A civilized world is one where nothing is taboo – Socrates
‘Abduction of Ganymede’ (painting by Peter Paul Reubens, 1611)
For any female, born in an urban slum or in rural Northern or Central India, there is an 80% likelihood of her being either raped or otherwise sexually abused at least once in her lifetime. For a boy who was born in 500BC Greece, the odds of something similar happening to him were identical.
Ganymede was a Trojan boy barely out of his teens, whom the 8th Century BC poet, Homer, described as the most beautiful of mortals. Even the Gods couldn’t take their eyes off him. So taken by his beauty was the lecherous old Zeus that he stole in one day, disguised as an eagle, lofted Ganymede into the heavens and whisked him away to his pad at the Mount Olympus.
Oh yeah, Zeus had this habit of appearing in disguise as a bird whenever he felt horny. He once appeared before Leda, the Spartan King Tyndareus’s wife, as a swan and ravished her. Legend has it that, out of the union was born Helen of Troy. Helen of Sparta actually. Helen of Troy is a misnomer.
As for Ganymede, in exchange for steamy anal sex, Zeus gave him eternal youth and immortality and a permanent position as the official cup bearer (like a bus boy) to the gods.
There is no record of what Zeus’s old lady, Hera, had to say about this new love-affair. Probably nothing. Given the times and the open practice of pederasty that was the custom among adult Greek noblemen and their Gods in those days, she probably said,” Yawn, tennis anyone?”
The same milk of forgiveness ran through Roman wives as well. The emperor, Hadrian (76-138AD), took a male lover in the form of a Bythinian youth named Antinous. As a foreigner it was perfectly acceptable for Antinous to appear in public next to the emperor and his wife Sabina.
Hadrian and Antinous were lovers for five years until Antinous fell overboard from a galley into the Nile and drowned. Heartbroken, Hadrian had Antinous declared a god, built temples to him all over the empire, named a star after him and built a city in Egypt, Antinopolis, in his honor.
Up until the Roman Empire turned Christian under Constantine the Great and Christianity began being rammed down everyone’s throats under threat of death all across Europe and beyond, homosexuality in all it’s forms was a universally accepted practice in the so-called ‘civilized’ world, mostly among the upper classes. )The hoi-polloi were too busy trying to survive invasions and deprivation). Men f–king other men was du jour.
Philosophers of the day, Aristotle and Socrates, waxed eloquent on how the human anatomy had placed the anus in just right level and orientation to be shtupped by the erect penis of another man, so convenient that even the anal passage had the same angle of inclination to the horizontal as a fully erect penis. Therefore they surmised that, we were all meant to be fooked up our asses. And Euclid must have piped up, ‘QED!’
Even though many other ancient cultures have now been identified, that openly practiced homosexuality, none have been found to be as old as the Greeks, as regards direct evidence of homosexual liaisons. Archeologists have dug up hundreds of vases along the Aegean Sea coast of Greece, that have erotic paintings on the sides, depicting males in sexually intimate positions, dating back to 1000BC.
The vase paintings have a common theme running through them – the sexual intimacy depicted is invariably shown happening between a bearded adult male and a pubescent or adolescent boy, usually the son of another free citizen with whom the adult has a business or family connection. One might wrinkle his nose in disgust today but that was the norm then. The boy knew that his coming-of-age required submitting to anal penetration by a grown adult male, who took him under his wing like a mentor and proceeded to take charge of his education. It started with a period of elaborate courtship when the mentor showered the boy with presents until he eventually broke and submitted.
The Greeks had developed a strict code of conduct as regards homosexuality. An adult Greek male could not have sex with another adult Greek male. It would make the man being penetrated (the pathikos or passive partner), seem effeminate and submissive. That was something which the Greek society, essentially a martial culture, deemed a humiliation and therefore inappropriate. It would bring down the submissive male to the level of women, who at that point in history were considered lesser mortals in this highly patriarchal culture. He could be ridiculed and laughed out of town and even lose the right to hold public office.
The ban on adult to adult male sex did not cover slaves however. It was open season on slaves. You could do absolutely anything you wanted with your slave, since you owned him. An adult Greek male could f—k an adult male slave till he was blue, no problems. Slaves, usually the citizens of conquered lands, were acquisitions and had no rights whatsoever.
In ancient times, you had to be prepared to be a slave if your city-state got invaded and sacked by an invasion force. A run-of-the-mill invasion usually netted around 15-20000 slaves who could then be sold for hard cash. The slave trade was the by far the largest and most profitable business venture in ancient Greece.
During his 8-year long expedition of conquest through the Middle-East, Asia Minor, right up to the banks of the Jhelum River in present-day Pakistan, Alexander the Great is reported to have taken into captivity and sold more than 500,000 slaves from the lands he conquered. There was soon a glut thanks to Alexander’s zeal. Supply outstripped demand and the powerful slave cartels in Greece and Asia Minor, pretty much like the OPEC of today, hated him for flooding the market.
Besides the booties that Alexander looted from the vanquished Persian King Darius III’s coffers, the slave trade was a major source of revenue that helped pay his soldiers’ above-average salaries and frequent bonuses. It is said that on one occasion, after he had sacked the city of Tyre, he paid his troops the equivalent of 8 years’ pay as bonus. If it hadn’t been for his largesse, his men, tired of the fighting and homesick, would have turned and gone back much earlier.
Alexander was huge on the slave trade but he was also a fair man. If a state readily submitted to his invasion force and acknowledged him as their monarch without a challenge, he not only spared them a massacre but in fact enthusiastically waded into their culture, encouraging his commanders and troops to go forth and marry their women and intermingle. He allowed the citizens of the annexed lands to retain their culture and traditions and even offered sacrifices to their Gods at their temples. The slaves came from the states that tried in vain to repel his invasion and faced his wrath as a result.
Alexander was a horny bastard too, of that there is very little doubt. He didn’t believe in harems like his arch-rival, Darius III, who had 365 concubines, one for every night of the year (I suppose he rested on leap years). Alexander however had a string of affairs and wives and he also had at least two male lovers that I know of. He was very respectful of folk he had sex with and there was no rough stuff, unlike other conquerors of his time.
Alexander was a good looking guy, as per the 1st Century AD historian, Plutarch. Says he, “…Not very tall, perhaps a little over five podes and a half, Alexander was light brown skinned and had a tinge of red on his face and upon his breast. Aristoxenus, in his memoirs, spoke at length of Alexander’s sharp features and bright blue eyes. He had heard Aristotle speak in amazement of a most alluring scent that emanated from his skin. His breath and his body were so fragrant that they perfumed his undergarments……” Yuck!
Powerful city-states like Athens and Sparta and empires too, like the Persian and Roman empires, had large populations of slaves who had been nabbed from conquered lands and put to work in mines or construction and even as domestic help. At the height of Greece’s golden age, around 450BC, one in three inhabitants of Greece was a slave.
The slave-to-citizen ratio was even higher with the Romans and that could be a reason why in the 1st Century BC, a Thracian slave named Kirk Douglas managed to band together a well-organized fighting force of 70000 slaves against the Roman legions and was able to get as far as he did, massacring thousands of well-trained and superbly equipped Roman legionaries, before he was finally apprehended and killed. Even though he did not succeed in the end, Douglas is still an interesting example of how far the will to be free can take you, but I shall have to leave that for another occasion.
What? Did I say Kirk Douglas? Oh, sorry, the slave was called Spartacus. Kirk Douglas only played the role of Spartacus and co-produced the 1960 Stanley Kubrick movie by the same name. At my age, it is easy to get mixed up a bit. Do watch it if you get the chance.
But during the heroic and classic ages of the Greek civilization, a few centuries before Spartacus, the thought of organizing their own ‘Greek Spring’ hadn’t yet occurred to the slaves.
While the adult-to-adult male sex was a no-no in ancient Greece, the acceptable practice was what we term today as pederasty – sex between an adult male (the erastes) and a boy in the age bracket of around 10 to 17 (known as the eromenos). It was pedophilia with a slightly narrowed age range. Pederasty was a practice that was regulated by the State as an institution, no kidding. It was generally taken as a supplement to a heterosexual marriage, which the Greek deemed as essential for the purpose of procreation. Thus, the adult men who practiced pederasty were basically bisexuals.
Today, the age of consent varies from country to country but overall, pederasty is considered just as heinous a crime as pedophilia and most nations in the modern world have strict laws against it. The same Socrates, whom we like to lionize, would be cooling his heels inside a maximum security penitentiary, serving a lengthy sentence, had he been around today.
Back then, institutionalized as it was, pederasty was commonplace. There were even public places where noblemen met and swapped their boy lovers. The Grecian baths for example were places where nobles lazed around and exchanged boys. If they had internet they would probably call it swapboy.com or something.
An Erastes with his Eromenos, on a Greek vase (Image coutesy: Wikimedia)
The pederasty practiced in ancient Greece was in fact cyclic – as soon as the eromenos began to sport a beard, it was a sign that he was now an adult and therefore could not continue his sexual liaison with his erastes. He could in fact himself be an erastes now and have his own eromenos.
In ancient Greece, if you were a male from the upper classes, you were either an erastes or an eromenos. You humped or you got humped. By another male. That was that. Grecian stores even stocked different varieties of depilatory products to help you keep your eromenos looking young and therefore ‘acceptable’.
The Greek poet, Anacreon, and his lover. Anacreon’s poetry was all about passion, love, infatuation, revelry and parties, like an ancient version of Jackie Collins, except in his case, the lovers were invariably pederasts.
Interestingly, most sculptures, bas-reliefs and paintings depicting ancient Greek pederasty, are found in the Vatican palaces and museums today. After all the revelations of pedophilia among Roman Catholic priests, is this a surprise at all?
The Greek city-state of Sparta mandated an austere existence, devoid of any kind of extravagance (and hence the word ‘spartan’). Military training was mandatory and stretched right through a boy’s formative years, starting at age six, right up until twenty-two. During this period, the little boys got paired off with the older boys or men in the military academy, who became their mentors. They spent long hours working out inside gyms and arenas, practicing the five exercises of the pentathlon – wrestling, races, long jumps, throwing the discus and hurling the javelin.
The youths in the gymnasia were always naked and sexual intimacy was inevitable and encouraged as an essential part of the kid’s education. The word ‘gymnasium’ is reported to have been derived from the Greek word ‘gymnos’, which means ‘naked’.
It got so bad with the 22-year old Spartan graduating cadets of the military academy that, on their wedding night, their brides had to resort to dressing like men in order to arouse their grooms and help them make the transition from homosexual to heterosexual sex.
Sports were a huge pressure release valve for ancient Greeks. The only occasion when the city-states were not at each other’s throats was during the period of the Olympic Games. Between 700 BC and 400AD, every four years, heralds were despatched from a small town in the foothills of Mount Olympus, declaring an ‘Olympic Truce’. The truce lasted the duration of the games and protected athletes, spectators, officials and diplomats from any aggression. At the Games, the city-states came together and celebrated shared military victories or simply forged fresh military alliances.
Most of the competitors were men and boys and, you guessed it, they participated buck naked, their skins hairless, shiny with olive oil. It was a heroic and masculine world. Separate track events were held for unmarried girls. Married women were strictly barred from even being spectators at the games. Understandable. If you were a hubby in ancient Greece, would you want your missus to eyeball all those naked athletes? Jeeze, no way.
The 42km Marathon race that we witness today, didn’t happen then. It was introduced in the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. The very first Marathon happened right after the defeat of the Persians in the Peloponnesian War, against the united alliance of Athens and Sparta, in the Battle of Marathon (490BC).
After the war had dragged on for ten years, the Greeks forced the battle with one last charge that completely surrounded the Persians, who had no alternative but to retreat to their ships that were moored on the Aegean Sea coast along the way. They began heading south along the coast and it became apparent to one of the Athenian generals that the Persian ships were headed toward Athens itself. Athens was defenseless at the time, all it’s able-bodied men having been conscripted and fighting up north.
The General ordered one of his soldiers, an eager beaver named Pheidippides, to run to Athens and warn them of the impending attack, so the women could at least put their chastity belts on and the more promiscuous ones could go shopping for rouge and mascara. Pheidippides ran the distance (26miles-42kms) in three hours.
Pheidippides, delivering the message which must have been like, ‘Pant! Gasp! Rejoice! We won! But your ass is grass. The Persians are comin’ . They got their butts kicked at Marathon and and they’re mighty pissed off! Quick! Hide! Splutter!’
And he collapsed and died, from overexertion. Heck, why wouldn’t he? He had been busy fighting the battle that very morning and then he ran another chore, this time to Sparta and back, a round trip of 280 miles.
It was not the distances that killed him. He was running naked and it was all the flapping around that his richard did that sent him off balance. Kidding. (Painting by Luc-Olivier Merson)
It is indeed strange that we place the Greeks on a pedestal and proclaim them as the very folk who started western civilization, in spite of the fact that they believed in practices that we consider abhorrent by any standards today.