Saturday, August 3, 2013

Gays in Ancient Greece

My blog post yesterday was mainly an excuse to share a funny picture.  If I didn't have an image limit, I'd post a lot more funny pictures up here.  Athena left a long comment about historical views on sexual orientation, and I thought I'd talk more about that today.


In our culture, we think that sexuality is something people are born with.  You're either born straight or gay (or both), and that's it.  You can't change your sexual orientation, any more than you can change your hair color or eye color.  Sure, you can dye your hair and wear contacts, but those methods don't really change who you are, in the same way that pretending to be gay or straight doesn't change your orientation.

The ancient Greeks had a different view on sexual orientation, which might seem strange at first.  They saw that children naturally separate themselves into gender groups.   Boys play with boys, and girls play with girls, and the two groups usually avoid each other.  When I taught fourth grade, this was certainly true; all the boys sat together in one group, and all the girls sat together in another.

Everything changes when children get older.  Boys become obsessed with girls, and girls become obsessed with boys.  With my class, this happened around sixth or seventh grade.

The Greeks concluded that everyone is born gay, and when they get older, they go through puberty and become straight.  Since people believed this, they encouraged their children to be gay, and they encouraged them to stop being gay once they grew up.  Gay adults weren't looked down upon, exactly, but some people thought they were weird for being grown adults who acted like litte kids, instead of growing out of their gayness like everyone else.

In some ways, the ancient ideas about sexuality are completely different from the modern ideas.  Your thoughts?


Brittany said...

I learned through a Classics class at uni that dominance was the most important sexual aspect in ancient culture (or at least Greek). It didn't matter what or who a man had sex with - another man, woman, or even a goat - as long as he was the dominant figure. It meant power, and that was more important then sex for romance or reproduction.

Athena said...

I have only studied ancient culture’s attitudes about sexuality, not what lead them to believe that, so I won’t comment on that. However, from what you are saying, it sounds like the ancient Greeks made the classic error of mistaking correlation for causation. Although, they did not have access to the science that we do, so I do not fault them for really using the only reliable method they had to collect data, observation.

There are few things in this world that you will find consistent across all cultures, and the cultures’ attitude toward sexuality is not one of them. One thing with homosexuality in the ancient world is that, for many cultures, this was not differentiated at all from other relationships like it is now. I could talk for pages about the Sacred Band of Thebes, competitors in the Olympics, Lex Scantinia, etc. A plethora of famous ancients also had homosexual preferences, such as Achilles, Cimon, Epaminondas, Euripides, Alexander the Great, Galba, Hadrian, Commodus, Philip the Arab, and Elagabalus to just name a few. Even Caesar was accused of having homosexual relations three times; with the King Nicomedes of Bythinia, with his friend Mamurra and with Octavius, the future Augustus. However, to keep things short, I’ll just focus on ancient Greece.

For many of the Greeks, sexual relationships were meant to be between people of different social standings. Therefore, relationships between a man and a woman were acceptable (not to be sexist but to the Greeks, men were held in higher standing, as was the case with most cultures). Of course these relationships were encouraged as children were important.

Men (ie: citizens) with slaves, either male OR female, was acceptable because of the difference in social standing.

Relations between men with younger boys, in proper circumstances, was acceptable because the boys had not yet reached full maturity and, until they became men, were held in a lesser social standing.

What WAS frowned upon were relationships that broke this trend, for example, if two citizen males of Athens were to have a relationship, this was unacceptable. Not because they were both of the same sex, but rather because they were both of the same standing in society. To the ancient Greeks, you social standing was literally everything, it was who were. That was more sacred then your sexuality.

The term 'homosexual' is a bit anachronistic, because bisexuality was far more commonplace. Like I mentioned, even though Caesar was said to have slept with men, he still had an attraction towards women, as evidence by his romance with Cleopatra and their subsequent children.

A Greek man was expected to marry and father children, so his sexual liaisons required female contact at some point in his life. He might prefer men, but he had to have sex with women as well. Being homosexual might have been a dream for some - but the reality was that you'd have to have some relations with women. A man without children in Greece was VERY looked down on. It would destroy a man’s social standing, which like I said, was the very core’s of his survival. Once he had children, if he wanted to sleep with a man of a lesser standing then him, that was okay.

As Brittany mentioned, the passive/active aspect was the really important one. Being passive (and thus penetrated) was the taboo, and depending on where you were in Greece, you could be prosecuted if you were a passive CITIZEN in some city states, (and in Rome too), were you to be caught playing that role. The common misnomer is that people read this incorrectly as proving these societies as disliking homosexual acts. Not the case (though Rome seems to have been more disapproving). The real issue was who was being penetrated. If it was a slave or young boy, that was okay, that was legal. If it was a citizen, that was bad, that would have gotten him in trouble.

Athena said...


It is quite fascinating how different culture’s view sexuality. The ancient Greeks would probably laugh at us for focusing so much on the issue because it just wasn’t one to them. Ancient Rome is particularly interesting because they had a paradoxical love/hate attitude toward homosexuality, and then the Persians are another story, as are the Chinese and the Japanese, and so on and so on. Different culture’s developed different attitudes, that’s for sure. It’s impossible to say universally that sexuality should only be this way because you will find someone who disagrees, and I personally don't believe sexaulity is that cut and dry.

Anonymous said...

let me share my theory on sexuality: do it if u think it gon feel good bitch! I can appreciate everyone boo even if im gay i can appreciate a female who's serving beauty to the girls ! Live ur damn life people!

Alex Jagger said...

I don't think you can pin down a child's sexuality, especially when they haven't developed sexually. Saying that all children are gay is strange. They don't feel sexual attraction before pubescence, or at least, I don't know of anyone feeling that way as a child.

Michael Shepherd said...

It is amazing what we can still learn about ourselves by studying ancient Greece.