Those Greeks, eh? Those notorious boy-lovers—ah, what can you do…What can you do? Quite a lot, as it turns out. There is a famous ancient Greek play called Lysistrata; it’s a comedy, the premise being that all the women during the Peloponnesian War go on a sex strike to teach the men a lesson: all men truly care about is sex and so until they stop the war they shall have none. So there. Quite unrealistic, since women cannot coordinate to that degree—they all hate each other and would fall out long before there was an actual sex strike, yet nevertheless a funny premise for a play. A funny premise for a play…for the premise should interest us: if homosexuality were very prevalent in ancient Greece—so as to be an acceptable norm, as is often held—Lysistrata would make no sense to its original audience; the men would just head off to satisfy themselves with their beautiful boys until the girls were bored with their sex strike and surrendered. Yet Lysistrata was written and performed; ergo, whatever homosexuality was to the ancient Greeks it was not some universal norm—not some widespread acceptable alternative to heterosexual sex.
And why does it matter what the ancient Greeks thought about homosexuality, anyway? It matters because the left, once the working class were too rich to be a vector for revolution, moved on to sexual and racial minorities and women. Hence, from the 1960s onwards, we have the LGBT movement, the “gay liberation movement”—a conscious analogue to the “national liberation movements” against colonialism. As with Communism, the LGBT movement is no more about people who are homosexuals and their interests than Communism was about the working class—yet it relies on the popular supposition this is so, with the result that the political right look like “bullies” who pick on vulnerable groups.
Due to the way homosexuality plays a major role in Western politics—thanks to the left’s “reorientation”—the attitude taken by the ancient Greeks to homosexuality is very salient, at least in intellectual circles; and, in fact, even in the wider population, you will hear people say, “The Greeks did it. Socrates loved beautiful boys—it goes way back. So what?”. Notorious boy-lovers. The significance is that the West is built on Athens and Rome—Christianity and Greek philosophy, the two being practically intertwined in Christianity. Ergo, it is important for propaganda, particularly among the intelligentsia, to demonstrate that homosexuality goes right back to the foundations, to the high-status philosophical and rational foundations at that.
The association counts for something; and, in part, the rehabilitation of “Greek love” reflects a wider conflict between Christianity and the Enlightenment (which consciously looked back to classical world)—and, indeed, sometimes the debate takes on an anti-semitic complexion, in that it is argued that the West only began to hate homosexuality, along with physical beauty (per Nietzsche), when Abrahamic laws that prohibited sodomy intruded on the scene (hence the typical blond California surf Nazi with a twilight affection for leather boots und ztric dizilpine). Anyway, to have the Greeks on side “counts” in these political debates, especially at the intellectual level—for don’t we all want to narcissistically flatter ourselves that we are the tolerant and wise philosopher, with his wine and beautiful boys, at the drinking party, at the symposium, engaged in a rational discussion about beauty? We are certainly that, not some ugly Midwestern preacher with his drive-thru pay-to-pray, mouth foam-flecked with invective against “sodomy”—and yet with a curious penchant for romance beneath stuttering pale-blue fluorescent lights, for gas station toilets…
The problems associated with the questions about “Greek love” are many and various. For a start, as even progressive liberal academics like the Oxford don Kenneth Dover admit, much scholarship has been carried out on this issue by people who were “covertly homosexual” and had an agenda, a desire to change homosexuality’s status in the West through the high esteem the classical world is held in Western power circles (or was held, anyway). Yet you also have those scholars who suffered from that rather Victorian embarrassment—Queen Victoria famously refused to countenance that lesbianism existed, hence it was not included in British legislation on sexual morality—that led them, red-cheeked as blushing virgins, to refuse to admit that any such thing ever happened in Greece. To which you have to respond: “Come orf it, mate—it ain’t called ‘Greek love’ for nothin’!”
To understand the wider problem we face, apart from reticent scholars and homosexual insurgents, consider that “ancient Greece” spans a period from roughly 800 BC to 600 AD—a very long time indeed, in which a lot can (and did) happen. Further, the first thing anyone who looks into ancient Greece in even a cursory way learns is that the Greek world was split up into myriad city-states, and that each state had its own constitution, customs, and mores—effectively, these were different tribes (with different tribal customs). All these city-states went through periods that were recognisably vital and decadent—so that what you pick from them and when, insofar as material has survived, can lead you to many different pictures of “the Greek world” (worse, today, some people even refuse to accept there is such a thing as a “degeneration”).
Hence, at the most elementary level, the Spartans—the most stable and long-lived Greek tribe, universally acknowledged by the esteem in which their primal law-maker Lycurgus was held—prohibited homosexual acts (although paradoxically it was also claimed that they originated anal sex in Greece and that their secret male fraternities were all about man-love—for their part, the notoriously secretive and cunning Spartans claimed they just liked to hold hands, specifically the right hand, with their mates, as Arab males do today).
The Spartans did train their women in the art of war, not so much because they expected them to fight but because they were a total military state where warriorhood impinged on all human activities. By contrast, the Athenians, more open about homosexuality, restricted their women to the house in a quasi-Afghan purdah. The difference confounds moderns who, since the ’60s, naturally put female emancipation and homosexuality together as being necessarily associated. As the Sparta-Athens dichotomy illustrates, there is no necessary connection—the more war-like state, Sparta, the epitome of warriorhood, had more “emancipated” women. This division alone illustrates the difficulties we encounter when we speak about “typical Greek attitudes” or “Greek love”.
A further difficulty lies in the interpretative issues around the evidence we have. The person who delves into Greek life is in an analogous situation to a man 2000 years hence who is presented with an olive green military footlocker manufactured circa 1954; inside, he finds the following items: half a transcript of the OJ Simpson trial; a DVD of Cum Vixens XII, so degraded that it depicts half a minute of sex just after the plumber arrives to examine the housewife’s faucet; a copy of National Geographic from October 1974 (one with big African boobies on the front and a special on state fairs); half a university sociology textbook; a Tom Clancy novel; and, additionally, some obscene graffiti scratched on the outside of the footlocker.
Our future archaeologist also has the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and a copy of Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter as material handed down the centuries and preserved in universities aside from any particular find—material that he has studied to “contextualise” his specialised investigation, much as a contemporary scholar knows his Plato and Thucydides. Additionally, English died out as a spoken language in about 2659 and is only studied by a tiny specialist elite, to which our scholar belongs. He is now invited, our future scholar, to use the above material to produce a monograph on “American sexuality”—with specific reference to “American attitudes to homosexuality”.
It is not difficult to imagine the interpretative difficulties that arise in this project to establish “American sexuality”—we know the distance travelled between The Scarlet Letter and Cum Vixens XII, but after 2000 years the 100-year gap seems tiny (surely it’s all “America”, right?). Effectively, we are in the same position as our imagined future scholar with regard to the Greeks: attempts to understand Greek sexuality rely on pottery and pottery shards, on graffiti in lavatories, on prayer chits, on half-preserved court transcripts, on comic theatrical pieces, on poems—and the above is all contextualised by the classic texts that have been handed down, especially Plato (except scholarly investigation soon reveals Plato was not universally agreed with by his contemporaries—was seen as decadent by a scholar like Nietzsche—so that the complacent idea that his views were “typical” is lazy, as if our future scholar should take Foucault as “typical” of French views about homosexuality in the 1960s).
As it happens, Plato’s Laws forbids homosexuality and Socrates was notorious for his heterosexuality—and on one occasion demonstrated his superior ascetic discipline when a young man lay with him for the night; the philosopher was unmoved by his beauty. For sure, “Platonic love” admired male beauty but it admired it as an ideal beyond the material, to sexualise it—to sexualise anything—lowered it and destroyed this “Greek love”.
To zoom in further on a particular interpretative problem: pottery. We have all seen Greek pottery, the stark black figures engaged in spear-like war or reclined with wine and a lyre—and, indeed, engaged in making whoopee. Or are they? Here is the complication: it seems risible, but are those two men wrestling or are they “doing something naughty, mommy”? It is not always so easy to tell—although there is a specific Greek sex act between men, intracrural sex, where a man rubs his member between the legs of a young man; no doubts there, anyway.
However, in many cases there are doubts: a youth runs away from an older man, he points to his ass—does that represent a “come on” from a Greek twink, or does it represent a ribald depiction of a young man sassing his teacher by mooning him and running away “eat my shorts”? Again, it is far from clear what the pottery fragments mean—especially without context. The evidence from pottery is further complicated by the fact that erotic depictions on Greek pottery only lasted about 150 years (who knows how long Cum Vixens XII will last before we return to Gilead)—so that to take this relatively small slice of Greece as “typical” or “normal”, without even knowing the context in which these articles were used (hidden away or displayed on the Greek mantelpiece?), still leaves us in a very ambiguous position.
After all, if I only had Will and Grace as a guide to American sexuality in the 2000s and no idea how “seriously” it was taken or who its audience was, I could make wildly incorrect inferences about American sexuality (to say the least)—and, bear in mind, Greek comedies are a major source for Greek views on sexuality, yet who knows what ironic (or deadpan) frame the Greeks put on the performances they watched? Further, consider the way in the Middle East a nod means “no” whereas a head shakes means “yes”—the opposite to the West, just as Italians have highly culturally specific gestures with their fingers (“Ehhhh”). Hence when an ancient Greek points at (his ass) we may never know exactly what that means. Given that many people involved in this area are prepared to make tendentious assertions and are highly invested in Greek sexuality one way or the other, interpretative “mistakes” abound.
We now see the problems that surround “Greek love”, itself taken up in a wider political debate by people on both sides with very little interest in a movement towards the truth. A further complication arises from the fact that classical studies, understandably, tends to be dominated by linguists—men like Nietzsche. Given the need to understand Ancient Greek fluently, this makes sense; however, linguists also tend to a very “relativistic” worldview—understandably, rather as with Nietzsche and his transvalued values, the linguist is exquisitely aware as to how language changes and will often credit that language changes reality or that social mores change very easily as language changes.
Hence classical scholars get in odd arguments such as the notion that the Greeks did not have the concept or word for “blue” or that, due to the grammatical construction in the language, they did not have a notion that there was female beauty as distinct from male beauty. The arguments around these issues, being connected to clarity and hidden ambiguities in langage, usually end up being philosophical; although philosophers rarely arrive to clear up the situation, so the linguists carry on with their nonsense unmolested—and the confusion caused often leaks across in debates about morality, especially in the debates around sexuality.
Frankly, I find these academic debates retarded in that they often amount to the assertion that, to use a hypothetical, because the Greeks did not have the verb “to murder” there was no such thing as “murder” or “murderers” in ancient Greece—rather similar to the way in which oriental languages only have “-ing”, so that you are only, in that very Taoist way, “loving” never “a lover”. The only reason scholars get away with this obvious bullshit and non-debate is that they are paid to windbag around subjects and refuse to apply common sense outside their specialised linguistic training.
This thought-style entered the debate around “gay liberation” in the 1960s; hence Gore Vidal, a notorious media homosexual and arch narcissist, put forward the argument that there was no such thing as “a homosexual”, just “homosexual acts”—the argument was common at the time, owes much to Kenneth Dover, though it seems to have dropped off a little now. People who follow the contemporary debates about trans issues will notice a certain similarity to the argument here though.
The argument was derived, as noted, from linguistic arguments around Ancient Greek: effectively, to parody the argument, “sodomy” is a verb not a noun—there is no word for “homosexual” in Ancient Greek; ergo, everyone was considered capable of heterosexual and homosexual acts; so there were no “homosexuals” in ancient Greece—or, indeed, today; there are just people, I guess. The argument was usually backed up, certainly by Vidal, with the true assertion that the Greeks and Romans considered it shameful to be the passive partner—and so what really counted was not “homosexuality” it was just whether you were on the receiving end (or not). Of course, the argument somehow misses that 2,500 years on it is still shameful to be “screwed in the ass”—metaphorically…or literally.
Basically, men like Vidal made a big deal over the passive-active partner divide—although all it shows is that European attitudes to sexuality have not changed for thousands of years. Passivity in sexual relations is shameful and unmanly: all homosexuality, to a certain extent, involves men as passive partners—ergo, all homosexuality is abnormal (even Aristotle observed this from a biological angle, he believed that passive homosexuals secreted semen from their anus and this was why they were stimulated by being the passive partner—and this made them “unnatural”). The argument put forward by Vidal and Dover really obfuscates the fact that attitudes to sexuality have been stable for thousands of years by presenting that very stability as some “novel” Greek attitude.
You may have noticed that the argument put forward by Vidal, typical at the time, might be construed as “postmodern”—it relativises, asserts cultural primacy, and seems to say the typical binaries do not apply. Yet Vidal disdained what then sailed under the flag of “poststructuralism”—his arguments were not “postmodern”. This is because postmodernism as a bogeyman for the right is a chimera, although it has its own deficiencies and contributes to a general trend. What we see in the Vidal argument, essentially “homosexuals don’t exist, homosexual acts do—and anyone can do those”, is an attempt to break down reality, to break down the “stereotypes” that constitute reality; i.e. I can watch a pattern of behaviour in someone and identify them as “homosexual”, the opposite pattern is present in other people—the people we know as “heterosexual”; but no need to put a label on the person. The same strategy is applied by the left to women and races to argue there is no “typical woman” or “no such thing as ‘black’ and ‘white’”.
This argument really exposes that at root the left—particularly progressive liberals—has an atomistic and chaotic philosophy. In their account, man is an atom; if I happen to go to church for seven months you should not call me “a Christian”—you should say “He’s someone who practices Christianity.” The grounds for this being that if I suddenly started to attend a mosque on month eight it is clear I was never “a Christian”; now I am just “Islaming”, just as some people today are “adulting”—we are gerunding, we are all becoming never being (feminine > masculine). This view is nonsense. Nobody speaks or thinks this way, not even Vidal; he would have happily said that his pal Tennessee Williams was “an old queen”—yet surely he should have said, “Tennessee usually acts like a queen—he is queening, not ‘a queen’”. Of course, he never did so because that would be utterly contrived outside dishonest attempts to make out homosexuality (or whatever perversity you want to normalise) is “just another thing that happens to happen sometimes”.
If this worldview is carried all the way through, it becomes impossible to make statements about the regularity of the world. Everything has to be provisional and, accordingly, we cannot judge anyone. The boy who murders his parents (très Greek) cannot be called “a murderer” in this progressive linguistic cat’s cradle: we must instead say that he spent one and a half minutes of his life murdering but who knows what he will do with the millions of other minutes that make up his life; no need to call him anything so definitive as “a murderer”—so bigoted and unsophisticated.
I think this view actually originates with Hume. It was Hume who said, per the problem of induction, that if I see the sun rise every morning I cannot say it must rise tomorrow—it may not. Hence Hume would have us live in this weird linguistic world where everything is -inging and no definitive statements can be made—even about myself, being just an atom that does some things some times and some other things some other times. Notably, Hume was a total atheist and so it seems that contrived unrealistic views about the world and the view that you cannot make definitive common-sense statements about reality are connected to atheism.
The atheist lives in a chaotic world where nothing has any regularity, even their own self (all is flux when we introspect, Hume and Nietzsche agreed). Kant’s response to Hume was partly to establish some prior regularity to nature and human life, albeit not God exactly, because there is something inherently absurd in Hume’s position—yet perhaps Kant was just philosophising, and we cannot say he was a philosopher.
So I think what underlies the view put forward by Vidal and Dover—a view used in many areas, not just as regards sexual morality—is a position at least as old as Hume, a position tied up to an atheistic and atomistic outlook. Postmodernism might be amenable to such linguistic games, but it is not causative—the cause goes way, way back (probably to ancient Greece, just like all philosophical ideas and conundrums).
Well, very clever—but come on, it is called “Greek love” after all. Are you actually telling me there was no such thing as boy-love in ancient Athens, are you mental or what? Look at those elder men with their “beardless youths”—you’ve turned into some deluded Victorian scholar who turns red and says, “I don’t see anything unnatural in Greece at all.” I don’t want to play the left’s game, to say “it was all too varied and heterogeneous to generalise”, so this is my view: in some Greek city-states homosexuality was completely outlawed; and per Lysistrata it was never a widely accepted norm (conforms to the nature of biology)—however, at various times and to various degrees homosexuality was tolerated, somewhat as it was tolerated at various times in the later West (except the Greeks were much more tolerant and have only been outdone in the last sixty years).
Even during times and places within ancient Greece where homosexuality was tolerated it was still treated with embarrassment. In court records from Athens, when a man was tried for homosexual prostitution he was ashamed when the specific words for homosexual sex were used (though not for the equivalents as regards heterosexual sex)—and this shows, in line with Lysistrata and biological common sense, that while homosexuality was tolerated and not seen as an absolute crime (as, say, in medieval Europe) it was regarded as socially negative (somewhat like picking your nose).
Further, if a man prostituted himself homosexually and then addressed the Athenian assembly or held office he was liable for the death penalty. The Greeks disdained all sexual exuberance—whether heterosexual or homosexual—and lauded continence (as has always been normal). So Greek attitudes to homosexuality, even when it was tolerated, were never like today’s sexual free-for-all (supposedly underpinned by ancient Greek tolerance). Indeed, the word hybris originally referred to “an assault on the body, particularly sexual”: the hybrisitic person forced himself on another without their consent and so damaged them—Putin in the Ukraine is precisely hybristic in both the modern and the ancient sense.
Sexual incontinence was regarded by the Greeks as hybris—and this has been hidden by pernicious scholars, such as Dover, who fiddle with translations, substituting “undesirable and desirable” for “good and evil” and so pretending that Greek morality was totally different from ours. Newsflash: if you call an act “undesirable” or “evil” it amounts to about the same thing—only a pedant would argue that somehow the act’s nature has been fundamentally changed, as these malicious scholars do. The Greeks would have been appalled that homosexuals in the contemporary world should not take a wife—so ending their line, the ultimate Greek misfortune—and instead engage in promiscuous sex.
It is true that there was a special space for a man to take on a beardless youth whom he would guide and care for and who would always submit to his affections passively—with it being seen as immoral to submit passively once you “got your beard”. These relations often involved intracrural sex, not anal penetration or fellatio—basically, rubbing the penis between the legs, often when facing each other (no homo). This all took place within a context where there was an elaborate dance, gifts and flirtations before the boy finally submitted to his “master”; it was quite different from what is meant by “gay liberation” and took place in a context where men where expected to spend their days in the gymnasium and where, especially in Athens, as in contemporary Afghanistan, women were in purdah. These relationships—which were not “the norm”—were very much related to the strong crushes that develop in all-male boarding schools, prison homosexuality, and in the army; in other words, in unnatural environments where some, not all, men can be bent due to the complete absence of women.
The whole romance between the elder and younger boy was also ambiguous because, as is often pointed out, the romantic dance between the two males involved gifts, such as hares and deers, to facilitate the relationship. Given that homosexual prostitution effectively prohibited participation in the affairs of the city on pain of death, and given that to participate in politics was what made you “a man” in ancient Greece, it is obvious that these relationships skirted the boundary between flirtation and prostitution—and it seems that many times the youths were effectively bribed to take part in the relationship, i.e. they were induced to prostitute themselves and so effectively gave up their right to participate in the polis. So it is not even clear that this “man-boy” love was entirely neutral and approved, although it was certainly tolerated at various times.
In conclusion, the Greeks were more like us than not: as with remote tribes in the Amazon, there is no evidence of homosexuality in the earliest and most barbaric Greek times—homosexuality rises to prominence with civilisation and decadence. The Greeks were generally tolerant as regards homosexuality, but it was never a norm or equivalent to heterosexuality—there was never a “golden age” when people swapped between the sexes with ease; it was regarded, even by its practitioners, with some embarrassment and shame.
The penalties for homosexual prostitution—with much of what goes on in the contemporary sexual market place being de facto prostitution—was to be frozen from political activities on pain of death. The Greek ideal was to be sexually continent and raise a family—i.e. exactly the same as today, apart from the “sexual liberation” fanatics. In general, the ideas around “Greek love” exaggerate a real tolerance that existed at various times and places and rest on a specious metaphysic combined with tendentious approaches to the evidence, as if I said Cum Vixens XII represents normal American romance as discussed at the nation’s dinner tables (though today, maybe it does).
A final note, Kenneth Dover (surely it should have been “Ben Dover”, not “Ken Dover”), the academic who did most to push the notion “homosexual acts, not homosexuality” as regards ancient Greece in the 1970s and popularised many views prevalent about “Greek love” today, pushed a colleague at his university to suicide because he thought his mental instability damaged the college’s image. He basically ignored him, refused to liaise with doctors about him, and piled on the pressure so that the man would almost certainly collapse and kill himself (as he did). About a decade later, Dover impudently wrote up what he had done in his memoirs—interestingly, he was among the first non-clerical people to be appointed to a senior position in his college. I think this is relevant, just so you know what the scholars who promote the idea that ancient views as regards homosexuality were isomorphic with contemporary progressivism are like in actuality—basically evil. Then again, as Dover himself wrote, “good and evil” are words we can do without…