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Table of Contents > Chapter 1. Archaic Greek Lyric: Introductory Matter.

Chapter One. Archaic Greek Lyric
Homoerotic themes abound in Greek lyric poetry from the 7th to the early 5th centuries BCE, and this material provides our earliest literary evidence. As with all literary and artistic works, one must take into account that the texts are not a direct transcription of social realities, but idealized projections. Nevertheless, they do reflect an aristocratic culture in which homosexual relations were at home in the symposium, athletics, and even civic/religious ritual.
The earliest surviving lyric poet is Archilochus, active on the islands of Paros and Thasos in the first half of the 7th century BCE. Although he actually wrote in a variety of meters, he is usually called an "iambic" poet, because that meter was especially associated with the harsh satire and invective for which he is best known. Archilochus' poetic persona presumes to represent the grumblings of the common man against the wealthy and powerful; his attacks on practitioners of same-gender love (Text 1.1, Text 1.2, Text 1.3) should perhaps be understood in this context.
Alcman was a choral poet of the late 7th century BCE, active in Sparta, which at that time may have been a very different society from the austere, rigidly disciplined military state known in later Greek history. He was most famous for his "maidens' songs." A papyrus preserves a large portion of one (Text 1.4): the style appears obscure, allusive, and gossipy. The poem aims to give the impression of having been composed for a one-time performance by a particular group of girls, but the names could be ritual pseudonyms assumed by different performing choruses. Critics have not implausibly supposed the performance to be part of a female initiation ceremony or cult, perhaps celebrating a union of the two most prominently featured girls, Hagesichora and Agido. A marital context may also be indicated by the narration of a Spartan myth about Castor and Polydeuces' quest to marry the daughters of Leucippus. If the initiatory interpretation of this complex poem is correct, it could provide evidence for lesbian unions as a ritualized preparation of adolescent girls for later heterosexual marriage. In this case, the girls seem to be age equals.
This type of ceremonial initiation in advance of marriage may also provide the context for the nearly contemporary poems by Sappho of Lesbos, many of which treat female homoeroticism in explicit terms. Some of her poems seem to have been choral wedding hymns celebrating heterosexual marriage, often in a bawdy and suggestive way (Text 1.8, Text 1.21, Text 1.22, Text 1.24); others explore a young girl's feelings over the loss of virginity (Text 1.18, Text 1.19, Text 1.20, Text 1.23). Sappho certainly did not view herself as offering an alternative to heterosexual marriage; she was herself married and had a daughter named Cleis. The poems seem resigned to the inevitability of the women being separated, no matter how great their love (see especially Text 1.9, Text 1.16, Text 1.17); but a bond of sweet memories of pleasant times spent together will continue to unite them (Text 1.13, Text 1.14, Text 1.16, Text 1.17Text ). Text 1.14 identifies Sappho's relationship quite clearly as one with a young girl; Text 1.5 implies that Sappho's young beloved is someone who has not yet learned what it is like to be a pursuing agent in a love relationship, but who soon will. These female relationships therefore seem to conform to the same age-differential pattern as was common with male pederasty.
Some critics see the context of Sappho's social circle as musical and educational rather than initiatory; several older critics even went so far as to deny any physical involvement with the girls she addresses. One recent critic has speculated that there existed a society of female symposia on archaic Lesbos similar to male drinking parties, but there is no convincing parallel for such an institution anywhere in Greece. Wine and banquet imagery play comparatively little role in Sappho's poetry. The world she evokes is rather one of outdoor freedom amid the splendor and sensual delights of an open and bountiful Nature. In this realm her sensibilities and fineness of expression excel those of any male counterpart.
Anacreon and Ibycus were both associated with the court of Polycrates, the tyrant who ruled Samos from about 535-22 BCE and was an illustrious patron of the arts. Anacreon's poems (Text 1.29-34) tend to be witty and epigrammatic. Ibycus' work (Text 1.35-36) at its best can be richly sensuous and lyrical. Testimonia tell us that he also wrote narrative poems telling of the mythological loves of Zeus for Ganymede and Talus for Rhadamanthys (frr. 289, 309 PMG). Like Sappho, both poets stress the lover's sense of helplessness and lack of self-control.
The same theme is featured in Theognis' many epigrams addressed to the boy Cyrnus. The Theognid collection (Text 1.37-1.83) is one of our most extensive samples of Greek lyric, indeed the only one, aside from Pindar's odes for athletes, to survive as an actual manuscript, rather than as fragmentary papyri or quotations preserved by other authors. However, it is considered by many critics not to be the work of a single poet, but to represent several generations of wisdom poetry gathered together at Megara and attributed to the name of "Theognis," who may or may not have been an actual poet of the sixth century BCE. What can be said about this corpus of poetry is that it presents a unified persona and set of attitudes, particularly in regard to the pederastic theme: cynical, quarrelsome, resentful, ever ready to accuse, but nevertheless helplessly devoted. Most of the poems in the corpus are not specifically amatory, but are social, political, or ethical precepts transmitted to Cyrnus as part of his formation into an adult Megarian aristocrat in Theognis' own image. Theognis' ever-gnawing suspicion of Cyrnus' promiscuous flirtations with less worthy men may function as an allegory for his anxiety that the Megarian body politic has deserted aristocrats like himself in favor of an endless succession of "new men," whose wealth is based on trade and commerce. The pederastic, pedagogical, and political levels are all mutually imbricated in this collection.
From Simonides of Ceos (556-468 BCE) we have an intriguing new fragment (Text 1.84) in which he imagines himself, possibly in the afterlife, in the embraces of the fair young Thessalian prince Echecratidas. That pederastic motifs could be employed without embarrassment in praise of the rich and mighty is also suggested by a fragment of Ibycus (fr. 282[a] PMG, not in this collection) in which the young Polycrates' physical beauty is praised and compared to that of the heroes at Troy. Pindar of Thebes (518-c.440 BCE) wrote as one of his earliest commissions a choral ode for the adolescent athlete Hippocleas (Text 1.86), in which he also praises the Thessalian prince Thorax, who was apparently the boy's lover and patron.
Even though he declares that pederastic poems written out of personal devotion to a boy are now passť (Isthmian 2.1-11), Pindar found ample opportunity to incorporate pederastic themes into his poetry. Admiration for the naked bodies of youthful athletes is a leitmotif throughout Pindar's encomiastic work. One of the most significant Pindaric texts is Text 1.87, a choral ode for Hieron, the ruler of Syracuse, which narrates the myth of Poseidon's love for the boy Pelops. The myth clearly exhibits an initiatory structure and significance: the boy's pederastic interlude with Poseidon is presented as enabling his later marriage to Hippodameia, and proves to be the critical transition between his childhood in Lydia and his claim to adult stature as a superior athletic competitor who can vanquish Hippodameia's cruel and tyrannical father.
To summarize, archaic Greek lyric generally describes age-differential pederastic relations, but there is also some evidence for relations or attractions among age-equal youths in Alcman (Text 1.4), Theognis (Text 1.41, Text 1.65), and Pindar (Text 1.86). Only one text seems unequivocally to describe attraction to a slave (Anacreon Text 1.29), but Anacreon's Cleobulus or Ibycus' Euryalus could also very well be slaves. Older lovers frequently describe themselves as at the mercy of their beloved or even captivated, but their disadvantage is sometimes counterbalanced by a warning that youth's glory is brief and time will soon put the beloved in a position like their own (Text 1.5, Text 1.41, Text 1.62, Text 1.63, Text 1.67). Significantly, we do find nascent in these poets a consciousness of sexual preference as something distinctive: different people take pleasure in different forms of activity, and boy love is not universal (Archilochus Text 1.1; Theognis Text 1.73, Text 1.77, Text 1.78; Pindar Text 1.85, Text 1.86).
This website makes available to the public the first two chapters of Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents, edited by Thomas K. Hubbard and published by University of California Press in April 2003. The index also lists the rest of the sourcebook's contents; the book may be ordered at www.ucpress.edu, list price $34.95 paperback. In addition, a file of close to 200 pertinent artistic images is assembled, including those published in the sourcebook and many others. Acknowledgement is made to University of California Press for permission to reproduce this material, as well as to the various museums that have granted permission to use their photographic images. Comments may be directed to Prof. Hubbard at tkh@mail.utexas.edu.