James DAVIDSON: The Greeks and Greek Love

My review of The Greeks and Greek Love: A Radical Reappraisal of Homosexuality in Ancient Greece by James Davidson was published in the May 2008 issue of Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide. My review was subjected to such severe editorial revision that the published version obscures and distorts criticisms of the book. Here, then, is the version which I originally submitted:

Ancient Greek homosexuality is an enigmatic subject. In G&LR, XI, 3, Thomas K. Hubbard and Beert Verstraete describe how Dover and Foucault established the current paradigm by acknowledging its sexual aspect and the prevalence of bisexuality in Greece. However, Dover seemed preoccupied with a model of anal sex which implied domination and submission; against this, Hubbard cites evidence of couples of similar age and esteem, while Verstraete points out that there was casual sex as well. Both call for a new synthesis which accounts for the diversity of the Greek reality.

James Davidson is famous for his fascinating study of Greek culinary pleasures (Courtesans and Fishcakes, 1998), and many scholars expected him to provide the new paradigm. Instead, he has refurbished a Victorian model; Greek Love was not all about boys and sex, it was all about couples and romance.

Davidson’s style is enchanting and he offers some dazzling new ideas; His interpretations of gay myths (especially Ganymede) invoke such images as the resemblance of a certain star constellation to a spray of divine semen. He does explore one aspect of diversity, viz., regional diversity. Like William A. Percy (Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece, 1996), he examines the circumstances in which same-sex relations were institutionalized in different parts of Greece; but Davidson also elaborates a detailed picture for each region, e.g., with a lively gossip column on the role of gay attachments in Spartan political intrigues.
In another titillating journalistic segment, he tries to break the dominance of Dover and Foucault by tracing the origins of their ideas in their personal lives. Here, precisely, is the problem. Scholars’ positions should be judged on their evidence and logic, not just their subjective motivations; but Davidson’s own argumentation throughout this book is at best speculative, and often downright manipulative. He argues how “bizarre” it is that Plato pictures the soul as feminine, not telling the reader that the Greek word for ‘soul’ is feminine. He interprets an emptied oil flask in a painting of a sexual encounter as symbolizing the loss of innocence, not telling that oil served as a routine sexual lubricant. Against Dover’s “obsession” with anal sex, he argues from a single text that the term ‘wide-assholed’ (euryproktos), previously taken to refer to habitual bottoms, really meant only ‘big-mouthed’; yet elsewhere Davidson himself cites texts in which it can only mean what it says. This book almost reads as if there were two authors: the erudite investigator who wrote Fishcakes, and another who knows exactly where he wants the investigation to lead.

Transcending regional variations, there were two main types of gay relations in early Greece: a cultural tradition leading to the educational pederasty idealized by Socrates; and the military camaraderie which Davidson highlights.

The educational tradition began with lyric poets like Archilochos, who sounded themes like ‘make love, not war’. This radical reversal of heroic values has usually been regarded as a serious intellectual revolution; and the corresponding relationships, which involved training the boys in music and poetry as well as fighting, introduced the tradition credited by ancient as well as modern observers for Greece’s cultural achievements. Davidson deftly undermines the importance of this entire tradition by insinuating that just because lyric poets wrote for symposiums, this was “off-duty” eros, not to be taken seriously. This intrusion of modern social values (Greeks took their symposiums very seriously) downplays the most celebrated aspect of Greek love—and the most embarrassing for modern academics—leaving centre stage open for Davidson’s wedded warriors.

People obsessed with the bogey of “intergenerational sex” will be relieved to read that educational pederasty was not the big scene after all, and any action with men under 18 was illegal. Gay men who grew up with the AIDS epidemic and would like to disassociate themselves from the promiscuity of the Seventies will be comforted reading that Greek Love was really all about couples and fidelity. Gay Christians will be delighted to learn that Boswell’s medieval knightly betrothals also flourished in early Greece. And what could be more timely than the discovery that the rituals sanctioning same-sex relations in places like Crete were actually not initiations, but same-sex weddings? This book will sell. Unfortunately, the argumentation leading to these conclusions, too, is manipulative.

The investigative Davidson explains why the Greeks could hardly have a rigid attitude on age: They did not record or celebrate birthdays, and boys were advanced to mature status based on physical examinations. These observations are innovative and profoundly important for any discussion of age. But the other Davidson insists, based on a controversial interpretation of an Athenian law, that a rigid line was drawn at age 18; and he hammers this home throughout the book by mistranslating the vague term for “boys” (paides) as “under-eighteens” and the word for “youths” (meirakia) as “over-eighteens”.

In some ways, Davidson is an apt successor to Dover. Dover’s desire to unveil crude sexuality and Davidson’s to sanitize it both respond to the moods of their times. Both men are amusingly preoccupied with the ‘problem’ of anal sex. Both rely heavily on Plato and other controversial fourth-century (bce) sources, ignoring later ancient sources and some important work by modern scholars. Davidson knows his sources are tricky, but still is misled. For example, Louis Crompton (Homosexuality and Civilization, 2003) and others have shown that legal proceedings highlight the seedy side of sexuality, yet Davidson infers from such documents that Greek Love suddenly and inexplicably became meretricious in the fourth century.

Kathy L. Gaca (The Making of Fornication: Eros, Ethics, and Political Reform in Greek Philosophy and Early Christianity, 2003) reconstructed the practices of the early Stoics, who encouraged erotic teaching relationships with women as well as with boys. Strato of Sardis (second century ce) compiled an anthology of gay love poetry which, incidentally, included a practical solution for British scholars’ anal sex anxiety: “Three on one bed... the one in the middle pleasures the guy behind and is pleasured by the one in front” (Greek Anthology, 12:210). Davidson ignores these and other relevant modern and late ancient sources.

Davidson’s response to Foucault is even less satisfactory. The hypothesis of general bisexuality in Greece is well evidenced and highly explanatory. It is far more plausible that Greek institutions channeled a pre-existing sexuality than that they actually produced same-sex attraction. But there are also many apparently ‘essentialist’ references to men attracted only to other males. Davidson states casually that it is unfortunate that the Greeks had no concept of sexual orientation; but when he imagines the sudden emergence of commercial sex in the fourth century, he announces that “a new kind of person-type previously not quite so noticeable, the homosexual, was coming out” (p. 492). We need a serious new analysis incorporating the ‘essentialist’ evidence; we do not need off-the-cuff put-downs of people whose sex lives do not meet one’s personal standards.

Subtitled “A radical reappraisal”, this book, with its prominent author and opportunistic conclusions, will be popular; and that is regrettable, because in fact it is rather reactionary, and less flamboyant scholars will be picking up the pieces of a balanced understanding of the Greek reality for years to come.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Illuminating like a light in the forest of topics, written on such subjects. Mr. Jope speaks with the authority of a well-read researcher.