Homosexuality and Ancient Greece: An Uneasy Relationship

How many times have we heard older generations saying “back in my day this didn’t happen” about any issue they opposed? And how many times have we heard this phrase referred to homosexuality or sexual orientations other than heterosexuality? I do not know about you, but I have heard it more times than I can mention. 

However, nothing could be further from the truth. Ancient documents teach us that the opposite is actually correct. We can find evidence of male and female homosexuality throughout history: from the marriage between women in the Code of Hammurabi to lesbian relationships in Egypt and ancient Greece initiation rituals. 

The ancient culture in which we can find most references to homosexuality is ancient Greece. Sexuality in ancient Greece was not seen in the same way as we perceive it today. Indeed, as the historian Eva Cantarella explains in one of her conferences, ancient Greeks based their idea of sexuality on virility. Virility defined men: men had to be active in all fields of life. For example, they had to go to war, and participate in the city assembly. Similarly, in their sexual life, they played an active role, both with women and men. This was perceived as completely normal. 

The most common type of sexual relationship among men, which was tolerated, was pederasty, which is the phenomenon of relationships between an adult male and a boy. Many writings talk about this practice, but rarely about the same phenomenon between females. However, we know, thanks to Sappho, a Greek poet from the island of Lesbos, that women were allowed to have relationships with each other on some occasions. She wrote about female homosexual desires and she was the head of one of the most important “thiasus” of her time. Indeed, before the birth of the polis, there was a period during which it was common for girls to attend a thiasus before getting married. They were educated to be elegant, graceful (“karis”), and suitable for marriage duties. Often, girls belonging to this institution started having relationships with each other and with the teachers. Similar communities are known to have been created all over ancient Greece. 

However, with the birth of the polis, this custom was abolished. Women began to be seen merely as mothers and wives. They did not receive education in the thiasus. This is the moment in which the idea of love between women changed. For example, Plato, in his “Symposium” defines women who have homosexual tendencies as prostitutes. On the contrary, it was acceptable for men to have both homosexual and heterosexual relationships. 

As already mentioned, one of the most common types of homosexual relationships was pederasty. This practice was publicly accepted and recognized, mainly as an initiation ritual. In time, however, this became idealised, especially in Greek literature and philosophy. 

In our eyes, this phenomenon is wrong. Today, this practice is illegal and it constitutes an abuse of a minor. In ancient Greece, on the contrary, this experience was the basis and the model for sexual and romantic relationships for young men.

Our idea of sexual liberty in ancient Greece is sometimes distorted: many practices were allowed, but others were not. For example, pederasty and homosexuality were only allowed during specific periods of life and for certain reasons. It was mainly permitted as a ritual practice, and regulated by a social code. For example, one rule provided that one of the partners in the couple had to be significantly older than the other and that his role had to be active. Also, the adult of the couple taught the boy the values of the polis and its social life. He was less like a lover and more like a father and a teacher who had to teach the boy how to become a good citizen. In other words, sexual liberty was provided as long as people involved in pederasty respected certain rules.

In conclusion, homosexuality has always existed. Some of these practices are morally questionable, and unacceptable, nowadays. However, they were still a huge part of their tradition which influenced the lives of men and women living at that time. Homosexual relationships were not always tolerated, but were nonetheless part of Greek culture. Authors explicitly talked about them in books; poets wrote about their personal experiences, and ancient codes legally regulated these relationships. So, how is it possible that, today, many people still consider this topic taboo? Sappho certainly did not have this problem when she penned the following words, that could have been written by a contemporary girl struggling to accept her sexual orientation: 

“Sweet mother, I cannot weave –

slender Aphrodite has overcome me

with longing for a girl.”

 

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