Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Myth of Spartan Pederasty

No myth about Sparta is as persistent or controversial as the claim that pederasty and homosexuality dominated Spartan society.  Even highly reputable historians such as Paul Cartledge subscribe to this theory.  However, the evidence against it is far more compelling than for it. 

Achilles and Patrokles - Ancient Lovers
Xenophon, the only historian with firsthand experience of the agoge (his sons attended it!), states explicitly: "… [Lycurgus] … laid down that in Sparta lovers should refrain from molesting boys, just as much as parents avoid having intercourse with their children or brothers with their sisters."  It is hard to find a more definitive statement than this and from the most credible source.  To dismiss this evidence simply because it does not suit preconceived ideas is arrogant.

Xenophon adds: "It does not surprise me, however, that some people do not believe this since in many cities the laws do not oppose lusting after boys."  This is the crux of the matter.  All of our written sources on Sparta come from these other cities, where pederasty was rampant.  In short, the bulk of the written record on Sparta stems from men who could not imagine a world without homosexual love and pederasty. But then, they also could not imagine women who were educated, physically fit, and economically powerful, who were not also licentious and lewd.  Modern readers ought to recognize that pederasty is not inherent in society – particularly not in a society where women are well integrated. 

This image shows the peplos, still worn by Spartan women but considered lewd by Athenians; Spartan women allegedly also learned to use the bow.
My position is supported by another ancient authority, Aristotle, who blamed all of Sparta's ills on the fact that the women were in control of things – a fact that he attributed to the lack of homosexuality in Spartan society generally. In this Aristotle exhibits an astonishing appreciation of psychology.  Modern research conclusively shows that male victims of child abuse generally grow into misogynous men.  The status of women in Athens fits this pattern perfectly, while the status of women in Sparta completely contradicts – indeed, refutes – the thesis that Spartan men were systematically subjected to sexual abuse by their elders as children. (An excellent discussion of child abuse in ancient Greece can be found in Enid Bloch's "Sex Between Men and Boys in Classical Greece: Was it Education for Citizenship or Child Abuse?," in Journal of Men's Studies, January 2001.)

Finally, Herodotus, who was always happy to provide some juicy little story about a man who covets a close friend's wife, or one who steals a rival's bride just before the wedding, has not a single tale in which there is mention of a Spartan with a male lover – either boy or man.  This omission is significant and should not be ignored.

The archaeological evidence from Sparta likewise demonstrates an almost complete absence of pornographic images on artifacts.  This is in sharp contrast to the plethora of explicitly pornographic art from both Athens and Corinth.  While pederasty is as frequently depicted in Athenian and Corinthian art as heterosexual sex, no homoerotic art originating in Sparta has -- to my knowledge -- been found or identified. (Please correct me, if I am wrong!)

On the other hand, some of the most important and lovely pieces of Spartan sculpture depict couples sitting side by side.  Regardless of whom the figures were intended to depict (Helen and Menelaos, Chilon and his wife, a Spartan king, and his queen), what is significant is the greater importance given to depictions of a man and wife sitting side by side – that is, in partnership – compared to depictions of sexual intercourse.  This is because marriage in Sparta was a partnership, not a tyranny as in the rest of Greece. Nor was a Spartan marriage merely for reproduction, it was also consciously intended to bring sexual satisfaction to both partners. Xenophon explains that Spartan laws required men and women to marry in their physical prime and not when too young (for girls) or too old (for men) and that they should be initially restricted in their sexual contact so as to not to become satiated, but rather to enjoy sex together.  Note that there is an explicit emphasis on the desirability of the female partner enjoying sex as much as the male.

Thus, rather than being something frightful and dangerous that male relatives needed to vigilantly guard (as in the rest of Greece), female sexuality was perceived in Sparta as a positive factor that contributed to a good marriage, to healthy children, and so to the well-being of the state.
This acceptance of women's sexuality is further underlined by the fact that while Athenian plays demean and insult women (see any of Euripides' plays), the poems of Alkman, considered the most Spartan of all poets by the ancient Greeks, openly admire women.  His poems, written in the second half of the 7th century BC, were the lyrics of songs performed at public festivals by girls' choruses. Alkman also wrote poetry expressing his own adoration of the Spartan girls he worked with.  He was considered by ancient scholars to be the first love poet – a notable distinction for the poet whom the ancients viewed as "the most Spartan"!  None of Alkman's texts can be classed as pornographic, but many modern commentators assert – because the texts of the lyrics, designed to be sung by girls' choruses, praise the girls' beauty – that the songs were lesbian in nature.  This is nonsense.  Boys' and men's choruses sang about bravery and girls about beauty because those were the virtues admired in each respective group.  What the texts (and the fact that Alkman was so revered in Sparta) tell us is that the Spartans enjoyed light-hearted music and tributes to female beauty in a public context -- not merely in the back alleys of the red-light district.

Furthermore, while female sexuality was recognized and respected, Spartan males were expected to find sexual satisfaction within marriage.  Thus Sparta was reputed to have no brothels at all within the city limits, and Spartans claimed to know neither whores nor adultery.  To date, the archaeological evidence supports the assertion that there were no brothels in Sparta, and the absence of heterosexual (as with homosexual) pornographic artwork further supports the thesis that in contrast to other cities, sex in Sparta was a private – rather than a public – affair.

Given the fact that Spartan sexuality was so different from that of the other Greeks, it is not surprising that foreign observers of Sparta in the archaic and classical periods have a great deal to say about Spartan sexual relations.  The fact that the most famous adulteress of ancient myth, Helen of Troy, was Spartan contributed to the general view of Spartan women as licentious, a view explicitly underlined by Aristotle in his diatribe against Spartan women.  The legal right to "wife sharing" further influenced the view of women as sexually uncontrolled – even though the law was clearly designed to serve the state's need for new generations of citizens, not women's lust, and could only occur with the husband's consent.  Likewise, the fact that Spartan women were educated, outspoken, and seen in public elicited universal condemnation from other Greeks.  Thus Euripides says in Andromache: "Spartan girls could not be chaste even if they wanted to. They leave home, and with naked thighs and their dresses loosened, they share the running tracks and gymnasiums with the young men."  It was inconceivable to an Athenian that a woman could go to school with boys and engage in sports in front of boys without becoming sexually degraded as well.  Modern readers, however, should not lose sight of the fact that Athenian playwrights were attacking their enemy when they described Spartans.  Describing the wives of an enemy as whores and the men as "faggots" was (and still is) a common – if juvenile – means of belittling a foe.

In conclusion, contemporary sources suggest that Sparta was not a particularly homoerotic society, and certainly there was no institutionalized pederasty or homosexual behavior prior to the mid-5th century BC. On the contrary, in Sparta women's sexuality was not only recognized but respected and to a degree encouraged.  Spartan artifacts furthermore suggest that Sparta was indeed more prudish than other Greek societies.  The evidence suggests that sex in Sparta was a private matter, sought inside marriage, rather than public entertainment pursued at symposia and on the streets as in Athens. The Spartan ideal of sex was an activity between equals, not an act of domination by an adult male upon a child, a slave, or an illiterate and powerless wife. 

My depiction of Spartan society in the Leonidas trilogy is based on the above analysis. Pederasty plays no role in the Agoge.

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  1. Nooo! Every novel I've read about Sparta says . . . wait a minute. Did I say "novel?" Doh!

  2. Paul Cartledge writes about about "institutionalised pederasty" at Sparta. He seems to discount these primary sources that refute such a claim. Which is why I've always discounted Paul Cartledge's claims.

    The so-called "Spartan Mirage" seems to be a very selective tool in the hands of historians. It is the same with the repeated claims about throwing disabled infants off a certain cliff -- never-mind that one of Sparta's most famous kings was lame; and no infant-remains were ever found during investigations at the alleged site.

    The investigators did find the remains of adults, presumably criminals. Yet you still see the same old nonsense about killing babies. Many ancient societies practiced exposure of unwanted infants, but it is a stretch to link this to state sponsored eugenics.

    Thus historians seem to pick and choose what the "Spartan Mirage" actually conceals. Baby-killing and child molestation are accepted as fact and not anti-Spartan distortions; yet the notion of the self-controlled warrior philosopher is dismissed as an idealised concept created by Socrates (see Lipka).

    Who would dare suggest the more reasonable notion that Socrates was inspired by a realised Sparta ;)

  3. Ray,
    Thank you for your comment. I share your bafflement with the academic establishment. There is so much written by allegedly "noted" historians that is illogical and unfounded. I'll post an entry on the alleged "infanticide" of the Spartans later which reminds people that the slaughter of female infants was normal in Athens. I hate the hypocracy! Its alright to "expose" females infants just because they're female but a crime against humanity to kill deformed males!
    Again, thanks for stopping by.

  4. Hi Helena, I wanted to thank you for bringing this to my attention several years ago. Before I just accepted the "Spartans were gay" thing. Checking it out it's astounding how just about all sources explains, often in great detail, why Sparta didn't care for homosexual or pederastic relations.
    Would you know what exactly Cartledge bases his claims on?
    I read a google excerpt out of his book, where he dismisses Aristotle with that. - Sure adult homosexuality wasn't acceptable but that doesn't mean they didn't have sex with boys.
    Yet he doesn't even try to reconcile this with Aristotle's explanation. That the unusual empowerment of Spartan women is due to the men having to turn to them for sex. If boys are an acceptable sexual outlet as Cartledge suggest how does Aristotle make any sense?

    1. I haven't read Cartledge recently, so I can't say for sure. What I remember is exactly what you say: he dismissed any suggestion that the Spartans were pedophiles with a contemptuous "of course they were and you'd be an idiot to think otherwise" but no serious argument that greatly infuriated me. He seemed to be saying: "This is what I think and I'm the expert so no one has the right to question, much less disagree with. me. I AM THE EXPERT. PERIOD." It did not make me respect hm.

  5. "… [Lycurgus] … laid down that in Sparta lovers should refrain from molesting boys, just as much as parents avoid having intercourse with their children or brothers with their sisters."

    Maybe that needed to be said because there was too much pederasty happening.
    Why would anyone condemn something if it was not a problem?

    1. Possibly -- in 850 AD or whenever Lycurgus lived. The point is, when pederasty was rampant and normal in the rest of the Greek world, Sparta had already moved far beyond -- for three hundred years or more. It was, quite simply, three to four hundred years more advanced than the rest of the Greek cities. It was more civilized and less perverse.

    2. Because, like their other proscriptions, they saw the kinds of problems it created elsewhere; currency that could be debased, stolen or counterfeited; getting caught up in foreign wars of conquest; having a core right-bearing population with no familial attachments or enough land to support it; inherent problems with ownership of land outside of matrilineal inheritance- since the line of inheritance in women is in zero doubt- unlike with men.

    3. Because they saw the problems it created in neighboring societies, as they did with many of their other proscriptions such as.. land ownership and inheritance outside matrilinearity; they were a lineage-based society, and only lineage from women is incontrovertible. They didn't have currency because it could and sometimes was debased, stolen or counterfeited. They only allowed citizenship to continue for peers who could support their mess with actual food, as opposed to wasting too much land to grow commodity junk (wheat) or luxury foods (grapes). After all, the source of much of the enmity with Athens was Athenian attempts to take their arable land, since Athenian oligarchs used too much of their acreage to grow non-staple crops like wine grapes. IT's hard to appreciate just how thourough and sustainable their laws were until you look at what those laws prevented. I can only guess what they saw when they looked at pederasty in their neighbors, but it likely wasn't good; manipulation of childrens' parents and deliberate destruction of bonds between them. Sure, as 7 year olds, Spartan peers-to-be were placed in their own communal messes, but respect and pride for parentage and personal lineage was an arch-value in Spartan society, from what I remember reading.

    4. Good points. I would note that although the children went to the agoge at age 7, just like all schools, the agoge had holidays during which the children were at home. Furthermore, the agoge was located in the heart of Sparta, which meant the children still saw their parents and siblings readily. Family ties were very much kept alive even during a child's education in the agoge.

  6. I'm glad I found this site. Thank you.

  7. Woot, glad I found this! These have always been my feelings about Sparta but I just wasn't sure. The only thing I remember about male relationships was that they were allowed to be in a relationship so long as it served a purpose and there was EMOTIONS behind it, not sex or physically driven. I read in two places that Lysander had a relationship with a man he went to war with. There was ancient pottery art of them, but it wasn't sexual.(I forgot his name.) Not sure how true that really is, it does seem they can't fathom how brilliant Sparta's society really was compared to them. I wish modern society was more based on Sparta than Athens and Rome.