- 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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Vol. 30 No. 13 · 3 July 2008
‘Most moral bans,’ Peter Green writes in his review of James Davidson’s The Greeks and Greek Love, ‘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 … to keep population figures level’ (LRB, 8 May). He goes on to claim that ‘social acceptance’ of homosexuality ‘will always have depended … on the existence of a thriving community reproductive enough to carry some non-breeders’.
The claim that the taboo on pork was invented to protect the ancient Hebrews from trichinosis is common enough. I heard it from my father, whose father was a shochet, a ritual kosher butcher. But there is no reason to believe the authors of Leviticus understood a disease vector that was not discovered until 1846; unless you believe, as orthodox Jews do, that they were taking divine dictation. There is, in any case, much more to the laws of kashrut than the prohibition of pork. One of the most onerous kosher rules is the prohibition on eating dairy products within six hours of eating meat products, or even on allowing dairy products to touch plates, cookware or utensils used for meat and vice versa. To defend the proposition that this was in origin a ‘practical prohibition’, it would be necessary first to interpret, and then to find some practical basis for the passage in Exodus on which it is based, which says only, ‘thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk.’ Indeed, it is precisely because the talmudic rabbis were unable to find a rationale for this passage that they elaborated the rules on meat and dairy, in accordance with their practice of making certain that no holy commandment might be accidentally violated through incomprehension of its intent. But it is most unlikely that nutritional hygiene had anything to do with the matter. Green, by the way, seems to think that refrigerating pork will protect him from trichinosis, but it is caused not by spoilage but by a parasitic worm, whose larvae would be minimally inconvenienced by refrigeration but are easily killed by cooking meat products (not just pork) at 74º C for 15 seconds.
As for Green’s analogous claim about the ‘practical’ hostility to non-procreative sex, the first question to be asked is whether homo sapiens has ever had any serious difficulty keeping its numbers up. I was under the impression that population pressure drove our hunter-gatherer ancestors to expand out of Africa into every corner of the globe. What is Green’s evidence? The next question is whether all sex not directed at procreation has always and everywhere been subject to ‘virulent objection’. I hadn’t thought it controversial to say that among the Romans it was considered shameful, perhaps illegal, for a free adult male to allow himself to be penetrated orally or anally, but not at all shameful, indeed quite in the normal course of things, to be the penetrator. Where does procreation enter into that distinction?
Green’s erroneous assumption is that there are two sorts of people in every society, heterosexuals who procreate and homosexuals – exhibiting what ‘may be a minority trait genetic in origin’ – who don’t. The existence of a subgroup of people who define themselves as exclusively homosexual is a phenomenon of modern times, not older than the 19th century, when the word ‘homosexual’ was coined. There have always been men who lusted for men (and men who lusted, however shamefully, to be ‘bottoms’), but the vast majority of these men, in most societies, certainly in Greece and possibly in our own, have been married and fathered children.
Ben Lomond, California
Vol. 30 No. 15 · 31 July 2008
I’m grateful for Mark Engel’s information about the proper way to avoid trichinosis, but it doesn’t convince me that pork wasn’t originally avoided because of its occasional mysterious tendency to make the eater ill (Letters, 3 July). Pythagoreans had some very arcane reasons for banning the broad bean, but that prohibition, similarly, was almost certainly due in the first instance to its ability to provoke a haemolytic crisis. The perennial human need to give every practical rule a timeless religious or moral protreptic twist accounts for all those survivals centuries after the need for them has passed.
Similarly with the hostility towards non-procreative sex, which goes back, as I said, for millennia. The need for it, however, was at an end as early as the Neolithic period, when, according to most estimates, the population, because of improved farming techniques and social stability, took an enormous upward jump. Hunter-gatherers didn’t move on because of increased population – far from it – but because they’d hunted and cropped an area bare. Engel’s Roman example comes from a later, highly urbanised period and is thus irrelevant.
Engel also believes the trendy notion that self-defined homosexuality only came to exist in the 19th century. Here is one notion that James Davidson and I are in complete agreement in opposing, even if, then as now, many homosexuals (but hardly Engel’s ‘vast majority’) were coerced into marriage and parenthood (Catullus telling Manlius in a wedding hymn that he’d better knock it off now with his boyfriends), or chose it as social cover.
Vol. 30 No. 16 · 14 August 2008
Mark Engel rightly objects to Peter Green’s practical explanation of the pork taboo in Leviticus as a protection against trichinosis (Letters, 3 July). Yet when Engel elaborates on Jewish dietary law he endorses another equally implausible proposition, taking for granted the religious view that Talmudic precepts derive directly from the Torah. The kosher rule that prohibits the eating of dairy products and meat together does not logically follow from the injunction in Exodus. The latter proscribes boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, but allows cooking the kid in the milk of another she-goat, or in ewe’s milk or cow’s milk, not to mention the laying out of a platter of cheese and pastrami, where nothing has been cooked in anything. The Talmudic ban extends to chicken and dairy, although birds don’t produce milk and no confusion can exist between their flesh and red meat. These puzzles were acknowledged by the young traditionalist rabbis I knew as a child, who revelled in challenging each other and their mentors to pyrotechnics of casuistry. The failure to find a satisfactory answer does not suspend the duty to comply, however, because traditional Judaic practice proceeds not from reasoned deduction but from cumulative historical authority.
The Exodus proscription may have derived from sectarian boundary-setting against groups that cooked spring kid in milk as a festive food with a ritual dimension. There are many recipes for meat cooked in milk or yoghurt in the Middle East, and the name of a Lebanese version, immos, implies that the young animal is cooked in its own mother’s milk (Claudia Roden calls this ‘rather tragic’ in A Book of Middle Eastern Food, and mentions its clash with Jewish dietary law). The Talmudic texts, composed during the third and fourth centuries CE, represent a different cultural environment; the sages who laid down the roots of historical Judaism in this period were attempting to establish a bridge to their biblical heritage, not always successfully. The fathers of Christianity and, a few centuries later, the jurists and legend-writers of Islam, attempted the same thing. As Engel says, neither kashrut nor reactions to homosexuality can be explained by practical concerns, but it should be added that the rules of kashrut do not support the interpretation that Talmudic Judaism is grounded in the Torah any more profoundly than these other two religions are in their scriptural heritage.