Homosexual love in classical Athens

Despite some progress in this matter since the Victorian age, it still does not seem that the full extent and importance of homosexual love in classical Athens and throughout all of ancient Greece is common knowledge today.

Homosexual love in classical Athens

 In his introduction to Edward FitzGerald’s famous adaptation of Omar Khayyam’s ‘Rubáiyát’, the editor remarks that:

FitzGerald (1809-1883) found himself a homosexual in a society that, while it admired and respected a civilization [that of classical Athens] that gloried in, and boasted of, its homosexuality, itself found the behaviour so offensive as to be virtually unmentionable.

Despite some progress in this matter since the Victorian age, it still does not seem that the full extent and importance of homosexual love in classical Athens and throughout all of ancient Greece is common knowledge today. Indeed, knowledge of male love may be even rarer than it was in FitzGerald’s time, since classical studies are no longer presented in most schools, and in the universities the subject attracts only the few.

It is important in the beginning to define our vocabulary. The term ’homosexuality’ as it is used and understood today is not applicable to Greek antiquity for three reasons: First of all, most Greeks were bisexual. Second, homosexuality and 'gay' as sexual identities are recent developments, emerging only in the 2Oth Century (our idea of what it means to be gay or a homosexual has largely been influenced by recent gay activism and the emergence of gay rights on the cultural landscape). Last, and most important of all, passion and erotic love between two adult men (the model for modern gay relationships), was generally considered unusual and held up to ridicule. Homosexual love in Greece was love between a man and a boy.

As with all else, there were exceptions, such as the well known relationship between Alexander the Great and his boyhood friend Hephaiston, or the one between the mythical hero of the Trojan war, Achilles, and his best friend and lover, Patroklos. These love affairs fit the pattern of gay relationships today. However, the relationship that was characteristic of the Greek way of life, accepted or even regarded as a social duty by the state, was intergenerational male love. In its ideal form this bond was between a man (called the erastes [lover] in Athens, or the ‘inspirer’ in Sparta) and an adolescent youth (called the eromenos [beloved], or the ‘hearer’, respectively). It bears saying here that opinions even then were divided, with a lively debate going on between proponents and opponents of homosexual love.

Achilles and Patroklos
(read the story)

a ancient parallel to
modern gay relationships?
The Greek word for homosexual love between a man and a youth was paiderastia (hence pederasty), derived from pais, boy, and eran, to love, meaning emotional and sensual affection for a pais. A common synonym for beloved boys in Greek writings is ta paidika, ’the boyish.’ The youths who attracted men’s attentions ranged in age from adolescence to early manhood, as can be seen from the images that have come down to us on Greek pottery and sculpture. Relationships with overly young boys were frowned upon then as they are now (though some Greek beloved youths would have fallen below the age of consent in many modern countries), one mark of a beloved ripe for a man’s attentions being the ability to “think for himself”.

Social environment

The Greek male was expected not only to marry and raise children, but also to be available for friendship and homosexual love affairs with worthy youths, not to the exclusion of marriage but as its necessary complement. Thus his destined path through the garden of love would begin some time in adolescence when the boy was courted by many men and would choose one to be his lover. This homosexual relationship would continue till early adulthood when he'd begin courting and winning the love of a deserving youth of his own. Then it would expand to include taking a wife and having children. (Of course there were countless variations on this theme, some noble and others sordid, just as it is with us today in our love life.) This variety of life was reflected in the ‘deep well of time’, the ancient sacred myths on which were based the archetypes of human life and self-knowledge.

Zeus and Ganymede
(read the story)
(click image to enlarge)

All Greeks were familiar with the tales of male love: Zeus descending as an eagle to carry off Ganymede, the most beautiful boy on Earth, to be his lover on Mount Olympus, of Apollo and Hyacinth’s ill fated love, and of many other such passionate friendships between gods or heroes and handsome youths. Among the Greeks, this love did more than dare speak its name, it fairly shouted it from the rooftops. It was one of the fundamental traditions of Greek life, one practised and enjoyed to the fullest. Indeed, it was a social must which no poet, no philosopher, no artist disdained to explore. It was discussed in public as a matter of course and included in the reflections of the greatest minds.
That a man should be attracted both to lovely women and to beardless boys was seen as natural and normal. It was also accepted that some men would lean more towards one, and some towards the other. However, young males were considered the fair sex par excellence; the Greek ideal of beauty was embodied by the young man, a fact evident in all of Greek literature and art from first beginnings to last examples. Literary disputes examined the question of which kind of love was preferable, and often the love of youths won out. Apart from purely scientific texts there was hardly a work in which juvenile male beauty was not praised, from casual asides to richly embroidered descriptions. The extent to which the youth was the paragon of beauty can be seen in the arts, where even girls were often represented with boyish traits. Furthermore,a great deal of pottery depicting youths has been found, often inscribed with the epithet kalos (the masculine form of beautiful), while pictures of girls and the feminine kale are rare. Even he great sculptor Phidias payed homage to his beloved by carving kalos Pantarkes on a finger of the colossal statue of Zeus at Olympia.


Besides their physical charm, boys were also valued for their minds, held to be especially capable of reason and debate and therefore meant to be cultivated. Thus homosexual love was the driving force not only of the sexual but also of the pedagogic side of Greek pederasty. Ancient culture was male oriented through and through. To the Greek man, his spouse counted mostly as mother of his children and keeper of his household. With very few exceptions women (and wives in particular) were excluded from intellectual and public life. Girls were considered capable only of chitchat, and unworthy of education. Only hetairas, a class of entertainers / courtesans who were not charged with domestic responsibilities, could enter the political and philosophic arenas. Thus, the intellectual development of most girls was neglected, while the right upbringing of boys was given the highest importance.

The aim of the Greek educational system, the paideia, was summed up by the words: kalos k’agathos, ’beautiful and good’, meaning that beauty of body and goodness of soul were the essence of human i.e. male perfection. Homosexual love between men and youths striving together to develop these virtues was seen as the most effective way to cultivate that ideal. It was said that even Herakles (Hercules) could perform his mighty deeds with more ease when his beloved Iolaos watched him. It was in commemoration of their union that the Iolaeia, gymnastic and equestrian games, were celebrated in Thebes.

The education of the youths took place in the gymnasium. Far more than a modern gym, such a complex was situated in the centre of every Greek town. There boys and men spent a large part of their day engaged in physical and intellectual exercise. Its architecture was described by the Roman architect Vitruvius: First, it contained a large peristyle, i.e. a square with a perimeter of two stadia (or 90 m [270 ft] per side). It was surrounded on three sides by single arcades, and on the southern side by a double arcade that enclosed the Ephebeion, the training ground for the epheboi, young men past the age of majority, that is eighteen to twenty or so. At the sides were baths, halls and other rooms, where philosophers, rhetoricians, poets and all the many friends of male beauty would come together. Behind the peristyle were further arcades, one of them the xystos, apparently mainly for the training of adult men, and connected to it the palestra, the main training ground for the youths. The rooms were decorated with all kinds of artwork, above all with statues of gods and heroes such as Hermes, Apollo and the Muses, Herakles and especially Eros. Such daily exposure to the many wondrous works of art and to the beauty of young bodies harmoniously developed by regular exercises goes a long way towards explaining the Greeks’ enthusiasm for beauty and male eros.

The word gymnasium derives from gymnos, naked, reflecting the fact that all sports were performed unclothed. Not surprisingly, the gymnasium was an epicentre of erotic energy. The cult of male nudity was a widespread phenomenon of Greek life, and was viewed as one of the cardinal differences between the cultured Greeks and their barbarian neighbours. Nudity was practised not only in the gymnasia but also at the great national competitions in Olympia, Nemea, Delphi and on the Isthmus, at religious ceremonies, at public festivals and at private feasts where the young cupbearers went usually in the nude. The Gymnopaidiai was an important yearly festival in Sparta, celebrated with dances and presentations of naked boys. Paradoxically, the Spartan authorities tried to use the dances as reward for those fighting the decrease in population that their state was stricken with: only married men were allowed as spectators.

Varieties of traditions

On the other hand, one of the myths explaining the origin of pederasty has it that Minos, the king of Crete, introduced it to avoid overpopulation of his island. That custom, in the form of a traditional rite of passage, is also the earliest form of pederasty that is historically documented, in a text of Ephorus of Kyme.

The lover announces to his friends his decision to perform the abduction three or four days before. Now it would be disgraceful to hide the boy or to forbid him to go the appointed road, because this would mean that he did not deserve such a lover. Then when they have met and the lover takes rank with the boy or even ranks above him, they pursue the abductor only out of tradition to keep up appearances, in fact they let him go delightedly. Still they pursue him until he has brought the boy into his house. But if the lover is not of equal rank, they wrench the boy from him forcibly. He who excels in beauty is regarded as less desirable than he who distinguishes himself by valour and virtue. The boy receives a present from his friend, and the latter takes him to where he wants to have him. The witnesses to the abduction go with them; then follows a festive dinner, after which they return to town. Two months later the boy is sent home, with rich presents. [Three traditional presents made up the symbolic foundation of the boy’s entry into adult life: a suit of armour symbolizing martial accomplishment, a bull symbolizing the responsibilities of working the land, and a cup, symbolizing divine inebriation as the path to the accomplishments of the spirit.] Besides these there were many other valuable gifts, so that the friends too may have their pleasure. Upon his return the young man sacrificed the bull to Zeus and treated his friends to a feast. [At the same time he had to answer the ritual question of whether he liked the relationship with his abductor or not, a tradition which presumably served as further restraint on those lovers prone to take advantage of their position.] But when a beautiful boy from a good family cannot find a lover, it is a shame to him, because the reason for it must be his character. The boys preferred by abduction are especially honoured. They get the best places at round dances and running-matches and are allowed to wear the garments given them by their lovers as a mark of distinction.

The Greek Dorian tribes, such as the Spartans, had similar traditions, though details varied from one state to another. The underlying idea remained the same, though: that the adult lover had to give the adolescent beloved a piece of his own heart, so to speak, transferring his own areté, meaning all that was good and noble in him, to facilitate the youth’s passage into manhood. The bond that was formed by these relationships often lasted beyond the end of the youth’s formal education. Sometimes the older man remained responsible for his pupil until the latter reached marriageable age, about thirty.

Harmodius and Aristogiton
(read the story)
(click image to enlarge)
The power of love that was used to such good effect to educate Greek youths also served to sharpen their motivation, and that of their lovers, in battle. The bravery of male couples, such as those that made up the Theban Sacred Band, was well known throughout ancient Greece and was an important factor in war. Pederastic couples were also known as tyrannicides, killers of tyrants, in that they often were the first to rise up against despots. Harmodius and his erastes, Aristogiton, were perhaps the best known of those couples.

Other aspects

Though the Greeks, in their creative genius, elevated a common human impulse and utilized its power for the improvement of both boy and man, in daily life male love had other faces too, even as today ideal marriage is far from being the only manifestation of desire between a woman and a man. Prostitution of boys, for example, was common from early on. The statesman Solon of Athens (ca. 634-560 BC), who put through important social reforms in his home town, tried to regulate these aspects of sexual life. His laws forbade the prostitution of free-born Athenian boys, but did not protect slaves nor xenoi, ‘foreigners’ (who lacked Athenian citizenship), from such abuse. Brothels that provided boys were officially sanctioned, and taxed just like the ones that offered women or girls. Many were ‘staffed’ by captive boys who had been kidnapped in war after their parents had been killed or sold off into slavery. Free boys as well were not always above selling their favours to the highest bidder.

Poetry and culture

Among the Ionian Greeks pederasty had a more casual character than among the Dorians. The poems of Anakreon reflect that nonchalant playfulness. Still, the love of boys was no less frequent among these Greeks. The cultural stimulus of this passion can hardly be overstated. Especially strong in the fifth century BCE, the classical age of Athens, it inspired artists and poets such as Phidias and Sophocles. Later, after the Greek city-state, the polis, had lost its dominance as political and spiritual centre, life and love became more private and individual sentiment came more to the fore. This was mirrored by the wistful tone of Theocrite’s most personal poetry.

Most Greek lyric poets, such as Theognis, Archilochos, Alcaios, Ibycos, Anacreon and Pindar, devoted a large part of their works to the love of young men. Straton, who lived in the second century CE in Sardis, the ancient capital of Lydia in Asia Minor, collected numerous epigrams and compiled them with his own poems under the title Mousa Paidika, ‘The Boyish Muse’, that subsequently became the twelfth book of the ‘Greek Anthology’.

The ‘Indian summer’ of antique culture, the 2nd century CE, also saw a love story that seemed to echo the legend of Zeus and Ganymede in real life. The Roman Emperor Hadrian, and Antinous, a simple Greek youth, became inseparable companions for several years, until the young man drowned in the Nile at the age of nineteen, in the year 130. The distraught Hadrian commanded the priests to declare Antinous a god. After his deification, the youth became the last great subject of Greek art not long before its final decline. Statues and portraits still tell of his melancholy beauty and enigmatic nature. His cult was kept up in the Eastern parts of the Empire until the rise of Christianity in the 4th century, when religious fervour married to politics started to destroy all remaining traces of classical culture and religion. The teachings of Him who preached love were used to deal the final blow to a timeless love, and the long dark ages began.

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