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three pairs of lovers with space



Sophokles (497/6-406 BC) was the most popular of the three ancient tragedians, all Athenian, whose works have survived.  The following stories about him, assembled from three original sources, show him to have been a particularly enthusiastic lover of boys and offer lively insights into Athenian pederasty in its cultural heyday.


The Learned Banqueters 603f-604f

These anecdotes are from a long speech discussing famous boy-lovers by Myrtilos recorded by Athenaios of Naukratis in his late second century AD Deipnosophistai (The Learned Banqueters) 603f-604f.

The translation and notes are from pp. 80-81 of Thomas Hubbard’s Homosexuality in Greece and Rome (University of California Press, 2003), except that his Latinisation of Greek names has been dropped for more literal transliteration.

Sophokles was as much a lover of young boys as Euripides was a lover of women. The poet Ion of Chios[1] writes thus in his book Encounters.

Boy serving wine, by the Euaion painter ca. 455 BC
The poet Sophokles I met at Chios when, as general, he was bound for Lesbos[2]: a playful man, when in wine, and clever. Hermesileos, his own friend and the consular representative of Athens, was hosting him, when there beside the fire, ready to pour out his wine, was a boy . . .[3] of course, and he said, "Do you want me to like my wine?" and the boy said yes. "Then hand me the cup slowly, and take it from me slowly." The boy was now blushing more and more, and Sophokles said to his neighbor, "Phrynichos put it so beautifully! 'Shines on his crimson cheeks the light of love.'"[4] Whereupon the other, an Eretrian schoolmaster or else an Erythraian, replied, "Yes, you are learned in poetry, Sophokles, but all the same Phrynichos was wrong to call a beautiful boy’s cheeks crimson. If the painter smeared this boy’s cheeks with crimson, he would no longer seem beautiful. It’s quite wrong to compare beauty with what is not beautiful." Sophokles laughed at this Eretrian: "Don’t you like that line of Simonides, either, sir? 'From crimson lips the virgin’s voice was raised' – yet the Greeks all think it’s quite right! or the poet who spoke of 'golden-haired Apollo,[5] although if a painter painted Apollo’s hair gold and not black, so much the worse for the painting; or the poet of rosy-fingered[6], because if you dip your fingers into rose-coloured paint you have the hands of a crimson-dyer, not those of a beautiful woman." They laughed, and the Eretrian was put out of countenance by this retort; Sophokles took up his conversation with the boy again. He was trying to get a bit of straw out of the wine-cup with his little finger. "Do you see the bit of straw?" asked Sophokles, and the boy said he saw it. "Don’t dip your finger in, then," he said. "Just blow it away instead." Then, as the boy’s face approached the cup, Sophokles brought the cup nearer to his own lips, so that their two heads would be closer; and when they were very close, he put his arm around him and kissed him. There was applause, with laughter and shouts, at how well he had managed the boy, and Sophokles said, "I am practising strategy, gentlemen. Perikles said that I knew how to make poetry, but not how to be a strategist. This stratagem fell out 'just right' for me, didn’t it?"[7] His conversation over wine, and his behavior in daily life, were full of such clever turns; in politics, though, he was no more wise and no more effective than any other respectable Athenian.

Hieronymos of Rhodes[8], in Historical Notes, says that Sophokles induced a good-looking boy to come outside the city walls to have sex with him:

This boy laid his own cloak on the ground under them, and they wrapped themselves in Sophokles’ cape. After the act the boy snatched Sophokles’ cape and went off leaving Sophokles his own boyish cloak. The incident was widely reported. Euripides heard of it and made a joke out of it, saying that he had had that boy too and it did not cost him anything; Sophokles had let himself go and had paid with ridicule. When Sophokles heard that, he composed an epigram against Euripides in the following sense, alluding to the story of the North Wind and the Sun, and at the same time satirising Euripides’ adulteries: It was the Sun, and not a boy, whose heat stripped me naked;

As for you, Euripides, when you were kissing someone else’s wife
The North Wind screwed you. You are unwise, you who sow
In another’s field, to accuse Eros of being a snatch-thief.”


Plutarch's Life of Perikles

Perikles (ca. 495-429 BC) was the leading citizen of Athens for nearly forty years at the time she was politically and culturally greatest.

The Greek biographer and essayist Plutarch wrote a biography of him at the beginning of the second century AD, but using much earlier lost sources, as one of his Parallel Lives. Here follows the only passage in it relating to pederasty, which is also about Sophokles.

The translation is by Bernadotte Perrin in the Loeb Classical Library volume LXV (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1916). The Latinisation “Sophocles” has been replaced by more literal transcription of the Greek.

8 v

On how careful Perikles was to avoid frivolity in his speech:

Once also when Sophokles, who was general with him on a certain naval expedition,[9] praised a lovely boy, he said: “It is not his hands only, Sophokles, that a general must keep clean, but his eyes as well.” καί ποτε τοῦ Σοφοκλέους, ὅτε συστρατηγῶν ἐξέπλευσε μετ᾿ αὐτοῦ, παῖδα καλὸν ἐπαινέσαντος, “Oὐ μόνον,” ἔφη, “τὰς χεῖρας, ὦ Σοφόκλεις, δεῖ καθαρὰς ἔχειν τὸν στρατηγόν, ἀλλὰ καὶ τὰς ὄψεις.”

Sophokles in front of the Areopagos by Hippolyte Perrin, 1877

[1] A fifth-century poet, known to have produced tragedies in Athens between 451 and 428, but also active in other genres.

[2] Sophokles was general during the Samian War, probably 441–440.

[3] Something is missing in the Greek text at this point, perhaps a description of the boy.

[4] Phrynichos was an early tragic poet, known to be active between 511 and 476. This line is cited earlier by Athenaios (at 13.564F) as from his Troilos, describing the Trojan prince known for his beauty.

[5] Pindar, Olympian 6.41, cf. Tyrtaios 3.2.

[6] "Rosy-fingered Dawn," as, for example, in Odyssey 2.1 or Hesiod, Works and Days 610.

[7] Appropriately Sophokles uses a phrase, kat' orthon "just right," which was one of his own favorites in his poetry (three citations in Liddell and Scott 1925–40 s.v. orthos III.1.b).

[8] A philosopher and literary historian active in Athens under the patronage of Antigonos Gonatas in the third century B.C.E. A pupil of the Aristotelian school, he later became an Eclectic.

[9] Against Samos, 440–439 B.C. [Translator’s note]




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