BMCR 2009.11.03

Response: Davidson on Verstraete on Davidson, The Greeks and Greek Love: A Radical Reappraisal of Homosexuality in Ancient Greece

Response to 2009.09.61

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Editors’ Note

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Response by James Davidson

In the overture to his review of my book lately drawn to my attention, Beert Verstraete directs BMCR’s readers to another review of my book by Thomas Hubbard as “highly recommended”. Verstraete helpfully included a link to this review in which Hubbard refers to my book as “an insufferable cesspool of dross”.

Verstraete makes a number of false claims about my book; I provide some corrections.

Verstraete: “[Davidson] 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.”

It was hard for me to “draw upon” Lear and Cantarella because their book was published only months before Greeks and Greek Love [henceforth GGL]. I thought I made this pretty clear, p.581 n.27: “DeVries’s catalogue with additions is due to be published imminently in Andrew Lear and Eva Cantarella, Images of Pederasty (London, 2007).”

Verstraete: “Davidson is mistaken in removing adolescent boys from the sphere of acceptable objects of adult Greek male eros.”

Cf. GGL p.88 “We can assume therefore, I think, that the noisy kind of eros might involve anyone from Eighteen to Eighty proclaiming the virtues of anyone from Nine to Nineteen.”

Verstraete: “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.”

Cf. GGL p. 470: “When ancient authors refer to the laws here or what the Spartan lawgiver laid down, they are referring to a whole host of very different things: a Spartan cult of Aidôs, Modesty or Sense of Shame, the existence of slaves called paidagôgoi whose job it was to chaperone Athenian Boys, a gymnasium law forbidding Striplings from mingling with Boys. This is a crucial point and one of the keys to resolving some of the contradictions in the sources on Greek Homosexuality. The distinctive erôs of a particular city or community — what the lawgiver laid down concerning erôs — is in fact an artificial composite of distinctive institutions, practices, rituals and rules, written or unwritten, which magistrates can enforce.”

As for how “radical” a position that would be, M.-H.-E. Meier included a whole section on Athenian law in what is considered the first modern scholarly article on the subject, “Päderastie” in J. S. Ersch, and J. G. Gruber, eds. Allgemeine Encyclopädie der Wissenschaften und Künste, Section 3, Bd 9, (Leipzig, 1837), pp. 166-170, e.g. “die Anklage [hubreos] war schätzbar, das erkenntniss konnte auf Tod oder Geldstrafe gehen, in ersterem Falle wurde es augenblicklich vollzogen.”

Verstraete: “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…”

Let’s take these “hot-button” issues in reverse order:

“Gays in the military”. In my book I do indeed deal with (and quite extensively) ancient Greek notions of the role of same-sex eros in warfare. I think it is an important and revealing topic and I make no apology for including it. But I did not invent this topic. It is prominent in the sources on same-sex eros and has therefore long been prominent in the scholarship of Greek Homosexuality and even in public perceptions of Greek Homosexuality: “Army of Lovers” etc. The Greeks do not of course argue about the fighting fitness of “gays in the military” but about the usefulness of same-sex pairs attached through eros.

“Same-sex marriage”. Again, I do indeed deal with formal and institutionalized same-sex pairings or what I call (after Sappho and Xenophon) syzygies, but again I did not introduce this topic. It was a major theme of the late John Boswell’s Same-Sex Unions (New York, 1994), and the existence of such relationships has been acknowledged by scholars as different as Bruno Gentili, Gundel Koch-Harnack and Erich Bethe. In fact Simon Hornblower has drawn my attention to the fact that in 1881 Johannes Classen had already commented on Thucydides’s account of the relationship of Harmodius and Aristogiton “fast mit dem ehelichen zu vergleichen”. Do I nevertheless present an “anachronistically sanitized and romanticized picture”? I personally don’t find the messy and bizarre sexual practices I (following Bethe) associated with such syzygies either romantic or sanitary, but readers will have to judge for themselves.

Sex with minors: Obviously this is the most important issue for Verstraete and Hubbard and the reason why I have suddenly fallen so far from their favour. Hubbard’s own Greek Love Reconsidered was published by NAMBLA, the North American Man/Boy Love Association. In his introduction to that slim volume he recommends “the outstanding work of Davidson” and draws a direct parallel between what he sees as the marginalization of paedophilia in the Athenian democracy and the marginalization of paedophiles in the modern American democracy: “even as Plato and others sold out the real pederasts… gay leaders today sell out their brothers (and in many cases their own repressed desires) by creating the public fiction that most gays are involved in long-term monogamous age- and class-equal relationships, and that the only men attracted to teenage boys are a few sickos in NAMBLA…”. Verstraete has had less success in finding a publisher for his own collection of articles on Sexual Intimacy Between Adult and Adolescent Males. Hubbard, according to a report in Inside Higher Education (, wrote to the APA demanding that it take action against Taylor and Francis if they did not publish the volume.

It was, I suggest, my highly inconvenient conclusions as to Athenian attitudes to sex with minors that led Verstraete to claim that what I say on this matter is, variously, “implausible and unproven” or “cannot be supported by solid textual evidence” or “refute[d] completely” by Hubbard and why for Hubbard “the outstanding work of Davidson” has turned to “an insufferable cesspool of dross”.