Strong Women, Strong Men. Greek "Homosexuality"and its Context

Essay 2017 15 Pages

Sociology - Gender Studies


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Limits of ‘Power’: Historical Evidence of Male-Male Sexual Activity

3. Slave, Sex Slave, and Suddenly Free? – The Way of Becoming a Man

4. Powerful Women

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The most difficult thing about conducting an analysis about the ancient Greek world it that is has been interpreted differently and in contradictory ways by different scholars. It is therefore easy to lose one’s way as the evidence in the form of literary works and visual art (usually vases) is contradictory in itself and does not inform straightforward analysis. This paper aims to offer an explanation for the fact that ‘homosexuality,’ as we would label it today, the sexual intercourse between two individuals of the male sex, was condoned – at least in a polis such as Athens – and even developed into some kind of social institution that carried adolescent boys over to manhood. What remains most important for such an analysis is that we must not “assume that the categories in other times and cultures are the same as ours” but instead try to “examine the attitudes and mentalities of any given society to see how that particular society constructed sexual identities.”1 The inability to accept different concepts about creating a sexual identity is usually linked to Victorian Britain and present-day scholars look back at this “repressive, confession-demanding past”.2 To try to avoid reproducing Victorian viewpoints and ideas, this article will not only look at ways how Greek sexuality has been interpreted but also looks at concepts of ownership, as this will prove to be of great importance to explain the relationship between married men and women, and the acceptability of homosexuality. As we will see, the discourse was often limited to the importance of power and its reproduction during sexual activity, this being linked to activeness and passiveness. However, this seems to be a misinterpretation3 and again a mere replica of the Victorian sex ideal.

Instead, I argue that male-male sexual intercourse is a manifestation of Greek polis’ societies’ rigid division into a ‘domestic’ sphere, in which the leading female figure seems to be the dominant figure and a ‘public’ sphere that was almost exclusively reserved for males. In other words, male-male intercourse is the public domain’s equivalent of male-female intercourse in the the domestic sphere. As sexual action with one’s wife was appropriate in one’s home, it is logical that male-male sexual activities were apposite in a ‘public’ context. To understand this claim correctly it is necessary to remind oneself that ‘homosexuality’ is a modern invention and did not exist in ancient Greece, as sexual intercourse between two males did not violate the moral code and also did not mean that individuals preferred males over females in every sexual situation. Proust, as cited in Davidson, argues that ‘bisexuality’ is the best present-day term to capture the sexual landscape of ancient Greece.4

To give evidence for the above claims, I will be looking at some interpretations of the male-male intercourse, and whether or not they are suitable to sustain an image of power and superiority of one partner at all. In a second step, the idea of male-male sexual acts as an in-between stage of boyhood and manhood will be reviewed. This idea has to be accepted as long as there is no strong scientific evidence that contradicts the hypothesis. At least, some objects of visual art are likely to be proof of such a custom. Lastly, I will analyse and interpret an article by Lin Foxhall, that although being less recent, offers an alternative to depicting women as generally inferior to their husband. Rather it suggests the opposite, at least with regard to the ‘domestic’ sphere. In my opinion, this perspective is able to show that the two different spheres can offer an explanation of sexual activity between male and female individuals, i.e. husband and wife, in the ‘domestic’ sphere, and two males in the ‘public’ sphere.

2. The Limits of ‘Power’: Historical Evidence of Male-Male Sexual Activity

Kenneth Dover’s research on sexuality in the ancient world with the idea that homosexuality at Athens was a relationship that “did not involve equals”5 influenced most scholars’ further investigation into this field. In this chapter, I try to suggest that this claim is not true, as the evidence, that is the vases that have been found, suggest rather the opposite. A closer examination of the vases that are thought to give evidence of how the same sex relationship can be characterised, seems to suggest, however, that the

Editorial remark: This figure has been removed due to copyright reasons

Fig. 1: Erastes and Eromenos6

younger person of the two people depicted is usually in a role that people today would characterize as passive, i.e. ‘non-penetrative.’ The question is whether this fact is actually enough to make a claim and to say that the younger person is subordinate, only because of the ‘role’ during the sexual act. Further observations, on the other hand, are contradicting that argument. It is shown that the “[p]assive males, however, regularly face their partners.”7 This gesture is probably stronger than the penetrative role, as Imight not be wrong in saying, again, that this would be a Victorian view, namely that of the aggressive male. Let us consider one quite famous vase painting showing Erastes and Eromenes, which dates back to around 470 or 480 BC. The painting obviously shows the two men just before a sexual act. The positions they are in naturally suggest that the older of the two will be in a ‘penetrative’ position. What is remarkable, however, is the fact that Eromenos turns his head to look Erastes in the eyes. This is revealing in two respects: firstly, there seems to be no strong hierarchy between the two, although the younger of the two has to look up, which, in my opinion is due to his (necessary) position sitting on Erastes’ lap. Looking the partner in the eyes is an act of creating equality. Another important inference is that engaging in same-sex relationship was not seen as shameful. The hare that Eromenos presents to Erastes is a sign of his youth and his fruitfulness that shows Erastes that he is a suitable partner concerning his age. Davidson, a scholar that interpreted Foucault’s research in the field, suggests in his works that “abdicat[ing] the masculine role of penetrator [was not] considered shameful”8. Again, as pointed out already, the roles of penetrator and penetrated do not seem to work in a Greek context. We will look in closer detail at the hypothesis that suggests that adolescent males were sexual objects that had to offer their bodies to older men. What seems important to mention is that literary sources (for an overview of promising primary literature, see Golden) hint at the idea that Eromenos seems to enjoy the act of being penetrated.9 Whether this reflects reality or just the painter’s attitude is rightly to be put under debate. Katz remarks that “[t]he historiography of the question of sexuality in ancient Greece has been constructed (and, at that, only recently) around the dispute over homosexuality, however, without reference to the concepts of race or to the history of the construction of female sexuality”10 and therefore I will also consider how vase paintings, such as the example shown above, depict women engaging in sexual activity.

‘Passive’ males are depicted as penetrated by their male sex partners from behind but in very diverse positions. However, none of them seems to have eye contact during sexual intercourse.11 At least in the ‘public’ context in which the vases were produced, women did not enjoy equal status. This interpretation is one of many possibilities. I would like to share Karras’ viewpoint: In her opinion “[w]omen certainly did not lie back (or bend forwards) and wait for things to be done to them”12. She strongly disagrees with the position that sexual passivity is a symbol for inferiority in general or an inferior position in society to be more precise. The penetrated of the couple cannot be equated with an “inert or apathetic”13 role during sexual intercourse. Golden observes that “[w]omen on the vases often seem to enjoy sex.”14 Unfortunately, almost all of the documents available from ancient Greek times have been produced by male artists; so again, the depiction of women who enjoy sex must not but can be read as a male wish to disguise women’s viewpoints.

In this short chapter, I have been looking at sources that have interpreted a wide array of visual material as well as milestones of previous research and I have been introducing the vase picture showing Erastes and Eromenos as a direct example of how ‘homosexual’ relationships were depicted. I have shown that the construct of ‘power’ is one that originated not in the ancient world but in Victorian Britain and is so prevalent in our society that all sources are likely to be interpreted in that way. This concept does however not prove useful in this context, as passivity and activity lead nowhere in a discussion of Greek sexuality. Furthermore, it is important to bear in mind that if we speak of ‘sexuality’ in the Greek context, I do not mean the gender roles that we use in today’s world, but rather refer to this term as an (unknown) way in which a self is created through sexual activity. Although I use the word ‘homosexuality’ myself throughout this paper, I do so in inverted commas to show that this is not the kind of despicable actions that are associated with this dominant view.

In the next chapter, I will look at the hypothesis that boys had to pass through a stage between childhood and manhood and link the ideas to the statuses that were assigned to people in the Greek polis.

3. Slave, Sex Slave, and Suddenly Free? – The Way of Becoming a Man

Mark Golden’s main argument in Slavery and Homosexuality at Athens is that “Athenian male homosexuality [...] was in part an institution of transition from the subordinate and quasi-servile status of boyhood to the status of adult free citizen.”15 This observation raises many questions. Should older men ‘insert’ their manliness, so that the boys would spiritually gain adulthood? Does this idea not seem strange; for young boys should grow old enough to become sex servants for lecherous elderly men? His claim, however, is not very original, as it has been made by Patzer several decades before. This argument has, also decades before, been rejected, foremost by Halperin, because he “misappropriated and misapplied anthropological evidence and methods to support his position.”16 However, the concept itself is helpful as it explains the idea of a transition to manhood, which is necessary to surmount the status that children had in common with slaves. In this hypothesis, it is the boys, who, only because of that in-between stage, can detach from their low status and manage to become full citizens, a status that only they but not the slaves could achieve. In order to uphold the idea that there was something like a transition phase, a comparison has been made, between ancient Greece and Samoan cultures.


1 Ruth Mazo Karras, “Active/Passive, Acts/Passions: Greek and Roman Sexualities,” American Historical Review 105, no. 4 (2000): 1252.

2 James Davidson, “Dover, Foucault and Greek Homosexuality,” Past & Present 170 (2001): 39.

3 Ruth Mazo Karras, “Active/Passive, Acts/Passions: Greek and Roman Sexualities,” American Historical Review 105, no. 4 (2000): 1259.

4 James Davidson, “Dover, Foucault and Greek Homosexuality,” Past & Present 170 (2001): 14.

5 Mark Golden, “Slavery and Homosexuality at Athens,” Phoenix 38, no. 4 (1984): 312.

6 André Held, “Erastes and Eromenos,” photograph, n.d., https://www.akg-images.co.uk/.

7 Ibid., 314.

8 Ruth Mazo Karras, “Active/Passive, Acts/Passions: Greek and Roman Sexualities,” American Historical Review 105, no. 4 (2000): 1259.

9 Mark Golden, “Slavery and Homosexuality at Athens,” Phoenix 38, no. 4 (1984): 314.

10 Merilyn Katz, “Ideology and ‘The Status of Women’ in Ancient Greece,” History and Theory 31, no. 4 (1992): 86.

11 Mark Golden, “Slavery and Homosexuality at Athens,” Phoenix 38, no. 4 (1984): 314.

12 Ruth Mazo Karras, “Active/Passive, Acts/Passions: Greek and Roman Sexualities,” American Historical Review 105, no. 4 (2000): 1259.

13 Ibid.

14 Mark Golden, “Slavery and Homosexuality at Athens,” Phoenix 38, no. 4 (1984): 313.

15 Mark Golden, “Slavery and Homosexuality at Athens,” Phoenix 38, no. 4 (1984): 313.

16 David Cohen, “Sex, Gender, and Sexuality in Ancient Greece,” Classical Philology 87, no.2 (1992): 151.


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Title: Strong Women, Strong Men. Greek "Homosexuality"and its Context