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Greek Literature: Ancient  
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Greek Tragedy

The most impressive literary achievement of the classical period was Greek tragedy. None of the thirty-three extant plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides deals with homosexual love affairs. We know, however, from the writings of Athenaeus (ca 200 C.E.) that such plays existed and we are told that "the audience gladly accepted such stories."

Aeschylus' Myrmidons

Athenaeus names as the first famous play on this theme Aeschylus' Myrmidons. The text has vanished, but enough fragments remain for us to guess at the plot. The play takes its title from Achilles' armed Thessalian followers at Troy, who presumably made up its chorus; its subject is Achilles' love for Patroclus.

The climax was the death of Patroclus, who had died fighting in Achilles' armor, and its most quoted speech was Achilles' lament over the body of his dead lover. In it, he referred to their "many kisses" and to "the holy union of our thighs," a phrase that must have startled the Athenians.

Sophocles' Niobe

The other play mentioned by Athenaeus as notable for its treatment of same-sex love is Sophocles' Niobe. Niobe was the boastful mother whose six sons and six daughters were slain by Apollo and Artemis. It may seem strange that a play on such a topic should have had a homosexual emphasis. But Athenaeus tells us that the play was also known as the Paiderastria ("Love of Youths"), and Plutarch quotes a line in which one of the dying sons calls on his lover to protect him from Apollo's arrows.

The disappearance of these plays, along with the seven books of Sappho, is probably the greatest loss the gay and lesbian literary heritage has known.

Sophocles' passion for young men was well known, and several anecdotes (some of them scandalous) survive, along with the name of one of his lovers--Demophon. One story tells of his rivalry with Euripides for the favors of a boy prostitute.

Euripides' Chryssippus

Euripides himself wrote at least one play on a homosexual liaison, his Chrysippus. Chrysippus was the son of Pelops, who was abducted against his will by King Laius, Oedipus's father; in the Theban legend it is this crime that brings about the curse on Laius's family.


The dramatist who in classical times was regarded as ranking next after Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides as a writer of tragedies was Agathon; unfortunately all of his plays have vanished. It is in honor of his winning the prize for tragedy in 416 B.C.E. that the celebration described in Plato's Symposium is supposed to take place.

In the dialogue, it is hinted that Agathon, who was remarkable for his beauty, is the lover of Pausanias, another of the speakers. The fact that they are an unusual, adult couple leads Pausanias to defend such relationships.

About the year 406 B.C.E., Agathon emigrated to the court of King Archelaus of Macedon, who was a patron of drama. Euripides, who was now over seventy, joined him there and became his lover. Agathon would have been about forty. When queried by Archelaus about his love, Euripides is said to have replied that Agathon's beauty was impressive even in its autumn. Plutarch, in his Eroticos, takes this love affair between the two greatest poets of their age as the archetype of same-sex love between mature men.

The Comedies of Aristophanes

If we lack Greek tragedies treating of homosexuality, there is no dearth of references to the subject in Aristophanes, whose comedies first appeared in 427 B.C.E. Since his works are farcical extravaganzas that deliberately border on the outrageous, most of the comments are satirical.

Aristophanes has sometimes been regarded as , but to take this view is to fail to understand Greek culture. The man who assumed the active role with boys or men did not compromise his masculinity. But as in modern Mediterranean and Latin American societies, a passive adult male was always liable to ridicule for playing what was perceived as a feminine role.

Thus Aristophanes makes fun of Agathon in the Thesmophoriazusae for dressing in women's clothes--purportedly to throw himself into the mood of the heroine in a play he is writing. He repeatedly mocks Cleisthenes, the Athenian politician, as an Oriental eunuch. In the Lysistrata the tumescent husbands, desperate because of their wives' sex strike, propose him as a substitute.

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