When looking at the history of homosexuals in western civilization, the logical place to start seems to be in ancient Greece. This period in Greece’s history is often regarded as a golden period in terms of sexuality because citizens were allowed to engage in sexual relations with both sexes. While no one denies that same sex relationships were an integral part of Greek society, it is worthwhile to question the extent to which men who slept with men were included and accepted in Hellenic society.
The ancient Greeks did not refer to men who associated with men as homosexuals. The term they used was paiderastia, which signified a relationship between an older man, called the erastes (lover), and a younger man between 12 and 17, called the eromenos (beloved). This relationship was intended as a sort of mentorship, where the younger gained knowledge and wisdom from the older and the older was allowed to enjoy the youthful energy of the younger, though not necessarily in sexual terms. Paiderastia was based on a heroic friendship that inspired both parties to achieve their best, and that heroic friendship had itself been instilled in the minds of the Greeks through Achilles and Patroclus.
Homer is generally credited with writing the Iliad between 800 and 700BC. In this epic, he recounts the tale of two inseparable men: Achilles, a beautiful and skilled warrior who sails to Troy with the king and his army to retrieve the kidnapped Helen, and Patroclus, his older companion who is less attractive and less skilled on the battlefield. Achilles initially refuses to fight because he has been warned that joining the battle will result in his death, but once his dear friend is killed, Achilles does an about face and seeks revenge against Patroclus’ killer. Though he gets his revenge, Achilles is ultimately slain, as had been foretold.
Homer lauds these two and holds them up as a heroic ideal for love between men. But where centuries later stories speak of the sexual side of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, Homer is silent, praising only their strong, devote friendship. Was there a sexual element to their relationship or did the sexual element get added in subsequent centuries?
It should be pointed out that even the Greeks pondered this question way back in the day, so you can bet your bottom dollar that today the question is still answered only with theories and not with known fact.
Some Greek authors wrote back then that the sexual aspects must have been present in Homer’s time, but that Homer hadn’t felt the need to expound upon them because they were a given. This line of argument doesn’t hold much water in my opinion because by the same argument Plato’s contemporaries would have also left references to male physical relations out of their writings since paiderastia was definitely deeply woven into the fabric of their social life.
If dude-on-dude action wasn’t prevalent in Greece to the same extent in Homer’s time as in later times, then where did the custom come from? Here, too, it is only possible to hypothesize, but the hypotheses are also interesting.
Some in Greece held that boy love became an institution when Zeus chose to take Ganymede from Crete and make him the cup bearer of the gods rather than see his youthful beauty wither and die. One group maintained that in some tribes the father would fuck his son and jizz in his ass as an initiation ritual into manhood, while some talked about cities that used boy love as a means of population control. Others saw it as a taste acquired from the Spartans.
The Spartans were a very militaristic society. At an early age boys were taken from their homes where their mothers cared for them and sent off to train as warriors. From this point on, the boys seldom came into contact with women. What’s more, the structure of the barracks provided for an elder mentor who oversaw the boy’s training and education, and who sometimes pursued more intimate relations with them.
The theory goes that as these soldiers roved, they fought side-by-side and gained valour in each other’s eyes. Because of the lack of women in their camps, it was inevitable that the valour on the battlefield would inspire a deeper love for their fellow comrades, which in turn led to the physical expression of their affections. Once these soldiers settled down, their love became institutionalized, and at some later point was adopted by the Greeks in Athens.
Whether this hypothesis is true or not, it does shine some light on a documented and significant aspect in Greek society: women really didn’t have much place to speak of.
In those days, women weren’t educated. Hell, they were hardly allowed to leave the house, or even to conversationally interact with male guests. If you wanted to have an erudite conversation about almost anything, you had basically no choice but to converse with men. Since the Greeks loved philosophical discussions that enriched the individuals and were also big fans of spiritual and intellectual connections, it really isn’t surprising that then turned to other men as the source of that spiritually and intellectually stimulating beauty.
Young men spent a lot of time with other young men training naked and learning at the ‘gymnos’ (in fact the English word ‘gymnasium’ is derived from the Greek word ‘gymnos’, meaning ‘naked’. In German a ‘Gymnasium’ is approximately the equivalent of a high school, but students certainly attend classes clothed). Women were completely shut out of this part of civil life. So young men grew up admiring the bodies of their fellow male students, seeing much beauty in each person’s physical progress and prowess.
Marriages were not between a man and woman who had fallen in love and decided to marry; rather, they were agreements reached between father and suitor for the sake of fulfilling societal duties and perhaps achieving better social status. It was not a relationship in which one sought true companionship. That’s what paiderastia and one’s fellow male citizens in general were for.
Now, while some might cringe at the thought that grown ass men were taking young teenagers as companions, it should be noted that girls were also married off at such a young age. That’s just how they rolled back then, and it’s unfair to judge them from the viewpoint of our modern laws on the age of consent.
When it came time to finding a beloved eromenos, things looked a lot like courting a maiden in medieval times. Boys would be presented with gifts from all of their suitors, and slaves had to accompany each boy when he went out to ensure that no lusty suitor took things too fast. If a boy had more than one suitor he was allowed to choose his erastes, but he was expected to choose the most honorable amongst them, the one who could best instruct him in everything important to a male citizen of the city-state. And woe unto those who failed to obtain an erastes: shame was the name of the game if you didn’t find a man to love you.
This relationship was primarily based on the older man imparting knowledge to the younger man, showing him how to be a respectable person on and off the battlefield. If, however, sex did enter into the equation, the young man was expected to put his face down in the sheets and his ass up in the air. But this was only expected of him until he became a man, at which point he would get his own eromenos and finally had a chance to be the top.
Playing the part of the bottom was only permitted in these relationships if it was based on love. A boy who prostituted out his ass could suffer the permanent loss of many of his civil rights, including the right to speak at public assemblies. And you were in trouble if you were an adult who really liked to take a pounding because bottoming was seen as effeminacy, and effeminacy in males was unacceptable, grounds for becoming a bit of a social pariah.
Unless you were an adult slave, of course. Then you could bend over for whomever you pleased.
As for being a top, well, that wasn’t a problem at all—unless you paid a boy to ride you, and then you could get into some serious trouble. But if you were an adult man who screwed another adult man, only the passive partner would feel the wrath of the law and of society because topping wasn’t viewed as a loss of masculinity.
Despite their views on who was allowed to enjoy being at the receiving end of the shaft, the Greeks were convinced that the love of men—when honorably pursued—was a gateway to the divine. In discourses such as Plato’s Symposium the renowned minds of the time sit around and discuss the many aspects of love, each praising love in a different manner, but each also using the love of males as a prime example.
But they do not refute that beauty can reside in women as well, that women can be vessels of love just like men. A story is told about the origin of love involving the children of the sun, the earth and the moon. Each of the three types were comprised of two individuals who were connected at the back. A single entity with four arms, four legs, and two heads. The children of the sun were comprised of two males, those of the earth were comprised of two females, and those of the moon were made up of a man and a woman. These children pissed off Zeus, who decided to split them in half. With his bolts of lightning the god of Olympus severed the entities into two separate beings doomed to wander around searching for their other half. Watch this clip from Hedwig and the Angry Inch for a cool depiction of this story (the whole film is worth watching, by the way).
This story shows that though the participants in these discourses focused primarily on male-male relationships, they still believed it possible for the highest reaches of love to be achieved in heterosexual or female-female relationships. Love, in all of its forms, was the highest ideal one could have because it could conquer all and was the basis for a self-ruling society free of tyrannical governments and cowardly citizens.
Despite their praises of love, there seems to be no references of marriages taking place. Men would live together in companionship for their lives and were even buried together in some cases, but there was no official marriage. But since marriage was seen as a means of regulating procreation and two men cannot procreate, perhaps it is not so surprising that men were not allowed to marry. Theirs was the relationship of love, the higher, more spiritual relationship. Why then bother with taking the same name as the lower relationship, which was only necessary for making babies?
In many ways the ancient Greeks were a cultivated people. Given their level of refinement, I wonder what their society would have looked like had women been treated with more equality. They already accepted that men and women could reach the loftiest echelons of love. If they viewed women as intellectual equals, would they have equally praised heterosexual relationships, or would male-male relationships still have been considered the purest?
I also wonder if passive men would have been shunned from society to the same extent or at all if women had been viewed as equals. Effeminacy and passivity were considered female; if the female had been considered equal to the male, would “female” traits in males (and vice versa) have been able to find some esteem in society at large? Or would passive males still have been robbed of their public voices?
At any rate, ancient Greece was a beacon in terms of allowing love to develop in any form. They may have forced those who practiced some of its forms of expression to become silent participants in society, but they at least accepted that love is in its purist form is less to do with the physical and more to do with the mental and spiritual. In this we could learn much from them.
Symposium, by Plato
Homosexuality and Civilization, by Louis Crompton
The Deipnosophists, by Atheneus
A Problem in Greek Ethics, by John Addington Symonds
Athenian Laws about Sexuality, by Douglas M. MacDowell