three pairs of lovers with space

What was Greek love?

Greek love was love between a boy, typically adolescent, and an older adolescent or man.  It is called Greek because it was most famously practised in ancient Greece, where it was called paiderastia, formed from pais, a boy, and erastes, a lover.  Though eros, erotic longing, implicitly inspired a Greek love affair, it could remain chaste.    

An Athenian boy inviting his lover to kiss him, ca. 490 BC (kylix in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

Greek love was not a orientation.  A man who prefers boys sexually is a pederast or boy-lover, but, surprisingly, most men in history involved in Greek love affairs were attracted to women just as much. It can be proved, for example, that in Renaissance Florence at least two thirds of all males were incriminated in sodomy, which there meant consummated Greek love.  This is known from the records of the Office of the Night set up to investigate it.  Down to the seventeenth century, there and in other Christian countries it was simply taken for granted that men in general were attracted to boys as well as women, even if they never acted on their attraction because of the Christian prohibition of sodomy.

In many non-Christian cultures, Greek love was not merely openly practised by most, but actively encouraged by society because of its benefits to boys when ethically conducted.  Like any other kind of sexual relationship, a Greek love one could of course be conducted either nobly or shamefully.  We aim to present as much as possible of its whole history here,  showing both the cruelties it incited in the base and the generous giving of the self it  inspired in the decent.  Most remarkably though, will be seen the astonishing cultural florescence that ensued when this form of love was ubiquitous and idealistically espoused.

Due to huge cultural changes in the last three centuries, and most especially in the last generation, changes to be discussed, Greek love is now practically extinct in most of the world and, in so far as it is remembered at all, thoroughly misunderstood.  The aim here is, through presenting the past in its own words, to enable the reader willing to take off his 21st-century glasses to understand a lost form of love, and then to judge it objectively if he so wishes.


What it was not:

Since Greek love has become so little understood, there have been two sexualities with which it has become badly confused.  Any individual may of course have multiple sexual likes, but that does not mean they are not distinct in character and incompatible for other individuals.

  1. Pedophile
Greek loved boys were never much younger than this, ...

Pedophilia, despite some misuse in popular parlance, is defined by psychologists as sexual attraction to prepubescent children of either gender, currently meaning children under ten or eleven.  The boys in Greek love affairs were defined by attraction to older males and not to younger children.  The men are also badly misrepresented by the term pedophile for two reasons. First, they were typically involved with adolescent boys. There is, for example, only one reference in the whole of ancient Greek literature to sexual interest in a boy under twelve (a poem by Straton of Sardis about boys of eleven).  The  age of the boy in Japanese Greek love affairs usually corresponded to the age of the wakashu (adolescent boy), defined by hair-shaving ceremonies performed at the ages of eleven or twelve and eighteen or nineteen.  Secondly, though men in Greek love affairs were generally at least as attracted to females, the ethos of Greek love was usually determinedly same-sex only.  A disposition to Greek love equates to the combined male-only versions of what psychologists term hebephilia and ephebophilia.

  1. Gay
nor were they ever older than this unbearded youth

Gay is a very modern term that at least in its connotations suggests androphilia or sexual attraction to men, the only form of male homosexuality permitted in most countries today.  Almost all men in the cultures best-known for widespread practice of Greek love expressed profound distaste for sex with other men, as did the boys once they were men.  The Florentine records, for example indicate that 80% of all the passive partners incriminated for sodomy were under eighteen and 97.4%  were under twenty-one. Both the boys and the men involved usually married and had families without sense of conflict or known lack of enthusiasm for so doing.  Surely it is absurd to think of men who were attracted to women and not to other men as gay?  Moreover, in both ethos and sexual practise, Greek love affairs were asymmetrical  and much closer to traditional marriage than to typically egalitarian gay relationships.