PEDERASTY IN ANCIENT SPARTA
Pederasty in Sparta, the greatest land power in Greece in the classical age, was regarded by contemporaries as having peculiar features that make it worthy of separate study. The ancient texts on it are presented here in chronological order of the writers cited rather than those through whom their information has come down to us.. As will be seen, the surviving information about it is severely contradictory. Though some of this could be due to social change during the very long period covered, there were grounds for bias in whether a particular writer was pro- or anti-Spartan, and his personal stance on the desirability of sexual consummation. None of these writers were Spartan.
It should be explained that Greek writers usually referred to Sparta as Lakedaimon. The land in which it lay was called Lakonia.
Besides the Greek love excepts presented here, biographical information on the pederastic love affairs as boys and men of Spartan kings can also be found in Xenophon’s life of Agesilaos II and Plutarch’s lives of Agesilaos II and Kleomenes III. Ovid’s Metamorphoses includes the story of the mythological Spartan boy, Hyakinthos, loved by the god Apollo, of interest for historical Spartan behaviour only in that the second most important Spartan festival, the Hyakinthia, was held in his honour. There are also two brief references to the prevalence of pederasty in both Sparta and Crete and the responsibility of gymnasia in giving rise to it in Plato’s Laws (636b-c and 836b-d).
The Athenian general and philosopher Xenophon wrote this explanation of why Sparta “was evidently was the most powerful and most celebrated city in Greece” despite being “the most thinly populated of states”, between 387 and 375 BC. He was better-informed about Sparta than any of the others whose writings about it survive, and may have been living there while writing, being so pro-Spartan that he had been exiled from Athens for fighting on the Spartan side in a battle against her. He was also a disciple of Sokrates, whose views on the superiority of non-sexual love he propagated.
The translation is by E.C. Marchant in the Loeb Classical Library volume CLXXXIII (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1925). His latinisations of Greek names have been replaced with transliterated Greek.
I think I ought to say something also about intimacy with boys, since this matter also has a bearing on education. In other Greek states, for instance among the Boiotians, man and boy live together, like married people; elsewhere, among the Eleians, for example, consent is won by means of favours. Some, on the other hand, entirely forbid suitors to talk with boys.
The customs instituted by Lykourgus were opposed to all of these. If someone, being himself an honest man, admired a boy’s soul and tried to make of him an ideal friend without reproach and to associate with him, he approved, and believed in the excellence of this kind of training. But if it was clear that the attraction lay in the boy’s outward beauty, he banned the connexion as an abomination; and thus he purged the relationship of all impurity, so that in Lakedaimon it resembled parental and brotherly love.
I am not surprised, however, that people refuse to believe this. For in many states the laws are not opposed to the indulgence of these appetites. I have now dealt with the Spartan system of education, and that of the other Greek states. Which system turns out men more obedient, more respectful, and more strictly temperate, anyone who chooses may once more judge for himself.
 Λεκτέον δέ μοι δοκεῖ εἶναι καὶ περὶ τῶν παιδικῶν ἐρώτων· ἔστι γάρ τι καὶ τοῦτο πρὸς παιδείαν. οἱ μὲν τοίνυν ἄλλοι Ἕλληνες ἢ ὥσπερ Βοιωτοὶ ἀνὴρ καὶ παῖς συζυγέντες ὁμιλοῦσιν ἢ ὥσπερ Ἠλεῖοι διὰ χαρίτων τῇ ὥρᾳ χρῶνται· εἰσὶ δὲ καὶ οἳ παντάπασι τοῦ διαλέγεσθαι τοὺς ἐραστὰς εἴργουσιν ἀπὸ τῶν παίδων.
 Ὁ δὲ Λυκοῦργος ἐναντία καὶ τούτοις πᾶσι γνοὺς εἰ μέν τις αὐτὸς ὢν οἷον δεῖ ἀγασθεὶς ψυχὴν παιδὸς πειρῷτο ἄμεμπτον φίλον ἀποτελέσασθαι καὶ συνεῖναι, ἐπῄνει καὶ καλλίστην παιδείαν ταύτην ἐνόμιζεν· εἰ δέ τις παιδὸς σώματος ὀρεγόμενος φανείη, αἴσχιστον τοῦτο θεὶς ἐποίησεν ἐν Λακεδαίμονι μηδὲν ἧττον ἐραστὰς παιδικῶν ἀπέχεσθαι ἢ γονεῖς παίδων καὶ1 ἀδελφοὶ ἀδελφῶν εἰς ἀφροδίσια ἀπέχονται.
 Τὸ μέντοι ταῦτα ἀπιστεῖσθαι ὑπό τινων οὐ θαυμάζω· ἐν πολλαῖς γὰρ τῶν πόλεων οἱ νόμοι οὐκ ἐναντιοῦνται ταῖς πρὸς τοὺς παῖδας ἐπιθυμίαις. Ἡ μὲν δὴ παιδεία εἴρηται ἥ τε Λακωνικὴ καὶ ἡ τῶν ἄλλων Ἑλλήνων· ἐξ ὁποτέρας δ᾿ αὐτῶν καὶ εὐπειθέστεροι καὶ αἰδημονέστεροι καὶ ὧν δεῖ ἐγκρατέστεροι ἄνδρες ἀποτελοῦνται, ὁ βουλόμενος καὶ ταῦτα ἐπισκοπείσθω.
Plato, Symposium 182a
The Athenian philosopher Plato’s Symposium was written some time between 385 and 370 BC, and depicts a banquet in 416 BC at which Sokrates and others exchange views on love. The translation is by Thomas Hubbard in his Homosexuality in Greece and Rome (University of California Press, 2003), p. 189.
Here Aristodemos is comparing views on whether it right or wrong for men to have sex with boys, the other states he goes on to mention believing firmly in one or the other:
|“What is more, while sexual conventions in other states are clear-cut and easy to understand, here and in Sparta, by contrast, they are complex.”||Καὶ δὴ καὶ ὁ περὶ τὸν ἔρωτα νόμος ἐν μὲν ταῖς ἄλλαις πόλεσι νοῆσαι ῥᾴδιος· ἁπλῶς γὰρ ὥρισται· ὁ δ᾿ ἐνθάδε καὶ ἐν Λακεδαίμονι ποικίλος.|
Xenophon, Symposium VIII 35
The aforementioned Xenophon wrote his own Symposium, also a philosophical dialogue, in the 360s BC. The setting is a dinner party hosted by Kallias in 422 BC and attended by Sokrates and others, including Xenophon himself. In the following excerpt, Sokrates is explaining why “spiritual love is far superior to carnal”.
The translation is by O. J. Dodd in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1922). His latinisations of Greek names have been replaced with transliterated Greek.
|In contrast to this, the Lakedaimonians, who hold that if a person so much as feels a carnal concupiscence he will never come to any good end, cause the objects of their love to be so consummately brave that even when arrayed with foreigners and even when not stationed in the same line with their lovers they just as surely feel ashamed to desert their comrades. For the goddess they worship is not Impudence but Modesty.||Λακεδαιμόνιοι δὲ οἱ νομίζοντες, ἐὰν καὶ ὀρεχθῇ τις σώματος, μηδενὸς ἂν ἔτι καλοῦ κἀγαθοῦ τοῦτον τυχεῖν, οὕτως τελέως τοὺς ἐρωμένους ἀγαθοὺς ἀπεργάζονται ὡς καὶ μετὰ ξένων κἂν μὴ ἐν τῇ αὐτῇ ταχθῶσι τῷ ἐραστῇ, ὁμοίως αἰδοῦνται τοὺς παρόντας ἀπολείπειν. θεὰν γὰρ οὐ τὴν Ἀναίδειαν ἀλλὰ τὴν Αἰδῶ νομίζουσι.|
Athenaios, The Learned Banqueters 602e
Athenaios of Naukratis wrote this in the early 3rd century AD, but his source cited lived in the 2nd century BC. The translation here is by S. Douglas Olson in Athenaeus: The Deipnosphists VII (The Loeb Classical Library edition, 2011).
|In Sparta, according to Hagnon of the Academy, it is customary to have sex with girls before they marry in the same way one does with boys.||αρὰ δὲ eΣπαρτιάταις, ὡς Ἅγνων φησὶν ὁ Ἀκαδημαϊκός, πρὸ τῶν γάμων ταῖς παρθένοις ὡς παιδικοῖς νόμος ἐστὶν ὁμιλεῖν.|
The Roman politician and lawyer Cicero wrote this dialogue on Roman politics between 54 and 51 BC. It purports to be a conversation between Scipio Africanus the younger and others in 129 BC. Much of the text apparently relevant to Greek love is lost.
The translation is by Clinton W. Keyes in the Loeb Classical Library volume CCXIII (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1928) with three words amended and explained in footnotes.
[Speaker’s identity lost:]. . . . not only as at Sparta, where the boys learn to steal and thieve . . . .
. . . . it was [considered] a disgrace to youths if they did not have lovers . . . .
Scipio:. . . . . that a sexually mature male should go naked. From such ancient sources are derived what we may call the foundation-stones of modesty! And how absurd their system of exercise for the young in gymnasiums! How far from rigorous is their system of military training for the ephebi! How free and easy are their contacts and love relations! To say nothing of the Eleans and Thebans, among whom lust is actually given free rein in the relations of free men, the Spartans themselves, who give every freedom to love relations with young males except that of actual defilement, protect only by a very thin wall this one exception; for, providing only that cloaks be interposed, they allow embraces and the sharing of the bed.
 . . . non modo ut Spartae, rapere ubi pueri et clepere discunt. . . .
. . . opprobrio fuisse adulescentibus, si amatores non haberent. . . .
 Scipio: . . . . nudari puberem. ita sunt alte repetita quasi fundamenta quaedam verecundiae. iuventutis vero exercitatio quam absurda in gymnasiis! quam levis epheborum illa militia! quam contrectationes et amores soluti et liberi! mitto apud Eleos et Thebanos, apud quos in amore ingenuorum libido etiam permissam habet et solutam licentiam; Lacedaemonii ipsi, cum omnia concedunt in amore iuvenum praeter stuprum, tenui sane muro dissaepiunt id quod excipiunt; conplexus enim concubitusque permittunt palliis interiectis.
Januarius Nepotianus, Epitome of the Book of Valerius Maximus XV 19
The obscure Nepotianus wrote his epitome of Valerius’s partially lost early 1st century AD Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings in probably late 4th century. In this chapter XV “On the manners of diverse peoples”, he has just mentioned the sexual practise of Eleans and Thebans with boys:
|The Lakedaimonians permit kisses and lying together, however with cloaks thrown between.||Lacedaemonii osculorum licentiam dedere et concubitus, verum palliis interiectis.|
This biography of the legendary Lykourgos, who was believed to have given Sparta her laws in the 9th century BC, was written by Plutarch at the beginning of the second century AD, as one of his Parallel Lives. The quoted passages are about these enduring laws, so Lykourgos’ questionable status as truly historical has no bearing on their relevance.
The translation is by Bernadotte Perrin in the Loeb Classical Library volume XLVI (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1914).
Here Plutarch is describing what happened to Spartan boys “when they were twelve years old”:
|When the boys reached this age, they were favoured with the society of lovers from among the reputable young men.||
Ἤδη δὲ τοῖς τηλικούτοις ἐρασταὶ τῶν εὐδοκίμων νέων συνανεστρέφοντο·
|The boys’ lovers also shared with them in their honour or disgrace; and it is said that one of them was once fined by the magistrates because his favourite boy had let an ungenerous cry escape him while he was fighting. Moreover, though this sort of love was so approved among them that even the maidens found lovers in good and noble women, still, there was no jealous rivalry in it, but those who fixed their affections on the same boys made this rather a foundation for friendship with one another, and persevered in common efforts to make their loved one as noble as possible.||Ἐκοινώνουν δὲ οἱ ἐρασταὶ τοῖς παισὶ τῆς δόξης ἐπ᾿ ἀμφότερα· καὶ λέγεταί ποτε παιδὸς ἐν τῷ μάχεσθαι φωνὴν ἀγεννῆ προεμένου ζημιωθῆναι τὸν ἐραστὴν ὑπὸ τῶν ἀρχόντων. οὕτω δὲ τοῦ ἐρᾶν ἐγκεκριμένου παρ᾿ αὐτοῖς, ὥστε καὶ τῶν παρθένων ἐρᾶν τὰς καλὰς καὶ ἀγαθὰς γυναῖκας, τὸ ἀντερᾶν οὐκ ἦν, ἀλλὰ μᾶλλον ἀρχὴν ἐποιοῦντο φιλίας πρὸς ἀλλήλους οἱ τῶν αὐτῶν ἐρασθέντες, καὶ διετέλουν κοινῇ σπουδάζοντες ὅπως ἄριστον ἀπεργάσαιντο τὸν ἐρώμενον.|
Claudius Aelianus, Historical Miscellany, III 10 & 12.
Aelian was a Roman writer of the early 3rd century AD, who nevertheless wrote in Greek. His Historical Miscellany is a series of anecdotes from older writers. [This anecdote is dated “some time later” than the death of Cyrus the younger, which occurred in 401 BC., so early in the 4th century.
The translation is by Nigel G. Wilson in the Loeb Classical Library volume CDLXXXVI (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997) with four amendments explained in footnotes.
Though I have many other good things to report of the Spartan ephors, there is one I have chosen to mention now. When one of the handsome boys in their society chose a rich lover in preference to one who was poor but of good character, they imposed a fine, punishing, it would seem, the desire for possessions by a monetary penalty. And any man of good appearance and character who did not fall in love with someone well-bred was also fined, because despite his excellence he did not love anyone. It was clear that he could have made his beloved, and perhaps even another man, similar to himself. Lovers’ affection for their beloved has a remarkable power of stimulating the virtues, if the former are themselves worthy of respect. In fact there is also a Spartan law, that when a boy commits a misdemeanour, the ephors are indulgent to a naive character and to the inexperience of youth, but they punish his lover instead, because they require lovers to watch and control what the young do. […]
Spartan boys are not overbearing or arrogant towards their lovers. It is possible to see that they behave in the opposite way to attractive boys [must repeat footnote] in other societies, from this evidence. They themselves ask their lovers to inspire them; this is a Spartan word, meaning precisely “to love.” Spartan love has nothing shameful about it. For whether a boy is rash enough to submit to outrage or a lover dares to go too far, neither of them profits by having brought dishonour to Sparta. They either abandon their country or, what is more serious, life itself.
 Περὶ τῶν ἐν Λακεδαίμονι ἐφόρων πολλὰ μὲν καὶ ἄλλα εἰπεῖν καλὰ ἔχω, ἃ δ᾿ οὖν προῄρημαι νῦν ἐρῶ ταῦτα. ὅτε τις τῶν παρ᾿ αὐτοῖς καλῶν πλούσιον ἐραστὴν εἵλετο τοῦ χρηστοῦ πένητος, ἐπέβαλον αὐτῷ χρήματα, κολάζοντες ὡς ἔοικε τὴν φιλοχρηματίαν τῇ τῶν χρημάτων ζημίᾳ. ἄλλον δέ τινα ἄνδρα καλὸν κἀγαθὸν οὐδενὸς ἐρῶντα τῶν καλῶς πεφυκότων καὶ τοῦτον ἐζημίωσαν, ὅτι χρηστὸς ὢν οὐδενὸς ἤρα· δῆλον γὰρ ὡς ὅμοιον ἂν ἑαυτῷ κἀκεῖνον ἀπέφηνεν, ἴσως δ᾿ ἂν καὶ ἄλλον. δεινὴ γὰρ ἡ τῶν ἐραστῶν πρὸς τὰ παιδικὰ εὔνοια ἀρετὰς ἐνεργάσασθαι, ὅταν αὐτοὶ σεμνοὶ ὦσιν· ἐπεί τοι Λακωνικὸς καὶ οὗτος νόμος, ὅταν ἁμάρτῃ μειράκον, τῇ μὲν ἀφελείᾳ τοῦ τρόπου καὶ τῷ νεαρῷ τῆς ἡλικίας συγγινώσκουσι, τὸν δὲ ἐραστὴν ὑπὲρ αὐτοῦ κολάζουσιν, ἐπιγνώμονας αὐτοὺς καὶ ἐξεταστὰς ὧν ἐκεῖνοι πράττουσι κελεύοντες εἶναι.
 Οὔκ εἰσι θρυπτικοὶ πρὸς τοὺς ἐραστὰς οἱ Λακεδαιμόνιοι καλοὶ οὐδὲ ἀλαζόνες, ἐπεὶ τοὐναντίον ἢ παρὰ τοῖς ἄλλοις ὡραίοις [τὰ] ἐκ τοῦτων καταμαθεῖν ἔστιν. αὐτοὶ γοῦν δέονται τῶν ἐραστῶν εἰσπνεῖν αὐτοῖς Λακεδαιμονίων δέ ἐστιν αὕτη ἡ φωνή, ἐρᾶν δὴ λέγουσα. Σπαρτιάτης δὲ ἔρως αἰσχρὸν οὐκ οἶδεν· εἴτε γὰρ μειράκιον ἐτόλμησεν ὕβριν ὑπομεῖναι εἴτε ἐραστὴς ὑβρίσαι, ἀλλ᾿ οὐδετέροις ἐλυσιτέλησε τὴν Σπάρτην καταμιᾶναι· ἢ γὰρ τῆς πατρίδος ἀπηλλάγησαν ἢ καὶ τὸ ἔτι θερμότερον [καὶ] τοῦ βίου αὐτοῦ.
Hesychios of Alexandria, Alphabetical Collection of all Words
The otherwise unknown Hesychios compiled his Greek lexicon, the richest surviving, in the 5th century AD. The translations are this website’s. The verb λακωνιζειν is translated as “lakonise”and means to behave like a Spartan. The last four excerpts should be considered together, as their main point is to show cumulatively that the meaning of “lakonise” in a sexual context was to pedicate, and thus that the Spartans had an especially strong reputation for pedicating boys.
ēta η 315
Ēlakatēra: a contest in Lakedaimon, from Ēlakatas, who was the loved-boy of Herakles, according to Sosibios.
kappa κ 4735
kappa κ 4738
buttocks or vulva.
ἠ πυγή. ἦ γυναικεῖον αἰδοῖον
lambda λ 224
to use loved-boys.
lambda λ 226
| in the Lakonian way
penetrate; practise pederasty; offer themselves [NB. this pronoun is feminine plural] to visitors, since the Lakonians guard their women less than any other people.
Photios, Lexicon s.v. κυσολάκων kusolakon
Photios was a late ninth-century Patriarch of Constantinople. The translation is this website’s. The verb λακωνιζειν is "translated" as “lakonise” (behave like a Spartan), as the point of the excerpt is to convey its precise meaning in a sexual context through the context.
The Souda lambda λ 62
The Souda was a 10th-century Byzantine encyclopaedia of the ancient world based on ancient sources, but with some later interpolations. The translation is from the online edition at http://www.stoa.org/sol/
I take the Laconians' view. "Some have atticized, others have laconized." But to laconize [sc. can also mean] to make use of boys. Aristophanes in Thesmophoriazusae,  second [edition], [sc. uses the word in this way].
τὰ τῶν Λακώνων φρονῶ. οἱ μὲν ἠττικίκασιν, οἱ δὲ λελακωνίκασι. Λακωνίζειν δὲ παιδικοῖς χρῆσθαι. Ἀριστοφάνης Θεσμοφοριαζούσαις β
 “I.e. anally” says the translator. Thomas Hubbard in a footnote to his translation of the same passage in his Homosexuality in Greece and Rome (University of California Press, 2003), p. 78, says “In this context the reference may be to anal sex, which would be practical as a form of birth control.”
 The Latin word here, “puberem” can mean anyone who has reached pubescence, however old, but not necessarily a “young man”, as translated by Keyes. The rather awkward “sexually mature male” has been adopted here, as it is the point: Greek males continuing to go naked in gymnasia after reaching puberty was what was remarkable to a Roman.
 Keyes here translates “iuventutis” as “for the young men”, which is fair enough except that the term was loose and could be applied to anyone between 14 and forty or even more, though usually male. The more inclusive term “for the young” has been adopted here as safer.
 Keyes here translates “iuvenum” as “young men”, which is fair enough except that the term was loose and could be applied to anyone between 14 and forty or even more, though usually male, as clearly implied in this case. The more inclusive term “young males” has been adopted here as safer.
 There is no noun here in the Greek. It would most literally be translated as “the beautiful” or “the handsome”, but this fails to convey the implied maleness of the beloved. “Boys” has been adopted as a noun here instead of Wilson’s “young men” because the only word Aelian ever uses that indicates the Spartan beloved’s age is μειρακίον, which means “(adolescent) boy”, and Wilson himself translates it as “boy” in the penultimate sentence quoted.
 The Greek word here is μειράκον, which Wilson translates as “young man” (for which the Greek is νεᾱνίᾱς), but means “(adolescent) boy”, so “boy” has been adopted here; Wilson himself translates the same word as “boy” in the penultimate sentence quoted.
 Thomas Hubbard in a footnote to his translation of the same passage in his Homosexuality in Greece and Rome (University of California Press, 2003), p. 69, notes “The Greek word is eispnein (breathe into). Some scholars see in this term the remnant of an earlier practice of imparting wisdom and virtue through seminal injection.”
 The word here is ὑβρίσαι, which Wilson has translated as “abuse”, here changed to “outrage”, which better conveys the shamefulness and arrogance of the perpetrator.
 Kenneth Dover, Greek Homosexuality (Harvard, 1978) p. 188 note 6, says “Helen” is “an emendation, virtually certain, of a name [Melaine] which does not make sense.” Well before the beauty of Helen of Troy provoked the Trojan War, she was abducted by the Athenian King Theseus. Her age at the time is variously given as 7, 10 or nubile.
 Note that this accords with Thagnon’s assertion that the Spartans pedicated unmarried girls, as cited by Athenaios above, and it may lie behind Aristotle’s negative view of Spartan women in his Politics 1269b: “They live dissolutely in regard to every kind of dissoluteness and luxuriously”. To Athenians, what was remarkable was that the position of Spartan females was anomalous to that of boys. Dover, op. cit., p. 189 says “it seems that Aristotle mentioned the idea that Theseus and Helen ‘invented’ anal intercourse, and since Helen was a Spartan heroine the original meaning of ‘lakonize’ will have been ‘have anal intercourse,’ irrespective of the sex of the person penetrated.”
 (Sexual use is implied.) This and what follows comes from Photius, Lexicon lambda48 Theodoridis. [Note by the editor of the Suda On Line]
 The name of two plays by Aristophanes; [Note by the editor of the Suda On Line:] date perhaps 407/6.