GREEK LOVE IN ANTIQUITY
"Antiquity" is used here in the special sense of that part of the world directly known to writers in Greek and Latin in the ancient era, ie. Europe, North Africa and the Near East. It includes writings in other languages on this area, but it does not include other parts of the world where records survive of Greek love being practised in the same era, notably China. Also excluded from coverage here is the 5th century AD, despite the fall of the Roman empire in the west in AD 476 being the traditional dividing point between the ancient and mediaeval eras. From the point of view of Greek love, the final and overwhelming triumph of Christianity in the late 4th century had far more impact than the later fall of the city of Rome to barbarians.
The late 2nd century AD The Book of the Laws of Countries gives brief but unique insight into the standing then of Greek love in the east versus the west of the lands under consideration.
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 Hyakinthos and The Metamorphosis of Kyparissos are the ancients' varied accounts of two boys 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.
Parthenios recounted two boy-love stories in his book, Sufferings in Love, whose title speaks for itself.
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.
Amongst the best histories with Greek love anecdotes are the eye-witness accounts of war in Xenophon's Anabasis and Hellenika.
The Boyish Muse, a compilation of pederastic epigrams, for which Straton of Sardis was the original compiler and most prolific poet, but which includes later poems too, greatly expands and deepens understanding of the ancient practice of pederasty, giving the sometimes-diverging ideas of a large variety of poets over several centuries, sometimes challenging the approved point of view. It is itself only one book in the fifteen of The Greek Anthology and a few pederastic epigrams, some by the same authors, are scattered through its other books. Some of the epigrams used double entendre which can be lost even on those able to read the original Greek: Straton's no. XII 54 is an interesting example of a particularly obscure one whose erotic meaning has been unravelled by a classicist. Besides Straton, some other authors of epigrams of Greek love interest in the Greek Anthology were Alkaios, Antipatros of Sidon, Asklepiades, Dioskourides, Kallimachos, Leonidas of Tarentum, Plato the philosopher, Rhianos, Simonides and Statilius Flaccus. Others writing in the imperial Roman era are considered together.
These are articles by modern writers about how Greek love was practised by the Greeks themselves:
A Problem in Greek Ethics, written by John Addington Symonds in 1873, was the first serious study in English of the Greek practice of pederasty.
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 role of the fighting cock in Greek pederasty is excerpts relevant to pederasty from "The Cultural Poetics of the Greek Cockfight" by Eric Csapo.
The Greek Experiment by Parker Rossman is Parker Rossman's potted summary of Greek practices in his Sexual Experience Between Men and Boys (1978).
The Near East
Pederasty in ancient Persia brings together all the ancient sources on this subject.
Donald Mader's scholarly article on the 11th century BC Israelite heroes David and Jonathan leaves little doubt that their intense love is to be seen as Greek love on similar lines to those depicted between warriors and adolescent boys in traditional masculine societies worldwide.
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 differentiates 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.
Drew and Drake, authors of Boys for Sale, a general study of boy prostitution, in the first section of it devoted to "Ancient Times" but actually about Rome only, give a lively account that owes as much to their imaginations as to historical evidence. Similar in tone, but shorter is "Roman Sex Exploitation", Drake's later account written under his real name of Parker Rossman, which he followed with "The Judeo-Christian Reaction".
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. Suetonius's Lives of Illustrious Men is a similar biographical series: Greek love is mentioned in the lives of two eminent poets.
Thoughts on a Bowl from Pompeii shows how essentially fragile judgements about ancient pederasty can be when based on artefacts, depending on particular photos and viewers.
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 of these seven others 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 248 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.
Also amusing are Lucian's Dialogues of the Gods, four of which concern Ganymede, the boy abducted by the enamoured king of the gods, and his Judgement of the Goddesses touching on the same, while these all also imply a decline in traditional religious beliefs that was to be ominous for Greek love.
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
Kallimachos - Hekale, Minor Epic and Elegiac Poems, Epigrams.
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.
Poseidippos: - Milan papyrus
Tacitus: -- Agricola; Germania.
If you would like to leave a comment on this webpage, please e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org, mentioning in the subject line either the title or the url of the page so that the editor can add it.