Greek Homosexuality

Greek Homosexuality

"Greek Homosexuality" is the first work of the 20th century in the English language to address the topic of same sex relation in ancient Greece. A scholarly work by K.J. Dover, published in 1978, it discusses the practices and attitudes of the ancient Greeks toward homosexuality, based on archaic and classical archaeological and literary sources.

It is divided into three major sections, each examining a different group of sources: the iconography of vase paintings, the speeches in the law courts, and the comedies of Aristophanes together with smaller sections based on other ancient Greek literary and philosophical writings.

The work has been criticized for restricting itself to Archaic and Classical sources and for reducing an affectionate and pedagogic relationship to a dynamic of power imbalance. Though a landmark study in its time, some aspects are now seen as dated.


The conclusions drawn are that the Greeks regarded homosexuality in general to be natural, normal and salutary, and their actual practices were circumscribed by cultural norms. In the case of the ancient Greeks —specifically the Athenians— the book claims that the sexual roles of the lovers were sharply polarized.

Dover concludes that the Greeks conceived of same-sex relations primarily as boy love and identifies the terms for the roles of the two male lovers, "erastes, "the lover," that is, the older active partner, and "eromenos, "the beloved"," indicating the adolescent male beloved. Basing himself on the work of Sir John Beazley, Dover divides the evidence of surviving vase painting depicting these type of relationships into three types. Some show the erastes offering a gift to the eromenos. Others depict the "up and down" gesture - the erastes attempting to fondle the eromenos while, with the other hand, he is turning his head to look into his eyes. The third group, usually older black-figure vases, show the couple engaging in interfemoral intercourse or, in a couple of instances, anal intercourse. Traditionally, the young beloved, when he reached the age of manhood —indicated in the iconography by his growth of a beard— would switch roles and become a lover himself, seeking out a younger male for a love relationship. Later in life he was expected to marry and produce new citizens for the state.

To fail to switch roles was considered unmanly and irresponsible, and Dover points out the mockery that Aristophanes (a very popular and successful Athenian comic playwright) inflicted in passing, in several plays, on a certain Athenian citizen who was notorious for his persistence in the role of beloved long after reaching his maturity.

With regard to the record of cases in the law courts, Dover concentrates primarily on a certain case initiated by the orator Demosthenes. Demosthenes had been in an embassy sent to the neighboring state of Macedonia which had not only failed to achieve its mission, but was widely suspected of having accepted bribes from king Phillip to abandon their mission. Upon the return to Athens, Demosthenes initiated a prosecution of his fellow ambassadors for bribery in an attempt to avoid being indicted himself. The defendants successfully had the charges dismissed on the grounds that that one of Demosthenes' co-plaintiffs, Timarchos, had been a boy prostitute and had thereby lost his rights as an Athenian citizen, becoming ineligible to bring suit in Athenian courts.

Dover extensively quotes from the records of the trial to demonstrate, among other things, that while the Athenians attached no stigma to same sex relations per se, they did adhere to certain conventions; in this case, that no citizen could be permitted to sell his sexual favors, which they regarded as the proper function of a slave, not a free man.


Despite his alleged "pretensions to objectivity," Dover - a heterosexual himself - has been accused of projecting modern heterosexual dichotomies onto ancient same-sex relationships. As a result his views have given rise to a "dogma" that same-sex relations were acceptable only for the dominant partners, and that the passive beloved were scorned. Dover's polarization of sex roles has been deemed insidious inasmuch as it has been borrowed and amplified by scholars such as Foucault and Halperin. [Thomas Hubbard, "Pederasty and Democracy: The marginalization of a Social Practice;" in "Greek Love Reconsiderd;" pp.5-6]

Subsequent scholars have also criticized Dover for having restricted himself to early texts, and thus discounted significant sources such as Plutarch, Lucian and Athenaeus. His view of pederasty has been described as "myopic" and "verging on homophobia," as it privileges a discourse of penetration over one of pedagogy and affection. [William Armstrong Percy III, "Reconsiderations about Greek Homosexualities," in Same–Sex Desire and Love in Greco-Roman Antiquity and in the Classical Tradition of the West, Binghamton, 2005; pp48, 56] [J. Davidson, "Dover, Foucault and Greek Homosexuality: Penetration and the Truth of Sex," in "Past and Present," 170 pp3-51]

Though it is still considered a valuable starting point for the study of same-sex relations in ancient Greece, it is now seen as dated, as "the study of the history of sexuality has moved on since [Dover's] day." ["Whilst Dover’s work remains the starting point for any exploration of sexuality in the ancient world, the study of the history of sexuality has moved on since his day. Sexuality is now seen as something that is socially constructed, that has little to do with biological imperatives and it is in this light that Greek παιδεραστεια is now interpreted." Keith Matthews, "And the Greeks had a word for it..." in "Assemblage" 7 [] ]

ee also

* Philosophy of Greek pederasty
* Pederasty in ancient Greece



*"Greek Homosexuality," by Kenneth J. Dover; New York; Vintage Books, 1978. ISBN 0-394-74224-9
*Suzanne Lilar, Le couple (1963), Paris, Grasset; Translated as "Aspects of Love in Western Society" in 1965, with a foreword by Jonathan Griffin, London, Thames and Hudson.

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