Caveat the First: while this may look long, it IS the short version. It’s not a book; it’s not even an article. There are no citations.
Caveat the Second: it’s colloquial and even irreverent, and includes quite a few NSFW images from ancient pottery. The Greeks were far from prudes.
Caveat the Third: every modern reader—put away current terminology and assumptions about human sexual behavior. It’s natural to try to understand new things by fitting them into frameworks we already have. But that can get in the way of allowing us to grasp how, and how much, human conceptualizations have changed.
So, first, the TL;DR version: The Greeks looked at what was done and the status (not gender) of the one doing it. Everything else is the flavor of your dipping sauce.
Now, here’s the longer skinny with proper nuance:
Sex was what you did: a verb, aphrodisiazō. That meant “have sex,” or, bluntly, “fuck.” And yes, same root as Aphrodite’s name. They also had “politisms” such as sunousía, but that noun just means “intercourse” and is used for verbal conversation too.
Nobody described or categorized themselves by their choice of sex partners, which was assumed to vary.
Ergo, it all came down to WHAT you did, not who you did, that determined acceptability. This is why you’ll see me use the term “homoeroticism” and “heteroeroticism” rather than “homosexual,” “bisexual,” or “heterosexual.”
For ancient Greeks, the role taken was crucial: active or passive. And that linked directly to one’s social position. In general, Greek thinking tended to the dichotomatic. Even the language shows it in the so-common-we-only-rarely-translate-it pair of words “men…de.” Literally, “On the one hand this…on the other hand that.” It’s all over the damn place in ancient Greek. Language shapes how we think about ourselves and our world, and the Greeks thought in “men…de.”
Also, those dichotomies are hierarchical: immortal-mortal, man-woman, citizen-non-citizen, adult-child, free-slave, etc. Your relative status determined your role in the sexual encounter: active/penetrating/on-top, or passive/penetrated/on-bottom.
Sexual relationships are not equal. And you didn’t switch positions as the mood struck.
It’s hard to get across just how super-steroid-competitive Greek society was. I think that’s why they developed democracy, even if that seems counterintuitive. Democracy was Athens’s wild-card attempt to deal with the problem of stasis (clan and class conflict) that was shredding Greek civic life by the end of the archaic era. It spread out from there, although more Greek city-states weren’t democratic than were (yes, really).
In a lot of sexual transactions (using that term intentionally) relative status was automatic, and thus, easy to figure out. So sex between a freeborn man and freeborn woman, or a freeborn man and a slave of either gender would put the man on top or in the active role: the penetrator. If the woman was on top, it was transgressive.
NOTE: Just because it’s
transgressive doesn’t mean they didn’t engage in it. In fact, given the prices
we find on the walls of excavated ancient brothels, positions that put the
woman “on top” were more expensive. This appears to be male-penetrating-female
sex, not pegging. The Greeks certainly had dildoes. We find pictures of them on
pottery and have found them archaeologically too; we’ve even found double
dildoes. Sex toys were a thing. (See comical image below of a respectably
dressed matron gardening her dildo patch.) But there’s not much evidence for
strap-ons. If a woman used a dildo on a man, that would be doubly transgressive.
Anyway, it’s “safe” to be transgressive with someone who, as soon as you walk out the door, is unquestionably below you in the social order: such as a slave prostitute. Maybe one could try it with one’s freeborn citizen wife but she might blab at the water fountain with her women friends (because women could never keep their mouths shut). And those women might then tell their husbands—your friends, or worse, your enemies—which would make you a laughing stock and lose face. Ergo, save your kink for the sex workers.
That brings me to THE most important thing to remember: Status/honor (timē) is EVERYTHING. This is a shame society, not a guilt society. Guilt was certainly felt, but usually as a result of letting someone down; it was personal and mostly semi-private. Shame was public. It could (and did) lead to suicide in extreme cases.
These concepts aren’t unfamiliar; human feelings are consistent across time. What tends to change is what evokes those feelings.
So if you get their basic status constructions, you can figure out how the Greeks would view any given sexual relationship. As noted, many would have been straightforward. Things got muddier, however, if both partners occupied one of those larger social categories—both were freeborn men, or both freeborn women, or both slaves.
Now, I just gave all three chief possibilities, but the Greeks themselves only worried about the first. Greek misogyny means Greek men didn’t care, and therefore didn’t talk much about what the women were doing sexually unless it might lead to family shame. And slaves? Phfft. They’re slaves.
So (cue Rod Sterling Voice) “You are now entering…The Male Gaze Zone.”
We also have an evidence problem: most of what we know is Athenian, both in art and in text. Those of us who look outside Athens have fewer sources.
Yet while some parameters can fluctuate, such as how much age difference is required, where these relationships are fomented, or when same-sex affairs should respectably end, what seems constant is a need to maintain a hierarchy.
Again, these are not equal relationships. One partner is the social superior, the other, the social inferior. The elder partner was assumed to play a pedagogical role, hence the use sometimes of “paedophilia” [note spelling!] for the Greek practice, with an emphasis on paideia as teaching, not “little kids.” Many modern scholars have dropped the term, just as we avoid “gay,” because it feeds modern assumptions.
That’s NOT to say ancient relationships were never pedophilic. By their use of age to establish hierarchy, they created a veritable breeding ground for potential abuse.* I don’t want to sugar-coat or romanticize what the Greeks were doing, but do want to explain why Greek freeborn male/male pairings are better compared to dating in 1950s America.
In democratic city-states such as Athens, age became the primary way to mark relative status when all citizens were theoretically equal (but of course weren’t). Even non-democratic city-states such as Thebes and Sparta, or monarchic Macedon, used age as a factor. A youth’s Older Friend was expected to introduce him to “all the right people” and take him to “all the right parties.” Non-democratic cities such as Thebes, Sparta, and those on Crete had other unique-to-them customs I won’t go into. (See my long-ago article, “An Atypical Affair.”)
The terms they employed were erastes (lover) and eromenos (beloved): pursuer/pursued. In Sparta, it was “Inspirer” and “Hearer,” underscoring even more the teaching aspect. I should add that in addition to age, breeding mattered. For one thing, male-male courtships were perceived as largely an upper-class conceit. They had time (and money) for it. Farmers’ sons were busy with backbreaking labor out in the fields, and potters’ boys were minding the house shop.
So in a society hyper-fixated on maintaining the agency and honor of freeborn citizen men, how did they keep these relationships from looking too much like sexual transactions with women or slaves?
By requiring courting from the erastes, and giving the boy (eromenos) the right to say “No.”
Thus, I compare it to dating in 1950s America, or really any time after girls were allowed out without a chaperone, before the Sexual Revolution of the ‘60s/’70s. Citizen boys of status were roped about with remarkably similar velvet cords regarding “proper” behavior.
Courting involved not just attention but presents. Yet these couldn’t be worth too much or the boy might be accused of accepting payment, making him a prostitute (and thus, barring him from a political future). We see a lot of “low-ticket” items: wreaths of sweet-smelling leaves, hunted game (esp. small like hares), plus cockerels (right, Ashmolean G279). Love-poems, sometimes commissioned from a real poet, might be recited.
After courting from various suitors, a boy might select his Friend. Now they’re going steady! In fact the term philos (friend) is used more often than erastes. These pairings didn’t necessarily last. Remember, most involved teens and young men in early/mid-20s. Ideally, sex was verboten in early stages, but a lot of longing glances, caresses, and kissing (image below). To “give in” too soon made one a Loose Boy!**