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Greek Literature: Ancient  
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This question, a popular a subject for debate in late antiquity, is central to the last full-length philosophical dialogue on homosexuality that has survived. The dialogue, entitled Erotes, or The Loves, in many ways parallels Plutarch's Eroticos and reads like a response to it.

Once more we have a highly passionate debate between a homosexual and a heterosexual on the merits of their respective lifestyles. Originally ascribed to Lucian, it is written in his lively, not to say racy, style, but dates from after his death, perhaps from around 230 C.E.

The setting for the debate is a visit by three men to the temple of Aphrodite at Cnidus to view Praxiteles' famous statue. Its arguments in favor of male love are very much in the mode of the Symposium and the Eroticos. Callicratidas, the homosexual speaker, makes the traditional claim for the ennobling influence of male love with some eloquence.

There are, however, a few novelties. Callicratidas, when invoking the heroic side of Greek love, chooses as his exemplary lovers a new couple, Orestes and Pylades. He points to their self-sacrificing behavior in Euripides' Iphigenia in Tauris, where each is represented as willing to die to save the other.

And, in contrast to the Eroticos, this time the debate is adjudicated in favor of the homosexual speaker, a result that demonstrates how long the classical Greek view endured in antiquity.

Classical civilization may be said to have come to an end with the abolition of the Olympic Games, in 393, by the Christian Emperor Theodosius. Theodosius launched a determined campaign against paganism and passed a law that made homosexual acts punishable by burning.

Nonnus' Dionysiaca

The last substantial work of Greek literature to celebrate male love is the Dionysiaca of Nonnus. Apart from his authorship of the Dionysiaca, nothing is known of Nonnus, except that he lived at Panopolis in Egypt and (presumably later) produced a verse paraphrase of the gospel of St. John.

Nonnus' dates are very uncertain. The composition of the Dionysiaca has been dated as early as the period 390-405 and as late as the end of the fifth century. Given the strong official reaction against paganism and the repeated attacks by the Fathers of the Church on the pederastic element in Greek religion and literature, the earlier dates seem more likely.

Nonnus' vast epic in forty-eight books describes Dionysus' conquest of India; books ten through twelve recount, in baroque detail, his love for the boy Ampelus, who after his death is transformed into the vine sacred to the god.

It also tells of the love of two boys, Carpus and Calamus. Carpus is drowned, and the grieving Calamus is turned into a water reed. It has been suggested that this myth may have inspired the title for Whitman's "Calamus" poems in his Leaves of Grass. Whether or not such a link exists between ancient Greek and modern American gay poetry, the Dionysiaca is a final, and remarkable, swan song to a literary tradition that existed for more than a millennium.

Louis Crompton

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arts >> Overview:  Classical Art

Ancient Greek and Roman art represents a variety of homoerotic experience in several different ways.

literature >> Overview:  Classical Mythology

The Greco-Roman myths concerning same-sex love have been of crucial importance to the Western gay and lesbian literary heritage, both as texts and as icons.

social sciences >> Overview:  Greece: Ancient

The institution of pederasty (paiderastia) was a conspicuous feature of ancient Greek public and private life, but other forms of male-male sexual relations flourished in the Greco-Roman cosmopolis of the second and third centuries C.E.

literature >> Overview:  Pastoral

Both the elegiac and the romantic pastoral have been associated with homoerotic desire from their beginnings in classical literature to their echoes in contemporary literatures.

social sciences >> Overview:  Pederasty

Pederasty is the erotic relationship between an adult male and a boy, generally one between the ages of twelve and seventeen, in which the older partner is attracted to the younger one who returns his affection.

literature >> Overview:  Roman Literature

Roman writers on homosexual or bisexual themes generally followed Greek models; but unlike the Greeks, Romans condoned sex with slaves.

literature >> Barney, Natalie Clifford

In addition to being the muse and inspiration of other writers, American expatriate Natalie Barney, known as the Amazon, was a poet, memoirist, and epigrammatist in her own right.

literature >> Baudelaire, Charles

Baudelaire was among the first French poets to include lesbians as subjects.

literature >> Cather, Willa

One of America's premier literary artists in the earlier twentieth century, Willa Cather reflected her own lesbianism in the creation of strong women characters and in the exploration of male homosexuality.

literature >> Doolittle, Hilda

The bisexual poet and novelist Hilda Doolittle, who published under the initials H. D., wrote poems and autobiographical prose works that celebrate women's romantic relationships with each other.

social sciences >> Hadrian

The love of the second-century Roman emperor Hadrian for the beautiful youth Antinous was exceptional not because the lovers were male, but because of its intensity.

literature >> Horace

In his highly accomplished and influential poetry, Horace reflects the easy bisexuality of the Roman upper class in the first century B. C.

literature >> Lowell, Amy

Much of Amy Lowell's poetry is extremely frank, forthrightly sensual, and often overtly lesbian.

literature >> Lucian

In Lucian's satiric works, homosexuality is treated as one of a related series of personal traits that characterize villainy, pretension, and ignorance, while the Erôtes of pseudo-Lucian advocates male-male love as honorable and as a sign of social progress.

literature >> Plato

Among Greek writers on homosexual themes, Plato is preeminent not only as a major philosopher but also as the greatest master of Greek prose.

literature >> Plutarch

No ancient is more instructive about pederasty than the Greek biographer and essayist Plutarch.

literature >> Sappho

Admired through the ages as one of the greatest lyric poets, the ancient Greek writer Sappho is today esteemed by lesbians around the world as the archetypal lesbian and their symbolic mother.

literature >> Shakespeare, William

As one of the key figures that western civilization has used to define itself, William Shakespeare stands in a complicated, fiercely contested relationship to homosexuality.

arts >> Subjects of the Visual Arts: Harmodius and Aristogeiton

Athenian lovers Harmodius and Aristogeiton were remembered in ancient Greece as the great tyrannicides and celebrated as lovers, patriots, and martyrs.

literature >> Theocritus

The ancient Greek poet Theocritus is the first great voice in the homoerotic pastoral tradition in Western literature.

literature >> Virgil

Virgil wrote approvingly of male love in many works, and his second eclogue became the most famous poem on that subject in Latin literature.

literature >> Vivien, Renée

Renée Vivien, who had many affairs with women, openly celebrated lesboerotic love in her poetry and dreamed of women-controlled spaces in an era when most women were still domestically confined.

literature >> Whitman, Walt

Celebrating an ideal of manly love in both its spiritual and physical aspects, Walt Whitman has exerted a profound and enduring influence on gay literature.


Buffière, Félix. Éros adolescent: la pédérastie dans la Grèce antique. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1980.

Clarke, W. M. "Achilles and Patroclus in Love." Hermes 106(1978): 381-396.

Dover, Kenneth. Greek Homosexuality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Dynes, Wayne, ed. Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. 2 vols. New York: Garland, 1990.

Foucault, Michel. The Use of Pleasure. Trans. R. Hurley. New York: Random House, 1985.

Flacelière, Robert. Love in Ancient Greece. Trans. J. Cleugh. New York: Crown, 1962.

Halperin, David. One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Licht, Hans. Sexual Life in Ancient Greece. London: Routledge, 1932.

Page, Dennis. Sappho and Alcaeus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955.

Sergent, Bernard. Homosexuality in Greek Myth. Trans. A. Goldhammmer. Boston: Beacon, 1984.

Translations of most of the works cited will be found in the Loeb Classical Library; for the dialogues discussed, see Lucian (vol. 8); Plutarch, Moralia (vol. 9); and Xenophon, Scriptora Minora in the Loeb editions.


    Citation Information
    Author: Crompton, Louis  
    Entry Title: Greek Literature: Ancient  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 28, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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