A Breakup With Tradition

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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, June 18, 2009


A Bold New Exploration of the Ancient World

By James Davidson | Random House. 789 pp. $45

Enthralling if overlong, "The Greeks and Greek Love" is written in part as a counterblast to Kenneth Dover's classic "Greek Homosexuality" (1978), which has been deeply influential in contemporary cultural studies. Dover argued that same-sex relationships among males in ancient Greece focused on sodomy, and that the submissive role was deeply humiliating. By contrast, the aggressive or dominant partner could freely engage in any amount of episodic sex without serious consequences to his career or reputation.

For Davidson, a professor of classics and history at the University of Warwick, this model leaves much to be desired and overlooks one important fact: actual love, the devotion of a couple to each other. He stresses that Dover -- and his followers, who included Michel Foucault -- proffered a vision of eros that ignores affection and true partnership. "By equating being in love with having sex, by confusing Greek sex with Greek Love, a courting couple with a couple in a relationship, Dover not only sexualized passionate eros, but made homosexual relationships look intrinsically impermanent, and by the same token trivial." Though Davidson never says it outright, "The Greeks and Greek Love" tacitly validates modern same-sex marriage, just as Dover's older study now seems to reflect the pre-AIDS era of promiscuous casual sex.

In the first section of his book, Davidson focuses on the meaning of Greek erotic terminology and Athenian sexual mores. His starting text is "The Symposium," Plato's classic dialogue on love. In particular, he focuses on the speeches of Pausanias, who describes the elaborate Athenian courtship ritual between admirer (erastes) and admired (eromenos). Here Davidson overturns the typical view of Greek love as a kind of pedophilia, an older male (the erastes) forcing his brutal attentions on a young boy (the eromenos).

In fact, a family's sons were carefully protected in Athenian society, and it was taboo for any unrelated man even to talk privately to them. Instead, sanctioned love affairs focused not on the pubescent but on 18- or 19-year-olds, young males who were neither boys nor full-fledged adults. Davidson dubs this group "striplings." As puberty seems to have set in four or five years later than it typically does today, these striplings would still be attractively beardless -- Greek men didn't trim their facial hair -- and at the acme of their masculine beauty. Their devotees were generally only a few years older than they were and often behaved with the giddiness of a modern fan club. Rather than being aggressors, groups of infatuated erastai (plural of erastes) would essentially worship a youthful heartthrob from a distance, writing poems, sighing heavily and frequently offering gifts.

In this Greek system, Davidson explains, eros ran in one direction: The besotted admirer, who "just can't help himself," did all the work while the hard-to-get beloved maintained his distance and apparent indifference. Still, it was ultimately the eromenos's decision whether to favor any particular man. For the Greeks, such favoring (charizesthai) had to avoid even the hint of quid pro quo or commodification: To exchange sex for money or political advantage was prostitution, and that taint would wreck an entire life. Everything instead should be built on a kind of gracious giving. With luck, philia, "intimate love," a true bond, might result. All in all, the course of same-sex love was highly formalized, usually culminating in rituals that look a lot like marriage ceremonies. Quite often, Davidson concludes, Greek homosexuals led their entire lives as committed and faithful couples.

In the middle section of his book, Davidson surveys and analyzes some of the literary and mythological models of same-sex relationships available to Greeks of the 5th century B.C. Among them are Achilles and Patroclus, Apollo and Hyacinthus, Zeus and Ganymede (whose name gave us the word "catamite"), Heracles and his traveling companion Iolaus, and Alexander the Great and his minister Hephaestion. Here, too, Davidson underscores that differing "homosexualities" existed in the various Greek city-states: Elaborate two-month-long abduction rituals in Crete, the Sacred Band of Thebes (a warrior elite consisting of male couples) and austere Spartan sexual protocols, including a bizarre form of lovemaking in which the younger partner remains swaddled from head to foot in his cloak.

In his final chapters, Davidson sums up his understanding of Greek love and attempts to trace its origins. He notes, for instance, that the gymnasium or training ground seems to be a common background element in vase paintings. He suggests that when applied to men, the Greek word "kalos" (beautiful) probably didn't mean prettiness, so much as the well-muscled "physical splendor" appropriate for a great warrior. He underscores that from a civic viewpoint, an erotic bond between two men could strengthen -- or damage -- the state by cutting across the usual loyalties to clan or class.

Davidson tentatively concludes that the template for Greek love might be traced back to the Bronze Age and, in particular, to chariot warfare. This last was organized as a two-man operation, consisting of a driver and a spearman, who needed to work closely, indeed intimately, together. Perhaps this tradition partially explains the frequent analogy comparing the amorous soul to a chariot yoked to unruly horses.

Davidson can be delightfully unruly himself, mixing high and low styles, supporting his serious scholarly points with humorous and even campy flourishes. Take, for instance, his portrait of Helen of Troy in her later years:

"Over twenty years after she was seduced and got carried away by Paris, Helen is nevertheless no Norma Desmond: a little ashamed of all the heroes who died for her, to be sure, but bitter, surely not, and she's still got it -- whatever it was she had -- wonderfully charming and mysterious, quietly self-confident, and ever so slightly from another planet."

James Davidson chose the title for his book with care. It really is about love, about long-term philia rather than just temporary lust. As he says with epigrammatic forcefulness: "Those who care only for sex give homosexuality a bad name."

Michael Dirda -- mdirda@gmail.com -- writes each Thursday in Style.

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