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People with a History/CLGH Book Review:
Cashman Kerr Prince:
Review of Percy, Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece

Cashman Kerr Prince, Department of Classics, Stanford University

Review of Percy, William Armstrong, III. Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1996. $24.95, cloth. x +260 pp.

The British novelist and Oxford professor of philosophy, Iris Murdoch, in The Nice and the Good, has written that early Greek history "is a game with very few pieces, where the skill of the player lies in complicating the rules." (Both Ian Morris and Chester Starr have cited Murdoch approvingly in their own scholarly histories of early Greece.) What further complicates this game is the widely scattered and fragmentary nature of the few pieces of evidence extant. Then, when one comes to write about sexuality in ancient Greece, the rules of the game become infinitely more complex. It is such a game upon which Percy embarks in Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece.

Marshalling the evidence, Percy argues that pederasty became an institutionalized phenomenon in Archaic Greece during the seventh century B.C.E. In Percy’s reading, pederasty began and spread from Dorian Crete; from there, pederasty "spread to other parts of Greece because of its success in stemming, at least among the upper classes, the population explosion that began in the eighth century" (p. 68). Sparta seems to have first brought this Cretan system of pederasty to mainland Greece; hence various parts of the institutionalized system of pederasty spread to other city-states, including Athens. Once diffused throughout Greece, pederasty had a profound impact. As Percy writes,

whereas source material for Archaic Greece is scanty or nonexistent, in later eras documents abound to attest to the importance of pederasts and pederasty to Greek civilization. There we discover from unimpeachable authorities the degree to which Greek society not only once accepted pederasty but also deemed it a worthy path to intellectual and military distinction (p. 185).

For Percy, then, pederasty is the Greek miracle.

Percy has done an admirable job reading both the source material and the scholarship to date on sexuality and Eros in ancient Greece. In addition to the more obvious and widely-discussed sources, such as Plato’s dialogues (Phaedrus, Symposium, Charmides) and Aeschines’ oration "Against Timarchus" (a reading of which forms the basis of Sir Kenneth J. Dover’s Greek Homosexuality), Percy cites "Homer," Hesiod, and various archaic Greek poets, as well as such late sources as Procopius, Tacitus, and Diodorus Siculus (a first-century B.C.E. historian). Even fragments of Aeschylus which rarely figure in discussions of Greek sexuality are discussed by Percy. The breadth of source material presented in the first section of Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece make it a good point of entry into this scholarly discussion. All sources are presented and discussed in translation -- either Loeb translations, older standard versions or the authors own, as accuracy and reliability demanded (p. 193n.1) -- so Percy’s argument is accessible to the reader who does not read Greek or Latin. (Those of us who do read Greek and Latin could wish for the original texts to be included in the notes, saving us the time of checking quotations and passages of interest.)

Marshalling sources is merely half the job of an ancient Greek historian; once gathered, the sources must be interpreted. It is these acts of interpretation upon which the worth and credibility of critics of ancient Greece rely. Unfortunately, I do not find Percy to be a reliable critic. My concerns range from the niggling to the overwhelming; I present one of each. On page 2, Percy discusses the Platonic corpus, specifically the Symposium and Laws, as though these texts give us some insight into Plato’s thought. As even a casual reader of Plato knows, the dialogues abound with contradictory opinions -- within the same dialogue, and from one text to the next. The reference to Symposium 182b, which Percy does not inform the reader is from Pausanias’ speech, is used to support Percy’s claim that Plato included pederasty among the traits that mark noble Greek civilization apart from that of the barbarians. Yet such an argument is undercut by the later speech of Socrates -- or even of Alcibiades -- in the Symposium, speeches which are arguable closer to representing Plato’s thoughts. Perhaps I am splitting hairs here, but I would expect careful and sound scholarship to make such fine distinctions manifest. Now for an overwhelming concern; on pp. 57 - 58, Percy writes

Even more troubling, however, is Sargent’s assumption that the Cretan model was an ancient one. I believe that though it involved ritual abduction and perhaps even theoretical rape as well, the Cretan system was relatively recent and that the dramatic myths of local founders of pederasty reflected the Cretan model and not some ancient prototype. If pederasty represented a very ancient practice brought to the peninsula by preliterate proto-Greeks, it is hard to understand why each region would have felt obliged at a later date to name a local founder of the custom.

Disagreeing at this point with Sargent, and most other scholars of ancient Greek sexuality, Percy presents no solid evidence for his belief in the relatively recent nature of Cretan pederasty. The last sentence quoted above betrays an incomprehension of the highly competitive nature of Greek city-states, with each city-state vying to outdo the others and claim various institutions and customs as their own invention.

Finally, Percy seems to write an ancient type of history, which is very different from what we today call "history." Percy’s "history," like the history of Herodotus, combines what we would distinguish as fact and myth. Sources of various time periods are cited indiscriminately when they further Percy’s argument; the citation of any ancient author serves as proof for Percy. As such, Pederasty and Pedagogy in Ancient Greece is less a critical and scholarly history than a recapitulation of ancient hearsay on the subject.


© The Committee for Lesbian and Gay History [CLGH] is an affiliated organization of the American Historical Association devoted to promoting the study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans* history, and the interaction of scholars working in the field.

Twice a year CLGH publishes a Newsletter which contains extensive reviews of recent books in LGBT studies. This document contains a review from the CLGH Newsletter. Primary citations should be to the Newsletter [and to this site if you wish].

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