Monday, November 10, 2014


Ed Sanders (ed.), Erôs and the Polis: Love in Context. BICS supplement, 119. London: Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 2013. Pp. vii, 103. ISBN 9781905670444. £24.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Gina Salapata, Massey University, New Zealand (

Version at BMCR home site

This small collection of papers originated in a conference at University College London in 2009. Even though most of the conference papers have been published in a separate volume,1 these four engaging and well written essays are by no means afterthoughts. They discuss eros in the context of the family and polis, mostly in Archaic and Classical Greece, expressing a variety of points of views and discussing a range of texts, primarily poetic genres but also some philosophical treatises.

In a brief introduction, Ed Sanders summarises the four articles and helpfully weaves together several common threads (e.g. eros and political life, behaviour and emotions in erotic relationships and relation with social practices), emphasising the interdisciplinary theme.

James Davidson ("Politics, poetics, and erôs in archaic poetry") examines the relation of eros and politics in the works of four of the most famous homoerotic Archaic poets. He argues persuasively that their construction of eros varies depending on both poetic and political context. The representation of eros is affected by the various political roles it plays, and poetics "inform a poem's relationship to the world of politics and also affect and are affected by the way relationships of same-sex erôs are represented" (6).

In Alcaeus, commensality, homoeroticism and politics are interconnected, because companionship in symposium was important for the socio-political connections that fostered factions and civil war. The world of the symposium, a trusted circle where one could let one's guard down, was a refuge from civil strife. In such an intimate environment Alcaeus could both attack Pittacus and reveal his feelings for boys.

The traditional close relationship between a warrior and his loyal hetairos/therapon (e.g., Achilles and Patroclus) provides the model of the hetaireic homosexuality in both Alcaeus and Theognis, but to a different effect: in the former it creates a personal, unguarded and confessional intimacy that shields the partners from outside political storms; in the latter it focuses on the solidity and loyalty of the two, thus helping to provide specific local detail and create authenticity. Davidson points out another difference between the two poets. While Alcaeus' songs are "me" songs, localised in Lesbos, those of Theognis are "us" songs, more generalised and communal, and thus easily transferable and panhellenic: what any erastes could say to any eromenos. Still, Theognis' poems are also political because, even though he opposes factionalism, he is not above class since he endorses aristocracy and wages a kind of class warfare against base people.

The poetry of Ibykos and Anacreon, dominated by the pleasures of sympotic homosexual love, is more personal but at the same time less intimate and thus more or less transferable. However, the political situation of the Samian tyranny strongly influenced these poets' constructions of eros. Both poets treat their love objects equally no matter their class, and they replace politics and war with trivial strife in the erotic arena. The hetaireic model of eros, dangerous for the tyranny, had to be transformed into a safer depoliticized version. Nevertheless, Davidson argues, it is still connected to politics because it served a political, even propagandistic, purpose by celebrating and serving the tyrants and their regime.

Based on literary and philosophical passages, Nick Fisher's contribution ("Erotic charis: what sorts of reciprocity?") focuses on the complex meanings and uses of erotic charis as shared goodwill and mutual pleasure in heterosexual and homosexual relations. Through an examination of charis-words in both tragedy and comedy, Fisher shows the importance of shared pleasure in marital sex, even though this was expressed with some coyness. He argues that wives were expected and encouraged to be sexy and seductive for their husbands in the privacy of home, and that marital charis played an important part in the development of affection.

He suggests something similar for charis in pederastic relationships, based on philosophical works that discuss appropriate and inappropriate emotions and behaviour of homosexual lovers expressed through charis-words. Fischer argues that while exchange in erotic charis could be unequal, in healthy relationships there could also be both mutual affection and some sexual desire and response of the beloved, which, however, was not openly discussed. In support of his thesis that the enjoyment of the beloved occurred more often than usually supposed, Fischer also brings in the fascinating case of pederasty in renaissance Florence. Despite opposition from the Church, Florentine pederastic relationships were prevalent among all classes, with many recorded as mutually passionate, affectionate, and even lasting; interestingly, passive youths were often supposed to derive pleasure from the sexual acts. Fisher therefore concludes that the enjoyment of decent Greek eromenoi should be assumed as the norm; only mercenary ones who do not love their lovers acted in a detached way. This, however, appears to be contradicted by depictions of pederastic couples in vase painting because the eromenos is seldom depicted as responsive to the advances of the erastes and is usually shown impassive and unemotional.

Lastly, Fischer bolsters the case for "a growth of anxiety about the abuse of reciprocal charis" (62) in fifth-century Athens. This is reflected in new legislation introduced not only to protect young citizens from abuse but also to control aristocratic pederastic practices that ignored the etiquette of reciprocal love and friendship "embodied in the concept of charis" (66). Thus, though noble reciprocal pederasty was not disapproved, there was significant concern about the lasting relations in the "boys' club" that might benefit young politicians and create political associations that might lead to antisocial and antidemocratic behaviour.

Dimitra Kokkini ("The rejection of erotic passion by Euripides' Hippolytos") focuses on Euripides' Hippolytos to examine the protagonist's attitude towards sex from a personal, religious and social perspective. Committed to lifelong chastity and celibacy, Hippolytos is unbalanced as a human being in refusing to cross over into manhood and retaining the behavioural patterns of both an ephebe and a parthenos. Thus, his attitude contravenes the norm for Greek citizens, both men and women. Men would have experienced sex by the time they reached marriageable age, when they would marry to beget children. Even women, for whom sexual abstinence was expected before marriage, were expected to marry and bear children for both medical and social reasons. Virginity was never recommended as a permanent state for mortals; only for gods, like Artemis, could it be permanent. Is then Hippolytos perhaps approaching divinity too closely? Is he committing hubris by overstepping mortal boundaries? He is certainly arrogant in stressing his exclusive relation with Artemis because of his worth and piety.

As Kokkini shows, Hippolytos explains his abstinence through piety and sophrosyne (mastery over desires and emotions, and self-control). His view of both, however, is distorted. Complete abstinence was no indication of piety and was not required even for priests. Moreover, his almost mystical devotion to Artemis and obsession with sexual abstinence places him outside society. Although excessive indulgence in sexual activity could indeed indicate lack of self-control and was considered detrimental to the polis if it characterised someone in a position of power, excessive sophrosyne in the form of fanatical chastity was also harmful. Unlike in Western societies today, personal sexuality in Greece also had an important political aspect. Procreation of legitimate offspring was not a matter of individual preference and choice but a familial and civic duty, because it benefited both the oikos and the community. Consequently, Hippolytos rejects the rights and responsibilities of an adult male citizen towards both his oikos and the polis.

Kokkini's article, though wordy and repetitive at places and covering some well-known ground, demonstrates that Hippolytos' misguided perception of sophrosyne, as total rejection of sex, deprives him of a large part of his male identity and has serious social ramifications. His story and tragic end would have served as a warning to young Athenians.

Lastly, Stavroula Kiritsi ("Erôs in Menander: three studies in male character") analyses the psychology of three male characters in (heterosexual) love in two plays of Menander, and at the same time she considers certain social and political aspects of Menandrean comedy. In an interesting approach, she takes as a point of reference Aristotle's studies of human character and behaviour, which reflect commonly held views and consequently the audience's expectations. According to these, lack of self-control and excesses in sexual pleasure characterise young men, but mature men are expected to be moderate in emotions and desires. All three characters lack self-control to a lesser or greater degree because they are afflicted by eros who, as is well known, attacks rationality. They eventually become aware of their flawed judgement and emotion, and the realised or potential consequences of their desire, and they manage to tame their eros. Sostratos (Dyskolos), even though showing some traits of youth (inexperience, impatience and impulsiveness), is a decent lad: although tempted, he does not take advantage of the girl. Contrary to societal expectations, he is not overcome or led by desire but maintains self-control and wants to marry her. By contrast Moschion (Samia) exhibits the opposite traits when he rapes and impregnates the citizen girl he is enamoured of. By not considering the consequences of his act, he shows a lack of self-control. Still, this well-brought up young man is tormented by shame for his wrongdoing and strives to correct everything by marrying her. (One wonders if he would have been so ashamed if no pregnancy had eventuated.) Although a mature man, Demeas (Samia) acts like a youngster by exhibiting the least self-control: he lives with his hetaira even if embarrassed by his infatuation, and he becomes angry and violent when feeling betrayed. His passion is thus unfitting for a mature man. However, when a misunderstanding is resolved, he changes his ways, reunites with his woman and even marries her, thus extending his eros to encompass affection.

Kiritsi rightly stresses the educational and political messages of Menander in presenting love-struck characters: first, the mastering of emotions and desires by reason is beneficial for both the oikos and the polis; second, eros needs to be followed by tender feelings and an emotional bond to form a sustained relationship, like marriage.

This well-produced2 slim volume offers new interpretations and fine tunes or reinterprets old issues. In doing so, it makes a welcome contribution to the fascinating study of eros in Greece by placing it in its socio-political context.


1.   Ed Sanders, Chiara Thumiger, Chris Carey, Nick J. Lowe (ed.), Erôs in Ancient Greece. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013 (reviewed in BMCR 2014.06.08).
2.   The standard of proofreading is very good. I spotted only three typographical errors: "Savanorola" instead of Savonarola (54); "But the argument does not seem to be not that sex-free affection…"(57); "…the suggestion of full sex at this point is presented as presented as clearly wrong" (60).

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