How sexy was the ancient world?

Ella-Bleu Kiely discusses ancient sexual relations and gender alongside the DU Classical Society

Sex, or lagneía in Ancient Greek, was embedded into the tradition of the Mediterranean world — not simply for pleasure but its ideological connotations. However, does love tie into the equation? Divine sexuality has been a topic of interest down through the ages and one may wonder how ancient individuals perceived their gods. How did their supernatural actions resonate with everyday life? How gendered was the ancient world? What truly made an ancient citizen sexy? 

Love. Sex. Desire. To whom do we associate these themes within the Greek mythological canon? None other than the goddess Aphrodite, of course. From our earliest literary account of the gods, the Homeric Hymns (not written by Homer!) depict Aphrodite as the personification of love and desire as well as the immortal herself. She is a powerful force that few can escape, one of these few being her divine sister Athena, the goddess of wisdom, strategy and warfare. Athena won’t be entranced by the lust of desire and instead takes pleasure in matters of strife and battles. She is an immortal virgin and will not fulfil the traditional expectations imposed on women — that is, to bear children. 

The year is 340 BC in Athens. As a ripening adolescent, you have no interest in procreating. Perhaps you admire the independent ways of the goddess Athena. Absolutely not. The youngest a girl could be given away for marriage in Ancient Greece was around the age of 12. A girl’s virginal chastity before marriage was of the utmost importance. Marriage in the ancient world signified the abrupt end of a short childhood and a woman’s deportation from her father’s house to her husband’s. Along with a dowry, she is now a new man’s property. 

As one can imagine, these relationships rarely fostered romance or domestic bliss. In fact, husbands often lived far from their wives and were almost always a generation older. Sex was a duty to your city-state. As a woman, it was your duty to produce legitimate heirs for your husband.

Room for sexual expression as a young female Greek? Absolutely not. The force of Aphrodite was repressed.
However, men were free to indulge in their sexual appetites. 

In classical Athens, one of the most masculine things a male could feel was sexual desire for another man. There was nothing more beautiful than the male body, especially that of a young ripening boy; pederasty in the ancient world was both common and celebrated. Our most informative source for these relations was the symposia: a male drinking party, in which boys were educated in the Athenian ways of life. Regarding sexual intercourse between the erastes (older male) and the eromenos (younger male), the person penetrated, whether woman, boy, or other adult male, was automatically reduced to the passive female status in Athenian sexual relations. This was a teenage rite of passage, a sexual tradition — to lose your virginity at symposia rather than in your first few months at university. 

Speaking with DU Classical Society’s Public Relations Officer, Gabe Young, and Chairperson, Adam Roe, we delved deeper into the ancient sexual mindset. Young described gender in Athens “as a social construct rather than a strictly biological recognition of chromosomes and genitals” and expressed that male gods were gendered in such a way that they are always depicted as “incredibly masculine in their corporeal form, as goddesses are feminine and usually maternal. They are given the roles that mortal Greek men are given in their respective society.” He added that “ultimately, gods have gendered attributes but transcend the strict bounds of human interpreted gender, as goddesses have full agency and are respected by men.” 

Regarding the term sexuality in the ancient past, Roe believes it can get very complicated: “We have a much different view on sexuality than they did. Everything seems far less defined and they acted like pederasty was commonplace. Overall, it seems to me that the ancients didn’t necessarily care about sexuality as long as you were the person attracting the other rather than pursuing them.” In contrast, Young speaks of sexual intercourse and how it compels a very male-dominated image in his mind, stating that “it was something that men received/took from women and boys. It was one sided and presented a very clear power dynamic.” Young contends that sexuality then was more fluid with no strict sense of heterosexuality or homosexuality:

“Sexuality in the ancient world inspires me to think of modern queer identities, though problematic. It represents a kind of enlightened and liberated idea of sexuality. At least for men.”

When asked who, in their opinions, was the sexiest of the gods, both Roe and Young answered with some careful consideration. Roe concludes that “for me, it would have to be Artemis [goddess of forests, hills and wild animals]. She seems pretty chill and a lot less dramatic than some of the others. I definitely still wouldn’t want to get on her bad side but it’d be pretty cool to just be running around some forests with her.” Young’s choice is abundantly clear: “Aphrodite for sure. Though that may be because I’m very susceptible to marketing.” It seems that the two DU classicists are drawn to the immortals’ attributes rather than their physical depiction. Could the same be said for the people of antiquity? Who knows… 

Overall, gender and sexuality in the ancient world were constructed by tradition in a male dominated sphere. However, that’s not to say that women did not have independent divine authorities to worship and look up to. Love life in the ancient world is definitely something we lack personal sources on, but what would our life today look like without the ancient civilisations? 

Ella-Bleu Kiely

Ella-Bleu Kiely is the current Deputy Life Editor of Trinity News, and a Senior Sophister Classics and English Literature student.