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Note: Professor Paul Cartledge was speaking on the HistoryExtra podcast, answering questions about ancient Greece submitted by our readers and the top online search queries. A selection of his answers have been transcribed and edited for clarity, and are shared below…. Listen to the full conversation on the HistoryExtra podcast. An illegal and totally unacceptable practice today, the subject of pederasty is a highly sensitive one, he adds. There were many, many different Greek societies, each with their own social and sexual norms and legal regulations.
But there were some commonalities. Predators who went around looking for young boys to get off with and to have sex with were frowned upon very strongly. The crucial point, says Cartledge, was the age of the younger, junior, subadult party, and how much agency that junior partner had. Lots of Greek cities had areas where you could exercise — the Greeks were very keen on athletics, especially wrestling, and they typically exercised nude.
There were various rules around gymnasiums — for example, slaves were barred from using them because it was thought it would be too easy for a free citizen, an adult male, to do what he wanted to them. And if you were over the age of 40 you were not allowed to be in a gymnasium with young boys present.
At Athens, for example, where elaborate courtship rituals and protocols were in place, it was probably a practice mostly confined to the socially elite, the wealthier classes. In other cities — and Sparta, I would argue, was one, it was a rite of passage for all males, it was part of transitioning from adolescence to full civic adulthood. The older partner would instruct the younger, would be their mentor, while the junior partner provided sexual satisfaction and companionship in a society where, before you were married, it was actually very difficult to have any relation with the opposite sex.
Similar to Spartan boys, for whom it was considered educational to be in a relationship with an older adult male. Nowhere else in the Greek world is there mention of it. Sappho and her female students or friends both composed and sang verses together. There, on the island of Lesbos, in what was a much earlier time period, around BCE, Sappho and her female companions — who were perhaps also lovers — traded passionately erotic verses.
Plato anticipated the Christian view of the purpose of marriage being to produce legitimate offspring, to have sex only within marriage. And the Romans chose to focus on their abhorrence, their rejection of homosexuality, which they thought was deviant and effeminate. They institutionalised pederasty and they were no wimps!
They actually adopted a great deal of other stuff, but this was one custom they rejected. In the first instalment we discussed Alexander the Great, democracy and slavery in ancient Greece. in. Back to Main menu Everything you ever wanted to know about Back to Main menu Virtual history events History masterclasses. Please note this article contains content which some readers may find distressing Advertisement. Man and adolescent male, c BC. An engraving of the Greek poetess Sappho.
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What was pederasty in ancient Greece?