Book chapter

Historical Views of Homosexuality: Ancient Greece (2020)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics


Ancient Greece featured at least five different varieties of same-sex relations: (a) pederastic relations, typically between adolescent boys and adult men who were not yet married; (b) relations between male youths of approximately the same age; less frequently (c) homosexual relations between fully adult men; (d) age-differentiated relations between females; and (e) relations between adult females. The origins of pederasty appear to be related to the relatively late age of marriage for males, which evolved as a response to needs to limit population growth in the scarcity-driven economy of the 7th century bce. The contexts of pederastic socialization (athletics, military comradeship, hunting, cockfighting, and intellectual/musical performance at elite symposia) point toward masculinizing pedagogy and mentorship as key social functions.However, social attitudes toward pederasty were not uniform throughout all Greek city-states in all periods. Evidence from several domains suggests that as Athens became more democratic and saw greater distribution of prosperity throughout all social classes, the age of male marriage declined; larger families became socially desirable, while non-procreative alternatives to marital sexuality became less fashionable and even morally dubious. What had always been characterized as an elite habitus during the archaic period and first half of the 5th century no longer seemed at home in a political system where appeal to the common man defined success and popularity. Some philosophical texts from the 4th century bce characterize physical sex between males as para physin ("beyond nature"), whereas others recognize the possibility that it is determined through natural processes grounded in anatomy or spiritual heredity.Of most interest for modern politics is the question of what Greek historical evidence can tell us about the ability of adolescent boys to consent to intimate relations with adult men. Modern jurisprudence, especially in the United States, assumes a universal inability to provide informed consent until well after the onset of puberty, and even voluntary relations between adolescent boys and men are heavily sanctioned in the criminal justice system. Although classical Athens featured a robust tradition of criticizing pederasty for a number of reasons, the notion that pre-adult sex with an older partner was psychologically harmful to boys was not among them. The Greeks viewed adolescent (and even younger) boys as inherently sexual, and the widespread practice of nudity in athletic exercise and daily life conditioned Greek boys to a greater degree of frankness and physical disinhibition. Both iconographical and textual evidence show that Greek adolescents were quite capable of rejecting adult suitors or discontinuing relationships that no longer pleased them.