The Varieties of Greek Love

Published in: May-June 2004 issue.

IT IS OFTEN ASSUMED that same-gender relationships followed a stereotypical pattern and set of protocols in ancient society. In classical Greece this would take the form of pedagogical pederasty associating a man (usually before the age of marriage) and a freeborn boy, while in Rome it would take the form of a merely physical relationship between a Roman citizen and a young slave. However, the texts reveal a much wider diversity of relationships in both cultures in terms of both the ages and status of the participants. While these “non-normative” deviations were sometimes attacked as eccentric or inappropriate, even the “normative” forms of same-gender involvement were treated with hostility by certain sources. What the evidence does establish is that a variety of behaviors did occur with sufficient frequency to be worthy of notice, even if disapprobatory.

Greek homosexual activity, despite popular misconceptions, was not restricted to man-boy pairs. Vase painting shows numerous scenes where there is little or no apparent difference in age between the young wooer and his object of courtship, as well as graphic scenes of sexual experimentation among youths. Early lyric poets such as Theognis and Pindar make it clear that youths were attracted to and could sleep with other youths of the same age:

In youth you can sleep the night through with an age-mate,
Unloading the desire for lusty action…
Theognis 1063-64

Boy, since the goddess Cypris gave you a lusty
Grace, and your beauty’s every boy’s concern…
Theognis 1319-20

I expect by my songs to make the crowned Hippocleas
Still more splendid to look upon both among his age-mates and
older men,
And a heartthrob for young maids. For
Different loves tickle the fancies of different folks.
Pindar, Pythian 10.57-60

Greek Vase 1Plato tells us that the young Charmides’ beauty provoked the admiration and love of everyone present, even the youngest boys (Charmides 154). In the Phaedrus (240), Socrates quotes the proverb “youth desires youth” to imply that young men would prefer companions of their own age to older lovers. Xenophon shows Critobulus in love with Cleinias, a youth of the same age or perhaps even a bit older (Symposium 4.23). Timarchus’ lover Misgolas appears to be the same age (Aeschines, Timarchus 49). Meleager attests that boys continued to be attractive to boys in the Hellenistic period (“Delicate Diodorus, casting a flame upon his young age-mates”), and Quintilian worries about older boys corrupting younger boys in Roman schools. If interpretations of Alcman’s Maidens’ Song as a ritualized lesbian betrothal are correct, the two young women paired in that performance appear to be age-equal, in which case female homoeroticism also did not always conform to the age-differential stereotype.

Although a youth’s attractiveness was thought by many to cease with the growth of his beard and body hair, the window of attraction varied to some degree according to individual preferences. The youths named as men’s favorites in Athenian oratory are all meirakia, a term generally used of those in the 18-to-21 age group. Many philosophers, including Plato, Zeno, and Lucian, in fact preferred older youths who were capable of a higher level of intellectual engagement. The early Stoics, notably Zeno, thought that a suitable beloved could be as old as 28. Plutarch suggests in Lycurgus that Spartan youths might still have lovers up to the age of thirty. Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics 8.4.1) claims that relationships based on love of character often continued after the loss of the beloved’s youthful beauty. Xenophon reports that Menon, the Thessalian general, had a bearded beloved. Similarly, Philostratus praises his beloved’s beard. In the Hellenistic period, some lovers swore continued attraction even well into their loved one’s adulthood, according to Strato, while others preferred boys as young as twelve—which, in view of the difference in age of pubertal onset between antiquity and now, would probably correspond to a modern ten- or eleven-year-old. In Roman times, we have more than one account of soldiers being the object of sexual attention by superior officers. The elderly emperor Galba is said to have preferred mature and masculine men, according to Suetonius, and Nero supposedly “married” a freed gladiator named Doryphorus. However, other wealthy Romans are reported to have had their favorite slaves castrated in order to maintain their youthful appearance artificially.

The fact that some youths continued to take the part of the beloved even after reaching full physical maturity raises the question whether it was because they preferred the passive role and took pleasure in it. Medical texts certainly recognized that some men did so. Aristophanes invokes the tragic poet Agathon as the paradigm of a man wGreek Vase 2ho cultivated a youthful and even feminine appearance in order to remain sexually attractive to other adult men. Later biographical sources report that he was the life-long companion of Pausanias, another character in Plato’s Symposium. The comic poet Theopompus suggests that Agathon was not the only such character. However, excessive concern with maintaining an attractive appearance was not necessarily a sign of sexual passivity, but could also have been meant to make an active pederast more appealing to boys, as suggested by Pherecrates’ effeminate perfume seller and Xenophon’s Critobulus. Indeed, plays such as Aristophanes’ Knights and Clouds show characters alternating between active and passive roles, suggesting that the dividing line between lover and beloved was perhaps not always so distinct: compare Strato’s epigrams, written in the time of the emperor Hadrian, where boys are imagined taking both an active and passive role simultaneously.

In the Roman period we hear from a variety of texts about adult men who preferred the passive role. The comic poets and satirists tell us that there were actually male prostitutes who specialized in taking the active role in anal sex for the benefit of such men. Martial refers to a man who uses his slave for the same purpose. Seneca tells us that one Hostius Quadra set up a room full of distorting mirrors to make the organs of men penetrating his various bodily orifices appear larger. The desire to be penetrated is often associated with playing a woman’s role: the emperors Nero and Elagabalus are both reported to have pretended they were female in the company of their masculine favorites. Ovid ridicules husbands who are more hairless than their wives, out of a desire to attract other men; the comic poet Novius tells us of men who depilate their buttocks to smooth the way. An invective poem attributed to Vergil (Catalepton 13.19-22) associates ritual transvestism at the Cotyttia with sexual passivity; Apuleius (Metamorphoses 8.24-29) narrates a story about effeminate eunuch priests of Cybele who lure a young peasant into their midst and then force him to be serviced orally by the whole troupe.

One should not necessarily assume from the number of references that such behavior was more common in Rome than it was in Greece. It may be that sexual passivity on the part of free citizen males was even more offensive to Roman sensibilities, for which it was not even acceptable in free youths, and hence became a potent satirical topos for moral disorder and inversion of values, as is suggested by the uniformly hostile tone of the sources.

Greek and Latin shared a distinctive term that encompassed such men: the Greek kinaidos or the Latin cinaedus. It may have been used as early as the 7th-century BCE poet Archilochus. Its first certain attestations in Aristophanes (Clouds 448 and Birds 429) are not distinctly sexual; it just appears as one of many terms of abuse for rascality. But by the 4th century its meaning is more specific: the orator Aeschines accuses Demosthenes of being one, and Plato has Socrates refer to their life as “terrible and shameful and to be pitied” (Gorgias 494C-495A). The exact meaning of the word is, however, still disputed. While some Roman texts clearly associate it with sexual passivity, Martial associates it with eunuchs, and other texts with adulterers. Cicero says of Verres that he was “masculine among women and an unchaste little lady among men.” Similar statements were made concerning Julius Caesar, suggesting that homosexual passivity and heterosexual promiscuity were not inconsistent. The astrological writer Firmicus Maternus associates the word with effeminate men who are actors and dancers, but makes it clear that they may be either married heterosexuals or pederasts. It therefore seems unwise to limit the term kinaidos or cinaedus to the sexually passive: its range seems potentially to include anyone who is perceived as sexually excessive or deviant. In translating these texts in my reader of Greek and Roman sources, I have adopted the somewhat unsatisfactory translation “pervert,” as this English word combines the same vagueness of reference with an equally strong element of censure and disapproval. The cinaedi as a group are too often mentioned to be merely imaginary projections, however embroidered with fiction each individual story may be. Antiquity, like our own society, had its share of sexual dissidents and nonconformists.

Further selections from the text of Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents, along with a wide array of visual images, may be found at:


Thomas K. Hubbard, professor of classics at the Univ. of Texas, Austin, is the editor of Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents, from whose “Introduction” this piece is adapted.