A brief history of sex and sexuality in Ancient Greece

The sexual habits of people in Ancient Greece – from prostitution to pillow talk – are explored in a new book written by Paul Chrystal. Exploring the many layers of sex and sexuality in various Greek societies – from the Minoan civilisation through to Sparta and Hellenistic Greece – In Bed with the Ancient Greeks examines homosexuality, pederasty, mythological sex and sex in Greek philosophy and religion

Here, writing for History Extra, Chrystal briefly explores the history of sex in Ancient Greece…

Please note this article contains sexually explicit content

In the beginning was sex. To the ancient Greek mythologisers, sexuality, love and sex were inextricably connected with the creation of the earth, the heavens and the underworld. Greek myth was a theogony of incest, murder, polygamy and intermarriage in which eroticism and fertility were elemental; they were there right from the start, demonstrating woman’s essential reproductive role in securing the cosmos, extending the human race and ensuring the fecundity of nature.

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.


Michelangelo’s ‘Leda and the Swan’. Found in the collection of Galleria d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Bergamo. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

 

The Minoans

Our earliest evidence for ancient Greek sexuality comes with the Minoans (approximately 3650 to 1400 BC). Women at this time were only partly dressed – the main items of clothing were short-sleeved robes that had layered, flounced skirts; these were open to the navel, leaving the breasts exposed. Women also wore a strapless fitted bodice, the first fitted garments known in history.

Women were typically depicted as having a tiny waist, full breasts, long hair and full hips: to our eyes and ears this is sexually charged and provocative, but to a Minoan probably not so. On the contrary, the voluptuous figure may have been a means by which women, and their artists, expressed their gender and status rather than male artists simply idealising female sexuality for their own delectation, satisfying a prurient male voyeurism. Women in Minoan Crete, it seems, were able to celebrate their femininity.

The body shape described above re-emerged during the mid-late 1800s, when women laced themselves into tight corsets to make their waists small and wore hoops under their skirts to exaggerate the proportions of their lower body.


Minoan civilization, 2nd millennium BC. Reconstruction of the fresco of the procession, found in the Palace of Knossos. Detail of young men carrying offerings to a goddess. (Photo by DEA/G DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)

 

Pederasty

Pederasty in Greece probably originated with the Cretans. Cretan pederasty was an early form of paedophilia that involved the ritual kidnapping (harpagmos) of a boy from an elite background by an aristocratic adult male, with the consent of the boy's father. This adult male was known as philetor, befriender; the boy was kleinos, glorious. The man took the boy out into the wilderness, where they spent two months hunting and feasting with friends learning life skills, respect and responsibility. It is generally assumed that the philetor would begin having sex with the boy soon after taking him out into the wilds.

If the boy was pleased with how this went he changed his status from kleinos to parastates, or comrade, signifying that he had metaphorically fought in battle alongside his philetor; he then went back to society and lived with him.

The philetor would shower the boy with expensive gifts, including an army uniform, an ox to be sacrificed to Zeus, and a drinking goblet – a symbol of spiritual accomplishment. At the same time, according to the geographer Strabo, the boy then had to choose between continuing with or putting an end to the relationship with his abductor, and whether to denounce the man if he had misbehaved in any way.

 

Satyrs and satyriasis

Satyrs, depicted in Greek mythology as beast-like men with a horse’s tail, donkey’s ears, upturned pug nose, receding hairline and erect penis, have a reputation for being inveterate masturbators with a penchant for rape, sodomy and necrophilia. A satyr was a true party animal with an insatiable passion for dancing, women and wine. Satyrs were experts on the aulos, a phallic-shaped double reed instrument; some vase paintings show satyrs ejaculating while playing, and one even shows a bee deftly avoiding the discharge in mid-flight. Another vase illustrates a hirsute satyr masturbating while shoving a dildo of sorts into his anus.

Apart from inspiring some wonderful depictions on ceramics, satyrs have left us the word satyriasis, which means hypersexuality – classified today in the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD) as satyriasis in men and as nymphomania in women (in 1951 it was still listed as a “sexual deviation”). The word satyriasis appears frequently in the works of medical authors of the Roman empire who describe a condition no doubt prevalent for centuries previously. For example, Soranus contends that the “itching” felt in the genitals that makes women “touch themselves” increases their sexual urge and causes “mental derangement” and an immodest desire for a man. Greek physician Galen called it “uterine fury”, furor uterinus.


Statue of Silenus, a satyr and minor god of drunkenness, dated from 540-530 BC. National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece. (Photo by Prisma/UIG/Getty Images)

 

Achilles and Briseis

Epic [the Iliad] gives us one of our earliest surviving expressions of heterosexual love; it comes from a rather surprising source – from battle-hardened, Homeric war hero, alpha male Achilles.

Achilles uncharacteristically wears his heart on his sleeve when he reveals how much he loves Briseis in Book 9 of the Iliad, referring to her as if she were his wife. The beautiful and intelligent Briseis first encountered Achilles when he ruthlessly slaughtered her father, mother, three brothers and husband during a Greek assault on Troy, before taking her as war booty. Achilles wiped out Briseis’ family so that she was utterly bereft and had only him to focus on.

To Achilles it was simply the right and decent thing to do to love your woman – an attitude, of course, that may have been at odds with some of the male audience members of Homer’s epic over the years. 

 

Masturbation

To the ancient Greeks masturbation was a normal and healthy substitute for other sexual pleasures – a handy ‘safety valve’ against destructive sexual frustration. This may explain why there are so few references to it in the literature: it was common practice and did not merit much attention. Nevertheless, it may well have been deemed, publicly at least, to be the preserve of slaves, lunatics and other people considered to be lower down the social pecking order. Elite opinion would have regarded it, literally, as a waste of time and semen, since it was one of the prime cultural responsibilities of the Greek male to further the family line and extend the oikos, the household.

One term for masturbation in ancient Greece was anaphlao, a verb that comic playwright Aristophanes disparagingly used to describe the Spartans, who were “wankers”, in his comedy Lysistrata. The decidedly odd Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic routinely masturbated in public and defended his actions by saying “If only it were as easy to banish hunger by rubbing my belly”. Interestingly, Diogenes attracted censure not just for masturbating in public but also for eating in the agora – indicating perhaps that masturbating in a public place was regarded as no more serious a crime than eating in a public place.

Other ancient civilisations celebrated masturbation too. For example, a clay figurine of the 4th millennium BC from Malta shows a woman masturbating. In ancient Sumer [the first ancient urban civilization in the historical region of southern Mesopotamia, modern-day southern Iraq] masturbation – either solitary or with a partner – was thought to enhance potency. In ancient Egypt male masturbation when performed by a god was considered a creative or magical act: Atum was said to have created the universe by masturbating, and the ebb and flow of the Nile was attributed to the frequency of his ejaculations. Egyptian Pharaohs were required to masturbate ceremonially into the Nile.

 

Effeminacy and cross-dressing

Effeminacy in men was considered beyond the pale – para phusin or “outside nature”. It implied passivity and receptiveness, epithumein paschein – both weaknesses contrary to the proper sexual conduct of the Greek male who ought to be virile, dominant, penetrating and thrusting.

Cross-dressing had some surprising advocates. The heroic alpha-male Hercules, according to the Roman poet Ovid, indulged in a bout of cross-dressing with Omphale [queen of Lydia to whom Hercules was enslaved] Hercules put on Omphale’s clothes and Omphale dressed up in typically Herculean lion skin and wealded his club, which was symbolic of manhood and power. Surprisingly, perhaps, “lion-hearted” Achilles too was not averse to a spot of dressing up in women’s clothes, if it saved him from the call-up for the Trojan war.


Hercules and Omphale. Hercules was sold as a slave to Omphale, queen of Lydia, to atone for the murder of Iphitos. Hercules was forced to wear Omphale's clothes and jewellery. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

Pseudo-Apollodorus, in the Bibliotheca [a compendium of Greek myths and heroic legends], tells us that to help her son dodge the draft Thetis [Achilles’ mother] concealed him at the court of Lycomedes, king of Skyros. Disguised as a girl Achilles lived among Lycomedes' daughters under the pseudonym Pyrrha, the red-haired girl. Achilles raped one of the daughters, Deidamia, and with her fathered a son, Neoptolemus.

Odysseus was told by the prophet Calchas that the Greeks would not capture Troy without Achilles' support, so he went to Skyros masquerading as a peddler selling women's clothes and jewellery with a shield and spear secreted in his wares. Achilles instantly took up the spear; Odysseus saw through his disguise as Pyrrha and persuaded him to join the Greek forces.

Another famous alpha male, Julius Caesar, was also involved in cross-dressing: apparently, aged 20, he lived the life of a girl in the court of King Nicomedes IV and was later referred to behind his back as the 'queen of Bithynia', and “every woman's man and every man's woman”. Suetonius described his long-fringed sleeves and loose belt as a bit odd, prompting statesman and dictator Sulla to warn everyone to “beware of the boy with the loose belt”.

Paul Chrystal is the author of In Bed with the Ancient Greeks: Sex & Sexuality in Ancient Greece (Amberley Publishing, 2016).

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