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Pederastic courtship scene
Athenian black-figure amphora, 5th c. BC, Painter of Cambridge; Object currently in the collection of the Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, Munich, Germany. The bearded man is depicted in a traditional pederastic courtship gesture known as the "up-and-down" gesture: one hand reaching to fondle the young man, the other grasping his chin so as to look him in the eye.[1]

Greek pederasty, as idealised by the Greeks during its archaic period, was a relationship and bond between adults and adolescent males from differing families. Marriages in Ancient Greece between men and women had a similar difference in age: men in their 30s commonly took wives in their early teens.

The term pederasty derives from the combination of pais (Greek for 'boy') with erastēs (Greek for 'lover'; cf. eros). Pederasty is closely associated with the customs of athletic and artistic nudity in the gymnasia, delayed marriage for upper-class men (gentlemen), symposia and social seclusion of women.[2] It was also integral to Greek military training, and at times a factor in the deployment of troops.



The Spartans were said to have practised chaste pederasty.[3]

Twentieth century historian Foucault declared that pederasty was "problematized" in Greek culture, that it was "the object of a special — and especially intense — moral preoccupation" focusing on concern with the chastity/moderation of the erōmenos (the term used for the "beloved" youth). In Classical times there appears a note of concern that the institution of pederasty might give rise to a morbid condition, adult homosexuality, that today's eromenos may become tomorrow's kinaidos, (defined as the passive or "penetrated" partner).[4]

Philosophical discourses

Socrates' love of Alcibiades, which was more than reciprocated, is held as an example of chaste pederasty. Plutarch and Xenophon, in their descriptions of Spartan pederasty, state that even though it is the beautiful boys who are sought above all others (contrary to the Cretan traditions), nevertheless the pederastic couple remains chaste.

Male relationships were represented in complex ways, some honorable and others dishonorable. Aelian relates that in Sparta, for a man to not have a youth for a lover was considered a deficiency in character, and he was punished for not making another as good as he was himself, despite his excellence.[5] Phaedrus, in the Platonic dialogue (the Symposium) characteristically states:

  • For I know not any greater blessing to a young man who is beginning in life than a virtuous lover, or to a lover than a beloved youth. For the principle, I say, neither kindred, nor honor, nor wealth, nor any motive is able to implant so well as love. Of what am I speaking? Of the sense of honor and dishonor, without which neither states nor individuals ever do any good or great work… And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonor and emulating one another in honor; and it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world.[6]

However, Plato in his Laws, blamed pederasty for promoting civil strife and driving many to their wits' end, and recommended the prohibition of sexual intercourse with boys, laying out a path whereby this may be accomplished.[7]

Social aspects

The erastes-eromenos relationship was fundamental to the Classical Greek social and educational system, had its own complex social-sexual etiquette and was an important social institution among the upper classes.[8] Pederastic relationships were dyadic mentorships. In general, the pederasty described in the Greek literary sources is largely an institution reserved for free citizens.

In Crete, in order for the suitor to carry out the ritual abduction, the father had to approve him as worthy of the honor. Among the Athenians, as Socrates claims in Xenophon's Symposium, "Nothing [of what concerns the boy] is kept hidden from the father, by an ideal[9] lover."[10] This is consistent with the paramount role of the Greek patriarch, who had the right of life and death over his children. It is also consistent with the importance that a son would have had for him. Besides the bond of love between them, a son was the only hope for the survival of a Greek man's name, fortune and glory. In order to protect their sons from inappropriate attempts at seduction, fathers appointed slaves named pedagogues to watch over their sons. However, according to Aeschines, Athenian fathers would pray that their sons would be handsome and attractive, with the full knowledge that they would then invariably attract the attention of men and "be the objects of fights because of erotic passions"[11]

Boys entered into such relationships from the age of twelve to about eighteen or nineteen, though some suggest they started around fifteen.[12] This was around the same age that Greek girls were given in marriage – also to adult husbands many years their senior. There was a difference between the two types of bonding: boys usually had to be courted and were free to choose their mate. Girls, on the other hand, were used for economic and political advantage, their marriages contracted at the discretion of the father and the suitor.

The pattern was for the younger partners to remain in the relationship until reaching maturity: "Pederasty was widely accepted in Greece as part of a male's coming-of-age, even if its function is still widely debated."[13][14]

For the youth – and his family – one important advantage of being mentored by an influential older man was an expanded social network. Thus, some considered it desirable to have had many older lovers / mentors in one’s younger years, both attesting to one's physical beauty and paving the way for attaining important positions in society. Typically, after their sexual relationship had ended and the young man had married, the older man and his protégé would remain on close terms throughout their life. For those lovers who continued their lovemaking after their beloveds had matured, the Greeks made allowances, saying, You can lift up a bull, if you carried the calf.[15]

Pederasty was the idealized form of an age-structured homoeroticism that, like all social institutions, had other, less idyllic, manifestations, such as prostitution or the use of one’s slave boys. However, certain forms were prohibited, such as slaves making love to boys (though their access to women was unimpeded),[16] or paying free boys or young men for sex. Free youths who did sell their favors were generally ridiculed and later in life were prohibited from performing certain official functions.

A prosecution by an Athenian politician, Aeschines, in 346 BC, Against Timarchus, is an example of how these regulations were used to political advantage. In his speech, Aeschines argues against further allowing Timarchus, an experienced middle-aged politician, his political rights, on account of his having spent his adolescence as the kept boy of a series of wealthy men. Aeschines won his case, and Timarchus was sentenced to atimia. But Aeschines is careful to acknowledge what seemingly all Athens knows: his own dalliances with beautiful boys, the erotic poems he dedicated to these youths, and the scrapes he has gotten into as a result of his affairs, none of which — he hastens to point out — were mediated by money.

Even when lawful, it was not uncommon for the relationship to fail, as it was said of many boys that they "hated no one as much as the man who had been their lover" (See Death of King Philip II of Macedon). Likewise, the Cretans required the boy to declare whether the relationship had been to his liking, thus giving him an opportunity to break it off if any violence had been done to him.

Sexual aspects

Only very rarely is anal sex suggested or shown, and then it is depicted as eliciting surprise from the bystanders. A number of other sources also suggest it was seen as shameful. Among these is a fable attributed to Aesop which tells that Aeschyne (Shame) consented to enter the human body from behind only as long as Eros did not follow the same path, and would fly away right off if he did.[17] Later literary sources suggest it became more common in late antiquity. Likewise, some epigraphic records, such as the Theran graffiti, have been interpreted as evidence that in other locations it may have been more accepted.[18]

K. J. Dover states that the eromenos was not "supposed" to feel desire for the erastes, as that would be unmanly.[19] More recent evidence suggests that in actual practice (as opposed to theory) there was, in fact, reciprocation of desire. As Thomas Hubbard points out in a critique of David Halperin's contention that boys were not aroused, some vases do show boys as being sexually responsive, and "Fondling a boy's organ (cf. Aristophanes, Birds 142) was one of the most commonly represented courtship gestures on the vases. What can the point of this act have been unless lovers in fact derived some pleasure from feeling and watching the boy's developing organ wake up and respond to their manual stimulation?"[20]

Religious aspects

Ganymede rolling a hoop and bearing aloft a cockerel - a love gift from Zeus (in pursuit, on obverse of vase).
Attic red-figure crater, 500-490 BC; Painter of Berlin; Louvre, Paris

Myths provide more than fifty examples of young men who were the lovers of gods.[21] Poets and traditions ascribe Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, Orpheus, Hercules, Dionysus, Hermes, and Pan to such love. All the main gods of the pantheon except Ares had these relationships.

Mythographic material suggests that the initiate experienced ecstatic states of spirit journey leading to mystic death and transfiguration, analogous to practices still reported today in shamanic work. If so, by the fifth century the Greeks had forgotten the connection. In 476 BC, the poet Pindar, in his Olympian Ode I, claims to be horrified by suggestions that the gods would eat human flesh – in this context, an obvious shamanic metaphor. An opposite theory (discussed by Murray in his Homosexualities) gives credence to the texts that credit (or blame) the Cretans with its origination (Aristotle et al.) and notes the anomaly of an apparent path of diffusion radiating from Crete, while the areas (in the north of Greece) closest to the Indo-European sources are not known to have institutionalized the practice.

Political aspects

The state benefitted from these relationships, according to the statements of ancient writers. The friendship functioned as a restraint on the youth, since if he committed a crime it was not he but his lover who was punished. In the military the lovers fought side by side, with each vying to shine before the other. Thus, it was said that an army of lovers would be invincible, as was the case until the battle of Chaeronea with the Sacred Band of Thebes, a battalion of one hundred and fifty warriors pairs, each lover fighting beside his beloved.

Athenaeus states that "Hieronymus the Aristotelian says that love with boys was fashionable because several tyrannies had been overturned by young men in their prime, joined together as comrades in mutual sympathy." He gives as examples of such pederastic couples the Athenians Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who were credited (perhaps symbolically) with the overthrow of the tyrant Hippias and the establishment of the democracy, and also Chariton and Melanippus.[22] Others, such as Aristotle, claimed that the Cretan lawgivers encouraged pederasty as a means of population control, by directing love and sexual desire into non-procreative channels:

"and the lawgiver has devised many wise measures to secure the benefit of moderation at table, and the segregation of the women in order that they may not bear many children, for which purpose he instituted association with the male sex."[23]

Regional characteristics

The traditions of Ionia and Aeolia featured poets such as Anacreon, and Alcaeus, a man also reputed for his bravery and political skills, who composed many of the sympotic skolia that were to become later part of the mainland tradition. Unlike the Dorians, where a lover would usually have only one eromenos, in the east a man might have several eromenos over the course of his life. From the poems of Alcaeus we learn that the lover would customarily invite his eromenos to dine with him.[24]

A lover and a beloved kiss
Tondo from an Attic kylix, 5th c. BC by the Briseis painter. Louvre

Many critics hold that his is not the work of a single poet but represents "several generations of wisdom poetry." The poems are "social, political, or ethical precepts transmitted to Cyrnus as part of his formation into an adult Megara aristocrat in Theognis' own image."[25]

It has been noted that in the seventh century, when pederasty is postulated to have first been formalized in Dorian cities, Megara cultivated good relations with Sparta, and may have been culturally attracted to emulate Spartan practices.[26]

Sparta, another Dorian polis, is thought to be the first city to practice athletic nudity, and one of the first to formalize pederasty.[27] The Spartans believed that the love of an older, accomplished aristocrat for an adolescent was essential to his formation as a free citizen. The agoge, the education of the ruling class, was thus founded on pederastic relationships required of each citizen.[28]

Many ancient writers held that Spartan pederasty was chaste, though still erotic.[29] Plutarch also describes the relationships as chaste, and states that it was as unthinkable for a lover to sexually consummate a relationship with his beloved as for a father to do so with his own son.[30] Aelian goes even farther, stating that if any couple succumbed to temptation and indulged in carnal relations, they would have to redeem the affront to the honor of Sparta by either going into exile or taking their own lives.[31]

The lover was responsible for the boy's training. Pederasty and military training were intimately connected in Sparta, as in many other cities. The Spartans, claims Athenaeus[32] sacrificed to Eros before every battle.

In Thebes, the main polis in Boeotia, renowned for its practice of pederasty, the tradition was enshrined in the founding myth of the city. In this instance the story was meant to teach by counterexample: it depicts Laius, one of the mythical ancestors of the Thebans, in the role of a lover who betrays the father and rapes the son. Another Boeotian pederastic myth is the story of Narcissus.

Theban pederasty, was instituted as an educational device for boys, in order to "soften, while they were young, their natural fierceness", and to "temper the manners and characters of the youth".[33] The Sacred Band of Thebes, a battalion made up of 150 pairs of lovers, was unbeatable until its final battle against Philip II at Chaeronea in 338 BC.

Vase depicting courtship scene
Detail from an Attic black-figure cup, ca. 530 BC–520 BCE.

Modern scholarship

Scholars point to artwork on vases, poetry and philosophical works such as the Platonic discussion of anteros, "love returned," all of which show tenderness and desire and love on the part of the eromenos matching and responding to that of the erastes. Critics of Dover and his followers also point out that they ignore all material which argued against their "overly theoretical" interpretation of a human and emotional relationship[34] and counter that "Clearly, a mutual, consensual bond was formed,"[35] and that it is "a modern fairy tale that the younger eromenos was never aroused."[36]

Halperin's position has been criticized as a "persistently negative and judgmental rhetoric implying exploitation and domination as the fundamental characteristics of pre-modern sexual models" and challenged as a polemic of "mainstream assimilationist gay apologists" and an attempt to "demonize and purge from the movement" all non-orthodox male sexualities, especially that involving adults and adolescents.[37]


  1. ^ J.D. Beazley, "Some Attic Vases in the Cyprus Museum", Proceedings of the British Academy 33 (1947); p.199; Dover supra n.55; p.94ff
  2. ^ William Armstrong Percy III, "Reconsiderations about Greek Homosexualities," in Same–Sex Desire and Love in Greco-Roman Antiquity and in the Classical Tradition of the West, Binghamton, 2005; pp47
  3. ^ Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaemonians, 2.12-14
  4. ^ Bruce Thornton, Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality; pp103-109; Westview Press, 1998; ISBN 0813332265
  5. ^ Aelian, Historical Miscellany 3.10 p.135; Loeb, 1997
  6. ^ Plato, Phaedrus in the Symposium
  7. ^ Plato, Laws, 636D & 835E
  8. ^ The Warren Cup: homoerotic love and symposial rhetoric in silver, John Pollini.
  9. ^ The term here rendered as "ideal" is καλοκἀγαθίᾳ, translated as "a perfect man, a man as he should be" in Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford, 1968; p.397)
  10. ^ Xenophon, Symposium; VIII.11
  11. ^ Victoria Wohl, Love among the Ruins: The Erotics of Democracy in Classical Athens p.5 referring to Aeschines, (Tim.134)
  12. ^ A Henri Irénée Marrou, George Lamb, History of Education in Antiquity p.27
  13. ^ Johnston, Sarah Iles. Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004. pg. 446.
  14. ^ See also Cocca, Carolyn. Adolescent Sexuality: A Historical Handbook and Guide. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2006. pg. 4
  15. ^ Andrew Calimach, Lovers' Legends: The Gay Greek Myths
  16. ^ Plutarch, "De Amores" 4
  17. ^ Aesop, "Zeus and Shame" (Perry 109, Chambry 118, Gibbs 528), in Fables
  18. ^ William A. Percy, Pederasty and Pedagogy in Ancient Greece, Chicago, 1996; p.53 N.36
  19. ^ K. J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality
  20. ^ David M. Halperin, How to Do the History of Homosexuality.
  21. ^ Bernard Sergent, Homosexuality and Greek Myth, passim
  22. ^ Athenaeus, Deipnosophists, 602
  23. ^ Aristotle, Politics 2.1272a 22-24
  24. ^ Percy, William A. Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece, pp146-150
  25. ^ Thomas K. Hubbard, Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: a sourcebook of basic documents in translation, University of California, 2003; p.23
  26. ^ N.G.L. Hammond, A history of Greece to 322 BC, 1989; p.150
  27. ^ Thomas F. Scanlon, "The Dispersion of Pederasty and the Athletic Revolution in Sixth-Century BC Greece," in Same-Sex Desire and Love in Greco-Roman Antiquity and in the Classical Tradition of the West, ed. B. C. Verstraete and V. Provencal, Harrington Park Press, 2005, pp.64-70
  28. ^ Erich Bethe,Die Dorische Knabenliebe: ihre Ethik und ihre Ideen, 1907, 441, 444
  29. ^ Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaemonians, II.13-14
  30. ^ Cicero, De Rep., iv. 4
  31. ^ Aelian, Var. Hist., III.12
  32. ^ Athenaeus of Naucratis, The Deipnosophists, XIII: Concerning Women
  33. ^ Plutarch, Life of Pelopidas
  34. ^ James Davidson, The Greeks and Greek Love, Orion, 2006
  35. ^ Robert B. Koehl, "Ephoros and Ritualized Homosexuality in Bronze Age Crete;" in Queer Representations: Reading Livers, Reading Cultures; Martin Duberman, ed. New York University, 1997
  36. ^ Hein van Dolen, Greek homosexuality,
  37. ^ Thomas K. Hubbard, "Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.09.22" of David M. Halperin's How to Do the History of Homosexuality[1]

See also


Ancient Greece
  • Greek Homosexuality, by Kenneth J. Dover; Duckworth 1978 ISBN
  • Percy, William A. Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996. ISBN
  • Homosexuality in Greek Myth, by Bernard Sergent; Beacon Press, 1986. ISBN
  • Lovers' Legends: The Gay Greek Myths, by Andrew Calimach; Haiduk Press, 2001. ISBN
  • Lovers' Legends Unbound, by Andrew Calimach et al.; Haiduk Press, 2004. ISBN
  • Homosexuality in Greece and Rome, by Thomas K. Hubbard; U. of California Press, 2003. [2] ISBN

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