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Jack Parker
Jack Parker

Sex In Ancient Greece

In classical antiquity, writers such as Herodotus,[1] Plato,[2] Xenophon,[3] Athenaeus[4] and many others explored aspects of homosexuality in Greek society. The most widespread and socially significant form of same-sex sexual relations in ancient Greece amongst elite circles was between adult men and pubescent or adolescent boys, known as pederasty (marriages in Ancient Greece between men and women were also age structured, with men in their thirties commonly taking wives in their early teens).[5] Nevertheless, homosexuality and its practices were still wide-spread as certain city-states allowed it while others were ambiguous or prohibited it.[6] Though sexual relationships between adult men did exist, it is possible at least one member of each of these relationships flouted social conventions by assuming a passive sexual role according to Kenneth Dover, though this has been questioned by recent scholars. It is unclear how such relations between same-sex partners were regarded in the general society, especially for women, but examples do exist as far back as the time of Sappho.[7]

sex in ancient greece

The ancient Greeks did not conceive of sexual orientation as a social identifier as modern Western societies have done. Greek society did not distinguish sexual desire or behavior by the gender of the participants, but rather by the role that each participant played in the sex act, that of active penetrator or passive penetrated.[7]Within the traditions of pederasty, active/passive polarization corresponded with dominant and submissive social roles: the active (penetrative) role was associated with masculinity, higher social status, and adulthood, while the passive role was associated with femininity, lower social status, and youth.[7]

The age limit for pederasty in ancient Greece seems to encompass, at the minimum end, boys of twelve years of age. To love a boy below the age of twelve was considered inappropriate, but no evidence exists of any legal penalties attached to this sort of practice. Traditionally, a pederastic relationship could continue until the widespread growth of the boy's body hair, when he is considered a man. Therefore, though relationships such as this were more temporary, it had longer, lasting effects on those involved. In ancient Spartan weddings, the bride had her hair cropped short and was dressed as a man. It was suggested by George Devereux that this was to make the husband's transition from homosexual to heterosexual relationships easier.[17] This marks these pederasty relationships as temporary, developmental ones, not one of sexual and intimate connection like with a woman. During these times, homosexuality was seen as normal and necessary due to the power dynamic at play between an older, dominant man, and a younger, submissive one.[18] Yet, when two men of similar age shared a similar relationship, it was deemed taboo and, in fact, perverse.[19]

The ancient Greeks, in the context of the pederastic city-states, were the first to describe, study, systematize, and establish pederasty as a social and educational institution. It was an important element in civil life, the military, philosophy and the arts.[20] There is some debate among scholars about whether pederasty was widespread in all social classes, or largely limited to the aristocracy.

The Sacred Band of Thebes, a separate military unit made up of pairs of male lovers, is usually considered the prime example of how the ancient Greeks used love between soldiers in a troop to boost their fighting spirit. The Thebans attributed to the Sacred Band the power of Thebes for the generation before its fall to Philip II of Macedon, who, when he surveyed the dead after the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC) and saw the bodies of the Sacred Band strewn on the battlefield, delivered this harsh criticism of the Spartan views of the band:

The legislator Philolaus of Corinth, lover of the stadion race winner Diocles of Corinth at the Ancient Olympic Games of 728 BC,[24] crafted laws for the Thebans in the 8th century BCE that gave special support to male unions, contributing to the development of Theban pederasty in which, unlike other places in ancient Greece, it favored the continuity of the union of male couples even after the younger man reached adulthood, the most famous example being the Sacred Band of Thebes, composed of elite soldiers in pairs of male lovers in the 4th century BCE, as was also the case with him and Diocles, who lived together in Thebes until the end of their lives.[25]

The first recorded appearance of a deep emotional bond between adult men in ancient Greek culture was in the Iliad (800 BC). Homer does not depict the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus as sexual. The ancient Athenians emphasised the supposed age difference between the two by portraying Patroclus with a beard in paintings and pottery, while Achilles is clean-shaven, although Achilles was an almost godlike figure in Greek society. This led to a disagreement about which to perceive as erastes and which eromenos among elites such as Aeschylus and Pausanias, since Homeric tradition made Patroclus out to be older but Achilles stronger. It has been noted, however, that the depictions of characters on pottery do not represent reality and may cater to the beauty standards of ancient Athens. Other ancients such as Xenophon held that Achilles and Patroclus were simply close friends.

Love, sex, and marriage in ancient Greece are portrayed in Greek literature as distinct, yet closely intertwined, elements of life. For many upper-class men, marriages did not take place for love, and other relationships, be it with men or other women, took on this role. Due to this, a lot of the literature discussing love is about the relationships men had outside marriage, often pederastic relationships. For women, marriage was a social and financial decision made by their father and, particularly in classical Athens, women were expected to stay indoors so as to avoid any accusations of infidelity.

The cups from which diners drank at these events are often painted with erotic scenes, ranging from lingering glances to full-blown orgies. But whether these scenes reflect the real goings-on at these parties is another matter. Disappointingly for anyone who likes to think of the ancient Greeks as free from sexual hang-ups, these depictions of orgies may just be an erotic fantasy or a tongue-in-cheek warning of the consequences of drunkenness.

Simultaneously, Zeus, the top god, wasted no time in asserting his dominance over the other gods (both male and female). His cavalier attitude towards female sexuality, as manifested in serial rape and seduction (Zeus raped Leda, daughter of the Aetolian king Thestius, in the guise of a swan; raped Danae, a princess of Argos, disguised as the rain, and raped Ganymede, a male mortal) set a precedent for centuries of mortal male domination and female subservience. The depiction of Hera [wife of Zeus and queen of the ancient Greek gods] as a distracting, duplicitous and deceptive woman opened the door for centuries of male insecurity about women, and misogyny.

Films like 300 and Troy depict awesome Greek warriors slashing their enemies in battle, but did you know Leonidas and Achillies had a freaky side? Sexuality was everywhere in the ancient world, from pornography on pottery to sex with satyrs. The Greek view on sex is much different from our own today, with many seemingly bizarre practices from our modern perspective. Greek openness on sex, homosexuality, and relationships created a much different culture than our own; here are 10 weird, or weird to us, sexual things the ancient greeks did:

Normatively speaking, the ancient Greeks and Romans generally believed that the only proper, complete kind of human being is a free, adult, gender-conforming, fully reproductively intact man. They regarded women, children, castrated men, and even reproductively intact men who were gender-nonconforming as inferior, incomplete, and belonging to the same essential category, defined by their lack of masculinity.

For the ancient Greeks and Romans, though, the most utterly disgusting, degrading, and unmanly sexual act that anyone could perform on another human being was cunnilingus. Because of how the Greeks and Romans viewed gender, they considered it even more shameful, degrading, and unmanly for a person to perform oral sex on a woman than for them to perform oral sex on a man.

Similarly, the writers from ancient Greece and Rome, frequently aristocrats and always part of an educated, male, elite, are hardly likely to be representative of their cultures. So we have no idea from the writers what most women, slaves, foreigners, peasants, artisans, or laborers thought about anything or what their private habits were regarding sex or much else.

Courtship scene Some scholars claim that the idea of love began with the Greeks and the notion of romantic love began with chivalry in the Middle Ages. The ancient Greek poet Nimnerus wrote: "What is life, what is joy without golden Aphrodite?/ May I die when these things no longer move me?/ hidden love affairs, sweet nothings and bed."

Arisphanes expressed similar ideas. In an attempt define love he wrote: "Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of man, and he is always looking for his other half...And when one of them meets his other half, the actual half of himself, whether he be a lover of youth or of another sort, the pair are lost in amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and will not be out of the other's sight, as I may say, even a moment...yet they could not explain what they desire in one another" other than "this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of an ancient need."

According to historians, demographic studies suggest the ancients attempted to limit family size. Greek historians wrote that urban families in the first and second centuries B.C. tried to have only one or two children. Between A.D. 1 and 500, it was estimated the population within the bounds of the Roman Empire declined from 32.8 million to 27.5 million (but there can be all sorts of reason for this excluding birth control).


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