Male Homosexuality

 erastês and erômenos

Athenian men were not homosexual in the sense that they were sexually attracted only to other males, although there were such men just as in our society. Robin Waterfield1  suggests that the term ‘homoeroticism’ more accurately describes Athenian males, who were sexually attracted to both other males  (homoeroticism) and women (heteroeroticism) and generally viewed both forms of love as equally normal.

Adult males (erastai = 'lovers') sought sexual and romantic satisfaction among boys in their teens (erômenoi = 'the recipients of love'), but not because these young males were feminine in appearance.  In fact,  just the opposite was true.  The younger male was expected to follow a code of behavior that is taught to girls these days, i.e., not to be sexually aggressive, to resist sexual advances, and not to give in too easily.  When a boy did finally give in, he was not expected to have any active involvement in sexual intercourse, but merely to be a passive recipient (anal and intercrural2  intercourse).  These relationships between men and boys in their teens were not merely sexual.  They typically involved close friendship and mentoring of the younger by the older in the matters of social behavior and ethics.

Athenian society in general tolerated this homosexual relationship and excused it with a wink, if it did not violate the bounds of decorum (e.g., sexual aggressiveness and promiscuity on the part of an erômenos or carrying on this kind of affair after the boy had become a man and/or after the older male had married).  On the other hand, among the wealthy Athenian aristocracy, the romantic association between erastês and erômenos was idealized and positively encouraged. Socrates3 was attracted to teenage boys, as is evident in this encounter with Charmides in a palaestra4  (Plato, Charmides 155 d):

Socrates, however, viewed the erastês-erômenos relationship differently from his aristocratic friends.  Despite the obvious pleasure that Socrates derives from this glimpse, he immediately expresses suspicion of the power of this sexual attraction (Charmides 155 d-e): Socrates recommended to his associates that they substitute love of the mind and moral character for purely sensual love.  Xenophon has Socrates go so far as to call sexual intercourse between males “shameful” (Symposium. 8.32): Socrates also admired the beauty of Alcibiades, one of the most pursued boys in Athens, who himself was completely taken with the philosopher and was apparently  ready to submit to any advances from the older man.  Nonetheless, an attempt by Alcibiades to seduce Socrates, a reversal of the expected pursuit of the younger by the older, failed miserably (Plato, Symposium 219 b-d).  Socrates was determined to keep his relationship with Alcibiades (and any other young man), entirely on an intellectual level. Socrates’ view of homoerotic behavior, however, was quite different from that of most Athenian aristocrats.


1. Translator of Plato: Symposium (New York 1994) xv.  Return to text.
2. 'Between the thighs'. Return to text.
3. Socrates himself was not wealthy, but his personality and philosophy gained him many friends and associates among rich aristocrats.  On the other hand, Socrates was not poverty-stricken as is sometimes claimed.  He was able to afford hoplite armor, which put him in the Athenian middle class. Return to text.
4. The palaestra or 'wrestling school' was an educational facility in which combat sports were taught to boys.  It was also a social center where men gathered for conversation and to be near their erômenoi. Return to text.

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