Bisexuality in the Ancient World 
by Eva Cantarella, translated by Cormac O Cuilleanain.
Yale, 284 pp., £19.95, September 1992, 0 300 04844 0
Show More
Show More

The Italian original of Bisexuality in the Ancient World appeared in 1988, and several new treatments of the topic have appeared since then. First, Kenneth Dover published in The Greeks and their Legacy, the second volume of his collected papers, an article in which he put the case against the theory, lately revived, that the favourable Greek attitude to homosexuality derived from a phase of history in which a young male was prepared for the rites de passage from which he would emerge as a full warrior by the tuition of an older male who was his lover. Further, the American scholar David Halperin published A Hundred Years of Homosexuality (1990), a volume of essays in which he enthusiastically supports Foucault’s view that ‘homosexuality’ is a construction of Western culture that came into being only about a hundred years ago. These problems have also been discussed by another American scholar, the late John J. Winkler, a writer of great ability whose early death is much to be regretted. In The Constraints of Desire (1990) Winkler is mainly concerned with the position of women, but he contributed to Before Sexuality, a book of essays about ‘the construction of erotic experience in the ancient world’, an essay called ‘Laying Down the Law: The Oversight of Men’s Sexual Behaviour in Classical Athens’, in which he assesses the power of moral conventions regulating sexual activity in the Athens of the fourth century.

Unfortunately Cantarella has not availed herself of the opportunity provided by the translation of her book to take account of these and other recent additions to the literature of the subject. Her method is to go through the various sources of information about male homosexuality in historical order; after sections about Plato and Aristotle, she jumps four centuries to Plutarch’s dialogue on love, and then to epigrams in the Greek Anthology, some dating from the Hellenistic age, but others from the Imperial or even the Byzantine period, the novel of Achilles Tatius, and finally the dialogue on love attributed to Lucian. A short chapter about female homosexuality follows, and then we move on to the Roman period. The various sources are of very uneven value; theory and practice differed very greatly, even in the same place and at the same time; and some of the evidence needs to be handled with great caution. Cantarella communicates a great number of useful facts, with a comparatively small modicum of error; but in the Greek section in particular she breaks little new ground, and her treatment of the main problems is lacking in incisiveness.

In her first chapter Cantarella adopts the view, first put forward by the German scholar Erich Bethe in 1909 and lately revived in somewhat different forms, most effectively by Harald Patzer and Jan Bremmer, that the Greek attitude to male homosexuality was conditioned by a phase of history in which pederasty formed part of a young man’s preparation for initiation as a warrior. But as I have already said, Dover undermines much of Cantarella’s argument in support of this view. For example, it is unwise of her to argue that a miscellaneous collection of myths, including that of the abduction of Ganymedes by Zeus, have to do with initiation: Dover has remarked that the initiate is transferred from one stage of development to another, but that Ganymedes, like Peter Pan, never grows up. Nor can one agree with Cantarella that the homosexual graffiti, probably of the seventh or sixth century BC, found on the island of Thera, are not mere ‘indecent wall-scratchings’, but ‘ritual inscriptions, designed to celebrate the completion of initiation ceremonies’; one typical specimen has been translated by an American scholar as ‘But Krimon, best in the “whanger bop”, has warmed up Simias,’ and they remind one very much of modern graffiti one has seen in the appropriate places. None the less, though I would not stress the role of initiation ceremonies quite so strongly as some have done, I do not agree with Dover that the prevalence of homosexuality in Greece can have begun no earlier than the seventh century. Attitudes to it, like beliefs in ritual pollution, must surely go back further. As the great Swiss scholar Karl Meuli pointed out, by far the longest period of human history has been the pre-agricultural stage, when human existence depended on hunting, and the hunting group of men and older boys disappeared into the wilds for extended periods. It is a demonstrated fact that when a body of men spends a long time cut off from women, homosexual activity invariably occurs, and the habits engendered by this state of affairs will have taken quite a while to disappear.

In her chapter on the Classical age Cantarella follows on the whole the lines laid down by Dover in his memorable book, Greek Homosexuality (1978), though she is cautious, rightly in my view, about his deduction from the artistic evidence that anal copulation seldom if at all took place. As Dover showed, in Classical Athens the prevailing form of homosexuality was pederasty; men who pursued boys were not disapproved of, but boys who granted them physical favours were despised, and men who had prostituted themselves to other men lost certain civic rights. There is some inconsistency in this attitude, and the truth is that even though men’s open pursuit of boys was generally tolerated and indeed approved of, there was always an undercurrent of disapproval. The argument, familiar from its use in later times, that homosexuality was contrary to nature was not unknown; and the myth which told that Laius, father of Oedipus, was the initiator of homosexuality, and that his misfortunes and those of his descendants were its consequences, cannot be without significance. Foucault would have had a better sense of this if, instead of concentrating on the philosophers, he had paid more attention to the evidence of ancient comedies. In the Old Comedy, with its strong element of fantasy, jokes at the expense of passive homosexuals, kinaidoi, are not uncommon; and in the second half of the fourth century, when Menander and the other poets of the New Comedy were writing comedies of bourgeois life that were popularly supposed to ‘hold a mirror up’ to reality, they present a world in which heterosexuality is the general rule, and in which young men not only marry girls but fall passionately in love with them, just as men fell passionately in love with women in tragedy.

Foucault, as we know, was much preoccupied with the notion that attitudes to sex are strongly conditioned by considerations of power; and it’s true that the machismo of the Mediterranean man can be seen in much of what we know of ancient attitudes. But the Greek notion of Eros as a tyrannical god who forces people into behaviour which may prove disastrous does not suggest that the lover thinks mainly about power, but rather that he may himself be a victim. Also, attitudes to homosexuality seem to have varied according to social class. Young men of the upper class did not find it easy to meet girls; but they had the leisure to hang around the gymnasia, talk to people like Socrates, and meet handsome boys. Women seem to have had few educational opportunities, and it is not surprising that highly intelligent young men found more satisfaction in love for members of their own sex. Ordinary citizens, however, appear for the most part to have been content with heterosexual love.

In the Symposium Aristophanes tells the company a myth which seems to throw much light on attitudes to sex in Plato’s time. Human beings were originally twice as large as they are now, and had four arms, four legs, two faces and two sets of genitals. Then Zeus cut them in half, so that each of them is now forever seeking its lost half; some were androgynous, and are therefore looking for a partner of a different sex from their own, but others were wholly male or wholly female, and therefore set out to look for a partner of their own sex. This seems to indicate that Plato believed that some people were predominately bisexual, others predominantly heterosexual, and others predominantly homosexual. In his time we hear little of wholly homosexual males or of mature males who love other mature males, and little of homosexual females. Sappho, of course, lived on Lesbos, an island off the shore of Asia Minor, and although the Greeks must have had close connections with their oriental neighbours, social conditions there were not the same as those of Athens a century later. Indeed, such people will have been discouraged by the social pattern, or as Foucault would call it the ‘construction’, that determined attitudes to sexual relations in their time, but it would surely be unwise to assume that they did not exist, difficult though they may have found it to gratify then inclinations.

The modern exclusively homosexual male is a type we seem never to encounter in the records of the ancient world, and Halperin believes him to have come into being during the last hundred years. Had the external conditions been right for his emergence, however, he might have come into view at any time. Prevailing attitudes to sexual matters are determined by law, custom and many other forces, so that any given historical period will be found to have its own ‘construction’; but that construction is imposed on a human nature which has the basic inclinations that the myth of Aristophanes in the Symposium describes, and which must take account of certain biological constants. The effects of these have been modified in modern times, by man who has invented better contraceptives, and by a higher power which has invented worse venereal diseases: but for the most part they remain constant, and were scarcely modified throughout the history of the Greco-Roman world. Our ‘construction’, as Foucault strongly felt, could conceivably be changed; a new one might reduce or even eliminate the effects of Christianity’s condemnation of certain sexual orientations likely to exist at all times. The constructions that existed in the Greco-Roman world before the rise of Christianity were appreciably more tolerant of what Christianity regarded as deviations, and this helps to show why they are now arousing so much interest. Foucault felt that they could play a useful part in the making of a new construction just as Nietzsche thought that ancient religion could play a useful part in the making of a new ethic. Anyone who can assent to the historical considerations I have here put forward will hesitate before assenting to the fashionable doctrine that homosexuality, and indeed sexuality itself, are creations of the modern age.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences