Homosexuality in Ancient Greece – the classical LGBT community?

Homosexuality in Ancient Greece was mostly only accepted in the form of pederasty for educational or military purposes.

HomoCulture LGBT History Silvia Hildebrandt

This article was published on February 26th, 2019

People still consider Ancient Greek culture as the ideal form of LGBT culture, having a significant meaning in society as well as politics. With the tales about Achilles in the Iliad, Alexander the Great and Hepheastus – brother-in-arms and love of his life –  or the poet Sappho, common beliefs still view Ancient Greece as the most tolerant community regarding acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle. 

Homosexuality in Ancient Greece – the classical LGBT community?

Not surprisingly, reality was more complicated than that. Ancient Greeks didn’t view a relationship – whether they were forged out of love or necessity – in terms of gender issues. Yet the role they took in bed set the path as how they were seen in public. Active penetrators fulfilled the role of strong, masculine leaders, in politics or at war. Passive sexual partners, whether they were male or female, automatically had a lower social status, associated with feminine or infantile roles, meaning not taking part in wider politics, but being tied to private matters at home. 

The most common form of homosexuality was pederasty, and it was the main road of upper class teaching relationships; an adult male forging a string bond with an underage boy in order to educate him in all subjects of canon knowledge. This always involved sex, as it wasn’t seen as a private issue, but a public agenda. When the student became a teacher himself, he had to take a young boy himself under his wings. So that special form of homosexuality was a part of the educational system for privileged classes. Of course, today we’d see this form of relationships as abusive pedophilia

So wasn’t there any form of truelove between adult men in Ancient Greece? Homosexual relationships between adult men were considered a blessing by the military. To heighten the spirits of the soldiers and as a tactic, generals often placed soldiers in love side by side on the battlefield. The Sacred Band of Thebes was a whole troop of male lovers forming an elite force in the Theban army. It existed from 371 BC until Philip II of Macedon crushed it in 338 BC. 

Besides the military and political and educational society structure, a private form of homosexual relationships between two adult men as we know it today, was considered highly problematic. Men found having a sexual relationship with other adult men outside of the socially accepted norms, were considered unmanly, weak and shameful. Their lives could be destroyed by the same form of sexuality that formed the upper class officials of Ancient Greek. 

Of course, the most positive depiction of private male/male love comes from Plato, written in his Symposium, where he explains the different attachments of gender coming from their very first mythological origin. Humans were originally four-legged hermaphrodite creatures until Zeus cut them in half: “Men who are a section of that double nature which was once called androgynous are lovers of women, adulterers are generally of this breed, and also adulterous women who lust after men. The women who are a section of the woman do not care for men, but have female attachments: the female companions are of this sort. But they who are a section of the male follow the male, and while they are young, being slices of the original man, they have affection for men and embrace them, and these are the best of boys and youths, because they have the most manly nature.”[1]

Homosexuality in Ancient Greece – the classical LGBT community?

The depiction of the love story of Achilles and Patroklos is a good example for historical accurateness and modern interpretation. While they’re depicted in modern fiction as two male adults in love, not only for military purposes, but since they fell in love in their youths, the text of  Homer’s Iliad characterizes them as the perfect example of a military student-teacher bond. Patroklos being the elder wise man educating a young, stubborn and impulsive Achilles. 

Today, there’s a high amount of homophobia in modern Greece. Scientists who pick up research on the theme of homosexuality in Ancient Greece, face hostilities by the general audience. While same-sex partners in Greece have all the rights except adoption, most of the elder generation still sees LGBT culture as society-threatening and its people as somehow abnormal. 

[1]    Crompton, Louis, 2003, Homosexuality and Civilization, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 58.

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