Homosexuality in Archaic Greece

“A lover who loves goodness of character is constant for life.” – Pausanias, Pausanias’s speech (The symposium)

Homosexuality is the most purest form of love. While the platonic explanation of “Other half” provides us with the authenticity to this particular statement, Diotima’s interpretation of love criticises the totality in the concept of “true love”. The social structure of the Athenian society was quite different from that of the existing social matrix of the world. They were liberal in the true sense and they gladly accepted the concept of “Homosexuality” without much hesitation. To comprehend the Pausanias’s “Paradox of Love”, it is necessary to have knowledge about the archaic or classical period of Greece, more importantly its social structure as well as the concept of ‘sexuality’.

The Greek civilisation was one of world’s oldest of civilisations and the liberal attitude of their society about sexuality is what fascinates me the most. In the archaic period of Greece, sexual desire and behaviour was not considered as a function of difference or resemblance in ‘anatomical gender’, but sexuality was considered a value which was dependant upon act’s conformity to social norms, as a function of age, social,economic and political denominations as well as sex.

A naive interpretation of the terms “Homosexual or Heterosexual” quickly leans our perspective towards anachronism as the sexual behaviour doesn’t resemble the way it is accepted in the contemporary period. The sexual relationships during this period was purely based on an anatomical level; “Phallic penetration”. The two actors in the sexual act was generally distinguished by the one who ‘penetrates’ and the other who gets ‘penetrated’ (real or symbolic). The actor who ‘penetrates’ was considered to have an active role whereas the ‘penetrated’ one was considered to have a passive role in the sexual act. The determination of the role in the sexual act was somehow dependant upon economic, social and political position of the actors. Therefore, activity and passivity enables the assessment of the acts and the actors.

Though the Classical Greek culture had a liberal perspective to the acts of sexuality but there existed orthodoxy in the determination of the actors. It was socially unacceptable for an adult male to get ‘penetrated’, but penetration was normal for an adult male, whatever the anatomical gender of the ‘penetrated’ might be. So, passivity was banished for an adult male and if an adult male played a passive role, it was considered the most shameful social act.

Here’s the part where, Aristophanes “inventory of sexual behaviours “ comes into play. It distinguishes different types of sexual acts in Ancient Greece. The first one was the sexuality between a man and a woman. The phallic penetration between a man and a woman were the most unproblematic of all. The sanction of marriage constituted the privileged instruments which enabled the male to transmit his social, economic, genetic as well as political patrimony. The only problem in these sexual relationships was the concept of “Adultery” which was condemned because it created confusion in the process of transmission through penetration. The second type was the sexual relationship between women which lacked importance due to the absence of phallic penetration. The most important one was the sexual relationships between men as it was the most complex of all,as phallic penetration was involved without any transmission.

“Paiderastia” was a social convention which was evident in the Athenian society’s higher circles. “Paiderastia” is the sexuality between an adult male citizen with a ‘pais’ (a boy or an adolescent) until the appearance of his first beard. It was believed that the ‘pais’ were capable of becoming the object of sexual desire on the part of an adult. The appearance of fuzz on the boy’s cheeks represented the peak of his sexual attractiveness. These ‘pais’ played a passive role in the sexual relationships but at the boy’s transitional phase, he was allowed to play both passive role (with a male adult) and active role (with a female counterpart) in a sexual relationship which clearly indicates the lack of constriction to one sexual partner. It is important to note the fact that, once the adolescent becomes an adult, the role necessarily gets shifted.

This type of sexual relationships (as in Paiderastia) was characterised by affection with a subsistence of emotional and erotic asymmetry distinguished by beloved’s “Phillia” and lover’s “Eros”. The older counterpart in these relationships were called “Erastês” and the younger counterpart were called “Erômanos”.

The Greek literature, especially the platonic literature remains discreet and one shouldn’t be fooled by it. For example, the term “huporgein” means to do someone a service and “kharizesthai” means to accord a favour. However, these terms could be attributed a special sexual meaning which forms a major part of Pausanias’s Paradox. The service expected or the favours requested by an “erastês” is equivalent to physical intimacy, ultimately leading to ejaculation but according to the context of these terms, a smile or a pleasant word might be the thing needed to keep a lover happy.

Though the concept of “Paiderastia” essentially indicates sexual relationships but it is a social convention with strict social norms and an educative role. The task of the adult was to facilitate the adolescent’s entry into the masculine society. Instead of being a social convention with regulative norms having an educative role, Aristophane portrays the existence of a long lasting and powerful relation between individuals of same sex. The fidelity or constancy could be considered a violation to the norm of abandoning exclusive ‘passive’ sexual relationships with men in order to get married and essentially brought upon them what the culture considers as “The social blame”. The most prominent example of this violation was the sexual relationship between Agathon (erômanes) and Pausanias (erastês) who had a prolonged relationship all their life.

It is important for us to know the concepts being mentioned and the social structure of the Ancient Greece for comprehending the controversial terms of “homosexuality and heterosexuality” in the modern phraseology. So, these sexual orientations (homosexuality) could be traced back to Ancient Greece which was one of the oldest civilisations of all. This is one of the oldest historical justifications of considering “homosexuality” as a way of life and not something to look down upon.

Published by Arpan Roy

Just a Bibliophile!

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