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Extracts from

“Children and Childhood in Classical Athens”

by Mark Golden.

 [p.56 onwards]

“Men took a more active interest in boys sex lives. At least in comedies and satyr plays, admittedly a raunchier environment than everyday Athens, boys were identified as sexual beings from an early age, addressed as posthon, “penis”, and referred to as posthaliskos, “little pecker”.

The satyr Silenus even propositions the baby Perseus, promising a space in his bed with Danae and a share of the fun (Aesch. Fr. 47a.805-814R).
Aristotle, straighter-faced, observes that boys enjoy rubbing their penises before (through only shortly before) they are able to ejaculate, just like men who are unable to reproduce (Arist. Gen. An. 1.728a10). Awareness of boys interest in the subject leads Xenephon to approve of the Persian reluctance to discuss sex in front of the very young lest their lack of discipline lead to excess (Xen. Cyr. 1.6.34).

For most boys, puberty would of course precede legal majority and passage from the group of paides by several years. But their outlets for heterosexual activity were limited.


It was only in homosexual relations that Athenian boys could achieve sexual intimacy with other Athenians and (perhaps as important) demonstrate their success in attracting their peers [*1].

At what age were such relationships acceptable? Among later writers, Strato praises the charms of a boy of twelve (Anth. Pal. 12.4). Xenephon, writing in our period, says that Episthenes of Amphipolis was moved by the beauty of a boy just reaching puberty, say fourteen or so (Xen. An. 7.4.7).

There is no clear-cut evidence from Athens itself. It was certainly illegal to sell a boy’s favours or force them (as prostitution and sexual assault incurred penalties when adult Athenians were involved as well) [*2]. But David Cohen has suggested that homosexual relations with an underage boy might be regarded as hybris, “outrage, abuse,” even if they were entered into freely, without payment or violence, because Athenian law had “some notion equivalent to statutory rape in modern legal systems.” [*3].

This seems unlikely. In his speech on love in Plato’s Symposium, Pausanias praises those who love boys only when they begin to acquire understanding, which he associates with the growth of the beard. Before that, boys are young and thoughtless, easy to take advantage of, and there ought to be a law against sex with them (Pl. Symp.. 181DE). Pausanias’s perspective is perhaps unusual – it is changing partners, promiscuity for lack of a more neutral word, which he most disapproves of. But his statement must mean that no such law existed at this time, whether we take that to be the dramatic date of the dialogue (416) or its period of composition (the early fourth century). I do not deny that others might feel unease about homoerotic relationships involving boys; I merely suggest that Cohen’s grounds are misstated.


In its public manifestations, at least, Athenian male homosexuality was shaped by a number of conventions. It did not involve equals. As Dover put it,

“Homosexual relationships … are regarded as the product not of the reciprocated sentiment of equals but of the pursuit of those of lower status by those of higher status.” (Dover 1978. 84).

Both parties might be young men, but one, the pais, eromenos, or paidika, is normally younger than the other, the erastes. Common Greek views on the appropriate relations of men of different ages require that the younger partner be regarded as subordinate to the other, and he plays the passive role in sexual activity.

Yet certain conventions de-emphasize or deny his subordinate status. Thus, the older partner has to court the younger man or boy, to approach a social inferior as a suppliant. In addition, on vases depicting homosexual activity, it is the older partner who bends his knees and not infrequently his head before the younger one; the latter, for his part, stands upright and shows no sign of either constraint or pleasure, neither under the authority of his partner nor in the grip of pleasure or any other emotion.

Many students of this institution have regarded these conventions as a way to distinguish the younger partners from women; I prefer to stress the importance of drawing lines between citizen paides and those other paides, the slaves they associate with and are thought to resemble in so many ways.

There is little disagreement, however, on the benefits that were said to accrue the boys themselves or on the role of male homosexuality as an institution of transition between boyhood and maturity. Broadly speaking, regular intimacy with an older member of the citizen elite provides a boy with a model of appropriate attitudes and behaviours, a source of wisdom. And the good conduct of the older partner is fostered by this role [*4].

In individual instances, involvement with a particularly well-connected or gifted partner may prove socially and politically valuable, not just for the boy but for his whole family. Since this was kind of passage rite, a boy was supposed to outgrow his role as junior partner, first by taking on the active role and acting as an adviser and model for a younger protégé, and then assuming a new (though by no means exclusive) sexual identity as the husband of an Athenian citizen woman, kyrios of a household, father and master of paides.

This is obviously a drastically schematized representation of the emotional and social complexities involved in such relationships. Its very crudity, however, serves to reveal the points of tension within these homosexual liaisons involving boys. If the boy had the wrong partner or partners, his social standing might be threatened or at least not advanced; if he continued to play the passive role as he got older, he called into question both the Athenian conception of conduct appropriate to an adult male citizen (remaining too “womanish” or too “slavish”) and his own capacity to live up to it. It is with such matters out sources concern themselves. Boys are said to give themselves to lamp sellers and the like in preference to the traditional elite (Ar. Eq. 736-740).


Most Athenians were probably less worried about the effects of homosexuality on boys in general than about the particular partners boys choose. Laws, paidagogoi, peer pressure – all operated to prevent undesirable matches. Much of a boy’s time, especially among the elite, was spent in a gymnasium or a palaestra, taking formal instruction or just working out and conversing with friends. The Greeks exercised in the nude, or very nearly so. These athletic facilities were therefore prime pick-up points, and the law consequently forbade slaves to exercise or anoint themselves with oil in palaestrae [*5].  

How about other locals where other boys may gather in groups? 

The law restricted the hours of operation of schools and regulated visits to them (Aeschin 1.9-12). Boys on their way to school or elsewhere outside the home were the focus of admiring eyes; paidagogoi went along. Of course, such measures alone could not prevent boys from taking up with their schoolfellows. But when Critobulus fell for Clinias, his father put him into Socrates’ hands (Xen. Symp. 4.24). Sometimes however, friends might be on the other side. 

In Plato, we are told that initially, at least, a boy may be turned against a suitor by schoolmates or others who say it is disgraceful to have sex with him; and that a boy’s friend will call him names to dissuade involvement with someone a father disapproves of (Phdr. 255A; Symp 183CD). The impression this evidence gives is that a boy’s sexual friendships were taken seriously, and that a father’s opposition was no mean obstacle; no wonder Pithetaerus’s ideal city is one in which a father would reproach him for not fondling his son (Ar. Av. 137-142).

Yet it is important to recognize that some relationships did meet with approval. 

Xenaphon’s Symposium is a fictional account of a dinner party held by Callias in honour of his lover Autolycus, who has just won the boys’ pankration at the Great Panathenaea, and of Autolycus’s father, Lycon; father, son, and lover all go to the party together (Xen. Spmp. 1.2-3). Later in the evening, Socrates takes Lycon’s presence as a sign that the friendship of Callias and Autolycus is spiritual, not carnal; the noble erastes keeps nothing secret from the father of the one he loves (8.11, cf 19). 

Socrates’ distinction, one often made in Plato’s dialogues, is even less convincing here. Like Plato, Xenephone is interested in exalting spiritual relations among men above physical sexuality, though unlike him he offers heterosexuality as an alternative. (…)  But Lycon’s role rings true. It is echoed in the episode in which Critobulu, judged by the two young slaves to be more attractive than Socrates, is urged to claim his reward, a kiss from each – but not before obtaining the consent of the kyrios, their Syracusan owner (5.4-6.1). Thought the boy in this instance is a slave, the suggestion a joke, some such approach to a boy’s father might well have preceded conventional and approved relations between citizens young men and boys. 

I do not think a breach of etiquette was a crime in itself. But failure to conform to this convention might certainly cause an outraged father to feel his authority had been mocked, and he could conceivably try to convince a jury made up of other household heads that this amounted to hybris, just a Euphiletus did.

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1 Dover, K.J. (1978) Greek Homosexuality (Cambridge Mass.) [Back]

2 Boys: Aeschin. 1.13-16. Adults: Ar. Eq. 876-880, Aeschin/ 1.29-362; Dover (1978) 23-29. [Back]

3 Cohen, D. (1987), “Law, Society and Homosexuality in Classical Athens.” 6-8. The suggestion is modified, but not improved, by Cantarella, E. (1988) 66-67. [Back]

4 E.g. Xen. Mem. 4.1.2; Symp. 8.23-41; Pl. Euthd. 282B; Hipp. 229CD, Lys. 205B; Symp. 184DE; Dem. 61.2, 6, 34-57; Dover (1978) 91, 153-164. [Back]

5 For sexual advances in gymnasia and palaestrae, see e.g. Ar. Vesp. 1023-1028; Aeschin.. 1.135; Pl. Charm. 153A, 154AC, cf.; Theophr. Char. 27.14 and the vases cited in Golden (1984) 317 n.44. For the law, see Aeschin. 1.138, cf Plut. Sol. 1.3, Mor. 152D, 751B; Hermias Alex. In Pl. Phdr. 231E; Kyle (1984) 99-102. [Back]

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