Printer Friendly

New pedagogy on ancient pederasty.

IT MAY SEEM difficult to say anything new and fresh about same-sex desire and love in the ancient Greek and Roman world. After all, the publication of Sir Kenneth Dover's Greek Homosexuality in 1978, the first major publication in the English-speaking world since John Addington Symond's seminal A Problem in Greek Ethics (1901), which could only be printed privately in late Victorian England, was followed by a veritable outpouring of books and articles which continues today. Germany had already a tradition of an at times semi-covert scholarship going back well over a century before Dover, culminating in the lengthy section on the classical world in Magnus Hirschfeld's magisterial The Homosexuality of Men and Women and in the numerous writings of Hans Licht (pseudonym of the classicist Paul Brandt) on Greek pederasty. Nevertheless, it was Dover's book that brought the subject, and indeed the in-depth discussion of sexuality as a whole, out of the closet, so to speak, in classical scholarship worldwide. But, apart from refining what Dover said a quarter-century ago, have any new insights emerged?

While groundbreaking and suitably erudite, Dover's study had serious shortcomings. Most annoyingly, in his introduction, influenced probably by the neo-Freudian bias of George Devereux, who originally was slated to be his co-author, he dismissively characterized homosexuality as a subdivision of the "quasi-sexual" or "pseudo-sexual," not even bothering to explain what he meant by these terms--though in his postscript to the 1989 edition he rationalized his choice of words by saying that "sexuality" and "sexual" could by definition (his definition!) refer only to interaction between the two sexes. The basis of literary texts selected for analysis, consisting mainly of 4th century BCE courtroom speeches and the comedies of Aristophanes, was too narrow. Dover endorsed the popular view that Greek homosexuality was almost exclusively intergenerational (as illustrated, for instance, by the front cover of Thomas Scanlon's 2000 book, Eros and Greek Athletics, which shows a red-figure decoration on a late 6th-century BCE Athenian cup), adding that intercrural intercourse, in which the younger partner remained standing and unaroused and did not adopt a submissive posture, was the preferred mode of sexual contact between males. Female same-sex desire and love received only a thirteen-page section.

Although Dover's analyses of individual Greek texts and representations were often right on target, some of his more general observations were at best questionable and even ludicrous, such as the analogy he drew between the homoerotically desirable and assiduously courted boy of classical Athens and the genteel unmarried lady of 19th-century British society, who similarly finds herself being courted and who, like the Greek boy of 2300 years earlier, must calculate her response very prudently in order to preserve her respectability.

Recently, the American classical scholar Thomas Hubbard [see his feature article in this issue] in Greek and Roman Homosexuality: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents (2003), drawing from a wider range of iconographical representations than Dover did--again, mainly from Greek vase paintings of the late 6th and 5th centuries BCE--has questioned the intergenerational model. The illustration on the front cover of Hubbard's book, clearly depicts a courting scene involving two youths. His sourcebook as a whole, the first that I know of in any language, will be immensely useful to classicists and non-classicists alike.

Even more revisionist is the Dutch classicist Charles Hupperts, whose work on this subject (notably his three-volume doctoral dissertation at the University of Amsterdam followed by a popular book) will, I hope, soon be translated into English. He not only rejects the alleged predominance of the intergenerational model and the intercrural position but, even more important, disposes of the widely held notion that male homosexuality obeyed a basically pedagogical norm in Greek society and culture, namely that the older man was to guide his younger partner into the responsibilities of adult male citizenship. According to Hupperts, this is a pious fiction promoted by only a few but very influential authors of the classical Greek period, especially Xenophon and Plato. Plato in particular was eager to clean up the male eros of his day by desexualizing it and raising it to the loftiest possible heights of spirituality, as we can clearly see in his great dialogue on love, The Symposium. In fact, much of the sex that occurred between men was of the casual sort, and more durable romantic relationships were not necessarily predicated on a mentoring task awaiting the older partner. Alfred Whitehead once said that Western philosophy is but a footnote to Plato, so it remains to be seen if the world will be ready to join Hupperts in dethroning Plato as the Hellenic high priest of same-sex desire and love.

In the two decades following Dover's book, social constructionism established itself as the dominant discourse of scholars about (homo)sexuality in classical antiquity, with the American classicist David Halperin as its leading spokesperson in the English-speaking world, a position he reaffirms in his most recent collection of essays, How to Write the History of Homosexuality (2002). Halperin is still very much a disciple of one of social constructionism's founding thinkers, the late Michel Foucault. In fact, in his recent book, he claims that his earlier work was not sufficiently thought-out in light of what he now regards as Foucault's anti-theoretical and anti-dogmatic stance. In his unfinished three-volume History of Sexuality (1978), Foucault did not set out, in Halperin's view, to trace a history of discourses about sexuality--a virtually impossible task anyway, even when confined to a roughly historical framework of progression from ancient Greece to the modern West. Instead, he sought to chart a phenomenology of erotic desire. Perhaps we should follow Halperin in reorienting our thinking about Foucault, who certainly never pretended to be a social historian or historian of ideas, but did have a unique way of grasping what the French would call a culture's mentalite. Despite a few skewed generalizations and an unrelentingly androcentric perspective, the second volume in particular of his History, which deals with classical Greece of the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, contains some brilliant insights into Greek men's perceptions of sexuality and how they intermeshed with ideas about health, self-discipline, and beauty.

Halperin has not entirely abandoned his quasi-feminist ideology of near-victimization model of Greek pederasty, according to which the younger partner could not have derived, or was not at all expected to derive, any sexual pleasure himself from the relationship. He continues to draw a sharp distinction--a questionable one, in my view--between "sexual subjectivity," which refers to sexual orientation or tastes, and "sexual morphology," referring to a person's conformity or nonconformity to prevailing social norms of gender-appropriate behavior. In works as different as Aristophanes' comedies and Juvenal's satires, there is an overlap between these two categories. In Juvenal's Satires II, Roman men who are sexually attracted to adult men but affect an extremely "butch" exterior and comportment are castigated for the hypocrisy of concealing their secretly womanish dispositions and tastes. In Aristophanes (as Tom Hubbard has shown), reflecting the prejudices of the Athenian lower classes, the aristocratic pederast can still be ridiculed for hints of effeminacy.

One notable development is that women's same-sex relationships in the classical world are finally getting their due. The poetry of Sappho has long been canonical, and rightly so; but even apart from the fact that only a minuscule portion of her work has survived, there has been a pressing need to search out other areas for fruitful scholarship. A major breakthrough came in 1996 with the publication of Bernadette Brootens's Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism, which examined not only early Christianity but also the Jewish and pre-Christian Greco-Roman worlds, casting its net wide so as to include all kinds of literary and documentary texts, as well as some visual representations, that had hitherto been passed over.

The recently published collection, Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World (2002), edited by Nancy Rabinowitz and Lisa Auanger, carries the torch even further. As the title suggests, the affection and eros of women for one another cannot be compartmentalized into nonsexual and sexual categories. This is the fundamental insight guiding the contributors, and brings some intriguing archeological and art-historical material into the discussion. Can such an approach lead to glaringly subjective and biased interpretations? In response to accusations of this sort, one of the contributors, the American classicist Marilyn Skinner, rightly comments: "When students even refuse to entertain an erotic interpretation of a relationship between women, it is often a sign of homophobic resistance."

On a final note: For serious and illuminating studies of the iconography of (homo)sex and love in ancient Rome, subject matter long consigned to the sensationalism and superficiality of the typical coffee-table book, we are indebted now to John R. Clarke's Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 B.C-A.D. 250 (1998) and Roman Sex, 100 B.C.-AD 250 (2003). The latter, among others, proves to my satisfaction that the famous Warren Cup with its gorgeously sensual and explicit scenes of male lovemaking is indeed authentically Augustan and not a 19th-century forgery.

It's a pleasure to see that far-reaching reconsiderations and understandings of same-sex desire and love in Greco-Roman antiquity have been emerging over the past few years. The most striking have an almost postmodern ring in their questioning of the rigidity of sexual roles and practices in the ancient world. Perhaps we are witnessing the beginnings of the making of a more complex and nuanced consensus.

Beert Verstraete is professor of Classics at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gay & Lesbian Review, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Essay
Author:Verstraete, Beert
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Date:May 1, 2004
Previous Article:The varieties of Greek love.
Next Article:Something about Mary.

Related Articles
Greek Pederasty Revisited.
The French have a Word for it--At Last! (Books).
Same-sex desire and love in Greco-Roman antiquity and in the classical tradition of the West.
An age old struggle; The World Today.
Just how sexy were the Greeks?
Images of ancient Greek pederasty; boys were their gods.
Return Trip to Pederastia.
The ins and outs of Greek Pederasty.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters