Greek Homosexuality (book)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Greek Homosexuality
Greek Homosexuality, first edition.jpg
Cover of the first edition
Author Kenneth Dover
Country United States
Language English
Subject Homosexuality in ancient Greece
Publisher Harvard University Press
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 244
ISBN 0674362616
OCLC 3088711
LC Class HQ76.3.G8 D68 1978

Greek Homosexuality (1978; second edition 1989; third edition 2016) is a book about homosexuality in ancient Greece by the classical scholar Kenneth Dover, in which the author uses archaic and classical archaeological and literary sources to discuss ancient Greek sexual behavior and attitudes. He addresses the iconography of vase paintings, the speeches in the law courts, and the comedies of Aristophanes, as well as the content of other literary and philosophical source texts.

The first modern scholarly work on its topic, Greek Homosexuality received some negative reviews but was enormously influential, helping to shape the views of other classicists. Dover has been praised for discussion of sexual practices such as intercrural copulation.


In this detail from an Attic black-figure cup (ca. 530–520 BCE), a man makes an "up-and-down" gesture.

In the preface Dover writes that the aim of the work is: "To describe those phenomena of homosexual behaviour and sentiment which are to be found in Greek art and literature between the eighth and second centuries B.C., and so to provide a basis for more detailed and specialised exploration (which I leave to others) of the sexual aspects of Greek art, society and morality."[1] In the Preface he furthermore argued that ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ were not antithetical terms, but that homosexuality was a sub-division of the ‘quasi-sexual’ or ‘pseudo-sexual’.[1]

The conclusions drawn are that the Greeks regarded homosexuality in general to be natural, normal, and salutary, and their actual practices were circumscribed by cultural norms. In the case of the ancient Greeks – specifically the Athenians – the book claims that the sexual roles of the lovers were sharply polarized.

Dover concludes that the Greeks conceived of same-sex relations primarily as intergenerational and identifies the terms for the roles of the two male lovers, erastes, "the lover," that is, the older active partner, and eromenos, "the beloved", indicating the adolescent male beloved. Basing himself on the work of Sir John Beazley, Dover divides the evidence of surviving vase painting depicting these type of relationships into three types. Some show the erastes offering a gift to the eromenos. Others depict the "up and down" gesture – the erastes attempting to fondle the eromenos while, with the other hand, he is turning his head to look into his eyes. The third group, usually older black-figure vases, show the couple engaging in interfemoral intercourse or, in a couple of instances, anal intercourse. Traditionally, the young beloved, when he reached the age of manhood – indicated in the iconography by his growth of a beard – would switch roles and become a lover himself, seeking out a younger male for a love relationship. Later in life he was expected to marry and produce new citizens for the state.

To fail to switch roles was considered unmanly and irresponsible, and Dover points out the mockery that Aristophanes (a very popular and successful Athenian comic playwright) inflicted in passing, in several plays, on a certain Athenian citizen who was notorious for his persistence in the role of beloved long after reaching his maturity.

With regard to the record of cases in the law courts, Dover concentrates primarily on a certain case initiated by the orator Demosthenes. Demosthenes had been in an embassy sent to the neighboring state of Macedonia which had not only failed to achieve its mission, but was widely suspected of having accepted bribes from king Phillip to abandon their mission. Upon the return to Athens, Demosthenes initiated a prosecution of his fellow ambassadors for bribery in an attempt to avoid being indicted himself. The defendants successfully had the charges dismissed on the grounds that one of Demosthenes' co-plaintiffs, Timarchos, had been a boy prostitute and had thereby lost his rights as an Athenian citizen, becoming ineligible to bring suit in Athenian courts.

Dover extensively quotes from the records of the trial to demonstrate, among other things, that while the Athenians attached no stigma to same sex relations per se, they did adhere to certain conventions; in this case, that no citizen could be permitted to sell his sexual favors, which they regarded as the proper function of a slave, not a free man.

Scholarly reception[edit]

Greek Homosexuality received some negative reviews.[2] Nevertheless, the book had an enormous impact on the study of homosexuality in ancient Greece, partly because of Dover's credentials as an historian and a philologist.[3] It influenced scholars such as the philosopher Michel Foucault, and the classicists David M. Halperin, John J. Winkler, and Eva Cantarella.[4] Eva C. Keuls praised Dover for giving explicit discussions of subjects such as anal sex and intercrural copulation.[5] The historian Peter Gay commended Greek Homosexuality as a "model of scholarship".[6] The philosopher Roger Scruton, writing in Sexual Desire (1986), dismissed Greek Homosexuality, calling it "trivialising".[7] Dover granted, in a postscript to the second edition of Greek Homosexuality, that some of his claims in the first edition about the meaning of Greek words had been wrong.[8]

Halperin called Dover's work "the first modern scholarly study" of its subject and "a triumph of empirical research", and identified it as one of the key intellectual influences on his One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (1990). Halperin argued that the publication of Dover's work in 1978, together with the appearance of the English translation of Foucault's The History of Sexuality, marked the beginning of a new era in the study of the history of sexuality.[9] The critic Camille Paglia disputed Halperin's characterization of Dover's work, observing that while it was a valuable book on Greek pederasty, it was not an "intellectual" work and aside from Dover's discussion of intercrural copulation contained relatively little that was surprising.[10] Dover commented in his memoir that while he understood what Scruton meant when he called his work "trivialising", he was not abashed, since he attached importance to phenomena Scruton ignores.[11] Cantarella has criticized some of Dover's conclusions, concluding that there was no restriction on anal intercourse in pederastic relationships, a claim rejected by the classicist Bruce Thornton. David Cohen has critically discussed Dover's work in Law, Sexuality and Society (1991), as has Thornton in Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality (1997).[4] The philosopher Martha Nussbaum described Greek Homosexuality as the "best historical account of Greek sexual customs".[12]

Greek Homosexuality was republished in a third edition, containing a foreword by Mark Masterson and James Robson discussing the book and its influence, in 2016.[13]


  1. ^ a b
  2. ^ Halperin, David M. (1990). One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: And Other Essays on Greek Love. New York: Routledge. p. 5. ISBN 0-415-90097-2. 
  3. ^ Halperin, David M. (1990). One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: And Other Essays on Greek Love. New York: Routledge. p. 4. ISBN 0-415-90097-2. 
  4. ^ a b Thornton, Bruce S. (1997). Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. pp. 256–258, 264. ISBN 0-8133-3226-5. 
  5. ^ Keuls, Eva C. (1985). The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 274. ISBN 0-520-07929-9. 
  6. ^ Gay, Peter (1986). The Bourgeois Experience Victoria to Freud. Volume II: The Tender Passion. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 446. ISBN 0-19-503741-3. 
  7. ^ Scruton, Roger (1994). Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation. London: Phoenix. p. 308. ISBN 1-85799-100-1. 
  8. ^ Dover, Kenneth (1989). Greek Homosexuality. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 204. ISBN 0-674-36270-5. 
  9. ^ Halperin, David M. (1990). One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: And Other Essays on Greek Love. New York: Routledge. pp. x, 4, 5. ISBN 0-415-90097-2. 
  10. ^ Paglia, Camille (1992). Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays. New York: Penguin Books. pp. 172–173. ISBN 0-14-017209-2. 
  11. ^ Dover, Kenneth (1995). Marginal Comment: A Memoir. London: Duckworth. p. 115. ISBN 0-7156-2630-2. 
  12. ^ Nussbaum, Martha (1997). Estlund, David M.; Nussbaum, Martha C., eds. Sex, Preference, and Family: Essays on Law and Nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 39. ISBN 0-19-509894-3. 
  13. ^


  • Dover, K. J. (1989). Greek Homosexuality. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674362703.