Homosexuality in Greek and Roman Mythology

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Homosexuality in Greek and Roman Mythology

The term “homosexuality” is itself problematical when applied to ancient cultures, as neither Greek nor Latin possesses any one word cover the same semantic range as the modern concept. A basic identity exists between ancient and modern practices or self-conceptions, but as well-situated shorthand linking together a range of diverse phenomena involving same-gender love and/or sexual activity.

To be sure, classical ancient times featured a variety of discrete practices in this regard, each of which enjoyed conflicting levels of acceptance depending on the time and place. The pedagogical pederasty common among Greek men and freeborn teenagers was not the same as relationships between men and adolescent slaves or male prostitutes. Homosexual relations with slaves seem to have been usually accepted, provided that the slave acted as the inert partner.

The same sharp distinction between passive and active roles also determine the general attitude towards homosexual relations between freeborn citizens: as the active partner was accepted or at least endured, the passive partner’s subservient role was ridiculed. Bisexuality seems to have been measured as a normal phenomenon, but again only if the male in a homosexual contact acted as the active partner as he did in a heterosexual contact. Platonic love” was not the same as a bodily consummated relationship. Age-differential pairings were not the same as age-equal relations, whether between adults or adolescents. Same-gender love amongst males was not the same as that among females. Yet, there are clear links among these different phenomena that justify their treatment in a single volume, since the primeval sources themselves frequently treat them together as social practices that were analogous and easily confused, though not identical.

Even in contemporary society, “homosexual” is a somewhat inadequate and abstract catch-all for a superfluity of practices and subcultures: flaming queens, leather daddies, chicken hawks, bull dykes, lipstick lesbians, and Log Cabin Republicans could not be more diverse, but even they find it well-situated to posit a certain affinity in counter peculiarity to the dominant heterosexual culture. “Homosexuality has existed all through history.

But what have varied extremely are the ways in which various societies have considered homosexuality, the meanings they have attached to it, and how those who were affianced in homosexual activity viewed themselves…. As a starting point we have to differentiate between homosexual behavior, which is universal, and a homosexual individuality, which is historically specific”. Weeks 1977: 2-3. During the Roman period, sexual preference came to be contested as an object of active debate between those who favored women and those who liked boys.

In some cases the comparison is derogatory to both and reflects indifference, but in most cases partisans praise boys as natural and undemanding or women for their mutual pleasure. The most wide-ranging and formalized debates are recorded by later authors such as Plutarch, Achilles Tatius, and an imitator of Lucian: the parties sometimes become quite heated in their derision and even disgust for the other position.

These late texts represent the most polarized development of a fundamental contrast in identities that in some form goes back to our earliest literary evidence from archaic Greece. Not only was there a prevalent perception that individuals were characterized by their sexual preference, but there is substantial evidence that like-minded individuals congregated in social venues advantageous to pursuing their mutual interests.

In early Greece, athletics was practiced in the nude at least in part to showcase the beauty of young male bodies in motion: this visual dimension of athletics is confirmed by the characteristic preference for male nudes in ancient and classical sculpture. It should therefore come as no surprise that the palaestra (a surreptitiously owned wrestling school, as opposed to public gymnasia) was a favorite gathering place for upper-class adolescent boys and their older admirers.

Though it is also said that Roman cultural traditions start from the composite interactions between Rome and Greece that resulted in what is often called Greco-Roman culture, a term that points to the unusual influence exerted by Greece, ostensibly the captive nation, on Rome. Roman writers were themselves entirely aware of this phenomenon. The poet Horace’s lapidary phrase, though concerned exclusively with literary influences, is often cited as a distinctive perspective on the relationship between the two civilizations: Captive Greece captured its barbarian conqueror.

In modern times the project of teasing out the native Roman from the imported Greek threads in the fabric of Greco-Roman culture (or, instead, of denying the utility or even possibility of such an attempt) has engaged scholars involved in the history and nature of the Roman literary tradition and in the more universal development of a Roman cultural identity in opposition to the recognized traditions of the Greeks (Williams 1968).

In view of the much-discussed Hellenic tradition of pederasty, the question of Greek versus Roman becomes particularly important for inquiries into Roman ideologies of masculinity and sexual experience. Scholarly center on Greek traditions has usually resulted in a belief that, whether in historical realism or in ancient perceptions of that reality, native Roman ideals of masculinity before the beginning of the corrupting influence of Greek customs encouraged an elite heterosexuality.

Homosexuality was one of the cultural items borrowed by Rome from Greece, it is like one ingredient in the package of excessiveness and luxury that was the conquered race’s sinister gift to its conquerors, as if it were a type of sexual Trojan horse. L. P. Wilkinson and Ramsay MacMullen offer two particularly vigorous expositions of the view: “In the early Republic the Romans’ approach to homosexuality was that of most nonGreeks; it was a Greek eccentricity which they despised….

But in the second century BC, when captured Greece captivated its rude defeater, there was an increase in homosexual practices; and at some time a Lex Scantinia was passed against them” Wilkinson 1978: 136. The Greek origin of “Greek love” among the Romans is recommended by its manifestation disproportionately in Greek dress in early Roman literature…. It seems safe to conclude that “the man in the street,” or at least the man in the forum and law courts who constituted the ordinary audience for political statements, could be implicit to be the foe of male homosexuality”.

MacMullen 1982: 488 There have always been dissenting opinions, and two articles by Paul Veyne and one book by Eva Cantarella openly argue against the conclusions suggested by Wilkinson and MacMullen: It is not true that “Greek” love was, at Rome, of Greek origin: like more than one Mediterranean society even these days, Rome never opposed the love of women to the love of boys. It opposed activity to submissiveness: to be active is to be a male, whatever the sex of the passive partner. Rome did not have to wait for hellenization to permit various forms of love between males….

This is the world of heroic bravado, with a very Mediterranean flavor, where the significant thing is to be the ravisher, never mind the sex of the victim. In brief, homosexuality in itself was neither a crime nor a publicly reproved form of behavior. Carrying on with a slave (so long as he did not belong to someone else) was established as normal behavior, as was paying a male prostitute. The only thing that was not adequate was to make love to a young free Roman citizen. But the views set forth by Veyne and Cantarella have barely gained universal acceptance among classicists. ertainly, the complex of beliefs suggested by Wilkinson and MacMullen, though rarely so trenchantly expressed, is still widespread among classicists : that native Roman cultural traditions were uncomfortable with or even antagonistic to sexual experience between males; that only the philhellenizing upper classes adopted Greek perspectives on that experience, and therefore tolerated or even celebrated affairs between men and boys; and lastly that, whatever the historical realities may have been, Romans themselves linked male homosexuality with Greece.

The obstinacy of such views is no doubt partly due to the cultural milieu to which contemporary European and American scholars themselves belong, a setting that encourages them to classify and appraise human beings as sexual subjects on the basis of the sex of their preferred partners and thus has induced numerous scholars to look for “Roman attitudes toward homosexuality. “

Most previous discussions of Greek and Roman homosexuality, though distinguishing between the two cultures, lean to treat each culture synchronically, as if attitudes and practices were comparatively uniform over time. However, reflection on the various social practices of homosexuality and swings in public attitudes toward it in Western societies just in the second half of the twentieth century must caution us against such static assumptions in the case of ancient societies, which bore witness to many evenly wrenching social and political transformations.

The basis of institutionalized homosexual practices in Greece has been a matter of substantial speculation and controversy, with some scholars tracing it back to Indo-European or Minoan origins. Ancient texts variously credit the Spartans or Cretans with a particular role as early practitioners, particularly in what can be initiatory contexts. Some lyric texts and the Thera graffiti may support an initiatory interpretation.

The earliest artistic evidence is Cretan and suggests a partnership of younger and older warriors. Aristotle connects the overture of the practice with overpopulation and the desire for a lower birthrate, perhaps through delayed marriage. There is no clear evidence for homosexuality in the epic poetry of Homer and Hesiod, which could hold a thesis of seventh-century origins, perhaps in response to population issues (Patzer, 1982).

The evidence is far more considerable for the fifth century and later, while one can note a progressive diminution in the status of pederasty at Athens, apparently in conjunction with the growth and radicalization of the democracy. In the earliest decades of the fifth century stands the myth of the tyrannicides Aristogeiton and Harmodius, who are credited (falsely) with a crucial role in overthrowing the Peisistratid dynasty and inaugurating democratic self-governance.

Their legend must be seen as an attempt to situate the practice of upper-class pederasty within the developing democratic ideology. Art historians have noted that scenes of uninhibited pederastic courtship and sex are common on Athenian vases until about 460, parallel to the festivity of pederastic love in the lyric poets; afterward, however, such representations (and, indeed, even explicit heterosexual scenes) practically disappear in favor of much more coded arrangements (Shapiro 1981).

This movement away from a libertine and self-indulgent artistic style toward more prudish and “family-oriented” modalities seems to equivalent the sexual conservatism and enforcement of moral norms evident in comedy and rhetoric of the late fifth and early fourth centuries, which, appeal ardently to popular tastes and democratic values. Indeed, Thucydides’ demythologizing analysis of the Aristogeiton and Harmodius legend must be construed in the same light. The ethics of moderation in regard to boys that is praised by Xenophon also attests a growing moral problematization of pederasty in this period.

It can not be incorrect to read the progression of “Platonic love” in fourth-century texts as an attempt to recuperate pederasty by imagining a more modest and ethically suitable form of the institution within a social environment that increasingly marginalized traditional pederasty as both nondemocratic (i. e. , upper-class) and corrupting (i. e. , teaching venality) (Hubbard 2000). In Rome attitudes toward homosexuality experienced equal noteworthy chronological development. Our earliest literary evidence, the comedies of Plautus, from around 200 B. C. E. , takes a quite benign view of pederastic liaisons as long as they involve slaves.

Though, the comedies of Pomponius and Novius and the satires of Lucilius, from about a century later, take on a sharper tone, underlining male prostitution, effeminacy, and free men who abandon their proper roles. Throughout the second century B. C. E. , a number of moralistic texts and utterances eliminate male love overall, even involving slaves, or worry concerning the effeminization of Roman manliness under the growing influence of Greek cultural mores.

This contrast between Greek and Roman, together with the discernment, which may or may not have been traditionally accurate, that pederasty was imported into Rome from Greece, also becomes a leitmotif in late republican discourse. Cicero feels free to use any involvement with homosexuality against his rhetorical opponents. It must not surprise us that sexuality became problematized at a time while Rome’s national identity and political system were undergoing such reflective transformations: indeed, the poet Catullus uses metaphors of sexual domination to state the loss of political liberty with the demise of the Republic (Hubbard, 2000).


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  • University/College: University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 22 September 2016

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