Manhood in Ancient Greece: Battle, Blood and Not Being a ‘Bottom’

Confused about what it means to be a man? This article will not help you find the answer. The Greeks developed conflicting ideologies, from the muscle-flexing of Spartans to the astuteness of Athenians

Terry Madenholm
Terry Madenholm
For ancient Greeks, to be manly was to be brave
For ancient Greeks, to be manly was to be brave, which involved a lot of fightingCredit: Bibi Saint-Pol / Staatliche Anti
Terry Madenholm
Terry Madenholm

For ancient Greeks, to be manly was to be brave and there was a word for it, andreia, which designated both manliness and courage. There were certainly a lot of ways to prove one’s valor, and perhaps the most critical was on the battlefield; and when it came to arms, no one seemed more qualified than the slightly intense Spartans.

For the Spartans, courage was the number one virtue, and the greatest honor was to die fighting in battle. Loyalty, self-control, endurance, rejecting fear, and following orders were exemplary traits, to the point that the unfortunates who acted cowardly on the battleground, the so-called “tremblers”, were urged to either exile or suicide.

“One was not born ‘a man’ in ancient Greece, one achieved - and retained or lost - manly status, and in Sparta, where warfare meant more culturally than it did in Athens, one did so by proving oneself a man in battle,” elaborates Prof. Paul Cartledge from the University of Cambridge, the leading authority on ancient Greece.

Of course, manliness wasn’t only about spilling blood or exhibiting bravery in the face of danger. Greek wars were seasonal (in Greece there was time for everything) and most poleis did not cultivate a full-time professional army like the Spartans. Instead, for most Greeks, being a kyrios, aka master of the household, provided some daily dose of manliness.

Enter the radish

Greek men were proud men, and violating the oikos’ or household’s rules was seen as an attack on the kyrios’ manhood. The most severe penalties were reserved for intruders into the bed.

If caught in the act, the cuckolded husband was allowed to kill the trespasser, but if only found out later, the punishment was confined to heavy fines (once the passion had been relieved, there was time to talk compensation).

For the frugal, there were alternatives: saying goodbye to one’s genitals or being sodomized with a large radish (this was apparently really happening). It might seem petty but revenge played an important role in Greek mentality and was closely linked to the notion of masculinity, survival, and prosperity. Hence a “real man” knew how to defend himself and his family/property even with a vegetable.

Of course, there were also wise men like Socrates who argued that doing wrong is worse than suffering it but let’s face it, they were a minority in a world in which the Achillean version of masculinity prevailed.

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1748 - 1825)Credit: Getty Images
RadishesCredit: Jengod

Strong women in Sparta?

For the indoctrinated Spartans, family life was apparently secondary. Loyalty to the state came before everything else. For them, the army was their home, and brothers-in-arms were the true family (so it was maintained).

Marriage was nevertheless important for a vital reason: producing future citizen-soldiers. Hence men who delayed marriage were publicly shamed, while those who fathered multiple wholesome sons were praised. Since men were mostly preoccupied with the world of warcraft, women acted as masters of the household. De facto they enjoyed much more freedom and power than their counterparts throughout Greece who were relegated to the status of minors in law, and were under the complete authority of their husbands (though one may assume some couples that lived more equally). Spartan women managed the day-to-day finances, operated businesses, and were in charge of the helots who took care of domestic affairs.

The old-fashioned Aristotle was not impressed by the Spartan situation. He believed that nature intended for men to rule over women, yet in Sparta, their peculiar definition of masculinity seemed to have the opposite result.

But only seemingly. “Unlike Athenian women, Spartan adult women could both own and dispose of private landed property. Spartan men did not consider that a diminution of their masculinity as perhaps Athenian men would have,” points out Prof. Cartledge. “Despite the apparent ‘freedoms’ enjoyed by Spartan adult women in contrast to Athenian women, it was still masculine - because martial values ruled the society and polity as a whole. Men retained the upper hand, including in managing their wives’ sexual lives!”

Man up

Since fatherhood in Sparta was mostly reduced to a patriotic duty (while in Athens it was about the family bloodline), paternal rights and responsibilities were diminished too. Infanticide was common in those parts but Spartans may have taken matters to a new level by implementing the “survival of the fittest”.

When an Athenian couple exposed an unwanted infant, they took steps to ensure that it would survive to be brought up by another family. In Sparta, however, unwanted neonates were reportedly exposed to the elements and wild beasts, guaranteeing death. All infants were supposedly brought before the “old men of the tribespeople” who examined them for physical defects. If judged unfit the child would be left to die irrespective of the family’s wishes.

This said, a recent study suggests that the situation might have been more complex: the archaeological evidence indicatesd that some disabled infants were actually nurtured.

The “Thermae boxer” resting after a match, 2-3 century B.C.E.Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen

Suitable Spartan male children faced sets of upcoming trials that were all linked to “Andragathia”, the wider concept of masculinity, which implied courage in battle, and also included showing other virtues as a citizen, such as comradely solidarity.

“In Sparta that sort of masculine virtue was attained through undergoing successfully between the ages of 7 and 18, uniquely in all Greece compulsory – the educational system known as the Agoge or ‘Upbringing’,” says Cartledge.

The training program was designed to mold the young blood into professional warrior-citizens. Housed in communal barracks, the little soldiers in the making were introduced to the world of men: war, endurance, survival, hunting, and athletics. They were also objects of desire and were groomed into pederastic relations under the coat of educational purposes.

Pederastic relationships were not necessarily common, let alone an institionalized norm, in all the roughly 1,000 ancient Greek cities, Cartledge puts things into perspective. “Athens and Sparta were, in my view, for different reasons, both exceptions in this regard, Sparta educationally, Athens socioculturally,” he says.

Thebes developed another approach, encouraging adult male/male homosexuality in the military, as it was believed to deepen the bonds between soldiers and make them fight more effectively, especially if a lover fell during battle. The Theban special force known as the Sacred Band of Thebes would not tell you differently.

That elite unit consisted of 150 gay couples formed in the 4th century B.C.E. under the leadership of the observant Gorgidas. The “Gay 300” operated at the front edge of the attack and was responsible for ending the long dominance of their territory by the Spartans.

The Sacred Band of ThebesCredit: YouTube

Active vs. passive

One thing is certain: ancient Greek men were quite liberal in their sexuality. There was no shame in seeking services from prostitutes: for some prostitution was a key aspect of masculinity. There was no disgrace in being involved in extra-marital affairs. Nor was there shame in being aroused by another man (male beauty was divine), especially if that man was a beautiful boy (depending on the period and the polis).

After all, for many Greeks male sexuality was essentially about power dynamics more than about age or gender. In bed, it all came down to two things: active vs. passive. Being submissive, meaning playing the “woman’s part” by being penetrated was the most unmanly thing that a man could do while being the “penetrator” was an act of dominance and power. A “real man” could play only an active role.

Thoughtful: Lycurgus, Lawgiver of Sparta, at the Law Courts of BrusselsCredit: Mattpopovich

Because of that reasoning, free citizen men usually did not openly engage in adult same-sex relationships because of the fear of being publicly labeled as effeminate, since someone was obviously on the receiving end.

“Males in Athens who in adult life willingly submitted to anal penetration were derided as kinaidoi, a term of abuse which had the connotation of effeminacy,” Cartledge says. “Sparta therefore was being quite ‘normal’ (for once) in not employing adult male/male sexual relations in the service of the military - in sharp contrast to the Thebans, who based an entire crack unit, the ‘Sacred Band’, on that convention, though even that lasted only 40 years.”

To destroy a man’s reputation was easy: all it took was to accuse him of sexual deviancy. Perhaps the most “mediatized” defamation attempt took place during the Roman Republic, when Mark Antony was accused of youthful prostitution and passive homosexual acts for political gains. Gossips had it that the handsome emperor slept his way to the top, and if he did, he wouldn’t have been the first, nor the last.

Words can kill

Enough about male-male adoration. Let’s get to the heart of the matter. In Athens, the ultimate male battleground was the political arena. Hence the most powerful men, meaning “the manliest” men, were politicians. Their sharpest weapon was rhetoric, unlike the Spartans who were proudly laconic (loquacity was for the frivolous).

Pederastic scene at the palaestra between man and boyCredit: Art de l'Antiga Grcia

“The Spartans did not favor the elaborate rhetoric of an Athenian politician such as, say, a Demosthenes, but they could be eloquent in their own way when they wanted to. For the Spartans, being laconic was not parsed as an essential feature of being masculine, and so they did not consider the Athenians’ - to them - flowery discourse to be in itself effeminate,” explains Cartledge.

Perhaps the favorite pastime of an Athenian was to destroy an opponent in a public debate, an amusement probably alien to Spartans. A skilled orator could swiftly deprive a rival of his “social penis” (manliness was hard to earn and easy to lose).

The consequences of being publicly shamed could be harsh. Exile and ostracism were served as a delicacy for those who “required” some time apart.

For Aristotle, all men are political animals who cannot flourish on their own outside the city and its agora (happiness demands company).

Warriors halting for a drink at a wellCredit: Marie-Lan Nguyen / Salamanca Col

For most Athenians the choice was simple: they could either accept being called an “idiot” (someone that keeps himself to himself) or embrace the ups and downs of a full-fledged citizen. A respected member of Athens not only was a master of the household but also had to be actively involved in the political life of the polis. All male citizens over the age of eighteen were expected to attend the assembly’s (ekklsia) monthly meetings and vote on matters great and small. Freedom of speech, a privilege unknown to Athenian women, was at the heart of the assembly and so regardless of one’s status all men could express their thoughts, dissatisfaction, concerns and supports, at least in theory. In Athens, merely being politically active may have been the ultimate testosterone booster.

Men: Oinochoe warriors 750-725 B.C.E.Credit: Zde

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