How gay were the Greeks?
Peter Jones reviews The Greeks and Greek Love: A Radical Reappraisal of Homosexuality in Ancient Greece by James Davidson
Peter Jones, Telegraph (UK), December 27, 2007
James Davidson is an angry man. His wrath is directed at Sir Kenneth
Dover, greatest of Greek scholars and author in 1978 of the
ground-breaking Greek Homosexuality. That brilliant book has become the orthodoxy on the subject, and it is an orthodoxy to which Davidson, Reader in Ancient History at Warwick, takes the most violent exception.
Sensitive readers should look away now.
Examining all the evidence offered by depictions of same-sex activity on Greek pottery and in literature (especially the comic poet Aristophanes and the philosopher Plato), Dover concluded that Greek same-sex activity was
pederastic: that the lover (erastês) was a dominant older male who
desired anal intercourse with the submissive youthful beloved (erômenos), but was thwarted by laws against mixing with minors, while penetrating a free man of any age was seriously frowned upon. So the
best he could hope for was some quick frottage between the boy's thighs. And that was about the sum of it.
For Davidson, the idea that the Greek same-sex experience was a series of pretty joyless 'genital acts' involving an older male and his younger plaything is anathema.
He therefore sets out to show, first, that Dover's analysis of the sexual activity was misconceived and, second, provide evidence for a reciprocal same-sex disposition in the Greek world.
Davidson strives to undermine Dover by reinterpreting the evidence. He concludes that erastai (plural) were simply gawping hordes of fans whose
behaviour may in fact have been baffling to the youthful erômenoi; that depictions of sexual activity on pots are warnings against this sort of behaviour. Acclamations on other pots that a certain young man 'is beautiful' are generalised innocent cheer-leading for 'lovely young people'.
Most important of all, sexual action - whatever form it took - began only after boys had reached the age of 18 (Davidson claims they matured later in the ancient world). Indeed, apart from legal prohibitions, young boys were chaperoned by their personal paidagôgos to ensure that they were not interfered with.
That is all eloquently put. One point of dispute will be that, since the evidence is often oblique, much interpretation and reading between the lines are necessary (the same is true of Dover's arguments). Further, it is very difficult to argue that, because something was prohibited or policed, it was not regularly done (si monumentum requiris...).
Myth also is not without its problems. For example, Davidson must eliminate sex with minors. So when Zeus snatches the youthful and very beautiful Ganymede up to heaven to be his
cup-bearer, Davidson suggests this had religious, not sexual, significance; he even likens a depiction of Ganymede serving Zeus ambrosia at a sacrifice to Jesus serving wafers at the Eucharist. That is grotesque.
Nevertheless, Davidson's case will need answering. The ground becomes distinctly trickier when he moves on to the question of adult disposition. Basically, he needs to show that there is evidence of adult same-sex relationships that were long-lasting and represented exchanges of 'gracious favours' (Davidson's translation of the Greek
kharis), pleasing to both.
He is on pretty secure ground with the institutionalised same-sex activities of the Spartans that resulted in relationships of deep political significance, and of the Macedonians, well
exemplified in the relationship of Alexander with Hephaistion. But he struggles to generalise the phenomenon (to Athens, for example), largely because there is so little hard evidence for it.
He cites Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad, who in fact sleep with women throughout that epic. They are very closely bonded, of course - Achilles, beside himself with grief at Patroclus' death, is all over him
physically when his body is brought back from the field; but in the military context, bonding is of the essence, sex is not.
The consequence is that Davidson, who seems very fastidious about 'genital acts' anyway, has to argue that sex was not very important; for 'love', as he rightly says, is about more than sex. But by that
criterion, historians might conclude that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who were once (a recent book claims) so closely bound together as to be almost in love, would count as homosexuals (adding a whole new dimension to the concept of the grace-and-favour apartment).
For all the richness and subtlety of Davidson's argument, I am not persuaded that the dragon Dover has been slain. Indeed, the very length and in some cases eccentricity of this book suggest that Davidson is aware of his difficulties. It is also a surprise that he does not discuss the strange phenomenon that Greek same-sex rarely seemed to exclude hetero-sex.
Nevertheless, we can all agree with his conclusion: that homosexuality was 'a complex public phenomenon, essential to understanding Greek
politics and philosophy, warfare, art and society', rather than a bit of after-hours frottaging somewhere out on Lycabettus Heath.