Monday, 8 February 2016

18. Greek Love

Sex or perceived sexual situations have always been an irritant with me when the ancient Greeks are mentioned. Historians have seriously misjudged the ancient Greek attitudes towards sex due to assumptions made from circumstantial evidence. It is a coming together of several factors that do, on the surface, appear to indicate a certain lifestyle that has led to this misconception and to date nobody has addressed this issue objectively. If we believe historians then just about every God or Hero from ancient Greece had homosexual liaisons with young boys. This is simply not the case.

The Romans are, I believe, largely responsible for much of the confusion. They themselves were purportedly descended from the vanquished Trojans after the fall of Troy. It was more than a thousand years later when the Romans conquered Greece and adopted the culture. They didn't exactly adopt the culture and polytheist beliefs, they adapted them to suit their own ends. It is a common fault with religion.

During that period the Roman emperors were well known for their excesses. Their historians provided much information about Greece and the philosophers, but once again, this was very much from a Roman perspective. In effect there is very little about the Roman ideology that remained true to that of the Greeks.

Literature would seem to be the most reliable evidence when gauging the mindset of the ancient Greeks. This too has its pitfalls, even if we largely ignore Roman historians. The problem comes in translation of ancient text. In addition, many artefacts that were the source of a translation are no longer in existence. A prime example is the Parian Chronicle, a marble stele with a concise guide to ancient Greek history etched on it. Some parts of the stele were 're-cycled' by local stonemasons and the text was lost forever.

The accuracy of the stele is also in question as it was engraved in the 3rd century BC, fairly recent in terms of ancient Greece. I tend to favour older accounts over more recent ones. It is written in the Ionian dialect and is thought to have originated from Athens, although Paros on our map of Aegea (Atlantis) falls within Ionian jurisdiction. Should the origin indeed be Athens there could be cause to consider it both valid and dubious. The record keeping in Athens around 300 BC is unrivalled in other Greek states and colonies. On the downside, paranoid philosophers are likely to favour Athens in tales of antiquity. 

Another major problem is the evolution of a language very much in transition, and all its regional dialects. A prime example is the Greek word for 'love'. There are many different words and all relate to a different kind of love. Eros, Philia, Agape, and Storge are the ones I am familiar with, but there are another three I have found listed, including Ludus (playful love) which looks Latin to me and possibly of Roman origin. What may have been 'brotherly love' in the time of Aristotle, might not have had the same inflection at the time of Socrates, or during the Homeric era. The Greeks used the word love just as we today would use like.

Pottery and artwork (frescos, mosaics, sculptures, etc.), are also misleading, especially if your mind has already been programmed by a preconception based on other 'evidence'. There can be little doubt the ancient Greeks regarded nudity as quite normal, though it was not as common as many imagine. In artistic depiction, with very few exceptions, it was only athletes and children who were seen nude. There are a few examples of sexual scenes in ancient Greek artefacts, but the vast majority laymen attribute to the Greeks are in fact of Roman origin.

Nor, as far as I can tell, are there any examples of homosexual acts on any artefacts of Greek origin. There are several of Roman origin. Of Greek origin there are one or two depictions people mistake for homosexual acts which actually portray heterosexual encounters. There is nothing that can be positively identified as a homosexual act. I would imagine this statement will prompt some ridicule from certain quarters so I will give a few examples. The following images are what I found when doing a specific search looking for homosexual acts on Greek artefacts.

The image on the left is perhaps the example most often cited as 'proof' of homosexuality among the ancient Greeks. It does indeed look compelling, until you see the bigger picture.








The short hair of the woman and somewhat flat chest does give the initial appearance of a male.

 This would also suggest a homosexual scene and is often cited as such, yet closer inspection shows quite clearly the short-haired woman has breasts.


The scene above and many others of a similar ilk, portray athletes of one kind or another. The figures are always nude as indeed they were when competing. It was logical. Wrestling, running, javelin and other sports would be hampered by tunics. The key thing to look at is genitalia. The Greeks were not prudish or ashamed of their bodies and they had no qualms about showing an erection. The lack of such in an artistic impression merely emphasises the fact a scene is non-sexual.

The scene above is labelled thus....

"Pederastic couples at a symposium, as depicted on a tomb fresco from the Greek colony of Paestum in Italy. The man on the right tries to kiss the youth with whom he is sharing a couch"

A couple of things spring to mind immediately. For one this was a Greek colony in Italy, enough in my mind to doubt the intent and subsequent caption. Secondly there is no nudity and whilst I don't deny there was homosexuality going on at the time (I could find no date for the fresco), considering this to be a sexual scene says more about the mind of the observer than the fresco itself.

The next example is perhaps the hardest for a layman to explain in modern terms.


The scene is widely described as an act of pederasty. As with the other myths regarding Greek sexuality the claim is false. The evidence is as that with athlete scenes, an absence of an erection. The reasons behind the act are dealt with in our story supplement (Part IV) but in brief it is merely to establish maturity in a youth. The Greeks didn't measure age, they measured maturity. Puberty was the time young Greek boys would be taken as an eromenos, by an erastes (usually a young man, merchant, or an old man no longer able to go to war). It was an apprenticeship of sorts before the youth started to develop facial hair (around 17 years old) and joined a military school.

Another similar image may give a better insight to the motives behind the act portrayed. On this one the youth - as tall as the old man - appears to have his genitalia 'fondled' and his chin lifted. The testes would give an indication of maturity as would the set of the jaw. Once again the subject shows no sign of arousal which I feel certain would have been in evidence had the scene been considered sexual.

A search of the internet will also cite Crete as the origin of paiderastia (translated as 'the love of boys'). I believe the tradition started on Aegea but historians with no knowledge of the Aegean landmass would naturally cite Crete as the origin, just as they claim it was the birthplace of the Minoan culture.

Having said that, the practice could easily have begun on Crete after Atlantis was abandoned. An island in the firing line of tsunamis that accompanied quite regular earthquakes, in the unstable region of the Aegean would indeed be short on man-power. Soldiers were away for long periods and youth needed training. A military trained erastes would take the pubescent into the wilds and teach him all he knew. The suggested sexual relationship between erastes and eromenos simply did not happen, as far as the Greeks were concerned.

Tenuous evidence implies there were cases of mutual masturbation but this was considered quite normal. Masturbation was seen to have many benefits and the Greeks no doubt recognised this. I would go as far as to suggest masturbation was encouraged and allocated its own slot on Lyceum curricula. One of Plato's fiercest critics was called slightly eccentric for his proclivity to masturbate in public. So the contact would undoubtedly be deemed sexual by our standards, what makes me so sure it was considered non-sexual by the Greeks?

In literature there are a few cases of pederasty (not just by an erastes) and the subsequent trials. This indicates sexual contact between erastes and eromenos was illegal and punishable by law. The crime carried the death penalty. Parents would pay for their sons to be taken as eromenos, if an erastes betrayed that trust he could be sentenced to death or to pay an agreed amount as tribute. It was not because it was a homosexual act, homosexuality wasn't recognised in ancient Greece. Sex was all about domination and submission. The be all and end all was penetration, any form of penetration (oral contact was also considered penetration), was a crime.

The reason penetration (in effect rape) was considered as serious as murder may not be quite what you would expect. It was all about reputation. Once someone had been identified as submissive they would lose all the rights of being male. In what we would deem a chauvinistic society, women had specific roles and very few rights. They were not allowed to speak publicly or vote among other restrictions. These same restrictions applied to males deemed submissive. Some chose to live that way but they were not ostracised as such, merely treated as female.

Although the population of Crete may have been decimated by tsunamis, mainland Greece had a different problem. Whereas there was always the need for soldiers, there was over-population in many places where the rising sea-levels compacted people pushed back from the coastal areas. Unwanted new-born babies were exposed (left to die) so anal intercourse became a necessity. Anal intercourse was a common acceptable form of contraception among the Greeks. The knowledge the ancient Greeks practised this form of sex was yet another straw on the camel's back, when compiling evidence to suggest ancient Greece was some kind of homosexual Utopia. You know now it simply isn't true.

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