- 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.
The aristocratic ideal was also being undermined from within. Peisistratos might have favoured the elite, but he also tolerated its infiltration by a number of financially successful outsiders. The symposion became diluted with arrivistes, anyone with the money could order a kalos vase, and their dedicatees became more and more socially questionable. The old debate about whether arete_ (personal excellence) was innate or could be taught was now seen as a matter of class rather than philosophy, with bluebloods pitted against sophists (who stood to make a packet out of the teaching). The old guard began to distance itself from a social institution being taken over and vulgarised by the new rich. In his posthumous treatise Laws, Plato, once the torch-bearer for chastely intellectualised pederasty as the erotic summum bonum, made a ferocious attack on homosexuality, coupled with an insistence, as uncompromising as anything in Leviticus, on sex for procreation only.
There is a widespread belief, very popular since the late 19th century, that ancient Greece as a whole, and Athens in particular, gave rise to a general culture uniquely aligned with institutionalised homoeroticism. Perhaps the most important – and for many the most unwelcome – conclusion to emerge from the kind of historicist approach I have just described is the near certainty that this belief is, at the very least, greatly exaggerated. Adult, as opposed to pederastic, relationships were in general frowned on; and in whatever part of the Hellenic world – Athens, Sparta, Crete, Elis, Lesbos, even Macedonia – where we do find well-publicised same-sex relationships, they inevitably belong to a privileged minority enclave: sometimes military, almost always aristocratic, and sharply distinguished from the population at large.
Intellectuals from the newly emergent middle classes were less than enthusiastic about such enclaves. Xenophanes of Kolophon, Peisistratos’ contemporary, was not alone in finding the traditional elitist mythology of the gods offensive, arrogant and immoral. Athens’s radical democrats – still, to a remarkable extent, scions of a few old families – didn’t put a stop to kalos pederasty; instead, by a nice compromise, they hedged it about with a growing thicket of legal restrictions, thus contriving to keep everyone more or less happy. The visual evidence is misleading. Pots do not readily decay, and so a disproportionate number have survived. For us, they are public property, in museums or book illustrations; anyone can look at them. For the purchasers – a privileged minority – they were extremely expensive private possessions, to be viewed only by the like-minded. The evidence does not support the idea of open propaganda, and even among this minority heterosexual tastes prevailed.
What did the average citizen feel about Greek Love? What, to begin with, would he learn from Homer, whose works everyone knew, and who was constantly cited, like Holy Writ, for moral guidelines? Not very much. While exploring relationships between men and women with great psychological finesse – Menelaus and Helen, Hector and Andromache, Odysseus and Calypso, Nausicaä, Circe, Penelope – Homer nowhere overtly commits himself to the idea of a homoerotic liaison. Davidson makes as good a case for the passionate involvement of Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad as I’ve seen; but he’s still obliged to omit the information that when they do have sex, in Book IX, it’s not with each other but with two women, Diome_ de_ and Iphis, so that their own relationship at once looks more like a case of military male bonding. Also, when Achilles misses his buddy’s manliness and menos, usually taken as generalised ‘strength’, Davidson identifies it more particularly as ‘spunk’, on the strength of a unique (and semi-metaphorical) instance in that conspicuously anti-Homeric poet Archilochus. This is a desperate argument, and it’s not the only one.
To get an acknowledgment of eros between Achilles and Patroclus we have to turn to Aeschylus. The relevant fragment from his Myrmidons, with its talk of ‘reverence for awesome thighs’ and ‘kisses thick and fast’ (Davidson’s translation), survived precisely because it raised later eyebrows. It is also, to the best of my knowledge, the sole homoerotic motif to be found in what we possess of Attic tragedy, apart from a reference in Sophocles’ lost Niobe, where, as Davidson has written elsewhere, one of Niobe’s sons crying out to his boyfriend as he is dying was ‘enough to earn it the nickname “the gay play” in antiquity, which shows how straight most tragedies were’. Just so. The theatre in Athens, even more than the Assembly or the law courts, was the place where the problems of the day or age were explored, where efforts to shape opinion were consciously undertaken, and where a sizeable percentage of the population was involved. Silence, in such a context, has to be significant.
To get a clearer picture of public attitudes we need to turn from tragedy to Old Comedy. As that sardonic observer of fifth-century BC Athens known as the Old Oligarch pointed out, what an Athenian audience really enjoyed was seeing the wealthy, well-born and powerful held up to ridicule. Playwrights such as Aristophanes were not slow to oblige. It would be surprising if the aristocratic tradition of formalised pederasty did not come in for some heavy-handed mockery, and in Aristophanes’ Knights (which won first prize in 424), the ribbing is both ferocious and just the kind of thing that Davidson describes as ‘sodomaniac’. In a parody of pederastic courtship, Paphlagon (a thinly disguised version of the radical politician Cleon) and an aggressively vulgar Sausage Seller compete for the favours of Demos, a near senile stand-in for the Athenian populace and thus hardly a young kalos. Politics, class and sex are fused in a hilarious allegory of rival gift-giving, prostitution and hypocrisy. Jokes about sodomy and sodomised politicians abound.
The Knights is not an isolated case. As Skinner rightly observes, in Aristophanes’ plays ‘homoeroticism is never treated in a romantic way, but instead stripped of all emotional colouring and couched in crude physiological terms.’ Passive homosexuality in fact figures as a stock target for comic insults. Kenneth Dover’s obsession with buggery, both real and metaphorical, in Greek Homosexuality (1978), gave rise to misleading sexual generalisations of the worst sort; but the social realities behind the concept were not pure fantasy. In other words, even though ancient Greeks may, more easily than their Christianised descendants, have assumed that men regarded attraction to either sex as normal (about women’s reactions they were far less comfortable), the truth would seem to be that the general attitude to same-sex relationships held by Hellenic society of the classical period was far closer to that of other societies, both ancient and modern, than is commonly supposed today. Any examination of Davidson’s defensively parti pris book needs to bear this in mind.
Lecturing, hectoring, cheerfully conversational, cracking jokes, talking sometimes to the reader, sometimes to himself (several times he wonders, rightly, whether he’s being carried away by his speculations, but decides that no, he isn’t), Davidson sets himself up as a kind of cicerone to his own text. The result too often resembles an early Platonic dialogue: the reader, like Socrates’ wretched interlocutors, is treated as though his or her sole function is to produce murmurs of assent. Davidson’s narrative, full of chatty asides and digressions, bears the marks of lecture notes that haven’t quite made the transition to written prose. The contrast between this and his previous book, Courtesans and Fishcakes, which was well organised, tightly written, and (I suspect) had a first-class editor, is striking. I remember tearing through it like an express train. This time round, too much of the journey, especially when Davidson strays off into the endless byways of myth, is a slog. After a while, too, the tics, the neologisms (‘sexicity’, ‘homotaph’ etc) and the buttonholing style begin to grate. Editors are there to keep this kind of thing within bounds.
Despite all his exaggerations, Davidson has got one crucial point absolutely right. When emphasising, with justice, the importance of starry-eyed infatuation, what he characteristically describes as ‘homobesottedness’, as opposed to the sexually reductive violence of ‘sodomania’, he remarks, of eros and related terms, that ‘they sound as if they are all about sex, sex, sex, and we have to make a real effort to remember that they are in fact all about love, love, love.’ If his book has a central thesis, this is surely it, and a very welcome one too. Dover’s work had a prurient (and typically straight) obsession with homosexual intercourse: what did these people do? Davidson, by contrast, wants to look at same-sex relationships in their full emotional context: love-struck dottiness, long-term affection, social integration, all the elements that get taken for granted in the courtship and varied passions of men and women. Very reasonably, he’s after equal treatment. He goes hunting for bonded couples, homosexual marriages. A lot of this book is a refreshing quest for, and celebration of, the ordinary.
I remember, about thirty years ago, reading all the modern novels of Mary Renault, in which nothing separated her middle-class characters from the other occupants of suburbia except their erotic preferences: why, they wondered, wouldn’t society let them join the club? Davidson’s book seems at times fuelled by the same sort of frustration. This is understandable, since his attempt, in effect, to reclaim the Greeks for modern gay love faces two major difficulties. First, as we’ve seen, Greek adult same-sex relationships lacked social validation, and when they do show up – Macedonian boon companions, those Athenian bluebloods pilloried in the Demosthenic speech Against Conon – tend to be represented as both coarse and the target of vigorous disapproval. Davidson does what he can with the long-term relationships of the Socratic circle (one reason among many for the public suspicion with which they were regarded), but it isn’t all that much.
Second, and equally awkward, for anyone in search of a romantic homoerotic relationship, Greek literature comes up short. Plato, in the Phaedrus, the Lysis or the Symposium, would seem to be the obvious answer; but the ideal here is ultimately to transcend sex altogether in favour of the intellect, a realm far beyond the diurnal and the domestic. Davidson’s dealings with Plato are thus understandably tentative. He also, as we saw, does a little more than is admissible with Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad. But there isn’t anything else. Archilochus is aggressively hetero; Alcaeus, Theognis and Ibycus play with traditional pederastic conventions; tragedy is a near blank; comedy makes a Doverish joke of it (any romance is heterosexual, most happy endings involve a marriage); Theocritean shepherds go in for casual buggery. The one real exception is provided by the surviving poetic fragments of Sappho, and she’s a woman.
Davidson is thus thrown back on peripheral oddities: military erotic bondings in Thebes and Elis, one or two very peculiar Cretan and Spartan cults, the famous sympotic frescoes (strongly suggestive of Etruscan influence, but no matter) from the Tomb of the Diver at Paestum in southern Italy. He also devotes a good deal of space to investigating possible homoerotic myths – and to his rhetorically powerful demolition job on Dover. But his main concern has to be with what he calls Greek Love, and, in particular, with Athenian Homosexuality. These capitalisations deserve attention. Davidson is rather shy of strict definitions, but what he seems to imply by the usage is a phenomenon, as John Addington Symonds put it, ‘recognised by society and protected by opinion’. And the generic implication of the capitals is no accident. Athenian Homosexuality he sees as ‘timeless and unchanging, recognisably the same thing in the sixth, the fifth and the fourth centuries’, as opposed to the common run of homosexual activity in Athens, which, as we know from the orators, had gone in for every kind of democratic, not to say vulgar, excess.
This attempt to put a cordon sanitaire round Athens’s formalised aristocratic pederasty by in effect removing it from the historical process shows how hard-pressed Davidson is when it comes to making his case. As a social phenomenon homosexuality was continually being modified: internally by middle-class infiltration; externally, from Solon’s day on, by legal restrictions. The notion that love could not be bought – originally one aspect of the virulent upper-class Athenian prejudice against trade, working for others, or indeed any occupation except warfare or farming your own land – rapidly became meaningless as sources of wealth diversified and liquid capital could buy status. Davidson’s pederastic ideal – homobesottedness and all the rest – was no more immune to the impact of evolving social mores than anything else. The formal erotic relationship so savagely parodied in Aristophanes’ Knights had, like the rest of Athenian society, undergone some far-reaching modifications since the Cleisthenic revolution. What Davidson deplores as fourth-century ‘homo-whorishness’ (porneia), including ‘handsome cithara-boys of notorious reputation who entertained at drinking-parties’, was not utterly separate from the pederastic cult but a logical, if regrettable, development of it.
Perhaps in part because of his antagonism to most of the trendy general theories, Davidson has written an aggressively and enjoyably particularist book. Reading him is rather like wandering through the Monastiraki flea market in Athens: you never know what you’re going to find next, and bargains abound. One of the best is his mischievous correlation of Socrates’ image of the soul, in the Phaedrus, as a female winged charioteer with the goddess Dawn (Eo_ s), also winged, also a charioteer, who does everything that Socrates’ charioteer does, but is also, as Davidson says, ‘mythology’s nymphomaniac’. The free-association riff with which he follows this up is stimulating, even if it’s finally used – don’t ask how; logic isn’t Davidson’s strong point – to rescue Ganymede from the patriarchal child molestation built into the original myth. This is something that puts a dent in the age limitations of supposedly timeless Greek Love, and so worries Davidson; but for an early archaic aristocrat (which Zeus in essence was) it would have simply been one more case of droit de seigneur, and the kid could think himself lucky.
This last – highly typical – instance exemplifies both Davidson’s prime strength and his biggest weakness. His analysis of the successive adolescent and young adult age-groups in Athens, with their distinct titles and functions, is a beautiful piece of work: rigorously argued and elegantly written, it clears up much confusion about Athenian social life. Unfortunately, he then uses these findings to support his extratemporal version of Greek Love, Athenian style. His well-justified and psychologically shrewd attack on Dover for reducing Greek homoerotics to a front-or-back fuck turns into an absurd attempt to argue all the unwelcome buggery out of existence. Aristophanes’ famous euruprōktoi, the Dilated (or Twelve-Bore) Arseholes, the targets of so many political jokes, have always been misunderstood, we’re told. They weren’t sodomised, oh dear no, they were simply accused of talking farty rubbish from their nether end.
Davidson’s assumption seems to be that, just as the erōmenos was always supposed not to want the physical attentions of his erasteōs, so no one in his right mind, then or now, would actually enjoy being buggered: in other words, Dover’s scenario, which has to be wrong because it’s so nasty, is regarded as the only possible version. But as certain vase paintings clearly show, and as Félix Buffière pointed out a quarter of a century ago, anal eroticism, like it or not (and Athenian society by and large didn’t, hence Aristophanes’ jokes), was, and is, a fact. Those who enjoyed being penetrated were there, penetrators were ready to use them, metaphorical buggery, then as now, flourished. To argue otherwise is to align oneself with those scholars who, not so long ago, used to airbrush out the satyrs’ erections in reproductions of ancient vase paintings. Davidson, whose imaginative excursions, as his ample notes attest, are backed by wide reading in both ancient sources and modern scholarship, is far too good a classicist to need such tricks. When a second edition is called for – and it will be – I hope he gets himself an editor tough enough to tighten his logic and make him stop trying to overprove his case with bizarre arguments. The result could be a real classic.