Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Response: Davidson on Verstraete on Davidson, The Greeks and Greek Love: A Radical Reappraisal of Homosexuality in Ancient Greece. Response to BMCR 2009.09.61
Response by James Davidson, University of Warwick
In the overture to his review of my book lately drawn to my attention, Bert Verstraete directs BMCR's readers to another review of my book by Thomas Hubbard as "highly recommended". Verstraete helpfully included a link to this review in which Hubbard refers to my book as "an insufferable cesspool of dross".
Verstraete makes a number of false claims about my book; I provide some corrections.
Verstraete: "[Davidson] contends that that the recurring appearance of adolescent boys in homoerotic scenes painted on Greek vases must not be construed on the assumption of verisimilitude, for these are stylized, iconic scenes not intended to provide naturalistic portrayals of everyday reality. Here Davidson draws upon the aforementioned recent book on Greek pederasty by Andrew Lear and Eva Cantarella, (reviewed by Craig Williams in BMCR 2009.04.65), which offers detailed analyses of many homoerotic vase-paintings, arguing in many cases for stylization rather than detail-accurate naturalism."
It was hard for me to "draw upon" Lear and Cantarella because their book was published only months before Greeks and Greek Love [henceforth GGL]. I thought I made this pretty clear, p.581 n.27: "DeVries's catalogue with additions is due to be published imminently in Andrew Lear and Eva Cantarella, Images of Pederasty (London, 2007)."
Verstraete: "Davidson is mistaken in removing adolescent boys from the sphere of acceptable objects of adult Greek male eros."
Cf. GGL p.88 "We can assume therefore, I think, that the noisy kind of eros might involve anyone from Eighteen to Eighty proclaiming the virtues of anyone from Nine to Nineteen."
Verstraete: "Even more radical is Davidson's thesis that in many Greek city-states, and most certainly in classical Athens, sexual acts involving adult and free-status males before the age of 18 were strictly prohibited by law."
Cf. GGL p. 470: "When ancient authors refer to the laws here or what the Spartan lawgiver laid down, they are referring to a whole host of very different things: a Spartan cult of Aidôs, Modesty or Sense of Shame, the existence of slaves called paidagôgoi whose job it was to chaperone Athenian Boys, a gymnasium law forbidding Striplings from mingling with Boys. This is a crucial point and one of the keys to resolving some of the contradictions in the sources on Greek Homosexuality. The distinctive erôs of a particular city or community -- what the lawgiver laid down concerning erôs -- is in fact an artificial composite of distinctive institutions, practices, rituals and rules, written or unwritten, which magistrates can enforce."
As for how "radical" a position that would be, M.-H.-E. Meier included a whole section on Athenian law in what is considered the first modern scholarly article on the subject, "Päderastie" in J. S. Ersch, and J. G. Gruber, eds. Allgemeine Encyclopädie der Wissenschaften und Künste, Section 3, Bd 9, (Leipzig, 1837), pp. 166-170, e.g. "die Anklage [hubreos] war schätzbar, das erkenntniss konnte auf Tod oder Geldstrafe gehen, in ersterem Falle wurde es augenblicklich vollzogen."
Verstraete: "Both Hubbard and Jope charge Davidson with catering to contemporary sensibilities regarding such hot-button issues (especially, of course, in the United States) as sex with minors, same-sex marriage, and gays in the military, and thus creating an anachronistically sanitized and romanticized picture of male same-sex desire and love in the ancient Greek world. Davidson certainly does so most conspicuously with his unproven and implausible theory that, for adult males, sex with free-status minor boys, the paides, for which his almost invariable eccentric translation is the "under-Eighteens," was strictly forbidden by law, thus removing the stain of pedophilia from ancient Greece and normalizing Greek pederasty, if not entirely, at least in the direction of a far more acceptable androphilia..."
Let's take these "hot-button" issues in reverse order:
"Gays in the military". In my book I do indeed deal with (and quite extensively) ancient Greek notions of the role of same-sex eros in warfare. I think it is an important and revealing topic and I make no apology for including it. But I did not invent this topic. It is prominent in the sources on same-sex eros and has therefore long been prominent in the scholarship of Greek Homosexuality and even in public perceptions of Greek Homosexuality: "Army of Lovers" etc. The Greeks do not of course argue about the fighting fitness of "gays in the military" but about the usefulness of same-sex pairs attached through eros.
"Same-sex marriage". Again, I do indeed deal with formal and institutionalized same-sex pairings or what I call (after Sappho and Xenophon) syzygies, but again I did not introduce this topic. It was a major theme of the late John Boswell's Same-Sex Unions (New York, 1994), and the existence of such relationships has been acknowledged by scholars as different as Bruno Gentili, Gundel Koch-Harnack and Erich Bethe. In fact Simon Hornblower has drawn my attention to the fact that in 1881 Johannes Classen had already commented on Thucydides's account of the relationship of Harmodius and Aristogiton "fast mit dem ehelichen zu vergleichen". Do I nevertheless present an "anachronistically sanitized and romanticized picture"? I personally don't find the messy and bizarre sexual practices I (following Bethe) associated with such syzygies either romantic or sanitary, but readers will have to judge for themselves.
Sex with minors: Obviously this is the most important issue for Verstraete and Hubbard and the reason why I have suddenly fallen so far from their favour. Hubbard's own Greek Love Reconsidered was published by NAMBLA, the North American Man/Boy Love Association. In his introduction to that slim volume he recommends "the outstanding work of Davidson" and draws a direct parallel between what he sees as the marginalization of paedophilia in the Athenian democracy and the marginalization of paedophiles in the modern American democracy: "even as Plato and others sold out the real pederasts... gay leaders today sell out their brothers (and in many cases their own repressed desires) by creating the public fiction that most gays are involved in long-term monogamous age- and class-equal relationships, and that the only men attracted to teenage boys are a few sickos in NAMBLA...". Verstraete has had less success in finding a publisher for his own collection of articles on Sexual Intimacy Between Adult and Adolescent Males. Hubbard, according to a report in Inside Higher Education (, wrote to the APA demanding that it take action against Taylor and Francis if they did not publish the volume.
It was, I suggest, my highly inconvenient conclusions as to Athenian attitudes to sex with minors that led Verstraete to claim that what I say on this matter is, variously, "implausible and unproven" or "cannot be supported by solid textual evidence" or "refute[d] completely" by Hubbard and why for Hubbard "the outstanding work of Davidson" has turned to "an insufferable cesspool of dross."


  1. I could complain about the propriety of an outraged author using the response to one review to respond to a different negative review, but will leave that matter aside to focus on the misstatements and false inferences about me, since I am mentioned in both the first and last sentences of his response.
    (1). Davidson quotes me out of context in his second sentence. My fuller, more balanced statement was, "This is a genuine shame, as there are actually many valuable observations within the book, but one must wade through an insufferable cesspool of dross to find them." Davidson's truncated quotation leaves the reader with the incorrect impression that I regard his book in its entirety as insufferable, when in fact it is merely the majority of its 634 pages that I find insufferable.
    (2). Davidson characterizes my letter to the APA incorrectly. It merely asked the APA to inquire about a case where the corporate management of a multinational publisher overruled the peer reviewers and editors of the Journal of Homosexuality (which they recently acquired), as well as a promise by the previous corporate management, because they considered the topic of a special issue "controversial." The APA has asked me not to say more at the present time, as they continue to research and discuss the matter.
    (3). The last two paragraphs of Davidson's response suggest that I have taken a less favorable view of his present book than of his first book because he imagines I have some association with NAMBLA. My edited collection Greek Love Reconsidered was not "published by NAMBLA," but the publisher did reach an agreement with that group to distribute a few hundred copies through their Topics series. No one from NAMBLA had any editorial control over my volume at any point. The fact that I am happy for my work to be read by NAMBLA members (as well as everyone else) does not mean that I agree with them on everything or even anything. I would be just as happy for my books on Greek sexuality to be distributed to members of the Southern Baptist Convention or Concerned Women for America; they could learn a lot from my work. NAMBLA is an organization with a controversial agenda for legal reform, but it does not (in any of the publications I have seen) encourage anyone to violate existing laws; on the contrary, it warns readers strongly against doing so. It is true that I have had conversations with some of its members and have been independently concerned with the way that "statutory rape" laws are misused to target youthful homoerotic explorations. I do believe that the mainstream gay rights establishment has been so anxious to distance itself from groups like NAMBLA that it has neglected serious human rights abuses that routinely transpire in some of the less liberal jurisdictions of the US. However, I do not favor NAMBLA's position of abolishing age-of-consent laws altogether, which I regard as Utopian and unrealistic in the current climate of media sensationalism and sloppy, politicized scholarship concerning Child Sexual Abuse.
    My ideological position on this contemporary issue has nothing to do with my criticism of Davidson's assertions about the age at which Greek boys were sexually active. That case was argued on the basis of his naiveté in dealing with visual materials, his carelessness in citation of sources, and his omission of other sources. He has refuted none of the substantive points in my review on H-Net, from which Kirk Ormand quotes two paragraphs. Ad hominem speculation about scholars' motives (itself one of the features of Davidson's book) is a poor substitute for scholarly engagement with their evidence.

  2. Why does BMCR add a disclaimer about Hubbard's letter to the APA? It's in the Chronicle of Higher Ed:
    "Thomas K. Hubbard, a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote a letter to the philological association's leaders, calling for the association to “threaten some kind of action” against the publisher."
    Shame on you for your silly PC, BMCR

  3. Well... not very cogently!
    How, exactly, does printing a factual correction about the content of a letter (which Prof. Hubbard can be assumed to know, since he wrote it) constitute "silly PC"?
    Does PC mean "professional courtesy, as exercised in cases where questions concerning homosexuality are involved"?


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.