9 March, 2009Issue 8.7HistoryPhilosophy

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The Riot and Its Aftermath

Chris M. Sheppard

greeksJames Davidson
The Greeks and Greek Love:
A Radical Reappraisal of Homosexuality in Ancient Greece

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007
656 pages
£30.00
ISBN 978-0297819974


Warwick Classics scholar James Davidson’s The Greeks and Greek Love (2007) poses a radical challenge to prominent assumptions about same-sex love in ancient Greece. Countering the dominant conception whereby ancient Greek sexuality was defined by penetration, active and passive roles and pederasty, Davidson argues that same-sex love is especially “knotty”, diverse and contextual.

A number of classicists and cultural historians have welcomed Davidson’s book as an important and provocative study that will influence academic discussion. For others, notably Classics professor Thomas Hubbard of the University of Texas at Austin, Davidson’s alternative claims are too radical, misrepresentative of original texts, and even “sensational”. As Professor Simon Goldhill said in his Times Higher Education review, the book “will be read by many people, and I predict a riot”.

Davidson’s polemic is targeted at scholars who present an overly narrow conception of Greek love. In the latter half of the 20th century, an emphasis on the sexual nature of Greek love besieged classical scholarship in a phenomenon that Davidson calls “sodomania”. This obsession with eroticism was reflected in the academic language used to describe Greek relationships: the active, and usually older “subject” who desired sex is the erastes (“lover”), while the younger, passive “object” of the erastes is the eromenos (“beloved”; a linguistically tidy dualism since eromenos is formally a passive participle). Such scholarly language contributed to a picture of Greek sexual relations as essentially pederastic.

Who are the main culprits of such an approach to Greek love? Two ostensibly opposed thinkers: Sir Kenneth Dover, a Classical scholar concerned with detail and precision in revealing truth, and Michel Foucault, a poststructuralist philosopher keen to show that what we perceive as “truth” is in fact a disguised manifestation of power conditioned by historical discourses. Davidson makes the compelling—and no doubt controversial—claims that Foucault failed to see through Dover’s own “historicising” when he conceived of Greek love in terms of power, and that Foucault draws an uncharacteristically “Christian” distinction between love and sex. In this way, “the tragedy of M. Foucault” produces a bizarre conceptual alliance with Dover, for both scholars see the “truth” of Greek sex as its function as a vehicle for power.

For Davidson, this view reduces love to sex, thereby “trivialising” same-sex relationships. His attack here is sound and persuasive, based on a deft illustration of the diversity and richness of the language of love in ancient Greece. In contrast to notions of sex-crazed Greeks, Davidson argues for an understanding of ancient Greece in which same-sex relationships could include love. His point here is not to champion intimacy at the expense of sex—for that would be reductionism in another form—but rather, to explore how love and sex overlapped in complicated ways.

Davidson also challenges the idea that pederasty was universal in Greek sexual relationships (“pederasty” being a compound of pais, “boy”, and eran, “to love”). He notes the difficulty of measuring age precisely, arguing that in Athens the same word pais could be used for someone 18 or 19 and therefore “legal”, but also for someone under 18 and therefore “untouchable” by today’s standards. The uncertainty of these distinctions renders the term “pederasty” anachronistic: their pais and ours do not match up. Davidson, however, finds himself on shakier ground when he implies that it was universally forbidden for adults to sexually mingle with their youthful counterparts. Here the evidence seems to evade straightforward interpretation, and even if such laws were clearly defined, there were surely cases when citizens transgressed the laws and customs of their society.

Having mounted these objections to the predominant picture of sex in Greek love, Davidson devotes much of the book to expanding on neglected aspects of same-sex relationships: love, reciprocity and intimacy. He examines relationships in a wide range of contexts, from the myth of Zeus and Ganymede, to religious cults, to “men of war”, such as Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad, along with an informative section of Sappho and female homoeroticism (about which evidence on the whole is regrettably thin). Davidson’s basic arguments here are actually less radical than they might seem, for this is by no means the first time that homoeroticism has been suggested for mythical pairs such as Achilles and Patroclus.

However, Davidson’s accounts of homophilic relationships are occasionally pushed too far and often raise more questions than they answer. Achilles and Patroclus’s relationship may well have been intimately homoerotic, but, as Oliver Taplin noted in his review for the Guardian, this reading must contend with book nine in the Iliad, where both heroes sleep with women. This complexity raises the issue of “sexuality”, which Davidson leaves rather ambiguous (were Achilles and Patroclus in any sense “bisexual”?). On the one hand, he is appropriately cautious in applying anachronistic terminology such as “homosexuality” to the ancients. On the other hand, his analysis implies that the notion of “sexuality” applies, at least in part, to ancient Greece, even though many have suggested that the idea of “sexuality” as we interpret it today arose in the modern era. Davidson is clearly critical of the claim that the Greeks had no conception of homosexuality, but he fails to elucidate and move beyond this provocative suggestion.

In the end, Davidson’s book is not the last word on any of these complex subjects. But it raises the tone of discussion of the “knotty” topic and provides many new, nuanced—not, as Hubbard would have, sensational—insights. Readers may quibble about Davidson’s more interpretative arguments or suggest that we cannot, ultimately, reconstruct ancient views of homophilia. While these concerns are justified, Davidson has succeeded in illustrating how easily fettered we are if we do not continue to challenge and refine our modern views of the ancients. This book shows that a broad approach which considers the Greeks on their own terms and allows for diversity is fruitful. We can no longer take dominant definitions of Greek sex for granted.

Chris M. Sheppard is reading for an MPhil in Classical Languages and Literature at Merton College, Oxford.