Ancient Greece stands as something of a shorthand whenever we think today of a “history” or even “origin” of homosexual behaviour. On the surface, the correlation is a fair one. There’s enough in the written record — to say nothing of statues, art, and pottery — to convince us that male same-sex sexuality was known and frequently celebrated. To call such conduct “homosexual” as we recognise that meaning today is, however, not only anachronistic, but simply wrong.
For starters, “Ancient Greece” wasn’t one nation the way modern Greece is, but was constructed of numerous self-governing states, all of which had different cultures and traditions, and were frequently at odds with each other, if not at outright war.
A number of states are still famous today — the most powerful were Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Megara, and Argos — and each state put different emphasis on how their subjects were to live. Athens was famed for poetry, drama, and politics (it’s no surprise the great philosophers were Athenian), whereas Spartans were renowned as skilled warriors. Other states would take advantage of the specialisation of their neighbours, for example Philip II of Macedon (one of the northern mountainous states) was in his youth trained in military tactics at Thebes: lessons he passed to his more famous son, Alexander the Great, one of whose first significant victories was the decimation of the Theban Band. Alexander in turn was tutored by Aristotle, a Macedonian by birth, but educated in Athens by Plato.
Although the states weren’t adverse to borrowing knowledge from their neighbours, they were also quick to judge them by their different morals and mores. Thebes was as famous for celebrating same-sex affection (between men) as it was for its military prowess, but that didn’t necessarily mean the other states thought such things should be encouraged. When Philip II was assassinated by a spurned male lover, there were no shortage of contemporaries placing the blame for the King’s taste in boys firmly at Thebes’ door.
The Sacred Band of Thebes was an army composed “of lover and their beloveds”: that is, 150 male-male couples who formed the most elite fighting force the warrior-state ever produced. The inspiration for such a force can be found in Plato’s Symposium:
I say that a lover who is detected in doing any dishonourable act, or submitting through cowardice when any dishonour is done to him by another, will be more pained at being detected by his beloved than at being seen by his father, or by his companions, or by any one else. The beloved too, when he is found in any disgraceful situation, has the same feeling about his lover. And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonour, and emulating one another in honour; and when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world. For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger? The veriest coward would become an inspired hero, equal to the bravest, at such a time; Love would inspire him. That courage which, as Homer says, the god breathes into the souls of some heroes, Love of his own nature infuses into the lover.
Love, at least according to the Athenian model, made men honourable: the Sacred Band certainly seemed to prove the point. Even after the rest of their army had fallen to Philip II’s troops, the Band stood strong against then-Prince Alexander’s cavalry. Despite entreaties from Alexander, they refused to surrender, and fought until every last one was dead.
The Thebans were, however, unusual even among the Greeks, not least because the Band was composed of adult men. More common was the Athenian pederastic model which paired an older man with a adolescent boy. It’s difficult to talk about pederasty in context because today we have a completely different view of pubescent sexuality, a slew of laws prohibiting behaviour many Greek states considered perfectly ordinary, and new, scarier, words to describe such sexual liaisons. However, given that pederasty and (what became known as) homosexuality have been messily entwined since before the birth of Christ, and still today many layfolk consider them one and the same, it’s worth exploring what exactly pederasty was.
The most direct definition of pederasty is as a socio-sexual custom in which an elder man with wealth and position devoted himself to a younger, finacially supporting him, educating him, and finding him a place in society. The chosen adolescents were aged 12-18, or the same age/older than the eponymous heroine in Romeo and Juliet (she was 13).
The rules governing such relationships were strict. Several cities prohibited pederasty completely while others, such as Sparta, only permitted chaste relationships. Where sexual contact was permitted, it was supposed to remain within fixed boundaries (intercrural — non-penetrative — sex was preferred, with the elder man assuming the active role and the younger man, the receptive), and sex shouldn’t be the dominant form of expression: too carnal a relationship was considered unseemly, and Plato, among others, wrote vociferously against it (hence “platonic”). Only the elder was supposed to initiate sexual contact: for the younger man, it was attention to be graciously accepted, or even endured.
Of course, there were plenty of men who broke the rules. Plato himself narrated such an encounter in the Symposium. Socrates is speaking to his friends of love when Alcibiades, a beautiful young man with the promise of a great future, bursts into the room, blind drunk, and proceeds to lament that no matter how brazenly he offers himself up, Socrates will not have sex with him.
Socrates turned to Agathon and said: I must ask you to protect me, Agathon; for the passion of this man has grown quite a serious matter to me. Since I became his admirer I have never been allowed to speak to any other fair one, or so much as to look at them. If I do, he goes wild with envy and jealousy, and not only abuses me but can hardly keep his hands off me, and at this moment he may do me some harm. Please to see to this, and either reconcile me to him, or, if he attempts violence, protect me, as I am in bodily fear of his mad and passionate attempts.
Shortly thereafter another group of drunken revellers arrive, and Alcibiades’ attempts at seduction are once again thwarted.
There was another couple in the Symposium: Agathon and Pausanias. Like Plato’s other figures, they were real men known to the author. Agathon was a tragic poet of great renown — generally considered second only to Aeschylus — although today all his works are lost. Of Pausanias, nothing is known save he was Agathon’s lover. The two men remained together their entire lives, living openly and faithfully in a relationship which defied convention across Greece. They stand today as an example of the sort of monogamous, equitable, and marriage-like relationship between adult males so often associated with Ancient Greece, but which in reality rarely existed.
Born on this day: Alfred Chester (1928-1971, American), author; Rudy Galindo (46, American), former professional figure skater; Peter Gill (76, Welsh), playwright; Paul Iacono (27, American), actor best known for his role as the title character in MTV’s The Hard Times of RJ Berger; Justin Lee (38, American), founder of the Gay Christian Network; David Levithan (43, American), YA author best known for his debut novel Boy Meets Boy; Owen Pallett (36, Canadian), composer and violinist; Valerie Taylor (1913-1997, American), author; Jean-Yves Thibaudet (54, French), pianist; and Evan Rachel Wood (28, American), Golden Globe and Emmy Award-nominated actress.
Died on this day: Spring Byington (1886-1971, American), Academy Award-nominated actress; Glenn Shadix (1952-2010, American), actor best known for his role as Otho Fenlock in Beetlejuice. Tony Randolph Hunter (1971-2008, American), former US Army sergeant killed after being assaulted by four men who later claimed a “gay panic” defense. Hunter was placed on life-support and died ten days later. Investigators initially treated the attack as a hate crime, but later withdrew the charge, citing insufficient evidence of anti-gay bias. Hunter’s killer struck a plea deal for misdemeanour simple assault, carrying a maximum sentence of 180 days’ imprisonment.