Man-boy love in Archaic and Classical Greece


  • "love of boys"; refers to an asymmetrical and hierarchical relation between an adult man and a pubescent boy; ideally the relationship, once established, continued for a period of time during which the older man conferred on the boy the benefits of his knowledge, wisdom, and experience in the polis and the boy granted his older lover sexual favors; in other words, the relationship was seen as part of the education and initiation of youths into adult male society. (Recall from Aristophanes' Clouds the interest of Better Argument in young boys genitalia.)
  • the Greeks conceived of the asymmetricality not in terms of the gender of the partners (male-female), but in terms of active and passive roles; hence pederasty refers to an asymmetrical relation between an older and active partner(the lover/erastes;) and a younger, passive partner (the beloved/eromenos);
  • adult males were expected to always be the active partner (i.e., the one who penetrates) regardless of the gender of their partner; sex with a passive (i.e., penetrated) partner of either gender was generally socially acceptable (excepting, of course, with certain protected Athenian women such as citizens' wives and unmarried daughters);
  • the relationship between the erastes and eromenos was frequently valorized as contributing to the moral and intellectual development of the youth (e.g., Pausanias in the Symposium); it was also demonized by some writers as aristocratic excess;
  • a pederastic relationship was ordinarily terminated when the youth came to full maturity (could sport a beard), at which point he could become the active partner in a relationship with a younger male. The evidence about whether married men continued to pursue relations with boys is mixed, but it is very possible that they did so. (Men married in classical Athens at about 30 years of age)
  • there is little or no evidence from Greek antiquity for a concept of homosexuality as 'sexual orientation'; the norm was something like serial bisexuality;
  • Athenian society generally encouraged the erastes to pursue a boy to love, courting him with gifts, etc.; but nonetheless expected the boy (and his family) to resist the relationship; the youths were not expected to enjoy the sexual relation but to finally give sexual favors in return for the benefits of the mentoring relationship;
  • copulation with citizen boys was usually intercrural, that is, penetration was between the boys thighs, not anal;
  • religious festivals, the gymnasium, and symposia were popular places to pursue youths;
  • this is not to say that pederasty was the only expression of same-sex relations in ancient Greece; indeed Pausanias--whom Plato (in the Symposium) has defend long-term same-sex partnerships between adults--was known to have had a lengthy relationship with Agathon. Such relations were, however, suspect at best because of the passivity that would necessarily be involved.

[calendar] [home]