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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. photo a7601a95-f0fa-4c91-a4a5-60274fa98d1c_zps53e0c487.jpg
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:

In upcoming weeks, I know I want to discuss the Albigensian heresy, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the scholars Avicenna, Averroes and Moses ben Maimon, but that leaves two diaries open. Anything between the beginnings of Rome and 1492 you'd particularly like to know my take on?

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.

Originally posted to History for Kossacks on Sat Feb 22, 2014 at 05:00 AM PST.

Also republished by California politics and Remembering LGBT History.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Pedophillia should never be marginalized, and the (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    fact that it occurred prominently thousands of years ago, at a time when human sacrifice was prominent among various cultures, demonstrates how society has evolved from then to now.

    An older man would choose a teenager as a special favorite, in many cases engaging him in sexual relations

    “Well, when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” Richard Nixon, 1977.

    by Kvetchnrelease on Sat Feb 22, 2014 at 05:24:03 AM PST

    •  This wasn't pedophilia, strictly defined (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Ojibwa, slksfca, RiveroftheWest

      Pedophilia is limited by definition to prepubescent children. Teenager signifies post-pubescent. I understand that it's dangerous here to get into the whole subject of "consent" so I'll stay away from it.

      •  Structural significance or social construction are (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        terms implying that certain human traits, e.g. pedophilia, are controlled by social agents and that the attitude that we take toward pedophilia is partly constitutive of the phenomenon and derivative of the language used to express it, just as you suggest in the use of the term homesexual during the period you describe. Where are you going with this in a classroom setting? this same argument has been used to support the notion that there is no such thing as race.

        “Well, when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” Richard Nixon, 1977.

        by Kvetchnrelease on Sat Feb 22, 2014 at 06:51:08 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Well, here we walk a fine line, don't we? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dave in Northridge

    We modern, cosmopolitan, informed, open-minded people want human sexual expression to be vibrant and diverse. We also want it to be consensual.

    What's described in this passage, about ancient Greece, might raise some red flags:

    An older man would choose a teenager as a special favorite, in many cases engaging him in sexual relations.

    It's here they got the range/ and the machinery for change/ and it's here they got the spiritual thirst. --Leonard Cohen

    by karmsy on Sat Feb 22, 2014 at 07:07:12 AM PST

    •  should I unpublish this? (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      karmsy, Ojibwa, RiveroftheWest

      I really wanted to talk about why this was all attributed to Sparta. Now, I have a discussion of what the textbook says going on.

      I guess it's been long enough since I wrote one of these that I forgot how they work.

      •  I don't think you should un-publish your diary. (3+ / 0-)

        For obvious reasons, though, you do NOT want LBGT sexuality associated with non-consensual sex. We have plenty of that garbage from the terrified, homophobic, meme-makers of the RW already.

        It's pretty clear to me that what you are aiming to do here is to start a discussion. Maybe insert a note or disclaimer in your diary, before this and other passages about this power imbalance?

        It's here they got the range/ and the machinery for change/ and it's here they got the spiritual thirst. --Leonard Cohen

        by karmsy on Sat Feb 22, 2014 at 07:44:37 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  As lifelong student of history (7+ / 0-)

        I found your diary very interesting. I don't know enough about Greek history to comment or discuss your thoughts but hope to read  the thoughts of those who do later in the day.

        Often in these times we live in a belief echo chamber we think our current opinions of how things should be are facts written in stone for all time. The fact is in the not to distant past the age of consent was far younger than it is today. Life spans were shorter and 18 was middle age. Children grew up much faster.

        My own great grandmother graduated 8th grade at 13 was teaching in a one room school in South Dakota at 14 and married at 15. My Grandmother was born when she was 17. My great grandfather was 5 years older than her thus would have been violating the law as it is now. But that is how life was then and that was not all that long ago compared the the period of history you are discussing here.

        I do hope you will get more discussion along the lines you are hoping for. I for one would find it very educational.

        If I have learned anything over the years both from history and my rather extensive travels it is that the facts of life are just a set beliefs that we all agree on. The age of consent is currently 18, should science someday find a way to extend the human life span those who come after us could decide that kids don't get a brain until they are 30 and could just as easily be having this discussion bout us.

        Cheers, and thank you for teaching me something about ancient Greek society. I seem to have slept through it during college..............

        It is the heart that makes a man rich. He is rich according to what he is not what he has -Henry Ward Beecher

        by PSWaterspirit on Sat Feb 22, 2014 at 08:49:56 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  The Spartan focus ignores all of the adult (2+ / 0-)

        same-sex couples, maybe Thebes or Persia would be better. ;-) The question regarding Sparta is was this the only form gay relationships took, and, for all of Greece of that age, why was it a young man's game.

        The answer, iirc, including in Athens, was that youthful dalliance was fine, as was intercourse with slaves, but for most males, there came an age when they were supposed to put aside their youthful ways, get married and settle down. Of course, the marriage bed was not in a cell, and a moderate amount of fooling around continued, and some, of course, never bought into the "adult" life.

        That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

        by enhydra lutris on Sat Feb 22, 2014 at 12:19:31 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  You've dipped your toe into a fascinating subject. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dave in Northridge

    Though I'm not sure a majority of readers would be able to get past the ickiness of man/boy love. Anyway, I enjoyed reading, even if the diary struck me as rather a tease. ;-)

    Also want to give a shout-out to the Sacred Band of Thebes.

    There are, in every age, new errors to be rectified, and new prejudices to be opposed. ~Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

    by slksfca on Sat Feb 22, 2014 at 09:41:13 AM PST

  •  I heard Athenians considered Xenophon weird (2+ / 0-)

    because he stuck to women only and never even tried boys/men. Don't know if it's true, but ironic if it is.

    Then of course he went gadding about in Persian territory, and they decided he was REALLY weird. (The Anabasis has been recycled in many other historical, science fiction, and fantasy novels.)

    If it's
    Not your body,
    Then it's
    Not your choice
    And it's
    None of your damn business!

    by TheOtherMaven on Sat Feb 22, 2014 at 04:21:32 PM PST

  •  Great diary! I have a request for another . . . (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dave in Northridge

    I remembered that Constantine was the first Emperor to punish homosexuality. (I just looked it up and found he started in 342.)

    Why so long after the Council of Nicaea? Perhaps you could trace the trend from acceptance to persecution from 326 to 342, culminating with that first castration.

    Keep it up!

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