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literature

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Greek Literature: Ancient  
 
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Wanting to appear on the popular side of a long-standing debate, Aeschines quotes lengthy passages from the Iliad to argue for the view that Achilles and Patroclus were indeed lovers. He names approvingly various young Athenians well known for having attracted lovers through their beauty.

He confesses, moreover, that he too has made a nuisance of himself by pursuing young men in the gymnasia and has written erotic verse. Aeschines' rhetoric throughout his speech demonstrates how strongly Athenian sentiment in the late classical period favored male love, provided it was not tainted by mercenary motives.

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The Hellenistic Age

After the victories of Macedon and Rome, Greece lost its political independence but retained and, indeed, widened its cultural influence. Athens remained a major educational center for the Mediterranean world. In this age, Alexandria was founded and played a vital part in promoting scholarship and literature.

Callimachus

About 280 B.C.E., Callimachus founded a new "Alexandrian" school of poetry that was fastidious and erudite. Though he inaugurated a revolution in style, Callimachus was a conservative in his amorous verse: A dozen of his epigrams on boy-love appear in the Greek Anthology. One of these love poems is addressed to Theocritus. It would appear that once again the two leading Greek poets of their age were lovers.

Theocritus

Theocritus' poems reflect the internationalism of the Alexandrians: They are set in Italy and Sicily, on Aegean islands, and in Alexandria itself. As the inventor of "pastoral" poetry--in which the poet pretends to be a simple shepherd, he initiated a lasting genre and made a path for later homosexual poets.

Theocritus' Idylls, or "short poems," attest to the way earlier traditions of Greek love persisted and flourished in Hellenistic times. Seven of the thirty Idylls ascribed to him touch on homosexual themes.

In Idyll V ("Goatherd and Shepherd"), Comatas boasts of the girls who favor him, Lacon of the boys he enjoys. In Idyll VII ("The Harvest Festival"), Lycidas grieves over the departure of his lover for Mytilene; and Simichidas, who loves a girl, sings not of her but of the love of his friend Aratus for a boy.

Idyll XXIII ("Erastes") is probably not by Theocritus: It tells the story of a boy whose lover kisses his doorpost and hangs himself in despair. The boy treats the corpse with cold disdain; when he goes to the gymnasium to swim, a statue of Eros falls and kills him, staining the water with his blood.

Three of the Idylls (XII, XXIX, and XXX) are lover's complaints in which Theocritus addresses boys he has fallen in love with and chides them for their fickleness. In XII, he invokes the traditions of ancient Sparta and Thessaly, in XXIX, the love of Achilles for Patroclus: "Then there were men of gold, when the eromenos reflected the love of the erastes." In the former poem, he tells the boy their love will be known "two hundred generations" hence.

Perhaps the most poignant and beautiful of the Idylls is XIII, which dramatizes Heracles' grief over the loss of young Hylas, accidentally drowned when the Argonauts break their journey at the Hellespont.

The Greek Anthology

The most comprehensive collection of Greek poems to come down to us is the so-called Greek Anthology, a compilation based on earlier collections and given its final form by Cephalus, a Byzantine scholar of the tenth century. Two of its fifteen books consist of erotic epigrams--Book V (with 309 poems) is devoted to the love of women, Book XII (with 258) to the love of boys.

Meleager

Book XII derives in part from a collection called the "Garland of Meleager," put together about 50 B.C.E. by Meleager of Gadara, which contained his own poems and those of earlier writers. Meleager's thirty-one epigrams are the liveliest in Book XII. Wildly exuberant, he moves giddily, as he puts it, through a "sea of boys," registering every mood of the delighted or frustrated or fearful lover.

Straton of Sardis

The poet who contributes the most poems (about 100) to Book XII, however, is Straton of Sardis, who lived in the age of Hadrian. He may be credited as the first person known to have compiled a gay anthology. His collection, generally known by its Latin title as the Musa Puerilis (ca 140 C.E.), differed from Meleager's "Garland" in that it contained only homosexual poems, mainly his own. In essence, it formed the nucleus for Cephalus' Book XII.

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