From antiquity to the present, nothing has given admirers of the Greeks so much embarrassment and caused so much downright revulsion as the widespread Greek practice of men making love to young boys. We owe the word “pederasty” for this activity to Greek pais for boy and erastês for lover.
Our tolerance for explicit descriptions of sexual acts in the post-Kinsey era has encouraged the growth of a minor industry in the study of Greek homosexuality. The Greeks themselves had no word for homosexuality, and “pederasty” represents only a part of what that modern word covers. But with the ample textual and visual evidence that survives from the ancient world, historians and scholars have set to work with brio in the spirit of pioneers in a new discipline. If the clinical detail is new, the discipline is not. The study of Greek sexuality, continued in the books by James Davidson and Andrew Lear and Eva Cantarella under review, has a long pedigree, going all the way back to the Romans, who absorbed Greek culture into their empire.
Cicero and his contemporaries considered pederasty something uniquely Greek, and he mocked philosophers who extolled the supposed virtue that an older lover imparted to his beloved. “Why is it,” he wrote in his Tusculan Disputations, “that no one loves an ugly adolescent or a good-looking older man? It is my impression that this custom started in the gymnasia, where such liaisons were available and allowed.” Cicero called as a witness the early Roman poet Ennius, who wrote that the beginning of such disgraceful conduct was the display of naked bodies among the citizenry (nudare inter civis corpora).
The very word “gymnasium” is formed from the Greek for nude (gumnos). Opportunities for pederastic activity there evidently explain legislation from two Greek cities to control access to the boys undergoing physical training. A Hellenistic inscription from Beroea in Macedonia explicitly forbids younger men between twenty and thirty years of age from approaching the adolescents in the gymnasium or talking to them. Such men would be precisely in the age group of most erastai who would solicit boys in their teens. A still-unpublished inscription from Amphipolis, also in Macedonia, regulates the training of ephebes (boys between eighteen and twenty) and states,
The trainer [paidotribê s], naked, will be in charge and shall train and compel [the ephebes] to exercise. No one else shall exercise with the ephebes except for the ephebarch [the officer in charge] and the trainer…. If anyone instructing the ephebes leads a dissolute and imprudent life and does not properly care for the ephebes’ education but clearly does something that would injure an ephebe or be shameful, the ephebarch shall fine him.
Nudity continued to be traditional in Greek gymnasia and in wrestling schools throughout antiquity, and it was normal at great Panhellenic athletic competitions such as the Olympics.
Thucydides, who was as sober and unimpeachable a historian as Greece ever produced, declared that nudity had been introduced from Sparta not long …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all articles published within the last five years.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.