The Eternal Debate in Classical Times
by Heather Elizabeth Peterson
||Glaucias anticipated the arrival of his
beloved with eagerness. He had been waiting four years for this
moment: now, finally, he would be able to consummate his long
desire. Most men he knew in similar situations had begun sexual
relations with their beloveds shortly after puberty, when the
beloved was twelve or thirteen. Glaucias, though, preferred to
follow Plato's advice and wait until the beloved was sixteen.
Glaucias was interested in more than his beloved's body, though.
He had learned from a dialogue about Socrates that his duty as
the older partner in the relationship would be to train his beloved
in the skills that the beloved would need to know in adult life.
Thus, the beloved was not only the object of sexual desire; the
beloved would also increase in virtue through contact with Glaucias.
So Glaucias thought as he prepared to bring home his bride.
The parallels between woman-loving and boy-loving in Ancient
Greece can only be carried so far; even to use the phrase "beloved"
above is misleading, for love was not a necessary component in
marriage, although it was much valued when it occurred. Yet enough
parallels exist between Greek men's treatment of their wives
and Greek men's treatment of their boy loves to make understandable
why one of the most popular debates in classical times was over
the question of whether it was better to love a woman or a boy.
Fortunately, some of the elements of this debate have been preserved
for us in two Greek dialogues dating from the period of the Roman
Empire. (A third dialogue occurs as a short passage in Achilles
Tatius' second-century CE novel, Leucippe and Clitophon.)
The earliest of these dialogues is Plutarch's Dialogue on
Love which was published in the late first century CE as
part of his Moralia.
The subject of the dialogue is an odd situation: a youth, who
has not even come of age yet, has fallen in love with a beautiful
widow who is his elder. His friends have come together to debate
the wisdom of such a match; the task of the opponents of the
match is to convince the group that only the male love is worth
pursuing and that the youth should accept a man as his lover.
Protogenes, one of the youth's suitors, begins the debate by
stating flatly that "genuine Love has no connexion whatsoever
with the women's quarters." Women are necessary for producing
children, he says, but it is impossible for a man to feel more
than sexual appetite for a woman, since his attraction to her
is based purely on physical beauty. By contrast, a man who falls
in love with a boy is interested in the boy's character and virtue.
Daphnaeus cuts short Protogenes' argument. Sex between males,
he says, is against nature (para physin), and those who
allow themselves to be the pursued in such a relationship - the
passive partners - are weak and effeminate.
Protogenes, though, is alarmed at the idea of an elder woman
wooing a young man; he says that for a woman to become the pursuer
- the active partner - is a sign of intemperance. Here Plutarch
enters into the dialogue, stating that, while it's true that
some women have sought to rule over their husbands, this was
the fault of the husband; any man of character will be able to
control and guide his wife. What is important is that both parties
be able to procreate - and if they are also in love with each
other, all the better.
At this point in the dialogue, the startling news arrives that
the widow has kidnapped the young man in order to persuade him
to marry her. Protogenes furiously asserts that the laws of nature
have been overturned; soon women will be taking over the government.
The dialogue changes to a debate over the nature of Eros and
Aphrodite, the god and goddess who embody love. In the end, Plutarch
launches a defense of the love of women. If true love arises
from a love of character, he says, "why should [it] not
spring from maidens and women, as well as from boys and striplings,
whenever a pure and disciplined character shines through from
within a beautiful and charming outward shape"? The mark
of true love is self-control and virtue, he says, and women are
as likely to have this as boys.
But it is impossible, he argues, for a passive male to be virtuous.
The union of males with males, Plutarch says contemptuously,
is "not a union, but a lascivious assault ... That
is why we class those who enjoy the passive part as belonging
to the lowest depth of vice and allow them not the least degree
of confidence or respect or friendship." As for young men
without vice, "who have been lured or forced into yielding
and letting themselves be manhandled," they "forever
after mistrust and hate no one on earth more than the men who
The man who takes a woman as his marriage partner shows true
love, Plutarch argues, "for in the case of lawful wives,
physical union is the beginning of friendship, a sharing, as
it were, in great mysteries. Pleasure is short; but the respect
and kindness and mutual affection and loyalty that daily spring
from it convicts neither the Delphians of raving when they call
Aphrodite 'Harmony' nor Homer when he designates such a union
as 'friendship.'" The dialogue ends with the news that the
young man has chosen what Plutarch believes to be the better
path: he has married the widow.
What immediately strikes the modern reader is that this dialogue
is so light- hearted. It is true that the morality of male love
is being questioned - or, to be more accurate, the morality of
marriage is being questioned - but it's clear from the jokes
that the matter will be determined largely by personal taste.
Whether or not one loves women or one loves boys is determined
by the speaker's personal preferences: to each his own.
This fact comes through yet more clearly in a later dialogue
ascribed to Lucian, Affairs of the Heart (written in the
second or fourth century CE). Lycinus has been asked to act as
judge between his two friends: Callicratidas, an Athenian who
only loves boys, and Charicles, a Corinthian who only loves women.
Charicles calls upon Aphrodite to "plead the cause of womankind,
and of your grace allow men to remain male, as they were born
to be." For, at the beginning of the world, "she allowed
males as their peculiar privilege to ejaculate semen, and made
females to be a vessel as it were for the reception of seed,
and, imbuing both sexes with a common desire, she linked them
to each other, ordaining as a sacred law of necessity that each
should retain its own nature and that neither should the female
grow unnaturally masculine nor the male be unbecomingly soft
But in later years, shameless hedonism caused males to transgress
the laws of nature (physin), "and, sowing their seed,
to quote the proverb, on barren rocks they bought a little pleasure
at the cost of great disgrace." It is clear that the love
of males is unnatural, Charicles says, from the very fact that
boys are attractive for such a short period; once they become
men, their lovers lose interest in them. Therefore, any man who
claims to love boys for their virtue is a liar, because he'll
cease loving his beloved once the boy has grown a beard.
Moreover, there is no mutual exchange of pleasure between men
and boys, Charicles claims. While a man who has sex with a woman
shares enjoyment with her, a man who has sex with a boy causes
him only pain and tears. Charicles ends by stating ironically
that advocates of male love may as well allow Lesbians the same
privilege: "How much better that a woman should invade the
provinces of male wantonness than that the nobility of the male
sex should become effeminate and play the part of a woman!"
Callicratidas' counter-argument starts on familiar ground: women
are necessary for procreation, he says, but male love aims at
the cultivation of virtue. At this point, though, Callicratidas
turns Charicles' argument on its head. Callicratidas willingly
concedes that male love was not found in early human life: this,
he says, is because the love of boys was an invention of humans
at a time when they had matured and when Eros had banished chaos
from the universe. "Bears have no such love, because they
are ignorant of the beauty that comes from friendship,"
he says. "But for men wisdom coupled with knowledge has
after frequent experiments chosen what is best, and has formed
the opinion that love between males is the most stable of loves."
Women are still necessary for sake of begetting heirs, he notes.
"Let women be ciphers and be retained merely for child-bearing;
but in all else away with them, and may I be rid of them."
He goes on to describe, in excruciating detail, the feminine
nature of women's lives - and it is clear that Callicratidas
considers femininity to be a terrible vice. In contrast, he says,
boys live a manly life, one filled not with sensual luxuries
but with virtue and reason and self-control. "Why then do
you censure this [love of boys] as being an exotic indulgence
of our times," Callicratidas asks Charicles, "though
it is an ordinance enacted by divine law and a heritage that
has come down to us? We have been glad to receive it and we tend
its shrine with a pure heart."
Nor is it true, Callicratidas argues, that a man loses love for
his boy once the beloved has grown. In one of the most beautiful
love passages in classical times, Callicratidas says of his beloved:
"I shall ail with him when he is weak, and, when he puts
out to sea through stormy waves, I shall sail with him. And,
should a violent tyrant bind him in chains, I shall put the same
fetters around myself. All who hate him will be my enemies and
those well disposed to him shall I hold dear. Should I see bandits
or foemen rushing upon him, I would arm myself even beyond my
strength, and if he dies, I shall not bear to live. I shall give
instructions to those I love best after him to pile up a common
tomb for both of us, to unite my bones with his and not to keep
even our dumb ashes apart from each other."
Lycinus, whose equal interest in women and boys is probably meant
to represent the tastes of the average Greek, does his best to
find a middle ground between these two views, but he is clearly
more moved by Callicratidas' argument. "Marriage is a boon
and blessing to men when it meets with good fortune," he
concludes in judgment, "while the love of boys, that pays
court to the hallowed dues of friendship, I consider to be the
privilege of philosophy. Therefore all men should marry, but
let only the wise be permitted to love boys, for perfect virtue
grows least of all among women."
Although the participants of these two dialogues no doubt believed
that they disagreed strongly with each other, from our modern
perspective we can see that the Greeks held certain beliefs in
common about sexual love. These beliefs were so deeply held that
they did not even need to voice them.
|| 1) The best love must be in accordance with divine law and
with nature. For the proponents of marriage, this was a damning
evidence against the love of boys, but the proponents of male
love saw nature as rising above primitive biological urges.
2) Irrational passion is bad, and a person should be loved
primarily for their character. The dialogue participants
simply disagreed on whether males or females were more likely
to be loved for their character.
3) The purpose of love is to encourage the growth of virtue
in the participants. This was the rallying point for proponents
of male love, for it went without saying that all males were
capable of virtue. This did not go without saying in the case
4) Women's primary function is to bear children. This
was the weakest point in the argument of the proponents of marriage;
they needed to prove that women were more than just a procreative
5) True love is lifelong. This was the weakest point in
the argument of the proponents of male love; they needed to prove
that the love of boys did not end when the boy was grown.
6) Men are active, women are passive. Here was where the
greatest disagreement arose between the dialogue participants.
All of the participants agreed that men are essentially active;
all of the participants agreed that women are essentially passive.
What they disagreed on was what types of sexual relationships
would reinforce these qualities. Protogenes, as seen above, argued
that women could be too aggressive in marriage - too active,
in other words - while Plutarch and Charicles argued that women's
passivity was encouraged in marriage. Likewise, opponents to
male love argued repeatedly that male love encouraged males to
become passive. The strong attacks on women by Callicratidas
were his rearguard attempt to counter this argument: by focussing
attention on the femininity of women, he could make boys appear
Yet this was a real problem for proponents of male love. All
of the participants in the dialogue took for granted that an
adult male who took the passive role should be scorned. True
manliness was represented by being the active partner in a sexual
relationship: but if this was the case, how could a boy be trained
to be a man by taking the passive role?
The answer the Romans gave, at least initially, was that he couldn't.
While boys were trained to citizenship in Greece through male
love, in Rome only boys and men who were slaves or prostitutes
were supposed to be the passive partners of men. This strong
social belief in the shamefulness of being a passive male partner
was reinforced by three laws. The Lex Scantinia, which
was passed in the second or third century B.C., appears to have
fined passive adult males, as well as men who engaged in sex
with free-born boys. The De adtemptata pudicitia, passed
shortly thereafter, penalized men who harassed free-born boys
on public streets (presumably for sexual reasons). A law passed
in 18 B.C., the Lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis, is
thought by some scholars to have punished the seducers of free-born
boys. None of these laws penalized the active male partner unless
he attempted to make a free-born Roman boy his partner.
We know from Roman literature that the above laws were frequently
broken; after Hellenism became the fashion, Roman men wrote love
poetry about free-born boys. But in Rome, male love remained
purely a sensual and emotional delight. Male love in Rome was
almost never connected to pedagogy and the cultivation of virtue;
it was usually nothing more than a private pleasure and was considered
to bring no great benefit to society or to the boys themselves.
The Roman view of passive adult partners matched that of the
Greek view: such men were treated with scorn. The active partner
at least had the excuse of showing his true virility through
conquering another male; in an indirect manner, his sexual acts
could be seen as strengthening society through increasing his
manliness. The passive partner had no such excuse: his desire
for sex with another male was simply evidence of sensual vice.
Thus the classical argument over the value of male love was essentially
one of gender: the question was whether male love encouraged
manly qualities in its participants. That manliness and virtue
were identical with each other was never questioned.
Despite their difficulty in showing how boys could grow in virtue
through being passive partners, the Greek proponents of male
love had a much stronger case than the Greek proponents of marriage,
given the premises on which the argument stood. If true love
is the cultivation of virtue, then the proponents of male love
could easily make their case that the love of boys is true love.
Though many proponents of male love married, marriage was not
seen by most Greeks as a fertile field for the cultivation of
virtue, since it was mainly a simple arrangement to allow for
the begetting of heirs. Thus, in Plato's Symposium, Diotima
sees woman-love as nothing more than a desire to have children:
"Those whose procreancy is of the body turn to woman as
the object of their love, and raise a family, in the blessed
hope that by doing so they will keep their memory green, 'through
time and through eternity.' But those whose procreancy is of
the spirit rather than of the flesh - and they are not unknown,
Socrates - conceive and bear the things of the spirit."
The "things of the spirit," of course, were wisdom
and virtue, and those who bore them were the men and boys who
loved each other and thus "created something lovelier and
less mortal than human seed." So strong was the tie between
morality and male love in Greece that proponents of marriage
had to resort to the argument that the boys really didn't get
anything out of the relationship. This argument does not seem
to have persuaded many of the Greek proponents of male love.
Aristophanes voiced their opinion in Plato's Symposium when he said, "[True men] show their masculinity throughout
their boyhood by the way they make friends with men, and the
delight they take in lying beside them and being taken in their
arms. And these are the most hopeful of the nation's youth, for
theirs is the most virile constitution."
Much more problematic was male love between two men. Whether
in Greece or in Rome, the passive partners in such relationships
were universally the butt of contemptuous jokes; Julius Caesar's
soldiers, who had heard of his fling at age twenty with the king
of Bithnya (today's Turkey), sang while marching home after the
conquest of Gaul, "Caesar got on top of the Gauls, Nicomedes
got on top of Caesar!" The affair haunted him even in the
Roman senate where, while pleading the cause of Nysa, daughter
of Nicomedes, he recalled the benefits received from her father,
a Roman ally. At that point Cicero interrupted, shouting out:
"Enough of that, if you please! We all know what he gave
you, and what you gave him in return."
Despite the contrary examples of such battle-leaders, it was
widely believed that passive adult males were effeminate and
were driven into such relationships through irrational lust.
Since the classical world could conceive of no greater horror
than a man being effeminate, irrational, and intemperate, same-age
male love continued to be looked upon with suspicion, even though
it apparently became common during Roman times.
In Rome, also, the boy's benefit from male love was brought into
question. Although the literary records indicate that many boys,
including free boys, enjoyed the pleasures of being courted by
men, Romans were less inclined to argue that such boys received
any true benefit from such a relationship. In Rome, the argument
by Plutarch and Charicles that mutual benefit is only present
in marriages had a much stronger case. Once male love had been
severed from morality, the arguments in its favor grew much weaker.
Given the arguments available on both sides, it must have seemed
to objective participants in classical debates that the evidence
in favor of the two loves was evenly divided. Certainly that
is the impression left by the two dialogues.
Yet centuries before the dialogues were written, new views on
sexuality began to form that would ultimately cause a social
upheaval in the ancient world. In many ways, Affairs of the
Heart is anachronistic: it portrays the ideals of an earlier
age. By the time it was published in the early fourth century
A.D., such ideals were already disappearing. And within a few
years, the first of a series of laws would be passed that would
change forever the nature of the European debate over male love.
CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Heather Elizabeth Peterson, World History of Male Love, "Eternal Debate",
The Eternal Debate in Classical Times, 1999 <http://www.gay-art-history.org/gay-history/gay-literature/homosexuality-debate/greek-homosexuality-ethics/greek-roman-homosexuality.html>
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© 1999 Heather Elizabeth