A Homosexual Subculture in Classical Athens

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A study of the social and cultural lives of Greek men involved in long-standing homosexual relationships remains under-explored. Several studies have highlighted the importance of forensic oratory in shedding light on the complex social realities of the ancient world.1

Using an Athenian lawcourt speech, Lysias’ speech Against Simon, this paper investigates the significance of citizen-status males dispensing with the obligation of marriage and forming an enduring companionship with a socially and politically marginalised man to Greek norms and culture. Much of the scholarship on Greek homosexuality ignores the role of subaltern groups in same-sex relationships.

Consequently, it underestimates the existence of homosexual practices beyond the codified structures of the conventional pederastic relationship model. Moreover, current studies on ancient sexuality and gender have overlooked the tension such unconventional relationships created with mainstream culture and values.

Applying a multidisciplinary lens to Lysias’ speech Against Simon, the author considers how its
narrative on same-sex desire, relationships, shame, and masculinity reveals a complex and diverse image of Greek homosexuality. By focusing on the participation of a subaltern man, I argue for the existence of a subculture in Classical Athens that sustained unconventional homosexual relationships and non-conforming gender behaviour.


Greek homosexual relationships are long understood to have been an essential feature of Greek cultural life2. However, it is generally assumed that such relationships were formed within the codified structures of gymnasia and wrestling grounds where youths and young men from economically well-off families exercised and groomed their bodies for athletic competitions. In this well-known pederastic model, the older male lovers (erastēs) aggressively pursued youths (erōmenos) to prove their
masculine prowess. But, on the other hand, the youth, not yet of citizen status, submitted to the older male’s desire in exchange for wisdom and patronage.3

This paper argues that Greek homosexual relationships were diverse and complex, existing
beyond the conventional pederastic model. Indeed, some were products of a homosexual subculture.4

In this subculture, Greek men constructed a self-image in defiance of their society’s limits and restrictions. This inquiry attempts to portray a more inclusive image of Greek homosexual relationships by exploring the diversity of relationship models present in the sources and examining the participation of a man from a subaltern group in these relationships. The focus is on the speech of the Athenian orator Lysias Against Simon (Lysias 3) delivered before the Council of the Areopagus in 394 BCE5.

Simon, the prosecutor, is also revealed as a rival of the speaker’s current non-citizen beloved, Theodotus (3.5). The substantive adjective φίλος used by the speaker to refer to Theodotus as his friend in the speech means that his relationship with Theodotus is a long-standing one in which physical intimacy is implied6. Theodotus’ presence in the court and the speaker’s frequent use of the plural form of the personal pronoun, ἡμεῖς, (‘we’ 3.18, 23, 25) further strengthens the impression of their enduring relationship7.

The English translation of φίλος, ‘friend’, does not convey the emotional complexity that the context demands. The speaker neither uses the term beloved, ἐρωμένος, to avoid pederastic connotation nor does he say ἑταῖρος, to prevent the jury from considering his relationship based on money. Discrediting Simon’s claim of a contract with Theodotus for his companionship, the defendant questions how Simon could hire someone for companionship for more money than he possesses, ἑταιρήσοντα πλειόνων ἐμισθώσατο, (3.24). Aeschines uses the similar phrase combination that Lysias uses to mean paying some, μίσθειν, for companionship ἑταίρειν.8

The modern term ‘boyfriend’ or ‘live-in companion’ comes very close to what the speaker intends, a friendship with erotic elements; ‘By treating him well, I expected he would become my friend’ (3.5).’ The speech presents two perspectives of desire, one of the citizens and the other of a non-citizen. I highlight details surrounding samesex desire and relationships from this elite narrative to shed light on a subculture in Classical Athens. The defendant’s statement that he participates in public life and performs liturgies (3.9, 47) emphasises his wealth and elite status. Only wealthy Athenians had enough resources to fund public events like choruses and races and had the leisure to participate in the city’s political life9.

I argue that the defendant’s speech reveals a complex and unconventional image of homosexual relationships based on intense desire (ἐπιθύμειν) and love (ἐρᾶν) between politically empowered citizens and a socially and politically marginalised nonAthenian man. Their association is inconventional because it defied the strict protocol that marked the pederastic model by lacking any pedagogical aims. Moreover, these unconventional relationships between men function beyond the age group typically
associated with traditional pederasty— an older lover, ἐραστής (20 years or older, but not beyond 25) and an adolescent boy or youth as the beloved, ἐρωμένος10. The defendant is possibly in his 40s, evidently unmarried; the defendant admits it is embarrassing for him to be involved in a passionate homosexual relationship at his mature age (3.4). Simon’s military career and estate handling indicate he is in his 30s (3.22, 45). Theodotus is most certainly in his 20s, closer to the appropriate age to court
an Athenian young man in a pederastic relationship. However, his social status would prevent him from seeking such associations.11

Contesting Dover’s and Foucault’s views of Greek homosexuality

I argue against Kenneth Dover’s ground-breaking study, Greek Homosexuality. This work examined power dimensions in Greek homosexual relationships — mainly from the privileged adult male citizen’s perspective. His analysis overlooks the agency of the beloved — an age-differentiated peer or subaltern group partner.12 Since Dover’s work, scholars of ancient sexualities have given disproportionate attention to sexual acts in homosexual relationships.13 His work formed the basis of the influential French philosopher Foucault’s elite male-centric power-driven theory of masculine sexuality.14
Scholars applying Foucault’s ideas on Greek homosexuality continue to downplay any notion of homosexual culture and community centred around same-sex desires and operating outside mainstream values, such as one that emerges from a close examination of the lawcourt speech of Lysias 3.15

Focusing only on elite discourse on homosexual ethos in Plato’s and Xenophon’s Symposiums and iconographical evidence — the majority of which depicts scenes from the gymnasium and symposium
— some scholars view pederastic homosexuality as the only available and authentic image of ancient same-sex behaviour and practices.16

The court speech of Lysias Against Simon contains an unusual narrative about homosexual relationships that challenges the entrenched understanding of Greek homosexuality as an expression of masculine power, as Dover and Foucauldian

scholars insist.17 Still, Dover was the first scholar to discuss Greek homosexual practices as a legitimate academic pursuit and inspired French philosopher Foucault’s famous three volumes, The History of Sexuality. 18 Foucault’s influential work led to several scholars arguing that Greek homosexuality was a power game in which one party won at the expense of the other.19 The defendant states, ‘We (Simon and the speaker) fell in love with the young Plataean man, Theodotus. Since I treated the young man well, I expected him to be my lover.’ On the other hand, Simon thought he could force him to do whatever he desired by acting arrogant and lawless towards the young man (3.5). Although the speaker is wealthy and politically empowered, he understands love as a powerful emotion (‘Members of the jury, do not consider me a weaker man; you understand that all human beings are susceptible to falling in love’ 3.4) that is blind to the beloved social status. The speaker’s narrative reveals the tension between homosexual love and social norms. It also highlights the complexity of the Greek homosexual ethos created by Theodotus’ socially marginalised role in his relationship with the two Athenian men.

The scholars who subscribe to the Foucauldian view posit that Greek homosexuality was a one-sided affair dictated solely by the adult citizen male, for whom the gender of the object featured little in the expression of his sexual desire.20 In other words, homosexual behaviour was acceptable by Greek society because homosexual urges were a minor and transitory phase of male sexuality.21 Dover’s and Foucault’s view of Greek homosexuality helped establish what Davidson calls ‘a new consensus’.22 This
view is presented as an authentic representation of Greek homosexuality in the fourth edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary 2012.

Adopting a multidisciplinary approach

The philological analysis of Greek terms and expressions that define desire, love and emotions is essential in determining the complexities of Greek men’s sexual lives.23 Furthermore, I recognise that the text of Lysias 3 projects elite views and ideals. His wealth and active public life make him a privileged man. He claims that an outsider never sees women in his household, proving that he upholds traditional values (3.6,7).

The speaker’s household lacks a wife and children; the only women in the house are his widowed sister and nieces; he is a mature man, and Theodotus, too, sometimes resides there, as Simon’s alleged visit to the speaker’s house indicates, revealing a more complex social reality. By reading against the grain and focusing on representations of disruptive social behaviour in primary sources, feminist, queer and
transgender studies methodologies allow us to recover such glimpses of social reality and the subaltern groups’ experiences, and explore power dynamics in same-sex relationships from the beloved’s perspective.24 This multidisciplinary approach is unique in the discipline of Classics in its consideration of social constraints on samesex desire and investigation into the lives of homosexual men in antiquity.

This research model hopes to inspire researchers to apply modern critical theories in examining the social history of the ancient world, where subordinated groups played important roles.

Feminist scholars Page DuBois, Amy Richlin, and Nancy Rabinowitz, arguing against a Foucauldian view of ancient sexualities, draw attention to the male bias around sexuality and gender identity in Greco-Roman literary sources and advocate for a critical analysis of all ancient texts.25 Lin Foxhall observes that Foucauldian sexuality theory has blurred our true understanding of Greek homosexuality in that it ignores the complexities of emotions and desire in same-sex relationships.26 Appealing to the students of Greek cultural history, John Boswell, a gay Classicist, notes, ‘If no effort is made to compensate for centuries of neglect of some groups and focus on the ruling male elite, a realistic view of human history will never emerge.’27 The zero-sum narrative pays scant attention to the role of sub-status and marginalised men of Greek society. Redeeming the subaltern group’s agency helps us to view the unconventional aspects of the Greek homosexual relationship model that broaden our understanding of ancient homosexuality

  1. Carey 1989: 90-91; Fisher 2001: 36-67; Hubbard 2003: 118-20; Todd 2007: 4, 276. ↩︎
  2. This paper is a part of my major research project (MRP) for my MA programme completed in the
    summer of 2022 at Brock University, St. Catharines (Ontario, Canada). Ahmed, Shakeel (2022)
    Homosexual Subculture in Classical Athens: an analysis of unconventional same-sex relationships in the speech of Lysias Against Simon. Classics MRP, Brock University, St. Catharines. In Brock
    University digital repository, http://hdl.handle.net/10464/16523 (Accessed: 13/02/2023).
    I am grateful to Professors Allison Glazebrook and Roberto Nickel for their valuable feedback and
    encouragement to put together a smaller version of my research project for publication. ↩︎
  3. Pausanias’ speech in Plato’s Symposium sheds light on conventions governing Greek pederastic
    homosexuality. Kenneth Dover’s (1978) Greek Homosexuality, examining literary sources and Andrew Lear and Eva Cantarella’s (2008) Images of Greek Pederasty, examining visual evidence, deal with Greek pederastic homosexuality in detail. ↩︎
  4. Recently published essays by Emma Stafford, Konstantinos Kapparis, and Thomas K. Hubbard and
    in Sex and the Ancient City: Sex and Sexual Practices in Greco-Roman antiquity (ed. Andreas Serafim 2022) highlight the need to further the scope of this investigation to argue for a queer culture in classical Athens, a broader and holistic theoretical framework. ↩︎
  5. Carey 1989: 86, 88. From this point onward within the text, numbers in a bracket refer to Lysias’
    speech Against Simon, e.g., (3.2). ↩︎
  6. Dover 1978: 49-50. ↩︎
  7. I further discuss Theodotus’ presence in the court in the section on Theodotus’ agency. ↩︎
  8. Aeschines against Timarchos, 1.13. ↩︎
  9. Aristotle 1309a15-120. See also Hubbard 1998: 60; Carey 1989: 86,87, 1997: 75; Todd 2007: 278-
    79. ↩︎
  10. Hubbard 2003: 120; Davidson 2007: 68-98; and Todd 2007: 310. ↩︎
  11. Aeschines (Against Timarchos 1.138-39) cites laws concerning non-citizen status men’s exclusion
    from gymnasia and courting citizen youth. Dover (1978: 62) views the speaker’s involvement in
    homosexual pursuit as extraordinary because of his mature age. Carey (1989: 87, 94, 1997: 75)
    believes the speaker is in his 40s and Simon in his. 30s ↩︎

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