Queerism in the Ancient World

An LGBT+ History Month exhibition at the British Museum displaying examples of queerness in the Ancient World provokes the discussion of how openly queerness could be expressed through history. Have we progressed, or regressed from our ancestors in Ancient Europe?

As an arguably qualified history boff, hearing that the British Museum was doing something for LGBT+ History Month was particularly intriguing. Their trail presented twelve objects that gave an insight into queerness in the ancient world, including a Maori Treasure Box, an Athenian Wine Amphora and plenty of sculptures. Whilst I won’t get into the political nuance of how the British Museum came to acquire (or steal) these objects, it’s something that I am keenly aware of. The obvious takeaway from this little escapade was that queerness has existed for millennia and that even more so, it’s existed more freely in the past. 

The belief that existing as gay (or even transgender) in Ancient Greece, Egypt or Mesopotamia, was easier than it is today, is something that is so prevalent amongst popular culture that it often pops up in our T.V. programmes, in debates, and even in our museums. It’s clear that the ancient world is commonly revered and romanticised as if it were a haven for the queer community. 

This assumption is neither unfounded nor surprising. Homosexuality in the U.K. was only made legal in 1967, and the Church of England, as of this month, has continued to vote against allowing gay marriages to be ordained by priests. It’s no wonder that we look back to a time when philosophers revered lesbian poets (see: Sappho) and male lovers were publicly buried side by side. However, how useful is it for us to use the ancient world as the benchmark for an LGBT+-inclusive society? To what extent were the classics queer-friendly, and should we romanticise them as much as we do? 

One of the most well-known representations of queerness was the system of Pederasty in Ancient Greece, in which two men would have a sexual and sometimes romantic relationship as a form of sexual education. This type of relationship was incredibly common and is depicted in vast amounts of art, sculpture, and poetry from the period. Numerous examples include Zeus taking Ganymede as his lover, whilst Hadrian took Antinous, even publicly declaring his love after Antinous died by making him into a god and commemorating him across the empire. 

Obviously, this system was not one predominately based on love and equality. Pederasty was first and foremost a display of power, rather than a union of love. Older men took much younger boys, who fell into the role of the submissive (or the ‘woman’), whilst the older man ‘educated’ by being the dominant. This way, the man in power, usually already a man of means and who wielded political or financial power could maintain his masculinity, whilst engaging in homosexual relationships. Some of these relationships were also non-consensual, with men taking slaves as their youngers. Even as time progressed, despite the Romans rejecting many Greek ideals as outlandish or barbaric, Pederasty continued, this time less as a spiritual or educational union and more as a social pastime. In Ancient Rome it even became the social norm for older men to prefer younger boys over younger women. 

This arrangement is obviously abhorrent to us in the modern day, and many historians now more closely relate pederasty to paedophilia than to any kind of homosexual relationship. However, it’s the modern-day reimaginings of these relationships that hold the most sway over modern-day consciousness. Close friendships between men (Philia) were considered healthy and even considered deeper than the romantic love (Eros) between man and wife. Most Greek or Roman heroes, like Odysseus, Jason or Aeneas, often exhibit this love for their close friends. Achilles and his ‘friendship’ with Patroclus, is perhaps the most famous of them all, and has been reimagined by Madeline Miller in her book ‘The Song of Achilles’. If you haven’t read this book yet, please do, as it’s beautiful and is up there with one of my favourite retellings of Greek mythology. However, whilst the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in this book is pure, loving and equal, the source material it’s based on tells us a much different story. Patroclus in the Iliad is his much younger cousin, and once again it’s more than likely that their relationship was one of Pederasty. That’s not to say that there was no love, as even in canon, it is Patroclus’ death that spurs Achilles onto his murderous frenzy, but it is to say that whilst Madeline Miller’s retelling is a welcome one, it’s important to remember that if Achilles and Patroclus did exist, their relationship is not one that is comparable to today’s standards.

Noticeably, most focus on sexuality in the Ancient World was focused on men and their masculinity. Women were not afforded the same allowances as their husbands were. That is not to say that they didn’t exist or weren’t known about. Sappho, a poet, was considered the ‘Tenth Muse’ by Plato and was so renowned amongst her contemporaries that her poems were kept at the Library of Alexandria for centuries after her death. Born in Lesbos, Sappho is often cited as one of the most famous sapphics, with her home country eventually becoming the namesake for ‘Lesbian’.  Most of her work was destroyed during the fire at Alexandria, but some lines remain. In one poem Sappho expresses her envy of men who are allowed to talk to the girls she wants instead; 

He seems to me an equal of the gods—

whoever gets to sit across from you

and listen to the sound of your sweet speech

   so close to him

 However, her contemporaries viewed her as an oversexed predator of men. Philosophers in the Roman empire were so confused by her, they that began to assume there must have been two Sappho’s; one the famous poet, and the other the notorious slut. Rewriting Sappho continued well into the nineteenth century when scholars tried to explain away Sappho’s interest in women as innocent, despite nearly all her poems being deeply personal expressions of private homoerotic passion. However, we know very little about Sappho, her work, her private life or her lovers. Whilst you only have to walk into the British Museum to see a pot adorned with naked, frolicking men, women are unsurprisingly written out of ancient queer history. Even some of the most famous sapphics, like Cleopatra, who is often cited as being bisexual, was only ever said to be so because Shakespeare wrote her character to be queer, so as to appeal to his male audiences by playing on an age-old male-fantasy. 

It’s clear that male homosexuality was often one of power and coercion, whilst queer women were believed to not have even existed in any real way. If they did, it was to pander to a male fantasy. With the onset of Christianity in the early fourth century, and the criminalisation of sodomy in 342AD, all homosexual relations were demonised, the effects of which are still felt today. The reality of queerness in the Ancient World is so distinctive, that it has very little relevance to homosexuality today. However, that is not to say that queerness and its history can’t still be celebrated and remembered in all its forms. Whilst we should acknowledge that much of the history and mythology surrounding queerness in classical civilisation concerns predominately upper-class men, and is studied by upper-class men, we can still celebrate everything in between; the love poetry, the art and stories left behind by those who lived centuries ago but still loved the same.

This past February has been a particularly frustrating and distressing time for the queer community, with the blocking of the Gender Recognition Reform Bill by Westminster, and the murder of transgender teenager Brianna Ghey dominating headlines. Having these events take place during LGBT+ History Month is not surprising in the least, and I imagine even less so for those who are fighting every day to have their existence acknowledged and protected. But it is especially during times when progress seems to have halted, that we should acknowledge (and celebrate) quite how far we have come.

Article by Sylvie Dulson, Society and Community Writer

Featured image by Laila Ghaffar