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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, Love Gift; Calyx krater, Aegisthus painter, Athens 460 BCE - Kunsthistorisches Museum, Viennaalthough 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 served them..."

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 (malakithesthai)."

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 of females.

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 necessity.

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 more manly.

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.

Warrior and Young Charioteer; Marble pedestal relief from kouros statue found in Themistocles' wall, Athens, 490 BCE; National Archeological Museum, Athens

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 <>

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