Ancient History & Civilisation

Section VI

Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing


Sexual Preference:
A rainbow of choices

Since words like homosexual, heterosexual, and transgender didn’t even exist long ago, the idea of defining sexual preferences as life choices or as unnatural practices would have sounded nonsensical in Greece or Rome.

There clearly was a prodigious amount of sexual activity, from male-to-young-male flings to durable erotic relationships between adult males—the latter sometimes frowned upon. Men relished these choices and many more besides. The thing was, they didn’t have to choose either-or. They could sample it all, or nearly so.


Love and sexual attraction weren’t either-or choices among the Greeks of old; many enjoyed heterosexual relationships as well as same-sex bonds.

In centuries more puritanical than the present one, classical historians and researchers tended to view the bewildering array of Greek and Roman polysexuality as outrageous, orgiastic, even abusive. Since the twentieth century, however, specialists in the field, particularly in light of evolving ideas, began to see the sexual paradigm of those long-ago cultures as active versus passive.

And that boiled down to: Who got to penetrate? And who was penetrated? Today that idea has also been rejected as too rigid.

Therefore, regarding the Greeks and Romans of old, we’re back to square one with Socrates the philosopher, who simply said, “I only know what I don’t know.” (At least we’re in good company.)

One of America’s much-read weekly columnists, Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope fame, wrote a column in 2006 that nails this issue. As he puts it: “Truth is, we don’t really get what was up with the ancient Greeks. Even now there’s a lot we don’t know and probably won’t ever know … The real handicap, though, is that little of what we think we know about sexuality now prepares us to understand what the Greeks thought about it then. Today we tend to regard sexual orientation as a binary proposition—most people are attracted to either men or women; relatively few are consistently attracted to both. What’s more, we think of sexual identity as innate and more or less immutable. It may take awhile … to figure out if you’re gay or straight, but once you do, you stay that way for life. None of this could confidently be said of the Greeks.”

To make matters more complex, the traditions of male-to-male intimacy and the status of such couples varied greatly from Greece to Rome, and even more so within the Greek world itself. For example, male couples in the city-state of Athens were invariably free citizens, typically an adult paired with a teenager outside his immediate family. This was not viewed as pedophilia but pederasty, a bonding relationship that could have both non-sexual and erotic aspects. When the teen reached full manhood, the relationship ended; later he in turn might become the mentor (erastes) of an eromenos, a loved one twelve to seventeen. Long-term male-to-male relationships were discouraged but occurred just the same, as you’ll see in the entry on bisexual playwrights Sophocles and Euripides.

Other Greek city-states followed different traditions for male-to-male relationships. On Crete, for instance, where the earliest evidence about pederasty has been found, a coming-of-age abduction took place, after which a lover and his youth spent several months hunting and feasting together.

On the Greek mainland, the city of Thebes and the region of Boeotia were famed for the frank acceptance of male couples in civilian and military life, which you can read about further in this book’s entry on the Sacred Band.

Although the literary and archaeological evidence is uneven and sometimes contradictory, pederasty in its various forms was clearly embedded in Greek population centers from Ionia to Sicily, and from Corinth to Macedonia. Elsewhere in this book, you’ll also encounter the glorious yet tragic love story of history’s most famous Macedonian: Alexander the Great and his lifelong friend and lover, Hephaestion.

In sharp contrast to the Greeks, when a Roman of the knightly or patrician class got intimate with a boy or man, that person was either a slave, a male prostitute, a foreigner, or someone of lower social status—such as a dancer, actor, or gladiator. In imperial Roman times, elite males strove mightily to outdo one another in terms of power, influence, and level of conspicuous consumption. One way to flaunt it was by adoring (and sexually using) a puer delicatus, an exquisite boy, chosen for his good looks and grace, at times taken from the ranks of that person’s household slaves.

What precisely did a Roman do with his delicate boy? Or a Greek with his teenage eromenos lover? One option was a nonpenetrative but satisfying technique also employed by couples of both genders today. Called intercrural or interfemoral coitus, the Greeks referred to it as “doing it between the thighs.” It appears on Athenian Greek vases and on other objects as well. The stance shows an older male with a teenager, sometimes facing each other while standing, and at others, from behind, lying down. Another technique, today called frottage or genital-to-genital sex, involved sexual rubbing, usually face-to-face. Beyond these, of course, existed other options, from anal to oral—which are discussed elsewhere in this book.

Today, a number of worthy books on the subject of ancient sexual practices and mores vis-à-vis our own shed more light on what the Greeks and Romans really did, and what they really meant by their terminology.

These titles (representing a spectrum of views) are especially helpful: Looking at Lovemaking, by John R. Clarke; Sexuality in Greek and Roman Society and Literature, by Marguerite Johnson and Terry Ryan; The Reign of the Phallus, by Eva Keuls; Love Between Women, by Bernadette Brooten; Pompeii: The Living City, by Alex Butterworth and Ray Laurence; Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece, by William A. Percy; and Courtesans and Fishcakes plus The Greeks and Greek Love, by James Davidson.

K. J. Dover’s updated edition of Greek Homosexuality also contains rich visual evidence about the techniques and positions used within male-male and male-female contexts. That old adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words” certainly holds true with regard to Greco-Roman art. Studying the erotic and romantic depictions on drinking vessels, cups, mirrors, and other artifacts, including items as minute as seal rings, is revelatory. As John Clarke, author of Looking at Lovemaking, notes, “The artistry remains are far more democratic and catholic than the texts that have come down to us.” And more honest, too, since artists of long ago felt freer to portray the authentic sensuality and tenderness of couples, as well as their complex repertoire of sexual positions; furthermore, they did so with male-to-male subjects, male-female ones, and female couples.

Clarke also points out their popularity. A wide variety of consumers commissioned or bought items with erotic themes. The objects ranged from modest lamps and accessories within the reach of almost anyone to luxury items like the Warren Cup, its exquisitely detailed scenes created in silver by a superb artisan. Since their cultures had a frank appreciation of human physicality, they were much more accepting of nudity and sexual imagery.

Put another way: Greeks and Romans, whatever their orientation or gender, liked to look at sexual portrayals—as well as take part in them.

And oh yes, what about female sexuality? Because male minds (no matter which gender, or both, aroused them) often focused on the pitcher versus catcher side of sex, they found it supremely difficult to believe that women, who conveniently enough were designed in a way that invited penetration, longed for anything other than a good poke. And pokes they got, since heterosexual intercourse (for fun or for procreation) occurred with very great frequency. So did sodomy or anal sex, which from the female point of view had contraceptive value in long-ago times.

Lastly, Greek and Roman males had a big blind spot when it came to females. Since they tended to view women as inferior versions of men, they also believed that women were empty vessels that required filling periodically—in one way only. And by males only. Could women experience erotic fulfillment with their own gender? Impossible; just look at that female plumbing.

In the next entry, you’ll read more about female eroticism and the women who proved the men wrong: the gals who chose to be tribades, one of the earlier terms (none of them very cordial) for lesbian.

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