Ancient Greek Lessons About Gay Marriage

The dizzying spectrum of same-sex relationships.

The status of same-sex relationships is a central problem for modern Westernized societies. Many countries allow same-sex couples the right to a "civil union" but withhold from them the name of marriage. The Netherlands was the first modern nation to legalize marriage proper for gay people, in 2001. Since then, seven U.S. states have also legalized gay marriages, although one, California, has just backtracked.On May 26, California judges upheld a constitutional amendment banning same- sex marriages in the state—one year after a court decision that had made such unions legal.* The ban is based on the idea that there is—or should be—something fundamentally different about sexual and romantic relationships between people of the same sex and those between a man and a woman. Since history is so often invoked, either implicitly or explicitly, on both sides of the debate, now is a particularly good time to look back at the history of same-sex relationships. Opponents of gay marriage argue that it threatens the "traditional" (i.e., historical?) family, while defenders—like Speaker of the California Assembly Karen Bass—often look to the "tide of history" to overturn the ban.

James Davidson, a British classicist, has just published a fascinating, meandering, funny, and thought-provoking study of how ancient Greek men loved one another, which ought to be required reading for anybody curious about the antecedents of the current impasse. His book is a landmark study that challenges earlier historical interpretations of the evidence. For instance, scholars working in the tradition of Kenneth Dover (author of Greek Homosexuality, 1978) have argued that the Athenians were obsessed with anal sex, which they saw as an act of domination and humiliation. Davidson brilliantly shows that this interpretation is largely a projection on the part of modern historians, who have been reluctant to imagine a world where gay relationships could be expressions of love, affection, and appreciation, rather than deeply skewed power arrangements.

Davidson draws our attention to the variety of social conventions surrounding male same-sex relationships, even within the geographically small area of ancient Greece. The very idea of "Greek love" or "Greek homosexuality" as a single social institution comes to seem somewhat misguided as Davidson shows how very differently people behaved in, say, Sparta, Elis, and Athens. The Athenians—who have bequeathed us the most evidence—were very unusual; citizens of other Greek cities were puzzled by the Athenian practices of "paederasty," or "boy-love," which involved the courtship of young men but which were also associated with the boys' education.

Davidson emphasizes that we should not think of these relationships in terms of child abuse. He argues, more vigorously than other historians have done, that the Athenians themselves were very much concerned to mark the distinction between those who were underage (i.e., under 18) and those who were not. As Davidson portrays it, same-sex relationships—which seem to have generally taken place between youths in their late teens and young men in their early 20s— were an important part of a boy's journey to manhood. Upper-class Athenian men usually got married at around 30, often to a much younger girl. Of course, many men continued to be interested in "boys" even after marriage; happily married poet Sophocles and unhappily married philosopher Socrates both flirted with young men at drinking parties and caused no scandal in doing so. (The amazing thing about Socrates' sex life, according to Plato's Symposium, was not that he fancied the gorgeous Alcibiades but that he resisted having sex with him, even when snugglng under the same blanket.) Long-term same- sex partnerships did exist (for instance between the tragic poet Agathon and his lover Pausanias), but these seem to have been rare and less socially accepted. The assumption was that men grow less crazy for boys as they approach middle age, and that boys would remain attractive to men only until their first beard began to grow— perhaps at around 20, since adolescence came later for ancient people.

Athenians, in turn, were puzzled by the sexual practices of other Greek societies. In Sparta, for instance, a curious kind of sex seems to have been the custom between well-behaved men and chaste teenage boys.Apparently the lover was supposed to relieve himself only by rubbing against the boy's cloak: The cloak had to remain on at all times, as a sort of all-body condom. Cretan rituals were equally strange, from an Athenian perspective. There was a ceremony that Davidson identifies as a form of gay marriage, involving carefully choreographed, public "abductions" of pretty male teenagers by their male lovers. This seems to have been something that happened not to every reasonably attractive boy but only to the very cutest. The boys who were chosen in this way were treated as special thereafter and won the dangerous honor of serving in the front lines in battle. These ceremonies were a way of forming public same-sex
bonds and of conferring a public blessing on the most attractive youngsters in a generation.

In short, there was no single "traditional" way to conduct same-sex relationships in ancient Greece. This fact in itself might make us leery of any claims about what a "normal" or "traditional" domestic setup might look like. Love comes in many guises and gets culturally legitimized in many ways, and that has been true since antiquity. Any claim about "the way things have always been" is liable to be false.

Sweeping claims about the social impact of sexual arrangements should be made with caution, too. Instead, history can usefully complicate contemporary assumptions. Opponents of gay marriage often express concern that legalizing such relationships will somehow damage our communities. Davidson's book argues convincingly that in ancient Greece, at least, socially accepted relationships between men actually worked to create greater cohesiveness within the city-state. Men whose lovers or ex-lovers were in a different parish, a different social class, or from a different age group had a connection that in turn helped bind the larger community together. In Athens in 514 B.C., for example, the tyrant Hipparchus tried to steal the aristocratic boyfriend of a middle-class young man named Aristogeiton; the boy refused, and the lovers banded together to assassinate the tyrant and his brother. Aristogeiton and his beloved Harmodius were much celebrated in later poetry and art. Their love, which overcame the boundaries of both class and tyranny, became an emblem for the democracy that developed in Athens six or seven years later.

Greek Love provides an important invitation to open our eyes to the multiplicity of ways in which people loved one another in ancient Greece. Davidson's perspective blurs the long-running debate over the theory, associated with Foucault, that "homosexuality" is a category of modern vintage; his emphasis on relationships, rather than sexual identity, helps us see that on many levels, it really doesn't matter much whether any Greeks thought of themselves as "gay." And if labels matter less than love in its many guises, that in itself is an argument against the claim that there is anything unnatural about extending the option of marriage—of public acknowledgment of a sexual, domestic, and romantic partnership—to homosexual couples

But looking back to Greece should also make us cautious of claims about "the tide of history." History comes in waves, not tides. There is, unfortunately, no reason to expect that time by itself will lead to progress. History is always a weak argument for social change. The fact that the Greeks recognized a wide variety of same-sex bonds, and the Victorians did not, tells us nothing about what ought to happen in California, or in the rest of the United States for that matter. We should remember a simple truth known to anybody who has taken Philosophy 101: You can't get an ought from an is (or even a was). Whatever public legitimacy was, or was not, granted to same-sex relationships in any previous culture, it would still be entirely unjust, within the terms of our own society, to deny homosexual couples the legal status available to heterosexual relationships.

Correction,Sept. 29, 2009: This article originally stated that California lawmakers upheld a ban on same-sex marriages on May 26. The author meant California judges. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Emily Wilson teaches classical literature at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of a book about tragedy.

Originally Posted Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2009


  1. James Davidson's book is a self-contradictory fairty tale, far more of a projection of transient social norms that exist today than were previous 'academic' works on the subject.

    The idea that people under 18 were 'underage' for sex, was virtually unknown throught human history until California in the last century - a feminist meme that slowly spread across the globe, and only in the last decade thanks to internet generated sex offender hysteria taking root (still only a handful of nations around the world have an age of consent of 18).

    The idea that boys in Ancient Athens didn't start growing beards until 19 is ridiculous. To anyone interested in historical truth, rather than fantastical re-written feminist/homosexual politically correct history, just walk into the British Museum and look at the beautiful vases depicting sex between Ancient Greek men and boys (and girls) who were certiainly under 18.

  2. so the vases are the authentic truth and we should ignore written materials? guys on the vases are stylized, and the men are drawn as being one larger, one smaller - that reflects a viewpoint of one partner being bigger, older, but its not a photograph, but an interpretation by the painter

    The concern for the age of the boys, may show that there was a concern for propriety, that it was a relevant ethical question. However, like the cloaks the boys wore, the all-body condom, probably propriety was also noticed by its violation