If their art is any indication of what went on in real life, sex between two males appears to have been rather commonplace in the ancient Greek world. But that's nothing new, as sex between two males has likely occurred since, well, there were human beings on the planet. But how did the ancient Greeks view gayness within society, meaning an ongoing romantic or erotic relationship between two adult men? Was there even a word for being gay back then?
Zeus and his young lover Ganymede
Ancient Greek art gives us plenty of images representing sex or, at the very least, erotic attraction of some kind between two males. One of the most famous examples is a classical vase painting in which Zeus, king of the gods, pursues the male youth named Ganymede. In some versions of the myth, Zeus was said to have sent his eagle to swoop down and abduct the Trojan youth. In other versions, he transforms himself into an eagle and carries Ganymede to live with him and the other gods on Mount Olympus as his cup-bearer. In the image above, Zeus is seen on the left side and Ganymede on the right, along with a cock or a rooster. Cocks were apparently common gifts in Athens during the 5th century BC as a way for older male suitors to show their affection for a younger man. The scene was not only popularly depicted in ancient Greek and Roman art, but well into the Renaissance and Baroque periods as well. Ganymede become an iconic symbol of homosexual love in paintings and literature from the Renaissance to the Late Victorian era, when the figure of Antinous, a beautiful male youth and reported lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, became a popular subject among artists.
Ganymedes was the loveliest born of the race of mortals, and therefore the gods caught him away to themselves, to be Zeus' wine-pourer, for the sake of his beauty, so he might be among the immortals.
— Homer, Iliad, Book XX, lines 233–235
Sexuality and Social Norms in Ancient Greek Society
The story reflected a real Greek social custom known as pederasty, which involved a relationship between an adult male and an adolescent male. According to Plato's Laws, the Cretans were regularly accused of inventing the myth because they wanted to justify their "unnatural pleasures". It’s important to mention here that girls as young as 14 were often married off to men around the age of 30, so sexual activity between a grown up and an adolescent were not limited to what we today would call "homosexual" encounters. In ancient Greece, however, there were no words to distinguish someone as being heterosexual and homosexual. It seems that a man could both desire handsome young men and have sex with women without any label whatsoever. Although an older man having sex with a younger man who did not yet have his beard was completely acceptable within ancient Greek society, a homosexual relationship as we understand it today between two grown men is believed to have been forbidden. Once the adolescent male came of age, it was considered unacceptable for the two men to remain in a sexual or romantic relationship of any kind. This has to do with gender roles. As an androgynous, beardless youth, it was acceptable to take the passive role in a relationship. For a grown man to take on this role would have been considered demeaning, based on ancient views of women being inferior to males within society. If you look closely at such scenes in ancient Greek art, you’ll notice there is often an older, bearded male in pursuit of a young man who is shown without a beard.
Were Achilles and Patroclus Really Lovers?
There is another well-known example showing a tender scene between two men—the demigod warrior Achilles and his companion Patroclus. However, this scene is more ambiguous as to whether or not the relationship is sexual in nature. It shows Achilles carefully bandaging up Patroclus who was wounded by an arrow. Not only do people today still argue over whether or not the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was homoerotic, but the ancients did as well. Here is a summary of just a few of the varying accounts from ancient literature:
Plato's Symposium, written c. 385 BC, holds up Achilles and Patroclus as an example of divinely approved lovers. He suggests that Achilles is the eromenos (the beloved youth) whose reverence of his erastes (the older male), Patroclus, was so great that he would be willing to die to avenge him.
The great tragedian Aeschylus depicted Achilles and Patroclus as lovers in his play Myrmidons from the 5th century BC. In a surviving fragment of the play, Achilles speaks of “the reverent company” of Patroclus’ thighs and how Patroclus was “ungrateful for many kisses.
Homer's Iliad does not expressly state that they were lovers, but there is nothing in the text that would contradict this viewpoint either.
One thing is certain, our views about sexuality have changed a lot over time. What was acceptable then is not today, and the other way around. What are your thoughts on this subject? Share your thoughts in the comments!