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Greek Literature: Ancient  
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But this mocking of male effeminacy, unpleasant as it often is, is not to be confused with simple antihomosexualism. The uncultivated working-class Athenians who are the heroes of Aristophanes' comedies are quite willing to find satisfaction with male partners provided they take the active role.

Thus Philocleon in the Wasps relishes examining nude boys as part of his jury assignment. At the end of the Knights, its hero is awarded both a woman and a boy as his prizes. In the Birds, Pisthetairos imagines a utopia where fathers of good-looking boys will scold him for not being aggressive enough in seducing their sons.

But Aristophanes' comedies also have a serious side. Strongly conservative in his social views, he vigorously championed the plays of Aeschylus and attacked Euripides. The tragedy of Aeschylus he most admired seems to have been the Myrmidons: He quotes it more often than any other play.

In the Frogs, he introduces Aeschylus as a character and makes him boast that his plays were in the true heroic style of Homer because they depicted "men of valor, lion-hearted heroes like Patroclus" who would inspire the audience to imitate them when they were called to battle.

In the Symposium, Plato has Aristophanes speak in defense of male love: There he appears as a kind of "gay chauvinist" who claims that lovers of males are superior to the lovers of women since they are "more masculine" and most often provided political leadership.


Plato's Symposium and Phaedrus are the most brilliant and best known writings on Greek homosexuality to come down to us from the classical era. Plato records with dramatic vividness informal scenes where flirtations take place, light-hearted banter is exchanged, and current attitudes to male love are seriously discussed or implicitly revealed.

Plato shares the popular enthusiasm for these affairs as the source of inspiring emotional bonds, but argues that they should remain unconsummated. The Symposium reveals popular Greek attitudes, the Phaedrus presents an ultra-romantic ideal of (chaste) male love, and a late work, the Laws, argues for punitive measures against physical acts.


Edmund Spenser noted that English scholars of the Renaissance were much more likely to have read Xenophon than Plato. Xenophon's Symposium parallels Plato's and makes reference to it. It purports to be an account of a feast given by Callias to honor his young lover Autolycus who had won a prize in the Panathenaic games. (This victory took place in 422 B.C.E. at which date, however, Xenophon would have been only eight years old.)

During the evening, leading citizens of Athens discuss--and demonstrate by their present behavior--the power of male beauty to entrance other males. However, this is no special coterie: Callias' guests speak freely of the ubiquitousness of such infatuations in their society.

Socrates delivers a definitive speech rhapsodically extolling male love but deprecating any sexual expression. He argues that Zeus's love for Ganymede and Achilles' for Patroclus was free from carnality, and that male love in Sparta is similarly nonphysical.

At the same time, he strongly commends Callias' love for Autolycus and names approvingly a number of other prominent Athenians whose (Platonic) love affairs with other males were widely recognized. Xenophon's dialogue, though hardly of Platonic caliber, has substance, charm, and eloquence, and deserves to be better known.

His other works--The Constitution of Sparta, the Economist, and the Anabasis are also important for what they reveal of Greek attitudes; sometimes Xenophon's view of male homosexuality is matter of fact, sometimes it is romantic, but it lacks Socrates' puritanism.

Aeschines' Against Timarchus

Another prose work that contains important information on Athenian law and throws much light on popular attitudes toward male love is Aeschines' speech, Against Timarchus (345 B.C.E.). Demosthenes had accused Aeschines of betraying the city's interests in its negotiations with Philip of Macedon, and a popular demagogue named Timarchus had joined him in the indictment.

Aeschines' defense was to accuse Timarchus of having led the life of a male courtesan: Athens had a law that men who prostituted themselves lost their civic rights and could not bring charges in the courts.

What is striking about Aeschines' speech, however, is the pains he takes to make it clear that he is not opposed to male love affairs generally. He imagines that some Athenian general will appear in Timarchus' defense and attack Aeschines as an opponent of "honorable love" and a threat to traditional Athenian culture.

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