three pairs of lovers with space



Here are brought together all the important ancient texts on the practise of pederasty in Crete.  The subject deserves specialised consideration because of its special characteristics.  First, we have the authority of two ancient writers that pederasty originated in Crete, whence it spread to Sparta and elsewhere, and the evidence from artefacts shown here confirms this is likely to be true as far as ubiquitous or institutionalised Greek pederasty is concerned. Secondly, the passages from both our main informant, Ephoros (come down to us through Strabon), and Athenaios suggest pederasty was even more popular and more firmly institutionalised there than elsewhere in Greece.  Indeed the passage from Ephoros says it is about Cretan  “love affairs” in general, and by then ignoring all that were not between men and boys, rather implies that only the latter kind were of significance.  Thirdly, so far as is known, the practice of ritualized pederastic abduction described by Ephoros was peculiar to Crete, and may afford insight into the archaic origins of Greek pederasty.

Taken together, the stories briefly summarised below in Strabon’s Geography XVI 4 xii and Konon’s Narrations XVI suggest that suitors for boys being put to the test with challenges may have been typical in Cretan folklore.

The following extracts are presented in the chronological order of the writers cited rather than those through whom their information has come down to us. In two of them, the Latinised names used by the translators have, for consistency, been replaced with romanisation of the Greek.  Not included here are two brief references to the prevalence of pederasty in both Sparta and Crete and the responsibility of gymnasia in giving rise to it in Plato’s Laws (636b-d and 836b-d).



                                                                              Ancient Crete

Strabon, Geography X 4

The first edition of this work was published in 7 BC and the last by AD 23, but the longer second passage given here was taken by him from the universal history of Ephoros of Kyme, written in the mid-fourth century B.C. The fourth chapter of Book X is all a description of Crete.

The translation of section xii is by H. L. Jones in The Geography of Strabo V, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1928, while that of section xxi is by Thomas Hubbard in his Homosexuality in Greece and Rome (University of California Press, 2003),  pp. 72-3.


From Leben came Leukokomas and his lover  Euxynthetos, the story of whom is told by Theophrastos in his treatise On Love. Of the tasks which Leukokomas assigned to Euxynthetos, one, he says, was this — to bring back his dog from Prasos. The country of the Prasians borders on that of the Lebenians, being seventy stadia distant from the sea and a hundred and eighty from Gortyn.


The 2nd millenium BC Chieftain Cup (with clarifying sketch), showing an older youth and boy facing one another in military costume: possibly a coming of age ceremony with pederastic connotations

They have a unique custom with regard to love affairs. For they do not win their boyfriends through persuasion, but through abduction. The lover warns the boy's friends and family three or more days in advance that he is going to carry out the abduction. It is most shameful for them to hide the boy or not allow him to travel the appointed road, as this is viewed as a confession that the boy is unworthy of such a lover. When they meet him, if the abductor is a man equal to or surpassing the boy in   social standing and all else, they fight and pursue him only a bit, enough to fulfill what is customary, and after that they turn the boy over and enjoy the occasion. But if the abductor is unworthy, they prevent him from taking the boy. The pursuit ends when the boy is brought to the men's building[1] of the one who seized him. They think most desirable not the boy distinguished by beauty but the one distinguished by bravery and good behavior. After giving him presents, he takes the boy away to any place in the countryside he wishes, and those who were present at the abduction accompany them; after feasting and hunting together for two months—for it is not permitted to keep the boy away any longer than that—they come down to the city. The boy is set free upon receiving as gifts military equipment, an ox, a drinking cup[2]—these are the traditional gifts—and many other things, at such expense that the lover's friends also contribute because of the magnitude of his expenses. The boy sacrifices this ox to Zeus and holds a feast for those who came down with him; then he gives his opinion of his time with his lover, whether it has happened to please him or not, for the custom gives him this prerogative, in order that, if violence has been used against him in the course of the abduction, he have the power at this point to avenge himself and escape. For those who are good looking and from illustrious families it is a disgrace not to get a lover, since it is assumed that they suffer this because of their manner of living. The "sidekicks"—this is their name for those who were abducted—receive special honors in the dances and the most honored places at the races, and they are permitted to outfit themselves differently from the others, in the equipment they have received from their lovers. And not only then, but also when they are grown, they wear an outfit distinct from those of other men, from which each of them will be recognized as kleinos (famous). For they call the boyfriend a kleinos, and they call the lover a philētor (lover). These then are their customs regarding love affairs.


Aristotle, Politics 1272a xxii-xxvi

The following is from a passage about Cretan customs explaining how many Spartan customs were borrowed from them. The translation is by William Ellis in A Treatise on Government by Aristotle (London, 1912).

The legislator[3] gave great attention to encourage a habit of eating sparingly, as very useful to the citizens. He also endeavoured, that his community might not be too populous, to lessen the connection with women, by introducing the love of boys: whether in this he did well or ill we shall have some other opportunity of considering. [4]


Athenaios, The Learned Banqueters

A hunter draws a youth close: a bronze of ca. 660 BC found at Kato Syme, Crete and now in the Louvre

Athenaios of Naukratis wrote this in the early 3rd century AD, but cites much earlier writers. The translation here is by S. Douglas Olson in Athenaeus: The Deipnosphists VI-VII (The Loeb Classical Library edition, 2010-1).

561 Discussing the honours paid to Eros by various peoples:

So too the Cretans put their best looking citizens in the ranks and sacrifice to Eros on their account, according to Sosicrates.[5]


The Cretans, for example, as I said, and the inhabitants of Euboean Chalcis become extraordinarily excited about sex with boys. Echemenes in his History of Crete, at any rate, claims that it was not Zeus who kidnapped Ganymede, but Minos. But the Chalcidians mentioned above claim that Ganymede was kidnapped in their territory by Zeus, and they point out the spot, which they refer to as Harpagion, where exceptionally fine laurel trees grow. So too Minos abandoned his hostility toward the Athenians, even though it was caused by his son’s death, when he fell in love with Theseus, and he gave him his daughter Ariadne as his wife, according to Zenis (or Zeneus) of Chios in his treatise on his native land …


… since pederasty began with the Cretans and made its way to Greece from there, according to Timaios.[6]


Konon, Narrations XVI

The Narrations of the Greek mythographer Konon, written between 36 BC and AD 17, survive only in summaries by the ninth-century Patriarch of Constantinople, Photios, in his Bibliotheke. The translation used here is the online one of Brady Kiesling. 

The 16th about Promachos and Leukokomas the Knossians (Knossos is a city of Crete). Promachos yearned for the handsome youth Leukokomas, and offered to perform great trials for him full of risk. Promachos undertakes all these in hopes of success, but doesn't win the boy, so he spites Leukokomas by putting the last prize (a celebrated helmet) on another handsome young man while Leukokomas is watching. Unable to bear his jealousy he took a sword and did away with himself.


Claudius Aelianus, On the Characteristics of Animals IV 1

The translation given here of this early third century AD work is that by A. F.Scholfield in the Loeb Classical Library edition (1958) pp. 215-6.

Older and younger ithyphallic warriors holding hands: a bronze figurine from Kato Syme, Crete, 7th century BC

Partridges are the most incontinent of birds; that is the reason for their passionate love of the female birds and for their constant enslavement to lust. So those that rear fighting Partridges, when they egg them on to battle with one another, make the female stand each by her mate, as they have found this to be a device for countering any cowardice or reluctance to fight. For the Partridge that is defeated cannot endure to show himself either to his loved one or to his spouse. He will sooner die under the blows than turn away from his adversary and dare in his disgrace to look upon her whose good opinion he courts.

The Cretans also have taken this view regarding Cretan lovers. For I have heard that a Cretan lover, who had beside other qualities that of a fine soldier, had as his favourite a boy of good birth, conspicuous for his beauty, of manly spirit, excellently fitted by nature to imbibe the noblest principles, though on account of his youth he was not yet called to arms. (I have elsewhere given the name of the lover and of the beautiful boy.) Now the Cretans say that the young man did acts of valour in the fight, but when the enemy’s massed line pressed him hard, he stumbled over a dead body that lay there and was thrown down. Whereupon one of the enemy who was nearest, in his eagerness was about to strike him in the back. But the man turned and exclaimed ‘Do not deal me a shameful and cowardly blow, but strike me in front, in the breast, in order that my loved one may not judge me guilty of cowardice and refrain from laying out my dead body: he could not bear to go near one who so disgraces himself.’


[1] [Note by Thos. Hubbard] The building where Cretan men took common meals together.

[2] [Note by Thos. Hubbard] These three gifts seem to symbolize the boy's assuming adult status in three realms: war, religion (since the ox is sacrificed), and the banquet.

[3] The preceding passage, 1271b, says this was Minos, the well-known legendary King.

[4]  This intention was not fulfilled.

[5] Sosikrates of Rhodes, a historian of the early 3rd century BC.

[6] A Sicilian historian of the early 3rd century BC.