The Controversy of Homosexuality:
Ancient Greece and Rome Vs. the United States of Today
"'Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.' From the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution" (Ojeda 5).
There are many different analysis and opinions on various subjects of controversy. One of those subjects is homosexuality. Throughout history, homosexuality has been under scrutiny by many cultures, but it has also been honored and respected by others. The differences between both ancient Greek and Roman societies and that of the United States of today is a prime example of how various cultures view same-sex unions.
In Ancient Greek and Roman societies the term "homosexuality" did not exist (Alvear 73). In truth, the concepts of homosexuality and heterosexuality would have made ancient Greeks and Romans laugh. But many people are wrong in thinking that the ancient Greeks celebrated sexuality between two men: in all actuality they abhorred it (Alvear 73). The concept of two grown males interacting in sexual relations conflicted with the Greek ideal of an adult male's superior status (Alvear 77). This meant that the "object of a man's penetration had to be his social and sexual inferior: women or boys" (Alvear 77). In Greek culture misogyny ran deep (Alvear 77). The disapproval rationale of two grown men in love was because "sexual mores demanded that one of them would have to take a submissive role in bed. And to be submissive was to act like a girl, to take on characteristics of someone who had no rights, who was not educated, who could not hunt, who could not defend against an enemy, and who could not excel in athletics" (Alvear 78). A man who lowered himself in acting like a woman was "like a diamond pretending to be rhinestone. Why would you lower your market value" (Alvear 78)?
The Romans later took in this belief, which had an exalted term for men who properly engaged in homosexual acts: Vir (Alvear 78). Vir was used to symbolize "the ideal man: he who penetrates other men, but is himself not penetrated" (Alvear 78). Any Greek man that wanted to be penetrated was considered unnatural and "uncharacteristically subordinating himself to other men" (Alvear 78). Any man who enjoyed being penetrated by another was considered "constitutionally different and therefore unworthy of the status bestowed upon the noble male citizen. A man did not betray sexual and social expectations without being punished for it" (Alvear 78). Today in the United States "gay identified" men are ridiculed as passive sexual partners but are revered as dominant ones (Alvear 79). This does not, however, prove that the ancient Greek and Roman societies abhorred all of homosexuality. In fact homosexual love was "considered to be far superior to heterosexual love" (Spencer 43).
Women of that time were considered and raised to be whores, courtesans, wives, and mothers (Spencer 43). Married women were to be kept in the "inner recesses of the house, in the women's quarters, forbidden to show themselves in public unless accompanied by an older, trusted confidential male of the household and a female slave" (Spencer 44). Only courtesans were expected to "converse with wit and knowledge on the world's events" (Spencer 43). Women were considered "baby factories" (Alvear 73). A man either married a woman to carry on their lineage or to "acquire important things like territory, strategic alliances, and in many cases, exceptional wardrobes. It's not that love didn't exist between men and women: it's that it wasn't necessary or even desirable in a marriage" (Alvear 73). Greek society did not exactly find cause for celebration in a union or marriage between a man and woman except for the importance for passing on their family lineage (Alvear 74).
The ancient Greeks and Romans believed in and celebrated interactions between men and boys, paiderastia (Alvear 74). Paiderastia was not pedophilia, though (Alvear 74). Ancient Greeks, all of antiquity really, viewed sex with children with the same horror and outrage the United States views it with now (Alvear 73). It is merely that in ancient Greece and Rome the age of consent was lower than it is today (Alvear 74). Back in ancient Greece and Rome the consenting age for sex was around thirteen or fourteen (Alvear 74). Also, in that era people did not live to an old age of sixty or ninety. They lived to about around twenty or thirty (Alvear 74). This meant that there was not that much of an age difference between the older men and boys (Alvear 74). The older gentlemen, or erastes, would court the boys, or eromenos, only if the boy approved or wanted to be courted by that particular man (Alvear 74).
In Greek society paiderastia played a very critical role in achieving arête (Alvear 77). Ancient Greek males were not expected to actually marry and settle down with children (Alvear 77). They were, however, expected to mentor young boys (Alvear 77). "So the Greek male life had a definite trajectory: In adolescence, a young man was courted by older men and would choose one to be his lover" (Alvear 77). The young men were then expected to then reverse roles in early adulthood, courting and winning the love of a deserving young boy (Alvear 77). Though, if a young boy was not sought after by a respectable, noble, gentleman "then social shame befell the family" (Spencer 40).
Greek society believed in what was the Homeric ideal of excellence, which was referred to as arête (Alvear 31). Arête was what dominated Greek life and values for hundreds of years (Alvear 31). It was the expectance that older men would mentor younger men, teaching them how to hunt, fight, and take their places as noble citizens (Alvear 74). Arête was also used to explain and describe various different traits (Alvear 31). For example, the arête of a racehorse would have been its speed, the arête of a carthorse would have been its strength, and the arête of a soldier would have been their ability to kill their enemies, or how skilled they were (Alvear 31). If a soldier were extremely skilled they would have walked off a battlefield with only a few cuts or abrasions (Alvear 32). If they were not, then they would have been killed or mortally wounded (Alvear 32). This ideal also influenced many ancient philosophers such as, Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and Plutarch (Alvear 32). It is the ideal that also suffused Homer's epic poems the Odyssey and the Illiad (Alvear 31).
Two prime examples of men whom conformed perfectly to the expectation of male nobility, of arête, are the famous military leaders and soldiers, Achilles and Alexander the Great (Spencer 41). Achilles had a mentor (though little is known of who he was. There are many suspicions that he was one of King Agamemnon's generals, Odysseus), and he had a young male lover, Patroclus (his eromenos). Achilles was strong, brave, and boastful, he had female lovers, and passed on his lineage (Spencer 42). Again, in achieving much more in his lifetime than anyone has ever done, Alexander the Great became an example for accomplishing arête (Alvear 81). He had taken an older lover as a youth (though, his main love interest, Hephaestion, was only a year his senior), married by the time he was 30, he sired at least two children, and eventually became an erastes to someone much younger (Bagoas, the enslaved Persian eunuch) (Alvear 81).
A main influence for the Greek and Roman ideals of homosexuality came directly from their gods (Alvear 78). One of the more famous myths of Greek lore is that of Zeus and his youth lover, Ganymede Lewinsky (Spencer 26). Zeus was said to have been viewing the interactions on Earth from his throne on Mt. Olympus when he spotted the most beautiful boy in the world (Alvear 78). He asked of the boy's name and upon hearing it, he fell in love with the boy (Alvear 79). One day Zeus spied the boy again, but in the company of others this time in a meadow (Alvear 78). Zeus swept down from his throne on Mt. Olympus, changing into a "powerful, majestic eagle," and seized the boy in his talons (Alvear 79). Zeus was so infatuated and charmed with the young boy that he even appointed him cupbearer at the divine feasts (Alvear 79). This meant that only Ganymede had the honor of holding Zeus's cup and would kiss it before he filled it and placed it into the god's hand (Alvear 79).
Another renowned union was between the Greek god of light, prophecy, and higher developments of civilization (law philosophy, and the arts), Apollo and Hyacinthus (Alvear 79). Hyacinthus was the young son of the king of Sparta. Apollo mentored the young boy in hunting, gymnastics, and love (Alvear 80). Then in the accidental killing of his own lover, Apollo held his body and wept over it in deep anguish (Alvear 80). In a testament to Apollo's grief, a deliciously, lustrous lily bloomed (which today is called hyacinth or hyacinthius orientalis), and on its petals the letters "Ay" were painted, signifying the "sigh of pain rising from Apollo's heart" (Alvear 81).
Clearly Greek and Roman societies and the United States of today are drastically different. However, all three societies share main influences for their actions, beliefs, and views. For the Greek and Romans homosexuality was something to be celebrated, honored, and was expected of men. Their influences were from their gods and from tradition that had been passed down for countless years. It could also be thought the same for the United States. American society and culture could be said to have learned their hatred for homosexuals through their history. All throughout America's history its people have hated, discriminated, and prejudiced many (Sullivan 81). To start with the first learning of American hatred one would have to look towards another continent all together, Europe (Alvear 149).
Europe is where the pilgrims came from before they set sail for the New World. Before the settlers came to America they were under tyrant rule, heavily taxed, and were given unfair judgment in trials (among various other things). But one of the main reasons for their evacuation of Europe was on account of the church. When the raise of Christianity (or a more liberal form of Catholicism) came about, around 400 A.D., Europe flourished under Hellenism, the Eastern Golden Age (Alvear 149).
"With Hellenism came a renaissance of science and scholarship all over the Arab world" (Alvear 148). Alexandria, Egypt was the heart of the renaissance, where the Library of Alexandria was built and housed a booming collection of scrolls featuring science, philosophy, law, poetry, and art, but was later burnt down by fundamentalists (Alvear 148). Hellenism brought education to boys and girls of poor families as well as rich ones (Alvear 150). Some women during this time period even became noted philosophers and poets (Alvear 151). It also enlightened astronomers in the East, who where (a full 1,500 years before Galileo) challenging the view that the sun revolved around the earth (Alvear 149). Hellenism also stimulated a tremendous amount of mapmaking, trade, and economic prosperity (Alvear 149). However, everything that Hellenism shaped would soon be destroyed. As Christianity flourished into power, Hellenism "went down the toilet" (Alvear 149). Christianity had become hostile towards everything that threatened its belief system and when confronted with the ideals that Hellenism brought before it, Christianity sent "everything Greek up the creek without a paddle" (Alvear 149). Greek works, traditions, and practices were burned, banned, and belittled (Alvear 150). The world no longer had religious tolerance, racial diversity, economic prosperity, and artistic expression (Alvear 149). Finally, the East became no longer contactable as the Christian world collapsed into itself, ushering in the Dark Ages (Alvear 150).
No trace of Greek influence was left unturned or soiled, but for what was left of it in Egypt and Arabia, where Christianity had yet to touch upon (Alvear 150). It was not until Christianity (and the Crusades) finally reached the Egyptian and Arabian countries, around 1095 C.E., that Greek works were "discovered" and translated into Latin for the West (Alvear 150). But even with the regained knowledge and renaissance explosion later in Europe, "religious freedom" only freed enough to set the stage for departing to America with a little broader view of things (Alvear 151). With the teaching of hate toward themselves, others of diverse race and religion, the founders of America set the stage for the United States of today.
In the past 200 years, America has been butchered with civil war, racial and sexist discrimination, homosexual prejudice, and terrorism. Everyone would like to say that "terrorists" are the cause of most of America's strife, and they are right. What Americans do not understand though, is that the only terrorists that scourge the United States' soil are its own people. Americans, in their hatred and discrimination, has accomplished more damage themselves than any outside threat could ever do. Americans create colorful slurs for people without a second thought, such as "nigger," "spick," or "queer," but they have become almost accepted in modern day language as actual words for friends and loved ones (Sullivan 81). The United States' "don't tell, don't ask" policy in the military is a prime example of discrimination because of the fact that once a soldier is "outed" they can, and are still put in the brig and served with a dishonorable discharge for "indecent exposure" (Sullivan 82).
Another example of terrorism the American people have shown for its own citizens, is when AIDS broke out in America's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender population (Sullivan 86). No one wanted to know whom, why, or what it was that had spread throughout his or her cities. As soon as they realized a majority of the homosexual population were plagued with the disease most of America's radical homophobic population became fanatic. They attacked homosexuals and those who had become carriers of AIDS because of simple blood transfusions, or because of drug use, or dirty needles in tattoo parlors.
Additionally, until just recently in 2003, sodomy laws have still been in acting practice in thirteen states (Vicini 5). The Supreme Court ruled "the sodomy law an unconstitutional violation of privacy" (Vicini 1). Supreme Court also said "the law demeans the lives of homosexual persons"(Vicini 6). Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, "the state cannot demean their homosexual citizens existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime" (Vicini 9). Kennedy also had to say, "liberty protects a person from unwarranted government intrusions into a dwelling or other private places. In our tradition the State is not omnipresent in the home. And there are other spheres of our lives and existence, outside the home, where the State should not be a dominant presence. Freedom extends beyond spacial bounds. Liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct. The instant case involves liberty of the person both in its spatial and more transcendent dimensions. Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to impose our own moral code" (Vicini 12).
Unfortunately, yet hope inspiringly, the Supreme Court's ruling was just a small step forward into a more liberal and utopian America (Vicini 2). Homosexuality is just one subject of controversy that creates conflict in more than one time frame and place. In ancient Greek and Roman societies homosexuality was respected, where as heterosexuality was considered to only be a necessity to carry on a name. In America, times have evolved a great deal from burning, torturing, and slaughtering homosexuals, to a grudging acceptance of their existence. But with time people learn and with learning they succeed in becoming a true nation. Though it is rather ironic that the concept of learning and teaching can lead people to hate, but also to accept and to love. Given that, as one person put it quite perfectly, "united we stand, divided we fall."
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Ojeda, Aurigna. Homosexuality. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2004.
Sullivan, Andrew. Virtually Normal. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
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Spears, Jay. : Gay and Lesbian People in History . 24 Dec. 2004. 18 Feb.
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Lesbian People in History. 26 June 2003. L.A. Times. 22 Feb. 2005.
Smith, David, M. "The Promise of Protection." The Human Rights Campaign.
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"The Kiss." Fifth century BCE. Online image. Ren Mets / sokrates. 20 Feb. 2005.
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"Floating Water Hyacinth." Online image. Cambridge University Botanic Garden. 21
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