How were gays treated in ancient Greece


aventinus antiqua No. 1 (winter 2005)


Ioannis Charalambakis

Homosexuality in Ancient Greece


If one deals with the question of the sexual inclinations of the Greeks in antiquity, one will find that an idea that is unusual for modern societies has often taken hold in people's minds. If you were to ask them about today's conditions, most of them would probably see the picture of a largely heterosexually oriented population. In connection with the ancient Greeks, however, thoughts immediately turn towards homosexuality, especially towards boyhood. The idea of ​​older men having fun with young boys is mainly shaped by the written transmission of relevant texts and, to a particular extent, by the high level of awareness of antique vase pictures with corresponding representations. Unfortunately, this is mostly only a very superficial knowledge of the matter, which, if not completely wrong, has been transfigured by romantic influences or changed by individually different expectations. The spectrum ranges from the rejection of a repulsive society of child molesters to the longing for a similar tolerance with regard to the free development of sexual practices in today's world, as it is supposed to have existed in ancient Greece. It may be obvious to most that such extreme positions can hardly reflect reality, but then of course the question arises as to the specific characteristics of sexual behavior at that time. The following investigation is intended to make a small contribution to shedding light on a little-known aspect of Greek society.

For this purpose, the relevant literature as well as the available sources must be recorded and analyzed. First to the source situation: As in many other areas, also with regard to the subject of homosexual relationships, primarily testimonies from Athens came to us. For the Classical period from 480 to 338 BC The preponderance of this Attic polis is particularly striking. Information is provided primarily by the vase pictures, with the finds on the Kerameikos playing an important role, and literary sources such as the philosophical writings of Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, the various tragedies and comedies and other treatises. Our knowledge of other places in the Greek world is much less and derives to a large extent from the works of ancient poets and historians as well as fragmentary legal texts. The modern literature on this special topic is also kept within manageable limits, especially since homosexuality and treatises on its distribution or development were not socially acceptable for a long time. Many authors of the 19th and 20th centuries tried to justify their own inclinations using ancient conditions, which led to a series of tendentious representations that contributed significantly to the romantically transfigured image of ancient homosexuality. A comprehensive scientific discussion can therefore only be started from the middle of the 20th century. However, here too there are often groups of people or organizations behind the research projects who have a personal interest in this topic.

At this point it should be pointed out that this essay will only deal with homosexual relationships between men. Although there have also been same-sex connections among women, with the poet Sappho, [1] who lived in the late 7th to early 6th centuries BC. B.C. in Mytilene on Lesbos, because of her love poems to girls and women had become famous and her works were especially popular in the classical period, connections between women were hardly reproduced in written and pictorial sources. At the same time, the sparse and fundamentally negative mentions of lesbian love, a term that became popular in the 5th century BC, demonstrate. BC did not denote homosexual relationships, but the oral satisfaction of a sexual partner, [2] that such behavior has not found any social recognition. Under these circumstances - the lack of sources and the one-sidedness of the few remaining information - it seems pointless to carry out a well-founded investigation here, which is why this is not done.

I From the time of myths to the Persian Wars

Even in the Greek myths, which reflect the conditions at the time of the author rather than the true events of early history, diverse love relationships between men are described. A whole series of gods has been shown to have young, mortal lovers, such as Apollo, Poseidon, Zeus, Hermes, Pan, Dionysus and many others. [3] The approach and motives of the gods hardly seem to differ from one another in the various stories. Mostly the lovers were young men who stood out from the masses due to some characteristics, such as beauty, but also technical skills, and were therefore seduced or kidnapped by an interested admirer. Well-known examples are Apollon and Orpheus [4], Poseidon and Pelops [5] or Zeus and Ganymede [6]. Their relationships were particularly characterized by the fact that the god as a lover instructed his beloved protégé in various arts and tried to educate them in character. Whether there were sexual contacts outside of this educational work is beyond our knowledge, as the sources cannot provide any details. It should be noted, however, that the ideal of a relationship between an older lover and a younger lover, with the educational task in the foreground, should be conveyed here.

The Greek heroes and demigods also followed the divine example and therefore used to have relationships with other men or young men. In addition to his relationships with women, Herakles was said to have innumerable lovers, [7] including his companion Iolaos and Hylas, the son of a slain enemy. The ancient authors report that Hylas and Heracles fell in love with each other after he had killed his father Thiodamas and from then on spent their time together. Significantly, they called each other father and son, which is also supposed to reflect the character of a relationship for the purpose of upbringing. [8] However, the greatest attention was paid to another well-known male relationship, namely that between Achilles and Patroclus. The main controversial issue was whether it was just a close friendship or a love affair with sexual characteristics. The impetus for this was provided by the tradition that Achilles mentioned the union of their thighs - a clearly sexual allusion - in his mortuary lament for Patroclus. [9] In addition to the oldest description in Homer's Iliad [10], other authors also mention this relationship, [11] with Aeschylus and Plato also assuming a physical partnership. [12] Only in the course of the 4th and 3rd centuries BC Chr. Increasingly deviated from this idea and postulated a love relationship without sexual contact. [13]

After this investigation of fictional people from the early Greek period, we shall now look at historically tangible personalities in public life. In addition to a number of poets such as Alkaios, [14] Pindar, [15] Ibykos, [16] Anakreon [17] and Theognis, [18] who wrote love poems for men and boys, other public figures also expressed themselves. For example, Solon wrote in his poems about love for boys [19]. The two murderers of tyrants, Harmodios and Aristogeiton, achieved the highest honors after they had murdered the Athenian tyrant Hipparchus in 514 and had to pay with their own lives for it. Although personal motives were decisive for the act - Hipparchus had tried Harmodios to seduce Aristogeiton's lover - the Athenians honored the two at festivals and even made a statue based on their models and placed it on the agora. Since then, love for men has been seen as a symbol of liberation from tyranny [20] and as incompatible with the institution of autocracy. [21]

Overall, homosexuality was widespread and accepted by the end of the 7th century at the latest. Whether the development originated from Doric warrior tribes can no longer be determined exactly, but Crete, Sparta, Chalkis, Boiotia and Elis seem to have been centers of same-sex sexual behavior even before this practice spread to the Ionic sphere of influence. [22] The reasons for the wide spread of homosexuality can be traced back, on the one hand, to the social position of women, who, due to their subordinate role, could not move on the same intellectual level as men. On the other hand, love for boys was particularly suitable for raising children. [23] In Sparta, this concept was expanded so that the training of young men was nationalized in their own communities. [24] A notable exception is Crete, where, according to Aristotle, love for men was the decisive factor as a means of controlling birth. [25] How these love relationships are to be evaluated with regard to sexual preferences is hardly possible due to the literary sources, which do not make any concrete statements at the crucial points. Ancient ceramics provide a little more information, which we will return to in the following section. It should be anticipated, however, that even the many vase pictures cannot provide any definitive clarity, especially with regard to the delicate question of the anal penetration of the lover by the lover.

II The Greek Classic

For the time of classical Greece we have a whole series of sources that explicitly or implicitly deal with homosexual behavior in the population. As already mentioned, the tragedy poets Aeschylus with the "Myrmidons" and Sophocles, who was even said to have pederastic inclinations, [26] with the "Kolcherinnen" and "Niobe", created pieces in which same-sex relationships between men occur. Unfortunately, they have only been handed down in fragments from Athenaios. [27] In contrast, comedies by Aristophanes in which the author mocks the homosexuality of well-known personalities are completely preserved. In the "Thesmophoriazusen" Agathon is the victim, [28] while in the "Acharnern" and the "Lysistrate" a contemporary Kleisthenes - not the well-known reformer - is exposed to the scorn of the masses. The people in question were not denigrated because of their homosexual tendencies, which were not viewed as offensive in themselves, but rather portrayed as unmanly by putting on women's clothes or indulging in other men. Often they were also said to have frowned upon anal intercourse. In this respect, Aristophanes fulfilled the wishes of the Athenian demos, who enjoyed the vices of the upper classes. [29]

From the circle of Attic speakers, the speech “Against Timarchus” by Aeschines deserves special mention. It was a lawsuit against the said Timarchus, who was accused of prostituting himself, which, according to Athenian law, had to lead to the loss of some civil rights, in particular the right to speak before the people's assembly. [30] The accused was mainly charged with allowing his lovers to keep his house and accepting gifts of money. Relationships with men are not a problem in and of themselves, on the contrary, Aeschines prides himself on having had homosexual experiences, although he assumes an honorable love as opposed to the immoral behavior of Timarchus. [31] In this speech it becomes very clear how difficult it is to draw a clear line between prostitution and ethical action. The acceptance of gifts is by no means sufficient for this, since it was part of the ritual of courtship that the lover tried to win his beloved with gifts. When the limit was exceeded and what influence other factors, such as the number of lovers, had on the evaluation, must remain open at this point. Obviously, certain social conventions had to be observed.

The philosophical writings of the classical period exerted the greatest influence on the modern conception of homosexuality in antiquity. In particular, Plato's “Symposium”, in which the participants discuss love, had an enormous aftereffect. Although different opinions on the subject are obviously to be represented, the idea that there can only be true love between men, since only here can the level of purely carnal relationships be left and a spiritual connection reached in which it can be achieved is ultimately gaining ground is no longer just about sexual satisfaction. [32] These views ultimately led to the coining of the term “platonic” love. In his later works “Phaedrus” and “Nomoi”, Plato then intensified his stance in such a way that, on the one hand, love had to take place without sexual contact, since orgasm represented the victory of passion over reason and, on the other hand, to condemn homosexual relationships as fundamentally unnatural be. [33] While various attitudes are described in Plato's “Symposium”, Xenophon makes it clear from the beginning in his work of the same name that Socrates only advocates a purely spiritual love. [34] Significantly, at the end of the festival, longing for their wives, the participants leave their lovers and return home as quickly as possible. As Diogenes Laertius tells us, Aristotle also wrote a dialogue “On Love” and “Theses on Love”, which are unfortunately completely lost. [35] Zeno and the Stoics viewed sexual relationships as such with no value whatsoever, which is why the sexes of those involved played no role for them. [36] However, love, which involved more than physical contact, was valued more highly because of its educational value, which at the same time did not exclude carnal desires.

In addition to the written tradition, the vase pictures that have been preserved are an important source for recording Greek sexual behavior. In order to avoid a lengthy discussion of individual pieces, only the essential findings of relevant investigations should be reproduced. [37] First of all, it should be noted that primarily contacts between adult, bearded lovers and youthful, beardless lovers were depicted. The first beard growth was generally regarded as a sign of growing up, which meant the end of being a lover. [38] The contacts shown include, on the one hand, courting for a lover, kisses between lovers or the lover touching the genitals of the lover, although a defensive attitude is always made clear, which should indicate that one should not indulge in defenselessness. On the other hand, so-called thigh traffic is often shown. The lover sticks his erect penis from the front between the lover's thighs in order to achieve satisfaction through this form of stimulation. From today's point of view, the fact that basically no anal penetration is reproduced is remarkable.

A special kind of military unit should be mentioned here, the so-called "Holy Band" of the Thebans, which was introduced by Gorgidas in 378 and later formed into a special unit by Pelopidas. It is said to have consisted of 150 lovers and their 150 lovers. [39] In general, sexual contact was not uncommon in the armies of antiquity, so that some soldiers even took their lovers with them to serve in the war. Nevertheless, a troop set up in this way was unique. Their composition was based on the idea that in the presence of their partners, lovers would behave particularly bravely to avert any form of shame on them. In their last fight against Philip II and his son Alexander near Chaironeia, the entire troop was then wiped out and all 300 men killed. In research, however, it is still controversial whether a combat unit in this form ever existed. [40]

At the beginning of the Hellenistic epoch was the rule of Alexander, who after the death of his father Philip II in 336 BC. Came to power. The latter had been murdered in public by a former lover named Pausanias in revenge for humiliation. [41] Alexander himself had a close relationship with his friend Hephaestion and therefore saw the relationship as a direct successor to Achilles and Patroclus.Whether they were really lovers, however, remains open. [42] What is certain, however, is that the king's aversion to women and slaves diminished with the conquest of Persia, which made marriage to Roxanne possible on the one hand, and the relationship to the Persian Bagoas on the other. [43] Apart from these mentions in the Alexander biographies, the sources for this period of Greek history consist primarily of poems with homoerotic content, which, however, will not be dealt with in detail here. [44]

Final considerations

The aim of this study was to present essential aspects of homosexuality in antiquity in order to correct the transfigured and distorted image of modern man. The first result is that close relationships between men have existed since the early days, although one must differentiate between different forms and check whether the term "homosexuality", as it arises from our modern understanding of a love relationship between equal partners , is applicable at all. There are two main criteria for this. 1. Were the connections a "platonic" love or friendship or did you have sexual contacts? 2. Did the relationships take place between equal partners or was there a relationship of superiority and subordination?

First of all, a distinction must be made between the relationships between men of the same age and the relationships between an adult man and a boy. While the former used to take place on a purely friendly basis, the latter included not only spiritual but also physical contacts. [45] However, we have to say goodbye to the romantic notion of a society with the free exercise of love, since human behavior was also subject to certain restrictions in antiquity, although not as strictly as in Christianity. [46] Close love affairs between adult men were inappropriate, so that the relationship with a boy with his first beard had to be ended. However, this did not prevent them from continuing their friendship. Anyone who did not submit to this, such as Euripides, who still shared his life with his beloved Agathon in old age, was criticized in public. [47] That relationships with boys were not viewed as unnatural or even reprehensible is also shown by the terminology in the sources, which is the same for heterosexual and homosexual relationships. [48]

The courtship for a boy and the relationship itself was subject to certain rules, which are briefly presented below. First of all, the lover had to woo his lover with gifts, whereby the latter had to adopt a defensive attitude. The contacts for this mostly took place in the palaestra. [49] The lover was also not allowed to experience any pleasure during subsequent sexual contact, because such behavior would have been viewed as effeminate and thus reprehensible. [50] For the same reason, so-called thigh intercourse was preferred instead of anal penetration, as the many vase pictures impressively convey. Since these are mainly idealizing representations, reality may well have looked different. The comedies of Aristophanes seem to give some clues to this. [51] However, anal penetration was generally regarded as a punishment, so that adulterers who were caught were treated with artificial phalloi. [52] An eloquent testimony to the punishment function is also a vase picture on which Persians lean forward waiting to be penetrated by Greeks. Probably the piece was written in connection with the Persian Wars.

Boy love was not primarily about the satisfaction of sexual desires, but, in addition to the educational task, [53] it was primarily a lifestyle that was cultivated by the upper classes. [54] On the one hand, the stays in the palaestra meant that one did not have to work and, on the other hand, the gifts for loved ones were often very expensive. [55] In addition, there were enough hetaerae and slaves who could be used in any form to pacify physical desire, which was generally regarded as normal and by no means disreputable, so that there was no reason to stick to free boys. [56] It must therefore obviously have been associated with a certain form of honor to indulge in love for boys. Ultimately, an equal relationship could only take place between a free man and a free boy, since hetaerae and slaves as well as women were subordinate to free male citizens. [57] The fact that women and girls from the better circles took over the houses made a significant contribution to this usually hardly left and thus the desire to conquer men had to focus on their own sex. The women from the poorer classes were also present in public, as there were no slaves here to carry out daily tasks, such as shopping in the markets. [58] Overall, pederasty was a phenomenon that was almost exclusively reflected in the lifestyle of the upper classes. These men were by no means exclusively interested in boys, but continued to have sexual relationships with women. In contrast to modernity, the homosexual community did not exist as an alternative to the heterosexual in ancient Greece.


On the literature: The following is a brief description of the literature used for this article. It goes without saying that this cannot be a complete listing of all relevant publications on this topic. An indispensable standard work is still Kenneth J. Dover's "Greek Homosexuality" (1978), the first fundamental analysis of Greek homosexuality. Using antique vase pictures and literary sources, which are composed of late Archaic and early classical poems, Attic comedies, especially by Aristophanes, the writings of Plato, the speech of Aeschines "Against Timarchus" and Hellenistic poems, the author analyzes the attitude of the Greeks towards same-sex Sexual behavior. The three-volume work Michel Foucault's “Sexuality and Truth” (Histoire de la sexualité) is equally important, if not exclusively directed towards homosexuality. While the first volume “The will to know” (La volonté de savoir, 1976) deals exclusively with the period from the 17th to the 20th century, the second volume deals with “The use of lusts (L´ usage des plaisirs, 1984) with classical Greece. The last volume “Care for yourself” (Le souci de soi, 1984) then focuses on Rome in the first and second centuries AD. In her book "Ehe, Hetärentum und Knabenliebe im antique Greece" (1989), Carola Reinsberg partly deals with the results of Kenneth J. Dover, although the smallest part of the presentation is devoted to pederasty, compared to marriage and heterosexuality. Andrew Calimach, on the other hand, illuminates a special aspect of homosexual relationships with "Lovers' Legends - The Gay Greek Myths" (2002) by revealing the love life of gods and heroes in Greek myths, mainly based on literary tradition and figurative sources . A comprehensive presentation with a detailed analysis of all available sources from archaic Greece to the 19th century is provided by Louis Crompton in "Homosexuality and Civilization" (2003). Chapters 1 “Early Greece 776-480 BCE”, 3 “Classical Greece 480-323 BCE” and 4 “Rome and Greece 323 BCE-138 CE” are particularly relevant in terms of the subject dealt with here. The anthologies by Mark Golden and Peter Toohey (Eds.) "Sex and Difference in Ancient Greece and Rome" (2003) and by Robin Osborne (Ed.) "Studies in Ancient Greek and Roman Society" (2004). Martha C Nussbaums and Juha Sihvolas (Eds.) “The Sleep of Reason - Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome” (2002), on which David M Halperin and David Leitao contributed. A short but informative contribution by Lutz Sauerteig on the ancient medical conceptions of homosexuality can be found in Karl-Heinz Levens (Ed.) "Ancient Medicine - A Lexicon" (2005) under the heading "Same-sex sexuality". Thomas K. Hubbard (Ed.) Provided a special aid with "Homosexuality in Greece and Rome - A Sourcebook of Basic Documents" (2003). These are English translations of important text sources on same-sex love from Greece and Rome.

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Created: 05/20/2010

Last modified: May 24, 2010