We at Classics Corner were very amused to hear that G.W. Bush recently met with a dozen hand-picked Gay Republicans and emerged, in his words, “a better person” for the ordeal. While they did not agree on issues like gay marriage, common ground was found on upper-income tax breaks and decreased social spending, proving once again that while men loving men harms no one, voting Republican is morally problematic at best.
This happy convergence of naked self-interest and same-sex sexual activity led us to muse about Queers in the ancient world, particularly in Greece, where men were men and women, for the most part, were barefoot and pregnant.
There is evidence that gayness in Greece actually became more prevalent, at least among the elite, as the status of women declined, hitting a low point in the fifth century. This can be seen, for example, in Plato’s Phaedo, when Socrates, about to be executed, has only contempt for his grieving wife and, preferring the company of men, coldly sends her away.
Men in ancient Greece, it seems, didn’t polarize their sexual identity as do we more unambiguous moderns. Their lack of clarity about what, exactly, goes where, has led classicists such as ourselves to ponder such burning issues as whether Achilles and Patroclus, those uber-Greeks of the Iliad, were in fact doing “it,” or were just somewhat over-involved.
Our own opinion is that their Queerness is imagined by those who cannot conceive of intense male friendship under any other circumstances. The evidence that Achilles and Patroclus were straight is overwhelming. Achilles goes nuts over a woman. When Achilles and Patroclus have sex, they do so with women. While Achilles’ grief over his friend’s death is ostentatious, it is also, apparently, chaste.
You don’t hear as much about Dykes in Greece, although they were no doubt in abundant supply. The erotic poetry of Sappho celebrates women, and one gets the idea that Amazonian tolerance for men was limited. While Thucydides refers several times to the “revolting Lesbians” in his History of the Peloponnesian War, his reference to the attempted withdrawal of Lesbos from the Athenian alliance was surely not meant to offend.
When Classics Corner considers what sort of Gay Republican G.W. Bush’s campaign staff might find safe to meet their boss, we immediately think of Alcibiades, the flaming golden boy of fifth century Athens. Alcibiades was, in the manner of Truman Capote, said to have a lisp, leading us to wonder whether there really is a queer gene after all.
The Athenian General was, by all reports, rich, powerful, drop-dead gorgeous, and, like any self-respecting nobility, able to trace his family line to a God. While he and G.W. would have been at odds on the screwing men issue, screwing the poor would be welcome common ground.
Another similarity between G.W. Bush and Alcibiades is, of course, the short-lived nature of their political careers. Alcibiades was driven into exile when his drinking club was accused of breaking the penises off the city’s Hermes, which were a sort of sacred phallic lawn jockey. This oddly homoerotic yet distinctly frat-boyish prank almost got him executed.
But Alcibiades survived to narrowly avoid death several more times due to one advantage G.W. Bush clearly lacks. Alcibiades, while self-serving and untrustworthy, was also known to be brilliant. Here, any resemblance obviously ends.