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social sciences

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Greece: Ancient  
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Apollo's surgery produced two sexes and three innate inclinations of desire: chips off the male block naturally desire other males; females descended from the primordial female whole naturally desire other females (Plato coins the word hetairistriai to name them).

The third class comprises men and women split from the primitive androgynous sex. Each of them naturally loves and desires only members of the opposite sex. Plato is very close here to modern gay, lesbian, and heterosexual.

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Ptolemy, the great astronomer and mathematician, whose system of planetary motion shaped Western cosmology until Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton displaced it, produced a sexual map far more elaborate than Plato's.

Ptolemy lived and worked in Alexandria in the first half of the second century C.E. His vastly influential astrological work, the Tetrabiblos or Mathematical Treatise in Four Books, offers a veritable encyclopedia of sexual types devolved from the influence of the planets.

Allied with Venus in honorable positions, for example, Mars makes his subjects erotic, masculine, and passionate for both young men and young women (not boys and girls). These men are also "cheerful, fond of dancing, artistic, spendthrift, quick-tempered, and jealous."

Other configurations of the heavens account for bisexuals who have a preference for boys and bisexuals with a preference for girls. Ptolemy is equally familiar with men with a life-long preference for boys, men infatuated with boys, men who want to copulate only with other adult males, and men who desire males of any age; with men who desire only women and women who desire only men; and with women who desire only women--he uses the word "tribades" to denote them and tells us they call their partners their "lawful wives."

In same-sex relationships, he carefully distinguishes the active and passive parties, making clear his disapproval of the passive in the male pair and the active in the female. When Mars and Venus are unattended in feminine signs, their male subjects become unmanly (malakoi), assume the passive role of women, and engage in sexual intercourse contrary to nature (para phusin). Tribades, on the other hand, "have sex with other women and perform the functions of males by assuming the active role." This practice, too, is "against nature."

Male-directed Eros in the Greek Novel

Ptolemy's types take on a rounder, more human shape in the fictive characters of the Greek romances of the second and third centuries C.E. The central narrative running through them all is the tale of a young man and young woman from the urban elite who fall in love at first sight, swear eternal fidelity but are separated, undergo wild and dangerous misadventures, manage to retain their virginity, find each other again, marry, and consummate their mutual love.

Paralleling this heterosexual narrative are stories of male same-sex romance. In these, the male characters are said to be "by nature lovers of boys," like rude Gnathon in Longus's Daphnis and Chloe, or they are described more generally as driven by "male-directed eros," like Clinias and Menelaus in Achilles Tatius's Leucippe and Clitophon.

In an influential passage of Leucippe and Clitophon, Clitophon and Menelaus, a young Egyptian he meets on his travels, debate the respective merits of love of women and love of boys. What are useful to retain from a discussion stuffed with what were already clichés are the suggestions that the sexual dispositions of Clinias (who is Clitophon's cousin and best friend) and Menelaus, both lovers of boys, are permanent and exclusive, that love of males equals love of women (for the debate ends in a draw), and that "male-directed eros" defines a condition very close to what we call sexual orientation, which is itself an astronomical and astrological term.

There are other examples of exclusive orientation and long-term attachment in the Ephesian Tale of Xenophon of Ephesus. The hero (Habrocomes) and heroine (Anthia) are attracted only to each other. A third character is Habrocomes's best friend, Hippothous, described as a lover of males (rather than of boys).

After the accidental death by drowning of his first love, a youth the same age as himself named Hyperanthes, Hippothous has become a brigand and taken part in any number of improbable adventures. Eventually, a rich old woman falls in love with him, and poverty provides enough incentive for him to marry her. She dies soon after, leaving him her money.

Free again, and a man of means, he shares his good fortune with his second great love, a handsome young Sicilian aristocrat named Cleisthenes.

At the end of the novel, Habrocomes and Anthia at last consummate their marriage, and Hippothous "marries" handsome Cleisthenes by adopting him as his son. After Hippothous erects a great tomb for Hyperanthes on the island of Lesbos, the two couples settle in Ephesus and live happily, side-by-side, ever after.

Eugene Rice

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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.

literature >> Overview:  Greek Literature: Ancient

Ancient Greece holds a unique place in the heritage of homosexual literature as it was a society that openly celebrated same-sex love in its poetry and prose.

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.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Ganymede

Since antiquity Ganymede, the beautiful Phrygian youth abducted by Jupiter, has served as an artistic expression for homosexuality.

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 >> 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.

social sciences >> Paul, St.

Verses from two epistles of the Apostle Paul shaped the attitudes of Christianity toward male and female homosexuality.

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.

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.


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Barton, T.S. Power and Knowledge: Astrology, Physiognomics, and Medicine under the Roman Empire. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Boardman, John, and Eugenio LaRocca. Eros in Greece. London: John Murray, 1978.

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

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Davidson, James N. Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.

DeJean, Joan. Fictions of Sappho, 1546-1937. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

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Faraone, Christopher A. Ancient Greek Love Magic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

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Garrison, Daniel H. Sexual Culture in Ancient Greece. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.

Golden, Mark. Sport and Society in Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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_____, John J. Winkler, and Froma I. Zeitlin, eds. Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.

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Hubbard, Thomas K. Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Jocelyn, H.D. "A Greek indecency and its students: laikazein." Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, N.S. 26 (1980): 12-66.

Kampen, Natalie Boymel, ed. Sexuality in Ancient Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

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Sergent, Bernard. L'Homosexualité initiatique dans l'Europe ancienne. Paris: Payot, 1986.

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Winkler, John J. The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece. London: Routledge, 1990.


    Citation Information
    Author: Rice, Eugene  
    Entry Title: Greece: Ancient  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2005  
    Date Last Updated November 24, 2006  
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    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
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    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
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