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Greek Literature: Ancient  
 
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In the heritage of homosexual literature, ancient Greece holds a unique place. Here was a society relatively hospitable to the love of boys and youths, and, on occasion, to love between older men, in which poetry and prose that celebrated such affections formed a significant part of its culture.

Nor was this phenomenon, as some have assumed, limited to a relatively short period in the classical age. Explicitly themes are an important part of Greek literature from at least 600 B.C.E. till as late as 400 C.E. They appear in myths, lyric poetry, epic, tragedy, comedy, epigrams, philosophical debates, biography, and literary discussions.

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The Influence of the Greek Tradition

The influence of this literary tradition was immense. Its first impact was on the Romans who absorbed and imitated the verse of Sappho, Alcaeus, Callimachus, Theocritus, and the Greek Anthology, and who, through Ovid, became thoroughly familiar with homoerotic myths associated with the Olympian gods.

Via Latin literature, these traditions reached medieval Christendom, primarily through its reading of Ovid, but also through the poetry of Virgil and Horace.

With the coming of the Renaissance, Western Europe reimmersed itself directly in Greek culture, and this aspect of it found echoes in the vernacular literatures of Italy, France, and England. Until Whitman, most of the homosexual poetry of the West can be related to some Greek source, or to its reflection in classical Latin.

Archaic Greece

We know from historical accounts of ancient Greece that various forms of institutionalized were part of Greek life from early times. It was most highly developed in Crete, where ritualized abductions were part of the culture and conferred honorific status on the boy.

In Spartan military society, men and boys were expected to form close bonds as "inspirers" and "hearers"; to emphasize the importance of these attachments, the Spartans sacrificed to Eros before giving battle.

Opinion was keenly divided in classical times on whether such relations were sexual. Plutarch held that Spartan loves were not physical, but Plato in his Laws implies the contrary, and Xenophon admitted that skepticism about their chastity was widespread.

Male love was freely accepted and institutionalized in Thebes, where men pledged their vows at the shrine of Iolaüs, the lover of Heracles, the patron god of the city. Elis, the town in the Peloponnesus that presided over the games at Olympus, was ranked with Thebes in this regard. It held an annual beauty contest for boys.

In Theognis' city, Megara, boys competed in a civic kissing competition. Plutarch tells a dramatic story about how Chalcis, on the island of Euboea, came to endorse male love enthusiastically after seeing its positive effect on military morale. In Athens, Solon was reputed to have been the lover of Pisistratus, who was in turn the lover of Charmus, who set up the first altar to Eros in the city.

In Greek love affairs, an older man, or erastes, became the mentor of a young boy, or eromenos. On the one side was age, wisdom, and accomplishment; on the other, youth, beauty, and a desire to emulate and excel.

Male love was very much part of the communal life of Greek cities that had its center in the gymnasium. There men met, exercised in the nude, discoursed on politics and (if we may believe Plato) on philosophy, and in addition found lovers. Love between men, it was argued, inspired courage in war and prepared youths for careers as statesmen or philosophers.

In late archaic times, many elegantly painted scenes on Greek vases show men courting boys or engaging in specifically sexual behavior. By 600 B.C.E. or shortly after, this culture was finding eloquent expression in Greek lyric poetry: Alcaeus and Solon were celebrating the love of boys, and Sappho was writing love poems to young women.

Homer

The case of Homer, on the other hand, was, and still is, the subject of much debate. The Iliad (ca 800-750 B.C.E.) was the undisputed masterpiece of Greek epic poetry and a kind of bible for the Greek world as a repository of myths, history, and exemplary tales of military valor. Central to its plot is the passionate attachment of Achilles and Patroclus.

But did Homer mean us to perceive them as lovers? There is no doubt that later writers of the classical age such as Aeschylus and Aeschines thought so, and believed the lack of explicitness about an erotic element in their friendship was merely a sign of Homer's literary tact.

But the Iliad does not fit the archetypal erastes-eromenos pattern. Achilles is the younger and more beautiful, but he is also the dominant personality. And in the Iliad, both men sleep with slave women.

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Achilles (right) binding the wounds of Patroclus. Some critics believe that Homer intended for readers to perceive these two characters from the Iliad (ca. 800-750) as lovers, though scholars continue to debate the question.
  
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