Lecture 18: Greek Sexuality and Gender Relations

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A useful presentation of this question has been framed by Eva Keuls, 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, on women, both free and slave, on children, both male and female, on each other in domineering homosexual relationships associated with symposia, and even on animals. It was almost as if the hoplite warrior class exerted its force sexually as one of several means by which to demonstrate its male virility, relegating all subordinate elements of society as sexual objects.

However, it is possible to see this development within the context of broader social mores and patterns of childhood development. Most particularly, freeborn Greek children underwent a highly restricted, highly segregated experience with regard to interaction with the opposing gender.

Within freeborn citizen landholding elements in Greek society, young people of opposite genders were kept highly segregated, particularly freeborn daughters of landholding families. These women were given in arranged marriages to neighboring families in order to procreate and to maintain the economic basis of both families. Dowries and gifts of parcels of land accompanied the coming of age in Greek society. Religious taboos, the need to produce a male heir to preserve the ancestor cult, added further impetus to the need for the Greek bride to be a virgin at marriage. This insured that no "foreign seed" contaminated the ancestral line, thereby angering the ancestral "shades'. As a result, young freeborn females of respectable society would experience no sexual experimentation, no "dating" 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 when in public in costumes similar to female public garb in contemporary Islamic countries. Virginity prior to marriage was the basis to 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, to direct household servants, to see to the highly demanding tasks of cooking, cleaning, and domestic hygiene, not to mention raising the family's young. In view of the limited technologies available to address these tasks the number of "man hours" devoted to these activities was considerable. These requirements inevitably induced families to arrange marriages for female children early on in life, usually with neighboring families of similar social status. Young freeborn women of property holding families would be married as soon as they reached puberty to begin the process of child bearing.

Respectable freeborn males, however, were pressured by peers, by the nature of male hormonal development (which peaks early in life), and by high mortality rates to engage in sexual experimentation early in life. However, "dating" with freeborn females of respectable property-holding families was simply out of the question. Not only were the two genders were kept rigidly segregated, but the prospect of marriage for Greek males was inevitably delayed. The male's decision to marry was determined by the availability of property assets, in order for a new husband to sustain a family. Normally, this occurred through inheritance division, 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 life before he acquired his portion of family property holdings through succession.
Accordingly, marriage patterns in Greek citizen communities tended to mate 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, and because the transitional period of bachelorhood tended to be long, these outlets tended to become habits that carried over into married existence. These outlets were:

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


Runs household, raises children

2 instances of murder

1. Resort to use of prostitutes, particularly highly gifted, highly articulate
hetairai. These women tended to arise from slave and/or foreign origin. They were trained by their "pimps" in music, dance, and on occasion intellectual skills such as rhetoric. Apart from sexual favors, these women were able to appeal to their lover's minds. They tended to be more sophisticated and more mature, for example, than freeborn wives and competed, therefore, for the attention of Greek males. At the same time they were recognized as morally "unchaste" or "beyond the pale." A Greek male could never be seen publicly in daylight with his mistress, for example. She could not attend public ceremonies, whereas, Greek wives controlled family life and represented their families in public activities such as religious ceremonies and festivals that focused on female gods. Hetairai were also extremely expensive and were notorious for attempting to exploit their lovers fully before the relationship grew stale. One suspects that primarily aristocrats could afford the company of these extremely expensive, extremely gifted women. Although Greek male experience with hetairai would begin prior to marriage, the character of these relations was such that the male's participation in courtesan society 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. Among wealthy Greek males, "dating" could continue long after marriage, therefore. At least 3 Greek writers wrote books recording the lives of celebrated hetairai and their lovers; the preserved fragments of these works in Athenaeus indicates that nearly every famous Athenian politician, sculptor, dramatist, and philosopher possessed at some point in his career a courtesan mistress. 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 potential for dramatic upward social mobility, probably the only available avenue for social advancement, as such. One could go from being an abandoned infant picked up in the streets by pimps to becoming, like Aspasia of Miletos, the mistress and even the wife of the leading political figures of the day. The potential of these women to influence their lovers, particularly in the political arena, angered freeborn elements of society who resented any female involvement whatsoever in politics and led to some of the more negative characterizations of them.

2. Greek males exploited the availability of female servants (slaves) in their households. One problem with courtesan relations was their high costs. Sexual exploitation of female servants directly under one's household control was a far cheaper alternative. This practice by freeborn Greek males may have been relatively commonplace. Greek sources preserve two instances of murders committed by the women of the household, the wife and her servants, of the male head of the household because of his sexual abuse of all involved.

3. Pederastic homosexual relationships were also encouraged to some degree by the social elite. These relationships occurred very young in life as Greek males participated in the athletic regimen and education of the "
gymnasium." Adult Greek males tended to "prey" on younger males for sexual favors and emotional relationships in this environment. Since young males had no monetary resources, could not afford hetairai or even more common forms of prostitution, and could not expect to date respectable females in any manner, their outlets for sexual experimentation were basically 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 became possible. Others clearly continued with this behavior after marriage, in combination with exploitation of hetairai, indicating that Greek male society was not so much homosexually inclined as it was bisexually. 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 encouraged as a means to reinforce intense levels of emotional bonding to sustain military ardor in the field. There was almost an ascetic quality to this lifestyle that was admired and undoubtedly emulated by military elites throughout the Greek world.

This in turn places emphasis to the importance of military life, what can be referred to as the "hoplite mystique," in Greek sexual mores. Modern students invariably question how young Greek males could be drawn into pederastic relationships in the first place. Ancient Greek families worried rather about how to protect their sons from them, assigning them slaves known as
pedagogues to chaperone their sons' trips to and from the gymnasium. Modern observers who question these relationships fail to recognize the dominant role of the hoplite element in Greek society. All Greek city-states were ruled by hoplite aristocracies. They assumed political ascendancy by claiming to defend their communities from rival hoplite elements in neighboring communities. In this regard they imposed their will on their respective societies and served as the "models" of Greek male social behavior. The hoplite enjoyed "heroic" status to be aspired to by young Greek males. Given the degree to which this dominant element imposed its norms on society, young Greek males would have been hard pressed to view activities such as pederasty and prostitution, in a negative light.

If there was a flaw to Greek cultural development it arose from the ceaseless military conflicts that raged between Greek city-states and the needs of all states to maintain dominant hoplite elites at a high state of military readiness. This condition enabled hoplite elements to impose their will on society in the first place. The social, political, and cultural supremacy of the hoplite element in Greek society possibly explains the character of Greek sexual mores. To be sure, homosexuality and resort to prostitution were both present in later Roman society as well, but the Roman success at political confederacy and state building ultimately reduced military levels of violence and with it the concomitant dependency on military elites. Not only do Roman male sources tend to recognize the importance of women in society (however much they dislike this), but they tend as well to express negative attitudes toward homosexuality and prostitution.

Evidence of similar attitudes is difficult to find in Greek male literature. Male writers make very little mention of Greek women, almost as if they were invisible. Exceptions can always be forwarded -- arguably the greatest of all lyric poets,
Sappho of Lesbos, was a woman, and several Greek aristocratic females enjoyed fairly libertine lifestyles because of their resources and elevated place in society. Apart from these, however, we know far more about the lives of Greek hetairai, including their professional "names," than we do about the long-suffering Greek matrons who day-in-day-out managed Greek households and maintained Greek families. The archaeological remains of Greek households -- the pots and pans, dinner plates, small braziers used for cooking and heating, evidence of refined wall painting and serene shaded gardens situated within the interior courtyards of Greek households, remains of children's toys and family pets -- are the best surviving elements of their world.