To What Extent Was Homosexuality The Norm In Classical Athens Ancient History Essay

4303 words - 18 pages

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To what extent was homosexuality seen as a deviation from the norm for a classical Athenian male citizen?
Athenian homosexuality is a huge topic, which has stimulated vast scholarly debate. The Athenians themselves were very confused regarding homosexuality, which makes our understanding of it even harder. It is important to recognize that their norm and our norm are vastly different ideas, they had no words to define straight, gay, homosexual or heterosexual, which in itself shows a different out look on sexual relations entirely. The importance in the word norm is to think about the legality of male homosexuality, the acceptance of it and also the practice of it. While looking in to modern scholarly attitudes, from Cohen to Dover, this essay hopes to untangle the web of confusion surrounding Classical Athenian attitudes to homosexuality.
By definition the norm is something that is usual, typical or standard. In modern England sex is everywhere, but there are limits in its portrayal. Gay marriage was only legalized relatively recently in 2014[footnoteRef:1], with other places around the world still considering it illegal. With homosexuality’s slow legalization around the globe, it is considered more normalized, especially amoung younger generations, who can fail to consider the history of debate surrounding sexual orientation. While heterosexuality has defined limits, people even now still struggle to define homosexual rights. Homosexuality has been prevalent through out the centuries. Is it the increase in practice or the increase in acceptance that makes it normal? In regards to homosexuality and normality in our current lifetime there has been huge debates and there still is, there are people adamantly against homosexuality, others that see no wrong, often the dividing line comes from moral opinion. Classical Athens is known for its supposed tolerance for homosexuality. Dover in his 1978 Greek Sexuality, differentiates our modern homosexuality from Ancient Greek through the intertwining of hetero and homosexual relations in Athenian culture, “the alternation of homosexual and heterosexual preferences in the same individual [and] its implicit denial that such alternation or coexistence created peculiar problems for the individual or for society”[footnoteRef:2], many young men (known as the eromenos) would partake in homosexual relations with an older man (the erastes), then later in life give up his homosexual tendencies in favour of marriage.[footnoteRef:3] Dover argues that this easy transitioning between heterosexual and homosexual relationships make the homosexual acts more normalized, as they were less defined[footnoteRef:4]. In this, Dover explains that the terms homosexual and heterosexual would be entirely irrelevant to a Classical Athenian, as the attraction of men to men was not unnatural, and did not warrant definition or separation between female to male attraction[footnoteRef:5]. Dover is making these arguments in a time when there was still mass debate on the legalization of homosexuality. His work is incredibly useful; he provides specific evidence from Athens and uses copious primary sources, regarding social rules in Classical Athens. In The Greeks and Greek love, Davidson states, “there was no such thing as homosexuality because there was no such thing as sexuality, which meant there was no such thing as heterosexuality either. Sexual attraction between people of the opposite sex was a product of culture with no biological basis”.[footnoteRef:6] Colin Farrell when playing the part of ‘Alexander’ in Stone’s film on Alexander the Great attempts to explain: “there was no categorizing it as homosexuality, bisexuality, heterosexuality back then… It was a time when men and men laid together and they shared knowledge and women had babies primarily.”[footnoteRef:7] Farrell’s point derives some opinion from work by Foucault, the point that defining sexuality is a more modern construct. Dover held the similar opinion that the distinction the Athenians would have made was not straight v. Gay but rather Active v. Passive, the penetrator was good while the penetrated was bad. This could have been relevant in both heterosexual and homosexual relations. If this were the case, then for some Athenian men, namely the older man or erastes, they could partake in homosexual acts without being condemned in any manner, as they were the penetrator. For the Erastes, who was doing the courting maybe homosexuality was allowed to be more normal. While for the eromenos, (the penetrated younger boy), who was being courted, engaging in such acts was seen as less acceptable, and by effect less normal. The Eromenos were expected to play hard to get and not give in straight away to the advances of the erastes. “A boy or man could demonstrate such a failure of self-mastery by yielding too readily or too eagerly”[footnoteRef:8], or by having too many partners or, worst of all, by accepting money. Davison heavily researched this idea, that in a sense the penetrator was the winner and the penetrated was the loser. This is part of Dover’s argument that it was not the act itself that was seen as bad but rather the submission to the acts. In this case for an older male citizen they were expected to take a young male lover, it seems the practice was known, he would take his lover and in exchange help the boy materially and ethically. While the participation of young boys in these exchanges was also most likely well known in society, it is less normalized due to the moral precariousness of their situation. They could maintain their honour so long as they never accepted money, and never showed themselves to enjoy anal stimulation.[footnoteRef:9] This is an incredibly difficult aspect of Athenian society to understand as the Athenians themselves found it a challenge to decide what was allowed and not when it came to sexual desire. However when thinking of this question in relation to Dover’s findings, Homosexuality was the norm amoung Classical male Athenians. [1: BBC 2014.] [2: Dover 1978: 1] [3: Toohey 2003: 38] [4: Davidson 2007: 26] [5: Toohey 2003: 38] [6: Davidson 2007: 124] [7: Davidson 2007: 123 ] [8: Toohey 2003: 39] [9: Toohey 2003: 38]
In regarding whether homosexuality was a deviation from the norm for Classical Athenian male citizens, the law should be consulted. Laws tended to relate to sexual morality, they were less framed in regards to having intercourse with a man or sexual deviations, but rather in regard to prostitution. Classical Athenians had less of an issue with the act of having sex with another man than the action of a man having sex with a male prostitute[footnoteRef:10]. Dover would have heavily influenced Halpern’s opinion here. A man could be accused due to “promiscuity, payment and passivity”[footnoteRef:11], while these laws exist, evidence implies that such accusations were only employed by a select level of elite, the enforcement against social deviants seemed to be largely a fiction. They were only put into play when used as a political strategy, within a fraction of the social body. The existence of such a law shows that entering into such relations must have been an occurrence, and the lack of overseeing of this law amoung the general Populus may mean it was a frequent occurrence. Not to mention this law plays no judgment on non-prostitution related homosexual relationships. The most well known case in which dokimasia rhetoron (examination as to fitness to participate in public life/ scrutiny of public speakers) was called upon and this law was used against someone, is the case of Temarchus. In this case Aeschines defends himself from attack by Temarchus by accusing him of homosexual prostitution. This instance was a foundation point of Dover’s Greek homosexuality. The case was heard around 345BC, a law existed regarding the ability to act as a speaker in court, one aspect being, that the speaker must not have sold himself to the sexual pleasure of another man.[footnoteRef:12] The Greeks used the term kinaidos, which literally translates to catamite (a boy kept for homosexual practice), but is often translated to mean lewd. The translation to lewd in modern terms puts a bad undertone to this homosexual relation. It is important when finding translations to remember that some translators would have had biases. Aeschines accuses Temarchus of being a kinaidos in his youth. Aeschines’ speech gives a detailed account of the apparently infamous ways of Temarchus, and the political and pederastic implications of his ways. “If any Athenian shall have prostituted his person, he shall not be permitted… to act as an advocate for the state, nor shall he hold any office whatsoever… he shall not take part in debate, nor be present at public sacrifices”,[footnoteRef:13] Aeschines enforces an amount of disfranchisement, stating the consequence of doing any of these things would be death. A kinaidos was to in effect loose all political rights. This condemnation acts as though perhaps these acts were not the norm for Athenian male citizens. Most male and female prostitutes were not citizens, which meant when a male citizen made himself a kinaidos it was even more self-demeaning. But it is vital to remember that instances of prosecution against a kinaidos were rare apart from in political gains. The loss of rights for engaging in these acts shows a desire to keep the polis clean, and a fear that performing homosexual acts outside legal confines would be corruptive. These restrictions on male prostitution show a fear that homosexual acts could affect society. While homosexuality was practiced amoung male Athenian citizens these legal confines show the attempt to limit its forms. On one hand the existence of these laws could mean that homosexuality was not a deviation from the norm but rather so normal that it required control, however these laws arguably may have made homosexuality less common. While these laws degrade male prostitution, nothing prohibited a boy from being the openly recognized sexual partner of a man. Foucault argues that while there was no prohibition there was an, “intrinsic difficulty in this role (for the young boy): something that simultaneously made it hard to define clearly… exactly what the role implied in the sexual relation…all that constituted something of a blind spot.”[footnoteRef:14] There was a thin undrawn line, between that of prostitutes degraded by homosexual penetration and that of a respectable man with open sexual preferences who could maintain their honour due to the value of the relationship to the young boy. Cohen argued that all homoerotic relationships brought shame to the younger partner.[footnoteRef:15] It is as though the act of homosexuality was not the crime but rather the way one conducted himself in engaging in it. The issue was in ethics, to be a subject of pleasure was not an issue, but to give oneself to the pleasure and acknowledge oneself as an object of pleasure created difficulty.[footnoteRef:16] A boy could be a legitimate male partner of another man, no man would be condemned solely for loving a boy as attraction to males was seen to be natural, so long as the guidelines set out by moral law were kept to. In this manner homosexual attraction between male Athenian citizens was not a deviation from the norm, the issues would arise when the idea of personal pleasure is involved. [10: Halpern 1990: 94-8] [11: Winkler 1990: 46] [12: Winkler 1990: 56] [13: Aeschines Against Temarchus 21] [14: Foucault 1984: 217] [15: Cohen 1987: 3-21] [16: Foucault 1984: 221]
The extensive portrayal of homosexuality in Classical Athenian art furthers the argument of homosexuality not being a deviation from the norm for classical male Athenians. The Greeks incorporated fundamental aspects of their culture in their art, which is why Art is so helpful in understanding Greek societies. A scene painted on a vase (wine bowl) from the British museum[footnoteRef:17] depicts an act of homosexuality. What is assumed to be a young boy due to his lack of facial hair, sits on a stall, his draperies are open and it clearly depicts him to have an erection. Another man who is also beardless app./ears to be readying himself to sit on the lap of the former male. A pillar separates the two boys from an older man who is looking on, the two youths are both wearing what seem to be crowns while the older man has material tied around his head. This scene is an example of the open depiction of homosexuality in pottery. This scene of two ephebes openly having sex while being watched shows an understanding of the natural attraction between men. Although we do not definitely know what the artist hoped to portray in this scene it is unquestionable that a homosexual relation is being shown. Early 5th century vase-paintings depict an image of homosexuality that doesn’t explicitly line up with the laws regarding homosexuality. While the law forbade senior males entering the gymnasium or cadets and boys mingling there are vase paintings depicting these things happening.[footnoteRef:18] The issues with using these vase painting to understand whether homosexuality was a deviation from the norm for classical male citizens lies in the fact that Art is hard to interpret. We do not know if these depictions were cautionary, or whether their creation means these forbidden things were not as taboo as the law would suggest. Davidson believes these vase paintings are “cautionary images, images, in other words, of anxiety”[footnoteRef:19]. The Ancient Greeks tended to use their art to emphasize the important accomplishments of their society. Honoring heroes and gods, portraying gods as human, a lot of artwork was created with the intent of being displayed publically. Art and architecture tended to be a source of pride for citizens as they were yet another way to be Greek or Athenian. Thinking about art in this way I do not believe they would have depicted these banned male-to-male interactions on vases if they were truly taboo and fundamentally wrong. [17: Figure 1. Ephebes engaging in a sexual act Davidson date :Fig. 33.] [18: Davidson 2003: 444] [19: Davidson 2003: 444]
As talked about above, the Ancient Greeks seemed to give an importance to differentiating between masculinity in regards to the Adult male, and the feminizing affect that was placed on the passive partner (younger boy). Relationships like this put social pressure on the passive male. The relationship had an almost circular effect; the younger boy was the passive partner and received the bad stigma associated with playing that role. As they reached maturity the passive male could then shift roles to become the dominant. If a Man were to reach sexual maturity and not switch roles but rather maintain the passive role they would be seen to have feminized or made a woman of themselves, due to this idea that even when it was the woman being the passive receiver she was less than the man. This analysis of Male to male love is based on the actually act of sex, to us being Gay or homosexual is not just about having sex with the same gender, but also the love between individuals. While two adult men sharing in open sexual relations had negative social implications was it okay for two adult men to have an emotional bond? One of the earliest examples of a deep emotional connection between to adult males is the constantly present relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in Homers Iliad (800BC). While this relationship itself is clearly not Classical Athenian Greek stories and epics like the Iliad were influential and would have had sway over what was accepted by classical Athenian citizens. The love between Achilles and Patroclus is paramount in the story of the Iliad. While some people argue their relationship was just a deep friendship, I think Homer meant for it to be a far deeper love. Homer uses their love to make Achilles get back on the battlefield after 20 books refusing,[footnoteRef:20] Achilles has a place in Greek culture that extends to more than the Iliad, he influenced religion and religious thinking,[footnoteRef:21] which lead some modern scholars to wonder how such a passionate same sex relationship could end up in the center of one of the greatest Greek epics. Would Homers readers be shocked by the relationship or would it be familiar. This is the importance of the relationship in trying to ascertain the normality of homosexuality in Classical Athenians. The way readers engage in possibly controversial material says a lot about what was normalized. This relationship takes us back to Greek use of Art as Achilles and Patroclus are represented throughout Greek art. Xenophon in his Symposium uses the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus as part of his argument regarding Homosexuality. Xenophon was not a professional philosopher, but rather a retired general, which is partly why his views relating to war are more trusted, yet his symposium is lesser known than that of Plato, ho was a renowned philosopher. Through Socrates Xenophon argues of the superiority of a non-physical spiritual love. He states that Homer portrayed Patroclus to not be an “object of Achilles pleasure”[footnoteRef:22] but as an equal, comrade. Even Aeschines in his speech against Temarchus, uses Achilles and Patroclus to show he doesn’t hate Homosexuality, in order to prevent Temarchus using that as a defense. He “casts himself as a defender of chaste love”[footnoteRef:23], He quotes the Iliad to support his points, showing that Homer meant to depict Achilles and Patroclus as the picture of honorable love. “Although [Homer] speaks in many places of Achilles and Patroclus, he hides their love and avoids giving a name to their friendship, thinking that the exceeding greatness of their affection is manifest to such of his hearers are educated men”, Aeschines argues that Homer anticipated educated clever men to understand the underlying importance of their relationship. Achilles sacrifice to avenge Patroclus ranks him as an “archetype of hero-lovers”.[footnoteRef:24] By the time Plato wrote his Symposium in 386 BCE Achilles and Patroclus were traditionally accepted as lovers in the full physical sense. The depiction of two key men from an incredibly well known and influential Epic, one of whom was almost a god, as being in love with each other is definitely important in understanding how classical male Athenians thought about homosexuality. An issue regarding the understanding of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship is that sources like Xenophon often are so determined to urge a point of view that facts are misused or left out.[footnoteRef:25] While researching Classical Athenian homosexuality the same issues constantly come up, the Greeks seemed to not have a problem accepting the attraction between two males, the issue arises due to morals, social issues and too many fine lines. The issue wasn’t in the emotional connections it was with the actual penetration[footnoteRef:26]. While this emotional relationship is well known and accepted people have found it hard to fit them into the classical Greek pattern regarding a physical relationship. There has been ample debate regarding trying to fit them into the roles of erastes and eromenos. Achilles is more dominant, Patroclus is older, Achilles is depicted as beardless, and Patroclus is depicted with facial hair. They both fluctuate between the key characteristics of the two roles. Despite this the importance of this relationship is not in regards to physical homosexuality, but mostly the emotional connection they feel for each other. Achilles and Patroclus are not the only example of a prominently influential and recognized homosexual relationship, Harmodius and Aristogeiton were also held in “the greatest veneration”[footnoteRef:27], the two men were known as Tyrannicides having killed the tyrant Hipparchus, they were a sort of symbol of democracy to ancient Athenians. Harmodius was “beloved by Aristogeiton”[footnoteRef:28], as he was “then in the flower of his youthful beauty”[footnoteRef:29], The story goes that the tyrant Hipparchus tried to seduce Harmodius, Harmodius refused him, in retaliation Hipparchus shamed Harmodius’ sister at a public ceremony. Aristogeiton and Harmodius formed a plot to overthrow Hipparchus. Both men died after managing to kill the tyrant. The point to note is despite being male lovers Harmodius and Aristogeiton were hailed as heroes; there was even a cult dedicated to them. Before them the city “had only ever hailed gods not men”[footnoteRef:30], an annual festival even commemorated the lover’s deaths. Similarly to Achilles and Patroclus, they were lovers in an innocent sense; it was more of a deep emotional love, rather than being portrayed in a sexual manner. This furthers my point that perhaps for male Athenians an emotional love so long as it was pure was fully accepted, they were obviously male lovers, portrayed regularly in art and stories. [20: Davidson 2007: 256] [21: Davidson 2007: 264] [22: Crompton 2003: 63] [23: Crompton 2003: 68] [24: Crompton 2003: 56] [25: Clarke 1978: 381] [26: Foucault 1984: 208] [27: Fornana 1970: 155] [28: Crompton 2003: 25] [29: Thucydides 6.54-59; 3:277-285] [30: Crompton 2003: 26]
Homosexuality and Heterosexuality went hand in hand. Scholars have tried to distinguish the difference between love of a woman and love of a man. As discussed in the first paragraph some argue that Ancient Athenians would not have defined sexuality in the same way we do. Classical Athenian males had certain merits in the love of boys vs. the love of a woman as a wife. An average classical male Athenian citizen would marry a woman, “for the sake of having children”[footnoteRef:31]; according to Lape heterosexual relationships in and out of marriage were vital in helping male citizens to maintain status distinctions and were used for the purpose of reproduction. Men and women were separated during their educations; other boys constantly surrounded boys, and girls constantly surrounded other girls. Their mothers educated young Girls in domestic activities.[footnoteRef:32] They were left “in ignorance of the world outside the home”[footnoteRef:33]. They would then marry young to a man most likely their senior. Davidson states that these intra-sex marriages were different from homosexual relationships. He notes that there was no courting or wooing of the girl, and that in fact they were not expected to even like each other. “Little concern for love on the part of the bridegroom, nor even for liking on the part of his little bride”[footnoteRef:34], they were meant to magically find Eros at their ceremony. The words philia and homonoia are used in relation to heterosexual marriage, meaning fond intimacy and domestic harmony. These words imply a relationship of circumstance and duty rather than passion. If it is true that many Athenian male citizens married a woman due to the duty of producing children, and social advancement, Halpern’s theory that sexual choices were not formed by the persons inner most sexual desires, but rather by “social identities and public standing”[footnoteRef:35] could be true. Homosexuality was not a deviation from the norm, as with both men and women the two defining traits of ‘passive’ and ‘active’ still remain. Dio states that in a sense the easier it is to have sex with women “the less desirable sex with women becomes”[footnoteRef:36] and the more likely men are to engage in sex with boys. The point of this paragraph is that it is hard to say that homosexuality was a deviation from the norm, as homosexual acts were normalized, especially due to the lack of distinguishing of “homosexuality”. Imagine a boy growing up in such a society. Dover says it may not have been easy for an adolescent boy to even get a glimpse of an adolescent girl.[footnoteRef:37] Dover also implies that young boys who were seen to have too much of an interest in pursuing girls, were considered to be likely to be adulterers in the future. If this is true then was it more normalized and accepted than an adolescent boy is being engaged in homosexual acts with an older man than it was for him to be seeking the sexual company of a girl? And was the segregation of the sexes in their adolescence part of what allowed the common eromenos erastes relationships to form. Athenian males were doing what was normal so long as they were the active members during penetration. While heterosexual relationships were normal in terms of marriage and having children, this does not remove any normalcy from homosexuality. [31: Lape 2003: 17] [32: Toohey 2003: 55] [33: Toohey 2003: 116] [34: Davidson 2007: 476] [35: Halpern 1990: 33] [36: Halpern 1990: 34] [37: Toohey 2003: 117]
To conclude, through this essay I have explored the nature of homo and heterosexuality in Classical Greece, as well as Homosexuality in the law, art and poetry. This essay has distinguished what was normal and what was not for classical Athenian male citizens, regarding marriage, sex and love. Homosexuality was not a deviation from the norm for Classical male Athenian citizens, despite Athenian homosexuality being different from what we consider it today; their version was heavily intertwined in classical society. It is important to note that the idea of ancient sexuality is complex and greatly debated.
Word Count: 4062
· Aeschines, Against Temarchus, trans. C.D.Adams [Harvard University Press] (Cambridge, MA 1919)
· Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, T.Hobbes [Perseus] (London, 1843)
· BBC ENGLAND. 2014.‘Same sex marriage now legal as first couples wed’, (accessed 15/01/18).
· Clarke, W. M. 1978. Achilles and Patroclus in Love.
· Cohen, D. 1987. Law, Society and Homosexuality in Classical Athens. London.
· Crompton, L. 2003. Homosexuality and civilization. Massachusetts.
· Davidson, J. 2007. The Greeks and Greek love. London.
· Dover, K. J. 1978. Greek Homosexuality, London
· Fornana, C. W. 1970. The Cult of Harmodius and Aristogeiton. Germany.
· Foucault, M. 1984.The uses of pleasure. New York.
· Golden, M. Toohey, P. (ed.) 2003. Sex and difference in Ancient Greece and Rome. Edinburgh.
· Golden, M. Toohey, P. (ed.) 2011. A cultural history of sexuality in the classical world. New York.
· Halpern, D. 1990. One hundred years of Homosexuality. New York and London.
· Lape, S. 2011. ‘Heterosexuality’, in Golden, M. Toohey, P. (ed.) A cultural history of sexuality in the classical world. New York.
· Winkler, J. 1990. The Constraints of Desire. New York and London.


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