This question is inspired by an answer to: When did homosexuality become unacceptable in Europe?

I have heard from many people that pedophilia was widely practiced in ancient Greek or Roman cultures. Is this true? If true, which culture(s) was it and what is the evidence available to back such a statement?


3 Answers 3


See also my answer to the homosexuality question and the Wikipedia articles on Pederasty and Age of Consent.

[Disclaimer: I hate to sound unprofessional, but I do not wish to appear to be condoning paedophilia: I find the idea revolting. Nevertheless we must be able to talk about history in a scientific, distanced manner.]

[Edited:] The answer to your question depends on your definition. In ancient Athens and Rome, the modern concept of paedophilia did not exist as such, so the question would be meaningless to an Athenian if you asked him. If by paedophilia you mean the modern psychiatric definition, which pertains to sex with pre-pubescent children, that was considered abnormal and probably as rare as now.

If you use the popular modern definition, which includes all children that cannot be considered adults, so up to 16 or 18 years old, that was not uncommon in Greece and Rome. Flirtation and sex between a bearded man and an unbearded, pubescent boy was acceptable or even common, but only in certain contexts, in certain circles, in certain cities, at certain times. This answer is about sex between grown men and pubescent children. [End of edit.]

In Antiquity, unmarried sex usually did not impact a man or a boy's reputation; but girls were supposed to remain virgins until marriage. So attitudes towards sex were tied to marriage for girls. The discrepancy was probably connected with the common situation of a younger girl marrying a (somewhat or much) older man. Another relevant factor was the fact that men can procreate at a late age, while women have a fairly limited timeframe.

Pubescent girls could be married off to adult men, which is still common practice in many parts of the world. Until ca. 1800, a very common minimum age of marriage in Europe was 12 years old. Only after 1800 was this gradually raised in the West. This probably reflected social attitudes. The modern Western boundary of 16 or 18 years (which means after puberty) for marriage is relatively new; while I believe the average age of marriage has been increasing for centuries, 16–18 probably only became universal in the West somewhere during the 20th century.

That doesn't mean girls were mostly married off during puberty in the Middle Ages and Antiquity; but it does mean that marriage was often legally possible at 12. One can imagine that consummation was often (though not always) to happen soon after. Sometimes sons and daughters who were supposed to forge an important alliance were even married at 9 or younger; but then marriage was often only allowed to be consummated later.

A famous example of this widespread (perhaps nearly universal) practice was Mohammed. From Wikipedia:

Traditional sources dictate that Aisha was six or seven years old when betrothed to Muhammad, but the marriage was not consummated until she was nine or ten years old. While the majority of traditional sources indicate Aisha was 9 (and therefore a virgin) at the time of marriage, a small number of more recent writers have variously estimated her age at 15 to 24.

Even if the traditional story is not true, this shows that the consummation of a marriage at 9 years old, which was perhaps rare and would seem inconceivable in modern society, was at least not absurd then. Nor was it in Rome or Greece.

  • Cerberus this is an old problem its called ethnocentrism Oct 26, 2011 at 6:41
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    The greek pederasty was not pedophilia, I think you blur the differences in this answer in a unnecessary way. Oct 26, 2011 at 8:49
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    @Cerberus: That the question doesn't provide a definition is IMO little reason to blur the difference. Such blurring are for example used to try to smear all homosexuality with a pedophilia association, through ancient greece. This answer would be good, if these things were made clear. Oct 28, 2011 at 7:22
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    This is a good answer. What I would differentiate however, is that the Greeks practiced pederasty rather more than the Romans. The Roman mores, especially of the Republican time, discouraged male-male relationships and associated it with "feminine Greek/Eastern culture" -- this does not however mean it was not practiced; far from it.
    – Noldorin
    Oct 28, 2011 at 16:40
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    @Cerberus: Yeah... I was implicitly comparing Athens to Rome. Sparta was quite different for example; early Rome and Sparta shared many common virtues, for sure. Rome arguably became less "masculine" in culture as it expanded and absorbed other cultures (particularly the Eastern ones), even though it usually imposed its own culture on the conquered nations.
    – Noldorin
    Oct 28, 2011 at 17:15

It's a misunderstanding. It was not pedophilia it was "pederasty" which basically mean teenage boys. This in a time where "teenage" didn't exist as a concept, notably. The connection with pedophilia comes mainly through modern sensibilities.



In addition to what others have already written, the concept of "age of consent" which has changed over time, the "proper age" to first have sex going ever up over the centuries until it's now in some places 21 (and maybe even higher).
Also, there's a marked difference in what might be considered "sex". Intercourse is a given, but some cultures consider holding hands a lewd act, or kissing. Heck, under the Taliban it was illegal for a woman to show any skin or hair at all to anyone except direct relatives, hence the burqahs their women were forced to wear, because such was considered sexually arousing. Compare that to ancient Greece where performing sports naked in mixed company was the norm. Their entire culture was much more free from body taboos than is ours (modern European and American society isn't that far removed from the Taliban when it comes to body taboos, if you think things through. A main reason people react with such violence against the Afghan extreme is because it places a very big mirror in front of their minds and they see themselves).
So we have in ancient Greece (a bit less so in Rome) a culture where sex isn't taboo to the degree it is today. That's going to reflect on their attitudes towards what age would be "proper" to have sex, which in primitive cultures tends to be first menstruation for a woman. It's only in relatively recent times that that's been extended up in "modern society" as women require more time for education etc. rather than just enough to make a decent housewife.
Yes guys and gals, feminism at work here (don't get me wrong, I loath pedophiles, but sometimes wonder whether the laws that do exist aren't silly, like an 18 year old boy going on a sex offenders' registry for life and serving lengthy prison sentences for having had sex they both enjoyed with his 17 year old sweetheart) :)

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