three pairs of lovers with space

Did the Greeks pedicate their loved boys?

Athenian boy about to impale himself on another boy's organ

Excepting ancient Greece, the evidence from literature and art is unambiguous that in all the great civilisations where Greek love was ubiquitous, in ancient Rome and pre-twentieth century China, Japan, Persia, the Near East and North Africa, it was taken for granted that men usually consummated their love affairs with boys through pedication, and acted likewise with boy slaves and prostitutes.  So far as we know, until the nineteenth century this was even so in Christian countries that harshly condemned sodomy, Renaissance Florence being a rare example of one leaving sufficient records for one to be certain. Hence, if we knew nothing about what the Greeks did to boys apart from loving them, the only fair guess would be that they did the same.

In at least one important respect, ancient Greece was different in its sexual etiquette to the other societies mentioned: the Greeks apparently considered it vulgar to discuss their sexual practices. The love affairs of men and boys blossomed in public, so the social circle of the participants naturally influenced the courtship, but once a couple were lovers, what they did in private appears to have been left entirely to them and was not a fit subject for discussion.  The problem this poses for us is that what they did sexually is not quite as clear as for other societies. Nevertheless, there are multitudinous scattered allusions (mostly in comedy), graffiti and evidence from ceramics to answer the question. They are enough.

Public discussion of Greek homosexual practises only began with Kenneth Dover’s Greek Homosexuality (1978), still the most authoritative discussion of this subject. He presented copious evidence that pedication was widely practised and often assumed to be the usual means of pederastic consummation.  He summed it up thus:

Homosexual anal copulation … in Greek comedy ... is assumed, save in Birds 706 (see above), to be the only mode (cf. p. 145); and when Hellenistic poetry makes a sufficiently unambiguous reference to what actually happens on the bodily plane, we encounter only anal, never intercrural, copulation. So Dioskorides 7 recommends a friend to 'delight in the rosy bum' of his wife when she is pregnant, 'treating her as male Aphrodite', and Rhianos 1 rapturously apostrophises the 'glorious bum' of a boy, so beautiful that even old men itch for it. Meleagros 90 is addressed to a boy whose beauty has faded with maturity; a 'hairy pelt' now 'declares war on those who mount from behind', and Meleagros 94, expressing love for a woman, abjures his former eromenoi and 'the squeeze of a hairy arse'.[1]

Intercrural copulation between a man and a youth

Many more similar references could have been adduced. Though no serious scholar has contested this evidence, there have in the present century been increasingly vocal denials, mostly online, but, in at least one case, in print.[2]  To judge from their context, all or most of these denials seem to be made by homosexuals who abhor pedication themselves and wish the Greeks had too.  It is these special pleadings, however poorly founded, that necessitate discussion of the question, since they have given rise to widespread misapprehension.  

Two arguments are generally made against the Greeks having pedicated their boys.  The first looks superficially plausible and so requires serious consideration. It is that a large number of Greek ceramics have survived which depict sex between men and boys or youths. These frequently depict intercrural intercourse (the man thrusting his organ between the boy’s thighs),[3] but depict pedication very rarely and only ever between boys or youths around the same age.[4] They also never depict fellatio (which the Greeks do seem to have looked down on[5]) or manual stimulation of the man, so this argument logically extends to saying Greek men never achieved sexual fulfilment with boys except intercrurally. It should also be noted that there are ceramic depictions of men pedicating happy-looking women, so any objections there may have been to pedication can only have concerned doing it to boys, rather than to the act itself.

The key to understanding this is to note something else which is never shown on the ceramics, extremely unrealistically and against the literary evidence[6]: no boy’s organ is ever depicted as aroused, even when being fondled by his lover with an obvious view to stimulating him.  In contrast, men are often shown with erections. Explaining this explains too why pedication was not depicted despite being practised. The Greeks shared to some extent the worry of the Romans and others that willingly taking on the passive role sat uncomfortably with a boy’s masculinity.  The Romans, being practical, resolved the problem by prohibiting men from sex with their free-born boys, and pedicating their slaves instead.  The Greeks, more idealistic, resolved it more delicately by maintaining a social pretence that boys did not enjoy the passive role and only put up with it for the other benefits of the love relationship. Once one appreciates the gap between what was said or shown in public and what was done in private, it is easy to see how depicting boys being pedicated would have been an unwelcome reminder that they were being treated like women, and depicting them with erections in amorous encounters with men would have been an unwelcome reminder that they enjoyed their role sexually. Showing off indelicate truths by celebrating them on drinking-cups would surely also amount to hubris.

                 A man pedicating a woman

The other line of argument sometimes adopted is disingenuous and so easily refuted that it only mentioned here because it keeps cropping up. This is to cite instances of pederastic behaviour that were clearly disapproved of and to claim or imply without grounds that they were disapproved of because they involved pedication. The various writings that advocate chaste relationships fall into this category, most famously Sokrates’s speech in Plato’s Symposium.  Xenophon’s claim[7] that Spartan law commanded lovers to keep their hands off their boys is another favourite for this argument.  The supposed implication is that since “we” know pedication is reprehensible, it must have been this that the Spartans (allegedly) and others objected to. But there are no grounds at all for such an inference.  In every instance, what was advocated was love of the boy’s soul to the exclusion of any expression of love of his body. Not a single Greek text even hints that intercrural intercourse was acceptable, but pedication was not. In a yet more absurd vein, stories are sometimes recounted like that of Periandros tyrant of Ambrakia, murdered by his loved boy for asking him in public if he was yet with child by him.[8] The hope is apparently that the reader will infer the boy’s outrage over his implied pedication provoked the murder, rather than the humiliation of it being hubristically boasted in public that he was just like a woman for his lover.

In conclusion, there is abundant evidence that, despite exceptions and some misgivings about it, it was commonplace for Greek men to pedicate their loved boys, and the modern arguments raised against this view are either based on misunderstanding or simply illogical.

[1]  Op. cit. p. 99

[2] James Davidson, The Greeks and Greek Love, 2007.  Bizarrely, Davidson tried to undermine Dover’s credibility by pointing out that he was a happily-married heterosexual.  His thinking is apparently that how gays behave today is a better guide to Greek homosexual practice than the historical evidence.  Dover having been heterosexual and therefore not having an axe to grind on the subject has usually been held to support his objectivity.

[3] Though one might question the assertion of Dover that certain images of a man and boy, such as that in the well-known Ashmolean kylix, R520 in his book, necessarily represent “a man and a boy get into position for intercrural copulation.” All that is depicted is intimacy and arousal while man and boy stand facing one another.  It does not follow that the boy would not turn around for copulation.  Thomas Hubbard in his Homosexuality in Greece and Rome (2003) does not make Dover's assumption.

[4] It may well have been them being the same age (and potentially reciprocal) that made it less threatening to the masculinity of the passive boy and thus less distasteful to depict.

[5] Only satyrs are depicted indulging in fellatio, and in so far as their sexual antics were shown as different to those of people, they indicate the unacceptable. In literature, it is only alluded to occasionally as a means of character assassination.

[6] For example, Aristotle mentions the problem of boys who enjoy being penetrated (Nikomachean Ethics VII 3-4).

[7] Constitution of the Lakedaimonians II 13.

[8] Aristotle, Politics V 1311.


by Edmund Marlowe, 30 May 2017