02. Ancient Mediterranean, Art & Humanities

Student Series! Girls, Gays, & Greco-Romans

Student Series! Girls, Gays, & Greco-Romans

As a culture, we often turn to the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome as the foundations for the western world. We have adapted their political systems, their philosophies, inventions and innovations, art and architecture, and countless other things that we find crucial to our cultural identity. For a long time we carried on their traditions and held them up to the highest ideals.
In 2016, gender and sexuality have been pushed into the limelight. They are both subjects surrounded by toxicity and lots of major debate. Whether it be reproductive rights, conversion therapy, or bathroom laws, these two concepts have been a major point of contention. Looking into and understanding the attitudes of the classical civilizations we regard with such fondness may give us some insight on how we have evolved and stayed the same.

Met-Three GracesMFA-Greek statuary

Who ran the world? (Not girls.)

It comes as no surprise to anyone that the attitudes towards women in antiquity are, well, antiquated. The Greeks and the Romans were a male-dominated society; so much so that an early Greek belief was that women were a different species, entirely. A popular mentality was that women were just there to procreate, provide a legitimate heir, and keep the household in line.
Examining the rights of women in Greco-Roman culture is not as easy as it seems. It is difficult to make generalizing umbrella statements because, like our society today, attitudes changed over time and location. For instance, women in the Greek city-state  of Sparta were able to drink wine, perform physical training  like men, and own land (This mostly stemmed for the Spartan belief in eugenics: strong, well-trained women and strong warrior men would, according to them, make strong warrior babies.).

Their Athenian counterparts lived differently. Athenian women could not vote, own land, leave the house (except for when there was a religious ceremony or were doing personal shopping) talk to men outside their families, and inherit land (unless under weird circumstances that, even after reading, like, three sources on I could not explain to you. Sorry.)  Their main duty was to get married, have kids, and nurture the family. The only property they were really able to own were clothes and jewelry. Pictured below is a Greek grave stele (AP Art History connection to the Grave Stele of Hegeso!). In the Grave Stele of Hegeso, the woman is pictured picking jewelry, probably one of their most valuable PERSONAL possessions out of a jewelry box held by a servant.

Read more: The AP Art History 250

Met-Greek stele with lady
MFA-Greek vase with noble woman

Roman women were on the same boat, or should I say trireme. Various rulers and parts of their ever-growing empire differed in attitudes towards women. For the most part, they were not very different from Athenian women. They did however have the almost cruel privilege to inherit their own land, but not control it.

However, it seems unjust to talk about classical women without talking about the women who, as Mark Cartwright phrased it: “rose above the limitations of Greek society and gained lasting acclaim.” Sappho of Lesbos was, and still is, a celebrated poet. Arete of Cyrene was a philosopher. Gorgo of Sparta and Aspasia of Athens were effective and successful leaders. There are probably countless other Greek and Roman women who rose above the adversity of their time.

Read more: #28. Peplos Kore from the Acropolis

Venus and Cupid, Lorenzo Lotto, c. 1480-1556
Lorenzo Lotto, Venus and Cupid, c. 1480-1556

Something Borrowed, Something New

To better understand the dynamics of marriage in the classical world, you should be aware of the two distinct definitions of love in the Greek culture, an ideal that will carry on into Roman practice: eros and aghape.

Eros, as defined by Virissimtzis, is “an intense attraction to something or someone, a strong desire, lust.” Think of eros was the hot-blooded passion and enthusiasm we so often associate with the Mediterranean. Think of cheesy romance novels with scantily clad men on the cover.  Aghape, on the other hand, can be defined as a deep fondness and affection. It’s more of a platonic appreciation. This, if you’re lucky, is what you might get out of a marriage in ancient Greece or Rome. Marriage was rarely ever about love. It was mostly about the preservation of the home, state, and race. If anything, love between the married couple was undesirable. It complicated things.

Marriages were arranged by the woman’s father and a dowry was usually involved. Women were around the age of puberty while the men were eighteen. After marriage, the woman was basically the husband’s responsibility. Their duty now was to produce children and nurture the household. Men were able to take up relationships with prostitutes and practice pederasty (more on that later.) Women, adversely, had to stay chaste and pure. In Greece, only men could initiate divorce. While in Rome, though both parties could initiate divorce, but women who leave their husbands were looked down upon and shamed.

Read more: Student Series! A Woman’s Role in Marriage

MFA-Greek youth bust

Gay Pride (kinda.)

Being is gay in classical times was surprisingly common and open. Usually when thinking about “sexual deviancy” (extreme air quotes) in the context of history, we imagine being closeted and scared and prosecuted, but the Greeks and the Romans were different.

There was a widespread practice in the classical world called pederasty. It is when a man over the age of twenty (the pais) would have a relationship with a teenage boy (the erominos). This practice stood on the basis of the pais teaching the erominos to be upstanding citizens. The pais would talk to them about poetry, philosophy, and politics: all things they could not talk to their wives about because they’re women and women know nothing, duh. It is a point of argument for classicists as to whether or not this relationship entailed sex or romance. Some say that, though there are some instances where a sexual relationship developed, pederasty was most-likely a mentor-student relationship. Think Obi Wan and Luke. Modern classicists, however, have been finding more and more evidence suggesting that it was probably the norm that a sexual relationship between the two parties developed. This brings up a myriad of issues with consent, but let’s not get into that.

So what happens when the erominos gets older? When the erominos reaches the age of eighteen, the relationship ends. By that time, both people are considered men and to continue the relationship was to degrading if you were considered the passive one as that was a woman’s position. However, oftentimes relationships would develop amongst fellow soldiers while they were off at war, and it’s not like anyone was going to stop them. Achilles and Patroclus, for example (although we’re not sure if they’re 100% real) are often regarded as lovers, though some argue otherwise. I think the Iliad speaks for itself.MFA-Axillies & Ajax dice game red figure
In Rome, there were no real distinctions between being gay or straight. That being said, the Romans, unlike the Greeks, sparsely talked about sex. The man with the higher social status just had to seem like the dominant one in the relationship. And who had a higher social status than emperor himself? Emperor Hadrian, a beloved ruler, was in a relationship with a man, Antinous, for eight years. Not much is known about Antinous other than he was really pretty and that Hadrian was head over heels for him. This was no scandal. The real scandal was that Hadrian barely even kept up with his wife or have kids, something that was seen as a Roman duty.

I know what you’re thinking, but where are the lesbians? Well, somewhere, probably. There are very little records of lesbianism from either civilization. The going-ons in women’s lives just weren’t as noteworthy, but rest assured, I’m sure they existed.

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