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Note: Professor Paul Cartledge was speaking on the HistoryExtra podcast, answering questions about ancient Greece submitted by our readers and the top online search queries. A selection of his answers have been transcribed and edited for clarity, and are shared below…
Listen to the full conversation on the HistoryExtra podcast
What was pederasty in ancient Greece?
“Pederasty literally means lust for, or love of, in a strong sexual sense, children,” says Professor Cartledge. An illegal and totally unacceptable practice today, the subject of pederasty is a highly sensitive one, he adds. “In ancient Greece it could be of either sex – the word pais is unisex – it could involve an underage sub-adult, either male or female,” says Cartledge. “But ‘pederasty’ (paiderastia) refers specifically to boys.
“The relationship was between an adult male over the age of 20 (the erastes) and a younger male (the eromenos). The erastes might be what you and I would call ‘exclusively’ homosexual, but they might be married to a woman as well – and that is, of course, not unknown in our society today.”
Was pederasty considered to be socially acceptable in ancient Greece?
“It was extremely complicated, there were lots of shades of grey,” says Cartledge. “Very rarely was pederasty criminalised, but there were rules and regulations, it was not a ‘free for all’. There were many, many different Greek societies, each with their own social and sexual norms and legal regulations. But there were some commonalities. There was a voting age for males, an age of majority, 18 at Athens for example, but there was no ‘age of consent’ as we understand that legal concept.
“If it was thought that the junior partner was being forced into it, then that was not good, that was frowned upon. Predators who went around looking for young boys to get off with and to have sex with were frowned upon very strongly. And if you were a young man offering sexual services – in other words if you were, let’s say, 17, and you openly or covertly offered your body for purely sexual reasons to an adult male – well that could be subject to an accusation of criminal prostitution, which would have political consequences.”
The crucial point, says Cartledge, was the age of the younger, junior, subadult party, and how much agency that junior partner had. “A 12-year-old boy was going to be less able to have a say in resisting or in manipulating or determining the nature of the relationship with the older man, than, say, a 17-year-old boy,” Cartledge explains. “At 17 you might well be the junior partner in a homosexual relationship with a man only a few years older than you – in other words, it might have been considered to be quite an equal relationship. However, even if you were 17, you weren’t a legally independent adult.
“There were also rules forbidding sexual congress or sexual arrangements in the gymnasium, for example. Lots of Greek cities had areas where you could exercise – the Greeks were very keen on athletics, especially wrestling, and they typically exercised nude. Which is why it’s called a gymnasium – gymnós means ‘naked’. There were various rules around gymnasiums – for example, slaves were barred from using them because it was thought it would be too easy for a free citizen, an adult male, to do what he wanted to them. And if you were over the age of 40 you were not allowed to be in a gymnasium with young boys present.”
How common was pederasty in ancient Greece?
“It is difficult to generalise about the frequency of pederasty in the ancient Geek world,” says Cartledge. “The evidence suggests that, although it was really quite widespread and in that sense ‘normal’, on the other hand different Greek societies operated with different kinds of social tolerances. At Athens, for example, where elaborate courtship rituals and protocols were in place, it was probably a practice mostly confined to the socially elite, the wealthier classes. In other cities – and Sparta, I would argue, was one, it was a rite of passage for all males, it was part of transitioning from adolescence to full civic adulthood.”
Man and adolescent male, c500 BC. (Photo by World History Archive/Alamy Stock Photo)
“Part of the educational cycle”: Spartan boys and pederasty
“In Sparta, it seems that pederasty was not optional at all,” says Cartledge. “In other words, as part of the educational cycle in Sparta you were paired up with an adult Spartan warrior for mutual benefit. The older partner would instruct the younger, would be their mentor, while the junior partner provided sexual satisfaction and companionship in a society where, before you were married, it was actually very difficult to have any relation with the opposite sex.”
Did pederasty extend to young girls as well?
“Unlike Athenian girls, for whom there were no formal educational establishments, Spartan girls did have some form of public education, which involved athleticism as well as learning to read and write,” Cartledge explains. “There is one passage in a very late source about Sparta which says that before they were married, very high-ranking Spartan women might select suitable girls, ie aged 15 or 16, as a female partner. Similar to Spartan boys, for whom it was considered educational to be in a relationship with an older adult male.
“But historians tend to think this notion is slightly dubious. Nowhere else in the Greek world is there mention of it.
“The obvious exception is Sappho [the Archaic Greek poet from the island of Lesbos known for her lyric poetry]. Sappho and her female students or friends both composed and sang verses together. There, on the island of Lesbos, in what was a much earlier time period, around 600 BCE, Sappho and her female companions – who were perhaps also lovers – traded passionately erotic verses.
An engraving of the Greek poetess Sappho. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
“We don’t actually know the ages of Sappho’s female ‘friends’, but since some of them were not married they would probably have been 16 or younger – which would have qualified them as ‘paides‘ (children), and so Sappho’s eros for them would indeed have technically been paiderastia. But, as I said earlier, we normally reserve the term ‘pederasty’ for males.
“And of course, the term ‘lesbian’ is derived from the island of Lesbos, where Sappho came from.”
But it’s worth noting, says Cartledge, that some of the women who studied and wrote with Sappho might not have been Greek. “And it was probably just particular to that place at that time; relationships between adult women and younger girls didn’t become an established institution in the same way it did for boys,” says Cartledge.
On this podcast, biographer Angela Steidele explores the life of 19th-century gay pioneer Anne Lister, whose story is the inspiration behind the major BBC/HBO drama Gentleman Jack:
And what about homosexuality more generally? Was it celebrated in ancient Greece? Was Oscar Wilde right to describe it as a sort of “gay utopia”?
“Well, he’s right insofar as there was no religious argument against homosexuality in ancient Greece as there was for Wilde in the late 19th century, by which time Judeo-Christian tradition was very critical of homosexuality,” says Cartledge. “And homosexuality was certainly celebrated in myth in the ancient world – Heracles [who in Greek mythology was known as the strongest of all mortals] had boyfriends, for example.
“But it was complicated. As I’ve explained, homosexual men had to be careful about the ‘protocols’. Homosexuality as such wasn’t criminalised but it had to be done in the ‘proper’ way.”
What did Plato think about homosexuality?
“There’s a famous – or rather, notorious – passage in Plato’s The Laws in which he asks how we should regulate sexual relations,” says Cartledge. “He asks: are same-sex relations between men OK? Well, no, said Plato, because they are unnatural, against nature, in that they don’t give rise to offspring. Plato anticipated the Christian view of the purpose of marriage being to produce legitimate offspring, to have sex only within marriage.
“But in an earlier work [entitled Symposium, in which the topic of discourse was erotic love], Plato, through his mouthpiece Socrates, celebrated same-sex relationships between men for supposedly elevating the behaviour of both men. Plato said same-sex relationships between men were a sort of ‘higher form’ of converse than purely physical (unlike male-female relationships, because women were not typically educated to be equals with men in ancient Greece).
“So Plato went from, in a way, celebrating a form of idealised, spiritualised, same-sex homosexuality to a position of being very negative and down on it. If I was to be crude, I’d say that as he got older Plato wasn’t that interested or capable of having sex with anybody. He never married, which is very unusual, and I think, therefore, whether or not he was exclusively homosexual, by the end he was pretty sour and embittered and quite critical of any sort of what he considered ‘deviant’ behaviour. He had fierce punishments for such behaviour in his theory of the ideal state, which was not very ‘ideal’ by most of our standards today.”
Why were homosexuality and bisexuality accepted in ancient Greece but not in Rome?
“It’s very, very hard to say,” Cartledge replies. “One reason is, if you conquer a people and you think yourself therefore superior to them, you look for the things that differentiate your civilisation from theirs. And the Romans chose to focus on their abhorrence, their rejection of homosexuality, which they thought was deviant and effeminate. At least one party in any homosexual relationship, they thought, must play the part of the woman, so it wasn’t what a ‘true masculine’ Roman man should do.
“You might immediately think – as I do – ‘What about the Spartans? They institutionalised pederasty and they were no wimps!’ The point is the Romans were being very selective in what they chose not to adopt from the Greeks. They actually adopted a great deal of other stuff, but this was one custom they rejected. So I think that’s the answer: the Romans conquered the Greeks; Greeks were considered feeble; and one reason they were feeble – or one manifestation of their feebleness – was their supposed ‘addiction’ to buggery.”
To hear more about sexuality in ancient Greece, plus the Olympic games, the Elgin Marbles and what life was like for women, listen to the second part of our ‘Everything you wanted to know about ancient Greece’ podcast interview with Professor Cartledge – click here to listen. In the first instalment we discussed Alexander the Great, democracy and slavery in ancient Greece.
Paul’s latest book, Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece, was published by Picador as an e-book in May 2020 and will be published in hardcovers in November.
Emma Mason is the digital editor at HistoryExtra