The Greeks & Greek Love, By James Davidson

Sex in ancient Greece wasn't all nymphs and satyrs going at it in the woods of Arcady – unfortunately
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The Independent Culture

Following on from his rapturously received Courtesans and Fishcakes, James Davidson's latest examination of Greek mores is sub-titled "A Radical Reappraisal of Homosexuality in Ancient Greece". As with his account of whores and hors d'oeuvres, this rather narrow-sounding study widens into an examination of an entire culture, far more fascinating and alien than we commonly imagine. As Davidson puts it in customary caustic and witty style, The Greeks & Greek Love excavates terrain that should have been excavated years ago, "had we not been so strangely concerned with sodomitical penetration". There's a lot more to Greek love than the crude enquiry, did they or didn't they?

Davidson is more than happy to admit that there are areas where we cannot be certain, and his monumental study also forms a running commentary on classical historiography itself: not only what we know but how we know it, and what we do with that knowledge. For starters, though we blithely talk of Greece and Rome as single entities, that really only applies to the latter. Greece was a constellation of quarrelsome cities, "a cultural confederation of micro-states", often varying wildly in their laws and customs.

He's wonderfully scornful of those who look to Greek love for validation of any particular gay lifestyle today, as if, because the Greeks did it, so can we. Where would that leave women's rights? Or that rather problematic institution of slavery? It is a woeful failure of historical imagination, and a distinctly wish-fulfilling one too, to discover in Greek patterns of homosexuality a world "that more closely resembles a sado-masochistic sex club in 1970s San Francisco, all domination and humiliation, role-playing and sex acts".

The assumption that Achilles and Patroclus were male lovers takes rather a knock when Davidson points out that there are no nights of passion mentioned in the Iliad. They could be just good friends. On the other hand, a line from Aeschylus renders their passion for each other distinctly physical. "This is not a tranquil corner of research," Davidson observes. A lot of people have invested in it.

Robin Lane Fox was Davidson's tutor, and described Oliver Stone's Alexander, on which he was adviser, as being "all about horse-riding and buggery". In this summation, Lane Fox is not far from the more strident arguments of gay activists, insisting on Greek Love as "a generalised ethos of penetration and domination", structured around "the phallus". Davidson's own concern is to reveal a gentler side to Greek love. Love, in fact, and not the relentless phallus-worship and sodomy of these supposedly "buggery-obsessed Greeks".

He also picks apart the idea that the Greeks didn't acknowledge labels such as "homosexual" and "heterosexual", that those strict demarcations and pigeon-holes are repressive, post-Christian notions quite at odds with the Greeks' free and easy attitudes. Indeed, decades ago, Gilbert Murray reprimanded those who fondly imagined that the Greeks, before Christian sexual shame kicked in, were all "noble and nude and antique", in that memorably awful Swinburnian line; liberated and guilt-free nymphets and satyromaniacs going at it in the woods of Arcady in any number of polymorphously perverse combinations. Every classically educated Victorian gentleman's favourite fantasy. On the contrary, said Murray, the Greeks walked in fear of the Lord. A cursory glance at Greek tragedy soon confirms that.

James Davidson takes a similarly stern line. The Greeks regarded anyone under 18 as especially pure because they were untainted by sex, innocent as cherubs even up to 17 (surprisingly late by our standards) and as such, specially reserved for such purity-demanding tasks as harvesting the sacred olive at Olympia. His close and detailed unravelling of the figure of Ganymede, all too often taken simply as a "symbol of the faggoty decadence of pagan religion", is quite superb. It all centres around his interpretation of Ganymede's hat, and is perhaps the most brilliant section of the book, although too complex to summarise here.

Typical of Davidson's digressive and erudite approach is that this study should include a lengthy quotation from Colin Farrell, and allusions to the habits of the Shavante and Kayapo Indians of Brazil. But at the heart of his book is an intriguing attempt to demonstrate that the Greeks, or some of them, sometimes, practised something not too distant from our recent civil partnerships: an "intense form of male bonding", with its counterpart perhaps in the male bond observed by the Romans among Celtic warriors, who would not leave the battlefield alive if their partner had been killed. Such bonding survived in modified form until at least as late as the 1180s in Ireland, when Gerald of Wales records two Irishmen swearing eternal comradeship in a wedding-like ceremony. Indeed what they actually swore was compaternitas or co-fatherhood, which certainly makes you wonder. Davidson also cites Edward II and Piers Gaveston as an example of male bonding, although he might have acknowledged that this was regarded as pretty disgusting by then, and ended in that unfortunate business with the red-hot poker.

Much of the evidence remains inconclusive, even on so simple as question as, "Did Spartan men have sex with each other or not?" Xenophon, Plutarch, Aelian and others all hotly deny it; and the Spartans were generally pretty puritanical anyway. Lycurgus decreed that even married men should only sneak in and out of their wives' bedchambers at night, unseen. But there are other reasons to suspect that things were not so clear-cut. Generally this kind of uncertainty can produce history of the dullest kind: "On the one hand it is possible that... on the other hand, it could be argued that..." which ends up taking a long time to tell you nothing at all. Davidson, with his wit, range and learning, is able to admit honestly the limitations of historical understanding, while never being less than fascinating.