When I was a teenager, I remember going to my dance teacher’s house to pick up some items we needed for an upcoming recital. While we were gabbing and getting things ready, she made a joke about her soon to be husband being Greek. She alluded that the Greek were into “that stuff” but she hoped that didn’t suddenly become a thing for him after they were married. I laughed and nodded but inside my head I was trying to figure out what she was talking about. I was a somewhat worldly teenager. Well, worldly in knowledge, not deeds. I may not have done everything I knew about, but I knew far more about sex than most of my friends did. Thankfully another girl with us just came out and said, “What stuff?” prompting a “doin’ it in the butt” whispered explanation.
Ah, “That stuff” was “Butt stuff.” My teenage brain wondered, “Were the Greeks really known for that?”
Over the years the idea of “Greek Love” or “Greek Style” has been mostly a punchline, and in truth, something that is rarely ever mentioned much less joked about. I forgot about it until I was doing research on anal sex and it popped up in a few places. It’s not entirely an urban myth but it’s also not a proven fact. It seems to stem from the oft-confused knowledge we have about Grecian attitudes about sex. Did they prefer anal sex as much as people think they did? Were the ancient Greeks more accepting of male on male sex? Yes, and no, and maybe. When you delve deeper into the history of Ancient Greece you get a less than clear picture. There is little substantial written evidence of a proclivity towards anal sex, but there is a fair bit of it in the art. Vase paintings make it seem as though it was as common as vaginal sex but it may not be representing exactly what was preferred or even acceptable.
Things we do know about the ancient Greeks are that women had no rights, were not allowed to be educated, and their only purpose was to procreate. Men had all the rights and power in their society. Men also had very close relationships with other men. Some writings even suggest that men preferred the company of other men rather than with women. Wives were poorly educated and considered property, only limited time was spent with them. Well, unless the woman was a prostitute. Apparently, prostitutes were a short step higher in society than a wife and had considerably more influence and power. Girls were married off early in exchange for a dowry. They spent their lives taking care of the household and having children. Men only had other men as their intellectual equals so I can see why they preferred same sex company. Some Greek men had very close and loving relationships with other men, but the more common occurrence was a close relationship with a young man or boy. And here the waters get murky again.
Here’s the thing. Sex between grown men was not acceptable mainly because it “feminized” the recipient. It was shameful to be feminized in a society that thought of women as lowly property. Most likely for that reason it was considered acceptable to have a relationship with a young man between the age of consent, about 14-16, the age girls were expected to marry. Once you were fully matured and could grow a full beard, you were expected to get married and start a family of your own. Pedastery, a sexual relationship between older (erastes) and younger males (eromenos) or more accurately the Greek term Paiderastia, is thought to have been common in Greek society. Relationships with adolescent boys seemed to be the thing with Grecian wives often playing second fiddle to their husband’s young male lover. While it’s safe to say that anal sex was probably happening somewhere in these same-sex relationships, it is thought that most of these were sexual but not in a penetrative way. Intercrural sex, where the penis to put between the receiver’s thighs, may have been more popular as anal sex was considered to be demeaning to the receiver. Some relationships may not have been sexual at all but more of an intimate friendship or mentoring a young man as he grows to adulthood.
Greek Love really isn’t shorthand for being into anal sex since even the Greeks were either not very interested in it or where secretive about it due to the ancient populace’s worry that it might turn a young man into a woman. Although the concept of sexuality being separated into hetero and homosexuality was not prevalent, one did not need to have a preference for a single sex. The lowly state of the female in Greek society meant the penetrative anal sex was more likely in heterosexual relationships or only with someone equally low rank like a slave. It may have even been an effective form of birth control. With aristocratic young Grecian men leaving home for military or athletic training at the same age as women were going off with their much older husbands in arranged marriages, the relationship between the young man and his older mentor had a less sordid connotation.
This practice was also found in ancient Crete and Sparta, often associated with military training and the bond of comrades in arms. It existed in ancient Rome but usually limited to a nonsexual mentorship with Roman youth since sex with them was not permitted, that was only appropriate with slaves or those who were not Roman citizens. The depiction of same-sex older men and youths in various ranges of intimacy can be found in ancient art. It also exists in Greek myths with stories like Ganymede who was abducted by Zeus to be the cupbearer of the gods. It’s thought that Zeus could not resist Ganymede’s beauty so he made him immortal and placed him by his side on Mt. Olympus. Hera may have been none too pleased by this competition for Zeus’ affection. There is even mention in Greek literature by writers such as Plato and Socrates.
We have been making assumptions when referring to “Greek Love” as a term for anal sex. It is more akin to a bromance than butt stuff when you look further into the culture and practices of ancient Greek society.