P&P Jope Review

From William A. Percy
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In Classical Views, SLI – N.S. 16, 1997

The excellent journal Classical Views changed its name to Mouseion a few years ago. It remains a wonderful resource. You can visit its site here.


William A. Percy, III. Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece.

Percy ascribes to the Greek style of boy-love, at least in the Archaic period, the status of a serious contributory factor to the Greek cultural achievement. The thesis will of course be controversial, and the tone is sometimes playfully provocative. The book opens with a favourable reference to De Sade, and is peppered with disparaging exposures of the homophobic dishonesty of earlier scholars. This reproach (pace Camille Paglia) is not unfounded; however, Percy overdramatizes the gap between himself and the closeted scholars whom he challenges, insofar as his reviews tend to highlight dinosaurs of early research while neglecting fully to acknowledge the more positive contributions since Dover – perhaps because his own contribution, like the earlier work and in contrast to some important recent contributions, is not based on the philosophical presuppositions of Foucault or the like, but on conventional historical research.

It has been known for some time that, at least in the aristocratic societies of Crete and Sparta, sexual relationships served as a normal channel of education and warrior-training. But Percy maintains that boy-love was actually institutionalized, by law-givers, throughout the Greek world in the Archaic Period.

Emphasizing such sources as Theran pornographic graffiti and Aristophanic comedy, and distrusting the prudish Socratics, Percy refuses to downplay the sexual nature of the relationship, but at the same time insists on its educational purpose.

He believes, on the basis of Aristotle’s Politics and modern demographic research, that pederasty, along with its “concomitant institutions” – symposia, gymnasia, delayed marriage and the seclusion of women – was part of a program to control Archaic overpopulation; as men in their twenties were busy with the boys, marriage could be delayed until the men reached thirty.

After arguing against other theories of the origin of Greek pederasty in Part One, and expounding his own in Part Two, Percy turns in Part Three to a regional survey treating the (often sparse) evidence for other parts of Greece beyond Crete and Sparta. He suggests that places such as Elis and Boeotia were less productive of higher culture because they conserved a more warrior-oriented form of pederasty, whereas in Ionia, for example, pederasts turned more to cultivating interests in poetry and philosophy in the boys at their symposia.

There are really two theses here. The broader thesis that Greek homosexuality had a serious educational role is neatly demonstrated simply by assembling (and acknowledging!) the evidence, from the Kyrnos poem of Theognis to the discovery of Robinson and Fluck that the kaloi on the vases were “not mere pin-ups” (Percy) but personalities who became important cultural and political leaders. In this respect, Percy’s book is but a timely and effective haute vulgarization, as he describes it.

The narrower thesis of institutionalization is more original, and intriguing. Its strength lies in focusing on Greek institutions as described by Greek sources; its weakness is the exclusiveness of Percy’s focus.

Aristotle’s report that pederasty was intended to control the birth rate is plausible. And as Percy points out, in view of the rapid social change and proneness to legislative innovation which characterized especially Archaic Greece, it is equally plausible that where pederasty was regularly practiced, it was institutionalized. However, when Percy attempts to trace institutionalization in various city-states, some of his links are very tenuous. For example, Philolaus is postulated to have institutionalized pederasty in Boeotia simply because we are told that he introduced measures to control population (134).

Percy buttresses such scanty evidence by pointing to the spread of gymnasia and symposia, but some may regard this argument as circular.

Again, the “lascivious” boy-loving poetry of Anacreon and Ibycus in the Archaic period is taken to attest the institution, although Percy’s material on these poets says nothing about educating the boys. Yet he excludes Theocritus as irrelevant to institutionalized pederasty, although we do find an expression of the educative motivation in Idyll 13.8-9.

This does not necessarily mean that Percy’s theory of Archaic institutionalization is invalid; it is a plausible interpretation of the evidence. But in his desire to limit his scope to securing a full appreciation of the import of pederasty in Archaic Greece, he evades the obligation to explain the continuity of Archaic educational pederasty within the broader overall context of Greek sexuality both during the Archaic period and afterwards, as well as the need for a critical assessment of the social merits and consequences of the institution.

For example, perhaps one should examine more closely the situation of those boys who, after being encouraged to perform a passive role in the critical years when their own sexuality was being moulded, failed to change to active when the dreaded beard made its appearance. (How common were they? How serious was their social oppression?)

The conventional schema of passivity at a certain age, followed by exclusive activity, and thirdly by heterosexual marriage imposed severe tensions on the individual which may have been partly responsible both for the Socratic puritanical reaction and for the frankly recreational boy-love attested by later sources. Cantarella has pointed out these tensions, but Percy seems oblivious of them, for example, when he cites (147) as evidence of conventional pederasty (in which the boy was supposed to feel philia, not eros) a fragment (Alcaeus 358 L-P) which implies that a sexual encounter cannot be completed enjoyably unless the boy has an erection.

In this and many ways, the literary evidence suggests far more complex attitudes than do the basic conventions which themselves have only recently received serious attention in mainstream scholarship. Hence a better understanding of the costs and benefits of pedagogic pederasty might be possible if literary scholars contribute more to the debate, e.g., through a more detailed interpretation of the attitudes and values implied in the sources – which would also, incidentally, require a more sensitive scrutiny of their language than Percy shows (or, in fairness, perhaps need for his historical essay). For example, Percy translates katapygon as broad-assed, apparently confusing it with euryproktos. Jeffrey Henderson’s findings (The Masculate Muse [1991] 210) suggest that the difference in some contexts, could be important. (A Greek equivalent of Adams’ The Latin Sexual Vocabulary would certainly help.)

In the current political climate, when even gay activists eschew any association with pederasty, it is courageous to maintain not only that sexual relationships are compatible with education, but that this kind of education played a critical role in the West’s cultural awakening. Yet even Percy’s book shows that progress toward a proper understanding of Greek sexuality has still only begun.

-James Jope


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