We appreciate today that a stable family structure is one of the basic building blocks for a healthy society. Societies in which the family unit is falling apart are societies in trouble.
Today there seems to be an obsession with sexuality. Look at advertising. The power of sex to sell, specifically to men, is unbelievable. Twenty years ago, TV commercials used to promote a product by commending its quality and discussing its benefits. Nowadays, all you seem to see are beautiful bodies; the product itself is almost irrelevant.
While these are hot topics today, the Greeks, Romans and other civilizations of antiquity were even more obsessed with sex than we are.
Sporting events such as the Olympics had young men running, wrestling, and throwing spears... without wearing a shred of clothing. The players were completely and totally naked. How a person looked – every bit of his body – was incredibly important. The emphasis on the physical and the lack of modesty wasn’t confined to sporting events. In bathhouses, men sat and socialized in the nude. To the Greeks, the beautiful was holy. Modesty was not a practiced concept.
The entire notion of sexuality was very different in antiquity. With the exception of prohibitions against incest (which most societies seem to have prohibited), everything else was fair game.
The only issue was whether you were the active or passive partner. The passive partner could be a man, a boy, a woman, a girl, an animal, or even an inanimate object. The demarcation of homosexuality and heterosexuality were non-existent for most of the history of human sexuality.
In the modern world, religion is generally viewed as the moral guard against sexual promiscuity. This was not so 2,000 years ago. In antiquity, sexuality permeated virtually every religion. The creation story of nearly every polytheistic religion begins with the gods engaging in some sort of sexual activity in order to create the world. Temple prostitutes, temple orgies and fertility rites were regular features of almost all religions. Sex was everywhere.
Pederasty, a sexual relationship between an adult man and a boy, was quite common in antiquity. In classical Greek civilization, pederasty was viewed as something positive and beautiful, the highest form of love. It was also considered a fundamental part of the education and socialization of a boy.
This quote from Plato’s Symposium speaks about the relationship between a grown man and an older boy:
I, for my part, am at a loss to say what a greater blessing a man can have at earliest youth than an honorable lover... If we can somehow contrive to have a city or an army composed of lovers and their favorites, they could not be better citizens of their country... No man is such a craven that love's own influence can not inspire him with valor that makes him equal to the bravest born. (Thorkil Vanggaard, Phallos: A Symbol and its History in the Male World, Jonathan Cape, 1969, p. 40)
"Valor?" The Greeks viewed men who chased women as effeminate. A real man wooed older boys – this was macho. (You also see this in Japanese Samurai culture.) In militaristic Sparta, the Greek city-state where children spent their whole lives training to be soldiers, they created units of soldiers comprised of older men together with their younger boy-lovers. And they fought incredibly well because no one wanted to die ingloriously in front of his lover.
Women in Classic Greece
How do you think all this boy-chasing affected the attitude of Greek men toward women?
The status of women was very low and their image very negative. Greece was a highly misogynous, woman-hating society.
This attitude is clearly reflected by the Greek poet Palladas:
"Marriage brings a man only two happy days. The day he takes his bride to bed and the day he lays her in her grave." (Morton M. Hunt, The Natural History of Love, Alfred Knopf, 1959)
Another example is the Greek Poet Propertius, who said:
"May my enemies fall in love with women, and my friends with boys." (Aries and Bejin, Western Sexuality, Basil Blackwell, 1985, p. 33)
While the status of women in Roman society was considerably better, homosexuality and uncontrolled sexual behavior were regular features of Roman society. The great 18th century historian Gibbon, author of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, states that of all the Roman emperors, only Claudius was heterosexual.
Effect on Society
Sexual promiscuity and negative attitudes toward women have a very detrimental effect on society: Not only do they sabotage the creation of stable families, but they also seriously affect the size of the population. Both Greece and Rome passed laws requiring a man to marry and have a certain minimum number of children in order to bequeath his property. Without this law, men would not get married. They would be too busy having fun with prostitutes and boys.
However, these laws ultimately failed. Rome built an empire based on peasant Roman soldiers fighting and dying for their country. It was one of the greatest military machines in human history. But Rome collapsed in the 5th century CE because it could no longer defend itself. The very low birth rate meant a scarcity of Romans for the army! The army by that time was entirely comprised of hired mercenary soldiers, who could not maintain an empire.
The greatest empires fell due to the internal rot of the society, primarily caused by uncontrolled sexual behavior and the lack of a stable family structure.