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The complexity of erôs

Dr David M. Halperin is a classicist, theorist and W.H. Auden Distinguished Professor of the History and Theory of Sexuality at the University of Michigan. His earlier publications focused on ancient Greek philosophy and Hellenistic poetics, while his current fields of study include the history of sexuality, critical theory, queer theory and gender studies. Dr Halperin also cofounded GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies and has authored several books, including Before Pastoral (1983) and One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (1990).

Red-figure kylix from the British Museum, ca. 480–485 BCE, showing guests at a symposium. © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

You’re a trained classicist whose work has focused on both ancient Greece and sexuality, historical and modern. What drew you to these fields?

I was initially drawn to the study of ancient Greece by reading Thucydides in a course on Greek history taught by a lecturer who was active in the movement against the American war in Vietnam. In that context, Thucydides’ enlightened, tragic account of power politics, military atrocities, and the Fall of Athens was immediately compelling. As an undergraduate, I did not want to have to choose among the disciplines of history, literature, philosophy, and social analysis; I discovered that I could study all of them by pursuing a degree in Greek, Latin, and classical civilisation. I had to scramble in order to learn the ancient languages, which I had not studied in school. I quickly fell in love with Homer and Plato, with Sappho and Greek lyric poetry, and with the historical perspective on European culture that knowledge of the ancient world gave me. My first book was on Theocritus and his invention of bucolic poetry in the 3rd century BCE.

As a gay man who grew up in a homophobic world, I was particularly drawn to the romantic portrayal of erotic relations among males in Plato’s Dialogues. But I quickly realised that I would not be at home in classical Athens: my sexuality would have been considered no less aberrant there than in Victorian England, though for different reasons. I would not have been regarded as sick for being attracted to boys and young men, to be sure, but I would have scandalised people if I ever had a sexually reciprocal relationship with a grown man my age, and in any case I would have been expected to marry a woman and to have children with her.

For a long time, Plato was regarded as a spokesman for the classical Greeks on matters of love and desire. But an emerging body of rigorous scholarship on homosexuality in ancient Greece, which had been made possible by gay liberation in the 1970s, showed that Plato was in fact an outlier among his contemporaries, someone with a highly idiosyncratic view of erôs. Instead of using Plato to shed light on Greek sexual behaviour and attitudes, it became possible to bring to bear on the study of Plato an independent knowledge of erotic life in ancient Greece. So that is what I did in my first writings on Plato, undertaken in the context of a political campaign by Christian evangelists in California to ban homosexuals from teaching in government schools. Had such a law been enforced in classical Athens, the entire tradition of Socratic rationality would have been strangled in its cradle. Then I became intrigued by the history of sexuality in ancient Greece in its own right.

From there I became involved in the developing field of lesbian and gay studies, and later in queer theory. But I continue to be interested in the long history of sexuality, in theories of love and desire, in Platonic erôs and in the conceptual challenges it poses to our highly sexualised understanding of erotic love.

What do you think the study of ancient sexuality adds to the conversation surrounding LGBTQ+ realities today?

I have argued that there was no operative category of heterosexuality or homosexuality in ancient Greece. There was no homophobia, either, though there was plenty of misogyny and effeminophobia. The ancient Greeks offer us an example of a society in which certain forms of same-sex relations were regarded as natural and were not only tolerated but even celebrated. So the classical Greeks have appeared to same-sex-attracted inhabitants of post-classical, homophobic societies as prestigious and authoritative pro-gay allies who could confer a seal of approval on homosexuality. They do provide an undeniably important source of gay affirmation, even nowadays, but they also offer something different and, to my mind, even more useful. For if in fact homosexuality and heterosexuality have not always organised social life, then lesbians and gay men do not represent an excluded minority in all times and places, and heterosexuality is not a traditional value but a specific, contingent arrangement, with its own history and politics. Rather than just defend queer people from disapproval, I would also like to dismantle the self-evidence of the cultural system which endows heterosexuality with its apparent naturalness, superiority, and privilege. The study of sex in classical antiquity can help with that.

How has our understanding of sexuality, gender and identity in ancient Greece changed over the last few decades?

I confess that I have not kept up with recent scholarship, as my work has shifted to other topics. There has been a vast amount of new research, which has filled in many gaps in our knowledge and has brought much complexity and subtlety to our understanding of Greek attitudes and

practices. This work prevents easy

generalisations. Still, there remain many questions about which experts disagree. On the whole, I would say there has been a deepening of our understanding, rather than a radical transformation of it.

What are the considerations, or even potential pitfalls, that we should keep in mind when approaching the ancient world from within our own modern context?

For me, the pitfalls have always involved seeing the ancients in terms of ourselves, instead of allowing the evidence of past societies to uproot our own assumptions and to challenge what we unthinkingly take for granted about the world. Whenever we look at an unfamiliar object, we tend to see it as a version of something we already know. On my first trip to Australia, which was in fact a visit to Melbourne, I kept pointing out to Susan, an American friend who had lived in that city for many years, features of the architecture or the landscape that I recognised. I would say, ‘That looks so English’ or ‘That looks so Californian’. Susan replied, with a patience I came to admire as later visitors to Australia tested my own in similar ways, ‘No, it looks Australian’. In other words, while looking closely at all the specific elements of Australian life that presented themselves to me, I had simply failed to see – despite my careful attention to the details, or because of it -- Australia itself. That is the tendency that we moderns need to beware of when we examine the features of the ancient world.

Ancient figures like Achilles and Patroclus, Alexander the Great, and Sappho, among others, continue to capture our imagination. Why do you think these figures resonate with us today?

All those figures come to us surrounded by the glamour of nobility, high achievement, and lasting fame: kleos aphthiton, as Homer puts it—that is, imperishable renown. Same-sex love is part and parcel of their legends, though it contributes to their greatness in different ways.

Sappho was a supreme artist, whose poems survive almost entirely in fragments; for that reason, her lyric celebrations of the beauty and desirability of women and girls perpetually elude our grasp. She lends herself to being completed by us, to being reinvented in our image. We have few reliable sources for the life of Alexander the Great from his own contemporaries, so the later myths surrounding him have become inextricable from his identity; his love-affairs are now the stuff of legend. The plot of Homer’s Iliad, the greatest poem by the greatest poet, turns on the mutual love of two heroes, Achilles and Patroclus, and yet Homer does not portray them as lovers. So the passion that drives this story of the siege of Troy invites us to lose ourselves in the subtleties and particularities and fine points of its literary elaboration. All that is enough to occupy a reader or a scholar or any devotee for more than one lifetime.


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