How gay was my Greece?

There are certain hot button subjects when it comes to ancient Greece, ones in which I have no choice but to form a definite opinion. One of these is gay sex. If I want to write detailed stories set in their world, I can hardly dance around the subject!

So how gay were these guys? It's hard to read any modern book or paper on the subject without the sound of ideological axes grinding noisily in the background. So I thought I'd throw in my own dose of what I perceive to be reality, based on what evidence I think relevant.

First up, it's clear that the classical Greeks (the ones I care about, 5th century BC) didn't give a damn what personal plumbing got applied where. As long as people were getting sex with someone, life was good. The archaic Greeks might have felt differently (6th century BC and before). For example, the classical Greeks took it for granted that Achilles and Patroclus in Homer's Iliad were lovers. But in Homer you'll not find a single word to say it.

So classical Greeks had no problems with homosexuality. But how prevalent was it?

The single biggest social driver of the time was overpopulation. It was so hard to feed the growing population that many cities regularly selected citizens to leave and found new cities elsewhere, which is one of the reasons the Greeks moved into Ionia (Western Turkey), and Southern Italy. Well, overpopulation doesn't say a lot of gay sex to me.

In Athens, a man who wasn't married by 30 was a social outcast. Everyone was expected to continue their line. This must have been tough on the guys who were inherently gay. I guess they just had to lie back and think of Athens. But then they were certainly free to play with their friends in their spare time.

This demand is a paradox when put alongside the population problem, but it's no more illogical than today, where overpopulation has strained our resources to the limit, yet individual countries still encourage their people to have more kids.

In Sparta, it was illegal not to be married by 30. But Sparta, in this as in all things, was the exception. The Spartans struggled to keep their population up due to the high mortality rate in battle.

Pericles and Callias were known to have been not only straight, but outrageously monogamous. Pericles was besotted with Aspasia, Callias with his wife Elpinice. By modern standards they were probably perfect husbands.

There are no examples I can think of off-hand of gay men living together without women. There are lots of examples of men who were almost certainly bi-sexual.

A surprising number of pottery pieces that survive, particularly those used at parties, such as kraters for mixing wine, were painted with scenes that show men and women frolicking together. Some of these are extremely pornographic! So much so that some modern museum displays probably should have an adult rating. It's clear that many symposia (dinner parties) were heterosexual orgies.

A smaller amount of pottery porn shows men together. In fact, though I haven't counted, I suspect the incidence of gay pottery porn is about the same as pottery showing men throwing up from drinking too much. (I'm not kidding...vomiting was considered a fit subject for decoration; the Getty Villa has some particularly good examples. I guess the Greeks thought it was funny.)

Gay pottery porn almost always shows an older man with a younger man, or even a boy. These relationships were so standard that there were specific terms for how it worked. The older man was called the erastes and the younger the eromenos. It wasn't merely sexual, a lot of it seems to have been mentoring, and some fathers even encouraged their sons to form such a bond. In a world where men could die suddenly in battle or from disease, it made a lot of sense for a father to know there was someone else who'd look out for his son. An erastes was sort of like a godfather with benefits. The relationships were rarely permanent; when the young man grew older he'd go on and marry as per normal.

There's a book from Plato in which Socrates says he never has sex with any of the cute looking young men who follow him around. What strikes me is not Socrates' attitude, but that the men he's talking with take it for granted that a male teacher would have sex with his male students. I expect this was the social norm. I speculate it would have been thought similar to the erastes/eromenos system and therefore perfectly respectable.

Considering all the current debate about gays in the military, I find it rather amusing that the most successful military leader the world has ever seen was as camp as a row of pink army tents. Alexander the Great was unquestionably gay. He married two women: Stateira the daughter of the Great King to legitimize his hold on Persia, and then Roxane in a surprise move. Most paintings show Roxane as quite voluptuous, but I'd be willing to bet she was somewhat more androgynous. The great loves of his life appear to have been his boyhood friend Hephaistion, and the Persian boy, Bagoas.

There is virtually no information on lesbians. The best source is the brilliant archaic poet Sappho, who on the fragments of her work that survive probably did have romantic interests with her students, though even that's not certain. Just as there's no telling what the men got up to at symposia, there's no knowing what the ladies got up to when they visited each others' homes. The term lesbian comes from the isle of Lesbos, because that's where Sappho lived, but it's an entirely modern term.

The play Lysistrata, by Aristophanes, is not only hilarious (well worth seeing if you get a chance), but it's also to my mind telling evidence. The time is the peak of the war between the Athens and Sparta, and a lady of Athens by the name of Lysistrata has had enough of it. She calls on her fellow women to barricade themselves on the Acropolis and refuse to have sex with the men until they make peace. This is the play that invented the sex strike!

Lysistrata assumes that Athens will collapse in chaos within 3 days if the men can't get at the women. Aristophanes expected the audience to find this credible. Clearly there'd be no issue if lots of men were mostly playing together.

So although there was zero prejudice against gays, and relationships that today we would describe as pederasty might even have been encouraged, the ratio of straight to gay sex was probably the same as it is today.


Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Excellent post, Gary! It is a topic that, unfortunately, I'm obligated to tip-toe around since my books are for children. But not here! :-)

One point that fascinates me is the way the ancients interpreted male sexual relationships (the word "gay" and it's meaning was unknown to the them)--whomever one had sex with was irrelevant as long as one was the erm, "active" partner. This is why it was acceptable for young men to be taken as lovers because their age and status automatically made them the passive or "inferior" parties.

Once the boy passed into manhood,it was considered very bad form to continue to be the passive receptor in a male-male relationship. It was all about who penetrated whom.

This was why the relationship between Alexander and Hephastion was scandalous to some--because they were men of nearly the same age and status. A younger boy would've made sense to them, but not two men of the same age.

Anyway, fascinating discussion. Also, I've never seen pottery depicting drunken Greeks vomiting. Ha! Off to find some images...

Julie said...

This is such a great post. I just learned about 15 new things and "camp as a row of pink army tents" almost made me spit water all over my keyboard.

One little sliver I'd always associated with the mentoring aspect of the erastes/eromenos system was the idea that these bonds were formed between men because they didn't generally view women as their intellectual equals. Is this just an apocryphal thing I picked up somewhere? It does seem sort of practical for them to have had a sort of surrogate father in place, given the times.

Also, not surprised Pericles was besotted with Aspasia. I think I'M besotted with her. From everything I know about her she sounds completely brilliant and awesome!

Geoff Carter said...

Good post, I just glad it's you that has to think about this stuff!
I think, for the sake of the children, classical studies tends not to dwell on this topic; a bit like slavery, it does not make this period particularly romantic, or child friendly - although as I recall, it's was actually the gruesome bits that tended to interested my young mind.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Vicky! Yes, it's sort of a tricky subject. I'm wondering how many work website filters are about to block me. The words in the post tick just about every box.

Thanks for pointing out that "gay" is a very recent term. Of course you're right about the superior/inferior thing, and of course there's the famous ancient pottery picture of a Persian on the receiving end from a Greek, which proves your point exactly. (I thought about including some pictures of pottery porn, but then I'd be blocked for sure.

I've got photos I've taken of drunken Greeks vomiting! I could post them, I guess, but now we're heading into seriously gross.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Geoff, I had this three quarters written when you did your slavery post. It seems to be Political Incorrectness Week.

Gary Corby said...

Julie, glad you liked it.

I'm with you on Aspasia. Personally I rank her with Gorgo and Diotima among the top intellectual elite of the century. I guarantee Aspasia will be appearing in the series some time down the story line.

I think re your other point, that it wasn't a question of any perceived inferiority so much as of protecting your womenfolk. If you messed with another man's daughter or wife, you could expect to be on the receiving end of a sharp sword. It was legal to kill a guy if you caught him in bed with your wife or daughter. There are known cases where this happened and the killer walked free. So young ladies were absolutely not candidates for an erastes/eromenos relationship.

RWMG said...

I'm not sure "Lysistrata" proves anything. It also ignores the possibility of (ab)using slaves and prostitutes. I'm sure the audience was willing to suspend its disbelief for the sake of a dirty joke or thousand.

Male/male relationships can't have been all that rare if there were enough pairs around for the Thebans to form an elite fighting force like the Sacred Band wholly composed of erastes/eromenos pairs.

As other posters have pointed out 'gay' identity and the whole hetero/homo dichotomy are modern day ideas. I suspect the average Classical Greek was quite happy to insert Tab A into Slots B, C, D, and all the way to Z depending on what was available, and didn't particularly mind which, and nor did anyone else provided he also did his family duty. Even today there are many, many men who have sex with other men but don't think of themselves as gay.

Have schools got more squeamish since I was at school? I don't particularly remember Ancient Greek male/male relationships being discussed at school till I was 16 or 17, but we were encourage to read Mary Renault long before that. And when I was 13 or 14 we were left in no doubt about the nature of James VI and I's relationships with various handsome young male courtiers.

RWMG said...

@Geoff. Not romantic? Splutter. Have you read Mary Renault's "The Persian Boy". I don't think you have to be gay to recognise it as a great romance.

Geoff Carter said...

@RWMG. As a poorly read archaeologist I have not; man:man I'm ok with, [have you read Gilgamesh?], but man:boy I find a bit ikky, it's may be just my conditioning, [and time spent at an English boarding as a child!]

RWMG said...

Boy here certainly doesn't mean prepubscent. Bagoas (the Persian Boy of the title) is a Persian eunuch in his late teens/early twenties.

Geoff Carter said...

I am so glad to hear he had been castrated.

The ancient world offers some interesting plot devices and twists.

Gary Corby said...

Terrific points all.

Mary Renault was certainly the greatest author of ancient Greek novels ever. But she seems to have had a thing for gay guys, even in her contemporary work, and I assume that coloured her plotting somewhat.

You're right Robert, Lysistrata doesn't mention a few options, and there's a certain lack of reality--though I note with interest that the molls of Mexican drug gangsters recently pulled a Lysistrata to stop their boyfriends slaughtering each other. The parallels are amazing.

Umm, yes, Alexander's Persian boyfriend was castrated. The Greeks were as uncomfortable with castration as we are today, and I'm writing this with my legs crossed and wincing, but the Persians were totally into it.

And yep, it does make for some fun plot devices, and I'm never one to give away a fun plot device.

Gary Corby said...

Forgot to add...Robert, yes, schools are squeamish, but maybe not more so than in the past. Somehow I have a funny feeling that you were extremely well read from an early age.

I've seen it said by the way, I've no idea if it's true, that one of the early translations of Lysistrata was by a certain Oscar Wilde.

Sarah W said...

Sorry for changing the subject, sort of, but why was Alexander's marriage to Roxane a 'surprise move'?

Because he'd already done his marriage duty and clearly preferred men?

T Lockyer said...

Mary Renault lived the better part of her life with a woman, Julie Mullard, whom she met when both were nurses, and she was active with the writers' organization PEN, which has a history of engagement with human rights issues. A postscript to The Friendly Young Ladies (1944) written shortly before her death and published in the 1984 Virago Press edition shows that she did not like the term "gay" (which she compared to "disinterested" as a word that had shifted meaning for, in her view, the worse) or the visible militancy of some contemporary activism, but that is because she saw the latter as counterproductive to the achievement of tolerance for homosexual people, of which she regarded Greece as a kind of model. There was no specific legal prohibition against female same-sex behaviour in British law, or in that of South Africa, to which Renault and Mullard emigrated around 1947, but there was certainly prejudice (and indeed she had to find a different US publisher for The Charioteer, about a gay man in wartime Britain, as her previous one wouldn't print it), and awareness of these things no doubt influenced her.

If it's true (as Plutarch says at Alexander 67.8) that the Persian eunuch Bagoas was Alexander's beloved (and he is the only person any Greek writer calls Alexander's eromenos), that in itself suggests a particular broad-mindedness on his part, as eunuchs were generally looked down upon by the Greeks both as people and as lovers. But when we find "boy" in Greek homoerotic contexts, it's pretty much exclusively "youth", "teenager" or "young man" we should be thinking: some texts are quite explicit about this; that the most attractive age is just before the appearance of the adult beard (Straton of Sardis, Greek Anthology 12.4) and that a young man could simultaneously be both pursued and pursuer (Xenophon, Symposium 8). And remember that Greek society generally eroticized youth and that (insofar as we can tell) in both Greek and Roman society it was by no means unusual for a girl to have been married for the first time in the early teens. But there's also some evidence that the rigid erastes / eromenos model and the necessarily temporary relationships it suggests was not universal, and especially that (near) coeval pairs were possible. Moreover, even if Plato himself does not endorse it, Aristophanes' speech in the Symposium suggests that the notion of inherent, permanent sexual orientation was not unknown.

Art may not be a reliable guide: for one thing, we don't actually know the proportions of wares produced; for another, we do know that some kinds of scenes are found more often or only in particular fabrics: human male coeval pairs in sexually explicit erotic scenes appear on Tyrrhenian amphorae (thought to have been made in Attika for export to Italy), but are not found in domestic Attic wares (and Tyrrhenian amphorae also tend to emphasize the more gory aspects of narratives like the sacrifice of Iphigeneia).

It's not entirely true that "lesbian" in reference to female homoeroticism is a wholly modern term: while the verb "lesbiazo" referred to something (in old comedy always fellatio, according to Henderson's Maculate Muse, pp. 183-4) a woman could do with a man, Lucian (Dialogues of the Courtesans 5.2) does have a character make an explicit association of Lesbos with "masculine" women who are exclusively interested in female lovers.

dgm said...

The erastes/eromenos system of course lived on after classical times - we see echoes of it all through the literature and we could make the arguement that nineteenth century english milords cavorting with shepherd boys was a pale reflection of this.

Interestingly, my wife was teaching English to migrant kids from rural Greece some years ago, and got them to do show and tells about growing up in Greece as part of a confidence building exercise.

One kid did one describing something very much like the erastes/eromenos system in his village - sort of mentoring+ ...

RWMG said...

This translation of Lysistrata was published anonymously in 1912, but it is rumoured that the translation was by Oscar Wilde.

When you said Oscar Wilde had translated Lysistrata, I assumed this must have been the edition Aubrey Beardsley illustrated, but apparently not, that was done by someone called Samuel Smith.

Gary Corby said...


Alexander didn't marry and conceive a child before leaving Macedonia to invade Persia. That's totally contrary to the usual practice of making sure you have an heir before you get yourself killed. Most people took it as a sure sign he was 100% gay.

He married Stateira for good political reasons, so it meant nothing. But Roxane was totally off his own bat, to someone of no political advantage whatsoever, hence a big surprise.

Gary Corby said...

Wow, to Terence, dgm and Robert. The good thing about writing this blog is I end up learning more than I started with. That's sort of amazing.

Amalia T. said...

This post and the comments are a goldmine of information!

My only informed comment is that I think the Achilles/Patroclus interpretation in the classical world is not that much different from the commentary I heard from my contemporaries after Lord of the Rings entered movie theaters, regarding the relationship between Sam and Frodo.