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brief psa on greco-roman homosexuality

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There is a growing misconception regarding the Ancient Mediterranean and sexuality. Ancient Greece and Rome were not gay-friendly. There were certain cultural expectations and understandings regarding men and sexuality: these were what made some sexual relationships between men acceptable in the eyes of the public. This, however, is not an acceptance of homosexuality itself--it is merely the allowance of particular sexual arrangements and practices.

“Top” and “bottom” were not merely positions: they were the embodiments of one’s social standing. The “top”, he who penetrates, was thought of as aggressive and admirably masculine. The “bottom”, meanwhile, becomes something akin to a woman. In today’s world, this is no offence. In the hyper-misogynist world of the Ancient Mediterranean, this was deadly to one’s reputation. Being on the receiving end--vaginally, anally, or orally--was thought to be an unspoken revocation of one’s autonomy.

An acceptable male-male relationship would not be a relationship between equals. The only acceptable homosexual relationships were pedophilic. It is a relationship of power and control. One individual would always be the “top”, dominant in both life and sex. He would be older than his partner, of a higher social rank, and would experience little to no backlash for his sexual engagement. As long as his chosen partner was not a valid citizen (i.e., a woman, a slave) or low-ish on the social ladder (like an immigrant, or a poor freedman), no harm was thought to be done to this “top.” A socially acceptable “bottom” would be younger, wield no control over his partner, and lesser in strength and rank. He would be of the ages 12-14. If the “bottom” is an adult man, his sexual activity is not seen as a healthy expression of sexuality: it is seen as meek, unmanly, and therefore reprehensible. Relationships between equal citizens, above all, would reflect poorly upon both partners, though the dominant partner would see less disgrace.

It must also be understood that, to the Romans and Greeks, the “top” was always considered to be dominant, and the “bottom” was always thought of as passive. Being the penetrator would reaffirm one’s position in both literal and metaphorical ways: literally as more powerful and in control, metaphorically as a reminder of who between them is the valid citizen. Being penetrated would bring someone to the level of a woman, or a child within that age range of 12-14, who was expected to be subservient. Penetration became inseparable from subservience, just as being the penetrator was inseparable from aggression. We understand now that position and role are not one in the same: the receptive partner can be dominant in personality or control, while the penetrative partner can be submissive to instructions. Someone’s role isn’t tethered to their gender, either: women are not all passive, men are not all domineering, nor is someone’s role set in stone. The Greco-Roman interpretation of “top = dominant” and “bottom = submissive” is unrealistic and rigid.

These harsh roles are what make the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles an unusual one indeed. Whether their bond was a platonic one or a sexual one is, as it was in Ancient Greece, still a debated topic. Achilles expresses immense grief following the death of his comrade. This is, to us, to be expected: death, whoever it may have touched, is the subject of the greatest of human sorrows. How could the grief of Achilles possibly be interpreted as homosexual? Context is what changes the interpretation. Achilles, whose length of mention pales in comparison to that of everything else in the 400-page epic, is one of the only men who are described as experiencing any emotion whatsoever. Homer keeps men and women brutally separated: the women grieve and weep, the men rage and war. Achilles is the only man who is described doing both. His grief doesn’t make him womanly by a Homeric definition, per se--especially not if one considers the sheer destruction which he leaves in his wake--but the description that his grief is given characterizes it as profound. All the characters have lost friends and comrades in the war. Achilles, whose grief is the only kind that was given a cameo, has apparently experienced something that the other characters have not. In losing Patroclus, Achilles loses what no other character has: his lover.

For the purpose of discussing Greco-Roman ideas regarding sexuality, consider the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus to be at the very least sexual, if not romantic. Their partnership, just because of who they are as people, is entirely unable to fit into ancient perceptions regarding roles and sex.

Patroclus is older than Achilles. Achilles was so feminine in appearance that he passed as a woman, which was a disguise he adopted while dodging the draft. By this presented dynamic--the masculine, elder soldier, juxtaposed by the younger, girlish partner--Patroclus should be the “top”, and be both sexually and socially dominant. Textually, however, this is not so. Fragments from The Myrmidones cite a claim in which Achilles is the possible “top”. This, by some degree, makes sense: Achilles is a prince, the son of a minor sea goddess, the champion of the Greek army, outspoken, and powerful. In the Iliad, he makes commands of Patroclus, and Patroclus dutifully obeys every order. Achilles is clearly the dominant personality. The behavior of Patroclus strongly solidifies his passivity: while outside Troy, Patroclus plays all the roles that a wife might. When Odysseus and Ajax come to ask for Achilles’ help, Patroclus receives them and prepares a meal. He sits in on, but does not engage in, discussions between the other men. This was women’s work. There surely were maids and women in the camp who could have done these things for Achilles. Patroclus is the one who does it anyway. Comparative stories told by Nestor and Phoenix continually cast Patroclus into the role of wife.

The debate regarding Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship is, in part, rooted in their unusual dynamic. Patroclus is a martyr and Achilles is a hero: seemingly, they can do nothing to tarnish their reputations. The true nature of their relationship is then glossed over in the interest of preserving their glorious reputations rather than evaluating their true selves.

Like many other aspects of Greco-Roman culture, the notion of “top = dominant” and “bottom = submissive” still very much lives on. There is a growing understanding of sexual diversity, yes, but within the last 10 years, there was a common theme regarding LGBT persons and their representation. Gay men are presented as immensely stereotypically feminine. Some depictions of transgender women are, sadly, not at all true representations of a transgender individual, but are instead meant to come across as a “trap” gay man who attempts to trick cis men into penetrative sex. Both of these representations suggest that, by virtue of male homosexuality, an individual must enjoy penetration, and because of his want for penetration, he is therefore womanly, or "wants to be a woman." For another comparison, observe nearly any pairing within the yaoi genre. The “top” is usually taller, broader, and older, while the “bottom” is smaller, younger, and more naïve. Though there isn’t any widely accepted display of a pedophilic relationship, the Greco-Roman dynamic of the older man dominating a younger man is still present. The ages have been tweaked to be reasonable.

Therefore, Ancient Greece and Rome was not accepting of homosexuality itself. It encouraged a narrow, often pedophilic, expression of male sexuality.

The question then becomes: how, then, are modern authors supposed to depict the relationships of men in mythology? Clearly, there wasn't a healthy acceptance or understanding of it. My advice: keep doing what you're doing. Make Odysseus bottom. Have Apollo be a twink and a top. Understand the origin, but don't let it define the future. The past was an ugly place. Make something fun and beautiful out of it.