Sexuality in Fifth Century Athens

Brian Arkins


In recent decades and particularly in the last ten years,

much valuable work has been done on the theme of sexuality

in the world of Greece and Rome. In a post-Freudian era this

is presumably to be expected, but we should not forget that,

until quite recently, it was virtually impossible to discuss

sexual issues in an open and non-judgmental way; it is

sufficient to point to the bowdlerisation of Aristophanes, and

to Fordyce's scandalous edition of Catullus, which omitted 32

poems on the spurious grounds that 'they do not lend

themselves to comment in English'.

Now, happily, a saner climate of opinion prevails, in

which the present essay on sexuality in fifth century Athens is

not exceptional. Such essays as this have been greatly

facilitated by the appearance of a number of books on ancient

sexuality and, in particular, by the appearance of David

Halperin's great book One Hundred Years of Homosexuality

and Other Essays on Greek Love (London 1990).(1) What

follows here is considerably indebted to Halperin.


There is now a very considerable body of evidence to

suggest that human sexual behaviour is, to a great extent,

socially constructed. That is to say that the way women and

men conduct their sexual lives is determined to a marked

degree by what a particular society finds acceptable. Before

we come to Athens in the fifth century BC, it is instructive to

consider the case of Ireland in the 19th and 20th centuries.

From 1820 on sexual behaviour in Ireland was

constructed out of the economics of the small farm(2) and had

little to do with the doctrines of Roman Catholicism, and still

less to do with those of Jesus Christ. This highly puritanical

organisation of sexuality obtained, without interruption, until

1960 and caused a great deal of suffering to many women and

men. The Roman Catholic Church has never seen fit...