Male Same-Sex Desire in Ancient Greece

A fragment of a Greek red-figure vessel showing the legs and genitals of a naked man. A small penis was considered ideal in ancient Greek culture. Accession Number: C.69.92

As with any form of social history, understanding and interpreting ancient relationships is often difficult and nuanced. It requires us to look into the minds of long-dead ancient peoples using artefacts left behind to archaeology. We interpret these artefacts within the framework of our reconstructed view of the past using modern language which is often problematic. It is often the case that ancient cultures simply did not have analogous terminologies to modern categories of gay, straight, queer etc., and so recognising and separating our own personal and modern classifications of relationships and sexual desire from the ancient evidence is necessary. Parkinson’s ‘A Little Gay History’ prefers the term same-sex desire for having fewer modern overtones than homosexual or gay, and so we will follow his convention here.

Similarly, emotions are particularly hard to reconstruct from the ancient record, they leave no physical trace and their interpretation varies wildly, even in modern languages and cultures. For example, researchers have identified ten basic emotions which exist in humans, one of which is disgust. However, Polish does not have a word that directly maps onto the English translation of disgust. This raises issues of understanding, if the Polish language does not have a word that directly relates to disgust, does this mean that they do not experience or perceive it in the same way? Of course not. Polish people certainly experience disgust, and the lack of a directly translatable word is not evidence of absence. In a similar way, the representation of love and desire varies from culture to culture, and the absences of directly translatable words do not indicate their absence. Where do we draw the line between friendship, love, and sexual desire?

With all these caveats and issues in mind, we turn to ancient Greek art, particularly that found on red-figure and black-figure vessels. Here, we focus on male-male same-sex desire, for the simple reason that there is greater representation for these types of relationship.

Typically, on Greek vases, the same-sex partners are shown as an older man and a younger man. Whilst this wasn’t the only type of same-sex relationship occurring at the time, it is perhaps the most commonly known. Views and representations of same-sex desire differed across the different time periods and regions of Greece. As such, we also see scenes of same-sex desire between young men; these relationships are noted in many texts, and the writers Pindar, Plato, and Socrates (among others) all make mention of young men desiring young men. Likewise, relationships between older men are also discussed favourably by Xenophon and Philostratus.

Male-male relationships were represented in various ways in art of Greek vessels. Particular gestures and poses can indicate same-sex desire, the gifting of certain animals (hares, foxes, dogs, and cockerels, see BM 1865,1118.39 for an example of this), gesturing towards the genitals of the younger partner with one hand and touching their face with the other, and the presence of garlands, the partners looking directly at each other or the younger looking away.

Fragment of a Greek black-figure vessel depicting a nude athlete holding a discus. Accession Number: C.662-1

Finally, while the Garstang Museum does not hold any objects directly relating to same-sex desire in ancient Greece, this fragment here depicts an athlete holding a discus, which relates to the myth of Hyacinth and Apollo. The god Apollo and the Spartan Hyacinth who was known for his beauty were lovers. Hyacinth was struck and killed by a discus thrown by his lover Apollo. The discus was blown off course by the jealous Zephyr who desired Hyacinth for himself. This myth is one of the many examples of same-sex relationships presented in ancient Greek culture, and if you’d like to learn more about this topic, please follow the below links.

‘LGBT History Month – Homosexuality in Ancient Greece’ by Dr. Ben Cartlidge

‘Alexander the Great or Alexander the Gay?’ by Prof. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones

‘Homosexuality in the Ancient World’ by Christopher Bebbington

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