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Table of Contents > Chapter 2. Greek Historical Texts

Chapter Two. Greek Historical Texts

This chapter brings together texts from a variety of sources and dates -- some historiographical, some biographical, some anecdotal, some from treatises of political theory, some from inscriptions, both official and unofficial. Some texts, such as Plutarch (c. 100 CE) and Aelian (c. 200 CE), are much later than the events they describe, and must be treated with appropriate caution, even though they are surely based on the work of earlier, now lost historians. But even fourth-century BCE historians such as Theopompus give highly colored and rhetorical narratives of contemporary events, and must also be approached with some measure of scepticism. Ancient historians were fond of illustrating points through moral examples, both positive and negative, and many of the anecdotes preserved here are of this character. Read as illustrations of the historian's own ideology (or those of his sources or audience), these stories have greater value than as records of historical fact.

One common story pattern relates to pederastic couples whose love and desire to impress one another led them to sacrifice themselves courageously in attempting to assassinate a tyrant (Text 2.2, Text 2.3, 2.21.602; cf. 5.7.182). The paradigm here, of course, is the Athenian story of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, whose actions were popularly supposed to have resulted in the overthrow of the Peisistratid tyrants in the late sixth century. However, Thucydides (Text 2.2) and Aristotle, Athenian Constitution 18.1-19.1, both offer consciously demythologizing accounts of the incident that demonstrate its relative unimportance in the ultimate overthrow of the tyranny; as Thucydides notes, Hippias' cruelty actually grew worse after the assassination of his brother. What is significant, therefore, is not the incident itself, but the fact that it was interpreted so widely to have a greater significance than it did: one can perhaps see reflected here an attempt by mainly upper-class enthusiasts of pederasty (whose sympathies might otherwise be suspected of being undemocratic) to contextualize their practices as integral with Athens' developing democratic constitution by granting pederasty a prominent place in Democracy's foundational mythology.

A variant of this story pattern is that of the lustful tyrant (Text 2.1, Text 2.3, Text 2.20; in Text 2.19 even the slave of a tyrant assumes this role) whose outrages may trigger vengeance. In some stories (Text 2.7, Phalaris in 2.21.602 or Alexander in 2.21.603), a despot is softened by seeing the devotion of a pederastic couple. Xenophon composed an interesting dialogue involving the tyrant Hieron of Syracuse (Text 2.4), who complains that a tyrant's life is unhappy because he cannot be loved in return. Xenophon's Agesilaus (2.9) presents a portrait of the ideal ruler as one who may feel attraction to a boy, but restrains himself from any physical expression. This paradigm is consistent with the negative view of physical love among males suggested in Xenophon's philosophical works (5.1-3, 5.8). Menon the Thessalian (Text 2.6) and the Median relative of Cyrus (Text 2.8) are clear examples of men who cannot restrain themselves.

The Spartan king Agesilaus is a model of the qualities of self-discipline that are admired in Spartan culture as a whole: applied to pederasty, this takes the form of man-boy relationships that abstain from any sexual contact (Text 2.10-Text 2.13). Plutarch (Text 2.12) reveals that these relationships began at the age of twelve and were part of a generalized sense of communal responsibility in raising children; in 2.13 he tells us that similar relationships existed between women and girls. Aelian (Text 2.11) informs us that Spartan boys were not haughty toward lovers like boys in Athens and other places, because they needed lovers to "inspire" them (literally "breathe virtue into" them); see also 6.10.13. Some scholars have interpreted this term as possible evidence for an earlier form of Dorian pederasty that was physical and involved "anal insemination" of a warrior's courage and moral qualities.

In historical times, such may have been the practice among the Boeotians, who unquestionably did practice physical love (2.10.12, 5.7.182). 2.14 tells of the Sacred Band, an elite military unit Plutarch believes to have been formed out of pederastic couples, on the assumption that love impels men to courageous acts in the presence of their partner.

The Cretans are often credited with the invention of pederasty (Text 2.15, 2.21.602, 5.10). Aristotle (Text 2.15) speculates that it was to limit the size of families and thus prevent overpopulation. Ephorus (Text 2.16) describes an interesting ritual of pederastic abduction that is peculiar to Crete; many scholars have interpreted this procedure as an initiatory rite of passage into adulthood and regard it as a practice of great antiquity. Crete was often imagined as an origin for Greek practices and beliefs, since even Greeks of the historical period recognized that the island hosted an advanced culture far older than any on the mainland. Indeed, artistic evidence (Fig. 1) suggests that Minoan culture of the second millenium BCE did feature some form of pederasty, particularly in military contexts; Fig. 2 suggests that the same institution existed in Crete of the seventh century.

Some texts also give insight into boy love as practiced by non-Greeks: it is attributed to Persians, who supposedly learned it from the Greeks, and even some Gallic tribes (Text 2.8, 2.21.603).

Ion of Chios' and Hieronymus of Rhodes' anecdotes about the tragedian Sophocles' flirtations with boys (2.21.603-4) give us a vivid portrait of such encounters as they occurred in Greek life. Similarly, Plutarch's account of Alcibiades' youth (Text 2.5), which is not wholly unsympathetic, gives an idea of how much lovers were willing to endure at the hands of a proud and beautiful youth who embodied the crème de la crème of Athenian aristocracy.

Also providing insight into the realia of Greek life are a number of graffiti from different periods and locations. Among the earliest are seventh/sixth century inscriptions from the island of Thera (Text 2.22). Two of these (2.22.537a, 538b), both written by the same man, proclaim a sexual conquest on the spot, but most are not so explicit. Several praise boys for their dancing. This emphasis, together with the proximity of the graffiti to a temple of Apollo, raises the possibility that the relationships commemorated here were part of a ritualized initiation that involved musical or choral training. The graffiti from other locales are also laudatory, not sexually explicit: epithets include "beautiful, sweet, ripe, wild, gracious, refined, elegant in figure and bearing, a delight to speak to, gold, silver." Two graffiti (2.22.549, 2.23.924) are interesting in that they seem to have been written by beloved boys themselves, although we cannot discount the possibility that they were written by lovers in the persona of their boy-friend. Some acclamatory graffiti at Nemea (Text 2.25) are significant in virtue of their location in a tunnel leading into the stadium: it was apparently a practice of some men to carve the names of their favorite boy athletes into stone to preserve them for posterity in a visible and prominent location frequented by visitors from all over Greece. One does sometimes find inscribed on Athenian vases as early as the second quarter of the seventh century sexually explicit boasts or slanders against boys (Text 2.27), but these are far less common than the usual laudatory formula ". . . is beautiful."

Finally, a Hellenistic law was engraved in stone in the Macedonian town of Beroea (Text 2.28) regulating qualifications for entry into the public gymnasium and stipulating that young men are to be kept away from boys. This law may represent a legislative attempt to protect boys from corrupting influences, but it could also be simply a set of organizational rules dividing the young into age classes and maintaining a certain country-club exclusivity for the institution of the gymnasium.
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.