Letter to New York Review of Books

From William A. Percy
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To the Editors:

Paul Cartledge of Cambridge University in his review for International Historical Review (19, 1997) of my Pederasty and Pedagogy in Ancient Greece (1996) wrote that I was the first to try to go beyond K. J. Dover’s scholarship on sexuality in Ancient Greece. I thus have some perspective on G. W. Bowersock’s dual review of James Davidson’s The Greeks and Greek Love: A Bold New Exploration of the Ancient World and Andrew Lear and Eva Cantarella’s Images of Ancient Greek Pederasty: Boys Were Their God (“Men and Boys.” NYR, Sept. 24). The review contains some questionable judgments and a number of startling lacunae. Bowersock asserts that K. J. Dover’s Greek Homosexuality (1978) “was as clear as it was thorough,” that “[n]one of the longer books that have been published on Greek homosexuality in the thirty years after Dover comes close to his lucid, concise, and scholarly exposition,” and that “Dover’s book set the gold standard for the entire subject of Greek homosexuality[.]”

But as Charley Shively noted when reviewing Greek Homosexuality shortly after Harvard University Press published it, the book is primarily a commentary on a tedious fourth-century speech (Aeschines’ denunciation of Timarchus) and also includes a misinterpretation of cartoons on pots (Dover concluded that most male-male sex in ancient Greece was “intercrural”; although a majority of the erotic vase paintings from the period do indeed depict between-the-thighs intercourse, literary evidence suggests that this was euphemistic, not a reflection of actual practice).

In fact, Dover was neither clear nor thorough. As James Davidson pointed out in an excellent earlier article, “Dover, Foucault, and Greek Homosexuality: Penetration and the Truth of Sex” (Past and Present 170, 2001), Dover’s homophobia distorted not only his own assessment of Greek pederasty, but also that of his disciple, Michel Foucault, and in turn that of Foucault’s disciple, David Halperin, who summed up Greek sexuality as a matter of dominant males penetrating whomever they wished. Dover refused to acknowledge that male-male Greek love provided pedagogical and mentoring benefits to the younger partner; he saw it as purely a question of the older partner gratifying his sexual lust. Bowersock entirely misses this central point. He also overlooks two serious errors that Davidson makes: the preposterous notion that Greeks didn’t reach puberty until about the age of eighteen, and the claim that the older “lover” waited until then before initiating carnal relations with the younger “beloved.” To let these gaffes slide bespeaks either ignorance or squeamishness about the subject.

As to Dover’s thoroughness, Bowersock overlooks the fact that he refused to cite any sources written after 323 BC, the end of Greece’s Classical era. Consideration of Greek homosexuality requires discussion of Plutarch, Lucian, and Athenaeus, prime commentators on sexual practices in Classical Greece; they wrote about it as historians during the Second Sophistic (which happens to be Bowersock’s very own specialty). If Bowersock has no problem with Dover ignoring post-Classical sources, it is, then, a bit peculiar that he should chastise Lear & Cantarella for their exclusive focus on the Classical period. But since those scholars deal with sexual iconography on painted pots, which doesn’t pertain to post-Classical Greece because very few such pots were produced during that time, Bowersock’s criticism seems a tad misplaced. He in particular upbraids Lear & Cantarella for not discussing the silver Warren cup, dated by some scholars to the mid-first century AD, and a bronze unguent vase depicting four philosophers engaged in serious deliberation in one frame, and in another sodomizing male youths. Well, yes, Lear & Cantarella could have analyzed these metallic artifacts. But they had reason to confine themselves to the iconographics of ceramic-mediated sexual ideology; it’s the richest surviving body of work. That cannot be said of the sources that Dover used.

Bowersock’s deference to Dover raises questions about how well he knows scholarship on homosexuality. He is informed enough to cite the work of Karl Muller (1824), Moritz Meier (1837), Erich Bethe (1907), and A. E. Housman (1931), but doesn’t mention John Addington Symonds’ pioneering A Problem in Greek Ethics. Symonds first published ten copies for private circulation in 1883, all of which have now been lost. It was republished in German in 1897, and a pirated edition of 100 copies appeared in England in 1901; today the work endures as a component of Male Love: A Problem in Greek Ethics and Other Writings, published by Pagan Press (1983). Bowersack also omits the masterful work of Hans Licht (pseudonym of Paul Brandt, three volumes, 1925–1928), the English translation of which remains unsurpassed. Edward Warren’s A Defence of Uranian Love (three volumes, 1928-30) also provided a landmark study; Bowersock’s failure to cite this work is very odd, given his championing of the cup that Warren acquired and which came to bear his name. Michael Kaylor edited and recently reissued it with 100 pages of scholarly apparatus that includes a Preface by me (Valancourt Press, 2009). Finally, Bowersock seems utterly incognizant of Félix Buffière, whose Eros adolescente (1980) offers by many reckonings a more comprehensive and balanced work than Dover had produced two years earlier.

To be sure, Dover made an enormous splash in the Anglophone world, and to this day many non-specialists have the impression that he was the first scholar writing in English to analyze comprehensively the controversial subject of pederasty in Ancient Greece. Bowersock does not correct this misunderstanding (he does, to his credit, mention the contribution of A. E. Housman; however, as Bowersock notes, the timidity of British editors forced Housman to publish in a German journal). By extension, Bowersock fails to identify the reason Dover has gotten so much credit: Symonds and Warren, both unabashed Uranians with Symonds the greatest of them all, portrayed Greek pederasty in positive terms. They therefore have been largely hidden from history, erased from memory, even in the learned pages of NYR.

Dover’s legacy has left a decidedly constricted view of Greek pederasty, one that Bowersock echoes. Indeed, he compares it to sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy in our own era. The Greeks’ open embrace of age-differentiated male-male love bore little resemblance to the covert sexual coercion that the clergy scandal unmasked.

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