Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Homosexuality in ancient Greece

The term homosexuality was primarily used by a German psychologist called Karoly Maria Benkert in the 19th century. Of course homosexuality was not ‘invented’ then but existed throughout history. In the ancient times, in Greece, people were not defined by their sexual orientation. Everything was done more freely and it was believed that someone can respond erotically to beauty in either sex.

Of course it was different for women. In ancient “democratic” Athens, women were not respected in the society and that is why her presence is not very distinctive. She couldn’t take part in the government of the city-country or protest against her husband’s will. She was considered in a slightly better position than a slave. Men moved much more freely and they could develop their relationships freely.

To give you the example of Alcibiades who was a famous Athenian general and politician of the 5th century B.C. It is said that “in his adolescence he drew away the husbands from their wives and as a young man the wives from their husbands.”


The status of a man was what defined these relationships. Given that only free men had full status, women and male slaves were not unaccepted or difficult sexual partners. The central distinction in ancient Greek sexual relations was between taking an active role, versus a passive or penetrated one. The passive role was mostly acceptable only for what it was considered inferiors, such as women, slaves, or male youths who were not yet citizens. That is why the cultural ideal of a same-sex relationship was between an older man, probably in his 20's or 30's (that was considered old then), known as the erastes (εραστές), and a boy whose beard had not yet begun to grow, the eromenos (ερωμένος). That is why each relationship was to be temporary and should end upon the boy reaching adulthood. However, while the passive role was thus seen as problematic, to be attracted to men was often taken as a sign of masculinity. The erastes had to show that they had nobler interests in the boy, rather than a purely sexual concern. The boy was not to submit too easily, and if pursued by more than one man, was to show discretion and pick the nobler one.


I would like to specially comment on Plato’s Symposium (Συμπόσιον) written in 385–380 BC which exploits the purpose of life and nature of love. It describes a drinking party, attended by seven important and powerful men like Socrates or Aristophanes who were all supposed to have a monologue praising Love based on their own life experience. This document illustrates the widespread nature of homosexuality in ancient Greek society. Not only was it considered admirable, but the Symposium presents an argument that claims homosexuality to be superior to heterosexuality.

A symposium scene (475 BC.)

Even in Greek mythology homosexuality is present. The love story between the greater of the gods Zeus and a blonde boy called Ganymede (Γανυμήδης), a young Trojan prince, was well known. Zeus fell in love with him so badly that he turned himself into an eagle that abducted Ganymede from his home town during an unprecedented storm. He flew him into Olympus, the gods’ residence, and he granted him immortality and eternal youth so that his beauty might not fade. He also made the former now price the cupbearer of the gods, making him a part of all of gods’ feasts.

Ganymede's abduction (450 BC.)

Zeus’ wife, Hera, couldn’t accept her husband’s new lover and thirsted for revenge made Greece attack the Trojans. As Ganymede looked on in horror, the Greeks slaughtered Ganymede’s kin and the whole Trojan race. All Zeus could do, was draw a veil of cloud over the butchery to shield the boy from the horrific sight. He wanted to protect the boy so he placed him beyond her reach. He set his darling among the stars as the Aquarius, the water bearer.

9 comments:

  1. Very interesting. Is it bad to admit when I was a boy I wanted an erastes to take me away?

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  2. @Cubby No, it's not bad. Bear in mind though that you have to play it hard to get. That might be tough...

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  3. Greek mythology is obviously very important to western attitudes to homosexuality - and it shows how attitudes to it can rise and fall as different influences in society achieve dominance (cf. Christianity). I think - I may be wrong - that 'straight' people consider the passive role to be the inferior one; and generally younger guys are assumed to be more passive in a relationship with an age divide. And there are lots of 'stright' men who have sex with men... and your comment about being attracted to men as a sign of masculinity is an interesting one (look at bonding among sports teams for example), illustrating how sexuality and social interaction are a spectrum rather than polar.

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  4. @Mike You raise some very good points. I agree that the passive role is considered to be the inferior one and not only by straight men. I believe there are some gay people as well that in a way agree to that.

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  5. I'm not so sure I'm down with the boy rape but it sure sounds like a funner society to grow up in, lol.

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  6. @tornwordo I'd like to think that it wasn't rape. Although it probably was. They had slaves after all.
    But it would be a bit difficult not to say they were paedophiles...

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  7. excues me, just wondering. in the first picture you have who i assume to be Alcibiades and one of his lovers. what confuses me is that you said he was homosexual and in the picture,the one on top appears to be a women due to the fact that a breast is showing under her arm. is she indeed suposed to be a woman? just wondering if you could clear that up.

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  8. @Olivia Thank you for the comment. The first two pictures are not from known representations and therefore I do not know who's displayed. I found them as common sexual scenes on ancient Greek urns online. I am sorry for the confusion caused.

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