Ancient Greek Eroticism - An Introduction

How Did the Ancient Greeks Understand Sex and Sexuality?

Aphrodite, Pan and Eros
Aphrodite, Pan and Eros. Leemage/Getty Images

What we think we know about ancient Greek eroticism changes as more literary and artistic evidence is found and analyzed and as contemporary scholarship puts a new spin on old data.

The Concept of Eros in Greece

Ancient Greek society had different words for different kinds of love. Eros, for the most part, denoted love that had a sexual component. It could refer to the ideal marital affection between men and women, but also encompassed homosexual relationships. The concept of pederasty, which involved an older man who was both lover and mentor to a young man, also was connected to the idea of eros.

This was not uncommon across all the varied Greek city-states. Sparta had homosexual relationships built into the structure of the training all young Spartan men received, although there is some disagreement among historians about whether the relationships were more paternalistic mentorships or primarily sexual. In other Dorian areas also homosexuality was widely accepted. Thebes saw in the 4th century the creation of a battalion of homosexual lovers—the Sacred Band. In Crete, there is evidence of ritualized abduction of younger men by older men.

Contrary to popular belief, eros was not solely a sexual institution. In the case of "pederastic eros," the relationships were considered educational above all else. Plato also theorized that eros could be directed towards mathematics and philosophy, rather than sexuality, in order to harness that driving energy towards improving one's mental and spiritual state.

Sexuality, Myth, and History

By the end of the 5th century BC, the concept of erotic and/or romantic homosexual love was enshrined in myth and art. Poets told stories in which male gods had relationships with young, beautiful human men, while myths also depicted similar relationships between human men or tweaked existing myths to fit this dichotomy of "lover and beloved."

One of the better-known myths of this sort is that of Achilles and Patroclus. According to the myths, Achilles, hero of the Trojan War, had an older and wiser companion named Patroclus. When Patroclus was killed in battle, Achilles completely broke down. The original Homeric texts did not specify a sexual relationship between the men, but later authors firmly interpreted their bond as romantic and sexual.

The myth of Achilles and Patroclus was said to have inspired Alexander the Great in his relationship with his closest companion, Hephaestion. Again, however, the true nature of that relationship is unknown: whether they were lovers or had a non-sexual close companionship. In general, homosexual relationships between men were predominantly between an older and a younger partner. The idea of an adult male being the "beloved" of another man would have been frowned upon or outright stigmatized, since adult men were supposed to become "dominant" and not passive.

Restrictions on Greek Women

Women were considered the guardians of Athenian citizenship, but that didn't confer any rights. A citizen of Athens had to make sure all his wife's children were his. To keep her away from temptation, she was locked away in the women's quarters and accompanied by a male whenever she went outside. If she were caught with another man, the man could be killed or brought to court. When a woman married, she was a piece of property transferred from her father (or other male guardian) to her husband.

In Sparta, the need for Spartan citizens was strong, so women were encouraged to bear children to a citizen who would sire well if her own husband proved inadequate. There she wasn't so much her spouse's property as the state's—as were her children and her husband. Because of this emphasis on the need for citizens, however, Spartan women had higher social standing, and the city-state honored the institution of marriage and the marital bond.

Same-sex love between women was less recorded due to the role of women in society as a whole, but did exist. The most famous evidence of this is the poetry of Sappho, who wrote romantic poetry directed at women and girls. However, love between two women did not have the same "usefulness" as the educational/military bond of male-male relationships, and was therefore not supported socially.

Plato and Current Theories of Greek Sexualities

In Plato's Symposium (a treatise on Athenian eroticism) the playwright Aristophanes offers a colorful explanation for why all these sexual options existed. In the beginning, there were three types of double-headed humans, he said, varying according to sex: male/male, female/female, and male/female. Zeus, angered at the humans, punished them by splitting them in half. From then on, each half has forever sought out his other half.

Plato himself had a very wide range of views on homosexuality: early texts show him praising such relationships as preferable to heterosexual ones, but he also wrote later texts denouncing them. Scholars also continue to debate whether or not erotic love and sexual preferences were considered defining personality categories in ancient Greece.

Current scholarship, including feminist and Foucauldian, applies a variety of theoretical models to the literary and artistic evidence we have about ancient sexuality. To some, sexuality is culturally defined, to others, there are universal constants. Application of Athenian literary evidence from the fifth and fourth centuries to preceding or succeeding generations is problematic, but not nearly so hard as trying to extend it to all of Greece. The resources below reflect a variety of approaches.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Cullhed, A, Franzen C, and Hallengren A. (editors). Pangs of Love and Longing: Configurations of Desire in Premodern Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014.
  • Dover, KJ. Greek Homosexuality. 3rd editon. London: Bloomsbury Press, 2016.
  • Ferrari, Gloria. Figures of Speech: Men and Maidens in Ancient Greece. University of Chicago Press, 2002.
  • Foucault M. The History of Sexuality. Volume 1: An Introduction. Vintage Press, 1986.
  • Foucault M. The History of Sexuality. Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure. Vintage Press, 1988.
  • Hubbard, Thomas K. A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.
  • Skinner, MB. Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture, 2nd edition: Wiley Blackwell, 2013.