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Amorous Sexuality in Ancient Greece

( Originally Published 1957 )

Homosexual behavior among the Greeks exhibited two distinctly different forms, as shown in a study by J. A. Symonds. There was a "noble and a base, a spiritual and a sensual" type of interest. The sensual form was not, he believes, native to the Greeks, but was rather an import from oriental sources. This commoner variety of homosexuality he treats briefly: "Vice of this kind does not vary to any great extent, whether we observe it in Athens or in Rome, in Florence of the 16th Century or in Paris of the 19th . . ." (58) But among the classical Greeks a new and distinctive kind of masculine love arose, which he feels may be contrasted sharply with the more widely familiar form. This paiderastia, or "boy-love," was "almost unique in the history of the human race." While conceding that it was not unmixed with a sensual element, Symonds is emphatic that these passionate liaisons between man and youth contained very much more than this. Far beyond a mere sensual interest, such relationships were "real and vital": "The effect produced upon the lover by the presence of his beloved was similar to that inspiration which the knight of romance received from his lady."

The parallel between "Greek love" and amorous romanticism of the Middle Ages is close, in Symonds' opinion. They were, he believes, of the same emotional origin: there is no small resemblance between the spiritual passion of Dante for Bea-trice, and the homosexual love idealized by Plato. "Plato called love a `mania,' an inspired frenzy. Among the chivalrous lovers of Provence, this high rapture received the name of 'Joy.'

Plato's description of the lover in the `Phaedrus' exactly squares with this romantic ideal of the knight's enthusiasm. The permanent emotion . . . is precisely the same in quality; and whether the object which stirred it was a young man as in Greece, or a married woman as in medieval Europe, signified nothing."

Greek homosexuality grew out of military comradeship, in Symonds' view. It may have come, he thinks, from the warlike Dorians, among whom "heroic friendships" developed during their campaigns. With much time spent together, and with few women, strong attachments between men arose. "In these conditions the paiderastic passion may well have combined manly virtue with carnal appetite, adding such romantic sentiment as some stern men reserve within their hearts for women." (61) Military comradeship, or "masculine love" of this kind was linked with virile qualities, and was far removed from any sort of effeminacy. Whatever its origins, Symonds believes that the feelings expressed were closely akin to, if not identical with, the romantic sentiments more commonly seen in heterosexual love.

Edward Carpenter, writing of military "boy-love," points out that the label is a poor one, since the younger member must have been old enough to bear arms. While the difference in age might have been large in some instances, in others, he thinks, it may have been slight. Carpenter remarks also that while such loves were regarded as usually including some "physical passion," the place of this ingredient might be small or large. This feature would confirm the similarity to the attraction between man and woman.

Qualities of personality were of high importance among the traits regarded as attractive in masculine attachments. The Cretans, according to Carpenter's sources, set courage and modesty above the physical charms of a desirable youth. Symonds stresses the esteem with which mental alertness, a valorous spirit, hardihood, and self-discipline were held by the Greeks.

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