Every few months, about three quarters of a year, the press seems to cycle back to a single subject when it comes to ancient Hellas: homosexuality. Most glorify (or condemn) the ancient Hellenes for their support of it. Some--in my opinion, better informed--messages nuance the statement some by saying that, despite the artistic examples of it,there were laws against it as well. The problem is in the terminology.

Homosexuality is defined as: 'of, relating to, or characterized by a tendency to direct sexual desire toward another of the same sex', or 'of, relating to, or involving sexual activity between persons of the same sex'.

The first definition is subjective; we can't objectively know if there was genuine attraction. There certainly was appreciation for the naked form in ancient Hellas, but did that translate to attraction? The ancient Hellens were very proud of their bodies. Both men and women worked hard to retain or attain beauty. The men were warriors and athletes, women could be athletes as well. Both had the highest beauty ideals one could ever look to live up to: the Theoi themselves. There were very strict social rules about what was considered proper and improper when it came to nudity--very strict rules that dictated when nudity was permitted and where. The social rules concerning displays of the body depended on the intent of the nudity: either natural or erotic. Erotic nudity had no function in public, and was heavily frowned upon. Natural nakedness went accepted.

The second definition: we know from literary works as well as art at least men engaged in sexual activity with each other. Even if these pottery cases represent a minute percentage of the thousands of ancient Hellenic items found, there is no denying sex between men and men (and potentially women and oher women) happened. So yes, by this definition there was homosexuality. Now, here is the crux: for me personally, homosexuality is about more than the physical act of sex with someone of the same gender. What defines homosexuality for me is having a meaningful relationship with them in line with a heterosexual relationship. And that, in ancient Hellas, was very much frowned upon.

All three of the greatest Hellenic philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, regarded homosexual conduct intrinsically immoral. Plato went so far as to deny that homosexual behavior occured in nature and thus considered the practice of men (very few of the ancient philosophers ever considered or wrote about women) as especially unnatural. He actively criticised any man who looked at the male form not just as something aesthetically pleasing but sexually arousing. These believes were founded upon the following three theses:

- the commitment of a man and a woman to each other in the sexual union of marriage is intrinsically good and reasonable, and is incompatible with sexual relations outside of marriage
- homosexual acts are radically and peculiarly non-martial, and for that reason intrinsically unreasonable and unnatural.
- homosexual acts have a special similarity to solitary masturbation, and both types of radically non-martial act are manifestly unworthy of the human being and immoral

Hellenic society revolved around the household, and the household was founded upon the husband and wife. The ancient Hellenes knew of no other household foundation as this combination alone produced children. As many children died of illness, accidents and war and the continuation of the family line was one of the--if not the--most important desire and responsibility of every citizen. This was also why adultery was frowned upon so greatly: birth control was available in ancient Hellas, but rarely applied. To bring an illegitimate child into the household was a terrible offense, and one for which the male was blamed. that said, a man could only commit legally punishable adultery if he had sex with a married woman, and even then she had to be a citizen for the full punishment to be enacted upon them--often death. Husbands were free to find pleasure with any woman who was not married. As such, prostitution (with women, male prostitution was actually punishable by death) was common and men tended to have concubines. Some even lived at the house. Plato, Socrates and Aristotle were against this practice, too.

Now, the ancient Hellenes seemed to have viewed all social interactions (so male-male, female-female and even male-female interactions) not only through a gender filter but also through a power filter. Male citizens had more power than slaves, for example, and female citizens had more power than male slaves, even though women were bound by other social structures than any man was. Older men had more power than younger men and the same held true for women. Married people even had more power than unmarried people. Gender was, if you will, merely a factor in the equation of who had more power during the exchange.

The one with more power was the active party and he (or she) was to be obeyed. When it came to the law, this partner was punished less severely for a crime both partook of (like adultery)--the complete opposite of how we'd view it today. The passive party was usually younger, a slave or a woman. This power equation also dictated sexual relations. The ancient Hellenes viewed male-female relationships not solely as defined by gender that but as a relationship of active vs passive and applied that theorum to male-male (and most likely female-female) relationships as well. One partner was always the clear submissive and became, through that, the 'female' while the other always assumed the active role and through that became the 'male'. They equated any relationship that applied these roles and rejected (heavily!) any that did not. And they did not consider these relationships true relationships in a marriage sense because, as I said above, a household could not be formed around it as the union could not provide children--which was the main function of a marriage.

So if that was the case, what's with all the artwork of men giving each other gifts and having sexual intercourse? They portray a very specific type of relationship known as pederasty. Pederasty was a socially acknowledged but illegal erotic relationship between an adult male and a younger male usually in his teens, which was practiced mostly in the Archaic and Classical ages of Hellenic history. Due to the age difference and the societal function the practice served, this type of relationship was accepted and not considered homosexual. The younger partner was always the passive party and performed to role of 'woman' in the exchange, thus making it a heterosexual relationship between two men (as contradictory as that may sound).

In ancient Hellas, what mattered was the role you played in bed. The males, especially when older or higher up in the hierarchy, were supposed to be the dominant ones, the active ones, while the women, the young and those lower in the hierarchy, the passive ones. Because of the age difference and the difference in social standing, the young male assuming a passive role was permitted in pederasty, but a grown man assuming that role was a social and sexual taboo. A wife who took charge in the bedroom would have been frowned upon as well. Especially within the marriage, sex served to make babies, nothing more. Prostitutes and concubines were still supposed to assume a passive, female, role, even if they were male. Prostitutes were lower in power than citizen women, though, and they performed the lowliest and most frowned upon of sexual acts--like fellatio--that even wives were not allowed (or required) to perform. For a husband to force his wife to perform these acts would have been considered extremely shameful upon the husband.

So, to conclude this very long and complicated post: yes, men had sex with men. In that way homosexuality existed. But there were strict social and even legal rules against it and it was only barely condoned--and only under very specific circumstances. It was not an accepted practice at all. Sadly, I suppose, but not surprisingly: even today homosexuality is only barely accepted socially, let alone legally.