Desire of the Beloved

The idea that the grown men of ancient Greece had relations with women and boys is a generally accepted idea, and strategically used by various communities to further their various ends. But rather than attempting to understand how men's sleeping with males was acceptable, I am more interested in the relations between men and women. Though boys grow into men who could speak about their experiences, women (barring our extremely limited canon of Sappho) do not have that opportunity. Thus, people have attempted to understand women's roles in sex entirely through 1) the active male partner's eyes and 2) Sappho. To make matters worse, men rarely discuss the situation of their female companions, and so we are left with precious little information. However, if instead of assuming that "men," "boys," and "women" are the gender markers in a sexual relationship, and instead assume that they are only "lover" (man) and "beloved" (women and boys), there is a lot more to work with[1]. This assumption is not baseless, but appears to be supported in many texts, though in specific contexts, but working with it opens our understanding of all that a beloved can and should be.

The folks in the Symposium spend a lot of time explaining how, from the lover's perspective, love of boys is way better than love of women, apparently showing how, in fact they are NOT the same. But as interesting as their arguments are, more interesting is the fact that they are arguing at all: what are they refuting? Perhaps the original assumption is that an eromenos is an eromenon, and undistinguished by the genitalia it owns. And, rather than being a discussion of desire and which is a better choice of beloved (a difference between the roles women and boys as the passive partner), the speakers are simply reiterating the superiority of men as humans. It's not that boys and women are such different types of lovers, it's that boys, since they have a penis, are naturally superior creatures. But this is not to say that boys are men, for they are not. This sentiment is stressed in multiple places where grown men talk about the men that the boys will become (especially in the Symposium). Aristophanes describes boys as "slices of the male," which is quite accurate[2]. Boys will, at some point, be male, but as boys they are still lower in the hierarchy of formation. That is to say, boys, like women, are not fully respectable human beings yet. And to reinforce this point, it is worth noticing that, like women, boys (and their chastity) are protected and spoken for by their fathers, brothers, guardians and teachers - just like women[3].

There are different situations in which sex is acceptable for women and boys, determined through gender (for women, in marriage; for boys, with a committed man), but once they are in those situations, the expectations are the same. Both enter into sexual relationships with the apparent intent of gaining something that will last them the rest of their lives. Both are sheltered from men looking for primarily sexual relationships, and instead desire lovers who will provide them with things they need, boys that they may become fully realized men, and women that they may become good wives. They both want to be molded[4]. In Plato's Symposium, Phaedrus says that the beloved gains Love. And this love, in turn teaches them to love what's good and hate what's degrading. Socrates also argues that the beloved learns to love, which makes him godlier, and sets him up well for the afterlife[5]. But these gains all come after the relationship is deeply set. It is also important to imagine how it begins, and what a beloved wants in a lover.

Earlier in the same discussion in the Phaedrus, Socrates exclaims, "Won't it be disgusting in the extreme to see the face of that older man who's lost his looks? And everything that goes with that face - why, it's a misery even to hear them mentioned, let alone actually handle them, as you would constantly be forced to do!"[6] As this is a commentary regarding the lover, it seems safe to assume this would apply equally to boys and women as being uninterested in such consummation. Nevertheless, the beloved is expected to grant his favors[7]. With this information alone, it would be assumed that the beloved does not like, and should not like, to grant them, but should do it anyway. Though I think this is refuted somewhat by the peers jeering at boys who enter into sexual relationships, as an argument for why granting favors without desire is not socially expected in the positive sense[8], I find the former part of this assumption even less satisfactory after reading the end of Socrates' second speech in the Phaedrus[9]. Here, the beloved, though not necessarily entranced by the good looks of his lover, nevertheless desires him, and greatly so. The beloved falls in love with the lover. And here is something that could very easily be believed to be in common for all beloved - they want a lover they can fall in love with, a lover with divine love.

Very little appears in texts about the wants and desires of women, as well as boys, and it is difficult to find enough to piece together conceivably real people. But, understanding what boys and women have common, in their place in social hierarchy, especially in relation to sexual relationships, gives us a few more clues in putting the puzzle together.

[1] Instead of using the terms "active/passive" or "erastes/eromenos" in this paper, I will follow Hubbard's example of using the terms "lover" and "beloved" to refer to the participants. I don't use the active/passive model because it is not, in fact, accurate, and erastes/eromenos is associated with masculine-only relationships.

[2] Aristophanes in Plato's Symposium [191], p.190 HGR

[3] Aechines, Against Timarchus, [6.18], p. 133 of HGR; Aristodemus relating Pausanias' speech [181-182] in Plato's Symposium, p. 185

[4] Socrates in Plato's Phaedrus [253], p.248 HGR; Xenophon, Works on Socrates, "Economics" [7.4-41] , from the Perseus Project Online

[5] Socrates in Plato's Phaedrus [256]. p.251, HGR

[6] Socrates in Plato's Phaedrus [240]. p.235, HGR

[7] Phaedrus in Plato's Symposium [184-185], p.187 HGR

[8] Phaedrus in Plato's Symposium [183], p.186 HGR; Socrates in Plato's Phaedrus [254], p.249 HGR. But this does not correspond necessarily with women, who would be expected to grant sexual favors once married. The jeering seems related by peers in the same age group, and appears to be a reflection of gender ideals.

[9] Socrates in Plato's Phaedrus [255], p.250, HGR

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Written October 15, 2003 for "Sexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome" at Oberlin College

Last Updated April 19, 2005

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