Pederasty in the Classical Greek Context

12Students are usually surprised at the discussion of what we would now call homosexual pederasty in Plato. Two of the greatest dialogues, the Phaedrus, and the Symposium, take it as normal. The dynamic described between “lover” and the “beloved” in the Phaedrus mirrors exactly the male and female romantic dynamic that most of us will be more familiar with, although what is being described is a much older man besotted with a teenager.

This kind of pederasty was fashionable among the Classical Greek élite. It was not necessarily popular prior to this time, although Achilles’ reaction to Patroclus’ death in The Iliad suggests the two might have had more than a “Platonic” relationship. Cultures where women are rigorously sequestered from men and go about in public only when chaperoned tend to indirectly promote homosexual sex because women are simply not widely available – much as at boarding schools or prison. The Greek prohibition on educating women also means that romantic love between the two sexes will be inhibited. In romantic attraction (not merely sexual) we first see an appealing surface. The next step is to actually talk to someone to find out whether we actually like the person or not. If yes, then we may come to respect, admire, and trust the person. In other words, come to love her. If you are a member of a literate, educated elite, then full romantic heterosexual love would perhaps be rare, since women’s minds would be undeveloped, and literacy and broad reading are prerequisites for being interesting to talk to. Being admired by someone you do not respect is not enjoyable or flattering. Hoi polloi would have much lower standards of intellectual attainment, being less mentally accomplished themselves, and likewise did not embrace single-sex pederasty. Plato, tall, handsome, smart, educated, aristocratic, and thus most definitely élite, acknowledges that women can definitely be physically beautiful and attractive, but such a brilliant mind as his would be looking for a beautiful psyche too.

The Greeks did have an interesting class of women called hetaerae (hetairai). They were educated women, artists and entertainers, who were expected to be smart, educated, and good conversationalists. They seem more like professional girlfriends than prostitutes, somewhat in keeping with American ideas concerning “dating,” where someone might be going out with several men, and/or “date” for years. Such goings on are a complete mystery to a naturalized U.S. citizen like me. New Zealand men and women of my generation restricted themselves to one boyfriend or girlfriend (i.e., sexual partner) at a time and would be unlikely to live in separate residences if the relationship continued for years.  Hearing “I ‘dated’ so-and-so for seven years” registers as “Caution. Caution. Does Not Compute,” in my mind. Every Saturday the boy turned up with flowers, you went to the movies and had an ice cream, maybe held hands, for years and years, is what it sounds like! Hetaerae had just a few clients and had long term relationships, unlike the pornai who had multiple clients and might work in a brothel. The consort of Pericles, the ruler of Athens at its peak when it was beautified with temples and statues, was Aspasia and she was a hetaera.  

Classical Greek culture had a custom of mentor and mentee. Older men would be on the look out for promising young talent. The idea was then to help promote the youth’s career, introducing him to the right people for both political and economic advancement, with the understanding that when the youth attained a prominent societal position, these favors could be repaid with favors and influence. Part of the deal in the meantime was that the youth would “service” that older man. As can be seen in the Phaedrus, there was no expectation that the teenager would feel any kind of attraction for the sagging flesh and wrinkled face of the lover in return. Sex would be strictly for career advancement, rather than mutual desire, hence the division between lover and beloved. The ideal age for the youth was supposed to be before his beard had come in and thus, he would still be relatively androgenous. Hence, the sexual connection had a strongly heterosexual element to it. The young man is very much a replacement woman. It is anachronistic to describe this as “homosexual,” because nearly all the men involved in all this would have a wife and children. Pederasty would almost always be in addition to family life, not a replacement for it.

Plato was in favor of the mentor/mentee relationship. He himself had become a devoted follower of Socrates, annoying those who had hoped to make use of Plato’s burgeoning political career to advance themselves. Becoming a philosopher meant the end of that. However, though Plato thought that young men need older men to develop themselves, he was not in favor of sex between the two, hence the phrase, a “Platonic relationship.” Plato justifies this stance in the Phaedrus by using the metaphor of the human soul as constructed of a charioteer with two horses. One beautiful and well-trained, the other ugly and unruly. Only the gods have two beautiful horses. We humans have to manage with this less-than-ideal arrangement and to resist the impulses of the unruly ugly horse. Such a horse will wantonly copulate with any body [sic] of even moderate attractiveness indiscriminately. Love as respect and admiration will have nothing to do with it, and any ascent of the soul to a more spiritual realm with sacred insights will be forestalled. Physical attraction, for Plato, is promiscuous – though we might add more on the part of men than women. Recent studies suggest that nearly all women direct their attention at the top 20% most attractive men, which is highly selective, and regard the rest as “four” or lower on a scale of one to ten, while men give a much more accurate and more charitable “rating” to women. Female chimpanzees mate indiscriminately, but women are hypergamous and that might be why human and chimpanzee evolution has diverged so significantly. As a rule, women mate either across or up in the social hierarchy. Sexual selection thus is thought to have pushed the human race to develop big brains as men compete with great ingenuity to get to the top of hierarchies that men have devised. In the meantime, women sit back, wait to see who succeeds, and then select from the winners, if they are in a position to do so. Female lobsters and many other species do the same thing. Harvard University plays the role of a pretty woman by selecting as tenured faculty professors who have proved themselves immensely successful elsewhere, rather than by promoting new hires to the permanent ranks.

23 thoughts on “Pederasty in the Classical Greek Context

  1. This all seems to rather strongly recommend the advice given in Ecclesiastes to avoid learning in order to attain godliness.

  2. Is there evidence in the writings for sexual activity? In many places with strong masculine identities, until recently, one would often walk arm in arm with a best friend. In the countryside in Taiwan in the 1980s, I was shocked when all my male friends grabbed my arm as we walked side by side down the street, as did women friends. That was not true in the city then, and I believe has lessened significantly even in the countryside there, especially after same-sex marriage, once reviled, was legalized. But there was then, when we walked arm in arm, no hint of sexual desire or contact. In other words, when we read the Greeks now, is this a case of modern reading into the ancient what is not there?

    Naturally, as with the Afghan pederasts of today, evidently widespread, it occurs. And I could not help but be shocked to read Bernal Diaz, writing of the expedition of Cortès, whom he accompanied, of the widespread pederasty of the Aztec chiefly priests who dressed the captured children of their enemy in female clothing before they “used” them, purportedly for holy purposes. (Not to mention the tens of thousands of enemy males whose hearts they ripped out alive, and whose arms and legs they cut off and piled to be cooked and eaten.) But it would seem like the ancient Greeks of the 5th c BC, for all of their cruel and barbarous treatment of the helots, may not have been this brutal towards their own. Although the offer for sex for patronage is a kind of awful compulsion one would think might, among equal elites, generated at least some contrary vindication by young males who would not only submit, but hit back. Are there any examples of this in the source material?

    • Hi, Richard: Yes. The sexual element is explicit. Plato describes grown men hanging around the houses of the young, pining, hoping for a glimpse of the beloved, generally making fools of themselves, and the family members being inclined to chase such sleazy old buggers away. It was not rape, so youth were free to reject the advances of the old, but, in the manner of Harvey Weinstein, it could cost you future advancement. Since all this involved the families of the rich, powerful, and well-connected, you would be taking your life in your hands if you tried to use force. I’m mostly familiar with all this from the dialogues of Plato. The fact that Plato bothered to argue against it suggests it was normal. Depicting Socrates in “The Symposium” as being completely uninterested in Alcibiades, the supposedly most beautiful and most sought after of youths, as being an example of superhuman restraint, would all become inexplicable if actual homosexual relations were not in fact expected. It would be a strange thing to mention and congratulate someone on these days.

      Serbs are not at all approving of homosexual relations as a culture, but display some of the kinds of things you describe. If two women friends walk down the street, the shorter one will often hold onto the arm of the taller one in the manner of a woman with a man – the taller one simulating the male. I pointed this out to my wife who is Serb but who had never really thought about it, but agreed about who held whom and how. Men kiss men, and women, three times on the cheeks in greeting or celebration. I once attended a New Year’s Eve party with Yugoslav men and women in Minneapolis. Most were giants. I am 6 foot and was the third shortest one there – the tallest being about 6’7″. At midnight I kissed each man and woman on the cheek three times, following the cue of the others. Many of the men had an 1/8 of an inch of stubble, so I got to feel what that was like!

      That’s interesting about the Aztecs. I’m not sorry they don’t exist anymore as a culture.

  3. “chase such sleazy old buggers away”

    That depends on what you mean by buggery. I’m not soliciting an etymological history here from our esteemed Dr. Smith, even in the waning hours of “pride month.” Rather, I just want to note that most modern scholars who concern themselves with this sort of thing argue that Athenian elite pederastic sexual intercourse did not involve penetration (based mainly on decorative visual representations). I’ll leave it to those interested to explore further what intercrural means on their own. I’m not downplaying heathen depravity, but what we now call sodomy would have been seen (by the practitioners of Hellenic pederasty) as shameful, hybristic violence against the body and against the beloved. And, indeed, it was.

    • Hi, Joseph: Yes. I looked up intercrural some years ago because of this topic. I’m not personally sure whether that method was one of many or not. The nice thing about British or NZ English is that “old bugger” is a generic term for any older person you are being somewhat dismissive about, so it covers the literal and nonliteral.

      • I could not find the epigrams you noted — are the numbers right? Regardless, it sounds like him, but it shouldn’t be too surprising for a writer born during the reign of Caligula and who came of age at the time of Nero. The “tyrannical man” was common in imperial Rome, and not simply on the Palatine. The Romans should have listened to their betters generations before. That sounds familiar . . .

        Was Robert Lewis Dabney the American Cato?

      • I checked Martial too, and the numbers did not match. 9 only goes up to 103, for instance, and 43 was not on topic.

  4. I personally find the ‘world’ depicted in The Symposium so morally repellant that I have never managed to read it through! Never mind the nuances of what exactly they did – it was surely corrupt, and Symposium reads like clever propaganda for corruption (not *only* propaganda, but that as background assumption).

    To my mind, there is a stark decline in virtue between the early Platonic dialogues that describe the real person and views of Socrates, and the later ones where Socrates is a mere puppet for expressing Plato’s ideas.

    • Hi, Bruce: I think you are supposed to find most of the speakers at the Symposium repellant. I certainly do. Each speaker gives a self-serving, self-justifying speech that nonetheless has some elements of truth in it. Plato does not present them in a positive light so I don’t really see how it is propaganda for corruption. Socrates stands in opposition to the others and gives the most beautiful speech which is not self-serving.

      I tend to imagine that Xenophon’s Socrates is closest to the historical Socrates and was surprised to find that version reminding me strongly of Aristotle whom I have never especially warmed to. I prefer Plato’s Socrates and strongly agree with Plato that in order to think about the good life, it is necessary to get an adequate metaphysical picture of what reality it is in which this good life is to take place. Plato’s discovery of the numinous provides an image of the transcendent, a concept of which we all need in order to orient ourselves in the direction of the divine. Socrates rejected metaphysics and focused on “ethics” alone and this seems untenable to me.

      • It was certainly a great speech. I think it captures the feelings associated with romantic love well – even a unisexual alien would get it. It is both complimentary to Aristophanes, and agonistic – possibly better than anything Aristophanes might have come up with.

  5. Thanks for this interesting overview. We might look upon ancient Greek pederasty as simple reciprocity, wherein a youth exchanged the one thing he possessed in abundance for the knowledge, wealth and influence of his elderly mentor. An elderly mentor would have been dead before a “beardless youth” would have grown to manhood and been able to return the favor in other ways, so it was not unreasonable for the elderly mentor to ask the “beardless youth” for compensation in the form of the immediate pleasure of his beauty, his wit, and perhaps his body.

    We may draw the line at pleasures of the body, but we today expect an elderly benefactor to be compensated by the flattering attention of his or her beneficiaries. We are not outraged when grandpa leaves most of his estate to the grandson who visited him and laughed at his jokes. The sudden appearance of long-lost relations at the reading of a will was a stock scene in nineteenth-century fiction.

    We could also look upon this pederasty as a means to balance supply and demand. The demand for the benefits in the gift of rich and powerful old men must have exceeded the supply, so there had to be a means to allocate this scarce resource. We might say that the rich and powerful old men should have pulled strings for, and lavished treasure on, youths who had merit. To this a rich and powerful old man might reasonably answer, “merit for whom.” The demand for the benefits of youthful beauty, wit and bodies must also have exceeded the supply, so wrinkly old men had to bid for these benefits.

    I’ve reached the age where I begin to see life from the perspective of the old men. I am not especially rich or powerful, but this only makes me more unwilling to bestow gifts or pull strings gratuitously. I’m not going to ask a youth to stimulate an orgasm, but I will ask them to do something to alleviate the loneliness and gloom of old age. Age needs that alleviation just as surely as youth needs knowledge, wealth and influence.

  6. Thank you for this interesting discussion. As an Asianist, I was especially intrigued by your description of the hetaerae, which could be applied almost word-for-word to the Japanese geisha, who are trained to entertain and be engaging company to men (often groups of men), but who do not typically have sexual encounters with their clients. I had not been aware of this parallel.

    • Yes, I, as well, saw “geisha” in “heterae,” and the few I knew in the Kyoto area decades ago — introductions from trusted clients only procured meetings — would only go off with those men the woman fancied (for whatever reason). Not that any assignations were my lot, but these women were totally exquisite in every way. But the bar girls, who “sat table” in modern dress, often capable of a strong self-defense, at the myriad karaoke and whiskey bars, were in the trade to make dough and, as I was told, not but a few made enough money to open a dress shop or a stall selling okonomyaki or whatever so they could finally be free of what they didn’t want to do in the first place. I thought they were amazing women.

  7. Athens might have been somewhat Puritanical and backwards where women were concerned. Sappho of Mytilene — as we infer from her poems — ran something like a prep-school for young ladies, no doubt of the aristocratic class, which did not ignore literacy in its curriculum, which also included music and dance. This was Aeolian culture, not Ionic, which included Attica. It is possible that the Minoan civilization influenced the Aeolic Greeks. (Some features of Aeolic architecture can only have come from the Minoans.) Sappho herself discusses the already existing Greek literature of her day (the Archaic period). The later Greeks and the Romans after them honored Sappho and placed her in the lyric genre at the same level as Homer.

  8. I get the impression that this behavior was less prevalent in earlier times in Greece and not as prevalent in places other than Athens. For instance in Iamblichus’s biography of Pythagoras, it is reported that Pythagoras told the men of Croton that they should not visit prostitutes, but he didn’t mention anything of this nature.
    Since Pythagoras was very concerned that people should follow they natural order, I’m sure he would have disapproved had it been widespread in Croton.

    • Hi NLR,

      That’s my strong impression too; that it was a fashion only among the fancy people and then perhaps only for a century or so.


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