Spring Semester started at the beginning of last week, and I'm teaching California History again. This fulfills the promise I made to you when I suspended this series in mid-October of last year that I would resume it when the new semester started. I looked at what I wrote last semester, and it appears that I've covered the first six weeks already, so I won't have to pick up on California again until April 5. That means that I get to write about some of the things I found fascinating in my Western Civ to 1600 course for the next few weeks until we "catch up", as it were.
So today, some thoughts on how textbooks treat homosexuality in ancient Greece. As a refresher, and for those of you who didn't read the first series of diaries on California history, this diary on the career of the progressive attorney and writer Carey McWilliams is a good place to begin, because I included some of the material from this diary in my opening remarks February 10.
Now, Ancient Greece. I was thrown into this course with a book someone else had ordered, and it wasn't a bad book overall. It did a good job with the things I hoped it would, like the differentiation between the Eastern and Western Roman Empire and the intellectual flowering of Moorish Spain in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. That was good because the last time I went into any of this material in depth was in a Renaissance/Reformation class I took in the 1969/70 academic year. Stuff before the Common Era? Try the fall of 1967. So I was learning at the same time my students were, just a day ahead of them (or sometime three hours ahead of them).
Now, we know that the ancient Greeks were no strangers to men having sex with each other. As early as the Iliad with the story of Achilles and Patroclus. So this is some thing that a good textbook has to deal with. And yes, in the index: Homosexuals and homosexuality in Greece, 64-65, 69; Spartan boys and, 64-65. The bulk of the issue is discussed under the heading Spartan Communal Life. There are a couple of references to the idea that this was happening elsewhere in Greece:
Numerous Greek city-states included this form of homosexuality among their customs, although some made it illegal. This physical relationship could be controversial; the Athenian author Xenophon (c. 430-355 B.C.E.) wrote a work on the Spartan way of life denying that sex with boys existed there because he thought it a stain on the Spartans' reputation for virtue. However, other sources testify that such relationships did exist in Sparta and elsewhere.On page 69, we have a brief discussion of Sappho, the lyric poet from Lesbos. Very matter-of-fact that she was writing about loving another woman.
So, what are the issues here. First, which city-states made it illegal and which didn't? Which city-states are included in "elsewhere"? We know that Athens was part of "elsewhere" because we went to the Getty Villa before the semester started and we took some pictures.
It's a wine cup (a kylix) and it's Athenian, 510-500 B.C.E. The card at the Getty suggests that the affection could be mutual.
But there's more to it than that, and for the "more," I turn to David Halperin and a book, How to do the History of Homosexuality. At the outset, he observes that
Everyone who reads an ancient Greek text, and certainly anyone who studies ancient Greek culture, quickly realizes that the ancient Greeks were quite weird, by our standards, when it came to sex.The rest of the book includes his attempts to determine if they really WERE weird. This, of course, is shorthand. His first stab at this was in a book, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (1989) in which he said absolutely NOT the same thing, because social construction and nobody even USED the term "homosexual" until the second half of the nineteenth century, and then, in quick succession, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick published The Epistemology of the Closet (confession: I haven't read much of it and I guess this has to be one of my next projects) which complicated his thinking and drove him to Foucault, and meanwhile Larry Kramer, in The Normal Heart, and Queer Nation referred to our forebears, the Greeks, and Halperin set off in THIS book to attempt to find continuities between the Greek experience of eros and ours as gay men today.
He's still conflicted about calling what the Greeks did "homosexuality" but he acknowledges that it's old. Besides Achilles and Patroclus, we have Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, David and Jonathan in the book of Samuel and the public displays of affection between England's James I and his male courtiers. That's one of four categories of male sex and gender deviance he identifies as "pre-homosexual", by which he means our current understanding of what homosexuality is. The others, beside friendship/male love, are effeminacy, paederasty or "active" sodomy, and passivity/inversion. His conclusion?
[I]t's no longer clear . . . what their structural significance is in fashioning contemporary lesbian or gay male sexualities.It's the same, but it's different.
It's complicated -- too complicated to present in an introductory course about the origins of Western Civilization at 8 AM. I presented the issue as part of my discussion of Spartan society at the end of a Tuesday lecture and then at the start of my Thursday lecture I showed them the kylix. That was as complicated as I wanted to get. Incidentally, despite all of the condemnations of homosexuality, and of sexuality in general, in the letters Saul of Tarsus wrote in his effort to market Christianity, no state or government made male homosexuality illegal until the Code of Justinian did so in the year 529.
For your patience, here's a Bell-Krater with a Chariot Race in the Pythian Games (early 4th Country, B.C.E) from the collection that William Randolph Hearst gave to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art:
UPDATE: I guess I should not have stayed out of a whole bunch of diaries a while back. Pedophilia applies to pre-pubescent children, which is why, when discussing ancient Greek practices, the young men involved are referred to as teenagers. NOT prepubescent. The term for this is ephebophilia, derived from the Greek ἔφηβος, meaning "one arrived at puberty." This is not meant to be an open thread on pedophilia, because this is not ABOUT pedophilia.
As for pedophilia and gay men, here's a website from the psychology department at UC Davis and here's one from the Southern Poverty Law center. The net?
Members of disliked minority groups are often stereotyped as representing a danger to the majority's most vulnerable members.UPDATE #2: Since what the textbook said (incidentally, The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures, Vol. 1, Lynn Hunt et al.) has some distracting material in it, I'm just keeping the parts I wanted you to notice in what I'm trying to do. You can tell what I took out from my first update and from the comments.