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The Misguided Search for "Homoeroticism"
A Plea for Research on Friendship

by Heather Elizabeth Peterson

The other day I picked up a scholarly book on Greek and Roman homosexuality and found in it a passage that appears, in various forms, in hundreds of books that are being published these days on the history of homosexuality. The passage was as follows:

In a recent study of this topic, some passages from Homer have been highlighted which would make it very difficult to think of the relationship between the two heroes as a simple friendship between comrades in arms. When his friend is dead, as I have already pointed out, Achilles no longer has any reason for living: over and over he wishes that he had never been born, declares that his only desire now is to die, and seems to threaten suicide. And he does not confine himself to expressing his sorrow by groaning and covering his head with clay, as is normal for Homeric heroes. At the beginning of the nineteenth book, Thetis finds him ‘stretched out on top of Patroclus’, desperately embracing his corpse, in an attitude which is not at all in keeping with most displays of mourning in Homer. So it is not difficult to read the story of a love affair behind Homer’s words. [Eva Cantarella: Bisexuality in the Ancient World]

I had to put down the book then, because a new book had arrived, on Greek and Roman incest. There I found myself perusing a passage that read as follows:

In a recent study of this topic, some passages from Virgil have been highlighted which would make it very difficult to think of the relationship between the two heroes as a simple father-son relationship. When Anchises declares he will allow the invaders of Troy to kill him, as I have already pointed out, Aeneas no longer has any reason for living: over and over he sobs to his father, declares that his only desire now is to die, and seems to threaten suicide. And he does not confine himself to expressing his love by weeping, as is normal for Virgilian heroes. At the end of the second book, Aeneas actually carries Anchises on his shoulders from the burning city, an action that results in the death of Aeneas’ wife. In no other case do we see such a display of love in Virgil. So it is not difficult to read the story of a love affair behind Virgil’s words.

In this post-Freudian world, I very much fear that the second passage (which is, of course, my own creation) will seem quite sensible to some of my readers. I suspect, though, that most readers, upon encountering such a passage, will say, "Wait a minute. All of these activities you mention ­ weeping, threatening to kill oneself, taking on extraordinary action ­ are the type of behavior that might be undertaken by a son grieving for the imminent death of his beloved father. Why do you propose that there is necessarily something sexual in nature taking place?”

Alas, this is a question that is rarely asked in the field of scholarship on the history of homosexuality. It has become de rigueur to assume that any reference to love between males must be a reference to "homoeroticism" ­ a word that in theory means "sexual love between males or between females," though in practice it is being used by many scholars to mean "strong emotions between males."

Why, then, the double standard? Why is it that, when scholars encounter a historical passage that describes strong feelings between a parent and child, they assume that the passage refers to platonic love, but when they encounter a historical passage that describes strong feelings between two unrelated males, they argue that the passage refers to sexual love? Why has the search for homoeroticism (sexual love between males) become a search for "homoeroticism" (strong emotions between males)?

Part of the reason, I think, can be attributed to bad scholarship of the past. As we all know, Victorian and Edwardian scholars made valiant efforts to explain away clear historical references to homosexuality. Their embarrassment about such references is aptly summarized by a passage in E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice, in which a university instructor tells a student who is translating Plato’s Symposium, "Omit: a reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks." Other Victorian scholars would show even less integrity than the tutor, translating the passages so that the classical authors appeared to be speaking about platonic friendship.

See source of this image in the
European Hall of the Museum.

It is understandable, then, that modern scholars who are faced with this cover-up of the past would bend over backwards to prove that they are not bowdlerizers ­ they do not ignore sexual desire when it appears in history, even if it appears in a covert form.

And scholars have become more aware of how covert sexual desire can be. This is a second reason why the search for "homoeroticism" has occurred: many scholars have realized how often homosexuality appears in other guises throughout history, particularly during periods when same-gender-attracted people are persecuted. Fear, sublimation, and simple circumspection are such strong factors in history that many scholars feel they must consider any reference to male friendship as a possible reference to male homosexual love.

I do not want to deny that any of the above is true. There is no doubt that past scholarship has overlooked historical references to homosexuality; there is no doubt that many such references are hidden under the guise of friendship. My impression, though, is that the primary reason for the search for "homoeroticism" is that our era does not take friendship seriously.

We can see this by examining the invented passage on incestuous references in Virgil. It may in fact be that Virgil’s description of Aeneas and Anchises is intended as a reference to incest ­ indeed, given the frequency with which classical mythology refers to incest, I do not see how such an interpretation can be ruled out. But I think that most readers are likely to opt for the "non-incest" interpretation, by Occam’s Razor: because they believe the simplest explanation is the most likely one, and the simplest explanation is that Anchises and Aeneas have a non-incestuous father-son love for each other.

But such an interpretation requires us to believe that parents and children can have deep feelings for each other. We must believe that two people who have no sexual attraction to each other can demonstrate strong emotions and engage in striking behavior.

My contention is that, while the modern world continues to believe this of parents and children, many people no longer believe this is true of two unrelated men. We have ceased to believe that it is possible for a man to deeply love another man, unless that love is sexually based.

Many exceptions to this popular belief exist, of course; I will not bother to list them all. Platonic male friendships remain a staple of popular culture. Yet I believe that, increasingly, the platonic aspect of such friendships is being questioned. Careful observers have noted the number of gay jokes that have crept into these friendships, the number of disclaimers that are now required to assure observers that the friends have no sexual feelings toward each other. Despite the best efforts of male bonding clinics, popular culture still decrees that male friends who have just undergone highly traumatic events in their lives are allowed to do no more than thump each other a couple of times on the back, lest they be suspected of being gay.

All of this is, I believe, a dual legacy of the Freudian revolution and the Victorian era. Freud’s part in sexualizing friendships is obvious enough, but it may not be as clear that the Victorian era is also to blame. For a variety of reasons, the Victorians put forward certain rigid standards for male behavior that had not previously existed. We, living on the other side of that great divide, take it for granted that males who touch each other for lengthy periods, who express feelings of strong love for each other, and who demonstrate that love through dramatic behavior must be sexually attracted to each other. This just goes to show how well the Victorians did their work.

On the other side of the divide ­ if we can only lift the Victorians’ blinders for a moment ­ we see a very different world: a world where friendship is considered the occasion for deep emotions and exaggerated behavior. This other view is much older than the one the Victorians bequeathed upon us: it can be seen clearly in such works as The Song of Roland, where the hero faints when he sees that his friend is dead. It is a world where male friendship is not a footnote in a book about homosexuality ­ rather it is a living force of its own, considered one of the highest forms of human emotion and behavior, and worthy of profound sentiments. And we have taken such a world and said, "Look. Here’s evidence of homosexuality."

Of all the people who lived on the other side of that divide who might have understood us, the classical writers would have been most sympathetic. They, like us, tended to look for sex within every friendship ­ indeed, they were the ones who first theorized that Achilles and Patroklos were lovers. Yet even so, look at the list of the essays and dialogues that classical writers produced on platonic friendship: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Books 8 and 9), Cicero’s On Friendship, Plato’s Lysis, Plutarch’s How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend, Seneca’s On Benefits, as well as various discussions by the Neopythagoreans, the early Christians, and others.

Why are historical writings on friendship ignored by scholars, except as tools to study other subjects? Why are dozens of books and articles published each year on the history of homosexuality, but virtually none on the history of friendship? Why does Yahoo list nearly one hundred sites on gay history but no sites on the history of friendship?

I do not propose to answer the above questions; I do not know the answer. I do know that the co-opting of historical passages on friendship by scholars of homosexuality, without similar consideration of such passages by scholars of friendship, is offering us a distorted view of both the history of homosexuality and the history of friendship. Only by establishing strong scholarship on the history of male friendship can we reach the point where we can distinguish "homoeroticism" (strong emotions between males) from true homoeroticism (sexual love between males).

As someone who writes non-scholarly articles on the history of male homosexuality, I would dearly like to see that day come. As someone who is female, I would also like to see more scholarship done on the history of female friendship and the much-neglected history of male-female friendship. And when that day comes, perhaps all of us, no matter what our views on "homoerotic" passages may be, can read the description of Socrates and Diotima and sigh, "Oh, what a beautiful portrait of friendship."

© 2002   Heather Elizabeth Peterson

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 Misguided Search for 'Homoeroticism' A Plea for Research on Friendship, 2002 <>

Related Links

Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics

Cicero: On Friendship

Plato: Lysis

Seneca: On Benefits

Edward Carpenter: Ioläus: An Anthology of Friendship
(an early example of the search for "homoeroticism")

Celebrate Friendship ("the history and politics of friendship")

The Friendship Archive (historical bibliography)

Friendship (books on this topic listed at
the Library of Congress, divided by subject)

The Ethics of Relationships (includes bibliographical
references for the history of friendship)

Friendship (a psychoanalyst bemoans the lack of
study of friendship; the article includes a bibliography)

Greek Friendship and Problems in the History of Christian Friendship (scholarly articles by historian David Konstan; requires Adobe Acrobat to read)

Monastic Love or Just a Friendship? (a scholarly
article on how a male-female friendship has been misinterpreted by historians)

Faithful Friend and Doting Lover (Renaissance friendship theories from the perspective of gay history)

gay sex

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