Term Paper: Homosexuality in Ancient Greek Literature

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Homosexuality in Ancient Greek Literature

Ancient Greek art and literature clearly demonstrates that homosexual relationships were acceptable under certain conditions. In fact, some homosexual relationships were considered to be not only acceptable, but encouraged. In the period between around 600 B.C. And the beginning of the Christian era, male homosexuality was seen as inline with Greek social values like military prowess, athletic ability, and the ideal of youth and beauty. Because Greek society viewed women as morally and intellectually inferior, these homosexual relationships often gave men a closeness and bond not usually found in their marriages. On the other hand, female homosexuality, while an acceptable practice in some areas, was not as universally socially acceptable as male homosexuality. However, it has been suggested by some ancient authors that in some places, Sparta for example, it was a common practice for older women to have homosexual relationships with younger, unmarried girls. But in places like Athens, it is believed that female homosexual relationships were not only discouraged, but may have been forbidden.

Unlike the modern world, the ancient Greeks did not classify a person as either homosexual or heterosexual. Sexual desire could be inspired in either males or females by persons of either sex, what mattered was their attractiveness. While most men married women and produced children, the husband-wife relationship was not based on personal feelings of love but on other social factors. Therefore, most marriages were not between two people who loved each other, and this led to individuals seeking emotional fulfillment from other sources. Possible partners could always be prostitutes and slaves, but if a citizen wanted to engage in an emotional fulfilling relationship with another person, then their choices were limited. In other words, in the Classical world, males congregated with males and females with females, and usually did not mix socially unless they were married. This meant that individuals who wanted emotional fulfillment were forced to look within their own gender for such love and tenderness.

The most common form of homosexual relationships were between an older male and an adolescent. The term "pederastia," translating as "boy love," was a relationship between what was know as the "erastes," or the older man, and the "eromenos," the younger boy. Although there is some disagreement over it, one example of this type of relationship has traditionally been represented by the relationship between the character of Achilles and Patroclus in Homer's Iliad. Homer does not specifically describe any sexual acts between the two, he does make many references to their love for each other. In the ancient world, it was assumed that the two were in fact homosexual lovers as well as emotional partners. In this case, as the more famous and more aggressive of the two, it was Achilles who it was thought assumed the role of the older man, the "erastes," while Patroclus assume the role of the youthful "eromenos."

Many historians and researchers of literature point to the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus as being romantic, in other words, homosexual. For instance, in book nine when Achilles is angry with Agamemnon and refuses to fight, many of Achilles' comrades join him in his tent. Achilles asks Patroclus to set up a mixing-bowl for drinking what they refer to as "stronger drink," Patroclus is described as obeying "his beloved companion." (Iliad, 9, 205) Descriptions of Patroclus are rife with words like beloved, indicating that the two of them may indeed have shared an emotional attachment to each other. While ancient Greek culture did not expect there to be love between a husband and wife, they did expect there to be love between male companions. While the modern world fixates on whether or not there was physical lovemaking between the two, what is more important is that they shared an emotional bond. The two were lovers, even if they did not physically engage in sexual intercourse.

And many modern scholars like to think of the relationship between these two characters in the Iliad as being non-physical. For instance, there are descriptions of the two of them sleeping with women, and one can assume that they used these girls strictly for physical pleasure. In one passage Achilles is described as "in the inward corner of the strong-built shelter, and a woman lay beside him…." (Iliad 9.664) But it is not only Achilles who seems to be engaging in sexual relations with women. The text of the Iliad states that "in the other corner Patroclus went to bed, with him also was a girl…." (Iliad 9.666) This would certainly seem to indicate that the two of them did indeed engage in sexual intercourse with women, and that this was a common practice for them. But it also demonstrates a closeness between the two as they share quarters and sleep together.

Finally, Achilles' reaction to the death of Patroclus demonstrates a deep commitment and love for him. In a conversation with his goddess mother, Achilles admits to her that he loved Patroclus "beyond all other companions, as well as my own life…." (Iliad 18.81-82) While ancient Greece did not look unkindly toward homosexual relationships between men, there is no direct evidence that this type of relationship is part of Achilles and Patroclus. Homer seems to imply that the two were lovers, but never actually described any sexual contact between the two. Perhaps the two were experiencing the love and companionship that usually comes from a marriage and fully engaged in physical sex, and the reason Homer did not mention it was the fact that this kind of physical relationship was simply expected. After all, in the modern world one does not have to mention that a husband and wife engage in sexual relations, it is commonly assumed that they do. Similarly both Achilles and Patroclus' relationship could have also been sexual and simply not mentioned in the text.

If the homosexual relationship described in Homer's Iliad is the emotional bond between two men outside of the household, there were other views of homosexuality promoted by the ancient Greeks. Aristophanes' Lysistrata takes a completely different view of homosexuality as it is the story of Greek wives who go on a "sex strike" in order to get the attention of their husbands. While the play does not specifically speak to homosexuality as either a good or bad thing morally, it does seem to take the stance that homosexual relationships interfere with a man's duties to his wife and family. Aristophanes equates this to the act of waging war, as long as the men are waging war, they are unable to return home and fulfill their duties to their wives. Lysistrata identified the fact that men in the military often engage in homosexual relationships, facilitating their absence from home and family. By granting the women of Athens sexual desire in order to attract their husbands, Lysistrata planned to "infect the men with sensuous rigidity and club-cock, then I believe that all Greece will one days call us Disbanders of Battles." (Lysistrata 571-573) She wanted to use sex, heterosexual sex, in order to entice the men of Athens to refrain from engaging in war.

There is nothing inherently wrong with engaging in homosexual behavior in Aristophanes' Lysistrata, it only aids the men in their ability to withstand the temptation to return home and end the war. However, Lysistrata wants to force the men of her city to end the war, and planned to stage a "sex-strike" in order to accomplish that goal. However, Lysistrata is considered to be a comedy, and the joke on Lysistrata is that the men of Greece have little use for wives, other than to produce legitimate heirs. They got their real emotional fulfillment from their homosexual relationships with their male companions, not with their wives. Therefore, Lysistrata's plan to force the men of Athens to return home was ultimately viewed as comical.

The third and last example of homosexuality in ancient literature is from Sappho, famous for her love poetry and her homosexuality. While there is no full text of any of Sappho's poems, extensive fragments do exist. Sappho seems to express sensual and erotic love for other women, and her poetry pronounces the pleasure and comfort that can come from such relationships. She also seems to have engaged in a lesbian relationship in the traditional Greek sense of an older woman and a young girl. She appears to have played the role of the older woman having a relationship with a girl named Atthis. In fragment 49, Sappho expressed her love for the girl stating "I loved you, Atthis, once long ago, a little child you seemed to me and graceless." (Sappho "Atthis" [fragment 49]) Sappho later reminisces about her feelings for Atthis, stating in another fragment about "remembering gentle Atthis, and in longing she bites her tender mind.." (Sappho "You in Sardis" [fragment 96]) It is clear that Sappho accepts that female homosexuality is as every bit as legitimate as male homosexuality, regardless of the standard social norms that… [END OF PREVIEW]

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