When A.E. Housman, toward the end of his life, decided to correct the learned world’s misunderstanding of some passages in the Latin poets which deal in detail with the mechanics of homosexual copulation, he published, in a German scholarly periodical, an article entitled Praefanda 1 (which means “Dirty Words”). His meticulous explanation of the matter in hand was distinguished by the precise analysis, caustic wit, and elegant prose characteristic of all his writing, but this time the prose was not English but Latin. That was in 1931; in 1932 the New York publishing firm Covici-Friede livened up their list with a translation of Hans Licht’s Sexual Life in Ancient Greece (Licht’s real name was Brandt—he was director of a Gymnasium in Saxony). The “thirty-two full-page plates” with which Covici-Friede tried to spice the rather stolid fare served up by Brandt-Licht included such daring images as the Medici Venus, the Hermes of Praxiteles, the Louvre Diana, a Parthenon metope, and, for a real thrill, the Naples Aphrodite Kallipygos.
We have come a long way since then. Eros in Greece displays a sequence of photographs which illustrate in exquisite color every aspect of Greek erotic activity from alpha to omega and back again. Eros in Antiquity offers many of the same photographs, plus a generous coverage of the Pompeian wall-paintings and the curiosa, most of them coarsely obscene, from the notorious Gabinetto Segreto of the Museo Nazionale in Naples. In Greek Homosexuality K.J. Dover, dealing like Housman with specifics, calls a spade a spade but, unlike Housman, in his native tongue. “A man and a boy get into position for intercrural copulation” is one of his photo-captions, and another runs: “A hairy satyr masturbates while pushing a penis-substitute into his own anus.” And in Dover’s text the love that in Victorian England dared not speak its name is examined with a clinical eye, its Greek terminology defined with philological exactness, its physical manifestations unblushingly described, and its role in archaic and classical Greek society soberly appraised.
Eros in Greece (originally Eros in Grecia, Milan, 1975) has a broader scope; only half a dozen of the 160 color illustrations portray homosexual scenes. It is essentially a picture book, one of those quarto volumes which are produced for the coffee tables of the well-to-do and end up, after a decent interval, on the display tables of remainder houses. It is a very distinguished specimen of the genre. John Boardman, a renowned authority on Greek art, contributes an essay on “love in Greek art and life” which deals gracefully if not in depth with the place of Eros in mythology and cult; he then presents, through the persona of an imaginary youth of the classical period—“Pamphilos we shall call him”—a sketch of the sexual career of the Athenian homme sensuel moyen: a liaison with an older youth, marriage with a much younger bride, and extramural consolation with cultured hetaerae and the flute girls who entertain guests at the extremely un-Platonic symposia portrayed on red-figure vases. Boardman concludes with a concise but expert discussion of the erotic scenes on these vases which, he reminds us, “are presented without plain wrappers, unromantically, with a smile not a snigger, designed neither to excite nor to embarrass.” This is a salutary reminder to the reader who embarks on the following section, a photographic anthology of the erotic art of Greece.
The photographs (most of them the work of Antonia Mulas) are extraordinary both in themselves and for the brilliance of their reproduction in color. The illustrations for Boardman’s essay, less blatantly sexual than the parade of délices which follows, include some breathtaking landscape pictures: the cliff edge at Erice in Sicily, the temple at Selinus seen across a field of yellow flowers, the Altis at Olympia in autumnal light and color, and a magnificent two-page spread showing the west end of the Parthenon from inside.
The erotic pictures are also technically admirable; compared with those featured in Eros Kalos,2 a pioneering predecessor in the Greek sex picture-book field, they show a decided advance in clarity of reproduction, though this is sometimes achieved at the expense of authenticity. On the Boston Corinthian mirror, for example, the outlines of the improbably athletic coupling it portrays emerge with startling emphasis because the dark green of the original bronze surface appears here as off-white. Most of the illustrations, however, are drawn from the vast erotic repertoire of Athenian vase-painting (Dover lists some 500 items) and the colors are faithfully reproduced; in most cases, too, though not in all, the actual dimensions of the object are stated. This is a highly desirable feature in a medium so addicted to reduction and blow-up; one carved gem twenty-six millimeters in width is magnified more than ten times to fill two-thirds of a double spread and the great metope from temple E at Selinus, 1.62 meters high, is reduced to a miniature seven centimeters square.3
These illustrations cover Greek erotic art from an Etruscan oinochoe with scratched figures cruder than anything to be found in New York public toilets to the sophisticated sensuality of the Aretine bowls, here accentuated by skillful lighting. They are discussed in a critical analysis by Eugenio La Rocca, superintendent of the Capitoline museums in Rome, which deals with the pictures from an art-historical point of view; occasionally he has to justify their inclusion. The bowls made in Arezzo by Marcus Perennius Tigranes, for example, are billed as “the last to show clear evidence of Greek influence.” He also discusses possible mythological interpretations (not all of them convincing) and explains what the pictures represent. Such explanation is standard practice in any publication of Greek vase painting, which often features objects unfamiliar to the modern eye and uses artistic conventions which may not be comprehensible at first glance. In the case of erotic pictures, especially those which portray activity which though obviously sexual is not clearly represented or not immediately recognizable, this can pose a delicate problem; Sir John Beazley was a master of precise understatement in this field4 and Emily Vermeule’s publication of the Warren collection—“Some Erotica in Boston”5—is a model of its kind.
La Rocca does well enough, but he tends to be evasive when the temperature rises: “Two Men at Exercise” is his heading for the Amasis cup which shows two fat men masturbating and he leaves the baffled reader with no explanation of the strange goings-on represented on the Nikosthenes kantharos (even Vermeule is a little mysterious on this one—“boy tending from the rear a symplegma of boy and girl”).6 La Rocca can also, with that slightly batty irrelevance art historians are prone to, take off at a hilarious tangent to the main line; on the Boston mirror, for example, a picture which will have every reader trying desperately to figure out how the lady can possibly operate in that position without breaking her neck, he remarks: “Note the details, especially the extremely fine rosette border of the blanket.”
Eros in Antiquity (which has already reached the remainder stores in the Washington area) displays its wares unaccompanied by interpretative essay or art-historical commentary; this is a hard-core item. There are very few landscape pictures here; blow-ups are frequent and spectacular (a votive vulva and a phallos vase, 15 and 8.5 cms. high respectively, fill each one a quarto page). The Pompeian wall paintings include, besides such well-known items as the bawdy house frescoes and the initiation scenes from the House of the Mysteries, a picture of Priapus weighing his truly formidable member on a hand-balance. The bronzes, marbles, and terracottas form a monotonous line of phallic grotesques; the prize item is a Mercury who, in addition to a huge bent phallus in the usual place, has two more sprouting from his winged cap and one from each ear. The publisher’s blurb claims that “the works in Eros in Antiquity come across with such immense visual impact as to make…dead civilizations live“; unfortunately, this fifteen-page parade of phallic fantasies creates a quite false impression that what the people of Pompeii lived in was an environment something like the inside of an Adult Books establishment.
Dover’s book is a much more serious enterprise; the reader who embarks on it expecting amusement or titillation will be swiftly disillusioned. It is a matter-of-fact, methodical description and analysis of a social phenomenon, central to classical Greek culture, which has been prettily sentimentalized, dismissed as peripheral, or blandly ignored in most presentations of the glory that was Greece. Dover’s is an authoritative discussion; he is a philologist of great stature with wide achievement as editor, commentator, and literary critic, and he has been working his way toward a full treatment of this subject since the publication of his magnificent edition of Aristophanes’ Clouds in 1968.7 His witty commentary on the homosexual yearnings betrayed by Right’s phraseology in the famous debate scene of that play abolished forever the comfortable doctrine that Right spoke against the sophistic arguments of Wrong in the conservative voice of Aristophanes himself: “it is as if a modern preacher, having thundered ‘No girl ever wore trousers in those days’ continued ‘And sometimes you glimpsed the satiny flesh on the inside of her thighs.’ ” And in his identification of the physical phenomena Right finds so enchanting in his nostalgic picture of the boys of yesteryear, Dover set a new standard of liveliness in the exegesis of classical Greek texts:
what stimulates Right’s aesthetic imagination is the visual and tactile contrast between the matt surface of the penis as a whole and the secretion revealed by pushing back the foreskin; the same kind of contrast as is obtained by taking a small bite at a peach.
Since then Dover has dealt briefly with the subject in an article on classical Greek attitudes to sexual behavior8 and in his book Greek Popular Morality;9 he now presents us with an exhaustive survey of “those phenomena of homosexual behavior and sentiment which are to be found in Greek art and literature between the eighth and second centuries B.C.”
The eighth century is now one of the fashionable dates for the late stages of composition of the Iliad and Odyssey, but Dover, of course, recognizes that “there is no overt homosexuality in these poems.” This is a rather remarkable fact, since it is obviously not a case of suppression for reasons of literary decorum; tragedy, as we know from fragments of Aeschylus and Sophocles, dealt unashamedly with this theme and Pindar’s “hymns, lords of the lyre” could refer to it without a blush. The historical problem posed by this Homeric silence has been tackled in various ways. Sir William Ridgeway, writing early in the century, identified the Achaeans of Homer as Aryans, “a body of tall, fair-haired invaders,” in whose society “there was not likely to be any place for the unspeakable sin which cankered Greek society in historical times.” Their descendants were corrupted after the migration to the South: “the sin of Sodom in all ages has been endemic in the Mediterranean basin and has never, except sporadically, and that mainly under southern influence, appeared north of the Alps….”10 (It seems hard to believe, but he wrote these words sitting in a Cambridge college midway between King’s and Trinity.)
A later theory, basing itself on some passages in Plato’s Laws, reversed the roles and assigned responsibility for the spread of homosexuality to later invaders, the Dorians. Dover, after a careful review of the evidence, rejects this idea out of hand: “there can be no question of tracing the diffusion of homosexual eros from Sparta or other Dorian states. We can only say that its social acceptance and artistic exploitation had become widespread by the end of the seventh century.”
Wherever it may have started, the bulk of our evidence for it (as for almost everything else about classical Greece) comes from Athens. In fact, the “mainstay of the book” (Dover’s own description of pages 19-109) is a full exploration of a speech made by Aeschines before an Athenian court, urging that one Timarchus be deprived of his citizenship, in accordance with a law which forbade anyone who had prostituted his body to another male to exercise citizen rights. (The citizen right Timarchus was exercising was the prosecution of Aeschines for treasonous conduct in the course of negotiations with Philip of Macedon.) The number of different issues relevant to homosexuality raised by this speech is, as Dover puts it, “considerable.” He proposes “to explore each of them far enough to make what Aeschines said to the jurors in 346 BC intelligible in terms of the jurors’ attitudes and assumptions.”
The reason for Dover’s concentration on this particular text (and later on comedy) is the proposition, basic to his book Greek Popular Morality, that “works composed for the persuasion or amusement of large audiences” should be treated as the primary “evidence for the moral assumptions made by the average Athenian.” And this speech of Aeschines is “the only surviving text which gives us access to the sentiments which it was prudent to profess in public on the subject of homosexuality in Athens during the classical period.”
Dover’s “long and discursive exploration” of this speech investigates the law and the legal issues raised by the case, the Greek vocabulary of homosexual feeling and practice, the Greek view of what was “natural” in these matters, the roles of active and passive partners, the mode of pursuit and flight, courtship and copulation, and (a factor never thoroughly assessed before) the weight of the evidence provided by the abundant artistic representation. What emerges is a general pattern of feeling and conduct which is unique in the history of Western society: a code of male homosexual love openly practiced and socially acceptable.
Aeschines’ case against Timarchus is not that he is a homosexual, not even that he was once a homosexual prostitute; it is that having been one, he is breaking the law by prosecuting Aeschines for treason. The orator foresees that the defense will try to confuse the issue by producing a general who will sing the praises of homosexual love (the patriotic lovers Harmodius and Aristogeiton, the heroic lovers Achilles and Patroclus)11 and point out that Aeschines himself has been the lover (erastes) of many and has written “erotic” poems. Aeschines forestalls these arguments by admitting that he has no criticism to make of what he calls dikaios (“just” or “legitimate”) eros, that he has been an erotikos—a man given to homosexual love affairs—and remains one, and that he has even been involved in the contentions and fights which arise from such pursuits. There could be no clearer indication that homosexual relationships, when clear of any suspicion of commercialism, were considered honorable, even admirable.12
Such relationships had their own peculiar conventions and rituals. They rarely took place between men of the same age; the ideal pair were a fully adult but still young erastes and an adolescent eromenos, whose beard had not yet grown; the law contained stringent clauses protecting younger boys. There is nothing effeminate about either partner; “in the visual arts of the late archaic and early classical periods, and also in the majority of literary contexts (at any period) in which homosexual eros is expressed directly or described with approval, unambiguously male bodily features and a specifically masculine life-style constitute a homosexual stimulus,” though “there may have been a certain shift in taste towards effeminate-looking males during the fourth century.” But though the passion of the erastes, displayed in the opulence of his gifts, the persistence of his pursuit, and the physical symptoms of his passion, were universally approved and admired, the eromenos was expected to play, and be, very hard to get—and even when got, not to enjoy the process. “The boy,” says Xenophon, “does not share in the man’s pleasure in intercourse, as a woman does; cold sober, he looks upon the other drunk with sexual desire.”
Intercourse, when and if it was finally achieved, was, to judge by the vase paintings (our only firm evidence) “intercrural,” not anal. And the role of the respectable eromenos is summed up by Dover as: “refusal of payment, obdurate postponement of bodily contact until the potential partner has proved his worth, abstention from any sensual enjoyment of such contact, insistence on an upright position, avoidance of meeting the partner’s eye during consummation, denial of true penetration.” This situation, as Dover wittily remarks, has certain analogies with a heterosexual context: “the presentation of respectable British society in the literature of the nineteenth century.”
For the easily won, venal, or prostitute eromenos, male society felt contempt, but the successful erastes was envied. Housman, in the article referred to above, after informing the German scholarly community that the coarse Latin word for the dominant male partner in one of his aspects (irrumator) was not adequately rendered by “Schweinhund,” went on to lament that it was of course “difficult for people accustomed from boyhood to follow the laws of Paul of Tarsus and the Hebrews to accept the idea, which seemed as perfectly natural to Catullus and Martiat as it would to any modern denizen of the slums of Sicily or Naples, that fellators and pathics were obscene, but not their active partners.”13
The physical aspects of such relationships are fully documented in the fifty-six crowded pages of black and white illustrations; from the literature we are more familiar with their emotional side. These emotions are of course the context of Socrates’ discussions with the young, as they are presented in Plato’s dialogues: the physical setting is as often as not a gymnasium, the obvious place to admire and court the fashionable “beauties.” We encounter Socrates, as Dover says, “in a strongly homosexual ambience.” This phrase occurs in the opening paragraph of a fascinating discussion of Socrates’ “exploitation of the Athenian homosexual ethos as a basis of metaphysical doctrine.” Dover has already demonstrated, in his analysis of the polite and sometimes euphemistic vocabulary used for public discussion of this subject, that the typical Platonic dialogue is conducted in an athletic, homosexual setting and is rich in imagery drawn from the language of homosexual love; but, though Socrates in the Charmides (152b) is made to describe himself as “on fire, absolutely beside myself” as a result of a glimpse inside the cloak of young Charmides, he condemns actual homosexual copulation (Republic 403b) and, in a famous scene of the Symposium, resists the seductive importunities of the irresistible Alcibiades.
It is Socratic (or more likely Platonic) doctrine that eros, the passion for the physical beauty of another person, is, as Dover puts it, “a step in the direction of absolute Beauty, an aspect of Good.” It is only the first step and Diotima, Socrates’ mentor (or so he claims in the Symposium), describes the rest of the journey: “beginning from these beauties, to ascend continually in pursuit of that other Beauty, going, as it were by steps…to end in that study which is a study of nothing other than Beauty itself….” That this climb to the metaphysical stratosphere should start from and draw its imagery from earthly sexual passion is a familiar phenomenon from other times and cultures; that in the case of Plato’s influential theory of ideas the base passion should be homosexual is a historical accident. In Socrates’ world, as Dover points out, “intense eros was experienced more often in a homosexual than in a heterosexual relationship” and the necessary abstinence from copulation was more appropriate for homosexual love, since women’s role in society was to bear children, “whereas popular sentiment romanticized and applauded the chastity of an eromenos and the devotedly unselfish erastes.” In fact, of course, such romantic chastity was more honored in the breach than the observance and Plato in his old age ruled homosexual love out of court as “contrary to nature,”14 a formulation which, as Dover says, was to have a profound effect on the history of morality.
At the end of the book, after a brief discussion of Women and Homosexuality (brief because the literary evidence is scarce, the pictorial almost nonexistent) and a section on the Dorians, Dover poses the question why the Greeks “developed homosexual eros much more elaborately and intensely than other peoples” and “why its elaboration took certain forms rather than others.” He suggests as an answer that “homosexuality satisfied a need…for personal relationships of an intensity not commonly found within marriage or in the relations between parents and children or in those between the individual and the community as a whole.” He sees the first two deficiencies as consequences of the third: “the political fragmentation of the Greek world” which confronted the Greek city-state continuously with “the problem of survival in competition with aggressive neighbors.” The consequent over-valuation of adult male fighters and under-valuation of women produced a situation in which “males tended to group themselves together for military, political, religious and social purposes to a degree…which was enough to inhibit the full development of intimacy between husband and wife or between father and son.”
This hardly seems an adequate explanation; one thinks at once of other societies that were highly organized for permanent warfare but developed no such elaborate homosexual codes, and in any case, as Dover has already pointed out, the phenomena under investigation are characteristic of the Athenian leisure class (the characters of Plato’s dialogues), a world in which unmarried girls were carefully confined in their parents’ home until marriage and then just as strictly confined in their husbands’. Such segregation of women was not possible except in a household well equipped with slave labor; the Athenians who manned the war galleys, the mass audience of Aristophanes, lived in a rougher, coarser, more heterosexual world, as is clear from the comedies themselves.
Dover does not, in any case, intend to indulge in “speculation at more theoretical levels”;15 his “primary object is to describe what is most easily and clearly observed, offering such explanations as are prompted by everyday experience.” This he has done, in full measure and with the accuracy, penetrating analysis, and objectivity characteristic of all his work. The subject was one which needed to be exposed to the light of day; we can be thankful that it has been done by a great scholar and one who treats the subject without prejudice either way. “I am fortunate,” he says in his preface, “in not experiencing moral shock or disgust at any genital act whatsoever, provided that it is welcome and agreeable to all the participants (whether they number one, two or more than two).” In that parenthesis he gives evidence of another asset which for anyone who writes on this subject is indispensable, a carefully disciplined, but acute, sense of humor.
January 25, 1979
Hermes 66 (1931), p. 402 ff. Reprinted in The Classical Papers of A.E. Housman (Cambridge University Press, 1972), vol. III, p. 1175 ff. ↩
Jean Marcadé, Geneva 1962. ↩
The scene on the gem is highly erotic, that on the metope unobjectionable. ↩
For example, he supplied for the “most characteristic configuration of homosexual courtship in vase painting”—one in which the suitor reaches for the boy’s face with one hand and his genitals with the other—the handy label “the up and down position” (Dover, p. 94). ↩
Antike Kunst, 1969, pp. 9-15. ↩
To see what is meant by “tending” the curious reader may consult J. Boardman, Athenian Red-Figure Vases in the Archaic Period (Thames and Hudson, London, 1945), fig. 99. ↩
Aristophanes, Clouds, edited with introduction and commentary (Oxford University Press, 1968). ↩
Arethusa, Spring 1973. ↩
University of California Press, 1975, pp. 213-216. ↩
The Early Age of Greece (Cambridge, 1931), vol. II, p. 132, pp. 353-354. (This volume was published posthumously; Ridgeway died in 1926 and had been working on it ever since the publication of volume I in 1901.) ↩
Though there is no overt homosexuality in Homer, the classical Greeks, who regularly cited Homer as an ethical standard, had to pretend that there was. Aeschines so interprets the friendship of the two heroes in this speech and Aeschylus produced a play on the subject; a surviving fragment shows that he portrayed the relationship as one of physical as well as emotional passion. ↩
Incidentally, Aeschines won the case. ↩
Scilicet non facile qui Pauli Tarsensis et Iudaeorum norma uti a pueris consueverunt opinionem mentibus comprehendunt quae, ut Catullo et Martiali, ita nunc cuivis de plebe Siciliana vel Neapolitana penitus a natura insita est, obscaenos fellatores et cinaedos, pedicones et irrumatores non obscaenos esse. ↩
Plato, Dover points out, “appeals to the animal world to establish what is natural and what is not. This argument is weak, if only because Plato knew virtually nothing about animals .” A specimen of what Plato did not know about animals is provided in a note to page 99: “The giraffe has developed a courtship technique, exploiting the aesthetic potentialities of his long neck, which he uses in homosexual relations but not in heterosexual mating .” ↩
For such speculation, see the interesting article of G. Devereux, “Greek Pseudo-homosexuality and the ‘Greek Miracle,’ ” Symbolae Osloenses, xlii (1967), pp. 69-92. ↩