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Κιναίδων βίος: The impossible praise of a lifestyle in Athenian erotic culture.

Giulia Sissa


In ancient Greece, a κίναιδος is the paradigm of a sexual style. The word itself is extremely rare in the archaic and classical period. It becomes an object of semantic attention in ancient lexica and scholia, especially to Aristophanes. As an attribute of a person, the word is glossed in the Suda as “licentious” (ἀσελγής), “soft” (μαλακός), “female-male” (γύνανδρός). The defining quality of such a person, namely κιναιδία, is a complete lack of shame (ἀναισχυντία), which consists of playing the woman (γῠναικίζω). A κίναιδος is the embodiment of sensuality.

Firstly, I would like to offer a systematic review of the semantic field of the word κίναιδος, and the related terms that demonstrate the connotation of softness and hedonism (such as those mentioned in the Suda: ἀσελγής, μαλακός, γύνανδρός). Secondly, I would like to situate the value-loaded linguistic usages of κιναιδία within Greek normative discourses about male eroticism. The κίναιδος and his κιναιδία prompt us to rethink the question of “passivity” and effeminacy in the erotic culture of the ancient Greeks.

Michel Foucault’s most diligent followers have replaced the language of “homosexuality” with the binary opposition of active versus passive. The former role is valorized, these scholars claim, whereas the latter is despised. Penetration becomes the sexual act that defines the erotic experience. This line of thought misses three fundamental premises that run through ancient cultures at large: the traditional classification of genres and discourses as praise or blame; the primordial relevance of gender, as a matrix of embodied subjectivities; the importance of lifestyle (βίος).

In ancient Athens, arguments made in public allot praise and blame. The obsession with penetration is already a cultural artifact, typical of a biased way of thinking and speaking about sexual activity. It is the particular perspective of simple-minded people, whose simplicity is presented as a standard of ordinariness while also being, at the same time, lampooned as vulgar. Aristophanes’ comedies, especially the Thesmophoriazusae, offer evidence of this double mockery. Contempt for both members of a male couple is also appropriate to public speeches in the law courts, where an orator must second commonsensical opinions (Aeschines, Against Timarchus). In contrast, whenever a speaker values love between males, he will show admiration for both partners. In Plato’s Symposium, Agathon and his guests concur in commending lovers and beloved. Penetration is not even mentioned. Sensuality is good. No one is called κίναιδος. 

In Greek culture, the prime criterion for mapping desire, pleasure, and the body was gender. Gender commanded the logic of sexuality. Comparative arguments in praise of boys versus women (Plato, Plutarch, or the novel) insist on the superior qualities of male and manly partners—not on the dilemma of sameness/otherness, nor on activity/passivity. Gender is always relevant. Women are fond of pleasure, and seductively pursue the objects of their desire. 

I intend to question the significance of κιναιδία against this background, also paying heed to the notion of lifestyle. Plato alludes to the “life of the kinaidoi” (κιναίδων βίος) in Gorgias, when Socrates depicts those people who spend their time gratifying their multiple appetites. “Is not this life terrible (δεινὸς), shameful (αἰσχρὸς), and wretched (ἄθλιος)?”, Socrates asks (494e). The blame targets a mode of existence and an active orientation of the self: an insatiable desire for pleasure. The κιναίδων βίος is so obviously ignoble that one should be ashamed even to mention it. Consistently, this lifestyle is a matter of public scorn for Demosthenes, in Aeschines’ Against Timarchus (131). The “unmanliness” (ἀνανδρία) and “lasciviousness” (κιναιδία) of Demosthenes have nothing to do with passivity, but inspire intentional habits: he wears pretty, little, soft garments that the regular guys acting as judges in the law courts would be unable to identify as feminine or masculine – exactly like the ordinary Athenian who cannot tell Agathon’s gender in the Thesmophoriazusae

Κιναιδίαis an aesthetics of life.

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Searching for the Cinaedus in Classical Antiquity

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