P&P Cartledge Review

From William A. Percy
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From The International History Review, Volume 19, 1997, p.887:

The body is currently a sexy topic in Classical studies (see, for example, A. Richlin, Towards a History of Body History in Inventing Ancient Culture: Historicism, Periodization, and Ancient History, ed. M. Golden and P. Toohey [1997], pp.16-35; or A. Stewart Art, Desire, and the Body in Ancient Greece [1997]). So too is confessional, self-fashioning historiography, whether it be race, sexual orientation, or creed that is the driving impetus to the public exhibition of the writing self. Greek pederasty, moreover, since the first appearance of Kenneth Dover’s Greek Homosexuality (1978; updated edition, 1989) has remained a central element in the body of innovative work devoted to ancient Greek and Roman gender and sexuality (or sexualities).

William Armstrong Percy III, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, is not therefore doing anything terribly daring or original in writing a crusading, self-confessedly homophilic account of pederasty in ancient Greece (‘Archaic’ is intended to indicate that its chronological focus is on the period roughly 700-500 BCE). What does, however, make Percy’s contributions unusual are, first, that he is a man of a certain age, intellectually formed well before the ‘60s and ‘70s generations for whom (in Richlin’s words Inventing Ancient Culture, p. 23) ‘body and political liberation movements intermingled’, and second, that he is a medievalist by specialization, not an ancient historian.

For the most part he has done his homework well. Rather than merely parroting Dover, he seeks to correct or improve upon him in three main ways. First, he cogently restates against him the case for ‘initiatory’ pederasty as a social institution, in Crete (the alleged fons et origo from which institutionalized pederasty was diffused in Greece) and Sparta. Second, he divides up his carefully analysed source material on a regional basis, seeking to distinguish between, say, Spartan and Athenian forms of pederasty rather than regarding the evidence from one city or area as transferable to another. Third, with rather touching acknowledgment to Werner Jaeger, he emphasizes the pedagogical function of pederasty above all others. His bibliography is a rich if not altogether up-to-date or accurate resource, including even a tantalizingly unpublished 1985 work by Parker Rossman that refines ‘in even greater detail the various forms of pederasty that have been observed’ (p. 194 n.15).

On the other hand, the book also has some serious imperfections. It is inconsistent to distinguish sharply and plausibly between (ancient) ‘situational’ or (modern) ‘androphile’ ‘homosexuality’ on the one hand, and (ancient) ‘pederasty’ on the other, while simultaneously declining even to take part, let alone take sides, in the intellectual debate between ‘essentialists’ (a gay is a gay is a gay) and ‘social contructionists’ (there were no gays before the later nineteenth century at the earliest). The appearance of his article "Greek Pederasty" in the Journal of Homosexuality (1987) does nothing to clarify matters. To classify and explain the intellectual court of the tyrant Polycrates of Samos as diagnostically ‘pederastic’ seems hugely reductionist, not to mention parti pris, a criticism that applies in spades to Percy’s unconscionable coinage ‘pederastic democracy’ for the Athens of Aristeides and Themistocles. Percy’s use of ‘Ionian’ and ‘Dorian’ as more than dialectical labels, as if they picked out genetically based cultural oppositions, is to fall victim to the snares of ancient rhetoric and the wiles of its less savoury modern inheritors (of which he is, however, aware). If pedersastic pedagogy was, as Percy claims, what most accounted for the cultural greatness of early Greece, why, despite is alleged persistence as an institution, did it cease to have that effect during the Classical (post-500) and subsequent ages?

Finally, inevitably, Percy’s non-specialist inexperience does occasionally deserve palmary punishment. For example, Pausanias the character in Plato’s Symposium is confused with Pausanias the second-century CE travel writer (Index s.v. to p. 29). The idea that the ‘Lelantine War’, itself probably a factoid, ‘lasted almost two centuries’ is ludicrous, not to mention the belief that ‘Brelich (1961)’ represents the ‘latest scholarship’ (p. 212 n. 4). More seriously, the proposition that ‘Chrimes’ argument that Sparta preserved its agoge (rigorous training for the Spartiates) with only insignificant changes and brief interruptions from Archaic to imperial [Roman] times is convincing’ (p. 82) is not cogent. A reading of especially A. Spawforth’s contribution to P.A. Cartledge and Spawforth’s Hellenistic and Roman Sparta (1989), not cited, would presumably have been enough to convince him otherwise. Now Nigel Kennell’s Gymnasium of Virtue (1995) must surely complete his re-education.

Nevertheless, this is not a book to be despised, and especially outside Classical circles it may well have some deservedly positive impact.

Clare College, Cambridge P. A. Cartledge

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