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.

Romantic Eros in Greece

There is in fact evidence that romantic eros was seen as homosexual all over Greece. Sparta, even with its relatively free women, had homosexual relationships built into the structure of the training all young Spartan men received. 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, we have evidence of ritualized abduction of younger by older men.

One of the main changes wrought by Christianity lies in the definition of sin. In Greece, overwhelming pride known as hubris was the most important sin; Christians believe instead that temptations of the flesh and sexuality put humans on the wrong side of God. Since we live in this culture, it's hard to step back to imagine a culture that encouraged same-sex bonds; one in which pederasty—that crime disgusting to the most hardened prison veteran—was the norm; one in which heterosexual unions at one time had to be mandated by law in order to maintain a supply of citizens; one in which homosexual bonds were thought conducive to bravery and military valor.

Greek Problems and Solutions

Problems and solutions to the struggles of ancient life were vastly different from ours. When one Greek area grew over-populated, a band set out to colonize a new one. While the Hellenes may have been pleased with this arrangement, they often encountered resistance from native populations. To survive required fighting. Education, in the early days, meant training in physical skills to produce a warrior. The goal, even when the curriculum extended to literary skills, was to become kalos k'agathos, beautiful and good (noble)—a goal best taught by someone who already qualified.

Prostitutes were despised then as they are today, although for slightly different reasons. They might have been looked upon as victims (of pimps), but they were also greedy and deceitful. Even if they were honest financially, they used makeup and other artifices to make themselves more attractive.

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 in flagrante delicto, 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.

Sex between wife and husband was just one of many choices available—at least to the male. There were slaves of both sexes, concubines, and high-priced call girls known as hetairai, all of whom were available, if only for a fee. Men could also try to entice a young man just past puberty. These relationships are the ones celebrated on vases and in much of Athenian literature.

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.

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.

Updated by K. Kris Hirst

Recommended Books for Further Reading