Peter Green

  • The Greeks and Greek Love: A Radical Reappraisal of Homosexuality in Ancient Greece by James Davidson
    Weidenfeld, 634 pp, £30.00, November 2007, ISBN 978 0 297 81997 4

No one reading James Davidson’s enormous and impassioned book, which barely acknowledges the existence, much less the vast numerical superiority, of Greek heterosexual society, would get the impression that Greek homoeroticism was anything less than the central principle determining the varied cultural patterns of all those obstinately independent and idiosyncratic city-states. To take one random example: the eros that inspired and bound together, in life and death, the three hundred lovers of Thebes’ elite fighting regiment, the Sacred Band, was indeed a powerful and socially significant force; but there is something fundamentally unreal (and in the end comic) about treating it as the only kind of eros that counted.

There are long stretches of The Greeks and Greek Love where you begin to wonder whether Davidson – who is fond of coining neologisms from the Greek – believes the cultural and mythical scenes he analyses with such wit and style are the product of what might be termed a uniquely arrenogenetic, or male-generated, society. This, inevitably, adds an odd cast to the vision of the Greek world with which, after more than six hundred pages, the reader of Davidson’s extraordinary and intermittently brilliant book is left. No one would expect a combative book on the emotional nature of Greek homoeroticism to spend too much time on the domestic and familial aspects of the city-state; but such a text should make clear that while same-sex relationships, in their various manifestations, did indeed, as Davidson conclusively shows, form an integral element of polis culture, they didn’t have a monopoly on shaping it, and were dependent on the larger social scene for their existence. There is something disproportionate – advocate’s brief rather than judicial summing-up – about Davidson’s public concept of what he capitalises as Greek Love.

It was the city-state’s heterosexual strength that enabled homoerotic relationships within it. Most moral bans are imposed in order to reinforce what originated as a practical prohibition: just as the taboo on pork seems to have begun life as a reaction to trichinosis, so the virulent objection to all forms of sexual release that don’t have to do with the procreation of children was dictated, for millennia, by a frantic and often losing struggle with disease, enemies and the insanitary conditions of childbirth to keep population figures level. So while (as seems increasingly likely) homoeroticism may be a minority trait genetic in origin, and thus in no sense a cultural interloper, its social acceptance will always have depended, in the first instance, on the existence of a thriving community reproductive enough to carry some non-breeders. The moral and religious prohibitions originally enforced by dire physical need persisted, as such things tend to do, for centuries after the need for them had vanished. Today, we refrigerate pork, and the world is dangerously overpopulated. But the prohibitions remain in force.

Davidson, remarkable social historian though he is, seems curiously unconcerned with any of the persuasive recent attempts to explain the development of Greek sexual mores and erotic conventions in historical terms. Consider that formalised, elegant, literate and expensive manifestation of socially approved pederasty, closely connected with the all-male drinking party (symposion), and best known from (though not restricted to) Athens. This has been categorised as a quintessentially aristocratic phenomenon, evolving in a class-conscious culture that had lost none of its prejudices with the advent of democracy. The elite families – their earlier monopoly of land, wealth and military power eroded by the introduction of coinage and its exploitation by ambitious lower-class merchants – had retreated, grumbling about the vulgar power of money, into a tight-knit social conservatism. Here pedigree was what counted. Horse-breeding and competitive sport centred on the gymnasium flourished, and an elegant lifestyle became de rigueur. Superiority to the new middle class, with its slogan of ‘equality under the law’, was sought in conspicuous consumption – and ‘found its natural sexual manifestation in non-reproductive congress’, as Marilyn Skinner has put it. Formal pederastic courtship demanded leisure, taste, income and an upper-class background.

Davidson is familiar with most of the elements that go to make up this scenario, but never quite puts them together. The evidence from illustrated and inscribed ceramic ware (cherry-picked here) offers some interesting conclusions. Pederastic courting scenes involving an older lover (erasteōs) and his younger loved one (erēmenos), often with an inscription saying so-and-so is beautiful (kalos), were all the rage from about 550 (the period of Peisistratos’ dictatorship in Athens, which favoured the nobility); they declined sharply after 500, and by 470 had virtually disappeared. This, not coincidentally, is also the date when heterosexual scenes involving courtesans became most popular. Overall, surviving homoerotic scenes are fewer in number than those depicting sex or courtship between men and women. The Persian Wars turned public opinion against a luxurious Asiatic lifestyle (often associated with pro-Persian sympathies) and correspondingly boosted the ‘middle way’ of civic and familial responsibility under the new radical democracy.

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