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 power, Saint Paul inherited from the Old Testament a complete condemnation of homosexual acts, especially (in strong contrast with Greek ideas) of the active partner, who caused defilement and who sowed on stony ground the seed which should have engendered children for the people of Israel. This led Christian emperors to outlaw homosexuality and to impose savage punishments—by the end of the fourth century CE passive homosexual prostitutes could be publicly burned to death. Passive homosexuals, rather than active ones, took the brunt of the anger of Christian emperors, because the Church wanted to condemn all homosexuals, but compromised in the face of the opposition of traditional pagan society by punishing only the perennially unpopular group.

The evidence cited by Professor Cantarella for the archaic initiation rituals is not copious; it consists, apart from inferences and comparative material from other cultures, essentially of a long passage from a historian of the fourth century BCE about the backward island of Crete. He describes the institutionalized abduction of a boy, who spends two months in the mountains with his abductor “hunting and feasting.” At the end of the period the lover was supposed to present the boy with an ox, a wine cup, and an outfit for fighting in battle. The expense of such a gift itself strongly suggests (what other evidence tends to support) that this custom—which was found bizarre and rather shocking by mainland Greeks in the fourth century BCE—was restricted to the upper class. Ephorus, the historian who records all this, does not mention any religious purpose; he seems to think of it as simply a peculiar local practice.

Cantarella supposes, as many scholars now do, that in the early period such practices were widespread, and that they had a religious content. An obvious objection is that our earliest Greek text, Homer, not only says nothing of any of this but consistently presents a world in which homosexuality does not exist, while Achilles sets in motion the action of the Iliad by his anger at being robbed of a beloved captive girl (“Are Agamemnon and Menelaus the only men who love their wives? Every good and sensible man loves his wife, as I loved her, though she was the captive of my spear”), and Odysseus in the Odyssey endures all perils and resists all temptations—even that of immortality—to get back to his wife, Penelope, his reunion with whom is the climax of the poem. Nothing, in fact, could less resemble the fundamentally homosexual world so energetically reflected back into early Greece by so many modern scholars.


Cantarella, indeed, attempts to make a case for the presence in the Homeric poems of male homosexuality. Achilles and Patroclus, in her view, were after all lovers (as in later Greece many people found it natural to suppose). When Achilles’ goddess mother says to him, as he mourns inconsolably for Patroclus’ death, “How long will you eat out your heart, without thought for food or sexual love? It is good to have loving union with a woman; for you have not long to live, death and cruel fate are close at hand,” what she means, we read, is that her son has lingered too long in the youthful stage of homosexual love for Patroclus (perfectly acceptable in itself):

On reaching a certain age, one had to end the homosexual phase of life, and take on the virile role with a woman. And for Achilles, now, this age had arrived.

She speaks of Thetis urging her son to take a wife, “as is proper.” But in fact she does not refer to propriety, nor is she recommending a wife at this eleventh hour of her son’s life. I fear that this startling departure from conventional scholarship (“on closer inspection things look very different”) does not convince; and homosexuality remains—for whatever reason—excluded from the Iliad. It is also nonexistent in our other earliest Greek author, Hesiod; and—even more surprisingly—from the earliest satirical poet, Archilochus. That adds up to a resonant silence.

There are in fact a number of damaging slips in the book. It is startling to read that Aristotle “had…a wife, Arimnestes.” We possess his will, and we know that he had a long-term mistress but was not married: the biographical tradition, itself probably unreliable, alleges that he had a brother called Arimnestes and a sister called Arimneste. In the Medea of Euripides, the heroine complains that an unhappy wife must depend on her husband for everything, while he can go out and find other amusements and consolations. Cantarella writes:

Nor is this all…. A husband…can go out and recover his spirits with somebody who is philos [dear, friend]—obviously meaning an eromenos [catamite].

But the line which is quoted in support does not mean that (but simply “a man can turn to a friend”), and in any case it is agreed by scholars that the line is an interpolation in the text; metrical considerations suggest that it was composed centuries after Euripides’ time. It is very hard to find any allusion to homosexuality in the extant Greek tragedies. As evidence of the tolerance shown by wives of their husbands’ homosexual attachments, Cantarella says, “Alexander, tyrant of Pherai (respectably married), had a young eromenos.” But this terrible man cannot be the basis of an inference about ordinary people, nor was he in any sense respectable: the standard classical encyclopedia says of him that he “is unanimously depicted in all the narratives as the paradigm of a cruel and suspicious tyrant….” It is as if we were to take as typical the domestic life of Duvalier or Stalin.

Catullus wrote a celebrated two-line poem, expressing indifference to Julius Caesar’s opinion of him:

I am not too anxious to please you, Caesar, not to know whether you are a white man or a black.

Cantarella inexplicably translates it:

“There is nothing, Caesar, that I would like more than to please you, and to know whether you are white-skinned or dark.” Thus Catullus wrote to Caesar, once again questioning his virility.

The reader gasps. The reader gasps again at the assertion, quoted approvingly, that

The plays of Plautus, which predate the craze for things Greek, are full of homosexual allusions of a very native character. A much repeated way of teasing a slave is to remind him of what his master expects of him, i.e. to get down on all fours.

Now, the plays of Plautus are themselves loose translations and adaptations of named Greek originals; they cannot predate Greek influence. As for the much repeated way of teasing a slave, we find five Plautus references given. It is a surprise to find, on looking them up, that of the five, two are actually said by slaves to masters; one is uttered by a master as a joke about himself; one—very cryptic—comes in a monologue of a slave boy who works for a pimp in a brothel; only one is an insult to a slave, who replies, “Have you both gone mad?” Cantarella talks of Plautus’ “references to homosexual love,” but the term is wildly inappropriate. These are coarse and casual insults, the sort of thing that is now shouted by the more ignoble element in the crowd at (British) football players—love has (to echo Mae West) absolutely nothing to do with it.


It is impossible to avoid an air of pedantry in going on about such errors; but cumulatively they blur the wider picture, as well as making the reader distrustful of the generalizations which will be built on such foundations. I cite one more. In the early first century CE the elder Seneca, father of the great philosopher, wrote a book on the great speakers and lawyers of his youth. He tells the following story of one of them:

In his anxiety to say nothing that was not elegant and brilliant, he often fell into expressions that were bound to be made fun of. I remember him saying, in defense of a freedman who was alleged to be the concubine of his former master, “To surrender one’s chastity is a crime” [or “disgrace”] “in a free-born man; in a slave it is an unavoidable necessity; in a freedman it is a dutiful service.” It gave rise to jokes: “You’re not doing your duty by me,” and “he’s very dutiful to her.” In fact the loose-livers and the immodest were often called “dutiful” for some time afterwards.

An entertaining story, and not without its resonances. But it is inept to infer from it that “not even if he had been liberated, then, could the freedman escape his ‘sexual service.’ Although no longer compelled, he was still morally bound to submit to his former master.” The point is that a defending counsel was making the best case he could for something of which, clearly, society disapproved; and that his expression was found comical.

There is an insensitivity on Cantarella’s part to the tone and point of the text. In a similar way satirical and comic writers are treated as reliable guides to the state of their society. “All Athenian men, according to [Aristophanes]…gave themselves to other men,” is really a grotesque statement. On another page we read that in Imperial Rome “passive homosexuality was…turning into a mass vice (at least if one listens to Juvenal and Martial).” That was the standard insult, like cuckoldry in Renaissance Europe.

At a more general level I find it hard to believe in the picture here advanced of early Rome—Roman males, “powerful and inexhaustible,” “exuberant and irrepressible,” being admired for sexually subjugating the whole world, male and female. Certainly Romans, so far as we know, never talked like that (no early references are cited in support of this general picture). The distortion partly comes, I think, from a confusion between what was not illegal and what was acceptable—especially in a society with so oppressive a public opinion as early Rome seems to have had. There was nothing in law to stop a Roman divorcing his wife, if he tired of her; but to do so without cause—and indeed (in the upper class, the one we know about) without explaining your reasons to a family council—got you marked down as levis (lightweight), subject to the full measure of Roman disapproval, and the various unpleasantnesses that went with it. The thin-lipped Roman aristocrats whose portrait busts survive praised each other for severitas and frugalitas and parsimonia, self-control and hard-headedness and tight-fistedness. Carrying on with floozies, male or female, did not win a man esteem; and a man not esteemed could be publicly slighted, expelled from the Senate, refused military rank, not elected to office, rebuked by his kinsmen.

Again, to infer from a selection of literary texts that Romans thought of marriage as “nothing but a social duty,” and “felt that it was normal for a man to have sexual relations with other men as well as women,” is to disregard such evidence as the thousands of tombstones and epitaphs still extant on which husbands and wives asserted their devotion. Of course, they are in part conventional; but such inscriptions never became conventional for single-sex relationships.

It is true that the ancient peoples of the Mediterranean—not so differently from their modern descendants—took a very different view of sexual acts, depending on whether they were active or passive. To treat a boy as a woman was a natural desire; to be so treated was to be assimilated to the position of a woman, passive, not a man. Passive male tarts could lose their citizen rights at Athens: such rights belonged to men, and they had turned their backs on that status. The idea of burning them alive, to be sure, was reserved for the Christian period—even the Hebrews seem not to have felt the need to go beyond stoning male homosexuals to death (admittedly, both parties).

A wide range of attitudes seems to have existed in Greece, some states such as Elis and Boeotia positively encouraging pederasty—at least in certain conditions—others treating it as a crime. Some Greeks, I fear, did regard it as “against nature”; Plato did, at the end of his life, in that gloomy and antilibertarian work, the Laws. Cantarella denies it; but her discussion does not mention that Plato refers to Laius as the inventor of homosexual love, and also appeals to the behavior of animals, where male does not (according to Plato) touch male, “because this is not natural.” Laius was Oedipus’ father: he carried off a boy, who hanged himself for shame, and Laius himself was punished with sterility for his offense against marriage. He should never have had a son—and when he did, that son killed him. This story, not mentioned by Sophocles, was used by his contemporary Euripides, and probably also, a generation earlier, by Aeschylus. Such a myth is suggestive. It should have been mentioned.

Because the one thing that was never approved of was that a man should take the passive role, Greeks and Romans alike thought of homosexual love as between an elder and a younger partner, regularly called a boy. That point is repeatedly and rightly made in Professor Cantarella’s book. And yet the author drifts to a more twentieth-century formulation, in which “boys” are repeatedly replaced by “men.” “For Catullus men and women are interchangeable love objects” (Catullus would have been bitterly mortified—like Byron, he was attracted to women and also to boys). She writes of “Evidence…of the total acceptance of love between men…in the first century BC”—but the evidence is of desire for boys. “For Horace…it was a law of nature that men should inspire male desire”—but the poem refers to a beardless boy. “Like the Greeks, the Romans also felt that it was normal for a man to have sexual relations with other men as well as with women”; and yet on another page, “Relations between adults, on the other hand, were more problematical…. They were only half acceptable.” This is still an overestimate by 50 percent, I’m afraid.

A rather similarly contemporary note seemed to me to sound in the treatment—interesting and suggestive, but here we really are short of evidence—of female homosexuality. Professor Cantarella’s very imaginative treatment of early lyric (not only Sappho) leads to the conclusion that it was different from pederasty. Not “an educational relationship” (and yet Sappho, the only lesbian of whom we really know anything, does seem to have been a teacher), it

appears…more like the free expression of reciprocal feeling, giving rise to an equal relationship between two people who have chosen each other…. Sex between women takes place on an equal basis, it does not involve submission.

Perhaps so; it is nice to think so. But perhaps, like other things in this interesting book, it is assumed a little too quickly.

This Issue

October 22, 1992