From the sixth to the fourth century B.C., Greek culture attained its most impressive achievements in literature, philosophy, politics, science and the arts. The Greeks of this era generally eschewed the legal enforcement of moral or religious notions of “right sexual conduct.” Classical Greek morality and law focused not on sexual sin, but on whether an individual’s conduct was harmful to others. To the ancient Greeks, eros was a primal force that permeated all facets of life.
The Greek gods indulged freely in sexual pleasure. In Greek mythology, Zeus variously became a bull, a swan and even rain with the goal of seducing mortals. Aphrodite was the goddess of love and of sexual rapture. Sex was “ta aphrodísiæ” — “the things of Aphrodite.” It is said that during the festival of Aphrodite her priestesses had sexual intercourse with strangers as a form of worship.
The Greeks approached the human form with no sense that nudity was inherently shameful. To the contrary, the phallus was a potent symbol of fertility, a central theme in Greek religion. A pillar topped by the helmet of Hermes adorned with an erect penis stood at nearly every Athenian’s front door. Vases and terra cottas depicted explicit scenes of vaginal and anal intercourse, masturbation and fellatio.
Moreover, the Greeks had no concept of “obscenity,” a legal notion that would not come into existence in Western culture for another 2,000 years. Greek comedy, for example, was often quite bawdy. Aristophanes, a fourth-century B.C. playwright, portrayed sexuality in all its many forms. In “Knights,” he depicted masturbation, fellatio and male-male anal sex. One character speaks boldly of sucking “cocks in the Prytaneum,” while another boasts of selling not only sausages, but occasionally also his “arse.” Greek literature playfully described women masturbating, either by hand or with the assistance of a device adapted to the purpose. The Greeks called such devices baubon or olisbos.
In Herondas’s “The Two Friends, or Confidential Talk,” two young women converse excitedly about these olisboi. At the end of the conversation, the woman without one hurries off to acquire such a “treasure” for herself. In Aristophanes’s “Lysistrata,” the women grieve the loss of the special leather olisboi that had been made to perfection by the women of Miletus. Greek vases explicitly depict the use of olisboi in every possible manner, position and combination.
A distinctive feature of classical Greek sexual life was the practice of pæderasty. Adult men, both married and single, often had sexual relationships with adolescent boys. (These relationships did not involve children, but post-pubescent adolescents, usually between the ages of 15 and 19. Sex with prepubescent boys was punished, sometimes quite harshly.) The Greek ideal of beauty was embodied most perfectly in the male youth. Solon, the poet and lawgiver, wrote of loving “a lad in the flower of youth, bewitched by thighs and by sweet lips.” The mighty gods of Olympus, from Zeus on down, had such relationships, as did Aeschylus, Sophocles, Alcibiades and Pindar.
Greek boys were not taught to see themselves as either heterosexual or homosexual, a distinction that did not exist for another 2,000 years. Instead, Greek culture acknowledged that same-sex and opposite-sex sexual desires could naturally coexist in varying degrees in the same individual, just as we today might think of the different desires individuals might have to engage in some sexual acts more than others. To the Greeks, same-sex sex was simply a sexual act. It did not define a type of person.
Greek pæderasty assumed relationships based on mutual affection. Plato observed that the adults in these relationships did “everything lovers do” for those “they cherish.” They showered them with gifts, verses, attention and love. Among other things, this was a way for adult men to mentor and socialize their juniors, particularly among the aristocratic class. Xenophon attested that in such relationships the older man took “pains to develop the character of his pupil, his ‘beloved,’ and pass on everything he knew to the boy.”
Many Greeks went beyond mere acceptance of this practice and described it as a particularly admirable form of human relation. Greek poetry and literature associated such relationships with love, integrity, honor and courage, and many Greeks believed that these relationships embodied the only form of eroticism that produced pure, enduring and spiritual love. In part, this was due to the prevailing view that women were inferior beings who were inappropriate objects of the finer feelings. A man who wanted to love truly had to love another male.
Female same-sex sex was less public than male same-sex behavior. But images of sex between women appear on Greek vases and terra cottas and, according to Plutarch, such relations were especially common in Sparta. The poetry of Sappho, ancient Greece’s most brilliant woman poet, has usually been understood as a celebration of lesbian love. It has been said that Greek literature owes to Sappho, who was born around 612 B.C. on the island of Lesbos, the “most memorable cries of love ever uttered by a human voice.”
In sum, the ancient Greeks generally regarded sexual pleasure as a natural and healthy part of life that enriched human experience. Although they valued moderation in all things and understood that unrestrained eros could threaten social stability, they neither inherited nor developed a belief that either morality or divine authority commanded the suppression of sexual desire. For the ancient Greeks, the concept of sexual sin simply did not exist.