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literature

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Greek Literature: Ancient  
 
page: 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  

In its final form, Book XII of the Greek Anthology preserves poems by thirty poets from five centuries. They are short and pithy, lyrical or satirical, delicate protestations of devotion or coarse jests, lovers' boasts, laments or revenges, confessions of rapture, dementia, or despair.

That Straton's anthology should have appeared in the second century is appropriate, for the age of the Antonines produced a Hellenic revival that influenced the whole Greco-Roman world. There was a renewed interest in the classical legacy, including the historical and literary traditions of male love. We may say that in a sense, gay studies begin in this century with the writings of Plutarch, Straton, Athenaeus, and Aelian.

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The panculturalism of the era is symbolized in literature by Plutarch's Parallel Lives of famous Greeks and Romans and in life by the love of the Roman Emperor Hadrian for the Greek boy Antinous. (Unfortunately Hadrian's own love poems to boys have been lost, though fragments of a poem in Greek describing a lion hunt with Antinous are extant.)

Plutarch

Plutarch put special emphasis on male love affairs in his biographies of Lycurgus, Solon, Agesilaus, Alexander, and Pelopidas. The "Life of Pelopidas" is of particular importance: In it, Plutarch gives a unique account of the Sacred Band of Thebes (378-38 B.C.E.), a regiment made up of three hundred lovers who fought as couples.

Plutarch admiringly celebrates the unique discipline, high morale, and remarkable victories of this "army of lovers," which made it possible for the Thebans to defeat Sparta and become the leading military power in Greece for forty years.

Plutarch's most striking contribution to gay literary history, however, is not his Lives but his philosophical dialogue, the Eroticos, or "Dialogue on Love" (ca 110 C.E.). The dialogue is of great interest for the light it throws on attitudes to male love in late classical times.

It takes the form of a debate on which is better, the love of males or the love of women. The debate has a lively and entertaining dramatic frame--it is sparked by a vehement quarrel among his friends and admirers about whether a favored youth should marry.

It represents opinion in Plutarch's day as fairly evenly divided, though Plutarch himself argues in favor of married love. Plutarch takes a high Platonic line on love, praises it as a kind of "erotic madness" (he quotes Sappho's "Ode" to establish this), and enumerates its personal and social benefits.

But in order to defend conjugal love, he feels he must first defend love in general. To do this, he draws on Greek myth, history, and literature. Such traditions were abundant but almost exclusively homoerotic.

The result is that Plutarch prefaces his defense of marriage with a long panegyric on male love extremely rich in historical anecdotes and literary material, an encyclopedia of (mainly positive) Greek ideas on the subject with much information that does not appear elsewhere.

The paradoxical result is that though conjugal love gets Plutarch's special approval, the Eroticos ranks closely after the Symposium and the Phaedrus as a document in the gay literary heritage.

Athenaeus

Rivaling Plutarch as a contribution to gay history, with a special emphasis on literature, is Book XIII of The Deipnosophists, or The Savants at Dinner, an enormous compilation of erudition by Athenaeus, who wrote at Naucratis, a Greek city in Egypt, at the end of the first century. Casual, sprawling, and chaotic, this marathon conversation makes reference to a wealth of stories and preserves much information about gay literary themes that would otherwise have been lost.

Hellenistic Novels

In the comedies of Menander and later Greek and Latin playwrights, the "boy-meets-girl" pattern established itself as the conventional love plot. It is also standard in the Greek novels that have come down to us. Some of them, however, have homosexual subplots.

This is the case in the Ephesian Tale of Xenophon of Ephesus and the Leucippe and Clitophon of Achilles Tatius. (Greek novels are hard to date; it is possible that both works belong to the third century C.E.) The first tells the story of Hippothoos and Hyperanthes, the second that of Clinias and Charicles.

Both episodes are treated romantically and sympathetically and strike a note of tragic pathos. Tatius' novel also contains a short discussion on which gender makes the more enjoyable partner in an amorous affair: each is commended.

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