The Greeks and Greek Love: A Bold New Exploration of the Ancient World

The Greeks and Greek Love: A Bold New Exploration of the Ancient World

by James Davidson


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For nearly two thousand years, historians have treated the subject of homosexuality in ancient Greece with apology, embarrassment, or outright denial. Now classics scholar James Davidson offers a brilliant, unblushing exploration of the passion that permeated Greek civilization. Using homosexuality as a lens, Davidson sheds new light on every aspect of Greek culture, from politics and religion to art and war. With stunning erudition and irresistible wit–and without moral judgment–Davidson has written the first major examination of homosexuality in ancient Greece since the dawn of the modern gay rights movement.

What exactly did same-sex love mean in a culture that had no word or concept comparable to our term “homosexuality”? How sexual were these attachments? When Greeks spoke of love between men and boys, how young were the boys, how old were the men? Drawing on examples from philosophy, poetry, drama, history, and vase painting, Davidson provides fascinating answers to questions that have vexed scholars for generations. To begin, he defines the essential Greek words for romantic love–eros, pothos, philia–and explores the shades of emotion and passion embodied in each. Then, exploding the myth of Greek “boy love,” Davidson shows that Greek same-sex pairs were in fact often of the same generation, with boys under eighteen zealously separated from older boys and men.

Davidson argues that the essence of Greek homosexuality was “besottedness”–falling head over heels and “making a great big song and dance about it,” though sex was certainly not excluded. With refreshing candor, humor, and an astonishing command of Greek culture, Davidson examines how this passion played out in the myths of Ganymede and Cephalus, in the lives of archetypal Greek heroes such as Achilles, Heracles, and Alexander, in the politics of Athens and the army of lovers that defended Thebes. He considers the sexual peculiarities of Sparta and Crete, the legend and truth surrounding Sappho, and the relationship between Greek athletics and sexuality.

Writing with the energy, vitality, and irony that the subject deserves, Davidson has elucidated the ruling passion of classical antiquity. Ultimately The Greeks and Greek Love is about how desire–homosexual and heterosexual–is embodied in human civilization. At once scholarly and entertaining, this is a book that sheds as much light on our own world as on the world of Homer, Plato, and Alexander.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375505164
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/26/2009
Pages: 832
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 9.30(h) x 2.00(d)

About the Author

James Davidson is a classical scholar and history professor at the University of Warwick in England. He is the author of Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens and is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books, among other journals. He lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Before we start looking at how the ancient Greeks talked of affairs of the heart, we need to remind ourselves how we moderns do it. Even when you know a language inside out, it can be difficult to pin words down, and words of love are especially slippery. Here are a few fragments of conversations overheard. See if you can work out the nature of the affections and guess which ones are talking about sex, which are going to end in tragedy and which will live most happily ever after.

1“I love you.” “I love you too, mate.”

2“I’m not in love.” “No you’re not. You’re in lust.”

3“I love you.” “Look, I really like you.”

4“I’m really sorry. You know how much I love you. But I like boys.”

5“She’s nice.” “Yeah. She’s a really lovely person. I’m terribly fond of her.”

6“He’s nice.” “He’s to die for.”

Try explaining to a foreigner what the words “like” and “love,” “lovely,” “in love” and “nice” mean in English. It doesn’t help to look them up in the Oxford English Dictionary, where there are pages and pages that try to explain. These are words that belong to our own very peculiar and socially promiscuous environment. They have evolved a high degree of ambivalence and diplomatic sensitivity, and have a lot of work to do in getting us through a minefield of possible misunderstandings and embarrassments with the fewest accidental detonations. The Greeks too had a number of words for love, quite apart from the two that most concern us: philia, “intimate love,” and eros, “the love drive.” As to whether the Greeks made a better job of delimiting the field, here is my schematic guide to a few ancient loves the Greeks had words for...


Let’s start at the shallow end. If you go to Greece today you will hear countless songs about love on the radio. You may be able to make out the words s’agapo—“I love you”—and m’agapeis—“do you love me?” In ancient Greek the word agap¯e and its verb(s) are used above all for the feelings of proud and indulgent parents slaughtering a fatted calf for an eldest son, or the tail-?wagging pleasure of old retainers when the master of the house comes home at last. It can certainly be used in the context of sexual relationships, but it has little sexual heat, a “fondness” or “affection” expressed as a “fussing over” of someone who “pleases you,” expressing neither intimacy nor an impassioned desire, but something closer to “proud regard.”

Agape and its relatives are used by Xenophon to describe the chaste-ish feelings of Spartan men for boys they have relationships with, the affection of the soldiers in the Theban “Army of Lovers” for their younger partners, or that of Zeus for Ganymede. Although most modern scholars discount claims of chasteness in Greek “homosexuality,” since they think that “homosexuality” is desire for sex, and though agape certainly doesn’t rule out a sexual relationship, it seems clear that these authors were using a word that need not entail sexual passion. Greek Christians certainly thought so. Agapetos is all over the New Testament, the word normally translated “beloved,” as in “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today...” Christ is God’s “beloved son,” John the “beloved disciple,” etc., setting up an opposition to eros, which thereby took the first steps toward sex.


Now we come to the masculine “loves” often represented as little male Cupids. Pothos and its relatives are usually translated as “longing.” It seems to refer to a kind of missing of, or yearning for, something or someone who may be far out of reach. It first appears (as pothe/ pothos) in Homer’s Iliad as a simple “need for someone you have come to rely on,” as when Achilles goes missing from the ranks of the Greek army while he sulks in his tent, a feeling that someone isn’t there whom it would help to have around. In slightly later writers it seems to assume a more sentimental intensity—Demeter yearning for her abducted daughter, people longing for Odysseus who has been away so long. Much later it appears as something inside Alexander the Great that sends him halfway across the world, a kind of “restless questing.” In affairs of the heart however it is less energetic, and is best described as a manque langoureux, a “languorous missing” or “pining.”

Pothos often seems barely distinguishable from other words for erotikos desire, but there is something odd about the syntax of its verb pothein. Whereas other “desiring” verbs take an indirect object, implying “striving after,” pothein takes a straightforward direct object, like verbs of “asking” or “begging,” and inanimate objects can experience this pothos, although they cannot feel desire.g., “but that just begs [pothei] the question...” It seems therefore to retain something of its old Homeric inertness. Indeed originally it probably meant simply “seek.” One recent scholar suggests that pothos, therefore, is originally “desire for that which is not easily obtained by the subject’s actions alone.”* This sense of yearning without active targeting can be conveyed in the English “crying out for,” as in “That table is crying out for a great big vase of flowers,” “That outfit is crying out for a string of pearls,” “Ithaca is crying out for its king.” It is the abandoned dog returning to the side of the motorway to the place it last saw its master, someone running down each morning as soon as the postman delivers to see if that letter with the familiar writing has finally arrived, waiting for a phone call from the daughter given up for adoption in the 1950s, “watching this space,” “crossing your fingers.” A man in love can hope that the youth he “pines for” will “pine for him in return” pothon antipotheisthai. Pothos is perhaps best described as “a person-shaped hole in your heart.”


Another of these little Cupids is sometimes labeled Himeros; you often see him with Dionysus and Ariadne who, soon forgetful of Theseus who had sneaked off and abandoned her there, fell in love with Dionysus on Naxos and vanished with him into heaven. On one vase Himeros puts a sandal on Dionysus’s outstretched foot. On another he drenches Ariadne with love poured from a sacred bowl. Pothos is when the object of love is absent, himeros when it is present, says Socrates in Cratylus, Plato’s dialogue on words. Plato often defines words as what he thinks they should mean rather than as what they normally do, but here I am inclined, provisionally, to trust him. Some have suggested that himeros properly refers to a desire generated from outside oneself—“a sudden urge [himeros] came over me to get out of the house...”—which may suddenly depart of its own accord. It often tends to prompt immediate action on the part of the stricken subject, or to focus on something or someone imminent. In the field of amorousness it seems to describe a warm feeling you get, which may seem like a kind of emanation from the object, when the object is in range, something that “streams” over you or “radiates” from someone. Later Greeks were somewhat amused to find that among the songs attributed to Solon, the revered founder of the Athenian Constitution, were some lines about “spending fond hours in the company of a boy [paidophilein]”—hours that seemed to include “desire for imminent [himeiron] thighs and sweet-tasting mouth.”

Himeros is “captivation,” in the manner of that Girl from Ipanema who leaves a wake of sighs as she passes obliviously along the caminho do mar; her obliviousness of charm is part of the charm—it mustn’t be contrived. Himeros has the effect of turning a passive object of desire into an innocent agent, and a subject of desire into an assault victim, attacked, penetrated through his eyes. Modern advertisements invoke himeros when they suggest that wearing a certain kind of perfume or aftershave will have a dramatic effect on passersby—cars crash into lampposts, men fall off ladders, pneumatic drills puncture water pipes.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, himeros is a kind of current that streams unwittingly from the eromenos, the young man who is the object of interest, and drenches the erastes, the man who is in love with him, when they touch for the first time and get socially intimate, a feeling that manifests itself long after the suitor has fallen in love, i.e., been put under the spell of Eros, and been accepted into the boy’s company, and a little time before sex is on the cards. The love-?stream is so copious that having soaked the enamored it flows back into the soul of the boy and gets him too all aflutter. This streaming surge was first identified by Zeus himself, says Plato, when himeros was pouring out over him from Ganymede. It seems clear that he is allegorizing the shining nectar and ambrosia that Ganymede poured out into the king of the gods’ cup, a stream later authors identified with the shimmering liquid of stars that seems to pour out from the constellation Aquarius. Himeros is perhaps best described as a “love attack.”


Now we reach the kernel of this book. Eros is Greek Love himself. He is the original of these fairy Cupids. He smells divine, carries flowers, especially roses, sometimes with petals clinging to his feet, where he has been walking. He wears a mischievous smile, is sometimes armed with bow and arrow and sometimes a whip or a cattle prod. And though never a “god of homosexual love” and certainly no stranger to love between males and females, yet when set alongside his mother Aphrodite he does seem to complement rather than reinforce her, a god of Love in general, but with a special purview over one Love in particular, the embodiment of the object of Love for Boys, as beautiful Aphrodite embodies the object of desire for women.

Eros is sometimes brother, sometimes father of Pothos and Himeros, and he seems to combine elements of both: the energy of imminent himeros, the distance and longing of pathetic pothos. One key aspect of Eros, however, is that he possesses the person in love. He is the demon that puts your life offtrack, robs you of all your common sense, and of sleep at night. He is very much an interior force, supersubjective, something you nurse inside you, getting your blood up, pushing and pestering, goading you with his whip, driving you mad.

In the fourth century bc, the sculptor Scopas, revered for his ability to inject a miraculous life into marble, made a group of all three of these Cupids, Himeros, Eros and Pothos, for the temple of Aphrodite Action (Praxis) in the town center of Megara. How Scopas differentiated them is now lost to us, but on a vase of the fifth century we can see all three together in the famous episode from myth in which the Trojan prince called Paris or Alexander has to choose the most beautiful of three beautiful goddesses. Athena and Hera never stood a chance; Aphrodite had brought her whole gang with her. Aphrodite wins the contest by bribing the judge with the offer of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. The artist has painted Pothos close to the goddess, evoking longing for some distant object in her gift: beautiful Helen. Himeros is off duty, lounging around. He won’t have anything to do until Helen is within Paris’s imminent reach. As for Eros he is concentrating on the judge himself, clouding his judgment, whispering “go for it,” and making his heart race.

We should remember that these Cupids, these aspects of loving, are not necessarily to do with amorousness unless they are used in an amorous context. It is perfectly proper to talk of a himeros, a “sudden urge,” to ask a question or of Alexander’s “longing,” pothos, to visit Gordium and untie the Gordian knot. This is especially important to remember when we are talking of Eros, for his field is more than that of the heart. Homer talks readily of eros for food, dancing, sleep, war. And much later Thucydides talks of how the Athenians were filled with eros to mount a naval expedition to conquer Sicily, a desire more targeted than Alexander’s pothos to conquer the world, as if he had a world-shaped hole in his heart. Eros is a particular kind of targeting energy, not just a romantic love or sexual desire. A more scientific investigation into his origins concludes that eros must have lost two throaty consonants; among the prehistoric Indo-Europeans “eros” sounded something like “khherrrgghh...,” an appropriate vocalization for a primordial lump of rock and not unrecognizable perhaps for those who have been in love and have had a hard time of it. But the point is that this original “eros” meant, it has been tentatively deduced, something like “wanting the pleasure of a piece of it.”

It is hard to say when this now familiar figure first appears in the record, since gods don’t always have labels in Greek art, although often they do. Possibly the image of the Cupid was born in Sparta, for on one cup from Sparta of the sixth century bc we see pictures of men and women lying on couches enjoying a feast, while above them flutter little winged figures, sometimes naked, sometimes dressed, sometimes bearded, sometimes not, carrying wreaths, i.e., leafy tiaras, to crown the feasters, and stylized flowers. There are many of these winged spirits in early Spartan art, and we don’t always know their significance, but here the wreaths and the flowers and the drinking party give the game away. On one vase in particular, these little winged men alternate with little bird-women, seductive female Sirens, and one must, I think, consider them proper Cupids, Erotes. And there’s also an Eros on a mirror, symbol of beauty and vanity, next to a naked goddess who must be Aphrodite.

worship of eros

Eros is unusually prominent in Athens. He is depicted with his mother on the Parthenon frieze looking out over the assembled processional Athenians, and he received sacrifices and other honors at a number of places, notably in the gymnasium of “Academy,” just outside the city walls, where Plato chose to site his School, thus partially accounting for Plato’s preoccupation with Love. The great philosopher’s complaints about the lack of honor paid to Eros are not unlike the complaints of a medieval academic from Oxford lamenting the lack of honor paid to St. Frideswide. Certainly we should learn to look at his great dialogues on Love, notably the Symposium and Phaedrus, as acts of piety honoring the locally presiding deity... among other things.

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