The myth lingers on

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Grades of boys

Catharine Edwards

THE GREEKS AND GREEK LOVE. By James Davidson. 634pp. Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Pounds 30 (US $59.65) - 978 0 297 81997 4.

In the middle of the gymnasium, the exercise ground frequented by the citizen male youth of Athens, two beautiful, naked young men are locked in an erotic embrace, while their peers look on approvingly. This scene, from a vase of the late sixth century bc, offers, on James Davidson's reading, an image of Greek Love (the use of capitals plays a significant role in his book) which is a world away from the criminalized sodomy, the pathologized homosexual - or even the illicit fumblings of schoolboys after lights out - of more recent centuries. To mark their graduation to citizen status, their coming out, as it were, the new cohort of eighteen-year-olds would run a nude torch race the night before the Panathenaea, the great summer festival of Athena, from the altar of love in the gymnasium outside the city walls to an altar inside the city. Older men looked on as they ran, admiring their beautiful young flesh in action, perhaps singling out a well-made individual for future courtship. The love such young men might inspire was closely integrated into a range of religious cults and rituals both in Athens and elsewhere in the Greek world.

Although there is a lot of semen in evidence - sometimes in unexpected places - The Greeks and Greek Love is emphatically about love rather than sex. Greek Love is the passionate devotion of one man (or in some communities woman, on Davidson's model) to another, a devotion which meets with general approval (and need not necessarily involve sex); in the words Plato puts in the mouth of Pausanias in the Symposium, "we do not merely tolerate, we even praise the most extraordinary behaviour in a lover in pursuit of his beloved, behaviour which would meet with the severest condemnation if it were practised for any other end".

Among the heroes particular to Athenian democracy were Harmodius and Aristogiton. These two met their deaths for daring to assassinate the tyrant (or rather the tyrant's brother) Hipparchus on the morning of the great Panathenaea in 514 bc, a key moment in the establishment of the democratic regime. Whether or not Hipparchus had sought to seduce Harmodius, the assassins' bravery was seen as motivated by their altruistic devotion to one another. Statues of the two of them, the younger beardless Harmodius, the older bearded Aristogiton, stood as emblems of democracy in the Athenian agora, still celebrated centuries later.

All the same, the distinction between eros, one-sided devotion, often publicly demonstrated, and philia, a relationship which involved reciprocity, is a significant one. It is eros, that devoted pursuit of what evades one's grasp, which plays the crucial role in Platonic philosophy, for instance. The seeker after wisdom yearns for, but can never attain, the beauty of sublime truth.

This is more than an analogy, for the fleeting incarnation of beauty in a young man may well serve as the initial stimulus to this supremely noble philosophical endeavour. At the same time, Davidson argues that many actual erotic pursuits would have the end result of philia, ongoing mutual affection.

The relationship between Pausanias and the poet Agathon referred to in the Symposium (and elsewhere) seems to have endured decades. Might this not count as marriage, by some criteria at least? Indeed, for Davidson, evidence for rituals of homosexual troth-plighting is to be found in numerous images and texts from Athens and elsewhere.

Davidson argues convincingly for a move away from what he terms "sodomania" - the preoccupation with the politics of penetration, the idea that what really mattered was who penetrated whom. This was the view of, especially, Kenneth Dover, whose Greek Homosexuality (first published in 1978) remains highly influential, not least through its impact on Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality. In Davidson's account, being penetrated was not (as they had argued) intrinsically humiliating; rather, a beloved youth might under certain circumstances quite properly grant his lover all kinds of favours. At the same time references to looks, smiles and conversations are not necessarily to be taken as euphemistic cloaks for more intimate contact.

Certainly, Greek texts evince concern about granting favours for the wrong reasons (most significantly financial gain) and about uncontrolled desire for sex, but not (despite the claims made by Dover and Foucault) about exactly which sexual acts take place. Greek writers also talk - and worry - about under-age sex. For some modern historians, what look like references to the sexual exploitation of the young constitute a hideous blot on the beauty of classical Athenian culture. Shouldn't we be concerned at poems dwelling on the charms of boys when the down first appears on their cheeks or vases showing an older bearded man apparently pinning down an unwilling boy? Davidson adduces persuasive parallels from other pre-industrial cultures to suggest that the age of first beard was likely to have been significantly later in antiquity than it is in the modern West, perhaps around eighteen. Importantly, the very term "boy" turns out to be an ambiguous one in classical Athens. In general Greek usage, pais (when not referring to a male slave of any age) signified a male under twenty, but in Athens it was often used more specifically to refer to a male under eighteen (brilliant detective work has gone into Davidson's delineation of the Athenian age-class system). Thus in some contexts "boys" are strictly off limits - as under-eighteens they can be admired but only from afar (and, in wealthy families, are strictly chaperoned). But those aged eighteen or nineteen, whom Davidson distinguishes as striplings or youths, were expected to inspire love among, and be proper objects of pursuit for, the young men aged twenty and over. An age difference was expected between a lover and his beloved, but it will often have been only a couple of years (far less than the gap which separated many Athenian husbands from their wives).

Greek Love was by no means an exclusively Athenian phenomenon. Davidson traces its multiple varieties, including relationships between women, which were characteristic not only of Lesbos (the home of Sappho) but also of Sparta, he argues. Different "love-ways" between males seem to have been practised particularly in Sparta (where sex between the under-eighteens was said to be common, but mitigated by a cloak separating flesh from flesh), in Crete (where formalized relationships between an older and a younger man were framed by complex rituals) and in Elis (whose brusque practices were spoken of with disapproval by other Greeks).

Davidson's book is at its most persuasive in exploring the work done by these Greek Love relationships in their particular social contexts. Hipparchus' pursuit of Harmodius, and other similar courtships, functioned on one level as a mechanism to win over new adherents to the supporters of tyranny in Athens.

Greek Love served to reinforce bonds in military units, most famously in the Theban "sacred band"; no one wants to appear a coward in front of his beloved.

In Sparta, the bond between a lover and his beloved worked to mediate potentially acrimonious rivalries between age-classes. Davidson also offers a persuasive picture of the politics of love in the court of Alexander the Great.

What might matter most about Alexander's passionate devotion to Hephaestion, he contends, is not whether they actually had sex, but rather that his role as beloved allowed the talented Hephaestion to take on a leading part in government from which his low social status would otherwise have excluded him.

Myths, in all their rich complexity, play a key role here in articulating the cultural centrality of Greek Love. Achilles and Patroclus, as they appear in Homer and in later literature, are its patron saints. In this respect also Davidson's ancient Greece is far from homogeneous. Local variants of the stories of Zeus and Ganymede, Apollo and Hyacinthus, or Heracles and Iolaus are tied suggestively into the details of particular cults, into Greek topography and astronomy (though sometimes the mythological connections Davidson articulates are dazzling rather than persuasive).

By turns lyrical, analytic and militant, this is a magnificently personal and self-reflexive book; Davidson vividly evokes his own adolescent engagement with Dover's commentary on Aristophanes' Clouds, for instance, or his experience of gazing at the stars on a clear night in Spain, or how his views on the way a particular word should be translated have changed over the years. The ancient Greek language, in all its subtlety and strangeness, painstakingly elucidated for the Greekless reader, is at the heart of this book. Davidson offers thought-provoking and original readings of Homer, Plato, Sappho and a host of other Greek (and later) texts. His discussions of images exploit their detail and bring out their beauty with tremendous subtlety - though on occasion credulity is strained (and it's a pity the images themselves - with the exception of the seductive jacket and endpapers - are less than clearly reproduced).

Less successfully integrated, perhaps, is Davidson's analysis of the politics of modern scholarship. In addressing the question of why classicists are obsessed with anal sex, Davidson charts at length formative moments in Dover's intellectual and emotional development and the (for Davidson) baleful influence on Foucault of his colleague at the College de France, the Roman historian Paul Veyne (who certainly argued that the Romans were obsessed with who penetrated whom - a more plausible argument in their case than for the Greeks, one might contend). Perhaps it is the case that Foucault's unwillingness to identify himself as gay was on some level motivated by his experience, as a child in Vichy France, of seeing Jewish boys "disappear" from his school. Yet Davidson's insistence on the complex inter-relationship between twentieth- century intellectual justifications and critiques of racism and of homophobia entangles him in an extended and problematic discussion of theories of culture which fits awkwardly into the book as a whole. If the reaction against Nazi racism, which informed developments in sociolinguistics and anthropology, has generated the view of homosexuality as culturally constructed, this all too easily, he contends, slips into the perception of homosexuality as a socially formed perversion.

For Davidson, a constructionist understanding of homosexuality (that is to say the view that sexual orientation is not firmly rooted in nature) is a hostage to fortune, enabling the conception of a world in which homosexuals do not exist - on one level a step towards Auschwitz. Yet his own picture of the workings of love in classical Athens, where young men, particularly upper class young men, are expected to fall in love with youths a little younger than themselves, scarcely fits with the essentialist position he appears to advocate. Certain cultures suit and encourage certain dispositions, harnessing particular inclinations and enabling them to flourish, he plausibly suggests.

But we can never escape culture. There will never be a situation in which those who are naturally disposed to be homosexual or heterosexual can be securely distinguished from those who have been disposed by a whole host of cultural influences to love those of their own - or the opposite - sex.

The book ends with speculation about the origins of Greek homosexuality, as Davidson finds traces of same-sex love among the proto-Aeolians of the second millennium bc. Should we look to the Aryans for its source, he asks? There is a curious implication here that Aryan origins might give added legitimacy to Greek Love. Yet the origins of Greek Love are likely to prove as elusive as the dividing line between nature and culture. The great achievement of this book is its rich, suggestive and powerful portrait of a historically attested society, or cluster of societies, whose practices can still command significant symbolic capital in the modern West. Even if it does not always convince, The Greeks and Greek Love will certainly transform debates about Greek homosexuality. And the publicly celebrated love of boys - the Greeks' most idiosyncratic custom and one absolutely at the centre of their culture - functions as a brilliant way in to a fuller understanding of the Greek world.

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