Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

Greek Homosexuality

A review of Greek Homosexuality by K. J. Dover (1978)

[NOTE: My following review of Doverís now classic study of Greek homosexuality was published in 1979; Doverís views were challenged by James Davidson in November 2007. It is useful to go over Doverís views.]

For a very long time it was believed that the Greeks wholeheartedly accepted homosexuality; but in the 1960s and 1970s this view was challenged by men such as Arno Karlen in Sexuality and Homosexuality, until some writers have now come to the reverse view, believing that the Greeks unhesitatingly ridiculed homosexuality. But all is again well: Sir Kenneth Dover, President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, a man of unimpeachable scholarship, in a work impeccably documented, has reestablished the fact that Greek men loved their boys.

(A very short chapter covers the very few references to female homosexuality in Greek literature, mostly in works by and about Sappho. The topic – but not the behaviour – was taboo.)

One of the most admirable qualities of Sir Kenneth Doverís argument is its judiciousness. Here, for example, is how he sets up the framework for his study:

"How, when and why overt and unrepressed homosexuality became so conspicuous a feature of Greek life is an interesting subject for speculation, but we are sadly short of evidence, for there is no doubt that overt homosexuality was already widespread by the early part of the sixth century B.C. . . . Why the Athenians of the fourth century B.C. accepted homosexuality so readily and conformed so happily to the homosexual ethos is a question which can be answered instantly at a superficial level: they accepted it because it was acceptable to their fathers and uncles and grandfathers."

And it is at this "superficial" level that Dover quite rightly stops speculating about motivation, adamantly refusing to pursue such a fruitless line of enquiry any further. "The interesting and important question in respect of the fourth century is: how did homosexuality really work" This kind of focus means, for example, that no Close Binding Intimate Mother rears her ugly head, while statistical comparisons about the size and shape of the most desirable young penis is given a place of some prominence. The suggesting that the segregation of females had something to do with the preference for homosexuality is tentatively put forward, but with great caution: probably heterosexuality would have been more frequent had women been more available, but in any case boys were accessible in the gymnasia and they were the desired sex objects; and the most desired boys and youths were not substitutes for women – they were clearly "masculine" in both features and life-styles.

The major part of the study concerns the trial I 346 B.C. of an Athenian by the name of Timarkhos, who was prosecuted for having homosexually prostituted himself as a youth; he was found guilty as charged, and deprived of his civil rights, including the right to hold public office. This trial has been improperly used to "prove" that there were "laws against homosexuality" in Greece. But a nearly exegetical analysis of the text of the prosecution reveals that Timarkhosí crime was having sought public office from which homosexual prostitutes were disqualified: he would not have been found guilty if he had granted his favours for love rather than money, or if he had not been an Athenian citizen in the first place (non-citizens were automatically disqualified from public office and could prostitute themselves with impunity), or if he had been a homosexual prostitute without seeking public office. In other words, homosexuality was not at issue in the trial; even the prosecutor himself boasted of being homosexual. This section of the book is nearly pedantic, particularly in its linguistic analyses, but it is the kind of pedantry that is necessary to counter the slipshod conclusions of non-classical writers.

The trial serves as a jumping-off point for investigating Athenian laws and attitudes towards homosexuality as expressed in material ranging from graffiti to vase paintings (there are more than a hundred illustrations), from Aristophanic comedy to Platonic philosophy, from wall paintings to linguistics. Doverís conclusions are likely to create a buzz of controversy among at least the dons in departments of classical language and literature: for example, active homosexuals are not ridicules in Greek literature; it is only the passive homosexual who is regarded as "unnatural" if he expresses enjoyment of being buggered (boys were conventionally coy, and expected to grant their favours without admitting enjoyment of them, in the very same way that ladies in Victorian fiction were praised for dutifully submitting to their husbands but criticized if they actually admitted liking sex).

Doverís basic conclusion confirms Pausaniasí view expressed in Platoís symposium: It is creditable to grant any favour in any circumstances for the sake of becoming a better person." Or as Sir Kenneth Dover translates from euphemism into plain English: "acceptance of the teacherís thrusting penis between his thighs or in his anus is the fee which the pupil pays for good teaching, or alternatively, a gift from a younger person to an older person whom he has come to love and admire."

The book steadfastly ignores the questions to which the philistines want answers or judgements – the fact that Greek "homosexuality" is more precisely "pederasty" or even "pedophilia" is not a problem which concerns a true sch9olar. Scholarship of a kind which avoids begging any questions is the name of this game; purely academic questions are the ones which really matter, and at times Dover gives us not so much an analysis of Greek love as an inventory of Greek pots. Frankly, I personally find this most refreshing; although the book is very hard-going and neither very interesting nor very accessible to non-specialists, it is quite a change from the humbug of the moralizers, and is guaranteed to be the definitive study with which all future writers on Greek homosexuality must grapple.

Rictor Norton

(This review was originally published in Gay News many years ago. Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This review may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)

Return to Reviews and Critiques
Return to Gay History and Literature