Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Oswyn Murray Literary Review (November 2007)

'Love the unconquered warrior, Love who falls on the flocks, Love who keeps vigil in the soft cheeks of a girl, you roam over seas and in the halls of savages; no immortal nor any of the men whose life is a day can escape you: he who is touched by you goes mad. You twist the minds of just men to the ruin of injustice. It is you who has stirred up this present strife of kinsfolk; victorious is the bright desire from the eyes of the fair bride; it sits enthroned beside the eternal laws, for the goddess Aphrodite works her invincible will.'

Sophocles' dark and ominous wedding song is performed as Antigone goes to her marriage-death with her beloved in the rock tomb that they will share. It introduces many of the themes of Greek love - love as a warrior, love as an economic force, love that lies dormant in the cheeks of the beloved, love that drives you mad. Eros or love is central to Greek society; but it is an emotion that exists outside and beyond the control of the lover in two respects. Eros the servant of Aphrodite fires his dart from outside, and the lover is wounded, poisoned, incapable of resisting, not responsible for his actions. If human responsibility is involved it inheres in the charis (grace), the himeros (longing), which belongs to the beauty of the beloved: the beloved therefore has a duty to respond favourably to the almost involuntary madness of the lover.

James Davidson starts from this erotic logic behind the bonding process between lover (erastes) and beloved (eromenos) that sustains Greek same-sex love. But, as the wedding song shows, he is wrong to claim that Eros is exclusively the god of same-sex love: Eros is rather the avatar of all forms of desire. This irresistible force holds together society by creating indissoluble bonds, until a whole city can be united by an eros stronger than any family bond, as Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, imagined it (though it must be admitted that his city was not composed of ordinary citizens, but only the wise).

Ever since the nineteenth century, two questions have been dominant: what is it that distinguishes the Greek attitude to same-sex love from that of many other societies; and can the Greeks be used, as so many fin de siècle aesthetes held, to construct a model for modern same-sex relations?

The difficulty of addressing this problem can be illustrated by an example. In 1980, around the time that it began to be safe to come out, Félix Buffière, one of the most senior and intelligent of French literary scholars and a teacher in a private Catholic institution, published a book entitled Eros adolescent: la pédérastie dans la Grèce antique. It was an elegant and attractive volume on the literature of boy-love in ancient Greece. Buffière began from the proposition that pederasty was a beautiful thing, an experience that ennobled the young mind and brought it to the understanding of the highest Good; but it had unfortunately been associated in the modern world with homosexuality, a loathsome perversion, denounced alike by the ancient Greeks, the Bible and the Catholic Church, and modern psychology. So fast has the language of sexuality changed that today the views of Buffière would be unprintable, doubly against the law: pederasty is a crime likely to lead to inscription on the Sex Offenders Register, while denunciation of homosexuality is now a criminal offence. Perhaps it is as well that, despite its great merits, Buffière's work, redolent of incense and altar boys, has been deleted from the collective memory so effectively that it appears to be unknown to James Davidson, whose conclusions nevertheless in the end turn out to be remarkably similar.

Undeterred by the difficulties, having discovered what desire is, Davidson sets out to discover the specific nature of desire between men in ancient Greece. The journey is long (over 600 pages) and not always easy, despite Davidson's relentlessly hip style; for those likely to get lost on the way, it may be best to read the last chapter first, and then dip into the earlier narrative as suits their interests. But the book is worth the prolonged study necessary to extract its message.

I am not convinced by much of Davidson's speculation about the same-sex strands in Greek mythology, which seems to me arbitrary; and I will pass over some of the most amusing parts of his book - for instance, the vitriolic denunciation of Sir Kenneth Dover for espousing a phallocratic view of 'Greek homosexuality', in which the issue is reduced to the question of whether the Greeks practised anal or 'intercrural' sex. (Dover was much puzzled by the fact that the Greeks faced each other for sex, rather than bending over like the Etruscans.)

For the main core of his argument Davidson selects three Greek societies in which male same-sex relations were central to coming-of-age ceremonies for the young adult - Crete, Sparta and Athens. These ceremonies focused on puberty, which was (as he shows) approximately two years later than in the modern world, around the age of eighteen. The evidence is not always as good as he would like it to be; nevertheless, in Crete there seems to have been a ritual of abduction and same-sex marriage, by which the 'beloved' entered the men's hut of the lover and the community of adult warriors. In Sparta there was a complex educational system of age-classes which was held together by love between the various levels (and Davidson postulates a form of same-sex marriage here too). In Athens, for which we have the widest range of evidence, both visual and literary, the ephebe - or young male aged eighteen to twenty - emerged from the naked sports of the gymnasium to find himself pursued by a lover; the ideal of chaste resistance and decorous pursuit was not always adhered to, but the resulting bonding often lasted a lifetime, through marriage and political careers. There were laws to prevent abuse of the system - no chatting up of underage boys, no hanging around the gymnasium for older men; boys who prostituted themselves for money were barred from political life, and permanent homoeroticism was frowned on. Needless to say, these rules existed only because they were habitually broken, and they gave rise to public lawsuits as lurid as the trial of Oscar Wilde. The result was a system that could be proclaimed as an ideal, at the same time as causing serious tensions.

As a master social historian, Davidson is at his best in describing this system and the resulting distortions of public life - the way that Spartan foreign policy was often based on obligations between lovers; how Athenian politicians tried to ruin each other with allegations of prostitution; or the extraordinary fashion in which the similar but more chaotic cult of the Royal Pages at the Macedonian court led to a series of murders and conspiracies that almost wrecked Alexander's conquest of the known world.

Less convincing is his attempt to grapple with the origins or basis of the widespread phenomenon of pederasty. Eventually he inclines to the view that it is not a late development spread by the Dorian (Spartan and Cretan) invasion - the notorious Spartan boy-love theory that inspired the Hitler Youth. Instead he sees it as a survival from an early Indo-European practice derived from nomadic warrior-bands. But he rather shoots himself in the foot by discovering that the closest parallels are to be found in the secret rituals of a tribe of homicidal banana-farmers in Papua New Guinea, who are certainly not Indo-European. The question is, of course, meaningless; as Foucault and others have argued, same-sex love (whether male or female) is part of the normal range of sexual activities: what needs explaining for both hetero- and homosexual activities is not their existence but their socialisation. Davidson has himself shown the answer in his connection of adolescent rites of transition with military organisation: this is simply a more systematic version of the 'buddy principle' that underpins all modern armies. Nevertheless, it provided as many links to wider political action through the principle of pistis (loyalty between companions, more important than family or patriotism) as does the modern homosexual mafia.

This is an excellent book on an important historical phenomenon. But I am puzzled by Davidson's refusal to relate it to the modern world. Plato seems to have been the first to internalise the experience of love, to insist that it belonged with the unruly desires that a true philosopher should seek to control. The erotic discourse of philosophy that he evolved was an attempt to persuade the soul to proceed from the love of the beautiful male form to the love of beauty itself, and the highest form of the Good. Socrates was the master of seduction, whose lack of physical beauty merely highlighted the beauty of his soul. The dialogue form adopted by Plato was a form of persuasion based on the discourse of Greek homoeroticism, designed to persuade the youth of Athens, not to be corrupted (as the prosecutors of Socrates thought), but to be spiritually ennobled through the pursuit of true knowledge.

The Platonic vision of the place of eros in the pursuit of knowledge, implausibly extracted from the practices of an Athenian elite of rugger buggers, has inspired the entire Western tradition of education: it is not possible to educate the adolescent young without engaging them in a pursuit based on love, as all great teachers have recognised. The basis of my forty years of teaching, like that of my pupil James Davidson, has always been the mutual love between teacher and disciple, created in the pursuit of knowledge. The modern attempt to suppress the role of love in education is merely a disguised expression of the homophobia that has been outlawed among adults; however we may seek to limit the physical expression of their sexual urges, the best teachers must always in some sense be paiderastai, lovers of the young, as George Steiner has recognised:

Eroticism, covert or declared, fantasized or enacted, is inwoven in teaching, in the phenomenology of mastery and discipleship. This elemental fact has been trivialized by a fixation on sexual harassment. But it remains central. How could it be otherwise?

From The Sunday Telegraph December 23 2007

Peter Jones reviews THE GREEKS AND GREEK LOVE: A Radical Reappraisal of Homosexuality in Ancient Greece, By James Davidson (Weidenfeld and Nicolson h/b 634pp £30)

James Davidson is an angry man. His wrath is directed at Sir Kenneth Dover, greatest of Greek scholars and author in 1978 of the ground-breaking Greek Homosexuality. That brilliant book has become the orthodoxy on the subject, and it is an orthodoxy to which Davidson, Reader in Ancient History at Warwick, takes the most violent exception. Sensitive readers should look away now.

Examining all the evidence offered by depictions of same-sex activity on Greek pottery and in literature (especially the comic poet Aristophanes and the philosopher Plato), Dover concluded that Greek same-sex activity was pederastic: that the lover (erastês) was a dominant older male who desired anal intercourse with the submissive youthful beloved (erômenos), but was thwarted by laws against mixing with minors, while penetrating a free man of any age was seriously frowned upon. So the best he could hope for was some quick frottage between the boy’s thighs. And that was about the sum of it.

For Davidson, the idea that the Greek same-sex experience was a series of pretty joyless “genital acts” involving an older male and his younger plaything is anathema. He therefore has to do two things: first, to show that Dover’s analysis of the sexual activity was misconceived, and second, to provide evidence for a reciprocal same-sex disposition in the Greek world.

Davidson sets out to undermine Dover by reinterpreting the evidence to offer a different model of same-sex activity. He concludes that erastai (plural) were simply gawping hordes of fans whose behaviour may in fact have been baffling to the youthful erômenoi; that depictions of sexual activity on pots are warnings against this sort of behaviour; and acclamations that a certain young man “is beautiful” are generalised innocent cheer-leading for “lovely young people”. Most important of all, sexual action – whatever form it took – began only after boys had reached the age of eighteen (Davidson claims they matured later in the ancient world). Indeed, apart from legal prohibitions, young boys were chaperoned by their personal paidagôgos to ensure that they were not interfered with.

That is all eloquently put. One point of dispute will be that, since the evidence is often oblique, much interpretation and reading between the lines are necessary (the same is true of Dover). Further, it is very difficult to argue that, because something was prohibited or policed, it was not regularly done (si monumentum requiris …).

Myth also is not without its problems. For example, Davidson must eliminate sex with minors. So when Zeus snatches the youthful and very beautiful Ganymede up to heaven to be his cup-bearer, Davidson suggests this had religious, not sexual, significance; he even likens a depiction of Ganymede serving Zeus ambrosia at a sacrifice to Jesus serving wafers at the eucharist. That is grotesque.

Nevertheless, Davidson’s case will need answering. The ground becomes distinctly trickier when he moves on to the question of adult disposition. Basically, he needs to show that there is evidence of adult same-sex relationships that were long-lasting and represented exchanges of “gracious favours” (Davidson’s translation of the Greek kharis), pleasing to both.

He is on pretty secure ground with the institutionalised same-sex activities of the Spartans that resulted in relationships of deep political significance, and of the Macedonians, well exemplified in the relationship of Alexander with Hephaistion.

But he struggles to generalise the phenomenon (to e.g. Athens), largely because there is so little hard evidence for it. He cites, for example, Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad, who in fact sleep with women throughout that epic. They are very closely bonded, of course – Achilles, beside himself with grief at Patroclus’ death, is all over him physically when his body is brought back from the field; but in the military context, bonding is of the essence, sex is not.

The consequence is that Davidson, who seems very fastidious about “genital acts” anyway, has to argue that sex was not very important; for “love”, as he rightly says, is about more than sex. But by that criterion, historians might conclude that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who were once (a recent book claims) so closely bound together as to be almost in love, would count as homosexuals (adding a whole new dimension to the concept of the grace-and-favour apartment).

For all the richness and subtlety of Davidson’s argument, I am not persuaded that the dragon Dover has been slain. Indeed, the very length and in some cases eccentricity of the book suggest to me that Davidson is aware of his difficulties. It also surprises me that he does not discuss the strange phenomenon that Greek same-sex rarely seemed to exclude hetero-sex.

Nevertheless, we can all agree with his conclusion: that homosexuality was “a complex public phenomenon, essential to understanding Greek politics and philosophy, warfare, art and society”, rather than a bit of after-hours frottaging somewhere out on Lycabettus Heath.

Duncan Followell reveiws The Greeks and Greek Love: a Radical Reappraisal of HOmosexuality in Ancient Greece by James Davidson*

Little did I know what I was letting myself in for with this book: a long haul over strange terrain, spiky with fragments and pulsating with beautiful ghosts.

The author, James Davidson, is not so much our guide as co-explorer. His massive work of research, reflection and surprise is subtitled "a radical reappraisal of homosexuality in Ancient Greece".

But what that reappraisal might be, I haven't the faintest idea. Neither does the author, who is not offering anything conclusive. Instead he has presented a dossier of various investigations, starting with a 100-page analysis of the Greek words for love, sex, friendship, intimacy etc, and what they did or might mean.

This is followed by a section called "Sodomania" in which he tries to unravel why Greek Love should have been reduced in modern scholarship to an obsession with domination and submission - the Greek verb to love, he reminds us, does not take the accusative but the genitive.

He also exposes the fallacy that homosexuality in Greece was paedophilic in character. Boys under 18 were admired, but out of bounds for sexual activity. They came out at 18 by running naked through the streets.

Section three focuses on the vital role of same-sex eroticism in Greek religion - these are possibly the essential pages, emphasising that it wasn't all about getting your rocks off with the lads at the gymnasium, but central to the Greeks' outlook on life.

Section four, "Men of War", examines first the love affairs between the Greek heroes, and then those in Crete and Sparta, where homosexuality and militarism were conjoined. The fifth section takes a closer look at poetry and vases, and the finale, "Conclusion: a Map of Greek Love", is neither a conclusion nor a map but a further collection of marvellous fragments.

If ever a book illustrated the idea that it's not the arrival but the journey that counts, it's this one.

Davidson's language isn't always clear, and the larky tone and vocabulary - "gagging for it", "get jiggy", "batty boy" - might date quite soon.

But any page can deliver up an extraordinary story: "Aristotle says Diocles was a Corinthian. He was victor in the most prestigious event at the Olympics of 728 BC, the stadion, and eloped with his lover Philolaus to Thebes in order to escape his mother's incestuous passion for him."

Or a magical image: "Distance is a theme of more than one of the speeches about Love, made on that cold February night of 416 BC in the playwright Agathon's house."

Or the telling detail: on the subject of puberty - "The Emperor Augustus is supposed to have celebrated his first shave at the age of 23." (Incidentally, the Romans shaved and the Greeks did not.)

Or a leftfield surprise: "Celtic men were very prone to having sex with other men, noted Bishop Eusebius in the fourth century AD, even marrying each other."

I loved his demolition of the presumptuousness of Kenneth Dover (a prurient closet case) and Michel Foucault (a self-loathing sado-masochist) and his digressions on Brazil and New Guinea, although one into Nazism doesn't, I think, come off.

His approach to the nature/nurture argument highlights a modern political paradox: that our laws against racism exclude the idea of anything in character being innate, with the knock-on effect for homosexuals being to expose them to the charge of being "unnatural". The development of genetics is challenging all this.

Finally, Davidson admits to how murky his subject is. Though Greek love was public, Greek sex life is invisible: "reading about Greek love one sometimes feels as if one has been beamed down into a painting by Watteau", but "what the Greeks don't enlarge on is sexual acts".

I don't buy that - many of the vases are quite unambiguous - but it's true that there is no Greek Kama Sutra.

In the end he has to state the obvious: that just as the region was itself a set of independent, often warring city-states, so "there were lots of different kinds of homosexuality in ancient Greece". It's clearly a field in which commentators can offload hang-ups of their own.

Davidson seems remarkably free of these but there is, for example, a whole industry of scholars in modern Greek universities dedicated to disproving the remark of Athenaeus the Anthologist that Alexander the Great "was insanely fond of boys".

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