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Sexuality in Ancient Greece

In the ancient society, predating slavery, women were the dominating sex.

An echo of this we find in the myths of Amazons. These were the women warriors who took men for the purposes of procreation.

Images of Amazons in art can be found here.

An Amazon wearing trousers, from a Greek vase, V century B.C.

It is curious that (some) Amazons inhabited the plains to modern day southern Ukraine and Russia, the so-called "Sarmatia". (More read here)

Gradually, the status of women was lowered.

Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, is no more than the highest among the slave girls. Telemachus, her son, tells her to stay on the women’s part of the house. This was around XI century B.C.

In VI century B.C. the most famous woman was Sappho, a poetess.

Sappho. A Roman copy of a Greek original of V century B.C.

In V century B.C. the women wanted to start a general sex strike, demanding that their men stop the fratricide war (Aristophanes, “Lysistrata”, 411 B.C.)

To lower the women further, the men thought that the only true love can be towards other men; women are there only for the purposes of reproduction. Echoes of this can be seen in the opening lines of “Lysistrata”:

LYSISTRATA:

    There are a lot of things about us women

    That sadden me, considering how men

    See us as rascals.

               CALONICE:

                        As indeed we are!

As a result, love and sex between men was encouraged, both as a way to oppress women and as a military practice: a lover was supposed to help his lover in battle. Today, a similar practice exists in the U.S. army (“battle buddies” – partners in a boot camp and in a battle, see here).

Achilles and Patroclus

An interesting document on sexuality among Greeks is Plato’s work “Symposium”. There, we see a party of the intellectual and political elite of the Athenian Greeks, and instead of just drinking they agree to discuss “what is love?” Socrates speaks last, and he provides the answer which is a recount of a tale he heard from an old woman Diotima. According to her, love is a multi-stage process. First, we experience love for one body, then love for many bodies, then we love the beauty of the soul, then we love the society with its institutions, then we experience love for different branches of knowledge, and finally we love one form that unifies them all, i.e. all knowledge and all previous experiences.

Sex was seen as a natural biological function, similar to desire for eating and drinking, by Aristotle. He writes:

"Why are people ashamed to admit that they want to have sexual intercourse, whereas this is not the case with drinking or eating or other such things? Is it because most of our desires are for things we must have, some of them actually being essential for life, whereas sexual desire is a non-vital indulgence? (Ps.-Aristotle, Problems).

Sex was treated as a kind of hunger by another famous philosopher, Diogenes the Cynic (IV century B.C.) When someone saw him masturbating, and tried to put him to shame, Diogenes answered, that if real hunger was as easily satisfied as sexual hunger, then things would be much easier for all. A story of this is found in Diogenes Laertius' "Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers".

An interesting collection of stories and photos on sexuality in ancient Greece can be found here.

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