Love and Sex in Greece

One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love

by David M. Halperin
Routledge, 229 pp., $13.95 (paper)

The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece

by John J. Winkler
Routledge, 269 pp., $14.95 (paper)

When Michel Foucault set out to write his History of Sexuality , he found that it was impossible to begin with the recent past. Modern attitudes could be understood only in the light of earlier ones, and the investigation of sexuality in the Christian period led inescapably to the world of pagan antiquity. By “sexuality” Foucault meant not facts or actions of the biological order but the “complex political technology” by which society categorizes, discusses, and so creates, the sexual behavior of its members. His book aimed to show that this behavior, and the group of ideas and desires that controlled it, was less a natural than a culturally created affair.

Both David Halperin and John Winkler, who work in close collaboration, write explicitly in the wake of Foucault, who receives forty-two entries in Halperin’s index, and both emphasize repeatedly that ” ‘nature’ stands for ‘culture’ ” (Winkler), and even that “we must accept that ‘sexuality’ is a cultural production no less than are table manners, health clubs, and abstract expressionism” (Halperin). Halperin refers, in an apparently innocent manner, to Foucault’s “matchless penetration.” The other important impulse for these writers is the work of K.J. Dover, especially his Greek Homosexuality. This book, pioneering in its refusal to be shocked, collected a mass of evidence on the topic, especially that of representations on pottery—the pictures which earlier scholars had, according to temperament, reserved for private perusal or ignored altogether. In Halperin’s index Dover rates even more entries (forty-six) than Foucault.

The combination of facts assembled with British empiricism and theories expounded with Gallic verve thus forms the point of departure for two current American studies of ancient sexual theory and practice. Both are learned, with a full panoply of footnotes and bibliography, but both are written also with passion and some personal self-revelation. Halperin begins with an emotional passage:

Since 1978…in a period, in other words, when much of western Europe and America seems to have sunk into a reactionary torpor, embracing with a hollow and cynical enthusiasm the comforts of conventional pieties and rushing to rediscover the demagogic possibilities of a self-serving obscurantism, intellectual ferment within the universities has been quietly but inexorably proceeding at an accelerating rate, and research [on the history of sexuality] has made great strides.

The book has a double aim. Halperin wants to show that “our own cultural assumptions are inappropriate to the interpretation of sexual life in ancient Greece.” But a more important aim is to show that “a radical reinterpretation of sexual life in ancient Greece has the potential to transform our own cultural and sexual self-understanding.”

The argument is that in the ancient world, as indeed in all societies until the late nineteenth century, the category of “homosexual” did not exist: “Before 1892 there was no homosexuality, only sexual inversion”—but in that year the word “homosexuality” was used in English for the first time, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Hence Halperin’s title, One Hundred …

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Letters

Greek Love: An Exchange April 26, 1990