The Love that Dared to Speak its Name

Books pour from the presses on the sexuality of the ancient world. What exactly did they do, and what are the implications for our own sexual attitudes? In particular, what did they think and do about homosexual behavior? As with books about the sexual behavior of animals (“Chimpanzees regularly do x, and so…”), these works tend to have a strong flavor of propaganda. In particular, we hear a good deal nowadays on the question—by no means as simple as it might appear—whether the Greeks regarded homosexuality as “against nature.” Or rather, since some of them undeniably said so, whether they can be shown to have meant something else.

Eva Cantarella is a professor of ancient law at Milan. Her book has been translated into English in a way which betrays a certain lack of familiarity with the ancient world on the part of the translator. (Abinna for Habinnas, Ilas for Hylas, Salamina for Salamis, are examples of names kept in their Italian form, harder to find or check in English language works of reference.) It is an ambitious attempt to narrate and also explain the whole history of bisexuality, from the Greek world before Homer to the Roman Empire in its Christian period—some 1,500 years. Some compression is inevitable. It is an interesting work, with conclusions which, if accepted, are challenging.

It is the thesis of the book that in the beginning the Greeks practiced initiation rites for young men which involved, as part of the rite of passage that turned boys into full men, sexual submission to a mature male. Greek culture thereafter was thoroughly bisexual, men assuming that they were attracted to boys, and that “homosexual love [was] superior to love for women.” Taking the passive role in sexual intercourse was all that was discountenanced. By the late fifth century at Athens, “all Athenian men, according to [Aristophanes], be they nobles or members of the populace, gave themselves to other men.” In archaic Rome, meanwhile, sexual expression for men was virtually unrestricted.

For a Roman, the highest expression of virility consisted in putting other men down. It was all too easy, and too paltry, for a real man merely to subject women to his desires. For the powerful and inexhaustible Roman male, women could not suffice. His exuberant and irrepressible sexuality had to be expressed without limitations: he had to possess all the possible objects of his desire, independently of their sex.

Contact with Greek culture softened a scene in which

Roman homosexuality…was purely and simply, not to say brutally, a matter of bullying and violence,

while marriage was

a bond which for the Romans was normally nothing but a social duty.

Courtship and love of boys came in. So too did an increasing taste for the passive role, as upper-class Romans lost their absolute domestic power, while the emperors replaced the old republic. This led to alarm about the future of Rome and its empire; and when Christianity came into…

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