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love between a man and boy - education in Ancient Greece Male Love in Ancient Greece
love between a man and boy - education in Ancient Greece

In his introduction to Edward FitzGerald’s famous adaptation of Omar Khayyam’s ‘Rubáiyát’, the editor remarks that:

    FitzGerald (1809-1883) found himself a homosexual in a society that, while it admired and respected a civilization [that of classical Athens] that gloried in, and boasted of, its homosexuality, itself found the behaviour so offensive as to be virtually unmentionable.

Despite some progress in this matter since the Victorian age, it still does not seem that the full extent and importance of homosexual love in classical Athens and throughout all of ancient Greece is common knowledge today. Indeed, knowledge of male love may be even rarer than it was in FitzGerald’s time, since classical studies are no longer presented in most schools, and in the universities the subject attracts only the few.

It is important in the beginning to define our vocabulary. The term ’homosexuality’ as it is used and understood today is not applicable to Greek antiquity for three reasons: First of all, most Greeks were bisexual. Second, homosexuality and 'gay' as sexual identities are recent developments, emerging only in the 2Oth Century (our idea of what it means to be gay or a homosexual has largely been influenced by recent gay activism and the emergence of gay rights on the cultural landscape). Last, and most important of all, passion and erotic love between two adult men (the model for modern gay relationships), was generally considered unusual and held up to ridicule. Homosexual love in Greece was love between a man and a boy.

As with all else, there were exceptions, such as the well known relationship between Alexander the Great and his boyhood friend Hephaiston, or the one between the mythical hero of the Trojan war, Achilles, and his best friend and lover, Patroklos. These love affairs fit the pattern of gay relationships today. However, the relationship that was characteristic of the Greek way of life, accepted or even regarded as a social duty by the state, was intergenerational male love. In its ideal form this bond was between a man (called the erastes [lover] in Athens, or the ‘inspirer’ in Sparta) and an adolescent youth (called the eromenos [beloved], or the ‘hearer’, respectively). It bears saying here that opinions even then were divided, with a lively debate going on between proponents and opponents of homosexual love.

Achilles bandaging Patroklos
Achilles and Patroklos

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a ancient parallel to
modern gay relationships?

The Greek word for homosexual love between a man and a youth was paiderastia (hence pederasty), derived from pais, boy, and eran, to love, meaning emotional and sensual affection for a pais. A common synonym for beloved boys in Greek writings is ta paidika, ’the boyish.’ The youths who attracted men’s attentions ranged in age from adolescence to early manhood, as can be seen from the images that have come down to us on Greek pottery and sculpture. Relationships with overly young boys were frowned upon then as they are now (though some Greek beloved youths would have fallen below the age of consent in many modern countries), one mark of a beloved ripe for a man’s attentions being the ability to think for himself.


Social environment
love between a man and boy - education in Ancient Greece
male love in Greece

The Greek male was expected not only to marry and raise children, but also to be available for friendship and homosexual love affairs with worthy youths, not to the exclusion of marriage but as its necessary complement. Thus his destined path through the garden of love would begin some time in adolescence when the boy was courted by many men and would choose one to be his lover. This homosexual relationship would continue till early adulthood when he'd begin courting and winning the love of a deserving youth of his own. Then it would expand to include taking a wife and having children. (Of course there were countless variations on this theme, some noble and others sordid, just as it is with us today in our love life.) This variety of life was reflected in the ‘deep well of time’, the ancient sacred myths on which were based the archetypes of human life and self-knowledge.

male love in Greece
male love in Greece
Zeus and Ganymede
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All Greeks were familiar with the tales of male love: Zeus descending as an eagle to carry off Ganymede, the most beautiful boy on Earth, to be his lover on Mount Olympus, of Apollo and Hyacinth’s ill fated love, and of many other such passionate friendships between gods or heroes and handsome youths. Among the Greeks, this love did more than dare speak its name, it fairly shouted it from the rooftops. It was one of the fundamental traditions of Greek life, one practised and enjoyed to the fullest. Indeed, it was a social must which no poet, no philosopher, no artist disdained to explore. It was discussed in public as a matter of course and included in the reflections of the greatest minds.

That a man should be attracted both to lovely women and to beardless boys was seen as natural and normal. It was also accepted that some men would lean more towards one, and some towards the other. However, young males were considered the fair sex par excellence; the Greek ideal of beauty was embodied by the young man, a fact evident in all of Greek literature and art from first beginnings to last examples. Literary disputes examined the question of which kind of love was preferable, and often the love of youths won out. Apart from purely scientific texts there was hardly a work in which juvenile male beauty was not praised, from casual asides to richly embroidered descriptions. The extent to which the youth was the paragon of beauty can be seen in the arts, where even girls were often represented with boyish traits. Furthermore,a great deal of pottery depicting youths has been found, often inscribed with the epithet kalos (the masculine form of beautiful), while pictures of girls and the feminine kale are rare. Even he great sculptor Phidias payed homage to his beloved by carving kalos Pantarkes on a finger of the colossal statue of Zeus at Olympia.


boy love in Ancient Greece
boy love in Ancient Greece

Besides their physical charm, boys were also valued for their minds, held to be especially capable of reason and debate and therefore meant to be cultivated. Thus homosexual love was the driving force not only of the sexual but also of the pedagogic side of Greek pederasty. Ancient culture was male oriented through and through. To the Greek man, his spouse counted mostly as mother of his children and keeper of his household. With very few exceptions women (and wives in particular) were excluded from intellectual and public life. Girls were considered capable only of chitchat, and unworthy of education. Only hetairas, a class of entertainers / courtesans who were not charged with domestic responsibilities, could enter the political and philosophic arenas. Thus, the intellectual development of most girls was neglected, while the right upbringing of boys was given the highest importance.

The aim of the Greek educational system, the paideia, was summed up by the words: kalos k’agathos, ’beautiful and good’, meaning that beauty of body and goodness of soul were the essence of human i.e. male perfection. Homosexual love between men and youths striving together to develop these virtues was seen as the most effective way to cultivate that ideal. It was said that even Herakles (Hercules) could perform his mighty deeds with more ease when his beloved Iolaos watched him. It was in commemoration of their union that the Iolaeia, gymnastic and equestrian games, were celebrated in Thebes.

boy love in Ancient Greece
Marble of Hercules
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CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Editorial Board, World History of Male Love, "Homosexual Traditions", Male Love in Ancient Greece, February, 2000 <>

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