Greek love  

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Greek love is a relatively modern coinage (generally placed within quotation marks) intended as a reference to male bonding and intimate relations between males as practised in Ancient Greece, as well as to its application and expression in more recent times, particularly in a 19th-century European context (See "Scholarly Examples of Its Use" below). The term is thus a synonym for pederasty, though it has also been loosely applied to homosexual behaviour in general.



As a term of Modern English and other modern European languages, "Greek love" refers to various (mostly homoerotic) practices as part of the Hellenic heritage of European civilization; Quotation marks are often placed on either or both words, i.e., "Greek" love, Greek "love" or "Greek love". It should not be understood as referring to historical homosexual practices in ancient Greece, but to the conceptualizing of those practices among other cultures.

The term "griechische Liebe" ("Greek love") is documented as existing in German writings between 1750 and 1850 along with such terms as "socratische Liebe" (Socratic Love) and "platonische Liebe" (Platonic love), which were designated for male-male attractions.

The English term "Greek love" has sometimes been used to signify the original English use of "Platonic love", that of a male-male sexual attraction made respectable by referring to antiquity. Greece became a reference point by homosexual men of a specific class and education. The first English use of the phrase dates to 1636 with "Platonic Lovers" by Sir William Davenant. The latter phrase was derived from the writings of Marsilio Ficino who coined the terms amor Socraticus.

Ancient Rome

See also: Homosexuality in ancient Rome

In Latin, mos Graeciae or mos Graecorum ("Greek custom" or "the way of the Greeks") refers to a variety of behaviors the ancient Romans regarded as Greek, and not to any specific sexual practice. Effeminacy or a lack of discipline in managing one's sexual attraction to another male was considered non-Roman and thus might be disparaged as "Eastern" or "Greek." The Hellenization of elite culture, however, influenced sexual attitudes as a kind of luxury import among "avant-garde, philhellenic Romans." In its aesthetic and literary form, "homosexuality was for the rich," as Ramsay MacMullen has noted. No assumptions can be made about any effect on sexual orientation; rather, the elevation of Greek literature and art as models of expression caused homoeroticism to be regarded as urbane and sophisticated.

There were fears, however, that Greek models might affect behavior and corrupt traditional Roman social codes (the mos maiorum). A vaguely documented law that was passed during this period of Hellenization attempted to regulate aspects of homosexual relationships between freeborn males, perhaps to protect Roman youth from older men emulating Greek customs of pederasty. Sexual behaviors also played a role in 186 BC in the suppression of the Bacchanalia, an imported "Greek" rite conducted with a secrecy that was antithetical to the public cult practices of ancient Rome. Conservative Romans expressed anxieties that young freeborn males would be led astray and undergo anal penetration during the required initiation — whether or not such sexual behaviors were an actual part of the rites.

By the close of the 2nd century BC, however, the consul Quintus Lutatius Catulus was among a circle of poets who made short, light Hellenistic poems fashionable in the late Republic. One of his few surviving fragments is a poem of desire addressed to a male with a Greek name, signaling a new aesthetic in Roman culture. The Hellenizing of Latin literature in the "new poetry" came to fruition in the 50s BC with Gaius Valerius Catullus, whose poems, written in forms adapted from Greek meters, include several expressing desire for a freeborn youth explicitly named "Youth" (Iuventius). More of Catullus's love poems are addressed to a woman, and while the theme of boy-love is found in his successors writing during the reign of Augustus, by the end of the Augustan period Ovid, Rome's leading literary figure, declares the fashion dead: making love with a woman is more enjoyable, he says, because unlike pederastic sex it's mutual.

The Hellenization of Roman culture occurred in large part as a result of the Roman conquest of Greece. Roman attitudes toward Greek culture were thus ambivalent: while it was admired as superior in the arts and intellectual pursuits, Roman superiority was asserted in matters of morality, and sometimes simply asserted. In archaic and classical Greece, paiderasteia had been a formal social relationship between freeborn males; taken out of context, and imported into Rome as the luxury product of a conquered people, pederasty came to express roles based on domination and exploitation. The literary ideal celebrated by Catullus stands in contrast to the practice of elite Romans who kept a puer delicatus ("exquisite boy") as a form of conspicuous sexual consumption, a practice that continued well into the Imperial era. The puer delicatus was a slave chosen from the pages who served in a high-ranking household. He was selected for his good looks and grace to serve at his master's side, where he is often depicted in art. Among his duties, at a convivium he would enact the role of Ganymede, the Trojan youth abducted by Zeus who served as a divine cupbearer.

The reception of Greek pederasty at Rome thus had a dual character, reflected on the piece of convivial silver known as the Warren Cup. It has been argued that the two sides of this cup represent the two pederastic traditions at Rome. On one side, a bearded, mature man is mounted by a young but muscularly developed male in a rear-entry position. The young man, probably meant to be 17 or 18, holds on to a sexual apparatus that appears multiple times in Roman erotic art as a device for maintaining an otherwise awkward or uncomfortable sexual position. A child-slave watches the scene furtively through a door ajar. The opposite side of the cup shows a puer delicatus, age 12 to 13, held for intercourse in the arms of an older male, clean-shaven and fit. The bearded pederast may be Greek, with a partner who participates more freely and with a look of pleasure. His counterpart, who has a more severe haircut, appears to be Roman, and thus uses a slave boy; the myrtle wreath he wears symbolizes his role as an erotic conqueror. The cup may have been designed as a conversation piece to provoke the kind of dialogue on ideals of love and sex that took place at a Greek symposium.

In his work on Roman homosexuality, the classicist Craig A. Williams has emphasized that the Romans themselves did not regard male-male sexual behaviors as foreign, and argues that pederasty itself was not imported. What was foreign to the Romans was the Greek custom of pederasteia in which both participants were free citizens. He regards the use of slaves as a characteristic that distinguishes Roman pederasty from that among freeborn Greeks, but asserts that other scholars are in error when they view the Hellenization of Roman culture as having influenced Roman sexual attitudes. Williams also disagrees with other scholars who take Latin expressions such as praegraecari ("to Greek it up") as illustrating the perceived "Greekness" of certain behaviors. Williams treats the phrase "Greek love" itself as a modern misconception.

The subject of Eros, and the traditions of male contact were repeatedTemplate:Huh in many of the Roman sculptures described by Johann Winckelmann in a three volume set of books.


The term "Greek love" has been used interchangeably with other similar phrases, such as "Platonic love" and "Socratic Love", (derived from Marsilio Ficino's term "amor platonicus" from his translations of the Symposium). The meaning of the individual terms has drifted over time. Male same-sex relationships of the kind portrayed by the "Greek love" ideal were increasingly disallowed within the Judaeo-Christian traditions of Western society. The earliest reference to the modern ideology is from that of Marsilio Ficino after the fall of the Byzantine Empire. In his comments of Plato's work in 1469, Ficino describes "amor socraticus", however it must be said that Ficino, influenced by the church doctrine attempted to water down its meaning and concept and concluded that the male love was allegorical. In his commentary to the Symposium, Ficino carefully separates the act of sodomy, which he condemned, and lauded Socratic love as the highest form of friendship. He believed that men could use each other's beauty and friendship to discover the greatest good, that is, God. Ficino Christianised the theory of love presented by Socrates.

During the Renaissance, artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo discovered Plato and used his philosophy as artistic muse for inspiration for their greatest works. The "rediscovery" of classical antiquity was perceived as a liberating experience. Greek love was an ideal love in its essence, after the platonic pattern. Michelangelo presented himself to the public as a Platonic lover of men in 16th century Italy. His art combined and alternated between catholic orthodoxy and pagan enthusiasm in many of his works. The sculpted likeness of a local saint, Proculus and his first great masterpiece, Bacchus illustrate this. Michelangelo's next two pieces, Pieta and The David, pay respect to his faith and Eros. In later revivals these works were drawn on as further inspiration.

The introduction of the concept in English literature also originates in the Renaissance, with the poet and playwright William Davenant's reference to "Platonic Lovers" in 1636.


The 18th century artists of the time of Winckelmann, would, at times produce art, representing ancient society and Greek love in their Neoclassical work. Jacques-Louis David's "Death of Socrates" is meant to be a "Greek" painting, imbued with an appreciation of "Greek love". Socrates is a tribute and documentation of leisured, disinterested, masculine fellowship.

English romanticism

Among the English romanticists, the concept of Greek love was treated most thoroughly by Shelley and Byron. Shelley wrote his Discourse on the Manners of the Antient Greeks Relative to the Subject of Love on the Greek conception of love in 1818 during his first summer in Italy, concurrently with his translation of Plato's Symposium. Shelley was the first major English writer to treat Platonic homosexuality, although neither work was published during his lifetime. His translation of the Symposium did not appear in complete form until 1910. Although Shelley recognizes the homosexual nature of the love relationships between males in ancient Greece, he argues that homosexual lovers often engaged in no behaviour of a sexual nature, and that Greek love was based on the intellectual componant, in which one seeks a complementary beloved. He maintains that the immorality of the homosexual acts are on par with the immorality of contemporary prostitution, and contrasts the pure version of Greek love with the later licentiousness found in Roman culture. Shelley cites Shakespeare's sonnets an an English expression of the same sentiments, and ultimately argues that they are chaste and platonic in nature.

See also

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