BMCR 2008.07.20

The Greeks and Greek Love: A Radical Reappraisal of Homosexuality in Ancient Greece

, The Greeks and Greek love : a radical reappraisal of homosexuality in Ancient Greece. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007. xvi, 634 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780297819974. $42.00.

As the subtitle of this text indicates, Davidson questions how ancient Greek homosexuality has been approached in recent scholarship, and seeks to reinterpret the evidence from the primary sources in order to clarify issues under current debate. As such, this text represents a shift that is underway regarding the study of Greek homosexuality that originally took its cue from scholars like Dover and Foucault.1 Davidson’s main objections to their work has to do with their preoccupation with homosexual acts (particularly regarding anal sex), the correlation of these sexual acts with a discourse on domination, and the assertion that the word “homosexuality” does not reflect a historical reality that was true of the Greeks. Davidson’s text builds on topics that he broached in his Courtesans and Fishcakes.2 Like the latter book (which was a reworking of his Oxford doctoral dissertation), Davidson’s new book is popular enough in its orientation that it may not appeal to a scholarly readership. Nevertheless, Davidson does bring his scholarly talents to his inquiry on Greek homosexuality and, as a result, he has made a significant contribution to this area.

In his “Introduction,” Davidson uses the metaphor of the Gordian knot to address the various attempts at working through the complexity of Greek homosexuality. As the story goes, Alexander cut right through the knot in one fell swoop, but Davidson asserts that the careful student of Greek love will not follow this approach, but will rather give attention to the various strands that form an accurate account of the topic. The Greeks themselves understood the complexity involved in a discourse about love, and so students of Greek homosexuality should always be attuned to the context, to what Davidson has called the “Greekness” (p. 7) of Greek love.

It is precisely at this point of focusing on the historical context of the Greeks that part of the controversy regarding contemporary treatments of Greek homosexuality resides, since it may be historically anachronistic to refer to Greek sexual behavior using the word “homosexual.” Davidson takes this criticism head on in Part I, entitled “The Greeks Had Words for It” (pp. 11-100). Laying the foundations for what will become an extensive treatment of Greek myth in Part III, in this section Davidson looks briefly at characterizations of the god Eros himself and analyzes the word “eros” across various ancient sources (e. g., Pausanias, Plato, Thucydides). A study of the Greek vocabulary of love and desire ( agape, philia, himeros, pothos, epithumia) is the starting point of his analysis of the kind of relationships implied in the use of such terminology. Although he is hesitant to find sex as an overarching concern when discussing eros, Davidson seeks to clarify the role and status of homosexual participants, specifically focusing upon the male age classes in Greek society and the expectation for propriety based upon the age of lovers.

Part II “Sodomania” (pp. 101-168) expands upon Davidson’s aversion to how “modern work on ancient Greek culture is remarkably obsessed with the ins and outs of homosexual sex acts” (p. 101). In particular, he rejects notions that Greek homosexuality was primarily concerned with penetration, and ultimately, the assertion of power. Davidson finds in this scholarly preoccupation with sex an underlying (sometimes explicit) homophobic tendency. If Greek homosexuality is merely about which sex acts are performed and in what position they occur, then the actual relational elements of Greek love can be marginalized. The fact that contemporary scholars today may not be able to recognize much else than the discussion of sex in Greek homosexual relationships, shows to what extent Dover’s influence has been felt. Usually, there is no question about what kind of significant relationship may exist for a heterosexual couple beyond sex acts, and so when scholars cannot see the same correlation within discussions of homosexuality, it seems fair to detect a possible underlying homophobia (cf. Davidson’s section “The politics of ‘It’s only sex'” p. 131-132). Such a point has additional relevance for Davidson’s discussion of Greek homosexual marriage (see his section “Syzygies,” pp. 381-388).

As noted above, Part III “Greek Love and Greek Religion” (pp. 169-254) is a discussion of homosexuality in Greek myth, particularly of the rapturous sort. Davidson charts the transformation of the myth of Ganymede over the years as Zeus’s beloved boy by examining Homer and depictions in vase painting and sculpture. Thereafter, he considers the mythic context of Plato’s Phaedrus as it relates to the erotic winged ecstasy of Ganymede. Davidson also considers the poetic retelling of the myth of Pelops by Pindar, which plays off of the myth of Ganymede, and the ritualized seizure of Hyacinthus.

From the context of myth, in Part IV, “Men of War” (pp. 255-390), Davidson examines the link between war and Greek homosexuality. The mythic overtones in the martial world of the Greeks come across in Homer’s depiction of Achilles’ love for Patroclus. The Iliad itself, he argues, provides the basis for affirming the sexual nature of the relationship between the two heroes. The mourning of Achilles for Patroclus (23.135-151) conveys his homoerotic bond with him. Thetis attempts to console her son by telling him that sex with females is also good, given that Achilles has been “tossing and turning and longing for Patroclus’s menos” (p. 258). While the standard meaning of menos in Homeric Greek is “courage or mettle” (p. 258), Davidson notes that there are Archaic sources where the word “unequivocally” means semen.3 In Homer’s correlation between the myth of Meleager and Cleopatra, Davidson believes that a form of homosexual marriage existed between Achilles and Patroclus (p. 259). Achilles and Patroclus are not the only homosexual warriors. Heracles is helped out in more ways than one by his relationship with Iolaus. Nevertheless, it should be emphasized again that for Davidson the actual element of sex is not central to the homosexual relationship.

Greek homosexuality was also a major facet of the consciousness of the historical warriors of Crete and Sparta, given that within these Greek communities, Greek homosexuality was systematized in rituals of initiation, which included military conditioning. The literary evidence (such as we find in Ephorus) is not entirely clear about all the aspects of the ritual or even specifically into what a boy was being initiated, and so Davidson acknowledges the potential for controversy, but it seems to point to an abduction ceremony that involved the public expression of two men being joined together. Here again the sexual aspect (or lack thereof) comes to the fore when considering how the Spartans would consummate this relationship: “The boy as always is wrapped up in a cloak. There is an embrace and the two lie down together, doing everything but the deed itself, but with no touching of bodies, and preservative cloaks always between” (p. 332). Beyond the Cretans and Spartans, erotic associations can also be found in the sacred military bands of Elis and Thebes. Davidson also takes into consideration that Philip II of Macedon found no shame in this homosexual Theban contingent which he defeated, which may be due to his experience of being a hostage at Thebes, and his own apparent homoerotic proclivities. Completing his picture of warrior lovers and the reference to Philip II of Macedon, Davidson also discusses the homosexuality of Alexander the Great.

Moving away from the erotic world of the military bands, in Part V, “Eros Off Duty” (pp. 391-465), Davidson contemplates the more relaxed and leisurely environment of poetry and the symposium. Drawing attention to the art of the Tomb of the Diver, which shows men enjoying the delights of sympotic life, Davidson describes the world depicted there as one of beauty, song, and love. It is in such a world that ancient Greek poets sang of the powerful effects of eros. Though ancient Greek poetry typically expresses male homoeroticism, Davidson includes the fact that female homoeroticism comes to pure expression in the poetry of Sappho, who “in the female gender conforms beautifully to the pattern of Greek Love or, more specifically, Athenian Love, which we know from so many examples in the male gender” (p. 406). Though her poetry was written in the Archaic period, Davidson sees in Sappho’s language and metaphors the kind of formal and public homosexual relationships that existed among male lovers in the classical Athenian context represented by Plato, Aeschines, and Xenophon.

The most valuable part of the whole of Davidson’s sprawling text is the “Conclusion” (pp. 466-516). He returns again to the pertinent analogy of the Gordian knot, finding in it the implications for the study of Greek homosexuality: “A full investigation of ‘the Greek custom’ and all its ramifications would not merely take at least a lifetime…in the end it would resemble something not very far from a full-scale social, cultural and political history of that loose cultural federation of polities that we call ‘ancient Greece'” (p. 466). In this final portion we find a concision that is not typically characteristic of the rest of the book, and it pays high dividends in the end for reading. Because of this, the conclusion is probably the best (and most practical) place to start reading this text. Whatever may spark the interest of the reader in the Conclusion, one can find a more elaborate, although not always more helpful, discussion in the relevant chapters in the text.

The most obvious strength of Davidson’s work is his intimate familiarity with a whole range of primary sources, which he sometimes uses in deft ways to make his points. However, it also in this respect that many people reading his text may take exception to perceived interpretive liberties that Davidson entertains while explaining the meaning of a primary source (Davidson’s treatment of menos mentioned above, would undoubtedly by a case in point, since Homer’s contemporaries may not have caught the slang connotation). Furthermore, on several occasions Davidson uses language that is not always particularly nuanced; yet it is frequently witty, often cheeky, and consistently engaging, such as: “If the liberation of sex from the perceived trammels of Victorian prudishness really was a kind of religious movement as Foucault claimed, Kenneth Dover is its Grand Ayatollah” (p. 107). In addition, in the middle of key points, Davidson is given to long forays into matters that have a loose bearing upon the actual topic under consideration, causing some sections to swell beyond their banks, resulting in the rather large size of the text itself (for example, Davidson’s discussion of 20th century social-anthropology, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the Girl from Ipanema).

More work must be done in the area of Greek homosexuality, particularly as more scholars move to modify or reject the theories of Dover and Foucault. The necessity for doing so is laid out strongly by Davidson throughout by highlighting Foucault’s acknowledged reliance upon Dover for his own work on sexuality and power (which was part of Foucault’s larger philosophical approach). As Davidson illustrates from Dover’s own writings, despite his reputation as a classicist, Dover did not always rely solely upon ancient Greek sources for his insights. Davidson’s contribution is a notable milestone along the way in that he seeks to keep the dialogue focused upon the context of the texts themselves.


1. Kenneth J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989); Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality, vol. 2, trans. Robert Hurley (Vintage: New York, 1986).

2. James Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens. (New York: Harper Perennial 1999).

3. Archilochus fr. 196a.52 and Solon fr. 9.1.