Pederasty in ancient Greece was a socially acknowledged erotic relationship between an adult male and a younger male (the Eromenos) usually in his teens. It was characteristic of the Archaic and Classical periods. Some scholars locate its origin in initiation ritual, particularly rites of passage on Crete, where it was associated with entrance into military life and the religion of Zeus.
The social custom called paiderastia by the Greeks was both idealized and criticized in ancient literature and philosophy; it has no formal existence in the Homeric epics, and seems to have developed in the late 7th century BC as an aspect of Greek homosocial culture, which was characterized also by athletic and artistic nudity, delayed marriage for aristocrats, symposia, and the social seclusion of women. The influence of pederasty was so pervasive that it has been called "the principal cultural model for free relationships between citizens."
Scholars have debated the role or extent of pederasty, which is likely to have varied according to local custom and individual inclination. The English word "pederasty" in present-day usage might imply the abuse of minors in certain jurisdictions, but Athenian law, for instance, did not recognize consent and age as factors in regulating sexual behavior. As classical historian Robin Osborne has pointed out, historical discussion of paiderastia is complicated by 21st-century moral standards:
It is the historian's job to draw attention to the personal, social, political and indeed moral issues behind the literary and artistic representations of the Greek world. The historian's job is to present pederasty and all, to make sure that … we come face to face with the way the glory that was Greece was part of a world in which many of our own core values find themselves challenged rather than reinforced.
- 1 Terminology
- 2 Origins
- 3 Social aspects
- 4 Sexual practices
- 5 Regional characteristics
- 6 Modern scholarship
- 7 See also
- 8 Notes
- 9 Selected bibliography
- 10 External links
The Greek word paiderastia (παιδεραστία) is an abstract noun of feminine gender. It is formed from paiderastês, which in turn is a compound of pais ("child", plural paides) and erastês (see below). Although the word pais can refer to a child of either sex, paiderastia is defined by Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon as "the love of boys," and the verb paiderasteuein as "to be a lover of boys."
Since the publication of Kenneth Dover's work Greek Homosexuality, erastês and erômenos have been standard terms for the two pederastic roles. Both words derive from the Greek verb erô, erân, "to love"; see also eros. In Dover's strict dichotomy, the erastês (ἐραστής, plural erastai) is the older lover, seen as the active or dominant partner, with the suffix -tês (-τής) denoting agency. Erastês should be distinguished from Greek paiderastês, which meant "lover of boys" usually with a negative connotation. The erastês himself might only be in his early twenties, and thus the age difference between the two lovers might be negligible.
The word erômenos, or "beloved" (ἐρώμενος, plural eromenoi), is the masculine form of the present passive participle from ero, viewed by Dover as the passive or subordinate partner. An erômenos can also be called pais, "child." The pais was regarded as a future citizen, not an "inferior object of sexual gratification," and was portrayed with respect in art. The word can be understood as an endearment such as a parent might use, found also in the poetry of Sappho and a designation of only relative age. Both art and other literary references show that the erômenos was at least a teen, with modern age estimates ranging from 13 to 20, or in some cases up to 30. Most evidence indicates that to be an eligible erômenos, a youth would be of an age when an aristocrat began his formal military training, that is, from fifteen to seventeen. As an indication of physical maturity, the erômenos was sometimes as tall as or taller than the older erastês, and may have his first facial hair. Another word used by the Greeks for the younger partner was paidika, a neuter plural adjective ("things having to do with children") treated syntactically as masculine singular.
In poetry and philosophical literature, the erômenos is often an embodiment of idealized youth; a related ideal depiction of youth in Archaic culture was the kouros, the long-haired male statuary nude. In The Fragility of Goodness, Martha Nussbaum, following Dover, defines the ideal erômenos as
a beautiful creature without pressing needs of his own. He is aware of his attractiveness, but self-absorbed in his relationship with those who desire him. He will smile sweetly at the admiring lover; he will show appreciation for the other's friendship, advice, and assistance. He will allow the lover to greet him by touching, affectionately, his genitals and his face, while he looks, himself, demurely at the ground. … The inner experience of an erômenos would be characterized, we may imagine, by a feeling of proud self-sufficiency. Though the object of importunate solicitation, he is himself not in need of anything beyond himself. He is unwilling to let himself be explored by the other's needy curiosity, and he has, himself, little curiosity about the other. He is something like a god, or the statue of a god.
Dover insisted that the active role of the erastês and the passivity of the erômenos is a distinction "of the highest importance," but subsequent scholars have tried to present a more varied picture of the behaviors and values associated with paiderastia. Although ancient Greek writers use erastês and erômenos in a pederastic context, the words are not technical terms for social roles, and can refer to the "lover" and "beloved" in other hetero- and homosexual couples.
The Greek practice of pederasty came suddenly into prominence at the end of the Archaic period of Greek history; there is a brass plaque from Crete, about 650-625 BC, which is the oldest surviving representation of pederastic custom. Such representations appear from all over Greece in the next century; literary sources show it as being established custom in many cities by the 5th century BC.
Cretan pederasty as a formal social institution seems to have been grounded in an initiation which involved ritual abduction. A man (philetor, "lover") selected a youth, enlisted the chosen one's friends to help him, and carried off the object of his affections to his andreion, a sort of men's club or meeting hall. The youth received gifts, and the philetor along with the friends went away with him for two months into the countryside, where they hunted and feasted. At this end of this time, the philetor presented the youth with three contractually required gifts: military attire, an ox, and a drinking cup. Other costly gifts followed. Upon their return to the city, the youth sacrificed the ox to Zeus, and his friends joined him at the feast. He received special clothing that in adult life marked him as kleinos, "famous, renowned." The initiate was called a parastatheis, "he who stands beside," perhaps because, like Ganymede the cup-bearer of Zeus, he stood at the side of the philetor during meals in the andreion and served him from the cup that had been ceremonially presented. In this interpretation, the formal custom reflects myth and ritual.
The erastes-eromenos relationship played a role in the Classical Greek social and educational system, had its own complex social-sexual etiquette and was an important social institution among the upper classes. Pederasty has been understood as educative, and Greek authors from Aristophanes to Pindar felt it naturally present in the context of aristocratic education (paideia). In general, pederasty as described in the Greek literary sources is an institution reserved for free citizens, perhaps to be regarded as a dyadic mentorship: "pederasty was widely accepted in Greece as part of a male's coming-of-age, even if its function is still widely debated."
In Crete, in order for the suitor to carry out the ritual abduction, the father had to approve him as worthy of the honor. Among the Athenians, as Socrates claims in Xenophon's Symposium, "Nothing [of what concerns the boy] is kept hidden from the father, by an ideal lover." In order to protect their sons from inappropriate attempts at seduction, fathers appointed slaves called pedagogues to watch over their sons. However, according to Aeschines, Athenian fathers would pray that their sons would be handsome and attractive, with the full knowledge that they would then attract the attention of men and "be the objects of fights because of erotic passions."
The age-range when boys entered into such relationships was consonant with that of Greek girls given in marriage, often to adult husbands many years their senior. Boys, however, usually had to be courted and were free to choose their mate, while marriages for girls were arranged for economic and political advantage at the discretion of father and suitor. These connections were also an advantage for a youth and his family, as the relationship with an influential older man resulted in an expanded social network. Thus, some considered it desirable to have had many admirers or mentors, if not necessarily lovers per se, in one’s younger years. Typically, after their sexual relationship had ended and the young man had married, the older man and his protégé would remain on close terms throughout their life. For those lovers who continued their lovemaking after their beloveds had matured, the Greeks made allowances, saying, You can lift up a bull, if you carried the calf.
Pederasty was the idealized form of an age-structured homoeroticism that had other, less idealized manifestations, such as prostitution or the sexual use of slave boys. Paying free youths for sex was prohibited. Free youths who did sell their favors were ridiculed, and later in life might be prohibited from performing certain official functions. 
Even when lawful, it was not uncommon for the relationship to fail, as it was said of many boys that they "hated no one as much as the man who had been their lover" (see, for instance, "Death of King Philip II of Macedon'"). Likewise, the Cretans required the boy to declare whether the relationship had been to his liking, thus giving him an opportunity to break it off if any violence had been done to him. In Classical times there appears a note of concern that the institution of pederasty might give rise to a "morbid condition", adult homosexuality, that today's eromenos may become tomorrow's kinaidos, defined as the passive or "penetrated" partner.
Transgressions of the customs pertaining to the proper expression of homosexuality within the bounds of pederaistia could be used to damage the reputation of a public figure. In his speech Against Timarchus in 346 BC, the Athenian politician Aeschines argues against further allowing Timarchus, an experienced middle-aged politician, his political rights, on account of his having spent his adolescence as the kept boy of a series of wealthy men. Aeschines won his case, and Timarchus was sentenced to atimia. Aeschines acknowledges his own dalliances with beautiful boys, the erotic poems he dedicated to these youths, and the scrapes he has gotten into as a result of his affairs, but emphasizes that none of these were mediated by money. A financial motive thus was viewed as threatening a man's status as free.
By contrast, as expressed in Pausanias' speech in Plato's Symposium, pederastic love was said to be favorable to democracy and feared by tyrants, because the bond between the erastes and eromenos was stronger than that of obedience to a despotic ruler. Athenaeus states that "Hieronymus the Aristotelian says that love with boys was fashionable because several tyrannies had been overturned by young men in their prime, joined together as comrades in mutual sympathy." He gives as examples of such pederastic couples the Athenians Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who were credited (perhaps symbolically) with the overthrow of the tyrant Hippias and the establishment of the democracy, and also Chariton and Melanippus. Others, such as Aristotle, claimed that the Cretan lawgivers encouraged pederasty as a means of population control, by directing love and sexual desire into non-procreative channels:
"and the lawgiver has devised many wise measures to secure the benefit of moderation at table, and the segregation of the women in order that they may not bear many children, for which purpose he instituted association with the male sex."
For I know not any greater blessing to a young man who is beginning in life than a virtuous lover, or to a lover than a beloved youth. For the principle, I say, neither kindred, nor honor, nor wealth, nor any motive is able to implant so well as love. Of what am I speaking? Of the sense of honor and dishonor, without which neither states nor individuals ever do any good or great work… And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonor and emulating one another in honor; and it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world.
The Athenian stranger in Plato's Laws blames pederasty for promoting civil strife and driving many to their wits' end, and recommends the prohibition of sexual intercourse with boys, laying out a path whereby this may be accomplished.
In myth and religion
There is some pleasure in loving a boy (paidophilein), since once in fact even the son of Cronus (that is, Zeus), king of immortals, fell in love with Ganymede, seized him, carried him off to Olympus, and made him divine, keeping the lovely bloom of boyhood (paideia). So, don't be astonished, Simonides, that I too have been revealed as captivated by love for a handsome boy.
Greek myths provide more than fifty examples of young men who were the lovers of gods. Pederastic love affairs are ascribed to Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, Orpheus, Hercules, Dionysus, Hermes, and Pan. All the Olympian gods except Ares had these relationships, which are adduced by scholars to show that the specific customs of paiderastia originated in initiatory rituals.
Dover, however, believed that these myths are only literary versions expressing or explaining the "overt" homosexuality of Greek archaic culture, the distinctiveness of which he contrasted to attitudes in other ancient societies such as Egypt and Israel.
Greek vase painting is a major source for scholars seeking to understand attitudes and practices associated with paiderastia. Hundreds of pederastic scenes are depicted on Attic black-figure vases. In the early 20th century, John Beazley classified pederastic vases into three types:
- The erastês and erômenos stand facing each other; the erastês, knees bent, reaches with one hand for the beloved's chin and with the other for his genitals.
- The erastês presents the erômenos with a small gift, sometimes an animal.
- The standing lovers engage in intercrural sex.
Certain gifts traditionally given by the eromenos become symbols that contribute to interpreting a given scene as pederastic. Animal gifts — most commonly hares and roosters, but also deer and felines — point toward hunting as an aristocratic pastime and as a metaphor for sexual pursuit.
The explicit nature of some images has led in particular to discussions of whether the eromenos took active pleasure in the sex act. The youthful beloved is never pictured with an erection; his penis "remains flaccid even in circumstances to which one would expect the penis of any healthy adolescent to respond willy-nilly." Fondling the youth's genitals was one of the most common images of pederastic courtship on vases, a gesture indicated also in Aristophanes' comedy Birds (line 142). Some vases do show the younger partner as sexually responsive, prompting one scholar to wonder, "What can the point of this act have been unless lovers in fact derived some pleasure from feeling and watching the boy's developing organ wake up and respond to their manual stimulation?"
Chronological study of the vase paintings also reveals a changing aesthetic in the depiction of the erômenos. In the 6th century BC, he is a young beardless man with long hair, of adult height and physique, usually nude. As the 5th century begins, he has become smaller and slighter, "barely pubescent," and often draped as a girl would be. No inferences about social customs should be based on this element of the courtship scene alone.
There are many pederastic references among the works of the Megaran poet Theognis addressed to Cyrnus (Greek Kyrnos). Some portions of the Theognidean corpus are probably not by the individual from Megara, but rather represent "several generations of wisdom poetry." The poems are "social, political, or ethical precepts transmitted to Cyrnus as part of his formation into an adult Megarian aristocrat in Theognis' own image."
The relationship between Theognis and Kyrnos eludes categorization. Although it was assumed in antiquity that Kyrnos was the poet's eromenos, the poems that are most explicitly erotic are not addressed to him; the poetry on "the joys and sorrows" of pederasty seem more apt for sharing with a fellow erastes, perhaps in the setting of the symposium: "the relationship, in any case, is left vague."
The poetic traditions of Ionia and Aeolia featured poets such as Anacreon, Mimnermus and Alcaeus, who composed many of the sympotic skolia that were to become later part of the mainland tradition. Ibycus came from Rhegium in the Greek west and entertained the court of Polycrates in Samos with pederastic verses. Theocritus, a Hellenistic poet, describes a kissing contest for youths that took place at the tomb of a certain Diocles, renowned for friendship; he notes that invoking Ganymede was proper to the occasion.
Vase paintings and an obsession with the beloved's appealing thighs in poetry indicate that when the pederastic couple engaged in sex acts, the preferred form was intercrural. To preserve his dignity and honor, the erômenos limits the man who desires him to penetration between closed thighs.
Anal sex may be depicted, but far more rarely. The evidence is not explicit and is open to interpretation. Some vase paintings, which Percy considers a fourth type of pederastic scene in addition to Beazley's three, show the erastês seated with an erection and the erômenos either approaching or climbing into his lap. The composition of these scenes is the same as that for depictions of women mounting men who are seated and aroused for intercourse. As a cultural norm considered apart from personal preference, anal penetration was most often seen as dishonorable to the one penetrated, or shameful. A fable attributed to Aesop tells how Aeschyne (Shame) consented to enter the human body from behind only as long as Eros did not follow the same path, and would fly away at once if he did. Oral sex is likewise not depicted, or is indicated only indirectly; anal or oral penetration seems to have been reserved for prostitutes or slaves.
The Greek East
Unlike the Dorians, where a lover would usually have only one eromenos, in the east a man might have several eromenoi over the course of his life. From the poems of Alcaeus we learn that the lover would customarily invite his eromenos to dine with him.
Sparta, during its Dorian polis time, is thought to be the first city to practice athletic nudity, and one of the first to formalize pederasty. The nature of this relationship is in dispute among ancient sources. Xenophon in his Constitution of the Lacedaimonians says that Spartan customs were unsuited to pederasty: a man might aim for idealized friendship with a boy but a sexual relationship was considered "an abomination" tantamount to incest. Plutarch also describes the relationships as chaste and states that it was just as unthinkable for a lover to have sex with his beloved as it was for a father and son. Aelian relates that in Sparta, for a man not to have a youth for a student was considered a deficiency in character, and he could even be punished for it. But Aelian also says that if any couple indulged in carnal relations, they would have to redeem the affront to the honor of Sparta by either going into exile or taking their own lives.
Megara cultivated good relations with Sparta, and may have been culturally attracted to emulate Spartan practices in the 7th century, when pederasty is postulated to have first been formalized in Dorian cities, One of the first cities after Sparta to be associated with the custom of athletic nudity, Megara was home to the runner Orsippus who was famed as the first to run the footrace naked at the Olympic Games and "first of all Greeks to be crowned victor naked." In one poem, the Megaran poet Theognis saw athletic nudity as a prelude to pederasty: "Happy is the lover who works out naked / And then goes home to sleep all day with a beautiful boy."
In Athens, as elsewhere, pederastia appears to have been a characteristic of the aristocracy Attic pottery is a major source for modern scholars attempting to understand the institution of pederasty. The age of youth depicted has been estimated variously from 12 to 18. A number of Athenian laws addressed the pederastic relationship.
In Thebes, the main polis in Boeotia, renowned for its practice of pederasty, the tradition was enshrined in the founding myth of the city. In this instance the story was meant to teach by counterexample: it depicts Laius, one of the mythical ancestors of the Thebans, in the role of a lover who betrays the father and rapes the son. Another Boeotian pederastic myth is the story of Narcissus.
According to Plutarch, Theban pederasty was instituted as an educational device for boys in order to "soften, while they were young, their natural fierceness, and to "temper the manners and characters of the youth". According to a tradition, The Sacred Band of Thebes comprised pederastic couples.
Boeotian pottery, in contrast to that of Athens, does not exhibit the three types of pederastic scenes identified by Beazley. The limited survival and cataloguing of pottery that can be proven to have been made in Boeotia diminishes the value of this evidence in distinguishing a specifically local tradition of paiderastia.
The ethical views held in ancient societies, such as Athens, Thebes, Crete, Sparta, Elis and others, on the practice of pederasty have been explored by scholars only since the end of the 19th century. One of the first to do so was John Addington Symonds, who wrote his seminal work A Problem in Greek Ethics in 1873, but after a private edition of 10 copies (1883) only in 1901 the work could really be published, in revised form. Edward Carpenter expanded the scope of the study, with his 1914 work, Intermediate Types among Primitive Folk. The text examines homoerotic practices of all types, not only pederastic ones, and ranges over cultures spanning the whole globe. In Germany the work was continued by classicist Paul Brandt writing under the pseudonym Hans Licht, who published his Sexual Life in Ancient Greece in 1932.
Mainstream Ancient Greek studies however had historically omitted references of the widespread practice of homosexuality. E. M. Forster's 1910 novel Maurice makes reference to modern European ambivalence toward this aspect of ancient Greek culture in a scene where a Cambridge professor, leading a group of students in translating an ancient Greek text says, "Omit the reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks." Later in the 1940s H. Mitchell wrote: This aspect of Greek morals is an extraordinary one, into which, for the sake of our equanimity, it is unprofitable to pry too closely". It would not be until 1978 and K. J. Dover's book Greek Homosexuality, that the topic would be widely and frankly discussed.
Dover's work triggered a number of debates which still continue. Historian of the 20th century Michel Foucault declared that pederasty was "problematized" in Greek culture, that it was "the object of a special — and especially intense — moral preoccupation" focusing on concern with the chastity/moderation of the erōmenos (the term used for the "beloved" youth).. A modern line of thought leading from Dover to Foucault to Halperin holds that the eromenos did not reciprocate the love and desire of the erastes, and that the relationship was factored on a sexual domination of the younger by the older, a politics of penetration held to be true of all adult male Athenians' relations with their social inferiors — boys, women and slaves — a theory propounded also by Eva Keuls. From this perspective, the relationships are characterized and factored on a power differential between the participants, and as essentially asymmetrical.
Other scholars point to artwork on vases, poetry and philosophical works such as the Platonic discussion of anteros, "love returned," all of which show tenderness and desire and love on the part of the eromenos matching and responding to that of the erastes. Critics of Dover and his followers also point out that they ignore all material which argued against their "overly theoretical" interpretation of a human and emotional relationship and counter that "Clearly, a mutual, consensual bond was formed," and that it is "a modern fairy tale that the younger eromenos was never aroused."
Halperin's position has been criticized as a "persistently negative and judgmental rhetoric implying exploitation and domination as the fundamental characteristics of pre-modern sexual models" and challenged as a polemic of "mainstream assimilationist gay apologists" and an attempt to "demonize and purge from the movement" all non-orthodox male sexualities, especially that involving adults and adolescents.
- Age disparity in sexual relationships
- Greek love
- Homosexuality in ancient Greece
- LGBT themes in mythology
- Platonic love
- Sacred Band of Thebes
- The Sacred Band of Stepsons, fiction
- Dover, Kenneth J. Greek Homosexuality. Duckworth 1978.
- Dover, Kenneth J. "Greek Homosexuality and Initiation." In Que(e)rying Religion: A Critical Anthology. Continuum, 1997, pp. 19–38.
- Project Gutenberg text
- Ferrari, Gloria. FIgures of Speech: Men and Maidens in Ancient Greece. University of Chicago Press, 2002.
- Hubbard, Thomas K. Homosexuality in Greece and Rome. University of California Press, 2003.
- Johnson, Marguerite, and Ryan, Terry. Sexuality in Greek and Roman Society and Literature: A Sourcebook. Routledge, 2005.
- Lear, Andrew, and Eva Cantarella. Images of Ancient Greek Pederasty: Boys Were Their Gods. Routledge, 2008. ISBN 978-0-415-22367-6.
- Nussbaum, Martha. Sex and Social Justice. Oxford University Press, 1999.
- Percy, William A. Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece. University of Illinois Press, 1996.
- Same–Sex Desire and Love in Greco-Roman Antiquity and in the Classical Tradition of the West. Binghamton: Haworth, 2005.
- Sergent, Bernard. Homosexuality in Greek Myth. Beacon Press, 1986.
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