BMCR 2009.09.61

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

, Also Seen: The Greeks and Greek Love: A Radical Reappraisal of Homosexuality in Ancient Greece. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2007. v, 634. ISBN 0297819976 $42.00.

1 Responses

With full apologies for its lateness, my review is intended as a supplement to the review by Eric C. Brook (BMCR 2008.07.20) since I judged that in several critical areas Davidson’s book needed more discussion. Other reviews by classicists have appeared since early 2008: Catherine Edwards’s in the TLS of March 14, 2008, James Jope’s in the May-June 2008 issue of the Gay & Lesbian Review, and Thomas Hubbard’s in H-Histsex, February 2009. Hubbard’s review of Davidson, which accompanied his review of Eva Cantarella’s and Andrew Lear’s, Images of Pederasty: Boys Were Their Gods, is lengthy (9 pages), detailed and critical, and is highly recommended.

Given the length and detail of Hubbard’s review, I will mostly eschew criticism of detail and instead focus on five principal theses of Davidson’s book which justify the book’s claim to offer “a radical reappraisal of homosexuality in ancient Greece” but which, I think, stand in need of further comment. They are: 1) Greek pederasty involved primarily relationships between adult males and males in the their late teens (18+) and early twenties, not adolescent boys in their early to mid-teens; 2) in classical Athens, sexual acts between adult males and males younger than 18 were strictly prohibited by law; 3) there is good reason to think that biological puberty arrived considerably later for males in ancient Greece than in the modern West; 4) the highly institutionalized homoerotic bonding between adult and younger males in parts of Dorian Greece, cemented in certain locales (e.g. Crete) by peculiar rites of abduction, seclusion and gift-giving, must not be understood as having an initiatory function for the younger partner, thrusting him, as it were, into adulthood but as a genuine pair-bonding (syzygy) between the two—it might be understood, therefore, as a kind of marital union; 5) male-homoerotic themes and motifs are much more prevalent in Greek myth than is often supposed.

1. Davidson is right when he broadens the age-span represented by Greek eromenoi, who were not just adolescent boys in their early to mid-teens but could also be males whom we would rather call young men. He contends that that the recurring appearance of adolescent boys in homoerotic scenes painted on Greek vases must not be construed on the assumption of verisimilitude, for these are stylized, iconic scenes not intended to provide naturalistic portrayals of everyday reality. Here Davidson draws upon the aforementioned recent book on Greek pederasty by Andrew Lear and Eva Cantarella, (reviewed by Craig Williams in BMCR 2009.04.65), which offers detailed analyses of many homoerotic vase-paintings, arguing in many cases for stylization rather than detail-accurate naturalism. However, a hermeneutic assuming non-verisimilitude must not be taken too far.

A major corollary of Davidson’s raising of the upper age-limit of the eromenoi is that the age-difference between the older and younger partner could be a relatively minor one. Since Greek men tended to be marry late, not before their late twenties, the most typical adult Greek male who was homoerotically inclined and homosexually active was likely to be a youngish adult in his twenties. In addition, as Davidson himself recognizes and other scholars, including Hubbard, had already noted earlier, the iconographic, more than the literary, evidence suggests that a large proportion of homoerotic liaisons between males involved pre-adult coevals. However, Davidson is mistaken in removing adolescent boys from the sphere of acceptable objects of adult Greek male eros : such desire was fixated upon youthful, we might even say “boyish,” male beauty but not upon age—whether less than or more than 18 years, ( pace Strato’s well-known epigram in the Greek Anthology, 12.4). This is hardly alien to the valorization of male beauty in our culture where calling a male politician, actor or celebrity “boyishly handsome” is praise equal to “ruggedly handsome.”The retention of the word “pederasty,” with its long-standing Greek pedigree, although, unfortunately, now equated by the general public with “pedophilia,” seems therefore still justified.

2. Even more radical is Davidson’s thesis that in many Greek city-states, and most certainly in classical Athens, sexual acts involving adult and free-status males before the age of 18 were strictly prohibited by law. This claim cannot be supported by solid textual evidence, and Hubbard does well to refute it completely, in his demonstration, for instance, of Davidson’s faulty interpretation of Aeschines 1.139. I would add that the careful monitoring and chaperoning of adolescent boys of the elite classes in classical Athens by their families, as described by Pausanias in Plato’s Symposium, in order to make sure they would not sexually used by predatory erastai, does not, in any way, presuppose the severe legal strictures (which might even impose the death penalty) Davidson claimed were in force—just as the widespread control over the sexuality of girls and young women (especially from upper- and middle-class families) exercised by family and society in the western world until well into the second half of the twentieth century was not predicated on a high legal age of sexual consent for females. Additionally, we should take into account that the large slave population of classical Athens, and the large-scale prostitution that resulted from this provided any Athenian male who just wanted sex with boys all the convenient outlets he needed; he would need not to waste his time and resources on the elaborate, careful courting that was expected of him if the object of his desire was a free-status adolescent.

3. Equally startling is Davidson’s argument that puberty arrived much later for Greek boys than in modern societies. If true, this would provide a biological corroboration for thesis 1) and 2), but the evidence put forward, mostly cross-cultural and transhistorical, for what Davidson calls “The Great Puberty Shift,” (p. 20) which took place in the western world in the 19th and 20th centuries and lowered the start of puberty in boys from the mid- (and even the late teens) to the early teens, is scanty and unconvincing, to say the least. Davidson describes the gap in puberty age between ancient Greece and the modern west as follows: “[Before the great shift] facial hair would have to appear roughly around 18.5, not 14.5 years, and a ‘shaveable’ beard around 20.5 years.” (81) Thus, according to Davidson, it was not until he was in his 21st year that a Greek youth acquired the physical characteristics (marked by full facial hair, stature, and body mass) of an adult male. The various Greek nomenclatures we know of for the periodization of male childhood, youth, and adulthood are inexact and slippery, even when one factors in the phenomenon of age-classes—the detailed exposition of which is perhaps the most notable contribution to scholarship made by Davidson in this book—but nothing in all these classificatory schemes suggests an age-gap of approximately four years, as posited by Davidson, between Greek and modern male puberty. It is hard to believe that Athenian youths would have been enrolled as citizens and subjected to the rigors of military training as they entered ephebeia if at the age of eighteen they were just in the early phase of their puberty. Looking at another ancient Mediterranean society, with living conditions comparable to those of ancient Greece, we must consider the fact that in Rome citizen-boys nearly always assumed the toga virilis well before the age of 18, typically in the 14-16 age-range; again, it is difficult to believe that they would have done so before the start of puberty. I am prepared to admit an average age-gap of up to two years, but no more, between ancient Mediterranean and modern puberty for males and females alike.

4. Given his estimate that a large proportion, and perhaps even the majority of pederastic relationships involved males who were not far apart in age, and could even be coevals, Davidson is bound to reject the theory, propounded by Erich Bethe in the 1900s and revived at great length in the 1980s by Bernard Sergent, that the highly institutionalized homoerotic bonding between erastai and eromenoi in parts of Dorian Greece—which was cemented in some Cretan city-states by peculiar rites of abduction, seclusion and gift-giving—fulfilled a crucial initiatory function for the younger partner, enabling and marking his entry into male adulthood. Rather, according to Davidson, the purpose of the relationship in its most ideal form was viewed by the Greeks as creating “syzygy,” “pair-bonding,” the word being introduced by him in the title of chapter 13, “Syzygies.” Such close, passionate relationships were celebrated in numerous Greek myths and memorialized in Greek epic and art already at an early point of time so that their homoerotic coloring must not be understood as the work of late- archaic or classical Greek culture. Thus, for Davidson, as becomes already clear earlier in his book, the profound friendship between Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad is indeed deeply erotic : “The main reason why I think the Greeks of Homer’s time would read the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus in the same way that the classical Greeks would read it is because I think the phenomenon was already around in 700 B.C, and the main reason I think that is because it appears in so many different places in so many different forms with so many peculiar practices.” (299) One will appreciate that Davidson’s foregrounding of close pair-bonding, so vividly fabulized by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium, while it articulates Greek pederasty in what many persons, both past and present, would regard as its most sublime form, has the effect of removing from it much of the pedagogic rationale attached to it by canonical Greek authors such as Plato, Xenophon and Plutarch, by 19th century Hellenophiles such as Shelley, Symonds and Wilde, and even by some modern scholars (cf, for instance, William A. Percy’s 1996 book, Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece).

Is Davidson pressing male homoerotic “syzygy” as a precursor of today’s contested same-sex marriage, as Hubbard, and even more Jope, accuse him of doing? I’ll address this question in the concluding part of my review.

5. Nearly one-quarter of Davidson’s book—the three chapters in Part III, “Greek Love and Greek Religions,” and the first chapter in part IV, “Men of War—is devoted to male homoeroticism in Greek myth and religion. It is worth noting that in the title of part III only the word “religion” is used, rather misleadingly because these four chapters deal far more with myth than with religious-cultic practice, although in the discussion of some myths, e.g. the Hyacinthus myths, linkages between the two are made, if not always convincingly. A few introductory paragraphs or a section of theoretical exposition elucidating the possible connections—if any—between myth and cult would have been desirable. What is placed before the reader a little too often is a kaleidoscope of imaginative speculations insufficiently guided by a clear and consistent methodology. Hubbard indeed goes so far as to say, “One finds throughout The Greeks and Greek Love a lack of familiarity with even the most basic principles of myth interpretation. He ignores the diachronic evolution of literary and artistic variants, conflating details from sources that are centuries apart…” (6). To be fair, attention to “the diachronic evolution of literary and artistic variants” certainly informs Davidson ‘s handing of the myth of Ganymede, which takes up chapter 7, “Ganymede Rising.” Here he shows an admirable familiarity with the secondary scholarship, though rightly faulted by Hubbard elsewhere. My own final advice is: a careful reading of these chapters, accompanied by a judicious weighing of the primary and secondary sources cited in the end-notes, can be profitable to the expert classicist; I would be reluctant, though, to put these chapters before someone with little or no classical background without numerous caveats.

Concluding remarks : Both Hubbard and Jope charge Davidson with catering to contemporary sensibilities regarding such hot-button issues (especially, of course, in the United States) as sex with minors, same-sex marriage, and gays in the military, and thus creating an anachronistically sanitized and romanticized picture of male same-sex desire and love in the ancient Greek world. Davidson certainly does so most conspicuously with his unproven and implausible theory that, for adult males, sex with free-status minor boys, the paides, for which his almost invariable eccentric translation is the “under-Eighteens,” was strictly forbidden by law, thus removing the stain of pedophilia from ancient Greece and normalizing Greek pederasty, if not entirely, at least in the direction of a far more acceptable androphilia—although, starting in the 4th century B.C., as Davidson would have us believe (and is roundly taken to task for this by both Jope and Hubbard), the sexually restrained and non-meretricious pederasty of earlier times degenerated into “Homo-whorishness” (447). Even his severest critics must admit, though, that Davidson unfolds before us an ancient Greek culture so thoroughly permeated with male homoeroticism, at all levels of society and, as he maintains, not just in the elite classes—contra Hubbard’s important scholarship on this point (with which, unfortunately, he does not engage explicitly)—that it stands out, in this fundamental characteristic, as unique in antiquity and perhaps in all of known human societies. “The Greeks were always extraordinary but now they seem more extraordinary” (516), as he puts it in the second last sentence of his book. One might grant that, in thus de-marginalizing and re-valorizing Greek pederasty and situating it at the heart of Greek civilization, Davidson compensates to some degree for his tendency, often with the aid of questionable scholarship, to overmuch sanitize and romanticize it.