Greek, Gay and... Proud?

In today’s society, many people find the idea of homosexuality repulsive and reject the romantic relationships between two same-sex individuals. Travel back in time to Ancient Greece, however, and you will be greeted with a different reaction where homosexuality was embraced as a social norm. In Greek, there is no two separate terms for sexual preference and both heterosexual and homosexual love were part of aphrodisia (love). In fact, the term “homosexual” was only invented in the late 19th century by Hungarian-born Karl-Maria Kertbeny.

Although intimate relationships between females did exist in Ancient Greece, the homosexual relationship between men was more prevalent and widespread. As mentioned in lecture, women in Ancient Greece, especially Athens, did not experience the freedom we have today and were largely viewed as inferior to the Greek men.

The idea of Platonic loveknown as love without sexual desire, first came from the Greek philosopher, Plato. Plato first described two types of love in his dialogue, Symposium. The first type was the attraction towards another person for physical pleasure and reproduction while the second was the love for another because of their intelligence or virtue. The former can be used to describe the sexual relationships that men in Ancient Greece had with their wives while the latter is observed in men seeking the companionship of other males who were intellectually equal, due to the limited role women played in Ancient Greek society.

Plato's Symposium, depiction by Anselm Feuerbach

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The XY Chromosomes

Before diving into specific examples of Greek homosexuality, here is some background information on the male-male relationship in Ancient Greece. Pederasty, which means “love of boys” in Greek, was the largely socially acknowledged relationship between an erastes (adult male) and an eromenos (adolescent male). Before anyone pulls a face of disgust at this seemingly paedophilic behavior, please continue reading on. 

Rather than simply being lovers, pederasty served as an ideal mentor-mentee relationship. The age difference between the erastes and eromenos is vital because the older, more knowledgeable male had the responsibility of teaching his younger partner important aspects like politics and military. This enables the eromenos to attain helpful skills while under the care of the erastes and eventually become a fully-functioning member of the Greek society.

For example, The Sacred Band of Thebes was a Ancient Greek military unit famous for being made entirely up of male lovers. In today’s military forces, homosexual relationships are frowned upon but for this elite unit, the deep relationship between lovers was seen as a military advantage because lovers were willing to endanger themselves for one another. This was exactly what led to their numerous victories in the battlefield, making them a force to be reckoned with despite being a small unit.

The Naked Workout

You might have heard about sleeping in the nude, but what about exercising naked? That’s right, male athletes in Ancient Greece used to train and compete naked in gymnasiums. In fact, the word ‘gymnasium’ is derived from a Greek term ‘gymnos, which means naked. The classical Greeks had no qualms about openly displaying their admiration for the bodies of others and thus, it should not be surprising to know that pederastic scenes in visual arts were often situated in the gymnasium.

Example of a pederastic scene in a gymnasium

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Pederasty in Greek Literature

Pederasty was often seen in Greek mythology too whereby the Greek gods were known to have male lovers too. Apollo, Greek god of the Sun, was known for having many male lovers. One of his lovers was Hyacinthus, a Spartan prince. According to Greek mythology, the two were practicing throwing the discus when the jealous Zephyrus disrupts the path of a discus, which hits Hyacinthus and kills him. Apollo was said to be so filled with grief that he created a flower out of Hyacinthus’ blood and named it after him in memorial of his death.

(Apollo and Hyacinthus, by Jacopo Caraglio)

Hyacinthus

Poseidon was yet another god with a male lover. In the story of Tantalus and the Olympians, Poseidon took Pelops, Tantalus’ son, as his “lover and beloved”. Poseidon often took Pelops out on his golden chariot and taught him how to control the winged horses that flew the chariot. Poseidon loved him so much that he made Pelops immortal.

This signaled to the Greeks that what was acceptable for the gods was also acceptable for mortals. One famous male-male mortal relationship in Greek history is that of Achilles and Patroclus, as portrayed in the Iliad. Although there is debate as to whether the two were lovers or not, there is no doubt that they had a deep and meaningful friendship, so much that Patroclus’ death was the key driving force for Achilles’ return to battle with the sole purpose of avenging his death by killing Patroclus’ killer, despite the gods’ warning that he may lose his life. Their willingness to put themselves in danger for each other was archetypal of the male bond seen in Ancient Greece.

Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus, depiction by Nikolai Ge

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