A friend forwarded your article on male genitalia in Greek art, and it reminded me of a discussion–OK, a near argument–I had with a friend on the sexual habits and rituals of the ancient Greeks. I read somewhere that homosexual acts among ancient Greeks were commonplace, and that one involved a ritual when a boy became a man. Supposedly the boy was anally penetrated by his father (or maybe his grandfather) to symbolize the passing on of the family seed. Can you verify this for me? –David Lyon, Memphis

Time to get the meds adjusted, pal. The ancient Greeks were pretty out there sexually, and I’ve even seen speculation about homosexual initiation rites in prehistoric times, but ritual gay incest? Gross me out of existence. At any rate there’s nothing about it in Kenneth Dover’s Greek Homosexuality (1978, revisited 1989), for now the definitive work on the subject. That said, you can see where a bizarro idea like this would arise.

Truth is, we don’t really get what was up with the ancient Greeks. Partly that’s a function of mainstream Western society’s centuries-long refusal to face the facts–namely, that sexual relations between members of the same sex, or anyway between males, were common in Greek society in those days. Even now there’s a lot we don’t know and probably won’t ever know. Though we have a seeming abundance of Greek art and literature to sift through, ancient Hellenic culture broadly understood spanned well over 1,000 years. Our knowledge of many periods and subcultures is sparse. Many texts are ambiguous. Pornographic vase paintings, it’s true, don’t leave a lot to the imagination, but much of this stuff was art of a sort and not necessarily representative of how people lived–God knows what archaeologists a couple millennia hence will make of Robert Mapplethorpe and Britney Spears.

The real handicap, though, is that little of what we think we know about sexuality now prepares us to understand what the Greeks thought about it then. Today we tend to regard sexual orientation as a binary proposition–most people are attracted to either men or women; relatively few are consistently attracted to both. What’s more, we think of sexual identity as innate and more or less immutable. It may take a while (usually in adolescence) to figure out if you’re gay or straight, but once you do, you stay that way for life.

None of this could be confidently said of the Greeks. A common practice in ancient times, at least among those men rich enough to have the time for such things, was to chase boys until you were 30 or so, then settle down with a woman and have kids. Dover cites an Athenian jury trial involving an allegation of male prostitution on the part of one Timarchus in which the prosecutor in effect argues: Look, we’ve all had the hots for young studs; I’ve gone after a few myself. But selling yourself to another man–now that’s low. Granted, the prosecutor doesn’t say he’s actually had sex with another man, but we’ve plenty of evidence from other sources seeming to indicate that many prominent Athenians (e.g., the lawgiver Solon) did just that.

Which gets us to the heart of your question. In ancient Greece the partners in a homosexual relationship, whether physically expressed or not, were rarely on an equal footing–almost invariably one partner (the erastes) was dominant, the other (the eromenos) submissive. While your idea about intrafamilial buggery is a little off-the-wall, in the typical scenario an adult male would hook up with a comely adolescent boy, mentoring him intellectually and in some though not all cases using him physically (the kid wasn’t supposed to enjoy it). Today we’d call this pederasty and condemn it as exploitative. The Greeks didn’t necessarily see it that way. While the main attraction from the senior partner’s standpoint was the physical beauty of the younger man, the goal of the erastes, at least ideally, was to earn his beloved’s affection and protect him from harm. An example commonly held up in Athens’s heyday was that of Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad, who were understood to be lovers. (Admittedly Brad Pitt didn’t bring this out very well in the movie Troy.) Achilles, who’s promised Patroclus’s dad he’d bring the kid home safely from the war, is driven berserk by grief when his significant other gets killed.

Dover suggests that homosexuality, or more precisely homoerotic attraction, was a jumping-off point for Greek philosophy. For example, Plato, an opponent of same-sex coupling, conceded that men lusted after boys, but argued that erotic desire ought to be channeled into an appreciation of the higher things. How droll to think that the Greeks’ metaphysical musings on the Good, the Beautiful, etc, may have begun with some guy sighting a naked youth at the gymnasium and thinking: Whoa, nice ass.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

Cecil Adams is the world’s most intelligent human being. We know this because: (1) he knows everything, and (2) he is never wrong. For more, see The Straight Dope website and FAQ.