Ancient Greek eros

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Eros. Attic red-figure bobbin, c. 470 BC–450 BC.

Ancient Greeks used the word eros (Greek: ἔρως) to refer to different aspects of love. This diverse range of meanings is expressed by the plurality of Greek words for Love, reflecting the versatility and complexity of eros. The term was used to describe not only the affectionate marital relationship between a man and a woman but also the institution of pedagogic pederastic relations (Eros paidikos, παιδικός ἔρως), solemnized in certain Greek poleis. Such was the importance of eros for the ancient Greeks that the god of love, also named Eros, was held in Hesiod's cosmogony to be the primordial deity, the first god, older than all the others.

Ancient Greek philosophers were also interested in the conception of eros, which became a central issue in their analyses. In particular, Plato devoted two of his dialogues, Phaedrus and Symposium, to the philosophical dimensions of love, and in particular pederastic love. In Phaedrus, the best eros of a man for a boy is said to be a form of divine madness that is a gift from the gods, and that its proper expression is rewarded by the gods in the afterlife; the Symposium details the method by which love takes one to the form of beauty and wisdom. The term Platonic love derived from the philosopher's influential writings, and describes the passionate but chaste love of a man for a youth.

Marital eros[edit]

Marble herm in the Vatican Museums inscribed with Aspasia's name at the base. famous for her romantic involvement with the Athenian statesman Pericles.

There are a few written records of women's lives and loves in ancient Greece. The majority of women in some poleis were not educated as much or as well as men. Nevertheless, some historians have recently analyzed women's lives in ancient Greece and suggest that women may have been the objects of love more often that was previously believed and that men's love for women may have been at least an ideal, although not one realized much in fact.[1]

In Athens the dominance of man in the marital relationship is expressed by stories like one involving the prominent Greek statesman and general Alcibiades; Alcibiades was married to Hipparete, the daughter of Hipponicus, a wealthy Athenian. According to the biographer Plutarch, Hipparete loved her husband, but she attempted to divorce him because he consorted with courtesans. She lived with him until her death and gave birth to probably two children, a daughter and a son, also named Alcibiades.[2] Another famous relationship between a man and a woman in ancient Athens was the romantic involvement of Aspasia with the Athenian statesman Pericles.[3] Aspasia was born in the city of Miletus in Asia Minor and was possibly a hetaera (Hetaerae were professional high-class entertainers, as well as courtesans). She became the mistress of the Athenian in the early 440s and, after he divorced his first wife (c. 445 BC), began to live with him, although her marital status remains disputed.[4]

In Sparta, the social status of women was stronger and the marital rituals were solemnized. There was an elaborate preparation for the first night after the marriage, while the man in a symbolic rite had to abduct his future wife before the official ceremony, while she had her hair cut short and dressed in boy's clothes.[5] The ideal outcome of marital eros in Sparta was the birth of a healthy boy.[6]

Eros paidikos[edit]

The Rape of Ganymede, by Rubens

According to modern studies, pedagogic pederasty (Eros paidikos, παιδικός ἔρως) is thought to have been introduced around 630 BC. By the end of the 5th century BC, after the middle of the Archaic period, myths about love relationships between male gods and male heroes become more and more frequent, while poets had assigned at least one eromenos to every important god except Ares and to many legendary figures (Previously existing myths, such as that of Achilles and Patroclus, were also cast in a pederastic light).[7] The institution has its roots among the Dorian Greeks, where it was a recognized institution.[8] According to Plato the Dorians were the first who even gave a pederastic meaning to the myth of Ganymede.[9]

In Sparta, the relation between the erastes (εισπνήλας was the Spartan word) and the eromenos (αΐτας) was not only legal but required by law, and the erastes was regarded as a guardian of the eromenos and was held responsible for any wrongdoings of the latter.[10] Crete is regarded as the birthplace of eros paidikos.[10] Researchers of the Spartan civilization, such as Paul Cartledge, remain uncertain about the sexual aspect of the institution. Cartledge underscores that the terms "εισπνήλας" and "αΐτας" have a moralistic and pedagogic content, indicating a relationship with a paternalistic character, but argues that sexual relations were possible in some or most cases. The nature of these possible sexual relations remains, however, disputed and lost to history.[11]

According to the Greek classicist Ioannis Sykoutris, paidikos eros was interconnected with the notion of education (αγωγή) and usually resulted in long-lasting friendly relationships.[12] The role of pedagogic pederasty in ancient Greek society degrades after the 4th century BC, when the organization of polis becomes more loose and the "citizens" become "subjects" and, therefore, do not cultivate the virtues eros offers to a Greek.[13]

Platonic eros[edit]

According to Plato, eros could be diverted to philosophy (inclusive of mathematical, ethical and ascetical training), rather that dissipated in sexuality, for the purpose of using erotic energy as a vehicle for the transformation of consciousness, and union with the Divine.[14] In Symposium, eros is described as a universal force that moves all things towards peace, perfection and divinity.[15] Eros himself is a "daimon", namely a creature between divinity and mortality.[16]


  1. ^ R.J. Sternberg, Cupid's Arrow, 63
  2. ^ Plutarch, Alcibiades, 8
  3. ^ S. Monoson, Plato's Democratic Entanglements, 195
  4. ^ M. Ostwald, Athens as a Cultural Center, 310
  5. ^ P. Cartledge, The Spartans, 234
  6. ^ P. Cartledge, The Spartans, 235
  7. ^ W.A. Percy, Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece, 54
  8. ^ I. Sykoutris, Introduction to Symposium, 41
  9. ^ Plato, The Laws, 636c
  10. ^ a b I. Sykoutris, Introduction to Symposium, 43
  11. ^ P. Cartledge, The Spartans, 272-274
  12. ^ I. Sykoutris, Introduction to Symposium, 61
  13. ^ I. Sykoutris, Introduction to Symposium, 63
  14. ^ M.B. Mineo, Diotima of Mantineia, 102
  15. ^ M.B. Mineo, Diotima of Mantineia, 134
  16. ^ Plato, Symposium, 202b-203a


Primary sources (Greek and Roman)[edit]

Secondary sources[edit]

  • Cartledge, Paul A. (2004). The Spartans (translated in Greek). Livanis. ISBN 960-14-0843-6.
  • Mineo, M.B. (2005). "Diotima of Mantineia". Meet the Philosophers of Ancient Greece. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. ISBN 0-7546-5132-0.
  • Monoson, Sara (2002). "Plato's Opposition to the Veneration of Pericles". Plato's Democratic Entanglements. Hackett Publishing. ISBN 0-691-04366-3.
  • Ostwald, M. (1992). "Athens as a Cultural Center". The Cambridge Ancient History edited by David M. Lewis, John Boardman, J. K. Davies, M. Ostwald (Volume V). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23347-X.
  • Percy, William Armostrong III (1999). "The Institutionalization of Pederasty". Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece. Routledge (UK). ISBN 0-252-06740-1.
  • Sternberg, Robert J. (1998). "The History of Love Revealed through Culture". Cupid's Arrow: The Course of Love Through Time. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-47893-6.
  • Sykoutris, Ioannis (2000). Symposium (Introduction and Comments) -in Greek. Estia. ISBN 960-05-0035-5.