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social sciences

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Greece: Ancient  
 
page: 1  2  3  4  5  

The canonical ages between which boys could be honorably, publicly solicited for sexual favors were fourteen, the conventional age for the onset of puberty, and eighteen, when ephebes began their military service. Greek erastai especially doted on sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds. The poet Scythinus of Teos, a contemporary of Plato, writes, "sixteen is the fatal age when a boy possesses every charm." Some citizens, exceptionally, stretched the limits of desirability downward to twelve and upward to twenty--and, very exceptionally, higher still.

How old were the erastai? The youngest were beardless or lightly bearded youths in their late teens and early twenties who were making the transition from pursued to pursuer. The vase painters show them beardless and courting boys only a few years younger than themselves.

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About the upper age limit, the vases indicate an erastes is adult by showing him with a full black beard.

A helpful clue is age at first marriage. According to Plato and Aristotle, Greek men married in their early to mid thirties. If, as we know to be the case, most erastai eventually married and had children, and if many of them afterwards curtailed their pederastic activity as their physicians and conventional opinion pressed them to do, it should follow that the typical erastes was a bachelor in his twenties or early thirties.

One of the epigrams of the poet Strato of Sardis (ca 125 C.E.) accurately summarizes the taboos governing age. "It is disgraceful to have sex with underage boys and equally inappropriate to be a lover of young men, for their season is past. But it is twice as disgraceful for a grown-up young man to submit passively to a lover as it is for the lover to desire and seduce him."

There were exceptions. An anonymous papyrus from the second century C.E. asks us to remember how many boys the poet Anacreon (ca 570-485 B.C.E.) and wise Socrates had loved even when their hair was gray and how delightful their lives were in old age because of this. According to his biographer, Antigonus of Carystus, Zeno of Citium (335-263 B.C.E.), founder of the Stoic school of philosophy, never had sex with a woman, but favored boys all his life.

Modes of Intercourse

The testimony of the vases about age differentials is straightforward and dovetails well with the literary evidence. But the relation of picture to text and convention to reality is more difficult to parse in the representation of sexual acts.

When the vases show man-boy copulation, the act is between the thighs and face-to-face. Shall we conclude that the ordinary mode of pederastic intercourse was intercrural?

There are certainly texts, most of them archaic and classical, which would encourage us to think so. Solon, lawgiver of Athens, having fallen in love with a boy in the flower of youth, confessed in verse his "yearning for [the boy's] thighs (meroi) and sweet lips." Anacreon begs a youth to make him a gift of his "slender thighs." Ganymede's thighs, wrote Sophocles in the Colchian Women, "set Zeus's majesty aflame." And Aeschylus, in The Mirmidons, has Achilles, grieving over the body of Patroclus, wildly reproach his dead love for not having kept the "splendor of his thighs" unharmed and safe for him.

Equally compelling evidence over a much longer period makes it plain that anal intercourse was the sexual act men liked best. It was practiced regularly with women as well as with boys. The problem with anal intercourse was that the receptive partner in a male relationship was perceived to be acting sexually like a woman.

Aristophanes (died ca 385 B.C.E.), for example, makes fun of pederasty and cruelly mocks the receptive party in adult relationships. All his examples of male-male sexual intercourse, whether pederastic or androphile, are anal. He defames the passive party as "cistern-assed" or "wide-assed" or a man with a "white rump" (because he shaves his buttocks); and he abuses real persons by calling them katapugon, a male who offers his buttocks to another (the word has a pejorative connotation akin to "faggot"). There are many attestations in graffiti of the word katapugon and its variants, as in Olympiodoros katapugon (on a potsherd found during excavations in the market place of Athens).

Hellenistic, and later, texts confirm the same preference and the same prejudice. Strato, for example, says that during casual calculations he has discovered that the numerical values of the letters in proktos (anus) and chrusos (gold) are the same: this proves the anus is golden. In his epigrams, lovers want to kiss their eromenos, embrace him, sleep with him, and penetrate him anally (pugizein, from puge, another word for anus).

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