The Higher Sodomy
The Australian's Review of Books
re-titled by the editor as "The Remains of the Gay"
In April 1895, towards the end of the first of his two trials for acts of gross indecency with another male person, Oscar Wilde made a famous speech in which he defended love between men as the noblest of attachments, a love "such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy". The speech was so eloquent and powerful that, when he finished, the gallery of the Old Bailey burst into applause. The trial produced a hung jury and it took a second to convict him and send him to prison. Wilde's lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, later complained: "Had I the good fortune to live in Athens in the time of Pericles, the very conduct which at present has led to my disgrace would then have resulted in my glory."
The idea that the ancient Greeks regarded homosexuality as something noble had been introduced to Wilde at Oxford where Plato's dialogues had been elevated to the principal texts of the reformed course in the humanities. This curriculum, known as Greats, interpreted Plato as arguing in his dialogues, the Republic, Symposium and Phaedrus, that male affection for men is the highest form of love when it procreates ideas, especially when it generates the creative arts, engages in philosophy and discusses the proper ordering of society. Moreover, Plato was read as endorsing pederasty in his discussion of how an older man could be smitten with admiration for the beauty and grace of a boy, whom he would take into his household as his pupil.
The original Oxford Hellenist, Benjamin Jowett, had insisted in the 1860s that Platonic love was a strictly intellectual and spiritual affair that had no carnal dimension. But by the time Wilde arrived at the university in 1874, there were tutors such as the poet Walter Pater arguing that Platonic love was not a figure of speech, as Jowett had maintained, but was grounded in the sexual conduct of ancient Greece. Against the Christian belief that physical relations between men were unnatural, Pater and his followers said the Greeks allowed us to see homosexuality and pederasty as nature undeformed.
While the Hellenistic movement held sway in the humanities at Oxford, the medical profession was at the same time developing psycho-therapy into a speciality. In England, this led Havelock Ellis to define homosexual activity as a form of sexual pathology. On the Continent, Sigmund Freud agreed, acidly dismissing the invocation of the names of Plato and Socrates as "the higher sodomy". Eventually, the medical definition was the one that prevailed, while the Hellenistic interpretation suffered a similar fate to Wilde, and was publicly rejected and disgraced.
The Oxford reading of Plato was not propagated widely again until the gay liberation movement of the 1970s when K.J. Dover's book Greek Homosexuality sparked a revival. Dover was soon followed by a number of writers including David Halperin, John J. Winkler, Eva Cantarella, Martha Nussbaum and Michel Foucault. Though all endorsed gay liberation, their interpretation was not confined to liberal notions like the removal of discrimination against homosexuality. It was more concerned with using the Greek example to redefine the very nature of human sexuality.
Foucault argued that there is nothing in human nature as fixed or certain as what we moderns call heterosexuality or homosexuality. Nature made us androgynous creatures but in the modern era we have accepted more limited sexual preferences because of the dictates of "discourse" or ideology. In The Uses of Pleasure, volume two of his History of Sexuality, Foucault says the ancient Greeks were more in tune with their natural instincts. Greek men, Foucault claims, were bisexual and "could, simultaneously or in turn, be enamoured of a boy or a girl
To their way of thinking, what made it possible to desire a man or a woman was simply the appetite that nature had implanted in man's heart for "beautiful" human beings, whatever their sex might be."
All these writers agreed that the Greeks were indifferent to same sex relations, and indeed considered them perfectly normal. The only restriction was that the participants had to observe certain protocols and conventions. In the case of "boy love", the custom was that the boy had to be courted and play hard to get, that his reputation be protected and that he not receive any money. Several of these writers agreed the boy should not be anally penetrated -- the most an older man could do was rub his penis between the boy's thighs, as depicted in scenes on some ancient Greek vases -- but others, such as Eva Cantarella in Bisexuality in the Ancient World, claimed that "anal penetration was normal in pederastic relationships".
The two books reviewed here  are major revisions of the Oxford interpretation and its more recent successors. Both are revisions in two senses: they relegate homosexuality from the social norm in the ancient world to the pursuit of a minority; and they offer radically alternative accounts of the Greek understanding of sex and human nature.
James Davidson defines his book, Courtesans and Fishcakes, as an account of what the Greeks, in particular the Athenians, thought and said about the pleasures of the flesh. His focus is on the "classical" period, 479-323 BC, and he is especially keen to rectify what he sees as an extraordinary gap in our knowledge of ancient culture, the lack of understanding of Greek heterosexuality. One of his major targets is Michel Foucault whose study, he points out, has very little on women at all and gives the impression the Greeks were much more interested in boys. Foucault was victim of what Davidson calls a "Platonic mirage" by basing his work so heavily on the philosophical dialogues and largely neglecting the wealth of source material in literature and the arts, especially comedy, oratory and vase paintings.
Davidson also wants to undermine the long-standing, popular theory (derived from both Freud and de Beauvoir) that the Greeks inhabited a binary consciousness that divided the world into two parts, Us and Them. This had led to the "absurd oversimplification" that Us were the male citizens who ruled the polity and wrote the texts, and Them were the Other, slaves, women and barbarians. The theory cast Us as the sexual penetrators while Them are the penetrated. The status of Athenian wives was claimed to be little better than that of slaves while the slaves themselves, whatever their sex, were also vehicles for the satisfaction of their masters' lustful predilections.
However, the means Davidson chooses to shed an alternative light on the real nature of Greek heterosexuality is hardly up to the task. Rather than examining the assumptions and practices involved in Greek marriage, which the culture required of all citizens, his principal concern is to describe the market in commercial heterosexuality, that is, of the status and availability of various types of prostitutes and other women making a living from sex outside marriage. He shows there were numerous gradations between the miserable life of the prostitute soliciting on the streets on the edge of the city, and the comfortable existence of the most successful courtesans, who could encroach upon the territory of the legitimate family. He establishes the social status of the hetaera, women who could be hired for lengthy periods of time, or installed in a household as a mistress, or who were often found serving drinks and providing sexual favours at the otherwise all-male symposia described by Plato.
Unfortunately for Davidson, some of his evidence actually counts against his own thesis. He records, for instance, discussions about men who cohabit with hetaeras not merely as a supplement to marriage, but as a substitute for it. He offers one Athenian account of a man with a haetera as full-time mistress who was condemned by his relatives for having "brought ruin to all of us". She was a source of acute family embarrassment, "recklessly vaunting herself at our expense". Yet if the hetaera was as widely accepted as Davidson makes out, how could cohabitation with her be so scandalous? He also notes that adultery carried heavy penalties in Athens. One Greek legal code, he notes, held that a man caught having sex with another man's wife, daughter or sister could be summarily executed. Evidence like this suggests there were much darker aspects to the subject than he allows.
The fishcakes of Davidson's title refer to that other pleasure of the flesh, eating. He provides two chapters on feasting and drinking where he is on much stronger ground. He emphasises the Greek abhorrence of over-indulgence, and insistence on balancing rich foods like eel, tuna and shellfish with appropriate quantities of bland comestibles such as bread, and of mixing wine with sufficient water to avoid intoxication. At the table, the Greeks saw themselves engaged in a fierce struggle against natural appetites. Surrendering to nature was a daily temptation. The way to elevate one's status as a human being was to resist, to impose order and decorum over the forces of passion and desire.
It is this last point, when applied to sexuality, that Bruce Thornton in Eros: The Myth of ancient Greek Sexuality, allows us to see in its full dimensions. While Davidson, a lecturer in ancient history at the University of Warwick writing his first book, has produced an intriguing but limited study, Thornton, Professor of Classics at California State University, is a mature scholar in full stride. He has produced a stunning work -- the most comprehensive and impressive study of its subject yet undertaken -- as well as a book that will make it very difficult for anyone to ever again derive romantic or radical conclusions from the ancient texts.
Thornton examines Greek culture through a far wider range of sources than Plato's dialogues or the writings of the classical era on which Davidson focuses. He takes the reader through a grand tour of dramatic tragedy and comedy, poetry, oratory, legend, history and philosophy from the eighth to the first century BC. His emphasis is on what these primary texts say themselves, and he has very little recourse to secondary commentaries, partly because he wants his intended audience, the intelligent but non-specialist reader, to directly confront the Greek mind, but also because so many of the dominant academic interpretations today are accompanied by what he calls "the whine of ideological axes being ground". His comments on the secondary literature are contained in a pungent and incisive critical bibliography at the end of the book.
To the ancient Greeks, Thornton writes, Eros was one of the gods who appears very early in the story of creation. He is a force of nature, one of the fundamental building blocks of the cosmos. Thornton shows Eros has a double life in Greek literature: an anthropomorphic god but also the inhuman force of sexual attraction inherent in every living creature. Euripides calls him the "this most unconquerable god", this "tyrant of gods and men" since all the gods, including Zeus the king of the gods, must obey him. His breeding is a disturbing combination. He is the son of Aphrodite, goddess of love, and of Ares, the god of war. Though represented as a boy, Eros is by no means innocent or naive. He is more street kid than cute cupid. His power, moreover, is not confined to the realm of sexuality. He is lust. He represents all desire that is destructively excessive. In the form of sexual desire, Eros is a representation of how sex attacks the mind, something simultaneously out there in nature and inside us.
The Greeks, Thornton shows, saw the destructive powers of sex and violence as two sides of the same irrational coin, "each interpenetrating and intensifying the other, creating a violent sex and sexual violence that exploded into profound destruction and disorder, a double chaotic energy threatening the foundations of human culture and identity". The Greeks most famous war, the expedition against Troy, originates in the seduction of Helen by Paris. The disasters of Homer's Iliad also begin with sexual conflict. The quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon starts over two girls and rapidly escalates to a contest over heroic honour. In Sophocles' drama Electra, Klytaimestra wants to murder her husband Agamemnon for sacrificing their daughter Iphigeneia, but her revenge is also fuelled by her own illicit affair with Agamemnon's cousin Aegisthus. The Chorus sees it that way, saying "Eros was the killer" and his daughter Electra agrees, ascribing her motive to her uncontrolled sexual appetite. After Klytaimestra kills the girl she boasts that the murder "will give relish" to her sex with Aegisthus, a statement Thornton says demonstrates the Greek understanding of how violence becomes sexualised.
Another of the most revealing works of Greek literature is the Voyage of the Argo. In search of the Golden Fleece, Jason and his Argonauts travel to Colchis where they find it in the possession of Aeetes the king. Eros makes Medea, the daughter of Aeetes, fall in love with Jason. She then helps her lover overcome her father's obstacles and together they make their escape with the fleece, returning to Greece as husband and wife. Unlike the romantic version of the story in the twentieth century film, however, the tale told by Apollonius of Rhodes in 250 B.C. is a bleak one. Medea is portrayed as blinded and deluded by her passion for Jason. She is a traitor to her family who steals its most precious possession and then helps her lover murder her brother Apsyrtus. In one version of the story, Apsyrtus is an infant whom Medea cuts up, throwing the pieces into the sea so that her pursuing father must slow down to pick up the dismembered limbs for proper burial. "Wicked Eros," Apollonius wrote, "great plague, great curse to humans, from you come destructive strife and mourning and groans, and countless pains are stirred up by you."
The Greeks saw sexuality as central to the basic duality of the human condition -- natural passions and drives and appetites that cultural order attempts to control and subordinate. However, nature and civilisation, he notes, were not diametrically opposed to each other. While the nature of the untamed forests and mountains threatened to constantly encroach on the cultivated space that humans inhabit, there was also the concept of tamed nature, nature domesticated, its life-giving energy subordinated to the human mind and its technologies. The Greeks thought it was not possible to eliminate the world of wild beasts but it could be tamed and domesticated in order to serve civilisation. Similarly, Eros needs to be tamed so his potentially destructive powers, which will always exist, can be redirected to human purposes. This was accomplished in the institution of marriage and by the sexual fidelity of husband and wife. In Greek thought, the civilised human life is defined by marriage and the household where legitimate children are born and reared. This is radically different to our modern romantic notion that passionate love is the sine qua non of a successful marriage. As Euripedes' Medea demonstrated, marriage based on passion degenerates into violence and death. The most valued characteristics of the good Greek wife are chastity, temperance and self-control.
Women are particularly interesting to Greek literature, Thornton argues, because in them this fundamental human problem, this conflict between nature's chaos and culture's order, is magnified. The Greeks thought that women, with their greater emotionalism, their unbridled sexual appetites, their tendency to surrender to their passions, are more in tune than men with the forces of nature and cycles of the natural world. To dismiss these attitudes as sexist or misogynist, Thornton writes, is "to purchase a cheap moral authority at the expense of a deeper understanding of the Greek exploration of human identity and its defining contradictions". Through the figure of the goddess Aphrodite, Greek literature fully recognised that the allure of female sexual beauty subjected men to the power of women. Aphrodite's powers contradict several modern feminist interpretations of Greek women as cowering victims of a misogynistic patriarchy. "This tells us very little about antiquity," Thornton writes, "yet quite a lot about the late twentieth century politics of victimhood and the liberal-democratic assumption that all power resides in political rights and institutions." Such a view, he says, renders meaningless the figures of Pandora, Helen, Klytaimestra, Medea, Lysistrata -- all women whose magnificence depends on a recognition that men are vulnerable to, and hence fear, the sexual power of women.
Thornton provides little comfort for those lesbians who have seen the seventh century poet Sappho as their founding inspiration. He argues that she has been a victim of mischaracterisation for 2500 years. Sappho was a wife and a mother who wrote epithalamia or wedding songs celebrating not lesbian love but the briefly flowering beauty of young women who were themselves about to become wives and mothers. Only one of the poems from her nine books survives intact, but several of her fragments have been translated in the modern era, with the translators filling in the gaps. Many modern readers are unaware the translators are thus essentially writing Sappho's poems for her. Thornton argues that her famous Hymn to Aphrodite is not a poem about a mutually sustaining sexual relationship between women but a partly theological and partly philosophical work that attempts to redefine human understanding of the power of the goddess. Though her poetry does sometimes speak of her erotic suffering with desire for a beautiful girl, the only certainty about the claim that Sappho was a lesbian is that she came from the island of Lesbos.
An even greater distortion is evident in modern interpretations about Greek male homosexuality, especially the cult of pederasty. Thornton offers two chapters on Greek homosexuality which go a long way towards overthrowing this interpretation. He shows convincingly that there is no evidence in their literature for the supposition that the Greeks viewed homosexual acts in the same way as those between men and women. Sex between males was an offence against the laws of hubris and of sexual outrage. The passive homosexual, the male who allowed himself to be anally penetrated, was viewed with "shame" and "outrage". Men could certainly love one another in an ethereal or intellectual sense but Plato viewed physical sex between males as a depravity that all right-thinking men should abhor as much as they would incest. Benjamin Jowett's original Oxford interpretation of Platonic love was correct. Although Socrates' penchant for young men and boys is confirmed by several sources, other Greek philosophers shared Plato's view. Both Xenophon and Aristotle saw homosexuality as a deformed condition brought about either by natural disorder or by habit. There are homosexual characters in some of Aristophanes' plays but they are associated with corruption and decadence. In Knights, Aristophanes is saying that corruption in Athens has reached the stage where the shameless pursuit of all appetites, including active and passive homosexuality, is the most important qualification for a politician.
Thornton offers detailed analyses of the two Platonic dialogues that have given most credence to the Athenian practice of pederasty, the Symposium and Phaedrus. In the latter, Plato tells how Socrates argues that Eros is the force of desire that conquers rational opinion and leads the soul to the enjoyment of the beauty of bodies. The point of the dialogue is to defend reason, which leads to self control, against desire, that leads to outrage. Socrates uses the example of the older man in a pederastic relationship who wants the boy to be weak and inferior so he can gratify his lust for him. But Socrates describes this as an outrage against the boy's body that turns him into a kinaidos, a soft and effeminate character unsuited to manly work. On the other hand, Socrates points out, an idealised form of a pederastic relationship would see the older man deny his private pleasure and educate the boy's character so he will eventually marry, produce children, and take his place in the social and political life of the city. In this way, the natural force of Eros, operating through the man's attraction for the youth, would be exploited to provide the energy that propelled his rational soul to the production of human good.
On the one hand, Thornton argues, the Greek philosophers saw homosexuality as something that was "contrary to nature", a result of the depraved human imagination and vulnerability to pleasure. On the other hand, writers of literature and dramatists like Euripides saw it as a "product of nature", which those afflicted found hard to control. But even in the latter cases, homosexuality is portrayed as behaviour that unleashes destructive forces that overthrow reason and law. For instance, in Euripides' play Chrysippus, Laius, the father of Oedipus, kidnaps and rapes the son of Pelops and thereby initiates a chain reaction of erotic disorder culminating in the incest and parricide of Oedipus and the blight of Thebes that destroys the life of humans, herds and crops alike. In other words, rather than endorsing homosexuality, the attitudes and practices of the ancient Greeks were not so very different from those of the late Victorian English establishment which prosecuted Oscar Wilde.
How, then, did the notions of Greek bisexuality and pederasty gain any currency? It has been partly through misinterpretation and mistranslation of the literary remains and partly through selective use of evidence. Foucault's reading, for example, omitted the great volume of classical drama and poetry and was confined to a narrow selection of fourth century medical and philosophical works. While it is apparently true that there was an aristocratic homosexual tradition which, like the Oxford Hellenists, produced a conspicuous volume of writing, it never represented more than an elitist minority at any time. The concept of "boy love" is derived from a real tradition in which older aristocratic men did act as educational and social mentors for adolescent youths from other aristocratic families. But this, Thornton argues, was not a sexual relationship. It was a subspecies of that of friendship. The notion that it entailed homosexual intercourse would have been abhorrent to all concerned. The description of the older man as a philos may be translated as "lover" but Thornton says it also means "friend/dear one". Aristotle defined the philos not as a sexual partner but as "one wishing or accomplishing good things or what seem to be good things for the sake of a friend".
It is true there are illustrations on ancient vases depicting homosexual acts between older men and boys, but Thornton warns against the fallacy committed by several modern art historians of extrapolating from visual images to what was the norm in ordinary life. The clientele for vases that depict sexual activities is largely unknown and the illustrations may have as much to do with fantasy as with everyday practice. "A scene on a vase," Thornton argues, "may not tell us any more about a middling Athenian than a Wedgwood china pattern tells us about a Victorian hackney driver." Moreover, most vases with sexual scenes came from Etruria in Italy and no one has established how representative they were even of Etruscan taste, let alone that of the wider Greek world. Most likely, they provide no more indication of what was socially acceptable in ancient Greece than child pornography on the Internet tells about the norms of our own times.
In places, Thornton punctuates his argument with contrasts between Hellenist perceptions of sexuality and what he sees as the comforting but self-deluding views of the late twentieth century. The ancient world associated Eros not only with violence but with all the destructive natural forces within ourselves that always threaten to overcome civilisation: madness, enchantment, disease, mental dissolution, agitation and drunkenness. "This loss of control frightened the Greeks," Thornton points out, "whereas to our Romantic sensibilities it is what we seek." We want our erotic selves to find fulfilment without hindrance or check. Thornton is particularly scathing in his comparisons between Greek thought and the sexual liberation theorists of the 1950s and 1960s such as Norman O. Brown and Herbert Marcuse who condemned "civilised morality" and "repressive reason". They claimed the "life instinct" would be served by "erotic exuberance" and that the liberation of the instincts would generate a new kind of freedom. They created the ideological climate for the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Thornton is a pessimist about the outcome of this revolution, especially its dissolution of the old taboos against adultery, divorce, promiscuity and illegitimacy. His brand of sexual pessimism is, of course, decidedly out of fashion today, but aspects of it have surfaced in some traditional as well as some unlikely venues.
The two most vocal current objections to uninhibited sexuality come from the Christian critique of the dissolution of the family and feminist concerns about pornography, date rape and the allegations behind recovered memories. Thornton identifies a third voice, and a model for his own work, in the writings of Camille Paglia who, he says, continues a tradition that includes Sade, Nietzsche, Lawrence and Freud, that recognises the "cruel energies" of Eros that society must contain and channel. He contrasts our contemporary ideals with the insight of the Greeks. While advertisers, screenwriters and pop lyricists promise us sexual fulfilment and idyllic happiness, psychologists and psycho-therapists scorn Aphrodite and her son, believing them to be mere physical forces, soon to fall beneath the sway of scientific knowledge. Thornton thinks the ancients knew better. "Our cultural ideals and institutions are saturated with romantic sentimentalism and Enlightenment arrogance, an unholy alliance inciting us to a profound disrespect for and trivialisation of Eros
We, who have abandoned shame and who ridicule tradition, are deaf to the wisdom of the Greeks."
1. James Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes: The consuming passions of classical Athens, HarperCollins Publishers, London
Bruce S. Thornton, Eros: The myth of ancient Greek sexuality, Westview Press /HarperCollins, Boulder, Colorado