As historians, I have often emphasized the need to suspend our own cultural tastes, opinions and taboos to be able to study those who came before us in an objective scholarly way. Most of the time for many scholars this comes easier than in most of society. From topics of brutal slavery, racism, sexism, national and religious extremism, genocide, rape, killings, and all sorts of practices and attitudes we now would deem completely unacceptable were at one time or another, part of the culture and made up the historical background we must acknowledge in order to understand them. Part of understanding the lives of our predecessors, is to look at it impartially, and dispassionately. The good and especially the bad, as it is harder for us to accept what we don’t like than what we do. For many unpleasant topics to our culture, overall most scholarly people are able to swallow and get past their own cultural perspective and analyze others with different values. However, I believe there is one topic so taboo in our culture, one even hardened criminals revile and abhor, it is hard to see past our cultural revulsion of it: sexual crimes involving children. Murder is one kind of evil in society, rape is too, but sexual harm to children is by far the most reviled and horrific in our society. The taboo aura the topic generates ironically has prevented a lot of actual victims from getting justice as it is “the topic which will not be spoken of” to that effect. What does this have to do with the historian? Plenty when it comes to the study of Greek Pederasty.
The topic historically has been downplayed heavily and overlooked as “the thing we shall not mention”. It was only more recently did historians decide to address such a taboo subject. The actual practice had to do with the education of Greek boys and young men. It was part of the “erotic-educational model”, in which an older man would teach a boy the virtues of Greek society and wisdom in exchange for sexual gratification from the boy. To modern ears, this sounds like the unethical exploitative practices of modern teachers taking advantage of their students and conjures up images of the Catholic priest scandals and other scandals involving teachers and coaches. However, this needs more explanation. In our culture, sexuality is though of in terms of gender, ex. homosexual vs. heterosexual and so on. In the ancient world, sex and sexuality revolved not around gender, but power. It was a matter of who penetrated whom, whether man or woman regardless if you were the opposite sex. To us, we like to envision sex as a mutual undertaking. A shared experience between two equals. This is why we get upset if there is a power imbalance, whether it be a man over his wife, or an authority figure over a subordinate. To us, any power differential in a sexual relationship is exploitative to the one not in power. An adult and child is a prime example of the inherent power differential we decided is unethical.
To the ancient Greeks and many many other cultures, power is the key in such relationships and society in general was far more hierarchical. The Greeks envisioned pederasty as not unethical, as it would be done in a way that the younger boy, who really was 14 and up, or at least into puberty, that does not compromise his citizenship rights. The thing they were cautious of in such relationships was that if done improperly, the
younger boy could lose his citizenship status if he is too “submissive” in his sexual role. Being on the receiving end to so to speak, meant you were the passive one. Indeed, the terms for the two who would be in a pederastic relationship were the erastes or “lover” and his eromenos or “loved one”. To combat this, the boy would have to play “hard to get”. He could not enter into the relationship too quickly, but must be convinced to help preserve his autonomy. Likewise, the erastes must also temper his desire for the boy, or risk appearing unmanly with desire. The emphasis on the relationship though, was not supposed to be about pure lust and sexuality. Going back to the “erotic educational model”, there was a big emphasis on the education part of the deal. It was more important for the erastes to teach the eromenos how to be a productive and wise citizen of Greece than for the eromenos to give love to the erastes. To further preserve the dignity and autonomy of the eromenos as a freeborn male, in many cases, there was no penetrative sex. In one of Plato’s works, The Symposium, one of the guests at that party made a speech detailing more about the practice of Greek pederasty. He said that it was a form of “heavenly love”, as opposed to the “common love” of women and physical bodies, unlike the higher heavenly love of wisdom and your partner’s intellectual qualities. Pederasty was part of that “heavenly love”, as they believed the male sex was superior in wisdom and intellect. Pederasty was in that sense, more of an intellectual union than a physical one.
Regardless, this practice is still unacceptable in our own culture, and I personally agree with that judgement. Just because it worked in Ancient Greece, does not mean it works here! Our own notions of sex and power dictate it is unethical within our cultural framework. Trying to justify it in our culture is comparing apples to oranges. Our culture has vastly different in worldviews on the subject, and being done in our culture, would cause psychological harm. However, in Ancient Greece, the practice was extremely commonplace, and no trauma would result as it is not considered taboo or dirty, or wrong in their own culture. For Ancient Greek males, this was simply a stage of life to go through. Many went on and married women and had normal lives. This was not about being “gay” or getting “confused”, as like I said before, gender wasn’t the issue. It’s about power. Once the boys grew into proper men, they ended the sexual component, as sex between male equals was taboo, and would disempower the man in the passive role. However, they often retained life long bonds with their former erastes and teachers, like a lifelong mentor.
As historians, it is still a challenge to overcome our own revulsion of the practice to study it in a frank and honest way. It also challenges our notions of the Greeks being this “ideal culture” in which we were bred from! Yes, the Ancient Greeks contributed much to our culture, but it is an important lesson to learn that no culture will have 100% of your values, no matter how much you glorify them. Nor does Greek pederasty diminish the awe inspiring contributions Greek society did give the Western World! Let me reiterate this one last time: Just because the ancients did something in their culture, doesn’t mean it works in ours! I am in no way saying because pederasty was done in Ancient Greece, it make it ethical in our cultural framework. Conversely, I will boldly state just because something would be unethical in our culture doesn’t mean it’s unethical in their cultural framework! Let’s be historians and scholars here shall we? Stop our collective cultural blushing, giggles, and “eeeeeewwww!” and just grow up! What’s “heavenly” in one culture may be “hellish” in another…
For more resources:
Ancient Greek Pederasty: Education Or Exploitation? (This article is excellent in emphasizing how we must not let our cultural taboos get in the way of scholarly analysis! She also provides some information I left out in the courtship process!)