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Sexuality and society in Ancient Greece: Apollo and ‘the others’

Floor 2, Room 36. Apollo and Showcases 36.2 y 36.4. -The Berlin Painter Hydrias
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Apollo is the model of Greek male excellence in physical, intellectual and ethical terms. This model of masculine perfection was compatible with sexuality beyond the limits of heterosexuality. Apollo, like other gods such as Zeus, had both male and female lovers in myths. His most famous male lover was the young Hyacinthus, whose tragic story explains the origin of the eponymous flower. Greek sexuality thus clearly challenges the limits of modern heteronormativity.

This, however, does not mean that we should think of ancient Greece as a paradise of sexual freedom and tolerance. The rules about what sexual relations were right and wrong in Hellenic society did not depend so much on the gender of individuals as on their status. In Greek society, the free citizen was at the top of society, and below him lived those considered to be of lower status, the 'others' who were subject to the citizen: women, foreigners, slaves (see showcases 2 and 4, left).

In all areas, including that of sexuality, the Greek citizen was expected to assume a dominant role, within asymmetrical relationships, established with people of lower rank. A Greek male citizen could thus have sex with his wife, with a concubine, with male and female slaves, and with male and female prostitutes. However, he was not to have relations with a citizen of his own age, or to assume a passive role with any male of any status. This, of course, does not mean that there were no relationships outside these norms, but rather that those relationships were rejected and ridiculed. Aristophanes, for example, in his comedies, makes references to homosexual relationships between adult citizens, yet in a mocking tone. Sometimes, the only remaining historical evidence of diversity is of a negative kind.

Next QR. Floor 2, Room 36, Showcase 36.10 >