Philosophy

Were the Spartans Pederasts?

A great deal of “the literature” about ancient Sparta includes the citizens of that great city in the numbers of those ancient Greek perverts who practiced pederasty.

Paul Cartledge is among the many academicians who have accepted this myth:

One particularly striking instance of this displaced or surrogate fathering was the institution of ritualized pederasty. After the age of twelve, every Spartan teenager was expected to receive a young adult warrior as his lover – the technical Spartan term for the active senior partner was ‘inspirer’, while the junior partner was known as the ‘hearer’. The relationship was probably usually sexual, but sex was by no means the only or even always the major object. The pedagogic dimension is nicely brought out in the tale of a Spartan youth who made the mistake of crying out in pain during one of the regular brutally physical contests that punctuated progress through the Agoge.

Paul Cartledge, Sparta: An Epic History

But where are the sources for this? Well, I found two ancient sources that mention adult to child relationships in Sparta:

I think I ought to say something also about intimacy with boys, since this matter also has a bearing on education. In other Greek states, for instance among the Boeotians, man and boy live together, like married people; elsewhere, among the Eleians, for example, consent is won by means of favours. Some, on the other hand, entirely forbid suitors to talk with boys.
The customs instituted by Lycurgus were opposed to all of these. If someone, being himself an honest man, admired a boy’s soul and tried to make of him an ideal friend without reproach and to associate with him, he approved, and believed in the excellence of this kind of training. But if it was clear that the attraction lay in the boy’s outward beauty, he banned the connexion as an abomination; and thus he caused lovers to abstain from boys no less than parents abstain from sexual intercourse with their children and brothers and sisters with each other.
I am not surprised, however, that people refuse to believe this. For in many states the laws are not opposed to the indulgence of these appetites. I have now dealt with the Spartan system of education, and that of the other Greek states. Which system turns out men more obedient, more respectful, and more strictly temperate, anyone who chooses may once more judge for himself.

Xenophon, The Polity of Sparta 2:12-14

So, while Xenophon speaks of ideal friendship, here, it can in no way mean anything sexual. This, by the way, is a major theme in the Memorabilia of Socrates. Now, one could make the case that Xenophon is not the greatest of historians, but the source we have is the source we have. And he claims that among the Spartans, ideal friendship was encouraged among old men and their wards, but that pederasty was an abomination. There is a ring of plausibility to this because Xenophon notes that the Spartan laws were unique among the Greek states, and this is a theme in other writers as well.

The other key source is quite late, but it may nevertheless be valuable. From the Historical Miscellany of Claudius Aelian:

Of the Lacedemonian Ephori I could relate many excellent things said and done; at present I shall only tell you this: If amongst them any man preferred in Friendship a rich man before another that was poor and virtuous, they fined him, punishing his avarice with loss of money. If any other that were a virtuous person professed particular friendship to none, they fined him also, because being virtuous he would not make choice of a friend ; whereas he might render him he loved like himself, and perhaps divers ; for affection of friends conduces much to the advance virtue in those whom they love, if they be temperate and virtuous. There was also this Law among the Lacedemonians; If any young man transgressed, they pardoned him, imputing it to want of years and experience ; yet punished his friend, as conscious and overseer of his actions.

Book III, X

The passage above, while almost certainly too late (third century) to be considered a key piece of evidence about Spartan friendship, is used as a moralizing tail about the nature of friendship. Now, Claudius leaned Stoic in his outlook, and the Stoics, at least as far back as Musonius Rufus thought homosexuality was against nature. What this means is that he was almost certainly not writing with a nodding approval toward pederasty here. He was, rather, using the culture of friendship in a unique and powerful city as an example for his curious readers. Scholars, for reasons I dare not speculate upon, take the passage above to be evidence of Spartan friendship being pederastic. The evidence is entirely against such a perspective.

Historian Helena Schrader does a good job further ripping the Myth of Spartan Pederasty to shreds from a similar but distinct angle:

In conclusion, contemporary sources suggest that Sparta was not a particularly homoerotic society, and certainly there was no institutionalized pederasty or homosexual behavior prior to the mid-5th century BC. On the contrary, in Sparta women’s sexuality was not only recognized but respected and to a degree encouraged.  Spartan artifacts furthermore suggest that Sparta was indeed more prudish than other Greek societies.  The evidence suggests that sex in Sparta was a private matter, sought inside marriage, rather than public entertainment pursued at symposia and on the streets as in Athens. The Spartan ideal of sex was an activity between equals, not an act of domination by an adult male upon a child, a slave, or an illiterate and powerless wife. 

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