Queering History: Ancient Greece
Ah, ancient Greece. Depending on who you ask, ancient Greece will probably rank as one of the greatest periods of European history. While perhaps not quite as influential as the Romans, Greek influence lasted for thousands of years in the West. The Romans themselves adopted much of ancient Greek culture.
Ancient Greece gave us many of the “classics” we still refer to today. In literature, we had Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. In philosophy, you might still refer to Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. Pythagoras has a mathematical theorem every grade school kid in North America learns. Most of us have seen some classical Greek myth transformed into a piece of pop culture, whether it’s Disney’s Hercules or the more recent Percy Jackson series.
Greek culture is hard to characterize, partially because there really wasn’t much of a “Greek” identity during the classical period. Panhellenism was an ideal, but the reality was Greece wasn’t so much a unified country or culture, but a series of semi-related city-states bound by a common language and mythology. Nonetheless, there are a few things that tended to underpin so-called Greek culture, and many of them had to do with sexuality and gender.
Whenever people ask why our culture can’t just get up and over treating women like equals, why women are still bitching and complaining about “inequality” and “patriarchy,” I like to point back to ancient Greece. Western Europeans have idealized ancient Greek culture for a long, long time, and many of the ideas we have are indeed handed down to us from ancient Greece.
Misogyny is one of those proud, proud traditions, so if you ever wonder why women aren’t yet equal, keep in mind we’re pushing back against nearly 5,000 years of cultural history. You can’t just undo those beliefs by writing a fancy law.
Now, we’ve had plenty of time to accumulate other sources of misogyny in Westernized cultures, so why am I pinning it all on the Greeks?
Let’s look at Hesiod. Hesiod was an early ancient Greek poet, one of the earliest we have found record of. Not much is known about Hesiod; like Homer, he might not even be a single person, but a bunch of people telling and retelling similar stories.
Nonetheless, Hesiod’s works are really instructive about the way women were viewed in ancient Greece. Women, according to Hesiod, were pretty much useless monsters who would eat all the food her husband toiled over in the fields. Women did nothing of use except beget children, which only made for more mouths to feed, and our poor hapless farmer would then get even less.
The Treatment of Women
Lest you get the idea Hesiod was sort of some fringe thinker, the sentiment is fairly typical of ancient Greece. Women lived in separate quarters, away from men. In fact, this arrangement may be the historical basis for what we now know as the harem, a practice later adapted into Middle Eastern cultures. The Greeks may also have been responsible for the idea that a woman ought to be veiled—another idea that has a long tradition in Middle Eastern cultures and, actually, in the West as well.
Sparta presents perhaps one extreme illustration of how women were treated. Spartan men were infamously tough soldiers, and even Spartan women were trained to be quite tough. Girls and boys were separated from each other, and young men were actively encouraged to share sexual experiences with each other. When men did eventually marry, the bride was allegedly instructed to dress as a young Spartan man, in order to “excite” her new husband.
Things don’t get much better if we hop over to Athens, that bastion of democracy. Women weren’t people, along with slaves and children. Poor men rarely held citizens’ rights either, but they were almost always better off than women.
The Pinnacle of Love
The misogyny of the ancient Greeks seems to go hand in hand with the practice of pederasty. While Greeks shunned women, deeming them truly only necessary for reproduction, the Greeks exalted love between two men.
This usually took a master-student formation, in which an older man (identified by his beard) would woo a younger (beardless) man. Eventually, the young man would become a master himself and take a protégé under his wing. It’s likely Socrates and Plato were engaged in this sort of relationship, and then Plato and Aristotle afterwards. Aristotle may have had a similar relation with his most infamous pupil, Alexander the Great.
The Greeks weren’t shy about depicting dudes boning either. It’s all over their urns, their pottery, and other artifacts they produced. Long ignored by translators, classicists, and historians, the evidence is also in their written works. Achilles and Perseus were probably more than very good friends, if you catch what I mean.
The Sapphic Tradition
The Greek men weren’t the only ones who got in on the same-sex loving. Any respectable lesbian should be able to tell you about the long tradition of women loving women, going right back to the Greek island of Lesbos. In fact, that’s where we even get the word “lesbian.”
See, Greek women were a little fed up with the men hating on them all the time. Some of them moved out to some of the more remote islands in the archipelago. There, these women lived in relative isolation. They produced some fairly well-regarded love poetry, most of it in praise of loving women. The most famous of them was Sappho.
What about Helen?
Of course, even when we point to everything going on in written texts like the Iliad and Sappho’s poetry or on vases and urns, the fact of the matter is that the Greeks didn’t completely shun heterosexual love and desire.
The notion of the times seems to have been that love, in whatever form it came in, was truly a noble pursuit, and men and women could chase their desires, at least to some extent.
Misogyny rears its ugly head again here. Women were less free to pursue desires that involved men. Hera punished the women who slept with Zeus, even if it was Zeus who pursued (and even raped) the woman. Hello double-standards and victim-blaming.
Women were somewhat free to explore relationships with other women. This was partially because these relationships could be easily concealed. This kind of freedom trickled down through European law during the Middle Ages, and even into the early modern period. You often find laws specifically against male homosexuality, but no strictures against female acts of homosexuality.
There are varying reasons for this. One, men often assumed women were frigid or not to have much of a sex drive. If women lived relatively secluded lives away from men, it was easy to conceal such relationships. The other major reason would be female-on-female sex couldn’t result in pregnancy nor did it result in “wasted seed.” It was less objectionable than other “unnatural sex acts.”
Echoes through History
The Greek philosophy toward sex, love, and gender has echoes resounding all throughout European history. Perhaps the best example is the Renaissance period, when a philosophy about like loving like being best took hold. It’s notable here that ancient Greece and Rome were very fashionable during this period. Renaissance peoples often tried to mimic their forebears.
There are still echoes of ancient Greek culture in our own culture. If we have to pick and choose, let’s be sure to look to the Greeks as an example of how to embrace the wide range of forms human love arrives in.