We can’t imagine that most, if any, men looked like kuoroi – Zag himself represents such an ideal. Kuoroi are more like the idealized, fetishized bodies we see in media, propaganda, and art today. Myron Discoballs, the representation of masculinity in its dynamic aspect, was infamous by the Nazis as their eugenic metric of beauty. This goes to the heart of identity production in ancient Greece, where “we East which Is. ” In Body arts, writes rhetorician Debra Hawhee: “For ancient Athenians, physical beauty and moral superiority were inextricably linked.” It is therefore not surprising that the gods – what Jean-Pierre Vernant calls the “super divine bodies” – are hot. Of course, we also moralize the bodies. The Kuoroi are as representative of the values of ancient Greece as Hell is our own culture.
Weren’t they a bit gay, though?
Zagreus and Thanatos, the glittering personification of death herself, play the ephebe, but older men also have a role. Whether it is a statue or a person, men of all ages have participated in a ritual undressing. As historian Donald G. Kyle recounts in Sport and entertainment in the ancient world, “Undressing completely to get naked for sport has become an assertive communication of masculinity, ethnicity, status, freedom, privilege and physical virtue.” It was then up to man to maintain his physicality at all times, ready for sport as much as for battle. Men were supposed to react to these instances of public nudity with infatuation, acknowledging that these bodies are beautiful, virtuous and good. And the naked man must respond with modesty or shame (aidos). Even the naked kuoroi portrayed modesty through their limited movement.
But obligatory homoeroticism is not the same as queerness.
To better understand how the Greeks treated same-sex relationships, we need to talk about one of the most overlooked institutions of Greek life in our reinterpretations of their histories: pederasty.
An institution of aristocracy, pederasty was a court between younger and older men: the Eromenes and erastes, loved and in love. The older man is bound to protect and teach, while the younger, in adolescence, honors the older and maintains the bond between their households. These duets can also fight together, a way to encourage everyone to fight. Kyle writes: “Pederasty had a role in education in Athens and elsewhere, but it was primarily a social fad among the elite, reflected in the pottery and poetry of this class and linked to its associations with symposia, gymnastics and athletics. Gyms were carefully regulated with hours and schedules to foster pederastic relationships, ultimately serving as a place of education where philosophers would teach.
Plato is just one remarkable example who “applauds pederasty, which the barbarians considered shameful, as a band of friendship which inspired higher thoughts”. The role of gyms is noted by Thomas Scanlon, who, in Kyle’s words, “presents naked physical education (gymnike paideia) as an effective form of socialization – an erotically charged relationship of mutual respect in which mature men provide cultural examples to adolescents. Often homoerotic, these couples are described through romantic or spiritual connections. Philosophers, all participants, would even argue that these ties transcend the relationships that men had in their arranged marriages with women.
Perhaps the most famous pederastic couple are Achilles and Patroclus, refigured as Hell as an adult lover on an equal footing. While classical philosophers did not know who was the oldest (scholars today claim that Patroclus was the ancient Erastes), they described the two as lovers. Again, homosexual and gay would be anachronistic identifiers for the ancient figures, both linked to 19th century beliefs about gender and sexuality that simply did not exist before. Achilles, as it is preserved in the myth, is no longer the eromena. While he is classically described as an ephebe, he is much older Hell. But Achilles and Patroclus could only be such historical lovers because they were not mortal men living in Homeric Greece. It would make more sense if, as a teacher, Achilles took on the role of Erastes of Zag (a ship that I will gladly let sink).
It should be remembered here that the mythical figures of Achilles and Patroclus are outliers as intelligibly queer men. We don’t know enough about coercion and consent to explore the possibility of romance in real pederastic relationships, but we don’t have to. After the eromenos shaves his first beard, he is no longer a boy. The continuation of sex with men into adulthood was shameful, because the pederastic relationship is based on his age difference. In Greece, masculinity was linked to an active role, to giving. While the teenage eromena could to receive, in the passive role, it was shameful for a man or an eraste to desire such things. Charges of such behavior have become common oratorical practice to discredit an opponent. A man subject to her wishes, they said, was feminine – the worst thing you could be.
So what were the women doing while the men were busy?
The women were institutionally and socially subordinate to men in civic life, when their bodies were often presented as the antithesis of virtuous masculinity. Early, statues of women, are shown in static poses that signify laziness, that they are unruly and asymmetrical. When on the move, women are imbalanced due to their lack of control over emotions and sexuality.