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Monday, August 30, 2010

Homosexual "Marriage" in Ancient Greece and Rome

Some of this ain't for kids. You done been warned.
Well, I've been waiting, and so far, the answer to a question I asked hasn't been forthcoming. So I thought I'd google it myself. This is fairly representative of what I found:
What follows is a brief description of ancient Greek attitudes, but it is important to recognize that there was regional variation. For example, in parts of Ionia there were general strictures against same-sex eros, while in Elis and Boiotia (e.g., Thebes), it was approved of and even celebrated (cf. Dover, 1989; Halperin, 1990).

Probably the most frequent assumption of sexual orientation is that persons can respond erotically to beauty in either sex. Diogenes Laeurtius, for example, wrote of Alcibiades, the Athenian general and politician of the 5th century B.C., “in his adolescence he drew away the husbands from their wives, and as a young man the wives from their husbands.” (Quoted in Greenberg, 1988, 144) Some persons were noted for their exclusive interests in persons of one gender. For example, Alexander the Great and the founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, were known for their exclusive interest in boys and other men. Such persons, however, are generally portrayed as the exception. Furthermore, the issue of what gender one is attracted to is seen as an issue of taste or preference, rather than as a moral issue. A character in Plutarch's Erotikos (Dialogue on Love) argues that “the noble lover of beauty engages in love wherever he sees excellence and splendid natural endowment without regard for any difference in physiological detail.” (Ibid., 146) Gender just becomes irrelevant “detail” and instead the excellence in character and beauty is what is most important.

Even though the gender that one was erotically attracted to (at any specific time, given the assumption that persons will likely be attracted to persons of both sexes) was not important, other issues were salient, such as whether one exercised moderation. Status concerns were also of the highest importance. Given that only free men had full status, women and male slaves were not problematic sexual partners. Sex between freemen, however, was problematic for status. The central distinction in ancient Greek sexual relations was between taking an active or insertive role, versus a passive or penetrated one. The passive role was acceptable only for inferiors, such as women, slaves, or male youths who were not yet citizens. Hence the cultural ideal of a same-sex relationship was between an older man, probably in his 20's or 30's, known as the erastes, and a boy whose beard had not yet begun to grow, the eromenos or paidika. In this relationship there was courtship ritual, involving gifts (such as a rooster), and other norms. The erastes had to show that he had nobler interests in the boy, rather than a purely sexual concern. The boy was not to submit too easily, and if pursued by more than one man, was to show discretion and pick the more noble one. There is also evidence that penetration was often avoided by having the erastes face his beloved and place his penis between the thighs of the eromenos, which is known as intercrural sex. The relationship was to be temporary and should end upon the boy reaching adulthood (Dover, 1989). To continue in a submissive role even while one should be an equal citizen was considered troubling, although there certainly were many adult male same-sex relationships that were noted and not strongly stigmatized. While the passive role was thus seen as problematic, to be attracted to men was often taken as a sign of masculinity. Greek gods, such as Zeus, had stories of same-sex exploits attributed to them, as did other key figures in Greek myth and literature, such as Achilles and Hercules. Plato, in the Symposium, argues for an army to be comprised of same-sex lovers. Thebes did form such a regiment, the Sacred Band of Thebes, formed of 500 soldiers. They were renowned in the ancient world for their valor in battle.

Ancient Rome had many parallels in its understanding of same-sex attraction, and sexual issues more generally, to ancient Greece. This is especially true under the Republic. Yet under the Empire, Roman society slowly became more negative in its views towards sexuality, probably due to social and economic turmoil, even before Christianity became influential.
Other writers had other material. One of the Wikipedia writers (Don't ever take Wikipedia as authoritative. It is often interesting and useful, but never authoritative.) noted that at least two of the Roman emperors "married" others of the same gender, but it is clear from the quoted historical material that this was considered extremely odd behavior, on the order of, for instance, promoting one's horse to the position of senator.

Sooooo, unless someone can produce something fairly definitive and authoritative to the contrary, I'm gonna have to take the position that if it existed, homosexual marriage in ancient Greece and Rome was seen as an aberration, and furthermore, that homosexuality in Greece and Rome was strongly linked to pedophilia (Surprised, aren't you?) and that the fact that homosexual relationships usually ended upon the victim's younger participant's maturation points strongly to such relationships being considered anything but marriages, which are, in theory at least, generally of considerable duration.

And, of course, unless that something fairly definitive and authoritative to the contrary can actually be produced, rather than just tossed out as the half-remembered opinion of a friend, that would also mean that one of someone's arguments for the historical normality of homosexual marriage just went "poof"--if you'll excuse the expression...

I'll keep waiting. But I ain't holdin' my breath.

1 comment:

  1. I know that you have been waiting on me to respond to this and I’m sorry for not getting back with you sooner. I asked my friend and he stated that he didn’t remember the specifics of marriage but did mention that the Spartans were very pro-gay relationships, especially in the military. I have not had a chance to research this myself, thus the lack of response. I’m sure that there are plenty of things out there that will say a variety of things on this issue. I wasn’t sure what you would consider a “legitimate” source since often the legitimacy of sources are based completely on worldview and honestly, especially now that I’m back in school, I don’t have the time to search the internet to find the answer or more accurately an answer that you would approve of. I didn’t want you to think that I had just forgotten or not bothered—based on the tone of this post I suspect that you think that I didn’t bother because I made it up—it’s just been on a back burner. Admittedly I took my friend at his word without doing my own research. As your link shows though, I was at least partially right. Homosexuality was not disdained then like it is now. Granted the whole men taking boys under their wings (in apparently more ways than one) is pretty messed up, but that was a completely different culture and this was seen as normal behavior (not that I agree with boinking a little kid because lord knows I don’t). Next time I will double check my facts, especially on something like this since there isn’t a sweeping agreement/disagreement.

    I am sorry though for leaving you hanging. That wasn’t polite of me and I should have at least responded saying that I hadn’t had a chance to look into it yet.