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Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Greece: a midterm

M. Six Silberman

1 Sex and the city-state: boys, courtesans, and the erotic constitution of the archaic polis

We wish briefly to explore the issues critical to ancient Greek erotic life. We will touch on both homoerotic and heterosexual practices and their affiliated cultural norms. We will attempt to make a few coherent comments about the relationship between the two and the social functions of each.

Homoerotic relations between males appear to have served a handful of social functions in different Greek societies, although broadly speaking they supplemented other institutions—formal education, military training, religious or secular initiation rituals—in preparing boys for active participation in the social, cultural, political, religious, intellectual, and military life of the polis. Plutarch, for example, describes how "when the [Spartan] boys reached [age twelve] they were favoured with the society of lovers from among the reputable young men," thus ensuring that "at every fitting time and in every place, the boy who went wrong had someone to admonish and chastise him" (Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus XVII). The boys' lovers were also incentivized to instill good conduct; Plutarch recounts one episode in which a lover was "fined by the magistrates because his favourite boy had let an ungenerous cry escape him while he was fighting" (Plut Lyc XX).

In Crete, institutionalized sexual relations between older men and boys appear to have taken the form of a one-time initiatory rite rather than the ongoing process of social and military indoctrination and assimilation adopted by the Spartans. Additionally however, it should be noted that the Cretan ritual afforded flexibility to the participants by which signals about their respective social standings and opinions of one another could be communicated to the broader community. Writes Ephoros of the 'capture':

The lover tells the friends of the boy

for the friends to conceal the boy

boy is unworthy to obtain such a lover


that he is going to make the capture; but




indeed a most disgraceful thing, a confession

Conversely, if the boy finds the lover unworthy after their two-month courtship, "the law [allows] him [the] privilege" of making known whether "his intimacy with his


and be rid of" a forceful or otherwise displeasing lover ("Ephoros on Cretan pederasty").


pleased him or not;" this mechanism allows the boy to "avenge himself

There appears to be less information in the sources on homoerotic relations between Greek females, but while Sappho is the canonical exception, Plutarch notes that

"even the [Spartan] maidens found lovers in good and noble women" (Plut Lyc XX). This highlights an important distinction between Spartan society and other less socially cohesive societies: Sparta's critical dependence on its military prowess for sustained economic viability necessitated a degree of cultural and behavioral homogeneity unnecessary in other city-states (and even perhaps anathema to the ostensibly egalitarian aspirations of the Athenian 'democracy'), and the importance of ensuring successful transfer of knowledge and custom among citizens of both genders may have created a space for institutionalized homoerotic relationships among females.

Both the visual art of the period—especially the red- and black-figure vases—and the erotic poetry that remains provide fairly broad insight into the actual sexual practices and predilections of the period, both homoerotic and heterosexual. Both bodies of work cast doubt on any assertions that the cultural ideals generally believed to have dominated archaic Greek social and political life had much to do with the reality of sexual practice within the private lives and symposia of private citizens.

Two of the vases are particularly striking. In one, a seated boy pulls his older (bearded) erastes towards him, in a display of affection (perhaps anteros) that problematizes the commonly held view that the eromenos should not respond in kind to his lover's affections (and should certainly not enjoy being penetrated, an outcome which this particular eromenos seems necessarily to be in the process of hastening). In another, a boy is anally penetrated by one older man and orally by another; this unabashed portrayal of intercourse with multiple partners seems to cast into serious doubt any claims that homoerotic relations had in all circumstances more to do with social aims than, say, lust.

Vases depicting symposiastic heterosexual relations are similarly revealing, and allow for a division of heterosexual intercourse into two distinct categories: relations between husbands and wives (not depicted on symposiastic vases) and relations between hetairoi (the male "participants" in the symposium) and hetaira (courtesans).

2 Sex, lies, and kottabos: the Greek political elite and the erotic architecture of classical social order

Foucault's approach to the problematization of sexual relations between men and boys in classical Greece (The Use of Pleasure Part 4, "Erotics") does not fail completely. A widening of analytical scope, however, yields a cultural-political- economic context that Foucault appears to have overlooked, and which suggests an explanation for the discursive bandwidth given over to reflection on the manner and method of these relations that differs from Foucault's analysis.

Foucault brings to bear his interpretation of the source material on the task of explaining the intensity of discursive analysis and moral reflection on the sexual and social relationships between men and boys among the Greek elite. The primary

conclusion he offers is that "pleasure relations between men and adolescent boys already constituted a delicate factor in society, an area so sensitive that one could not fail to be concerned about the conduct of participants on both sides" (197). This assertion and Foucault's subsequent discussion elides at least three critical questions.

The first is quite simply, Why? Why should so much more philosophizing be given over to this particular relationship than, say, the relationship between husband and wife, of which there is hardly a shortage of discussion but which did not seem to enjoy the philosophical centrality of the man-boy relationship, or the relationship between two adult men, which certainly existed but which is almost entirely absent from the literature under inspection?

Next, what specifically was the scope of concern regarding conduct of men and adolescent boys in a pederastic relationship? Was the discussion concerned with all men and boys, or only a specific demographic within the population?

Finally, if the man-boy relationship was such a "delicate" topic in classical Greek society, why leave questions of appropriate and inappropriate conduct—on the part of erastes or eromenos—to chance, or case-by-case, after-the-fact, publicly initiated meditation? Why not simply legislate—or, as Foucault peculiarly suggests (196) —"ritualize" the practice? Institutionalization of man-boy relations was not unheard of, after all: both the Spartans and the Cretans had formalized the practice within their military, pedagogical, and initiatory traditions during the archaic period.

The answers to these three questions are of course intertwined with one another, and together they offer a richer, more fully contextualized understanding of the man-boy relationship in Attic society. Let us first make a series of short claims in direct response, and then proceed to summarize their connections and implications with respect to the context and broader function of the relationship in question.

Firstly: A successfully instructive deployment of the man-boy relationship was essential to preserve the society's knowledge of its own modes and mechanisms of administration and governance.

Next: Serious concern for the conduct of both erastai and eromenoi in the context of the homoerotic relationship was restricted mainly to men and boys of the political elite; that is, to citizens.

The final question is less obviously tractable, but at least two answers seem reasonable. One is that because optimal pedagogical methods were generally not agreed upon, and because in fact it would make sense to expect that no method would be uniformly optimal for every youth, the pedagogical obligations of the erastes were never enumerated explicitly in a legislative context—and because the pedagogical obligations were bound up in the sexual relation, the exact boundaries of sexual activity could not reasonably be drawn. Another is that such legislation simply would not have worked: it would have been unenforceable. Vastly more effective was

the threat of shame and loss of status, and the promise of political power and public respect. These explanations are not, of course, necessarily mutually exclusive.

This argument interprets, therefore, the "morally overloaded" man-boy relationship as a social and cultural institution deployed and lionized for a simple political and economic purpose: the survival of the city-state. It can be conceived as an incentive framework in which older and more politically and militarily experienced men are induced to share their accumulated knowledge with the callow youths who are to become the next generation of leaders by the promise (and often realization) of sexual pleasure.

This interpretation may seem culturally impoverished. But the geopolitical realities of the era appear consistent with the values in highest demand. The most aesthetically appealing youths were generally a subset of the most athletically well trained; i.e., the most able to defend the city in a military struggle. They were not necessarily intellectual innovators, but had trained their minds—in both formal pedagogical contexts and in the endless round of stylized, formulaic symposiastic encomia—to the degree necessary for the mechanical deployment of law and reasonable dispensation of justice. Even skill at the kottabos—and a boy skilled at the kottabos became the object of desire for many a symposiastic heitaros—was an indicator of martial proficiency. The more knowledge was imparted to the finest of the boys—i.e., the more attractive they were to the most knowledgeable and skillful of the men—the more likely they were to survive in combat and to acquire status in the assembly. This is turn served the state well, and raised chances for survival and prosperity for everyone.