovers. Many modern interpreters of the story, however, have felt comfortable with using the characters’ relationship as evidence of gay glorification in ancient Greek literature and culture.
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Achilles tending Patroclus wounded by an arrow, identified by inscriptions on the upper part of the vase. Tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix, circa 500 BC. From Vulci. ( Public Domain )
Alexander the Great is another popular example. Even though the available historical sources clearly indicate that the Greek king had different female lovers each night, he is considered the most famous gay man of antiquity, simply because a screenwriter in Hollywood imagined him as one. In reality, Alexander the Great most likely slept with more women than Hugh Hefner! But how did we end up with these false misconceptions about ancient Greek society and homosexuality?
The whole thing officially opened up by Kenneth Dover's work Greek Homosexuality in 1978. Since then, as MacDowell points out , homosexuality in ancient Greece “has been discussed a good deal, mainly from a sociological and anthropological point of view.” However, few mention Athenian laws against homosexuality . It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to speculate that a decorated and experienced historian such as Dover avoided this account of the official stance of Athens on homosexuality. Instead, he based his research and conclusions on certain pieces of such art as vase painting and the idealized depiction of homoerotic relationships described briefly by Plato in some of his works.
Pederastic scene: erastes (lover) touching chin and genitals of the eromenos (beloved). Side A of an Attic black-figure neck-amphora, c irca 540 BC. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Only Seeing Sexuality
There’s no doubt that same-sex activity existed in ancient Greece, just like it always existed in every corner of the planet – in men, women, and even animals. What’s critical to understand though, is that homosexuality never flourished in Greece as so many people falsely believe today. The biggest misconception of all is that there was a term known as “homosexuality.” Contrary to popular belief, the word "homosexual" is a modern invention. It was used for the first time in 1869 by the Hungarian physician Karoly Maria Benkert (1824-1882). As noted in an article on Livius.org: “In ancient Greece, there was not a word to describe homosexual practices: they were simply part of aphrodisia, love, which included men and women alike.”
To put it simply, some Greek men didn’t discriminate when it came to sex - to them any sexual activity was just “sexuality.” Not homosexuality or heterosexuality. They framed it as more on the terms of “giving” and “receiving”. Unless you were a woman, however, it was looked down upon to enjoy receiving. Interestingly, those who enjoyed “receiving” were stigmatized within the Athenian society and were kinaidoi (men who allowed other men to penetrate them). This was a degrading word, suggesting ancient Athens, the so-called open-minded Greek city-state of antiquity, wasn’t gay-friendly at all.
The rest of the ancient Greek city-states would be classified as “macho” societies nowadays, with Sparta being disapproving of men who engaged in homosexual activities. It was a general characteristic of macho societies that being dominant (or “giving”) was noble, while being submissive (“receiving”) was the opposite. For a Corinthian or a Spartan male to deliberately choose a submissive sexual role, he was seen as a type of traitor, one who accepted being ignoble for sexual pleasure, when he could be noble.
‘A spartan woman giving a shield to her son’ (1826) by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier. ( Public Domain )
If anything, the ancient Greeks viewed homosexuality as a shameful default by nature. That is why in the entire Hellenic literature of the ancient era, there is not a single description of a homosexual act, whereas there are plenty of heterosexual acts described in detail, with Zeus being one of the most prominent heterosexual alpha males of antiquity.
Greek Philosophy’s Views on Homosexuality
What we learn from Xenophon is that Socrates wasn’t a teacher who took advantage of his younger students as modern pop culture commonly presents. Instead, the legendary philosopher did not allow any physical contact between him and his younger students. According to his teachings , any kind of sexual activity or “other physical contact between a teacher and student were simply unacceptable.”
The most famous student of Socrates, Plato, is another notable ancient Greek whose writings have been totally misunderstood and taken out of context. Indeed, Plato wrote that “the only type of real love is the love between two men”, and he dedicated two of his dialogues to that subject: the Symposium and the Phaedrus. However, the kind of love he meant didn’t include homosexuality or any kind of sexual activity. James Davidson, a professor of ancient history at the University of Warwick, wonders in an article published by The Guardian , how someone like Plato who “worshiped” love between men could at the same time describe sex between men as an “utterly unholy act”. The answer is very simple.
Symposium, Fresco from the Tomb of the Diver. 475 BC. ( Public Domain )
The kind of love between two men that Plato described in Symposium focuses on the beauty of the soul above that of the body. As Plato clearly states in his works, the love (or friendship if you prefer) between two men is above the love a man has for a woman, as in most cases this kind of love includes sex. According to Plato, spiritually loving another male highlights the absolute beauty of the soul and is the epitome of selfless love that can be compared only with the love between a parent and his/her child. In other words, Plato worshiped what youngsters would nowadays describe as “bromance,” but he was strictly against what we define today as homosexuality.
Oscar Wilde’s Depiction of a Gay Utopia
Even before Kenneth Dover's controversial book Greek Homosexuality, several people attempted to rewrite history. For all his greatness as a poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde was one such person. In his attempt to defend same-sex love, Wilde created an alternative narrative of history in which homosexual love had blossomed. And he picked ancient Greece as the ideal society to locate his gay utopia.
The famous writer rewrote the history of Greece and offered a gay version of classical antiquity in which his own 19th-century passion joined a continuous tradition that stretched back to the very foundation of European civilization.
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Oscar Wilde portrait by Napoleon Sarony. ( Public Domain )
As The Conversation has reported in the past, Wilde’s propagandistic speeches and works were so fierce and inspiring that they were usually “greeted with loud and spontaneous applause from the courtroom’s” galleries he picked to spread his own homosexual fantasies of the past. Despite the bold and elegant language Wilde used in his “gay campaigns”, all contemporary historians agree that very little – if anything – in his speeches were true.
Regardless, the fantasies and imaginative stories of Wilde continued and have been in constant circulation since his time. Wilde’s scenarios have been used repeatedly in the 19th and 20th centuries and keep citing the same straight Greek personalities of the past in order to make a point that never existed. Judging from today’s beliefs and theories of many people around the world about ancient Greece and homosexuality, one could claim that Wilde’s attempt to rewrite the sexual past of Classical Greece was quite successful, even though it is completely untrue.
Were the Ancient Greeks Gay-Friendly After All?
In order to understand how the ancient Greeks viewed sexuality, one has to investigate history with a fair mind. A historian has to control his personal beliefs and sexual preference when he’s conducting historical research. More importantly, the available historical sources that clearly demonstrate the beliefs of a certain culture should never be underestimated or ignored simply because they are not in agreement with our modern-day beliefs and practices.
Dover, for example, wrote a book 40 years ago basing his theories on a few vase painting artifacts from the thousands that have been found throughout the years. Imagine if our descendants judged our culture and society from a Gangsta Rapper’s album cover or a pornographic DVD in a thousand years from now. Would that represent the billions of people today? On the other hand, there are available sources – which Dover and Wilde of course ignored – that give us a clear idea of how the majority of the ancient Greeks felt about romance and sex.
The plot of the famous play Lysistrata by Aristophanes is one of the many examples. In this play, Athenian women choose to withold sex from their husbands in order to compel them to cease war with Sparta. If homosexuality was so widely practised in Athens, such a strategy would be ineffective as they could turn to each other to satisify their desires. But what occurred was that the men gave in quickly and stopped their war because they could not withstand this compulsory abstinence.
Lysistrata, original etching by Frédéric-Auguste Laguillermie, published in Almanach des spectacles, Paris, Jouaust/Librairie des bibliophiles - Flammarion succ. ( Public Domain )
Also it is reported by Persian and Indian historians that the vast majority of Alexander the Great’s men wanted to return back home because they missed their women. Alexander married Roxane in an attempt to encourage them to mix with local women, but most of them not only weren’t gay but had a strong preference for Greek women. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of similar examples one can use to counter the misrepresentation of homosexuality in ancient Greece.
The Greek attitude to same-sex attraction was not nearly as permissive or free as many have assumed. Investigating the available historical sources that refer to same-sex “romance” amongst the ancient Greeks will help anyone to conclude that there is a huge difference between the actual facts and nostalgia of a desired utopia that never existed. Most of all, it is really dangerous and unethical to fail to differentiate the two.
Top Image: ‘The Fall of the Titans’ (1588-1590) by Cornelis van Haarlem. Source: Public Domain
Munro, A. (2018) ‘The Myth of Homosexuality in Ancient Greece.’ Council of European Canadians. Available at: https://www.eurocanadian.ca/2018/04/the-myth-of-homosexuality-in-ancient-greece.html
Blanchard, A. (2017) ‘ Friday essay: the myth of the ancient Greek ‘gay utopia.’ The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/friday-essay-the-myth-of-the-ancient-greek-gay-utopia-88397
MacDowell, D. (2000) ‘Athenian Laws About Homosexuality.’ Revue Internationale des droits de l'Antiquité . Available at: http://local.droit.ulg.ac.be/sa/rida/file/2000/macdowell.pdf
Davidson, J. (2007) Mad about the boy.’ The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/nov/10/history.society
Livius.org (2018) ‘Greek Homosexuality.’ Livius.org. Available at: http://www.livius.org/articles/concept/greek-homosexuality/