Homoeroticism in Greek Art and the Philosophy of Love

HOMOEROTICISM IN GREEK ART AND THE PHILOSOPHY OF LOVE

WORDS BY JULIAN RONEY

The ancient Greeks may not have been the most politically progressive society in history – you know, because of the slaves – but oh boy where they ok with being gay. In fact, it would be hard to imagine a more explicit, wide scale fascination with the male body in history.

From Plato’s dialogues to 600 years of sculpture, the history of the Greeks reveals an undeniable interest in male beauty. Yet, in their prudishness, academics and scholars downplay the relevance of this to Greek culture. To censor the Greeks of their homosexuality is to paint a partial image of their culture; distorting the values which gave rise to the West’s most significant contributions to aesthetic and philosophical theory. My goal here is to reaffirm the ways in which homoeroticism is embedded in art, not only in its appearance, but also in the Greek philosophy of beauty and human perfection.

Barberini Faun By Bärwinkel, Klaus
Barberini Faun By Bärwinkel, Klaus. Images Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“Platonic love, for all of its emphasis on sexual inactivity, was also gay love, albeit quite philosophical.”

Sexuality and promiscuity have never been foreign concepts in Greek mythology; the Minotaur persisted as a motif for bestiality, the faun for rampant desire. Indeed there are many explicit heterosexual narratives played out on household pottery, yet these are of a different class of art to the larger-than-life-size marble and bronze statuary which lined the streets and temples of Athens. The most revered artists, and the ones that got the most important commissions from Kings, were sculptors. It comes without surprise that a lot of the publicly funded content they produced was in ode to the male physique.

From the dawn of the archaic period, young and middle aged men, cast in bronze or carved in marble, became the yardstick of beauty in fine art. This is not by chance, as horses and women make for just as expressive shapes. So why is there such a practice of divorcing form from subject? There is a big gay elephant in the room and we need to talk about it. Whether it was in battle, in the ancient Olympic Games or even at a dinner party, it was literally barbaric to depict men wearing clothes. And why? The male body was a symbol of beauty. Each refinement, each movement towards realism in sculpture was a new exploration of the perfection of the human body, of the ideal within the real. By the end of Greek history the marble models became more expressive, more agonized, yet they continued to explore perfection in its different forms. And, of course, they remained nude.

The Wrestlers, Uffizi Museum, Florence
The Wrestlers, Uffizi Museum, Florence

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the Greeks had a particular penchant for aestheticizing almost everything. Love is no exception. The ‘Platonic love’, as Socrates describes in The Symposium, is nothing more than the love of beauty. However it may be one of the most common misconceptions that this was not accompanied by sexual desire. In the context where this is discussed -a wine party hosted by one of their mutual friends – it comes to light that this love, supposedly the highest form love can take, Socrates reserves for a young general in the army. The young Alcibiades makes a dramatic entrance to the party to reveal all of his close sexual encounters with Socrates, as well as calling him out publicly on his sexual provocations- a social faux par to say the least. Platonic love, for all of its emphasis on sexual inactivity, was also gay love, albeit quite philosophical.

The cultural significance of Greek homosexuality doesn’t end there; having male partners was part of education, status and adolescents’ coming-of-age. To take the gay out of Greek culture leaves an inexplicable gap in the development of fine art and its originating influences. Beauty and aesthetic perfection were epitomized in the muscular contortions of marble men. It would take a strong-willed ignorance to deny how explicitly erotic these sculptures are. Yet, rest assured, you have been given the uncensored, homoerotic history of the Greeks.

Laocoön and His Sons, Vatican Museum
Laocoön and His Sons, Vatican Museum

“To censor the Greeks of their homosexuality is to paint a partial image of their culture; distorting the values which gave rise to the West’s most significant contributions to aesthetic and philosophical theory.”

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