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Ancient Laws, Modern Prejudices: Athenian Laws Related to Male Prostitution

Kostas Kapparis

University of Florida

The pioneering study of K.J. Dover Greek Homosexuality has dominated the literature on same-sex relations in ancient Greece for the past 40 years. First, there are historical reasons for this dominance: this study was a bold undertaking at a time when no respectable academic would pick up this topic. Second, the success of Dover's model lies in the fact that it provided an elegant explanation for a puzzle. How could heterosexual men in classical Athens take male lovers and freely talk about it as a routine and normal course of action?  The evidence was undeniable because it is ubiquitous in Greek literature, but the interpretation of that evidence was uncomfortable in societies which considered same-sex relations barely tolerable, if not outright illegal. Dover's model alleviated this discomfort by being able to function within the confines of the prevalent heterosexual norm, since it established that homosexual relations were only acceptable if they were temporary, there was a large age difference which added the coefficient of an educational element central to the entire relationship, and the younger partner was still hairless and beardless and had the appearance of a woman. Dover built this model on two pillars, the speech Against Timarchos, and the Eurymedon vase (thus ignoring vast amounts of sources and evidence which could not be comfortably fitted into this model, such as relationships between adults). But it all made sense, and offered an elegant solution without even the need to acknowledge any physical attraction or passion as necessary ingredients. Scholars and thinkers took Dover’s edifice and run away with it. For Michael Foucault it formed the basis upon which the second volume of his History of Sexuality was built. Others saw in his interpretation of the Athenian laws of hetairesis and epangelia a conservative turn in Athenian public opinion, the formation of a moral milieu where the democracy had departed from the corrupt practices of the archaic aristocracy, and wanted to discourage young men from forming homosexual relations. Adriaan Lanni took the argument as far as saying that young men in Athens voluntarily would abstain from sexual relations for fear of future disfranchisement, if they engaged in them.

In this paper I will argue that Dover’s interpretation of the laws of hetairesis and epangelia, and the conclusions which he has drawn on Greek same-sex relations on the basis of these sources, as well as his interpretation of the Eurymedon vase, were heavily influenced by 1970’s homophobia rather than reliable evidence from classical sources.  As a result, a misinterpretation of two laws with limited objectives and targeting a tiny demographic has been blown out of all proportion and has inhibited our understanding of Greek attitudes to same-sex relations. In this paper I will reassess these laws under the more inclusive viewpoint of the 21st century, arguing that the Greeks viewed same-sex relations as a normal expression within the spectrum of human sexuality, and that these laws have to do with fiscal, political and practical considerations in public life, not homophobia.

Session/Panel Title

Legalize It: Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Law

Session/Paper Number


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