Notes on the Intersection of Ancient Greek Culture and LGBTQ+ Identities

The question of the day is, then: Is it possible that same-sex partnerships were not only tolerated but promoted in ancient Greece, making it a utopia for the LGBTQ+ community? Were same-sex couples celebrated as the pinnacle of love, superior to those between heterosexuals? We can all agree that attraction to and relationships with those of the same gender have existed for centuries.

But it may not be entirely true that in ancient Greece, homosexuality was common and accepted because it was seen as a natural way to show love and desire. Many believe that this tolerance for homosexuality may be seen in Greek art, literature, and religion. Homosexuality was allegedly frequently depicted in ancient Greek art. Romantic or sexual connections between males are thought to be shown in a number of Greek sculptures and artworks.

Often, claims alone—without any supporting data—are used to argue that these occurrences were frequent or widespread. Most of the time, when we talk about ancient Greek art that shows sexual encounters between men, we mean vases. Dover, who wrote the 1978 book “Greek Homosexuality,” looked at about 80,000 pieces of pottery and found that only about 600 of them had scenes that could  (big emphasis on could) be considered homosexual. Only about 30 of these 600 could possibly show sexual scenes. The other 570 were completely wishful thinking.

Yet, some of those 30 include non-human characters such as Satyrs, who were, in the words of Pliny the Elder, considered wild, horrible, hideous, and perverted tricksters. These characters were not representative of tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality on a societal scale. Plus, satyrs were typically portrayed as sexually aggressive toward women.

Out of these 30 scenes, Dover considered some of the heterosexual sex scenes to be gay due to the positions chosen by the characters. He also considered a scene depicting a man with a sword positioned to stab another man to represent same-sex love. If we exclude these misleading examples, we are left with a real number of vases depicting actual homosexual intercourse, which amounts to a minuscule 0.000375 percent, a figure that hardly justifies the claim of homosexuality being commonly depicted in ancient Greek art.

We have only just touched on the influence of homosexuality on art. Next, we’ll look at literature. There are numerous pieces of evidence that point to homosexuality, including works of lyrical poetry, myths, philosophical treatises, speeches, inscriptions, medical texts, tragedies, comedies, curses, and anecdotes. However, there are numerous contexts in which homosexuality is either dismissed or stigmatized. This leads to cherry-picking and intellectual dishonesty, as the narratives being presented lack credibility due to the lack of support from the sources being used.

The myth of Achilles and Patroclus is often cited as an example of homosexuality in classical Greece. Friendship and brotherhood united the Greek mythological warriors Achilles and Patroclus. There are many activists, but relatively few academics, who argue that theirs was more than a platonic friendship and that they were in fact lovers. Patroclus and Achilles are described as companions in Homer’s masterpiece. In the stories, Achilles has sexual encounters with a plethora of women but never a man.

Some academics argue that Achilles’s extreme sorrow at Patroclus’s death is evidence of his romantic love for his friend. They imply that a man’s strong response to the loss of a male companion represents a gay connection. Miller, a well-known author who wrote “Song of Achilles,” portrays them as homosexuals because of the above example. “The Iliad” by Homer provides the background for the story of Patroclus and Achilles. Homer was an 8th-century BC Greek poet. There is no indication that Achilles and Patroclus were romantically involved in Homer’s original work.

Nonetheless, there are both academics who believe they were lovers and those who don’t. Famous ancient Greek historians like Gregory Nagi and Robin Fox disagree that Achilles and Patroclus were romantically involved. 

When Miller decided to depict Achilles and Patroclus as homosexual lovers, she explains that she drew inspiration from the ideas of the fifth-century philosopher Plato. Between Homer and Plato, there is already a three-hundred-year gap, which suggests that their ideas come from different cultures.

One of Plato’s contemporaries, Cebes of Thebes, argued that Achilles and Patroclus were not gay. Both Plato and Cebes were disciples of Socrates, yet they viewed the world extremely differently. Not talking about Cebes’s point of view is a dishonest way to present evidence.

Cebes, an Athens-born military captain, philosopher, and historian, was more than just a voice in the crowd. It’s hard to think that Greece in the fifth century B.C. was a gay paradise when a prominent individual like him was openly against homosexuality.

Achilles and Patroclus, in my view, loved one another like brothers. It’s fine to disagree, but it’s essential to provide supporting evidence. When trying to identify LGBTQ+ ideology through historical evidence, we should not force modern identity concepts, classifications, and even terminologies onto the minds of ancient people. The idea of being gay in 2023 is not the same as being gay in the 5th century BC in Athens.

In fact, I would advise against even applying the term “LGBTQ+” to the ancient world. This word has too many connotations and expectations that are specific to modern usage. What’s more, the idea of “ancient Greece” might give the impression that all Greeks had the same worldview. We are aware that local laws and social attitudes concerning these activities vary greatly from one municipality to the next. The morality laws enforced by these ancient city-states ranged from permissive to entirely prohibitive, demonstrating a wide range of approaches.

When we refer to LGBTQ+, we can’t specifically mean homosexuality or same-sex attraction and relationships, because these dynamics are in fact very difficult to navigate when it comes to the classical world. One, we have no documented evidence to assess the overall attitude of ancient Greek society towards woman-to-woman attraction. After all, ancient Greece was very male-centric. It is unclear how such relationships between same-sex partners, especially women, are regarded in general society. This is highlighted by the Oxford Classical Dictionary’s page on “Andronomic Sexuality.”

Therefore, while it’s tempting to view ancient Greece through the lens of modern sexual identities and politics, it’s crucial to remember that their views on sexuality and relationships, same-sex or otherwise, were nuanced and varied across regions and time periods. To simplify these complexities into a modern “LGBTQ+ paradise” narrative risks oversimplifying and misrepresenting the diverse experiences and societal norms of the ancient Greeks.

The majority of Greek literary works that hint at same-sex relationships involve pederasty, a socio-sexual relationship between an adult male and an adolescent boy, sometimes as young as twelve. In ancient Greece, the age limit for a pederast seemed to be twelve-year-old boys. To love a boy below the age of twelve was considered inappropriate. If you’re still inclined to label ancient Greek culture as beautiful and natural, you would need to add the notorious “P” to the end of “LGBTQ+,” a modification most people would resist. This was hardly a paradise for underage boys involved in non-consensual relationships. In cases where pederasty did involve sexual activity, which wasn’t always the case, it would likely have resulted in trauma for the child involved—not exactly a beautiful and innocent display of love and desire. The older man would usually give the boy gifts, as if this lessened the young man’s trauma.

It’s worth noting that in ancient Greece, adult-to-adult and man-to-man relationships in which two equal partners loved each other and wanted to marry were not socially acceptable. Whenever such relationships were mentioned, which was rare, they were often ridiculed or looked down upon. Moreover, these relationships included a component of active-passive polarization. There was a clear power dynamic between the two guys, with the subservient one being viewed as the lesser of the two.

Ancient Greece presented as an LGBTQ+ paridice frequently presents a very flat image, devoid of cultural, spatial, and temporal depth, glossing over the diversity of the city-states and historical ages. It’s almost as if the Greeks never changed their minds throughout the entirety of their history regarding homosexual relationships. This is a mistaken and homogeneous portrayal of one of the most complex civilizations in human history. In reality, over its very long history, ancient Greece saw changes in its ideas, social norms, positions, ways of thinking, governing bodies, and the opinions of its citizens and educated elite. History is not a static surface onto which contemporary ideals can be superimposed; rather, it is in a constant state of flux.

In literary discussions, Plato is frequently cited as evidence that the ancient Greeks regarded man-to-man love as the highest form of love. This, however, was Plato’s opinion, and it was not necessarily representative of the entire nation. Plato seemed to argue that male-to-male relationships have an educational structure, thus, once again, talking about pederasty, the mentor-pupil relationship. He wasn’t talking about two men in their forties who wanted to get married. Plato later changed his mind about this issue, which is rarely mentioned in these discussions and seems like cherry-picking.

On the subject of pederasty, period authors make it clear that it didn’t always involve sex. According to several authors, it was supposed to be an educational relationship—a mentor-pupil relationship. However, some wealthy, powerful, and well-connected men did exploit these arrangements for their own purposes, a fact that contemporary classical authors acknowledge. It’s bold to claim that if that were the case, wouldn’t classical authors tell us about it? And the answer is yes; they did. Authors such as Herodotus, Plato, Xenophon, and Athenaeus, among others, have explicitly addressed these issues.

In his “Symposium,” Plato describes how parents would hire bodyguards to protect their children from older men. Other accounts describe children making fun of a classmate who was involved in a pederastic relationship, which runs counter to the assertion that such relationships were generally accepted.

Eventually, Plato came around to the idea that pederasty could be viewed as both dishonorable and admirable. He believed that unrestrained sexual desire dishonored both the lustful person and society as a whole. 

Greek philosophers generally denounced promiscuity and disapproved of homosexual activity. For them, these were not considered real relationships.

Xenophon was adamant that no teacher or student should ever touch each other. It was thought that pederasty’s sexual component was an unnatural form of lust. According to Plato’s “Laws,” sexual pleasure between a male and female is what nature intended for the purpose of reproduction. He describes the act of male-with-male or female-with-female as an outrage against nature and an unrestrained surrender to lustful pleasure.

Aristotle, another influential Greek thinker, believed that some traits were inherently crude and could only have arisen from illness or insanity. He categorized male-on-male sexual gratification as one of these traits. 

Claudius Aelianus, an ancient Roman historian, writes in his work “Varia Historia” that Spartan love was respectable since it lacked lewdness. If you didn’t adhere to this standard, you risked exile or even death. This meant that being gay was a criminal offense under all circumstances.

When you add in the discussion of religion, the debates surrounding homosexuality become even more complex. The Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, was married and had many male lovers. Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war, was chaste. Despite his marriage to Hera, Zeus was notorious for having affairs with mortal women. 

Activists have tried to use the story of Siproites, who was turned into a woman after seeing Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, naked, as a metaphor for contemporary transgender experiences, but they conveniently leave out the fact that Siproites’ transformation was a punishment.

Additionally, it’s essential to clarify the false idea that love and desire were seen as one and the same in ancient Greece. In fact, the Greeks made a clear distinction between the two. Aphrodite represented love and beauty, while Eros represented sexual desire. 

The ancient Greeks believed that sexual desire should be controlled. It was considered disgraceful to lose control.

There were a number of ancient Greek physicians who attempted to provide an explanation for homosexuality. Some people thought it was abnormal; some thought it was a disease or mental illness; and some thought it was a birth defect. 

Concerning the question of lesbianism, only a few of Sappho of Lesbos’ poems even hint at it. It’s unclear whether Sappho’s poems represent her own feelings or those of a made-up character. The fact that Sappho had a husband complicates the claim that she was a lesbian. Any such claim is purely speculative at this point. 

Ultimately, a balanced grasp of ancient Greek culture, customs, and beliefs requires an in-depth, nuanced study of the period. Remember that the past is not something fixed and unchanging. It develops and morphs over time, taking on the values, norms, and tenets of the people who lived through each successive era.

To sum up, the idea that ancient Greece was some sort of utopia for the LGBTQ+ community is just false. Although homosexuality existed throughout this time in ancient Greece, not everyone viewed it as a noble pursuit. This oversimplification of a topic that is actually rather complicated and multifaceted does a disservice to the richness of ancient Greek culture.

Homosexuality in ancient Greece was met with as much support, indifference, and disapproval as it is today. What can be seen clearly is that it’s ignorant and inaccurate to project modern ideologies onto ancient cultures or to interpret historical events and beliefs in light of modern standards and values. This method not only ignores the cultural context of these ancient societies, but it also silences those who disagree, leading to an inaccurate interpretation of past events.

Although delving into the past is intriguing, it’s important to do it with caution, critical thought, and intellectual honesty. Always keep in mind that history is an intricate tapestry of varied human experience that deserves to be viewed and valued as such.

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