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Greek Literature: Ancient  
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Critics who support the theory that Achilles and Patroclus are lovers (in the emotional, if not necessarily in the sexual sense) most often cite the passage in the Iliad where Achilles wishes all the other Greek warriors dead so "we two alone" might win glory in fighting the Trojans. They also note the wild intensity of Achilles' grief when Patroclus is killed fighting the Trojans.

How puzzling the matter was to the Greeks is indicated by the view of a leading Alexandrian editor of Homer, Aristarchus. Aristarchus held that Achilles and Patroclus were not lovers but that the "we two alone" passage implied they were. Therefore, he argued, the passage must be an interpolation.

Whatever Homer's intent, Achilles, because he chose to sacrifice his life to avenge his comrade, was popularly seen in later times not just as the greatest warrior, but also as the heroic lover par excellence.


With Sappho of Lesbos (born ca 612 B.C.E.), we are left with no doubt about the erotic feeling that imbues her lyrics addressed to young women. Love for her is an overwhelming, all-consuming passion.

In her famous "Ode," she speaks of breaking into a cold sweat and standing tongue-tied in the presence of her beloved, who sits beside a man Sappho envies. Her prayer to Aphrodite recalls how the goddess once promised to make another woman fall in love with Sappho, who once more invokes her aid.

Biographers in the late classical period looked askance at these passionate affairs, but Sappho during her lifetime seems to have retained a respected place in the society of Lesbos. After her death, her face appeared on the coins of her native city, Mytilene, and paintings and statues representing her were common throughout the classical world.

Wealthy families from distant places sent their daughters to be trained by her in singing and dancing. Some of her poems are addressed to her pupils Anactoria and Atthis and recall the delights of their life together. Others bitterly reproach girls who she thinks have forgotten her. Her circle formed an aesthetic cult devoted to beauty and the arts, and probably performed at civic religious festivals.

Sappho was married, had a daughter, and composed songs for weddings. However, the story that she fell in love with a ferryman named Phaon and committed suicide on his account is a later, unsubstantiated, legend.

Sappho's passionate lyrics were much admired in antiquity. Plato called her the "Tenth Muse." Unfortunately, fewer than half a dozen of her sparklingly brilliant poems have survived in anything like complete form; most of what we have are fragments.

Sappho's influence on modern lesbian poetry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was of prime importance. Her elegant aestheticism and exotic remoteness piqued the imagination of male poets like Baudelaire (see his "Lesbos") and inspired tributes by Renée Vivien and Natalie Barney, American expatriates in Paris, and the poems in which Amy Lowell celebrated her lover Ada Russell. Hilda Doolittle (H. D.) fell under her spell, and Willa Cather wrote a review that is a kind of prose poem extolling Sappho's love poetry.

The word lesbian in its modern sense was not, however, used by the ancient Greeks. Plato speaks of the "female companions" and the common (derogatory) term was "." "Lesbian" with its present meaning first appears in seventeenth-century France, which also coined the term .


By coincidence, the first identifiable Greek male poet to write love poems to boys was also a native of Lesbos. Alcaeus was Sappho's contemporary and addressed poems to her, to which, Aristotle tells us, she wrote cool replies. He was an ardent partisan of the aristocratic faction on Lesbos to which Sappho's own family was allied.

His love poems have disappeared, and we know of them only from references in Cicero and Horace. Horace tells us Alcaeus sang of Lycus "with his black eyes and black hair." (Odes, 1.32)


Solon of Athens (ca 640-558 B.C.E.) won fame as a democratic statesman and lawgiver; he ranked as one of the "Seven Sages" of the ancient world. In his youth, he wrote poems on the love of boys, praising their kisses and thighs. The law code he drew up for Athens forbade slaves to be the lovers of freeborn boys. Plutarch thought this measure was meant to "incite the worthy to that which he forbade the unworthy."

Ibycus of Rhegium

The poetry of Ibycus of Rhegium (in Southern Italy) resembles Sappho's in treating love as an overpowering tempest of emotion. Lauded by the Alexandrian critics as one of the "Nine Lyric Poets" of Greece, he lived at the luxurious court of the tyrant Polycrates of Samos. Only fragments of his poems remain; some are pederastic. His epitaph calls him a "lover of the lyre" and a "lover of boys."

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