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Sex In Ancient Greece: All The Juicy Details On What It Was Like

Updated December 12, 2019 72.6k views13 items

The ancient Greeks played an integral role in forming modern society. We have a lot to thank the Greeks for, from systems of government to aspects of the justice system and even plumbing. Not all practices stood the test of time, though, as intimacy in ancient Greece was a far cry from modern romance. 

Ancient Greece's views on copulation were far less conservative than contemporary society's. Doing the dirty with both men and women was the norm in Athens, and men often took on proteges who doubled as passive physical partners. Copulation in ancient times played an important role in culture and societal hierarchy - but the same does not apply to kissing. Men expected women to become homemakers and bear sons, despite the fact ancient Greeks frequently perished while giving birth.

Many think of ancient Greece as a free-for-all when it came to physical relations, and in some ways, it was. There were, however, social structures and unspoken rules concerning the practice. 

  • Sexuality Was Less Rigid In Ancient Greece - At Least For Men

    Stigmas surrounding sexual identity didn't exist in ancient Greek culture, at least for men. Relations between men was not only acceptable but encouraged. There was no word for homosexuality, either; the practice was part of the broader concept of love, or "aphrodisia," uninfluenced by gender or sex.

    This is not to say it was a golden age for relationships between two people of the same gender. Historians believe ancient Athenian men regarded penetration and dominance as a status symbol. If a man acted as the passive partner (pathikos), or if a fully grown man permitted penetration from another grown man, he often endured ridicule. The ancient Athenians had a derogatory name for these men: kinaidoi.


  • Self-Pleasure Wasn't Taboo, But It Was A Lower Form Of Carnality

    In ancient Greece, with carnal pleasures being so matter-of-fact, it's reasonable to assume self-pleasure, too, would appear less taboo. Though it had fewer restrictions than in modern times, as a matter of public discussion, self-love was usually an object of humor, as in Aristophanes's play where the public deemed it an inferior, silly act.

    Forms of self-love took prominence in art, but they often depicted lesser non-citizens, such as women, partaking in the act. These illustrations often showed self-pleasure during or after a physically charged event, such as a symposium. Frequently, it was the female workers pleasuring themselves, not the men.

    Self-love was also associated with slaves; it was a symbol of their lowly status. Coitus had widespread acceptance in Greek society, but to pleasure oneself without another person involved was embarrassing by Greek standards.

  • Ancient Greece Tolerated And Encouraged Relations With Boys - For A Time

    Ancient Greece's relaxed views of carnality included some practices society now deems reprehensible. Pederasty, or when an older man took on a younger male student as a protege and physical partner, is easily the most distressing.

    The act reflected attitudes about domination and submission in Greek culture, as intimate relations were more about satisfying the dominant partner than the submissive one.

    Plato's Symposium suggests the love between two men - specifically the love between an older man and a younger one - is the purest form of love, as it has roots in the desire to share knowledge and worldviews; desire served as a bonus, not the driver of the relationship. 

    Greece did not always welcome these attitudes; by around 450 BCE, laws discouraged harlotry (though the laws mostly applied to men - they affected a person's ability to run for office, which was not possible for women). Still, it is believed that there was a "large discrepancy" between official laws and actual custom. 

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Seducing Someone's Wife Was A More Heinous Offense Than Forced Copulation

    The patriarchal norms of ancient Greece, combined with mythology filled with gods snatching and violating women, implied that forcing oneself on someone was not a heinous offense. The Greek gods, particularly Zeus, were notorious for snatching up and tricking women into copulation. It wasn't only mortal women who suffered at the hands of ravenous gods; goddesses were also victims of such assault in myth. 

    Though the gods weren't like the aspirational, flawless figures of other religions, it's clear the attitudes toward such assault were laxer in ancient times. Seducing a married woman was allegedly worse than forcing oneself on someone, as it required one to treat another man's "property" as his own, making it a kind of theft. Herodotus's writings (reportedly echoed by the Greeks) said that while forcing oneself on someone was unjust, it did not need avenging.