Illustration by Peter Butler


Gender Relations and Sexual Behavior in Ancient Greece


Along with intellectual accomplishments those of creature comforts represent a second significant benchmark for Greek civilization. By the end of the Hellenistic era Greek or Greco-Roman households attained a standard of comfort and permanence which was unsurpassed until modern times. Solid insulated walls, ceramic roofs, paved floors, interior kitchens, cisterns, and sewerage disposal all made living more tolerable. Every facet of household sanitation and food preparation was done by hand, however, and required significant hours of human labor energy to complete. The evidence indicates that the primary labor contributions to these endeavors, most particularly in the maintenance and development of domestic quarters in Greek society, were performed by women. We begin the discussion of Greek gender relations, therefore, by contemplating the built environment where Greek women were likely to have spent most of their time.


The Design of the Greek House

As an example of the Greek domicile we turn to the late Hellenistic settlement on the island of Delos, where numerous sumptuous houses were constructed by prosperous merchants at the end of the second century BC. The site has undergone archaeological excavation by the French School in Athens almost non-stop since 1876. Hellenistic Greek houses were typically centered on an internal peristyle court, with rooms opening onto and arranged in rectangular fashion around this.  One such house, the House of the Herms, excavated in 1949-1950, stands on the low heights above the island’s harbor. Its builders designed the house to exploit the slope's uneven terrain to full advantage. At the lower level of the house stood a massive double-story peristyle courtyard, with the characteristic complement of a large dining room (oecus maior) and adjoining service rooms on its northern side. In the southeast corner of the court two stairways allowed access to a second floor. The ground-floor rooms were sumptuously decorated and surviving fragments of mosaic and wall painting from the second floor indicate that the interior decor at this level was equally refined. While the front section of the house rose no higher, the architects added a split-level addition to the building’s south side, ascending two additional stories up the hill directly behind. From the second floor peristyle one reached the upper level of the house via a long flight of stairs. In addition to the usual complement of service and storage rooms, one large open room on the third floor displayed niches where the bust of an archaized Hermes was discovered to lend the domicile its name.  Continuing up another short flight of stairs, one arrived at a landing or vestibule situated between the third and fourth floors.  From here access could be gained to different parts of the fourth floor (via two short flights of stairs), as well as to the exterior door at the upper southeast corner of the house.


The Peristyle of the House of the Herms Viewed from the Upper Landing



The sophisticated terrace design of the House of the Herms rendered it one of the largest, most well-conceived and solidly constructed houses on the island. Several of its elements were arranged with breathtaking splendor. From the third-floor landing, for example, an arriving visitor could have gazed directly down the flights of stairs (deliberately kept steep and aligned), through the south portico of the second story directly into the dining room on the ground floor, where a magnificent sculptural group by the celebrated fourth century BC artist, Praxiteles, would have caught the eye. The proprietors of the House of the Herms had it lavishly decorated with statuary. Besides the museum quality piece by Praxiteles and a recovered Satyr head in the dining room, the ground-floor courtyard revealed a marble herm, a marble cult table, a statue of Artemis and, in the niche at the southwest corner of the court, a nymphaeum complete with a statue of a nymph and an adjoining grotto.


Additional elements further demonstrate the degree of well-conceived planning that went into the House of the Herms. Beneath the paved floor of the courtyard was a deep cistern where the inhabitants would store rain water that was channeled by gutters along the roof of the peristyle to the corners of the court below. A marble sculpted wellhead enabled them to draw water from this storage facility. Facilities for household sanitation remained relatively primitive. Pitchers and amphoras would have been used to draw water from the cistern and to carry it to areas of the house such as the kitchen and bathroom. The toilet facilities, a simple wooden toilet seat set over a channel in a room beside the main entrance to the house enabled the occupants to flush waste materials outside to a covered sewer channel beneath the narrow street in front. Although the dining room was paved with a mosaic floor, the floors of the other ground-floor rooms consisted of simple pounded earth and those of the upper floors of wooden planking. Undoubtedly, exposed floors were covered by rugs, possibly woven by the women of the household. Tapestries are likely to have decorated various walls as well, furnishing both aesthetically pleasing interior decor and insulation to reduce draft during the damp, cold months of winter. Lamps were required to illuminate rooms at night, made doubly dark on the ground floor by the absence of windows. Greek houses were designed to exploit the brilliant sunshine of the long Mediterranean summers. With thick walls of hand-hewn stone sealed with dried earth and plastered with stucco on both the exterior and interior faces, the house walls repelled the heat of the sun during the day by allowing only indirect light to penetrate interior rooms via the internal courtyard. During winter the occupants would keep doorways to interior rooms closed and rely on lamps and small charcoal braziers to fend off the cold. These instruments would have left a sooty residue on the walls and ceiling that required periodic cleaning. Evidence from other houses indicates that potted vines likely stood in the corners of the interior court, deliberately trained to climb the columns all the way to the second floor roof. Domestic plants and animals (pets) added a warm and cheerful natural setting to contrast with the noise of passers by outside. In sumptuous houses such as this, netting may have covered the open roof of the courtyard to create a closed aviary for exotic birds. Despite the technological limitations of its household systems of sanitation, water, and heat, in other words, the closed environment of this house would have been comfortable, serene, and inviting. Quantities of human labor hours were required to create this environment, not to mention those needed to perform the basic necessities of cooking, cleaning, and maintenance.


Households such as the House of the Herms represented built environments where Greek females worked to create safe, attractive homes to raise their children and to enjoy their lives. The remains of domestic quarters such as the House of the Herms furnish us with a concrete foundation from which to assess the character of gender relations and sexual behavior in ancient Greek society. In an earlier chapter we attempted to outline a paradigm for the status of women in Bronze Age Mesopotamia and the ancient world in general. As with so many other aspects of the Greek experience, the surviving literature for Greek gender relations furnishes greater detail on these matters. The literary record demonstrates many patterns that were similar to behavior elsewhere but other aspects that appear to have been unique. By and large, Greek society exhibited the all-too-common dominance of patriarchal hierarchy. Due to the ascendancy of hoplite aristocracies in Greek city states, male society possibly displayed a more overt double standard than that found elsewhere. The elite caste of freeborn, landholding, citizen-soldier-warriors tended not only to dominate the narrative of Greek history but also to impose its norms on all subordinate elements of the population.  That is why consideration of the material remains of the Greek household becomes useful. More than any evidence furnished by extant literary sources the remains of Greek households furnish the most reliable data about the day-to-day existence of Greek females.


Patterns of Male Bonding at the Greek Symposium

Houses such as the House of the Herms were also the setting of the Greek male drinking party or symposium. Symposia occurred during festivals that coincided with Greek religious events approximately once a month. During these celebrations the Greek polis would suspend all public work, and men would congregate in taverns and private houses to drink, to converse, and to amuse themselves. Symposia were intended to promote patterns of male bonding that formed the underpinnings of Greek hoplite society. Sustained bonds of family unity, school-age camaraderie, shared political and military experiences, and repeated instances of personal loyalty helped male members of the Greek polis to forge bonds of collective identity. These frequently determined the outcome of military conflicts as well as political contests. Even the least advantaged citizens found ways to celebrate symposia typically by arranging potluck dinners that would rotate, month by month, among the households of the associated participants. Popular figures like Themistocles, Aristophanes, Alcibiades, or Socrates, were expected to make the rounds of dozens of symposia during the festival season, dropping in on one dinner party after another in an ancient form of table hopping. In a word, the symposium was arguably the most central social practice to the formation of cultural identity in the Greek polis.


Among the most striking vestiges of the bonding process of the symposium are its associated drinking cups, the kantharos, the kylix, and the skyphos, that were employed during the ceremonies. Not only were the forms themselves emblematic of communal drinking -- in the case of the kylix the form was difficult to handle in an inebriated state, and, thus, entailed a high likelihood of spillage to heighten the frivolity -- but they were frequently painted with scenes depicting glimpses of riotous activities that unfolded during the symposium itself. This only stands to reason. The one hundred or so artists who decorated the tens of thousands of Attic Red Figure forms that survive to this day undoubtedly drew their subject material from scenes personally witnessed at symposia. Moreover, the frequency which such scenes recur on the surviving cups indicates that these were the decorative motifs that were most in demand. Assuming this to be correct, we need to recognize that the scenes depicted on Greek drinking cups sometimes portray disturbing instances of graphic sexual behavior. Portrayed on the interior floors and exterior walls of Greek kylikes were provocative scenes of sexual encounters, including chains of nude male figures engaged in simultaneous homosexual relations, scenes of romantic love between older males and young boys, hedonistic instances of group sex involving men and women, even violent scenes displaying examples of men simultaneously beating women with sandals while engaged with them in intercourse. The vase paintings raise significant questions about the character of Greek sexual relations that are difficult to interpret given the fragmentary, uneven, and largely anecdotal character of the evidence. Demographic statistics capable of demonstrating the relative tendencies of the sexual behavior portrayed in Attic Red Figure vase painting simply do not exist. The best we can do is to utilize the available information to identify the widest possible range of sexual behavior in Greek society while recognizing that the behavioral pattern of most inhabitants fell somewhere in between. Repeatedly we find ourselves confronted by the following question: was the behavior represented on the vases or in the textual source literature "closet behavior" of a privileged and limited aristocratic elite, or was it something symptomatic of mainstream society?


Greek Sexuality and Gender Relations

A useful presentation of this question has been framed by Eva Keuls in her book, The Reign of the Phallus. Put baldly, Keuls claims that ancient Greek men were pigs. As the dominant element in society Greek males imposed their will on all beneath them, including women, both free and slave, children, male and female, and other men, through domineering homosexual relationships associated with symposia. It was almost as if the hoplite warrior element exerted its authority sexually as one of several ways to demonstrate its virility, thereby objectifying all subordinate elements of society. However, it is equally possible to view this development within the context of broader social mores and patterns of childhood development. First, we need to recognize that the purpose of marriage in Greek society was to generate the necessary conditions for the maintenance of the Greek household. This included not only the procreation of children necessary to sustain the family line, but equally and perhaps more importantly, it entailed the handing down of a given family’s assets from one generation to the next. All marriages were arranged by parents, usually neighbors or interrelated aristocratic families, at the time when prospective spouses were still children.


To insure the sanctity of the marriage relationship and the purity of the family line, freeborn Greek children underwent a highly restricted, segregated upbringing, at least insofar as sexual interaction with the opposing gender was concerned. Within the social stratum of freeborn landholding citizen elites, young people of opposite genders remained rigidly segregated. As with other ancient cultures, the freeborn daughters of respectable landholding families entered into contractually arranged marriages with males from neighboring families for purposes of procreation and to maintain the economic foundations of both families. Dowries and gifts of land parcels accompanied the coming of age in Greek society. Religious taboos, such as the need to produce a male heir to preserve the ancestor cult, added the additional requirement that the Greek bride be a virgin at the time of her marriage. Typically, young freeborn females of respectable society would experience no sexual experimentation, no dating as we know it, prior to marriage. They would be kept carefully cloistered in the private recesses of the family household and even more carefully chaperoned in public. They were generally required after puberty to hide their features whenever they were in public, donning costumes similar to those worn by females in contemporary Islamic society. Virginity prior to marriage was a requirement of the marriage contract, and chastity and modesty after marriage were norms not only expected of, but imposed on respectable Greek females. Married women were expected to maintain the household, to spin and weave clothing for the family (as well as for retail sale), to direct household servants, to attend to the highly demanding tasks of cooking, cleaning, and domestic hygiene, not to mention, the raising of the family's young. In view of the limited technologies available for these tasks the number of laboring hours devoted to them was considerable. These requirements inevitably induced families to arrange marriages for female children early on in life. On the whole, young freeborn women of property holding families would be married as soon as they reached puberty to begin the process of child bearing and to maintain the domestic quarters of the newly formed family.


Respectable freeborn males, however, were pressured by peers, by the nature of male hormonal development (which peaks early on in life), and by high mortality rates to engage in sexual experimentation early in life. Dating with freeborn females of respectable property-holding families was out of the question. The male's decision to marry was determined by the availability of property assets necessary to sustain a family. Normally, this occurred through inheritance, for example, when the eldest surviving male of the family died and the estate was divided among his sons and grandsons. Sometimes Greek males would have to wait until fairly advanced in age before he acquired his portion of the family patrimony. Accordingly, marriage patterns in Greek citizen communities tended to combine extremely young females (early teens) with mature adult males (20s-30s). Prior to sexual relations by marriage, Greek males resorted to alternative outlets of sexual activity. Given the inordinate length of bachelorhood in ancient Greek society, a man’s reliance on these outlets tended to develop into habits that carried over into married life. These outlets included household servants, professional courtesans, and homosexual relationships.





Homosexual relationships


aristocratic male

aristocratic female

Household servants

gymnasium; pederasty; freeborn male and female adolescents rigidly segregated

Older, more attractive, more sophisticated women; of slave or foreign origin; upwardly mobile

 marries when he comes into inheritance; attends all male symposia during festivals

Marries at puberty; freeborn citizen class; valued for her matronly virtues

Inexpensive; subordinate and vulnerable

Continues after marriage

Continues after marriage

Tendency to exploit all three options

Runs household, raises children

two recorded instances of murder



Those males who could afford the expense purchased the services of prostitutes, particularly highly gifted, attractive, oftentimes articulate hetairai. Typically of slave or foreign origin, hetairai were highly educated, expensive call women, the ancient Greek equivalent to Japanese geisha women or medieval European courtesans. They were frequently trained by pimps in music, dance, and poetry to entertain men at the symposia. In other words, they furnished entertainment and sophisticated conversation as well as sexual favors; they appealed to the minds of their male clients as well as to their sexual desires. In addition, hetairai tended to be more sophisticated and more mature than freeborn wives and competed for the affections of adult Greek males. Nonetheless, they remained recognized socially as unchaste or "beyond the pale." A Greek male could never be seen publicly in daylight with his mistress, for example. For a slave or foreign born hetaira to attend a public ceremony would amount to sacrilege, whereas, as representatives of respectable citizen class families Greek wives participated actively in public activities such as religious ceremonies and festivals that focused on female deities. Hetairai were also extremely expensive and were notorious for their tendency to exploit their lovers financially before their attraction wore off. One suspects that for the most part few other than aristocrats could afford the company of these extremely expensive women, though perhaps part of the logic to the symposium was to render hetairai available to ordinary male citizens through shared, potluck expenditure. Although Greek male experience with hetairai would begin prior to marriage, the character of these relations was such that the male's participation in sex-laboring culture would continue long afterward. The host of a Greek symposium was expected, for example, to recruit hetairai and young flute girls to entertain his guests during the banquet. As we have seen, entertainers such as these were frequently portrayed in the vase painting of the symposia. At least three Greek writers wrote books recording the lives of celebrated hetairai and their lovers; the fragments of these works, preserved in AthenaeusDeipnosophistae, indicate that nearly every famous Athenian politician, sculptor, dramatist, and philosopher possessed a courtesan mistress at some point in his career. These relationships were simply that commonplace, hence, the centrality of this figure in Greek society and her potentially destabilizing influence on Greek family life. It is important to recognize as well that for women originating from non-respectable, impoverished families and / or slave origins, life as a hetaira offered the only potential avenue for upward social mobility. One could go from being an abandoned fondling collected by a pimp in the streets to becoming, like Aspasia of Miletos, the mistress and eventually the wife of one of the leading political figures of the day, namely, Pericles. The potential of these women to influence the political decisions of their lovers angered freeborn elements of society, particularly since any and all female involvement in politics was regarded with distaste.


Greek males similarly exploited the availability of female servants (slaves) in their households. One problem with courtesan relations was their high cost. Sexual exploitation of female servants directly under one's household control was a far cheaper alternative. The tendency of freeborn Greek males to exploit household servants for sexual gratification would appear to have been relatively commonplace. Greek sources (speeches that survive in the Demosthenic corpus) preserve two instances of Athenian adult males who were murdered by the female members of their households. In each instance the man was allegedly dispatched by his wife and her servants due to his unrestrained sexual exploitation of everyone concerned.


Pederastic homosexual relationships were also encouraged to some degree by the social elite of the ancient Greek polis. These relationships occurred very early in life as Greek males participated in the athletic regimen and education of the gymnasium. Here in this enclosed, semi-private environment, adult Greek males tended to exploit younger males for sexual favors and emotional relationships. Since young males had no monetary resources, could not afford hetairai, or other, more common forms of prostitution, and could not expect to date respectable females in any manner whatsoever, their outlets for sexual experimentation were inevitably restricted to relations with household servants, if available, and to other males. Evidence of fairly elaborate courting rituals among older Greek males and their younger lovers indicate the likely commonplace character of these relationships. A meticulous etiquette evolved establishing norms of behavior within these relationships, which sexual activities were deemed acceptable and which were debased or degrading, for example. For some, homosexual relations possibly served as a rite of passage, something experienced in lieu of heterosexual dating until such time as marriage or dating with hetairai became feasible. Others clearly continued with this behavior after marriage, oftentimes in combination with the exploitation of hetairai. This would seem to indicate that wider Greek male society was not so much homosexually inclined as it was bisexual. At the extreme end of the spectrum stood the elite fighting forces, such as the Spartan cadet corps at the phiditia or the Theban Sacred Band of 400 elite warriors. Among these groups homosexual relations were openly encouraged as a means to reinforce the intense levels of emotional bonding that were believed necessary to sustain military ardor on the battlefield. A seemingly ascetic quality was assigned to this lifestyle by wider society, given that it was admired and emulated by military elites throughout the Greek world. This in turn places emphasis on the centrality of the military experience, what is referred to here as the "hoplite mystique," in Greek sexual mores.


Modern students invariably question how young Greek males who were not homosexually inclined could be drawn into pederastic relationships in the first place. There is some evidence that ancient Greek families worried similarly; many attempted to protect their sons from these relationships, going so far as to assign slaves known as pedagogues to chaperone their sons’ trips to and from the gymnasium. To some degree, one can argue that the dominant role played by the warrior-hoplite in all Greek societies enabled them to impose their norms on their respective societies and to serve as the models of male cultural behavior. Given the degree to which young Greek males aspired to emulate these role models, they would have been hard pressed to view activities such as pederasty and prostitution in a negative light. In addition, the prevalence of homosexual and bisexual orientation generally in human societies all too often gets ignored in this context. Modern research has demonstrated that tendencies of homosexual or bisexual orientation are far more commonplace than generally recognized. Surveys conducted over many decades by the Kinsey Institute reveal that 37% of American adult males had achieved orgasm through contact with another male, and that 13% of American adult females had achieved orgasm through contact with another female. On average some 6 to 10% of U. S. urban populations profess to homosexual or bisexual orientations. Since most of this research is based on less reliable forms of sampling, scholars assume that these numbers and percentages are in fact underreported. In other words, experimentation with and life-long pursuit of homosexual and bisexual orientations are far more commonplace in modern society than is generally recognized. It is entirely likely that the percentages of homosexual and bisexual orientation in ancient Greece were similar, therefore, and that the inhabitants of Greek polis communities were simply more open and tolerant of this behavior than contemporary Americans. Based on the Kinsey data we must also allow for the possibility that the percentages of the ancient Greek population that pursued homosexual and bisexual orientations were relatively low and that the textual record is therefore exaggerated.


Either way, the inhabitants of ancient Greece appear to have been far more comfortable with these tendencies than some elements of contemporary society, and it is worth noting that the patriarchy of the Roman Republic expressed similar revulsion for homosexuality -- despite evidence of its practice -- at Rome. Roman male sources also tend to display a greater awareness for the role of females in society (however much chagrined to admit it). Greek male writers rarely make mention of women, almost as if they were invisible. Exceptions can always be forwarded -- arguably the greatest of all lyric poets, Sappho of Lesbos, was a lesbian, and several Greek aristocratic females, such as Elpinice, the sister of the Athenian general Cimon, used the autonomy afforded by their high stations in society to engage in sexually liberated lifestyles. Apart from these, however, we know far more about the lives of Greek hetairai, including their professional names and the names of their lovers, than we do about the long-suffering Greek matrons who day-in-day-out managed Greek households and nurtured Greek families. This suggests that the Greek patriarchy was more tolerant of alternative sexual orientations than its contemporaries.


Portrait of a young woman often identified as Sappho, fresco, Pompeii, 1st c. AD; National Archeological Museum, Naples



In conclusion, it seems wisest to return to the evidence furnished by the archaeological remains of the Greek household as the best preserved testimony for the experience of ancient Greek females -- the pots and pans, dinner plates, small braziers used for cooking and heating, evidence of refined wall painting, richly woven textiles, and serene gardens situated within the interior courtyards of Greek households. These as well as the remains of children's toys and family pets combine to furnish the most telling elements of their world. By creating and maintaining tranquil domestic environments -- house by house, block by block -- across the urban landscape, women worked to weave together the social fabric of ancient Greece.