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Table of Contents > 2.21 Athenaeus

2.21: Athenaeus 13.601A-B, 601E-605D

Athenaeus, an author of the late second century CE, wrote a lengthy symposiastic work which assembles anecdotes and quotations from a variety of earlier sources. This section is part of a lengthy speech by Myrtilus, discussing famous boy lovers.

[601] Stesichorus,56 another man of strong passions, composed the particular kind of lyrics that were called "boy songs" and "boy love." No one used to despise those who had a passionate nature: love affairs were such an open and everyday matter that the great poet Aeschylus, and Sophocles too, put sexual themes on the stage in their tragedies, Aeschylus showing Achilles’ love for Patroclus, Sophocles love of the boys in Niobe (which is why some people call this play Paiderastria) –- and their audiences enjoyed such themes.57

. . . And many men, overall, prefer love with boys to love with females. In the very cities of Greece that have the best laws by comparison with others, this is the mode of behavior that is fashionable. The Cretans, as I told you, and the Chalcidians of Euboea, are both especially fond of love with boys. Notice that Echemenes in Cretan Studies says that it was not Zeus but Minos who stole Ganymede; while those Chalcidians, for their part, say that it was Zeus, but that Ganymede was stolen from their very own territory, and they can show you the place: they call it "The Stealing," and lots of myrtles grow there. Minos even gave up his enmity with the Athenians (though it had arisen from the death of his own son) once he fell in love with Theseus;58 he gave Theseus his daughter Phaedra to marry, so says Zenis or Zeneus of Chios in his book about Chios.

[602] Hieronymus the Aristotelian says that love with boys was fashionable because several tyrannies had been overturned by young men in their prime, joined together as comrades in mutual sympathy. In his boy-friend’s presence, a lover would go through any suffering rather than have the boy think him a coward. This was demonstrated in practice by the Sacred Band, formed by Epaminondas at Thebes;59 by the Peisistratid assassination, the work of Harmodius and Aristogeiton; and at Acragas in Sicily by the story of Chariton and Melanippus. Melanippus was the boy-friend, so says Heracleides of Pontus60 in On Love Affairs; the two were discovered to be plotting against Phalaris61 and were tortured to force them to name their accomplices. Not only did they refuse to speak: they made Phalaris so sorry for their sufferings that he released them with fulsome commendation. Apollo was pleased at this and consequently favoured Phalaris by postponing his death, stating this in his response to the persons who asked the Pythian oracle how they were to go about attacking Phalaris. Apollo also pronounced an oracle about Chariton and those who were with him, giving it the form of a pentameter followed by a hexameter (the same pattern that Dionysius of Athens, called "the Bronze," was afterwards to employ in his Elegies). This is the oracle:

Blessed were Chariton and Melanippus:
They showed mortals the way to a friendship that was divine.

The story about Cratinus of Athens is famous, too. He was a beautiful youngster at the time when Epimenides had to purify Athens of some ancient miasma63 and was to do so by means of human blood; whereupon he (Cratinus) volunteered himself on behalf of his homeland, so Neanthes of Cyzicus tells us in On Initiations II. After him his lover Aristodemus also accepted death, and thus the pollution was cleansed. Because of affairs like these, the tyrants, under threat from such conspiracies, made love affairs with boys totally illegal and put a stop to them wherever they were found. Some even burned and demolished the gymnasia, regarding them as siege-works that threatened their own fortresses: Polycrates, tyrant of the Samians, did precisely this.

Among the citizens of Sparta – so says Hagnon the Platonist – it is customary for men to keep company with64 unmarried girls in the same way that they do with boys elsewhere.
Now it was the lawgiver Solon who said:

. . . sighing for thighs and for sweet lips.
Aeschylus and Sophocles were likewise explicit. In The Myrmidons Aeschylus said:
You abjured the holy sacrament of the thighs!
You spurned a profusion of kisses!65
Sophocles in Women of Colchis said of Ganymede that he
. . . lit the fire of tyrant Zeus with his thighs.
-- And, yes, I know Polemon the Traveller66 says in Refutations of Neanthes that the story of Cratinus and Aristodemus is all made up. As for you, Cynulcus,67 you may well think these tales are fiction, but you use them as if they were true. Everything that there is in these poems about the love of boys you yourself do quietly at home! -- But the people who first introduced pederasty to Greece were the Cretans, so Timaeus68 tells us. Others say that Laius was the first pederast: he was Pelops’ guest, fell in love with Pelops’ son Chrysippus, [603] kidnapped the boy, put him in his chariot and escaped to Thebes; but Praxilla of Sicyon69 says that Chrysippus’ kidnapper was Zeus.
Among other peoples the Celts, in spite of the fact that their women are very beautiful, prefer boys as sexual partners. There are some of them who will regularly go to bed – on those animal skins of theirs – with a pair of lovers.70 The Persians also have sex with boys, but they learnt it from the Greeks, Herodotus says.71
King Alexander, too, was quite excessively keen on boys: according to Dicaearchus72 in On the Sacrifice at Troy, he was so taken with the eunuch Bagoas that under the eyes of the whole theater he bent over to give him a kiss, and when the audience shouted and applauded, he very willingly bent over and kissed him again. Charon of Chalcis – so says Carystius in Historical Notes – had a beautiful boy who was devoted to him. Alexander remarked on his beauty during a drinking bout hosted by Craterus. Charon told his boy to give Alexander a kiss. "No!" said the king. "That would pain you more than it would please me." Although he was a passionate man, Alexander was also self-controlled as regards decency and propriety: when he had captured Dareius’ daughters and wife (who was quite admirably beautiful), not only did he not have sex with them, he arranged that they should not even learn that they were captives, giving the order that they should continue to be attended just as if Dareius still ruled. That was why Dareius, when he learned of this, stretched out his hands to the Sun in prayer that either he or Alexander should be king.

Rhadamanthys the Just, says Ibycus, had Talos as his lover.73 Diotimus says in the Heracleia that Heracles had made Eurystheus74 his boy friend and that was why he performed his Labours. There is a myth that Agamemnon had Argynnus as his lover, having seen him swimming in the Cephisus, and then he drowned in it (he bathed in it often, evidently) and Agamemnon buried him and raised a shrine there to Aphrodite Argynnis. Licymnius of Chios says in his Dithyrambs that Argynnus’s lover was Hymenaeus. King Antigonus76 was lover of the citharode Aristocles, on whom Antigonus of Carystus, in the Life of Zeno, writes as follows:
King Antigonus used to go serenading with Zeno. He once emerged from a drinking bout at dawn, hurried to Zeno’s and urged him to join in serenading the citharode Aristocles, whom the king loved passionately.

Sophocles was as much a lover of young boys as Euripides was a lover of women. The poet Ion of Chios77 writes thus in his book Encounters.

The poet Sophocles I met at Chios when, as general, he was bound for Lesbos78: a playful man, when in wine, and clever. Hermesileus, his own friend and the consular representative of Athens, was hosting him, when there beside the fire, ready to pour out his wine, was a boy . . .79 of course, and he said, "Do you want me to like my wine?," and the boy said yes. "Then hand me the cup slowly, and take it from me slowly." The boy was now blushing more and more, and Sophocles said to his neighbor, "Phrynichus put it so beautifully! [604] 'Shines on his crimson cheeks the light of love.'"80 Whereupon the other, an Eretrian schoolmaster or else an Erythraean, replied, "Yes, you are learned in poetry, Sophocles, but all the same Phrynichus was wrong to call a beautiful boy’s cheeks crimson. If the painter smeared this boy’s cheeks with crimson, he would no longer seem beautiful. It’s quite wrong to compare beauty with what is not beautiful." Sophocles laughed at this Eretrian: "Don’t you like that line of Simonides, either, sir? 'From crimson lips the virgin’s voice was raised' – yet the Greeks all think it’s quite right! or the poet who spoke of 'golden-haired Apollo,'81 although if a painter painted Apollo’s hair gold and not black, so much the worse for the painting; or the poet of rosy-fingered82, because if you dip your fingers into rose-coloured paint you have the hands of a crimson-dyer, not those of a beautiful woman." They laughed, and the Eretrian was put out of countenance by this retort; Sophocles took up his conversation with the boy again. He was trying to get a bit of straw out of the wine-cup with his little finger. "Do you see the bit of straw?," asked Sophocles, and the boy said he saw it. "Don’t dip your finger in, then," he said. "Just blow it away instead." Then, as the boy’s face approached the cup, Sophocles brought the cup nearer to his own lips, so that their two heads would be closer; and when they were very close, he put his arm around him and kissed him. There was applause, with laughter and shouts, at how well he had managed the boy, and Sophocles said, "I am practising strategy, gentlemen. Pericles said that I knew how to make poetry, but not how to be a strategist. This stratagem fell out 'just right' for me, didn’t it?"83 His conversation over wine, and his behavior in daily life, were full of such clever turns; in politics, though, he was no more wise and no more effective than any other respectable Athenian.

Hieronymus of Rhodes84, in Historical Notes, says that Sophocles induced a good-looking boy to come outside the city walls to have sex with him:

This boy laid his own cloak on the ground under them, and they wrapped themselves in Sophocles’ cape. After the act the boy snatched Sophocles’ cape and went off leaving Sophocles his own boyish cloak. The incident was widely reported. Euripides heard of it and made a joke out of it, saying that he had had that boy too and it did not cost him anything; Sophocles had let himself go and had paid with ridicule. When Sophocles heard that, he composed an epigram against Euripides in the following sense, alluding to the story of the North Wind and the Sun, and at the same time satirising Euripides’ adulteries: It was the Sun, and not a boy, whose heat stripped me naked;

As for you, Euripides, when you were kissing someone else’s wife
The North Wind screwed you. You are unwise, you who sow
In another’s field, to accuse Eros of being a snatch-thief.

Theopompus in his On the Wealth Pillaged From Delphi says [605] that Asopichus, the boy friend of Epaminondas,85 had the trophy at Leuctra depicted on his shield, that he came through astonishing perils, and that the shield had been laid in the Stoa at Delphi. In the same essay Theopompus says that Phayllus, tyrant of the Phocians, was a woman-lover and Onomarchus86 a boy-lover: that when the son of Pythodorus of Sicyon, a beautiful boy, came to Delphi to cut off his long hair,87 Onomarchus had sex with him and gave him four gold strigils,88 which were temple offerings of the people of Sybaris; and that Phayllus gave Deiniades’ flute-girl, Bromias, a silver karkhesion89 belonging to the Phocians and a gold ivy-wreath belonging to the Peparethians. Theopompus says:

This same girl was going to play the flute at the Pythia, but the mob put a stop to it. To Physcidas, son of Lycolas of Tricholeum, a beautiful boy, Onomarchus gave a gold bay wreath, a temple offering of the Ephesians; this same boy, taken to Philip’s court by his father and prostituted there, was sent away without any presents. To Damippus, a beautiful boy, son of Epilycus of Amphipolis, Onomarchus gave a temple offering dedicated by Pleisthenes. To Pharsalia, the Thessalian dancing-girl, Philomelus gave a gold bay wreath, a temple offering of the Lampsacenes. This same girl Pharsalia was killed in Metapontium by the fortune-tellers in the market place, because of a voice that came out of the bronze bay-tree that the Metapontines had set up when Aristeas of Proconnesus visited them and said that he had come from the people beyond the North Wind. As soon as they saw her entering the market place the fortune-tellers became mad, and tore her to pieces. When the reason for this was afterwards investigated, it was determined that her death was due to the wreath, the property of a god.90
And so, you philosophers who disgrace the goddess Aphrodite by using her91 unnaturally, take care that you are not destroyed in the same way. Clearchus92 tells us:

"Boys are beautiful only during the period when they resemble a woman," the courtesan Glycera used to say.
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.