Anyone who works through James Davidson’s recent book on Greek homosexuality will come to recognize a particular style of rhetoric, in which the author feints, ducks and misdirects when faced with evidence that contradicts his argument. This move is clearly present in Davidson’s recent response to Beert Verstraete’s review of his The Greeks and Greek Love (BMCR 2009.11.03).
Verstraete and Tom Hubbard (whose online review Verstraete cites) point out that the evidence for a legal prohibition in classical Athens against sex with young males under 18 is slim, at best. In response to this, Davidson suggests that Hubbard and Verstraete are misled by their own sexual politics. Everything that Davidson says in this passage is true: Hubbard did publish his volume with the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) and his essay in that volume does contain the arguments that Davidson highlights. Hubbard’s arguments there are problematic in ways that I will not go into. None of this, however, is to the point.
Davidson does not answer the central objection raised, that he is wrong about ancient laws concerning sex with under-18’s. Here are two relevant paragraphs from Hubbard’s review, which Davidson appears to have read:1
Chapter Three, “Age Classes, Love-Rules and Corrupting the Young,” is one of the most important in the book, as it is here that Davidson undertakes to demolish “the fable of paedophile Greeks” (p. 70) by arguing that physical intimacies could be practiced legally only with “boys” 18 years and older. However, his evidence for this sweeping assertion is extremely thin. He misinterprets Aeschines 1.139 to affirm that the Law of Solon forbade such associations with any boy who is akuros (i.e. “not yet in control of his own affairs legally”). What Davidson fails to see is that Aeschines is throwing sand in the jurors’ eyes with almost all of his legal citations throughout the speech, something the Attic orators did commonly. If one examines the original Greek, it is clear that this particular sentence (embedded within a paragraph quoting Solon’s actual law, which merely forbade slaves to enter the gymnasium or pursue free boys)  is bracketed as Aeschines’ own opinion (note the opening verb oimai) of what the law ought to do (note the present tense verbs, in contrast to the past tense always used of the lawgiver himself).
Equally amazing is the assertion that “Laws forbade anyone of aged twenty or over from entering the gymnasium when under-eighteens were exercising: The strictest penalties, not excluding the death penalty, were imposed on those who transgressed” (p. 69). No textual citation or footnote is attached to this grand statement, but it continues to be repeated throughout the rest of the book as an established fact. But at least for Athens in the classical period, it is pure fiction. We do possess an inscription from the Macedonian town of Beroea in the second-century BCE that tells the gymnasiarch to prevent young men and boys from mingling in the gymnasium, but it contains no reference to the death penalty. Although Davidson does not mention it, some scholars interpret Aeschines 1.10 as referring to an Athenian law with similar intent, but that view is based on a mistranslation of the verb eisphoitaô to mean that young men of a certain age could not “enter” the gymnasium, whereas the verb is actually a frequentative that means “attend regular classes at” the gymnasium; the supposed text of the law in 1.12 (which must be the source for Davidson’s nonsense about the death penalty) is universally bracketed as spurious.
Insinuations about modern sexual politics aside, Davidson has not responded to these scholarly objections. Until and unless he does so, it appears that he is simply wrong.2
2. Full disclosure: I have published my own book on Greek and Roman sexual practices, in which I come to conclusions different than Davidson’s. I have also disagreed in print with Hubbard on various points.