Socrates was a Pederast Homosexual
Greek Eros: Ancient Civilizations of Greece and Rome

Today "Eros" would be considered sexual love, and in the days of ancient Greece, Eros was not only their god of love, but it was also their word that referred to sexual desire. In Greek society, especially during the Golden Age, this sexual desire does not seem to have been gender specific in any way.

In fact most men seemed to be more interested in pursuing and having sexual relations with young boys – a practice known as pederasty – than they were with pursuing women. While this likely seems strange to a society where the majority of men find it repulsive to think of another man as beautiful, and where until recently homosexuals and bisexuals were looked down upon as being inferior, it was actually quite common and accepted in the ancient world of Greece.

In this paper I primarily intend to illustrate how common the acts of pederasty and homosexual love really were, in addition to why these practices came to be so prevalent, and when and how they began to be shunned. It becomes obvious quite quickly how prevalent bisexuality was in ancient Greece when one begins to look at various aspects of life in this time. Literature, art, philosophy, and law were all major aspects of life in the ancient world; all of which portrayed outright expressions of the acceptance and prevalence of love between males, but especially that of young boys.

In literature one finds many authors who openly write about homosexuality in poetry and prose (with no restraints). In The Clouds, Aristophanes portrays homosexuality as a common and normal aspect of human existence and sexuality. Theocrites, Achilles Tatius, and Solon also condone homosexuality. Solon writes in his poem “Boys and Sport:”2 Blest is the man who loves and after early play Whereby his limbs are supple made and strong Retiring to his house with wine and song Toys with a fair boy on his breast the livelong day!  As is obvious, Eros for young boys was something that writers of poetry and prose felt they did not need to be ashamed of or hide.

These writers – similar to the writers in most cultures - likely represented the view of the bulk of society. Homosexuality was often depicted in art too. While few wall paintings have survived, there are numerous remaining vase paintings that display profane (by modern standards) acts of homosexuality.  The following picture [see opposite page] of the vase shows just how explicit the artwork could get, and actually may be considered one of the first forms of pornography. It displays a group of males standing around naked while at least one couple is in the process of having homosexual intercourse.


 
Philosophy was another area where the acceptance of homosexuality was obvious, and seemed to be representative of the thoughts of many people (or at least male thought) of the time. Most of the early philosophers seemed to thoroughly understand and discuss the actions pederasty and homosexuality, and Socrates, considered the first philosopher, even described himself as being “experienced in the pursuit of men.”  According to the dialogues of Plato – a student of Socrates - pederasty and homosexuality were a part of everyday life, at least for aristocrats. 

Two of Plato’ s works, The Phaedrus and The Symposium, paint a brilliant picture of what the attitude toward pederasty was at the time. In the opening pages of The Phaedrus, Phaedrus and Socrates are discussing a speech that Lysias – a popular orator of the day - has written; a speech that was “…designed to win the favor of a handsome boy….” Socrates seems to understand why one would write a speech on this subject, and even states that man “cannot have a less desirable protector or companion than the man who is in love with him.”  The Symposium goes into even greater detail about pederasty.

The setting is a symposium – a type of dinner party that only included males as guests, and had entertainment, wine, and discussion of politics and philosophy – in which several men are gathered and all give speeches about why a love of boys is a good thing. Phaedrus - the first to give his speech - states, For I can’t say that there is a greater blessing right from boyhood than a good lover or a greater blessing for a lover than a darling [young boy]. What people who intend to lead their lives in a noble and beautiful manner need is not provided by family, public honors, wealth, or anything else, so well as by love. Pausanias - the second speaker - adds even more to this argument when he states Aphrodite only inspires love among men for young boys, and not women. Those inspired by Aphrodite are naturally drawn to the male because he is a stronger and more intelligent creature. 

Socrates also comments on the importance of pederasty in his own life.  He says, “My love for this fellow [Agathon- another member of the party who is a beautiful young boy] is not an insignificant affair.” Yet another member of the party, Alcibiades, also loves Agathon and tries to discredit Socrates when he says, “…Socrates is lovingly fixated on beautiful young men, is always around them – in a daze….”  Socrates was one of the most influential persons in ancient Greece, and was in fact put to death for what the authorities thought was leading the youth of Athens astray. They did not condemn him for his love of young boys, however, but thought he was leading them away from the gods and causing them to question authority.

Pederasty was also condoned by the law. According to Plato, legal and social norms did not clearly condemn or prohibit homoeroticism.  The court records of a case between an older gentleman and a man named Simon help one get an idea of the prevalence of pederasty. The case revolves around two men fighting over a younger boy, but never assigns any dishonor to either of the men for chasing the boy, and actually rule in favor of the old man even though he is married.  Of course, each city-state was different, clearly reflected sexual norms in Greece as a whole.

Most of the examples that I have used thus far have been from Athens, but there were other cities that represented a full range of the spectrum in regard to acceptance of pederasty and homosexuality. Sparta, for example, developed institutionalized homosexuality in its military training, while other cities considered homosexuality illegal. These were usually cities far to the north of Greece, and were looked at as being inferior to most cities, especially Athens. Pausanias for example, in The Symposium, denounces these other cities as being ruled by barbarians for considering these acts shameful by law.  This was likely a common view among most of the males in Athens in antiquity.

Society in Athens only condemned pederasty when it was sought after in a dishonorable way. Only when it was not pursued honorably according to laws and customs was pederasty frowned upon. There were also no laws against two middle-aged men having intercourse, but nonetheless, this does not appear to have been regarded as acceptable behavior. 

The reason this would be looked at as unacceptable is because there were two roles in sex: the active and passive. The active role was reserved to that of the male citizen and considered the honorable role. The party that was strictly on the receiving end of the sexual act played the passive role, and it was considered a dishonor for that party to be a citizen. In order to understand why the Greeks in many of the cities in the Golden Age had the views they did, it is important to try and realize what situations caused their outlooks.

While many of their religious stories involved homosexuality, this was not the way the myths were originally composed, and probably evolved during the classical age to include stories of Zeus’ irresistible passion for his young boy cupbearer, Garrymede; and that of Zeus causing of the first homosexual act among men to occur. While these were effects of people’s thoughts about pederasty there are several possible causes of these thoughts. In the Greek Dark Ages, male warrior fraternities existed that likely caused a deep bond among men, and surely had some impact on thought thereafter.

There had also been a deep appreciation of the physique and prowess of the male body throughout ancient Greece. Another explanation that seems to explain pederasty may have been that the adult males were performing a type of guidance for the sons of fathers who had been killed in battle. 

While these undoubtedly had an impact on the views of the ancient Greeks, probably the biggest factor influencing their thought was the structure of Greek culture. In Ancient Athens there was a very distinct public and private sphere. The public sphere was the place where a man was to pursue politics and gain prestige, while the private was where the women, children, and slaves were to remain. A form of punishment would actually be for a man to be banned from the public sphere and only allowed in the dishonorable private sphere – the house. 

Women were looked down upon as less than citizens not much higher on the social ladder than slaves, and would be a dishonor to their husband if they were to leave the house. In respect to sexual courting, it did not really matter if a woman left the house or not, because having sex with another man’s wife, daughter, mother, sister, or concubine was one of the only offenses that was punished by execution. Again, only a male could be the active role and administer sex, therefore the female could not be guilty in regard to any sexual crimes.   Plus, it was nearly impossible to court young women because of the fact that they had pre-arranged marriages – usually by the age of fourteen.

Women were also almost never outside, and zealously guarded until they were married in order to prevent the “accident” of unwanted children. This led to the situation where aristocratic men gathered in large numbers out of doors with no women to court and nowhere to direct their sexual energy. They could have directed it toward prostitutes and slaves, but these were at the disposal of all who could pay, and was not really any kind of competition for those men who wanted to show off their lovers.  The only public sexual competition had to be directed to young boys.  With this system in place, it became possible for men to meet lovers in several, all-male settings established in society.

There were numerous arenas where this could take place. One such place was the army, where an older man was supposed to help a younger boy become a better soldier and take him under his wing. Another was in the gymnasium where boys and trainers practiced in the nude. Yet another was the act of an older man taking a younger boy to a symposium to expose him to culture. All of these actions were common in Greek culture, but it was the older man who was to be the pursuer, and the boy that was supposed to be shy and not readily willing to succumb to the man’s advances. This was an honorable way of pursuing pederasty and was thought of as educational and good for the younger boy by the philosophers of the day.  

There were, in fact, rules that would limit the contact men could have with boys, such as school not being open before sunrise or after sunset, and rules regarding who could enter a school, and for what reason. No slave would ever be allowed to court a boy.  It is not fair to think that only the adult male benefited from these relationships. They both entered the relationship for selfish reasons; the boy for educational and social advantages, and the man for reasons of sex and companionship.

Once a man had wooed his darling, it was his job to make the boy into a woman. Since it was dishonorable for any man to be passive, the boy –who would someday be a man - had to be seen as a woman. At the same time, however, the lover was attempting to help advance the boy as a man. Boys, incapable of emitting semen – hence boys before adolescence, were not really viewed as male, so it was not all that difficult to portray them as female.   This had to be quite an emotionally confusing strain, however, on the young boy. In this situation a boy who is trying to advance as a man, is also playing the role of a woman so it can be all right for what his lover is doing to him.

The male in this system is all part of a cycle. At one point in his life he is the pursued darling, and at another point, he becomes the pursuing adult lover. Once this practice became established, it is understandable that it became quite secure and commonplace in society. While this may seem a strange cultural system to many modern onlookers, it was completely normal for the males in Greek society who had known it as a part of their everyday existence their whole lives. Since men ran the culture and were the only members of society who were looked at as being fully human it only makes sense that they would want to pursue their equal.

Another major reason the structure of society in the ancient world helped cause pederasty is the fact that all marriages were arranged. There was no romance involved in marrying, and indeed, the job of the wife was to bear children and be the guardian of the home. Romance with a woman was actually frowned upon, and any man who was thought to be under the influence of a woman was said to be incompetent at law. The only honorable place to look for romance was in the pool of young boys in the city. Women were uneducated and in the eyes of men had little or no intellectual capacity, thus it was better to pursue the young darling and attempt to make an equal out of the boy.  

Despite the overwhelmingly popular support of pederasty and homosexual love in ancient Greece, it did not last forever. However, it seems obvious that it did not die in the hands of the Greeks. It appears that pederasty began to decline by the end of the Hellenic period, but homosexuality certainly lived on. With the Hellenistic Age came an increased status of women as well as an increase in heterosexual relationships as the main focus of romantic endeavors. Both of these factors seemed to cause a decline in homosexual relationships, however, they did indeed live on in the Hellenistic world and even went on to Rome. Alexander the Great was known for his homosexual tendencies, and was never attacked for his long affair with Hepchaestion.

Homosexuality survived into the days of the Roman Empire where it finally became widely shunned when the emperor Justinian eventually banned it.  The establishment of the church likely had the greatest influence in trying to eliminate homosexuality. Obviously, however, homosexuality has never, and likely will never be eliminated. It has been around longer than the church, and has survived despite the ruthless attack that the church has made on it. From the areas of literature, art, philosophy, and law it becomes obvious how very prevalent and accepted pederasty and homosexuality were in Hellenic times.

While it is impossible to know exactly how these views came to be, it appears that the most influential factor was the way that society was structured in an almost exclusively male setting. And while modern views condemn pederasty, homosexuality unquestionably lives on in modern times and will likely survive as long as humans walk the earth. While many people think of Democracy, and philosophy as being legacies of the ancient Greek world, in many ways one could trace homosexuality back to the Hellenic age as well.
 

Bibliography

Arkins, Brian. “Sexuality in Fifth-Century Athens.” 1994. http://www.ucd.ie/~classics/94/Arkins94.html (6 August 2000). Cohen, David. Law, Sexuality and Society: The Enforcement of Morals in Classical Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Crane, Gregory.

“The Perseus Home Page.” N.D. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/image?lookup=1991.01.0790&image=1.

(01 November 2000). Halsall, Paul. “People With a History: An Online Guide to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans* History.” 1997. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/pwh/index-anc.html . (01 November 2000). Halsall, Paul. “Homosexual Eros in Early Greece.” 1986. http://www.forfham.edu/halsall/pwh/greekeros.html (1 November 2000). Kebric, Robert B. Greek People: Second Edition. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1997. Plato. Phaedrus and Letters VII and VIII. Translated with an introduction by Walter Hamilton. London, England: Penguin Books, 1973. Plato. The Symposium and the Phaedrus: “Plato’s Erotic Dialogues.” Translated with an introduction and commentaries by William S. Cobb. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993.

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