"Ancient Origins" Writer Claims Ancient Greek Homosexuality Is "A Big Lie" and Greeks Just Really Liked "Bromance"
Modern scholarship is often caricatured as arguments about race, class, and gender. While most of the abuses of history we examine here tend to revolve around race and class issues (Eurocentrism and anti-elitism, among others), these are far from the only areas where history is misused to score political points and fight a culture war by proxy. The question of homosexuality in premodern times has been problematic for centuries, mostly on account of how Western thinkers tried very hard to suppress evidence for it in order to create a version of the past more in line with conservative Christian mores. Indeed, until the end of the nineteenth century, it was routine for scholars to suppress or omit references to homosexuality in ancient and medieval texts, or to alter pronouns from male to female, or to place in Latin references to same-sex desire in English translations, lest women or children be exposed to such moral turpitude.
These attitudes began to soften at the end of the nineteenth century, ironically at a time when Victorian culture became more oppressive toward gay people. It seems to be a case where the social and legal restrictions placed on homosexuality actually freed scholars to write more openly about sexual differences since the greater visibility of homosexuality occasioned by oppression made it harder to avoid the subject in polite society.
In 1873 John Addington Symonds wrote A Problem in Greek Ethics, which treated the subject of Greek homosexuality at length, albeit officially as a textbook for psychologists and lawyers published several years after its composition, and in 1914 the socialist gay rights advocate Edward Carpenter published Intermediate Types among Primitive Folk, a survey of homosexuality across the ancient and medieval worlds, including both Western and non-Western societies. Both men were themselves gay, and Carpenter lived openly with another man. Symonds, however, symbolized the tensions in Victorian society occasioned by its repressive attitudes toward homosexuality. Symonds married and had children, but had many romantic affairs with men, often without allowing himself to engage in sexual acts. He wrote poetry about his male lovers (some of whom were his students), and he advocated for gay rights, organizing some of the earliest efforts to change public attitudes toward gay rights. But his friends often disapproved and tried to get him to burn his poetry rather than publish it. One such poem did not see print until 2016. Until the end of his life, Symonds play-acted the family man for the benefit of society, though everyone in his circle knew the truth.
A few lines from his poem “Eudiades,” about two Greek youths in love, speak eloquently but sadly of the freedom from hypocritical Victorian morals that Symonds sought to find in the ancient past:
I cannot make superb Melanthias grow
To read Ancient Origins, however, one might think that the intervening century never happened. In a recent article, Greek lawyer Theodoros Karasavvas asked if ancient Greek homosexuality were “one big lie” and argued that ancient Greece should not be used to bolster “gay pride.”
In recent years, we have witnessed an undeniable advancement of the LGBT rights through several legal cases and political campaigns. For many years, LGBT people had to remain silent and hide their sexual preference, but that’s not the case anymore. Sociologists suggest that this is nothing but the result of decades of oppression. Like other oppressed minorities, gay people have a reason to voice their hardships and accomplishments. However, violating and altering history in the name of gay pride is not necessary.
No, but altering history in the name of cultural panic apparently is.
There is a tradition in modern Greece of playing down ancient Greek sexual fluidity in service of Christian morals. For example, in 2004, a group of Greek lawyers sued Warner Bros. to stop Oliver Stone from depicting Alexander the Great as bisexual in his biopic starring Colin Farrell.
Karasavvas begins by attacking the conventional modern view that Achilles and Patroclus, as depicted in Homer’s Iliad, were not just close friends but also lovers. Karasavvas notes that Homer does not describe them as having sex (though neither does he describe male-female pairings by their genital penetration), and he concludes that efforts to read the men as lovers are politically motivated “gay glorification.” If that were the case, it was no modern political effort. Plato in his Symposium explicitly called Patroclus the “lover” of Achilles (179e-180a), as did Aeschylus, the great Archaic playwright (Myrmidons fr. 64-66 with Plato, Symposium 179e-180a). (Note: Older editions of the Aeschylus fragments omit Achilles’ references to the “union of our thighs”—i.e., sex.)
Karasavvas similarly, though on better grounds, disputes modern efforts to read Alexander the Great’s close friendship with Hephaestion as a same-sex romance. Few ancient writers did more than hint at such a romance, which leads Karasavvas to ask, in a blithely ignorant way, how a man who had sex with women might have also had sex with a man. He frames it in terms of the Oliver Stone movie referenced above:
Even though the available historical sources clearly indicate that the Greek king had different female lovers each night, he is considered the most famous gay man of antiquity, simply because a screenwriter in Hollywood imagined him as one. In reality, Alexander the Great most likely slept with more women than Hugh Hefner! But how did we end up with these false misconceptions about ancient Greek society and homosexuality?
The claim that Alexander and Hephaestion were lovers is not a modern Hollywood fantasy. Writers as diverse as Aelian (Various Histories 12.7), Epictetus (Discourses 2.22.17), Lucian (Slips of the Tongue 8), and Plutarch (Lives 39.40) hinted at an unusual intimacy between the men, and a line attributed to Diogenes of Sinope states that Alexander had been “held fast by Hephaestion’s thighs” (Cynic Epistles, Diogenes Letter 24). The words of Diogenes are a forgery, possibly Hellenistic or Roman in date, but they testify rather directly to the fact that there were ancient people who believed Alexander and Hephaestion had been lovers. Athenaeus, in the third-century CE Deipnosophistae (10.435) reports gossip from Aristotle’s successor Theophrastus, if I may be so crude, that Alexander had trouble getting aroused with women (Theophrastus blames it on alcohol) and his parents worried so much that he might be gay that they hired a whore to try to fuck the gay out of him. His mother, according to the gossip, repeatedly had to beg him to have sex with a woman.
The point, of course, is that the claims that Karasavvas asserts are modern gay propaganda are instead ancient, if speculative, traditions.
Karasavvas attributes the invention of Greek homosexuality to Kenneth Dover’s 1978 book Greek Homosexuality, through which he claims “the whole thing officially opened up.” As I mentioned above, Dover’s book was not the first on the subject, though it came at a time when liberalizing sexual attitudes meant that more people were open to exploring the subject. The odd phrasing Karaavvas used about “opening up” is the author’s poor plagiarism of the opening lines of Douglas MacDowell’s 2000 article about Athenian laws governing same-sex prostitution and sugar daddy relationships. Indeed, Karasavvas misleadingly cites MacDowell to claim that Athens had strict anti-gay laws, though MacDowell makes quite plain that the laws he analyzed governed only (a) paid sexual intercourse between men and boys, (b) homosexual intercourse between citizens and non-citizens, and (c) same-sex rape. It is doubtful that Karasavvas read beyond the opening page, having found in the first paragraph the anti-gay material he could exploit. The same material, incidentally, had been presented by Symonds a century earlier in its correct context.
(It’s probably also worth nothing that Karasavvas pays no mind to homosexuality among Greek women, despite lesbianism literally being named for the most famous historic Lesbian of all, the poet Sappho of Lesbos, who wrote love poems to other women.)
In order to wish away the evidence that the Greeks were more open to same-sex love than most periods before our own, Karasavvas tries to eliminate the entire category. He correctly notes that prior to the Victorian period, homosexuality was not considered a fixed orientation, and ancient people thought of sexuality in terms of active and passive roles and were much less fixated on gender. Not to get too detailed, but he seizes on the widespread ancient notion that the more powerful partner—male, citizen, elite, etc.—should do the penetrating and would suffer opprobrium to be penetrated as evidence that Athens “wasn’t gay-friendly at all.” (The Greeks considered it shameful for a free citizen to submit to penetration and therefore stopped short of such an act.) By contrast, in reality Athens celebrated the male lovers Harmodius and Aristogeiton as civic heroes for their assassination of a tyrant, and raised statues in their honor. So much was their love considered ideal that slaves were forbidden from being named for them.
Karasavvas falsely alleges that in all of Greek literature not a single homosexual act is described. I think that’s more how he is defining homosexual acts; plenty of accounts of kissing and caressing exist, but there are no accounts of anal sex because the Greeks considered the act to be shameful and forbidden. He dismisses Greek vase paintings depicting homosexual fondling as the equivalent of the cover of a porno DVD, even though such vases (and, more often, drinking-cups) were expensive luxury items whose scenes represented key Greek myths and illustrated important Greek values. He further states that the Spartans disapproved of homosexuality, a claim in direct contradiction to Xenophon’s description of man-boy love in Sparta and the proverbial notion in Athens that anal sex was to do as the Spartans do. (This was probably a slur more than a fact.) In Sparta, one suffered dishonor to lack a male lover. Lycurgus was said to have made sexual intercourse between men and boys a crime around 800 BCE, but Cicero noted that basically every other form of touching was used to get around the prohibition (De Re Publica 4.4).
This shades into some very problematic territory that Karasavvas is ill-prepared to handle. The social relationships discussed here were known as paiderastia—pederasty—and involved adult men engaging in sexual acts with teenage boys. These relationships are not analogous to modern same-sex love between adults, and to compare them is … a challenge. As Symonds described in 1873, there was a difference in the Greek mind between the “heroic” masculine love between equals and man-boy love of Greek pederasty. The former, imagined as a union of minds and souls rather than of bodies, was considered the highest form of love (particularly in a society where women were considered inferior in all regards), while the latter was characterized simply as vulgar lust. In practice, however, the two forms were thoroughly combined in Greek society, such that the love of adult man and teenage boy was idealized as heroic.
Karasavvas wants to wish all these problems away. Even though there were many recorded stories of male lovers being buried together in the same grave, in the manner of a married couple, Karasavvas turns to Plato to argue, confusingly, that even though the Greeks did not distinguish homosexuality as a category of being they were nevertheless utterly opposed to it, and the same-sex love we see in Greek literature is really “bromance”: “Plato worshiped what youngsters would nowadays describe as ‘bromance,’ but he was strictly against what we define today as homosexuality.” It’s true that Plato disliked sexual indulgence—he was particularly aghast at the teen boy beauty pageants held in Megara and Elis—but that is because he envisioned mental connections as superior to the physical, in all kinds. He wasn’t too high on women, either, seeing them as useless for true Eros beyond the sexual. Basically, Plato expected that real love transcends the beloved to bring the individual into communion with the divine, and he thought penetrative sex should exist only for procreation. It’s not exactly “bromance,” particularly when he says it is equally “evil” to forbid male lovers from pleasuring one another (without penetration) as it is to allow them to do so without limit (i.e., by penetration) (Symposium 182c-d). And just to show how unusual all this is to modern eyes, Plato even equates pederasty with working out at the gym as both equally disgraceful in the eyes of non-Greeks (Symposium 182b-c).
But lest you still think that the Greeks were really just really good bros, consider the words of Plutarch, speaking to male readers: “In the charming season of the flower-time of youth thou shalt love boys, yearning for their thighs and honeyed mouth” (Eroticus 5, trans. Symonds). Ironically, Plutarch’s Eroticus, written in the Roman era, was actually an attempt to argue to his fellow Greeks that one might find in a woman the same depth of love as in a teen boy. Greek men didn’t really think much of women.
In Karasavvas’s rigid effort to apply modern categories and labels onto more nebulous ancient ones, he even returns again to the canard that if a society is tolerant of homosexuality, then everyone in it will turn gay. After all, he implies, the only thing preventing men from succumbing to the pleasures of same-sex love is legal prohibition:
The plot of the famous play Lysistrata by Aristophanes is one of the many examples. In this play, Athenian women choose to withold (sic) sex from their husbands in order to compel them to cease war with Sparta. If homosexuality was so widely practised in Athens, such a strategy would be ineffective as they could turn to each other to satisify (sic) their desires. But what occurred was that the men gave in quickly and stopped their war because they could not withstand this compulsory abstinence.
Not to be too blunt, but the Athenians believed that men should be able to engage in mutual masturbation and frottage with teen boys but penetrative sex was to be performed on women and slaves. Thus, the Lysisrata does not provide the evidence against homosexual activity that Karasavvas thinks it does.
Karasavvas finished his article by arguing that it is “really dangerous and unethical” to imagine that Greece was a tolerant “utopia” of gay sex instead of repressive and moralistic.
Neither view of that false dichotomy is correct. Ancient sexuality was complex, often contradictory, and, to our modern mores, frequently disturbing and unethical. Ancient people tended to focus on power dynamics rather than gender roles and expressed the greatest concern for preserving the privileges and immunities of the highest-ranking individuals. Using ancient examples as analogs for modern political arguments is always problematic, and the Greek practice of pederasty is very difficult to slot into modern conversations about gay relationships and gay rights, not least because of the problematic power dynamics that we would classify as statutory rape. At the same time, however, Karasavvas’s efforts to deny the undeniable evidence that men in Greece felt genuine passionate love for other men, and not just an intellectual appreciation for one another’s minds, seems to suggest that he wishes to politicize the past in order to throw shade on modern morals and recast Greek history in a light more acceptable to his morals.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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