In the ancient greek world male homosexuality was common and didn't attract the same scorn as it did even 100 years ago. So 2,000 years ago, it was acceptable, and 100 years ago it was unacceptable. When did it change? Why did it change?

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    Homosexuality was acceptable in Rome as well. However, the more the Empire become Christian, the less it tended to be practised. However, I have no real evidence of this. Oct 17, 2011 at 15:01
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    I don't think homosexuality was that common nor that very well seen in ancient greek or rome time.
    – Nikko
    Oct 17, 2011 at 15:13
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    @Nikko: Do you have any proof? It is frequently mentioned in history books and there is lots of info on it on Wikipedia. Oct 17, 2011 at 15:15
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    What I mean is that in ancient Greece yes some kind of homosexuality was more or less common like pedastry but as far as I remember it was not well regarded to have say 2 men of the same age having a relationship. So I think even at those time, male homosexuality attracted scorn
    – Nikko
    Oct 17, 2011 at 15:22
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    @apoorv020 Certainly. For the Chinese homosexuality read Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China, as for the Greek/Roman cultural norm it is a widely known and accepted fact, especially throughout ancient Sparta where it was used a cultural rite of passage/mentor-ship amongst the older and the younger men in training (read: pedagogical pederasty) A simple google/amazon search will net you with many, many academic references. As far as Arabic/Middle Eastern cultures go you can look at the Bible from a cultural perspective, specifically Leviticus (to be continued..) Oct 19, 2011 at 12:49

2 Answers 2


It is important to note that the modern Western conception of homosexuality as an essential property of a person did not exist in Antiquity: men and women might perform certain acts, but everyone was expected to marry the opposite sex and procreate. No "deeper" theories about these inclinations were entertained, at least not by most. One "was" not homosexual, just as one "is" not a traveller now: some just like to travel more than others. It is probably still like that in most of the non-Western world. The modern Western conception probably only emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries. Foucault's History of Sexuality may be an interesting read.


In Athens, a form of flirtation that sometimes led to sex (the frequency and extent of this are not entirely known) between a bearded man and a beardless boy was quite common in the classical era, at least among the elite (little is known about the others). The man was supposed to teach the boy and introduce him into the right circles. Parents of the boy often encouraged this. There were certain rituals to this flirtation, such as the presentation of gifts to the boy. A rooster was ironically a traditional gift. A good introduction would be Dover's Greek Homosexuality. It also contains many pictures of vases that evidence this practice:

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Source: Wikipedia on Pederasty in Ancient Greece: "Pederastic scene: erastes (lover) touching chin and genitals of the eromenos (beloved). Side A of an Attic black-figure neck-amphora, ca. 540 BC."

However, sex between two adult men was frowned upon, especially the kind that involved one man's acting the part of a woman. It was feared that a man who had allowed another man to so satisfy his desires upon him had compromised his manhood and was no longer an independent citizen capable of fulfilling a public function, as evidenced by Aeschines' speech Against Timarchus. Some sort of moral corruption was involved, and conceivably the unfitness of a man considered susceptible to blackmail, because of the social taboo. In other Greek states of the time, practice differed from certain forms that were socially acceptable to general condemnation. Various forms of love and sex of course took their course independent of these taboos as well. Note that what we know is mostly about the upper strata of society. This applies to any age before the modern era.


In the Roman Republic and Empire, various forms of love and sex existed, and in certain artistic and powerful circles it was often not uncommon for a man to take boys as lovers; but it was never as common as in classical Athens, and various laws and cultural shifts made people more and less tolerant in varying waves over time.


Christianity probably had a major influence in reducing this tolerance, though the powerful and the well-connected could and did get away with sometimes-open homosexual lovers; but of course they married a woman. Somehow these affairs were often between a powerful older man and a younger boy; whether other relationships were just never displayed in public or this was a certain natural preference for most older men, I do not know.

With the advent of Protestantism and its focus on conscience, and the inevitable Catholic Counter-Reformation, it is conceivable that intolerance and the severity of punishment grew. But, again, love and sex always happened in private. It is just public tolerance that was at an all-time low.

It was only after the Enlightenment that some signs of the modern conception of homosexuality can be seen, though I'm not sure when exactly. A certain tolerance that came with liberalism and enlightenment had its effect on all kinds of taboos.

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    +1: It's worth noting that the act of coitus between an older man and an ephebe has been described as ritualistic and formulaic — not the languid, gay-porn depictions some would imagine, but something in which the adolescent male was actually discouraged from seeking pleasure from. I can't remember where I read that; probably H.D.F. Kitto's book The Greeks.
    – Robusto
    Oct 27, 2011 at 2:45
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    @Robusto: Thanks! About this absence of pleasure-seeking: I would be a bit sceptical of any works published before Dover's Greek Hompsexuality. He decided to assess all common assumptions of the past very critically; earlier works tended to reproduce common beliefs among classicists that may have been based on romantic ideas from the 19th century, where sex was still fairly taboo. A kind of wishful thinking about history. Pleasure sought in homosexual acts was unthinkable. Dover (1978) says nothing about this absence of pleasure Kitto mentions in the fifties, so...
    – Cerberus
    Mar 10, 2012 at 16:09
  • Isn't this asserted (or at least implied) in the Symposium of Plato?
    – Xeno
    Jun 16, 2017 at 14:58
  • @Xeno: What is, exactly?
    – Cerberus
    Jun 17, 2017 at 14:56
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    @Cerberus Well, I couldn't really find anything like what I said. It is true that in 182a it is said that "some have gone so far as to claim that taking any man as a lover is in itself disgraceful" (when talking about boys), and in 192a that "some say such boys [who love men] are shameless", so it seems this was condemned by some people. But it doesn't go as far as to suggest some people approved of man-boy relationships but expected the boys in them not to enjoy the sexual acts.
    – Xeno
    Jun 19, 2017 at 22:31

As far as I know, the important change here was Christianity that spread out in Europe. The common justification to condemn homosexuality is the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah story. The dominant Christian interpretation of the story views homosexuality as the sin that caused the destruction of these cities.

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    Interesting. Do you have any links or sources? Oct 17, 2011 at 20:18
  • @Rory: I only have Wikipedia, cannot remember any particular source covering the question in depth. Wikipedia mentions Renaissance as the point where homosexuals were first persecuted by the church. I am pretty sure that the church was already condemning homosexuality before that but 15th century saw a general radicalization of Christianity - all of Europe was Christian by then and so expansion became secondary to fighting inner enemies. Oct 18, 2011 at 6:15
  • If it was the christians, then surely they would have been persecuting people from the 5th century, not the 15th. What happened in the 15th? Oct 18, 2011 at 9:15
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    @Rory: As I said, Christianity in 5th century was still busy extending its territory and assimilating new nations. In 15th century they've driven the Muslims out of Spain, attempted a mass-convertion of Jews and established the Spanish Inquisition. After that the Christian church was increasingly looking for enemies within. Oct 18, 2011 at 9:24
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    Let's not forget the witch hunts and the scorn for midwives in the face of doctors, the Church was pretty busy and was able to find enemies everywhere
    – MichaelF
    Oct 21, 2011 at 12:03

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