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Martin Foreman

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Erastes and Eromenos
Men and Youths in Ancient Greece
Cavafy     Gay in Greece in 1975     Greece Today

Athens, March 2010: Have you ever read the novels of Mary Renault? The ones dealing with gay couples in ancient Greece, beginning with The Last of the Wine (1956) and ending with Funeral Games (1981)? These romances (now out of print, but search for copies on Arbery Books) were almost compulsory reading for gay men of a literary bent in the 1960s and 1970s. The idea of a man courting a pubescent youth is not unique to Athens and Sparta – it comes up in mediaeval Japan, the Arab empire, parts of Africa and many other cultures at different times in human history – but it is the Hellenic ideal that most Westerners are familiar with. Indeed, it was so ingrained in our psyche that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many gay men referred to “Greek love” in an attempt to legitimise their sexuality.

Scores of popular and scholarly books covered the topic from every angle, but for the first time an exhibition (ending 11 April 2010) in the Greek capital has recognised the importance of sex between men and youths in classical Greece. Eros: from Hesiod's Theogony to Late
Antiquity at the Museum of Cyladic Art looks at both the idea of the god of sexual desire and at the different ways in which sex was expressed.

In the eighth century BCE the writer Hesiod described the origins of the world and the gods in his Theogony. In that work, Eros was a virile youth who had emerged out of the Chaos that existed as Creation. Neither humans nor gods could avoid Eros' arrows, which bestowed the ecstasies and agonies of love on all who were hit by them. By the fifth century BCE, however, the god had dwindled to child in the eyes of his worshipers. The son of Aphrodite, goddess of beauty, he played in her arms or attended her toilet. At times, however, he was mischievous and her punishment was to redden his backside with her slipper, bringing tears to his eyes. He still conferred love on his victims, but he had taken on other duties as well, overseeing the fertility of plants, making music and joining the mourners at someone's death.

In later years, Eros grew older again. By the last century BCE, his fate was closely linked with Psyche, the human soul. These two adolescents could not live without each other but they did not fully understand either their own needs or the needs of their partner. This led to much unhappiness, with artefacts of the time showing how Eros often tortured Psyche and how Psyche would subdue and bind Eros to her will. At the end of their torments, however, the pair learnt to live together peacefully and bring each other happiness - as depicted in the exhibition poster above.

(We should not be surprised by these changes in Eros’ personality. All religions are moulded by the needs of their believers; in Christianity, for example, perceptions of Jesus, the Virgin and God Himself have changed significantly in the last two thousand years.)

The idea of Eros firmly embedded in our minds, the exhibition moves us on to the realities of sexual life in ancient Greece. We can never know exactly who does what with which parts of their anatomy and with whom and how often and for how long (it's only in the last fifty years that we have begun detailed research into such basic information), but a lot can be deduced from the artefacts and writings that have survived. And from these sources the Musuem has focused on three topics - prostitution, homoeroticism and the bucolic life.

It's a small exhibition, covering several centuries, which means that it is more general than specific and we should remember that generalisations should always be treated with care. (Life in Athens differed greatly from life in Sparta, for example; likewise the lot of women in Athens improved considerably between 600 and 300 BCE.) Nevertheless, the displays offer interesting insights, reminding us that female prostitution was widespread and took different forms - in whorehouses, on the streets, in the houses of courtesans - that phallic symbols were widespread as sources of humour and that "free" women might be as isolated from public life as are women in some Muslim countries today.

As for homoerotic life in ancient Athens . . . there is no doubt that it flourished – but what allowed it to do so? and what form did that life take?

Start with these facts: respectable women could not enter public life; the male body was considered the epitome of beauty; free, wealthy men of all ages spent hours each day exercising naked in the gymnasium (gymnos = naked). Stir into that mix the predominantly homosexual orientation of some men and the predominantly sexual orientation of many others (I want to have sex and it doesn't matter who with) and you have a social world in which male relationships are accepted without comment.

Yet these relationships differed considerably from the partnerships that we mostly see today. For a start, there was expected to be a significant age difference between the lovers. The older man (the erastes – the one who loves) was expected to train and educate the younger partner (the eromenos – the one who is loved) in civic and military affairs. Youths were not expected to initiate a relationship, but to show restraint and even resist the older men’s advances. Nor was the sex uninhibited; oral and anal intercourse were frowned upon (it was shameful for a free man of any age to be penetrated) and sex was – theoretically at least – restricted to the two standing face to face with the older man thrusting his penis between
an older and younger man
meeting in winter:
a dish from the Benaki Museum
face with the older man thrusting his penis between the youth’s thighs. Relationships were not lifelong; once beards had appeared, around the age of seventeen or so, the younger partner was considered too old for love. Finally, attraction to young men did not mean that the erastes could avoid women; unmarried and childless men was lost significant social status.

Within these parameters – which to a freeborn Athenian citizen were as natural as slavery, commerce and death – both partners could lead lives as fulfilled or as frustrating as any modern love affair. The heart would leap when love was returned and sink when love was spurned. And like any modern affair, love and lust were frequently commemorated in pictures and words. Urns and other pottery reveal gentle scenes of men offering their intended lover a gift – often a rooster. Alternately, his reaches out to the youth’s genitals, without necessarily touching them, an approach reproduced so often that it appears to have been socially acceptable.

Poetry is equally tender. Thus we have Meleager’s poem: At noon in the middle in the street, Alexis / Summer had all but ripened the fruit / and the summer sun and that boy’s look did the same for me! or a brief note on a shard from one man beseeching his lover to visit him. And we cannot forget Plato’s description of gay men in the Symposium, as one being divided each seeking for its other half, or his poems in the Greek Anthology to his beloved Aster (=”star”) (Sweet boy, star of love and beauty / you stared up alone at the midnight skies / If only I were Heaven / to gaze upon you with a thousand eyes.)

According to this exhibition, the fifth century BC was the golden period for love between men and youths. As more women came into the public sphere, there was more scope for men to interact with them. As a result, the number of poems and artefacts in Greek culture commemorating male love diminishes. By the time of the Roman Empire, young men could still be objects of affection – as they were in some of Catullus’ (Latin) poems, but the status of eromenos was no longer one to which most free-born Greek youths aspired.

Today, although the laws in many countries allow older men to copulate with sixteen year olds, the societies in which we now live in generally look down on the idea of intergenerational sex. That may change, but it is unlikely to do so in our lifetimes. We can only look back and wonder what we, as gay men, have lost and what we have gained in the intervening centuries.


Of course what men were expected to do and what men did were not always the same.
Both words and pictures reveal that men were familiar with anal and oral intercourse
despite the mockery that would ensue if their acts were known
– see this border on a bowl from the Benaki Museum.



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