From time to time I am going to answer people have about the ancient world. Until the time when my readership starts sending in questions (which you can do by emailing me at brestian@@sas..upenn..edu -- just take out half the symbols), I will post some of the questions I frequently encounter as a practicing archaeologist. To take the topic of the movie 300 one step further, I will address a question that pops up frequently: were the Greeks really all flaming homosexuals?
This is a topic that is difficult to answer in a straightforward fashion. First, there is the old saw that any sentence beginning with "The Greeks" is false. Every city state had different customs, laws and rituals, and it is impossible to generalize. In addition, almost all our literary and artistic evidence comes from Athens, so it always gets a disproportionate amount of attention. Most of what I say here will deal with that city.
The Greeks did not have words for "heterosexual" and "homosexual." Our notion of sexual 'orientation' would be alien to them. Right there we have a major stumbling block to finding an answer to the question. What we can talk about is what the Athenians did. What they did participate in homosexual liasons quite openly. However, homosexual sex played a rather different role in Athenian society than in ours. Men of similar age did not engage in homosexual sex (at least, we don't have much evidence for it), nor did one individual act as both penetrator and penetrated with a single partner.
The traditional Athenian homosexual relationship involved an older man (the erastes, or "lover"), and a younger boy or man (the eromenos, or "loved"). These names are modern; the Greeks did not distinguish them so precisely. The younger partner would be anywhere from 13-20 years of age. The erastes would court the young man with gifts and admiring words. The eromenos would become enamored with the older man's wisdom and experience, but would never take an active role in the relationship. The eromenos was always the one sought, the one pursued, the one penetrated. K. J. Dover has likened the eromenos to the role of a young Victorian woman, who was never supposed to initiate courtship or sex, but simply be an object of admiration and desire. Together, the two would form a mentor-pupil relationship. This could have practical benefits, as the erastes could educate the eromenos in politics and civic life, and use his connections to ensure the eromenos would find success when he got older.
Actually consenting to be the eromenos for money, particularly with multiple partners, was considered prostitution, and was illegal in Athens. We have an account of the prosecution of an Athenian in the 4th century named Timarchus for this crime. In Athens, there was no law-enforcement agency; private individuals brought other Athenians to court for alleged crimes, and in this case the real reason Timarchus was prosecuted is in retaliation for his actions as ambassador to Philip II. What is interesting is that the prosecutor, Aeschines, anticipates that the defense would attempt character assassination against himself (a standard tactic), and says that he never stooped to prostitute himself, although he too served as an eromenos. This public admission, done without apparent embarrassment, indicates the institution was widely accepted at the time. Occasionally we find philosophers speaking disapprovingly, but only in the context that lust for either sex was a sign of lack of self-control.
The erastes-eromenos relationship wasn't permanent. Once the "boy" reached adulthood, sooner or later he would marry and have kids, and the erastes would be left behind, although ties of friendship would continue. In turn, the former eromenos might well become an erastes himself when he got older.
Unlike in modern society, men engaging in homosexual behavior were not, by and large, characterized as feminine (the eromenos, as the passive partner, could be an exception). Indeed, having an erastes and eromenos serve together in battle was seen as a good thing, as the erastes would endeavor to provide a good role model, and the eromenos would strive to meet the example of his mentor. For those who have seen 300, remember "The Captain" and his son Astinos? Make them erastes/eromenos instead of father/son and you have it. The Theban Sacred Band, a crack unit, was composed of 500 homosexual pairs, and was feared in battle for that very reason.
Foreigners, such as the Persians, could be depicted as effeminate, and occasionally as the subordinate partner in a homosexual relationship. Here, it is the status, rather than the action, that is derogatory. For example, there is an Athenian red figure vase with a nude Greek with the inscription "I am Eurymedon" (a reference to the Greek victory at the battle of the Eurymedon in the 460s), while on the other side is a Persian bent over with the inscription "I am bent over" (i.e., "I'm fucked!")
We know very little about homosexuality at Sparta. In Plato's Laws, he has an Athenian speaker speak negatively of Spartan homosexuality as unnatural -- not only one of the few examples of anti-homosexual opinion, but one of the few references to Spartan practice. We also have a comment in Aristophanes to Spartan homosexuality, but it's hard to know how much weight to place on a comedic author. The historian Ephorus tells us that on Crete, the pursuit of the eromenos was highly ritualized, with a show of mock resistance by the family of the pursued youth.
All this involves elite males, as Greek literature was created for the elite, and depictions of homosexual behavior on Greek vase painting was used for the Greek ritual known as the symposium. About women we know little, about the lower classes and slaves even less. The modern word 'lesbian' does come from the island of Lesbos, for it was the home of the poetess Sappho, who wrote poems to her lover in the sixth century B.C. (whence also "Sapphic love")
In short, Greek homosexuality is difficult to generalize about, and by and large it took forms that would be very unfamiliar to us. The Greeks are often brought into both pro- and anti-GLBT rhetoric by individuals who don't really know what they are talking about. Like most aspects of ancient society, it can only be understood in context.