by Madalina Olteanu, Bucharest

by Madalina Olteanu, Bucharest

The gay practices of ancient Greece

15 Mar, 2019

by Madalina Olteanu, Bucharest

Some cities in America, such as San Francisco or Los Angeles, are considered to have the highest gay populations in the world. Since such statistics are being permanently updated, their accuracy will improve in time. But the question is, what was the place with the highest gay population in the world? My bet is ancient Greece.

Pederasty and its particularities

People who label homosexuality as a “modern disease” would probably be appalled by the ancient Greek practices. For instance, let’s take pederasty – a romantic relationship between a young man (usually a teenager) and a grown man, which was socially acknowledged. There are pictures on vases which show such interactions, where only the adult male has a beard – this used to suggest the passive role of the boy, who, as some scholars assume, had to end the relationship and find a young boy of his own once he managed to grow a beard as well.
Regardless of how common this practice was, the mindset of ancient Greeks wasn’t exactly gay-friendly: adult men who were passive in their relationships with other men or, even worse, in their sexual encounters, were mocked and called kinaidoi. This stigma came from being a bottom – comedy writers such as Aristophanes portrayed these men as women.

The role of women in ancient Greece

In ancient Greece, being a woman had, in itself, a negative connotation. This is one of the main reasons why you can hardly find any information about lesbianism from the era when pederasty existed. Scholars believe that the female poet Sappho was engaged in homosexual practices, given the subtleties in her work, but it has remained only an assumption. For instance, in the poem “Ode to Aphrodite”, she speaks of wooing a woman. Excepting a few other pieces of literature which mention female homosexuality, written by historical figures such as Plato, it seems that either this topic was taboo in ancient Greece, or men just didn’t take much interest in how women experienced sexuality.

Same-sex couples in the military

The contrast in the perception of the sexes is strong, especially considering that the Greeks even institutionalized homosexuality in the military. As Plato describes it in The Symposium, an army made of lovers would be able to protect their city much easier, because, by fighting side-by-side, they would strengthen and protect each other. A proper example for this would be the Sacred Band of Thebes – a troop of 150 pairs of gay lovers, considered to be the elite of the Theban army during the 4th century BC.

Different standards

Initially seen as a rite of passage, pederasty didn’t focus on the age difference between the adult male and the young boy, because the educational role of the relationship was much more important. The sexual acts weren’t even considered necessarily homosexual, because, assuming the passive role, the boy was feminized.
Scholars are still debating the many aspects of Greek practices during ancient times when it comes to homosexuality, but they have yet to reach common ground.