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social sciences

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Greece: Ancient  
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The institution of (paiderastia) was a conspicuous feature of ancient Greek public and private life.

The gods had boyfriends. Poseidon desired Pelops, seduced him, and took him to Olympus in a golden chariot. Radiant Apollo loved Hyacinthus, the youngest and handsomest son of a king of Sparta, and taught him archery, music, divination, and all the exercises of the wrestling ring. According to the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite:

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Wise Zeus abducted fair-haired Ganymede
For his beauty, to be among the immortals
And pour wine for the gods in the house of Zeus,
A marvel to look upon, honoured by all the gods.

The earliest documented instances of man-boy relationships date from the second half of the seventh century B.C.E. For nearly a millennium, texts and artifacts of varying quantity, interest, and weight confirm the ubiquity of pederasty in the Greek-speaking world. Herodotus, the first great historian in the Western tradition, included "copulating with boys" in a list of the "good things of life."

The Structure of Early Greek Pederasty

The model of pederasty current in archaic and classical Greece paired a citizen of the polis (the Greek city-state), by definition a freeborn adult male, and a boy of equal origin, class, and status.

The relationship was overtly sexual but regarded by most citizens as broadly educational as well. Ideally, the relationship should be untainted by money, coercion, or risks to the boy's reputation and masculinity.

The social base of the institution was aristocratic, the pedagogical context preparation of the well-born male for war and citizenship. The haphazard training combined a culture of athletics, public male nudity (at festival games and the gymnasium complex the contestants were always naked), and the symposium or all-male drinking party, site of recitations of epic and lyric poetry, philosophical talk, music and dance, as well as wine, courtship, and carousal. Idealized portraits of symposia are among the most attractive works of Plato and Xenophon (ca 427-ca 354 B.C.E.).

The visual icons of the pederastic culture were sculptures of the young male nude: the marble kouroi of the archaic period or, to cite arbitrarily one beautiful example among many, the bronze statue of a youth, stylistically reminiscent of Praxiteles, found in 1925 in the sea off Marathon (now in the National Museum, Athens).


Strict conventions of role and age governed behavior. The lover (erastes, plural erastai) was aggressive in pursuit; the younger loved one (eromenos, plural eromenoi) had to be courted with gifts and told in verse how handsome and desirable he was. The sexual role of the erastes was perceived as active, that of the eromenos as passive. When the mode of intercourse was anal, the erastes was the penetrating party. Typically, roles did not alternate in the same relationship.

The appetites attractive boys inspired in their lovers could be so intense that otherwise disinterested observers likened their behavior to madness. The lyric poets named Eros the "bitter-sweet" and the "limb-loosener." They listed the afflictions (pathemata) the young god made them suffer: a fluttering heart, ringing ears, a mute tongue, burning skin, cloudy vision, a trembling body, pallor, sweat, and shortness of breath. Boy-crazy erastai pictured themselves helpless in the grip of Eros.

About the feelings of eromenoi, we know almost nothing. In Plato's Symposium, one of the interlocutors asserts that these are the "best" boys, and that "they love men and enjoy living with men and being embraced by men"; but no poem, nor any written word at all, addressed by a boy to his lover survives to support this statement.

Relationships were brief. The erastes burned with desire; the properties of the boy were his youth, beauty, and desirability. But as the poets never tire of reminding us, youth and desire are both fleeting, and remain in unison for one season only.

Relationships were unequal as well. One might suppose, rightly, that the inequality favored the boy; for while the erastes was a suppliant, the boy was free to respond or not--one of the most common topics of pederastic verse is the arrogant, unresponsive boy. Yet a more important inequality must have favored the man: the unequal expectation of sexual pleasure.


To say that Greek erastai were boy-lovers (paidophilai and paiderastai) is true but inexact. Erastai were pederasts, but not in the modern sense.

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Top: A bust of Sappho.
Center: A ceramic object depicting a scene of pederastic seduction (ca 480 B.C.E.).
Above: A bust of Socrates. Photograph by Eric Gaba.

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