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Plato (427-327 B.C.E.)  
 
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Among Greek writers on homosexual themes, Plato is preeminent not only as a major philosopher but also as the greatest master of Greek prose. The Symposium and the Phaedrus, dialogues that deal directly with the subject of male love, stand among Plato's finest literary achievements.

Plato was born into an aristocratic Athenian family that claimed descent from Solon and ancient kings. His relatives led the antidemocratic reaction of 404; when democracy was restored five years later, Plato's teacher Socrates was put to death on a charge of undermining Athenian faith and morals through his critical teachings.

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The disillusioned Plato then left Greece to travel abroad; in Sicily, he met Dion, brother-in-law of the powerful tyrant, Dionysus. The two men appear to have been drawn to each other by shared philosophical and political interests and a strong personal bond.

Plato's amorous susceptibility seems to have centered principally on young men. Unlike most Greek males, Plato never married. Diogenes Laertius in his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers (ca 250 C.E.) gives considerable attention to his subjects' erotic interests, partly because he enjoyed gossip but also because he realized how profound a role same-sex love affairs played in the careers of Greek thinkers.

He speaks of Plato's "passionate attachment for males." He quotes three poems to women ascribed to Plato, and five to men. Of the latter, one is on the pleasure of kissing Agathon, another acknowledges the attraction of his pupil Aster, and a third hesitates to praise the beauty of Alexis for fear of alerting rivals. But Plato's most fully documented relation was with Dion.

Plato traveled to Syracuse at Dion's request in 387, hoping to mitigate the harsh rule of the tyrannical Dionysus, but the mission was not a success. Two years afterward Dion helped Plato found his famous school, the Academy, in a grove near Athens. It survived as a pedagogical center until Justinian closed it (for religious reasons) nine centuries later.

In 367, Dion persuaded Plato once more to visit Sicily, this time aspiring to influence Dionysus' heir, but the second Dionysus proved as intractable as the first. Finally, Dion overthrew him and seized power, only to be himself assassinated. Plato wrote his epitaph: "[Now] in your wide-wayed city, honored at last you rest, / O Dion, whose love once maddened the heart within this breast."

The Homoeroticism of the Dialogues

It is hardly too much to say that Plato's dialogues are suffused with a ambience. At the opening of the Charmides, Socrates, returning from the battle of Potidaea, comes to the wrestling school of Taureus and inquires who are the new beauties among the boys. Though Socrates qualifies his query by explaining he is interested in intellect as well as appearance, he and the others are constantly aware of the power of youthful male beauty to excite and inspire.

The young Charmides is recommended as the cream of the crop, and his entry is duly dramatized. A crowd of admirers attends him. Those present--including the young boys--grow silent with awe at his good looks and compete to have him sit beside them. Socrates, when he catches a glimpse of the "inside of his garment" feels a surge of desire, which he dutifully suppresses.

Similarly, at the start of the Protagoras, Socrates is teased for chasing the "fair Alcibiades," now showing his first trace of beard; later in the dialogue Pausanias and Agathon are introduced as a male couple. Phaedo, after whom Plato named the dialogue that records Socrates' last words, had been discovered by the philosopher serving in a male brothel. He had been captured in a war between Elis and Sparta, and sold as slave to the keeper of the house in Athens.

Plato's principal writings on homosexuality are the Symposium, the Phaedrus, and the Laws. The first, which was composed when Plato was about 43, is of prime importance in giving us the varied views of a group of Athenian intellectuals on Greek love. It represents a compendium of popular ideas on the subject, and introduces us to Socrates' criticism of them.

This critique is developed more fully in the Phaedrus with its rhapsodic poetry and exalted myths. The Laws, which Plato completed shortly before his death at eighty, is a very different work, both in style and tone. Here a harsh puritanism discards poetry for an emphasis on social control.

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