Defining Ancient Greek Sexuality

Unlike the modern study of women and the family in ancient Greece, ancient Greek sexuality has long been the subject of scholarly and quasi-scholarly research. The explicitness of Greek sexuality, discussed as an ideal in philosophical works, praised in lyric, and mocked in comedy, makes it an inviting topic for both opprobrium and praise.

Polemic abounds in studies of Greek sexuality, as "advocacy" studies project modern concerns onto antiquity. "Advocacy" research is not necessarily a bad thing, since it can alert the scholar to interpretative models of ancient culture; but when it misrepresents and distorts historical data so that they become subservient to modern theory it is not only misleading but dangerous.

The authors of both books reviewed here base their interpretations on a close reading of the primary sources, of which there are relatively few available when compared with modern historical periods. Both are well aware of this limitation. For Thornton, who considers Greek literary remains from 700 to 100 B. C., the problem is serious; for Percy, who limits himself to the Archaic period, which ended roughly 500 B. C., it is bleak and requires the imaginative use of meager data.1

Both authors are professional scholars. Thornton is a classicist whose philological inclinations are manifest on every page. Yet this is not dry as dust philology; though closely argued, it challenges the reader to rethink established concepts of Greek sexuality and to view it as the Greeks did. At the same time the book entertains, outrages, and is always thought provoking. The writing is lucid, though some may find it at times too colloquial.

Percy, on the other hand, is a medieval historian who has written extensively on medieval history and homosexuality. His acknowledgments indicate his intellectual debt to an impressive array of ancient and medieval historians, and it is clear that although he is a medievalist by profession, he is on familiar ground with the ancient world.

Eros sets out to explain not what the Greeks thought about sex, but what their literary remains say about sex. This is an important distinction since, as Thornton points out, most of classical literature has vanished. Modern romantic notions of nature and customs are contrasted with the ancient Greek concepts of phusis and nomos. Phusis, nature, is amoral and inhuman; rather than a beneficent entity, it is a terrifying, often lethal power. Nomos, custom, is the power of the human mind, through culture and technology, to control and reorder the raw power of nature. Greek thought about sex is located in the "uneasy relationship of culture and nature."2 The book is divided into two parts of four chapters each. The first part deals with the chaotic power of sex, the second with the various "technologies" by which the Greeks controlled and exploited it.

The first chapter deals with Eros, the "Tyrant of Gods and Men." Eros is not just a little cherub but a primal, inhuman force of nature, an excessive and often destructive power. Thornton argues that the metaphors for Eros' powers - disease, madness, arrows, and fire - were more immediate to the Greeks than to contemporary readers, surfeited with their lifeless repetition in modern pop culture.

In "The Golden Child of the Bloody Foam," Thornton discusses the ambiguous power of Aphrodite, both the disorder of sex but also the sweetness of lovemaking. The Greeks found sex destructive and frightening, more akin to violence than moderns would concede. At the same time, to reject the power of Aphrodite, to be unnaturally chaste, is to court destruction.

"Pandora's 'Foul Tribe of Women'" is perhaps Thornton's most controversial chapter, in which he argues that Greek women were not sequestered, starved and nameless. Rather, Greek men feared women because of their power of sexual attraction and fertility. Though accused of having no control over their appetites for sex, wine, betrayal, and gossip, what men really feared about women was what disturbed them most about themselves, the power of the irrational. Women were considered closer to nature, further away from the rationality of man. Using figures from Greek tragedy, Thornton argues that Greek women could not have been powerless victims of men, but rather powerful figures because of sexual allurement.

Thornton's fourth chapter, "The Monsters of Appetite," deals with Greek attitudes towards passive homosexuality, which were universally hostile. He argues that the passive homosexual's adoption of feminine dress, mannerisms, and role show that the heterosexual paradigm was considered natural. Penetration of the passive homosexual was considered unnatural and unmanly, and Thornton cites evidence from varied sources for what he considers "the rich vocabulary of abuse centered on buggery, including a consistent association of passive homosexuality with 'shame' and 'outrage'."3

The second part of the book analyzes the various mechanisms, or technologies, by which the Greeks sought to control the disorder of Eros through culture. In "Taming the Beasts," Thornton argues that the Greeks tried to do this through the rational control of the human mind, as Eros was made subordinate to the tender affections of marriage or pedagogical pederasty. Rather than extinguish Eros, they wished to exploit its creative energy. Euripides was one of the few Greek intellectuals who did not believe that reason alone could control Eros.

Just as flowers and fruit connote the sexual beauty of youth and its eventual decay, plowing and furrowing refer to legitimate marital intercourse. In "Erotic Technologies," Thornton contends that Eros must be "cultivated" to make it useful and less destructive for humans. Similarly, the power of Aphrodite is subordinated to that of Athena, Artemis, and Hestia, goddesses of culture and technology.

In "Wives and the Order of the House," Thornton maintains that despite the long tradition of misogyny present in Greek literature, ancient Greek writers recognized the virtues of a good wife. Concern with marital fidelity and sexuality reflected the importance of bearing citizen heirs and caring for the household, which was run like a mini-factory. In running the household, the married woman became more rational, more man-like, and less threatening sexually. Thornton does convincingly illustrate that conjugal affection and even passion must have existed between husbands and wives, or else the end of Xenophon's Symposium or the plot of Aristophanes' Lysistrata would be meaningless.

"Eros the Pedagogue" deals with the function of Greek "boy-love" as a technology to control Eros. Thornton notes the great difference between ancient Greek and modern homosexuality; the former was aristocratic, militaristic, ritualized and under family guidance. Most Greeks, the commoners, did not participate. The emphasis on the boy's softness and lack of body hair, girlish behavior, as well as his playing the subordinate role by receiving gifts and the protection of the law, show that "boy-love" was modeled on the heterosexual paradigm. Thornton discusses the physical aspect of the relationship, about which there is little hard evidence. He concludes that whether the relationship was consummated or not probably depended on the partners. The goal of "boy-love" was pedagogical, the channeling of Eros into the creation of noble and good citizens.

There is much here to challenge the reader to rethink old accepted interpretations. Whether one agrees with him or not, Thornton's argument is based on a close reading of the Greek texts. Some would maintain that the larger-than-life women of Greek tragedy are less useful for the elucidation of Greek attitudes towards women and marriage, but unfortunately the sources are so meager that one is compelled to use every piece of data one can find. Although I have reservations concerning his comments that Greek women were less restricted and isolated than feminist scholars would have us believe, clearly the evidence must be reviewed and re-evaluated.

All Greek words are translated, usually by several words to better illustrate the varied nuances the word had for the ancient Greek. There is also a lengthy critical bibliography guiding the reader through what the author considers misguided dross to the works of value.

Throughout, Thornton has the reader in mind, as ancient concepts are contrasted with banal modern analogues. The book has a moral for the modern reader: that we fail to respect the power of Eros. In the research of sexologists, whose rational attempt to understand sexuality is expected to eradicate the dark side of Eros; in the Romantic Love that pervades much of pop-culture, in which one fulfills oneself through love; and in Romantic Marriage, which ignores the disillusionment that often occurs when a husband and wife live together, moderns have been "dissing Eros and Aphrodite." From the trivialization of Eros comes "illegitimacy and its frequent effects - crime, random violence, poverty, and social barbarism."4 Whether one agrees with Thornton's conclusions or not, it is a harrowing indictment of our modern age.

Percy does not overtly contrast ancient and modern, yet the relevance of his topic and the wide audience he hopes to attract are alluded to in his introduction. His theme is the origin and dispersion of institutionalized pedagogical pederasty, which he defines as the love of an adolescent boy between the ages of twelve and eighteen by a young man in his twenties. The love of a prepubescent boy or an older man was viewed with revulsion by most Greeks. As he approached thirty, the young man was expected to marry and sire citizen heirs. The function of this relationship, its pedagogical purpose, was for the older partner to educate the younger in the ways of becoming a good citizen. Percy notes that Greek pederasty was an aristocratic practice with little relevance to most Greek men.

The book is divided into three parts, each of several chapters. The first part, "Greece before the Institutionalization of Pederasty," examines several major theses for the origin of Greek pederasty. These include the theory of the Indo-European origin; the attribution of pederasty to the Dorians, one of three linguistic sub-groups of the ancient Greeks among whom were included the Spartans and Cretans; and situational homosexuality, which supposedly arises when young men spend long periods of time without the company of women. Percy convincingly rejects each thesis in turn.

Part two discusses "The Institutionalization of Pederasty." Based on a close reading of the ancient sources, Percy notes that institutionalized pederasty does not appear in Homer, Hesiod, or any fragments of the ancient epics. The friendship between Achilles and Patroclus, central to the Iliad, does not appear as pederastic until Pindar's Tenth Olympian in the early fifth century B. C. Nor do pederastic episodes appear in the Greek mythographers before the late seventh century.

Percy follows the ancient sources which frequently identify Crete as the place where institutionalized pederasty began. He also notes that mythological narratives point to Crete more than any other location. Even philology contributes, since "the Cretan way" was a euphemism for pederasty or even anal intercourse.

The adoption of institutionalized pederasty was a response to the overpopulation of Greece that began in the eighth century. Initially, colonization provided an outlet for increased population pressure at home, but after a century the best locations were all settled. Among the wealthy was the added fear that too many heirs would cause the family estates to be divided into plots so small as to plunge the family into poverty. Aristotle figures prominently in this argument, since he first claimed that the Cretans tried to lower the birth rate by segregating men and women and institutionalizing pederasty.

Sparta adopted Cretan pederasty in the late seventh century, just after the devastating Second Messenian War. Though transmission could have proceeded through Spartan colonies near Crete, Percy seems to prefer the sage Thaletas of Gortyn as the medium. As with Crete, the reason for the adoption of pederasty, infanticide,5 and the seclusion of women was to prevent the subdivision of land between too many heirs. The cultural efflorescence that Sparta enjoyed in the generation that followed is attributed to their adoption of pederasty, but the stagnancy that ensued was due to their traditional militaristic, anti-intellectual nature.

From Sparta, pederasty spread to the rest of mainland Greece, the eastern Greeks of the Aegean Islands and coast of Anatolia, and the western Greeks of Sicily and Magna Graecia, after which their "creative impulses burst forth."6

In the third part of the book, Percy discusses the relationship between the symposium and gymnasium and the spread of pederasty. The symposium was a dinner gathering of men and their adolescent lovers, whose activities ranged from philosophical discussion to flirtation to singing and drinking bouts. The gymnasium, literally the "place of nudity," featured nude athletes which male onlookers found arousing.

The rest of the book is perhaps its weakest part, dealing with the diffusion of pederasty to the rest of Greece. Part of the problem is inherent in the paucity of source material. Very little is known about most of Archaic Greece, and very often only one or two contemporary literary sources survive. The existence of a few snippets of pederastic poetry from an Archaic poet does little to document the existence or popularity of pederasty in a particular region. Also difficult to accept is Percy's variation on the Great Man theory, that pederasty was spread by the Seven Sages, whose membership varies depending on the ancient source. Since their dates and even the existence of some are questioned, assumptions about their sexuality are pure speculation. He is willing to concede that the sages might have been lawgivers whose legislation was later attributed to a particular sage.

Percy has a particular problem with Periander, tyrant of Corinth and one of the Seven Sages, who is credited with adjusting the gymnasia and pederasty to the Spartan mold, yet also, in the same paragraph, is the first tyrant to undermine possible pederastic tyrannicides by prohibiting the dining clubs. Several pages later the institutionalization of pederasty in Corinth is attributed to Periander, and again two chapters later his measures to thwart possible tyrannicides are recalled.7 The passage from Herodotus concerning Periander's wife, Melissa, with whom he was so much in love that he allegedly performed necrophilia,8 is ignored.

Percy has set himself a difficult task, considering the fragmentary nature of the evidence. His command of the sources is good, although it is disturbing that he has translated the Greek poetic fragments from German into English, rather than directly from the Greek. This begs the question of his knowledge of Greek and the accuracy of his few philological forays.

The tendency to refer to certain poets as pederastic, as if that were their sole identifying characteristic, is misleading. As Percy himself notes, many of these poets also wrote about the love of women, and all their works exist only in fragments. If the complete work of a poet had survived, we could perhaps discuss his attitude towards pederasty and women. When only fragments survive, some of which exist on pieces of papyrus found in the Egyptian desert and others in brief excerpts in later Hellenistic and Roman period authors, the situation becomes more complicated. Consideration must be given to the popularity of certain poems among the later Greek and Roman inhabitants of Egypt and to the literary interests of the Alexandrian scholars, who would quote an ancient poet for word usage or metrical illustration.

The process of selection of fragments can alter one's impression of a poet's sexual inclination. Though Percy notes that Anacreon did not disdain women and wrote about his love for at least one of them, he believes that it was his young men who "captured Anacreon's heart and inspired most of his verses."9 There are in fact several fragments which document a sexual interest in women.10 Perhaps Suda was correct that Anacreon's life was "devoted to the love of boys and women and song."11

The question of classification also arises in Percy's description of the symposium led by the tyrant Polycrates of Samos as "the first such gathering of pederasts in all history that we can document."12 This presupposes that these men thought of themselves primarily as pederasts rather than philosophers, poets, or artists; that sexual identity took precedence over aristocratic, civic, or intellectual; or that these men were exclusively pederastic. From what we know about other, later symposia, there were frequently slave girls, entertainers and prostitutes present, and some participants actually waited until they got home to make love to their wives. A great deal of drinking also took place at the symposium, but it would be equally misleading to refer to it as the first such gathering of winos in all history.

The main thesis of the book, that pedagogical pederasty began in Crete and spread to the rest of Greece as a means of population control, at first glance seems compelling and is no doubt part of the explanation. Relying heavily on Aristotle is not always wise; in this instance he is writing about events that took place three hundred years earlier and for which documentary evidence was slight, though much better than what we have. By the same token, Aristotle is often wrong about historical matters. However, the concern about having large families and diluting the family wealth among too many heirs is a constant and widespread theme in Greek literature.

Yet the thesis fails to consider the impact of women on the development of pederasty. The practice of female infanticide in Greece, with the exception of Sparta, which practiced male infanticide, might have created a shortage of women, though warfare, exploration, and colonization might have reduced the number of available men. If there were a shortage of women, then having men wait until they were thirty to marry, and having them marry girls fourteen years old, might equalize the male-female ratio. By the time of marriage the man was already well-established and set in his ways, whereas his wife was still malleable yet, most importantly to her husband, able to bear children. Since the average age of death in ancient Greece was late thirties for women and early forties for men,13 a wife could expect the possibility of widowhood and remarriage.

Percy's thesis of population control does not adequately explain why pederasty became pedogogic. It would seem that a man who married and fathered children in his early thirties could expect to leave them fatherless at an early age. His sons would have no one to educate them in their intellectual and civic duties. The development of pederastic pedagogy would be a response to this need, at least among the aristocrats who practiced it. The youths would receive intellectual and civic training from young men who, in return, received emotional and at times sexual gratification. Nor were the youths the only source of sexual relief, as various liaisons with prostitutes and slaves of either sex, and for that matter affairs with free women, were prevalent.

Though at times insightful, and always clear and well-argued, Percy's book must be used with caution. Readers interested in the subject would be better off reading Dover's Greek Homosexuality.14

Robert Rousselle

Volume 26, Number 4, Spring 1999

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