GREEK LOVE IN ANTIQUITY
There are several grounds for believing that the institutionalised pederasty of the ancient Greeks originated, like their oldest civilisation, on their largest island. The peculiar customs concerning it there are described in pederasty in ancient Crete. Whether or not through her lawgiver Lykourgos, as was believed, Sparta imported some Cretan customs during the dark age, probably including pederastic ones, while adapting them to her own special ends, the results of which are described in pederasty in ancient Sparta.
With the love of boys already taken for granted as part of men's lives in archaic Greece, if not earlier, it is unsurprising to find it believed also to have had the same role in the lives of the Greek gods. The Metamorphosis of Kyparissos is the ancients' varied accounts of a boy loved by a god.
Two accounts are given of the most celebrated love affair that was Greek in both senses, that of the tyrannicides Harmodios and Aristogeiton in 514 BC.
The following writings from ancient authors have been selected for their charm and their ability to bring to life the ancient practice of Greek love.
The Symposium by Plato is an account of a symposium held in 416 BC, in which the speeches of seven mostly famous Athenians are recounted, six being about Eros and heavily tilted towards eros for boys.
Plato's Phaidros is a dialogue between Sokrates and an Athenian aristocrat about erotic love (assumed as a matter of course to be pederastic), in which comparisons are drawn between the benefits to a boy of mentorship not inspired by eros, of chaste eros and of consummated eros.
On Tyranny and Love is a debate from Xenophon's Hieron between a ruler and a poet as to whether being a ruler was an advantage in love affairs with boys, the eponymous ruler's argument bringing out a characteristic of boy-love that runs through many cultures: the appeal of a kind of love that was to be won through courtship rather than social arrangement.
Sophokles as a boy-lover is three anecdotes from different writers about the well-known Athenian tragedian.
The incidental references to pederasty in Plutarch's lives of famous Greeks offer telling insights into Greek practices. The richest from a Greek love point of view is his account of a colourful boyhood given in his Alkibiades. His other lives of Athenians, the lawgiver Solon and the rival statesmen Themistokles and Aristeides illustrate just how politically far-reaching could be the effects of passion for a beautiful boy. Those of kings Agesilaos II and Kleomenes III illuminate Spartan pederasty with characterful anecdotes. Plutarch's Pelopidas is the main source for what is known about the Sacred Band, the elite Theban force made up of pederastic couples that proved invincible for a generation until wiped out at the battle of Chaironeia. His Demetrios and Kimon give lively examples of the disaster that could ensue when great men chased unwilling boys.
Plutarch's Alexander brings to life the attitude to loving boys characteristic of the man widely regarded by the ancients as the greatest who had ever lived, while Arrian and Curtius Rufus furnish further details of his boy-loves. A marked characteristic of Alexander's archaic kingdom of Macedon was a tradition of love affairs between her kings and noble boys who served as their pages. Plutarch's life of Pyrrhos hints at a similar custom in the neighbouring kingdom of Epiros.
Here are the first in a series of intended articles about Greek love as practised by the Greeks themselves:
Pursuit and Flight by Sir Kenneth Dover is a particularly excellent section of the author's ground-breaking and still definitive Greek Homosexuality (1978), in which formidable scholarship, emotional intelligence and helpful analogies with (now only fairly) recent heterosexual customs are combined to produce a lucid and convincing explanation of Athenian ambivalence over when, how easily and why boys might yield to their suitors, and how their fathers were likely to see it.
Did the Greeks pedicate their loved boys? is an essay summarising the reasons adduced for a new myth circulating that ancient Greeks recoiled from pedicating boys and the evidence for regarding them as misunderstandings.
The Near East
Pederasty in ancient Persia brings together all the ancient sources on this subject.
The Entimos Pais of Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 by Donald Mader is a scholarly article showing that the Roman centurion's pais said to have been miraculously cured of mortal illness by Jesus may well have been understood by the latter to have been the centurion's loved boy.
A passage in On the Alexandrine War hints at a little-known pederastic third angle to the famous love affair of the Roman general Julius Caesar and Egyptian Queen Cleopatra provided by her 13-year-old brother.
As in most of the pre-modern world, in Rome it was considered a matter of course that men should be attracted to boys as well as women. Until the rise of Christianity, it was also accepted that they should act on both attractions with an important proviso that sharply differentiate Roman pederastic practice from Greek. This was that the sexual integrity of Roman citizens must not be violated, meaning, where males were concerned, that they must never take the passive role. Though the Scantinian Law which was supposed to enforce this was clearly often broken with impunity, the social disapproval that lay behind it was enough to deprive Roman boys of the greatest benefits Greek boys got from their lovers and thus reinforced itself. Most Roman pederasty was therefore between men and boy prostitutes, slave-boys or non-citizens. For the first, it was their raison d'etre, for the second it was an expected obligation, whilst various anecdotes make it clear that in much of the empire the local non-Roman population saw nothing wrong with freeborn boys having older male lovers, and Roman men availed themselves of the opportunities thus offered.
The impeachment of Scantinius Capitolinus, ca. 226 BC shows the prohibition against seducing freeborn Roman boys in operation even before the introduction of the Scantinian Law.
The disgrace of L. Quinctius Flaminius, 184 BC is an early instance of a powerful Roman coming undone through excessive self-indulgence in lust without regard to public sensitivities.
The killing of Gaius Lusius, 104 BC, as described by three Roman writers, conveys the sense of outrage thought proper to an attempt to make a freeborn Roman youth accept the passive sexual role.
The historian Plutarch's lives of eminent Romans furnish a host of brief anecdotes that are all the more revealing of pederastic practice for being incidental. His Sertorius shows senior Roman officers in Hispania competing for the love of a local boy. Roman boys' naughty games, ca. 82 BC is an excerpt from his Cato the Younger depicting play taking a sexual turn when an older boy and a pretty young boy were involved. The Praetorian Prefect's boy-wife, AD 68 from his Galba illustrates how brazen powerful Romans could be in indulging their lust for boys.
The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius and the much shorter The Style of Life and Manners of the Emperors are series of biographies of the Roman emperors that include Greek love anecdotes. Eighteen of the first twenty-six emperors are recorded as involved in Greek love affairs, whether as boys, men or both. This does not mean seven of the others were not; simply that it was not thought worth remarking on, a point proven by Suetonius's mention of Claudius liking only females as one of his oddities. One other preferred men, two expressed disapproval of pederasty on stoical principles, one died aged nine and three had little if anything recorded of their sexual interests. Wine for Octavian's boy, ca. 41 BC is a brief anecdote about a loved-boy of the future Augustus, also by Plutarch. The much-admired Trajan was the emperor most noted for his special love of boys. Hadrian and Antinous is the story of his great successor and the boy he made a god, as recounted by all the surviving ancient writings. The last of the twenty-six was a boy-emperor whose shocking sexual antics with men were recounted in "Sardanapallos" by Cassius Dio and Antoninus Heliogabalus by Lampridius. The latter was one of the imperial biographies in the Augustan History, earlier Greek love excerpts from which are given in Verus to Diadumenianus, AD 161-218, and later ones in Alexander Severus to Carinus, AD 222-285. However, by the 3rd century, the position of pederasty in the Roman Empire began to deteriorate, gradually at first, then rapidly with the triumph of Christianity in the fourth century. On the Caesars by Aurelius Victor, besides repeating stories about earlier emperors, is the main source for the emperor Philip "the Arab"'s prohibition of boy prostitution in 248s and, exactly a century later, the emperor Constans incurring disapproval for sex with boys despite the new religion.
General Roman histories are also full of Greek love anecdotes, especially for AD 14-70 the Annals and Histories of Tacitus. Besides his above-mentioned descriptions of the emperors Trajan, Hadrian and "Sardanapallos", Cassius Dio's long Roman History for the periods AD 33-69, 81-98 and 180-211 is also revealing. For the much shorter period he covered, 180-238, Herodian's History of the Empire is the best.
Surely the most amusing anecdote concerning Greek love in antiquity is The story of the Pergamese boy from Petronius's Satyricon, written in the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero (AD 54-68) and sometimes called the world's first novel.
Christianity presumably triumphed because it was in keeping with the new spirit of the times, which were anyway more ascetic and unsympathetic to pederasty. Hence, the last pagan emperor Julian's The Caesars, in which his predecessors are invited to a banquet with the gods and individually judged, is fairly scathing about their Greek loves.
As a resource for scholars, it is intended on this website to give every passage touching on Greek love in as many ancient texts as possible. These can be found through "Ancient Texts" on the menu. It is important to note that a link there invariably leads to the entire Greek love content of the named book irrespective of the title of the article and even if the said article is shared by other writings.
Some of the English translations are from an era when sexually explicit phrases and frank references to homosexuality were often judged unfit for translation. They have been amended here for accuracy where precise understanding of Greek love is at stake, but all such amendments are explained in footnotes. In any case, the original Greek or Latin is provided for scholars who wish to check the accuracy of the translations for themselves.
To increase the usefulness of this endeavour, the ancient texts found to have no Greek love content are listed below:
Arrian: -- Events after Alexander; Indica; Parthica.
Augustan History: -- Aelius to Marcus Aurelius.
Cicero: -- Cato the Elder on Old Age
Plutarch: -- Lives: Aemilius Paulus, Aratos, Artaxerxes, Brutus, Caesar, Camillus, Cicero, Coriolanus, Crassus, Dion, Eumenes, Fabius Maximus, Lysandros, Nikias, Otho, Philopoimen, Phokion, Pompey, Publicola, Romulus, Sulla, Theseus, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, Timoleon.
Tacitus: -- Agricola; Germania.