A Note on Athenian Pederasty

Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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23 Responses

  1. Louis Rosenthal says:

    You mustn’t forget, though, that pederast relationships in ancient Athens were strongly encouraged insofar as it provided a sexual education for men who would typically marry relatively late in life. Even on the island of Lesbos, women engaged in similar pederast relationships in order to prepare themselves for their later roles as wives. Thus, we can’t forget the functional aspects of these relationships.Report

  2. I think you’re neglecting some important components of these marriages between young brides and older men. The first is that marrying off one’s daughter was one less mouth to feed in the house. Secondly, it could strengthen social, political and economic ties between families so in that sense daughters were almost like bribes. Lastly (and this may be most important), infant mortality was extremely high until only very recently. A couple could expect to lose one or more children during their marriage. Marrying a young wife meant she had more productive years ahead of her and a greater chance of having children that survived. I believe the young age also lead to less deaths from childbirth.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

      Your first two considerations don’t do much to redeem the moral status of Athenian marriage. As to the latter, yes, infant mortality was high. But why not at marry these girls off to boys their own age? At least, that’s what my modern sensibilities suggest. The Athenians don’t seem to have found a problem here, which is part of what makes the issue so interesting.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        Let two 14-year olds go off to make their way in the world?

        You have a daughter who, for some reason, you’re actually fond of. Yes, she’s a bit of a money drain but… well. She’s your daughter. You just couldn’t turn your back on her.

        She’s hit 14 and has two suitors. One is a kid her age who makes all these moony eyes at her. One is a peer of yours who has just hit 35 and his vineyard is doing well, he makes enough olive oil every year to barter some away to you, and you know she’ll never go hungry under his roof.

        You love your daughter and you want her to flourish.

        Who do you choose to give her care?Report

          • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

            If I had my choice, I wouldn’t want my daughter marrying anyone at age 14 or 15. But in particular I wouldn’t want her marrying a creep who was twice her age. (And let’s not forget about the men in this situation: What on earth did they see in girls that young? Certainly it wasn’t a spiritual or an intellectual bond.)

            Where would she do best? Where would she flourish? Married women had very little chance of personal flourishing anywhere in Athens, at least by my way of seeing things. Uneducated, secluded, unable to participate in civic life, unable to make even the most basic decisions for themselves… Married women were quite badly off regardless. Insisting my daughter marry someone of roughly equal age wouldn’t level the playing field in all respects, but it might be a good start.

            • Sure – all of those things sound great. And if only they had figured out internal combustion life on the streets of Athens would have been a grand. The fact remains, their culture was radically different than ours and for a number of reasons, marrying off a 14 year-old was not only typical but somewhat understandable.Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

                I was asked a question, and I answered it. Given that the entire premise of the question was part of an extended attempt to judge ancient Athens by present-day moral standards, it’s rather unfair of you to fault me for doing just that.

                Also, I do think by now we’re very far from the initial point, which was simply to observe that if we’re going to apply today’s social mores to ancient Athens, it’s curious that we so seldom condemn Athenian marriage customs, while we nearly always manage to condemn its man/boy love. Both are properly judged wrong, but in every relevant dimension, I’d say that the marriages were worse.Report

              • Ahhh…but you aren’t just using modern day moral standards. You are talking about things like compatibility (“What on earth did they see in girls that young? Certainly it wasn’t a spiritual or an intellectual bond.”).

                Let me ask you this: Let’s say you own two dogs, one of whom was a great hunting companion, brought you your slippers, guarded the henhouse, etc and the other didn’t really do anything. Your boss takes an interest in your dog and promises you a promotion if you give it to him, plus he will feed it and make sure it has a warm home. Would it be immoral to give him the dog?

                When I was working on my history degree we were often reminded by our professors to be very, very careful when viewing ancient sensabilities through modern lenses.Report

            • Murali in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

              Jason, I would just like to inform you that what we call the “proper” age of consent (i.e 18 or 21) is a very recent thing.

              Hell, both my grandmothers were married by the time they were 15. My maternal grandmother to a man 4 years older and my paternal one to one who was more than 10 years her senior. (Subtext: I’m going to be put out with you if you assert anything improper about my late paternal grandfather)

              Besides, with arranged marriages, sexual attraction does not have to exist between spouses in order for them to get married. They very well may have compatible personalities, or they may get married simply because their parents tell them to do so (on both sides of the equation. In traditional societies, it is my understanding that the offspring are still kind of like children to their parents until they get married, no matter how old said children may actually be) Besides, my paternal grandmother only had kids when she 17-18 years old. (which is certainly more acceptable by today’s standards) And she presumably grew to love my grandfather as they subsequently had 8 kids (my father was the 5th)

              The fact that adults married children in the old days gives no indication of whether said adult ha some unhealthy interest in pre-pubescent girls, especially since the practice was so common in the old days. Any paedophilic tendencies would have been incidental to the actual practice.Report

        • Cascadian in reply to Jaybird says:

          Quite clearly, one would not want to make this decision without the aid of religion. Paying service to Aphrodite at the temple would be a necessary precaution.Report

  3. Scott says:


    From our layman’s view of Athenian society, you may very well be right that Athenian pederasty was better in some ways than their hetro marriage. I’m not trying to be harsh, but who cares as we all live in another culture and in a different age? Modern commentators may not specifically disavow Athenian hetro marriage but on the other hand, I don’t hear anyone saying how great it was either.Report

  4. William Brafford says:


    I guess for the record I should say that I try to be skeptical when anyone makes a direct comparison between our way of life and the ancient Greek way of life. The endurance of Greek myths and dramas and texts often tricks us (i.e. for a long time tricked me) into thinking Greek culture was more like our own than was actually the case. And I’m with you in saying that from a modern standpoint Athenian marriage was probably the more wretched bargain.

    To actually explain why Athenian marriage doesn’t have to be disavowed, I think we have to look at Judaism and Christianity. The Old and New Testaments sanction forms of marriage that are similar to Athenian forms in relevant ways. The Old Testament gives unambiguous prohibitions on homosexual relations, and in the New Testament Paul seems to focus on heterosexual monogamy as a major point of difference between Christian practice and Roman life. Set that traditional Christian interpretation alongside texts like Plato’s Symposium, and you’ve got a recipe for an enduring cultural self-definition — “this is how we are different from the Greeks.”

    The above paragraph is meant to be a guess at why “gay men today are made to disavow Athenian pederasty as a cultural antecedent,” not an argument that anyone should have to make this disavowal.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to William Brafford says:

      I think if we were to look at Old Testament marriage, we’d find it repugnant in mostly the same direction. Tell me again why it gets a pass? Merely because the Old Testament vilifies gays, and thus draws a line we recognize? I’m really not following this.Report

      • William Brafford in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        I don’t mean to say that Old Testament marriage should “get a pass” in the context of this discussion. I agree with the main point of the post, about Athenian marriage being worse, with respect to age and freedom, than Athenian pederasty. We shouldn’t give Athenian marriage a pass.

        The question is — why do we? I think you are right that the “ick factor” part of it, but then there’s also the general understanding that most (all?) of the cultures that “Western Civilization” takes as inspiration were strongly patriarchal and their institutions of marriage would be repugnant from a modern standpoint. Athens doesn’t necessarily stand out in that respect, though maybe it should. (I don’t have information at hand to compare marriage practices in Greece, Rome, Jerusalem, pre-Roman Europe, etc.) Athens does stand out for the frank discussion of pederasty in its philosophical literature.

        You should probably take my comment as pointless speculation on the historical roots of ickiness, or as a ill-considered account of the origin of a double standard.Report

  5. Xenos says:

    This need not be taken as a problem posed by the ancients and their weird customs. You can go to rural Greece right now and find women in their 40s who were married when they were 15 or 16 years old. And you can find, for example, 63 year old women who could celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary if it were polite to keep track of such things. There is some good ethnography on this, even if my familiarity with it is a couple decades out of date.Report

  6. Jason Kuznicki says:

    I’m well aware that our currently accepted age of consent is very new. What this says about Athenian marriage norms is relatively minor in light of all the other differences that this doesn’t address.Report

  7. Katie N. says:

    Hey, I think we’re all forgetting what the girls themselves thought about this marriage. I’m a 15 year old girl, and I personally would not mind at all being married off to a guy twice my age as long as it meant I would have a secure and happy life. I don’t really think the age difference is that creepy. Men married later than women for several reasons: they were obligated to serve in the army; they needed to be well-established in life to be able to provide for any wife they might take, and then children; and they can reproduce for longer than women can. I’m not saying that the repression and lack of education for women wasn’t sad, but I am saying that it isn’t everything in life.Report