Homosexuality in Ancient Greece

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The social consideration of homosexuality
in Ancient Greece

Many stereotyped images around homosexuality in ancient Greece have been hanged down until these days and still resist in the collective imagination, hiding a much more complex and profound reality about which there are lots of open questions even now. Through the works of poets, philosophers and playwrights, the classical period provides us with a large amount of sources, many of which express a good judgment about gay relationships while at the same time many others contradict this favourable inclination: what was then the social consideration of homosexuality in ancient Greek communities and how did the traditions involving it vary from one polis to another? Starting from the premise that the Greek one was a strongly male chauvinist society where women didn’t enjoy any juridical or political right, homosexuality, but heterosexuality as well, was a continuous research for Beauty irrespective of the partner’s gender: one sexuality wasn’t alternative to the other and men and women could be loved indistinctly without exceptions as long as they could be described as “kalòs”, that is beautiful. Ancient Greek people never worried to criticize or convict gay love as such, and possible acclaims or disapprovals were addressed to the individuals not the practice itself: they condemned the excess, the over-indulging in the pleasures of a gross and low kind of love whose only goal was the mere satisfaction of the carnal desire. The high level of gay practices’ diffusion is testified by the abundance of sources regarding homosexuality, starting from any kind of written text (mythological, philosophical, theatrical), up to the vast finding of artifacts frequently picturing explicit scenes of intercourses between men. Painted pottery provides us the clearest example of that, depicting the recurring places and elements concerning these customs: typical locations are the gymnasium, banquets, the gym and hunting environments, where the portrayed subjects are adult male recognizable by the beard and young boys usually hugging or getting touched by their older lover. Rather than images of sodomy, the vases mostly show a coitus executed face to face with the man’s penis set between the adolescent’s thighs, a common practice also described and celebrated in a collection of rhymes by Theognis of Megara, who in verses 1327-1328 of his Elegiac poems states: “My lad, so long as thy cheek be smooth I will never cease to pay my court, no, not if I have to die.” Relationships between men were not all of the same type depending on the lovers age and social status, and although homosexuality was a common habit, allowed by the law, celebrated in rituals and literature, it could raise many problems especially when in the form of “perfect love”, the one involving an adult (active partner) and a little boy (passive partner) who still hadn’t completed his education. The theoretical construct asserted that a full-grown man could have a young lover, an adolescent (ephebos), aged between 12 and 18 years old: the first one was called erastes, ideally a teacher and a role model for the teenager disciple called eromenos, and was supposed to instill in him civic and fighting virtues such as courage, loyalty and respect. Moreover an essential part of this social and moral instruction called paideia, literally meaning “love for the youngsters”, entailed the initiation of the young boy to love and sexual life so that, at the end of his adolescence, he could take a complete active role as an adult in the polis and one day he himself be an educator to someone else. This characteristic kind of homosexual relationship called pederasty, deriving from the Greek words pais/paida (boy) and erastes, was surely very common and widespread, nevertheless it was submitted to many precise and strict rules: firstly the lover had to show his passion without exaggerating, serve the loved one and give him gifts; the...
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