Studies of Homosexuality Volume 1 Introduction

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vol 1: Ancient World



The ancient civilizations of the Near East (including Mesopotamia), Egypt, Greece, and Rome are lineal ancestors of Western civilization. As such, the literary and archaeological records of these Mediterranean societies have attracted intense scrutiny and debate. This study has revealed with increasing clarity that the ancient patterns of same-sex behavior did not, for the most part, conform to the androphile model of modern industrial societies--a model that involves pairs of adults, both considered to be of the same gender, of roughly equal social status, and reciprocal in their behavior. Instead they generally adhered to gender- and age-differentiated patterns, Egypt being a partial exception. The best known types are the male temple prostitution of the Near East and the institutional-ized pederasty of Greece. Ancient civiliza-tions also afford valuable cross-cultural insights with respect to India, China, and Japan; for these, see the volume in the series on Asian Studies.

Classical Scholarship

The literary remains of ancient Greece and Rome long held a privileged place in the consciousness of Western civilization. Since these writings offer masses of information and comment about same-sex relations, they have engaged the attention of homo-phile scholars and those interested in sexuality generally.

From the time of the neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) to that of the archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) Christian taboos meant that conclusions regarding this evidence had to be presented circumspectly. However, in Germany towards the end of the eighteenth century a new school of classical philology arose that emphasized recovery of the past in its totality. This demand resulted in a series of profes-sional articles and books by such scholars as Christoph Meiners, Friedrich Ramdohr, Friedrich Welcker, Moritz Meier, Julius Rosenbaum, and Wilhelm Adolph Becker (all active between 1775 and 1840). Their efforts were joined by Eros (1836-38), a diffuse survey by Heinrich Hoessli, a Swiss autodidact who (since he placed the classical material in a larger context) ranks as the founder of modern gay scholarship. Classical material figures prominently in the learned writings of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895), a passionate fighter for homosexual rights. In the twenti-eth century the industrious philologist Hans Licht (Paul Brandt), whose book Sexual Life in Ancient Greece (1932) remains a standard work, systematically surveyed the evidence for homosexual behavior in ancient Greece.

Although Andre Gide and L.-R. de Pogey-Castries (Georges Hérelle) made contributions in France, in English--speaking countries the taboo tended to inhibit frank discussion among classicists, so that A. E. Housman had to publish pertinent remarks in Latin. (The first edition of John Addington Symonds' incisive A Problem in Greek Ethics, published in 1901, was limited to only a hundred copies and so was not widely known.) Thus it was not until 1978 that Sir Kenneth Dover issued his landmark monograph on Greek Homosexuality. Since that publication, efforts have been made to reinterpret the Greek evidence from the relativist standpoint of the social construction theory; their fate is uncertain.

The Near East

Inasmuch as scholars did not decipher the scripts of the pre-Greek civilizations until the nineteenth century, the volume of scholar-ship on them is less than for Greece and Rome. Religious bureaucracies focused on step pyramids or ziggurats dominated the earliest societies of Sumer and Akkad in Mesopota-mia. Among the temple institutions was organized prostitu-tion, female and male; effeminized males served male citizens, but some apparently also had children. Despite their institu-tional roles, stigma often attached to them. This gender-de-fined, institution-alized homosexual-ity flourished for a time among the ancient Hebrews in the form of the kedeshim or male temple prostitutes.

A special aspect of Mesopotamian homophi-lia appears in the legend of Gilgamesh, which is not only the first literary instance of male bonding but contains explicit same-sex elements in the relation-ship of the hero to his "wild man" companion, Enkidu. See the articles by George F. Held, Anne D. Kilmer, and Berit Thorbjorns-rud, included herein. There is evidence for Mesopota-mi-an male homosexuality from the beginning of the third millennium B.C. Babylon-ian myth explained the origins of homosexuali-ty; its astrology accounted for it in the individual. Babylonian and Assyrian eunuchs held high positions in the royal government; male prostitutes were prominent musi-cians and dancers. Middle Assyrian laws penalized same-sex rape. See the discussion in Vern Bullough's article, included herein.


Ancient Egyptian literature provides the first example of royal homosexuality in the androphile love affair of the Old Kingdom pharaoh Pepy II (2355-2261 B.C.) with his general Sisine--the oldest documented pair of homosexual lovers. See Georges Posener's and Lise Manniche's articles, included herein. The Tomb of the Two Brothers at Thebes likewise points to andro-philia. There are also mythological themes, notably the conflict between the god Horus and his brother Seth, who sought to rape his sibling but ended up getting pregnant by him; the god Thoth also resulted from anal rape. Male prostitu-tion occurred, but not in connection with temples; lesbianism also appeared, but few details are known.

Greece: General Considerations

Since the beginnings of the homosexual rights movement in the late nineteenth century, the example of ancient Greece-a culture which not only endorsed but institutionalized same-sex relations, and which provided the foundations of Western polit-ical, philoso-phical, and artistic life-has served as a model of a nonhomophobic society. Yet the encomia tend to overlook the differ-ences between the Greek practice of paiderasteia and the contemp-or-ary androphile model of homosexual-ity, and it is difficult to reconcile this appeal to ancient glory with attempts by the same spokesmen to exclude modern peder-asts from their movement. Nevertheless, Greek art and literature supply rich lodes of information-not without gaping holes-about a pattern of homosexuality which dominated same-sex relations in most of the classical world and which lost its salience as a model for the West only in the past few centuries.

The origins of the institutionalized form of pederasty have occasioned much scholarly dispute, but it now seems clear, thanks to the research of William A. Percy, that the practice emerged, perhaps from a far older tradition of initiatory homosexuality in warrior societies, but more probably from widespread situational homosexuality, in ancient Crete about 650 B.C. Later Greeks believed that pederasty arose in order to curb overpop-ula-tion and to institution-alize the training of soldiers. Cretan pederasty exhibited a unique feature: a ritual kidnapping, which some of the myths later reflected.

The rulers of Sparta under the influence of the semilegendary Lycurgus imported this system after 615 and made it part of the constitu-tion of their state. At 12 the Spartan boy became the erotic companion of a young man who trained him for the next eight years, after which he sprouted facial and body hair and was considered ready for full--time military duty. Between 20 and 22 the ephebe (maturing youth) made the major transition from "listener" to "inspir-er" and then took a boy of his own. At 30, having completed the boy's instruction, he married a girl of 18, and only then would he leave the all-male barracks, though continuing to mess with his male cohort. A somewhat parallel system of corerasty (women loving girls) existed at least for a while; Spartan women were relatively privil-eged compared to those of other Greek states.

Spartan pederasty was so successful that it soon spread to other Greek city-states. The maritime cities of Ionia introduced symposia (all-male dinner and drinking parties emphasizing wit and romance, with the boys present) as an adjunct institution which was widely copied. In Athens, Solon intro-duced pederasty as part of his new constitution in 594-93 B.C.; however, the Athenian focus turned more to intellectual, athletic, and character training rather than military instruction of the boys. The common barracks and mess were not adopted, and the ephebe left the paideresteia system for army duty at 18, not 20.

Pederasty prepared males for the rights and duties of citizenship in the world's first democracy. Athens led Greek civilization and produced the "Greek miracle" of intellect-ual and artistic accomplishment, perhaps as a result of this intensive pederastic pedagogy, but succumbed militarily to Sparta. Solon set the marriage age more flexibly at 28 to 35. Marriage was a duty, however, not a setting for romantic love-a passion reserved for the pederastic relationship.

Classical pederasty was an upper-class institution; to what extent it may have charac-terized less-well-off Greeks is difficult to estimate due to lack of evidence about their lives. Prostitution was wide-spread and boy brothels common; the inmates were usually slaves or freedmen (a citizen who sold his body to other males lost his civil rights), but could be somewhat older than the boys involved in pederasty, and their clients were often over 30. The consid-erable number of resident foreigners were excluded from paiderasteia but could participate in prostitution as buyers or sellers.

Sexual activity in the pederastic relationship seems to have been primarily anal and intercrural, with the older male (the erastes or "lover") taking the active role and the boy (the eromenos or "beloved") taking the passive. The former may well have masturbated the latter, however. Notable is the lack of any conception that the passive role undertaken during boyhood would compromise the masculinity of the later adult. If anything, the reverse held true: the complete man was one who had undergone the pederastic training.

The question of the age of puberty for Greek males of antiquity is also largely undiscussed, though of great importance to our understanding of the phenomenon. Another possibility which has been raised is that the boys from puberty onward engaged in considerable sexual activity with each other, without such play being considered important enough to be discussed in literature. Scenes in surviving vase paintings reinforce this supposition. It is also not clear how monogamous the erastes was, since several notables starting with Solon (including nearly all the lyric poets) were described as having more than one eromenos.

Aesthetically, the men involved in paiderasteia were attracted to the androgynous "bloom" of adolescent beauty and repelled by the features of adult men. We have little evidence of what the boys thought (apart from a few remarks in the Phaedrus), though a great body of courtship literature from the adult perspective has survived which indicates that the boys enjoyed the attention and often played rivals off against each other.

Connected with the institution of paiderasteia was the system of public athletic facilities or gymnasia, where boys and men exercised and socialized in the nude. Athletics reached its apogee in the Olympics, which had separate days set aside for boys' races. There is some implication in Pindar's hymns to the victors that the main competitors were ephebes (from 18 to 22), and thus outside the paiderasteia system, though such maturity did not prevent the celebration of their beauty. Custom generally prohibited women, but in Sparta they also exercised in the nude in public.

What the Athenian ephebe, who had graduated from the status of eromenos but not yet found his own boy, did sexually is a matter of some mystery, all the more so as this is the age when male sexual energy is at its peak. The ephebes experi-mented with each other (shown on some vase paintings), learning the active role (in Idyll VIII ascribed to Theocritus, two pubic boys are presented, one loving another boy, the other a girl), and visited the female brothels. Some men found ephebes attractive; the terms for these ephebop-hiles were philephebos or philoboupais ("one who is fond of bull-boys [husky young men]").

The Greeks knew other types of homosexuality, but considered them rare or silly; the adult pathic (passive partner) was an object of ridicule. Pedophilia in the sense of attraction to boys younger than 12 has left no trace in the literature.

After the transition to marriage, homosexuality ceased, according to the paiderasteia model, but there are numerous indica-tions that many married men continued to frequent male prostitutes, or even take a new eromenos, and later, Stoics of the Hellenistic period suggested that pederastic relation-ships could continue until the younger was into his late twent-ies. Many such pairs probably continued as close, if nonsexual, friendships. The famous couple Aristogiton and Harmodius were both old enough to be married at the time of their assassination of the Athenian tyrant Hipparchus, who had made persistent advances to Harmodius; Hipparchus had apparently never developed an erotic interest in females. It must be kept in mind that the system of paiderasteia described in ancient literature was an ideal type, and may have admitted many variations in practice.

After Sparta defeated Athens, it remained for Thebes, another center of pederasty, to overthrow Spartan hegemony (371 B.C.) by forming its "Sacred Band," a military unit of 150 pairs of lovers, with Epaminondas and Pelopidas as their lead-ers. Epaminondas fell with his second eromenos at Mantinea in 362. Possibly the ages were different in the Sacred Band, as it is hard to account for such an effective fighting force if it contained a high propor-tion of barely pubic and generally inexperienced lads; modern military experi-ence would suggest a mixture of young adults and ephebes as more likely. The Sacred Band died to the last man and youth in heroic combat with the Macedonians in 338.

Thanks to Sappho (ca. 612-560) of Lesbos, the tradition of female homosexuality did leave some traces. She was the out-standing singer of female homoeroticism of antiquity, but she also followed the age-differentiated model of corerasty and emphasized its pedagogical function, being mistress of a girl's school. The Greeks were familiar with the use of dildos, and it would seem that lesbianism should have been present among the secluded upper-class women, but our sources are meager and the mythology does not include it.

Cultural Aspects in Greece

The philosopher Plato, Socrates' chief disciple, exalts sublimated homoerotic love in his dialogues the Symposium and the Phaedrus. Plato also, exceptionally among the Greeks, discussed male same-sex love on the same plane as lesbianism, preparing the way for the much later concept of homosexuality as a unified phenomenon. Despite his response to the beauty of young men, in his old age Plato (by then something of a curmudgeon) turned against pederasty, de-nouncing it and lesbianism in the Laws as unnatural (a new, and historically fateful, aspersion). His successor Aristotle gave less attention to the matter, though he did make the key distinction between constitutional ("inborn") homosexuality and that which is acquired.

The rise of lyric poetry in the archaic period opened the way for frank portrayal of personal emotions, as in the work of Sappho, Anacreon, and Ibycus.

The Theban Pindar wrote magnificent ephebo-philic odes to successful athletes. The poems attributed to Theognis of Megara are more sternly moralistic in their advice to the erastes about the proper training of his eromenos. In the Hellenistic period, Theocritus set the model for pastoral verse, with many of his idylls addressing pederastic love; other poets left behind a substantial body of pederastic poetry preserved in Strato's twelfth book of the Greek Anthology. While pederasty rarely appears directly in surviving tragedies (though Laius' rape of Chrysippus set the Oedipus cycle in motion), it assumes a great variety of humorous guises in the bawdy comedies of Aristophanes and (presumably) in the lost ones of his contemporaries.

The salience of male nudes in archaic and classic art probably reflects homoerotic sentiment, but as these are gener-ally single figures, it is difficult to show direct involve-ment. An exception is the early classic monument to the heroic tyrannicides Harmodius and Aristogiton, whose love brought about the fall of a hated regime. Vase paintings from 580 to 470 show pederastic courtship and pursuit, either in the divine realm-as in Zeus chasing Ganymede-or in the everyday life of Athenian males.

Greek religious mythology eventually incorporated numerous examples of homoerotic sentiments on the part of the male gods. Zeus and Ganymede form the best-known pair, but Poseidon had Pelops and Apollo had a score of eromenoi who frequently came to tragic ends; the hero Heracles had Hylas and Iolaos, Orpheus loved Calais, and Orestes bonded with Pylades.

Persia, Scythia, and the Hellenistic World

Greek civilization spread throughout the ancient civilized Western world as a result of the conquests of Alexander the Great, known for his attraction to boys and to the Persian eunuch Bagoas as well as for highly emotional bonding to his friend Hephaistion. The Persian Empire he conquered had developed an antihomosexual tradition, suppressing pederasty on Samos in 521 and favoring the sharply homophobic Zoroastrian religion under Darius I (d. 486); nevertheless, according to Herodotus, homosexuality flourished in Persia. Persian homophobia (which may not have applied to eunuchs) was to exact its eventual revenge through its influence on Jewish law, whose prescriptions Paul passed on to the Christian Church.

To the north of the Persian Empire and northeast of Greece lay the domain of the Scythians, who seem to have practiced a shamanistic form of gender-differentiated homosexuality which in ancient days may have extended all the way to Siberia and the Americas.

The Hellenistic monarchies which succeeded Alexander's rule perpetuated the Greek pederastic tradition, though devoid of its upper-class and educational character, as far east as Bactria (modern Afghanistan), and established a new center for pederastic literature in Egypt's Alexandria. Roman rule did little to change the custom. The Hellenistic tradition of pederasty managed to survive Christian rule long enough to influence Islamic culture after the seventh century of our era.


While Greek civilization was in its prime, the Etruscans dominated central and northern Italy. Their surviving art documents homosexuality, which appears to have been androphilic.

Their successors, the Romans, who established the greatest of the ancient empires and left substantial traces of their culture behind in Britain, Germany, and France as well as the Mediterranean world, led sexual lives which have continued to fascinate Westerners to the present day.

Whatever the earliest Roman customs may have been, reflect-ing perhaps Etruscan influence, by the later Republic Roman sexuality was already an inextricable aspect of the Roman political and economic dominance of their part of the world. Roman rule brought not only vast numbers of slaves from the conquered lands, but Hellenistic culture, including its wide-spread pederasty, as well. Cultivated Romans were aware of the classical pedagogical role of Greek pederasty, but chose not to revive that aspect of it; see Ramsay McMullen's article, included herein.

Slaves played an important role as passive sexual objects for the Romans, who analogized the act of sexual penetration to that of political and military conquest. The result was a system in which any adult Roman male could take the active role with another male without opprobrium, but severe sanctions attended his assumption of the passive one, seen as a political threat to all Romans. They assigned the passive role to slaves, foreign-ers, freedmen, and boys. Roman soldiers (professionals could not marry) were allowed to rape enemy soldiers after victory in battle. This gave the Romans a type of same-sex relationships, called dominance-enforcement homosexuality, all their own; it divided roles consistently not on the basis of age (though boys were often preferred, this was not a rule) or effeminacy but on political or power relation-ships. Similar conceptions appeared later among the Vikings and the soldiers of the Ottoman Turkish army. Even today the Roman type of homosex-uality dominates American prisons and characterizes instances of same-sex rape, usually a hetero-sexual's act of conquest rather than a token of response to beauty.

Roman law (the obscure but much discussed Lex Scantinia) seems to have proscribed the penetration of Roman soldiers by their superior officers and the anal rape of Roman citizens, but male prostitution was extremely widespread and was not only subject to taxation, but celebrated on its own annual festival day (Robigalia, April 25). Brothels flourished, and graffiti at Pompeii indicate that male prosti-tutes were available for the poor for very small sums. Cinaedi, who were in their twenties, would perform in the active role for non-citizen males or for females, and often served as entertain-ers as well.

The most powerful Romans of all, the emperors, indulged themselves to the utmost in a wide variety of sexual acts, only one of the first fifteen of them (Claudius) being apparently exclusively heterosexu-al. Their lusts provided grist for the chron-icles of historians such as Suetonius and Tacitus. Being above the law, some of the later ones (such as Heliogaba-lus) even indulged in the passive role. The emperors' sexual indulgence, even when extreme, does not, however, appear to have had negative consequences for their administration of the empire.

Lesbianism was of little concern to the male Roman and has left little trace in the literature, though some ladies seem to have been bisexual; see Judith Hallett's article, included herein.

Roman satirists and poets such as Juvenal, Martial, Petroni-us, and Catullus frequently wrote of homosexual practices and attachments without trace of homophobia. See Charles Gill's article on Petronius and J. P. Sullivan's on Martial, included herein. The philosophers present a more mixed picture, with Cicero politically attacking Mark Antony for having been penetra-ted as a boy, Lucretius indifferent, and the Stoics calling for moderation. Homophobia in the modern sense seems to have been virtually absent from Roman culture.

Rome's contemporary European cultures, those of the Celts and Teutons, have undergone less scrutiny, having left little documen-tation behind. Aristotle amongst others noted the Celts' devotion to male homosexuality, and Athenaeus wrote of the pederasty of Celtic warriors. There may have been a tradition of initiatory homosex-uality among the Celts, or the practice may have occurred when the warriors were drunk. Some Teutonic tribes also prac-ticed pederasty, according to various Roman writers, and stigma-tized the adult who took a passive role.

The Romans showed little concern with the sexual lives of their conquered subjects and did not attempt to extend their form of homosexuality throughout the Empire.

The Christian takeover of the Roman Empire under Constantine I in the early fourth century spelled the end of the relatively free status of homosexuality in the ancient Western world; the first enactment of the death penalty for sodomy followed in 342. Justinian (reigned 527-565) launched a witchhunt against homosexuals in Constantinople, but Byzantine homophobia did not preclude a number of later homosex-ual emperors and continuing scandals in the sex-segregated monasteries.


The study of homosexuality in the ancient world is fraught with methodological problems stemming from the selective nature of the surviving literature.

The ancients themselves wrote chiefly of the mores of the upper classes, neglecting the erotic life of women, while fashioning images of their own practices which tend to be either ideal and poetic or satirical and overdrawn. In addition, Christian disapproval influenced the selection of works for copying, and hence survival through the ages, further distorting our picture. The result is a mosaic with huge gaps. Scholars need to make efforts to fill in the blank spaces, drawing upon such sources as the Pompeiian graffiti, and bringing together all the scattered references to homosexual liaisons in the Greek and Roman sources which fall outside the usual framework (lower classes, women, pairs outside the conventional age range, sex with eunuchs, etc.). Only when these investigations have found their way to publication can we begin to pretend to a systematic understanding of homosexuality in the ancient world.

As Western civilization moves out of the era in which Christian values set the sole standards for personal behavior, we may profit from consideration of the role homosexuality played in pre-Christian cultures, though one should certainly place the in- quiry in an even more comprehensive framework which admits non-Western societies as well. Rome's sexuality of dominance may seem alien to the contem-porary ethos, but worth examining for the light it sheds on male psychology. The sacred prostitution of the ancient Middle East has relevance to those looking for a spir-itual connection to homosex-uality outside the Christian tradition. Egypt and Etruria may speak to those looking for ancient roots of andro-philia.

The Greek pederastic tradition is most problematic, running headlong into contemporary taboos against intergenera-tional sexuality of any kind. It cannot serve as a model for androphile culture, but a sober contempla-tion of the contribu-tions of the graduates of that training to the miracle of Greek civilization, and thus ultimately to the Western civiliza-tion of the present day, may serve to broaden our horizons.


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