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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Greek Homosexual Prostitution (Commentary on Against Timarchus)

Timarchus is accused of prostituting himself when he was younger; however, the severity of the crime does not necessarily lie within the act itself, but the corollary consequences that accompany the prostitution. Homosexual conduct between men was much more socially accepted than it is now, but there were specific rules about how one should conduct oneself in such a relationship. For the Athenians, there was a delineation between what is acceptable homosexual practice and what is not. According to Aeschines, Timarchus’ actions were a gross violation not only what is acceptable “prostitution,” but more importantly, what is acceptable behavior for an Athenian man, especially one who holds public office. To this effect Aeschines says, “Tell those who are guilty of crime against their own bodies not to inflict themselves upon you, but to cease addressing the assembly; for the law too investigates not those who live simply as private citizens but those who take part in political life.” (Aeschines 1958) Aeschines holds Timarchus’ accountable for his violations and prosecutes him so that men of wealth and privilege are not held above the law. Timarchus’ affront to his society, according to Aeschines, was not so much that he prostituted himself when he was younger, it was that he did so and then still took every advantage of his Athenian citizenship, like addressing the assembly as a public officer.
It seems like the speech is more a dialogue on what it means to be an Athenian and the privileges and responsibilities that accompany this status. Dover mentions prostitution as a somewhat acceptable means of income, but for foreigners. He says, “We have also seen good reason to believe that homosexual prostitution per se did not incur a penalty. We should expect in consequence that boys and men who made a living from homosexual prostitution would be predominantly non-Athenian.” (Dover 1978) So it is not the act of prostitution itself that illegal, but more so that an Athenian would disgrace his birthright to engage in such activities allotted for foreigners and slaves. In this way, the speech becomes a dialogue on birthright and social class and there is a double standard for Athenian prostitution. Freeborn men may take advantage of prostitution from slaves and foreigners, and Athenian men may engage in homosexual practices under certain conditions, but by no means can an Athenian hire another Athenian for prostitution nor may an Athenian hire himself out for prostitution to another Athenian. To this, Dover writes, “…so that any event which adversely affected the prosperity or character of a foreigner was less important than it would have been if it adversely affected a citizen in the same way and to the same extent.” (Dover 1978) These effronteries were considered a violation of hubris, which Dover speaks to in his essay, and which the Greeks held in such a high regard for themselves and for others. Acts of violence against women and even slaves were not tolerated and were punishable, and even more serious would be an act of violence toward oneself, which prostitution fell under this category.
To violate one’s body was a serious insult to one’s family. Aeschines mentions in his speech several times that Timarchus has “consumed his patrimony.” The fact that Timarchus had so wantonly disregarded the power of his citizenship to indulge in his greed and sexual lust was considered, according to Aeschines, to be one of the most severe criminal acts a citizen could do. The affront is twofold: first, Timarchus is risking himself being barred from the assembly and therefore potentially depriving the city from his advice. Second, he is earning an income that is not taxable by the state, and therefore, is not contributing to the welfare of the city. In this way, he is violating the public in two ways by engaging in unlawful activities in his private life. Aeschines alludes to this point of public versus private life. In the life of a rich Athenian, he is expected to be educated and then to use his education and privilege to make a positive contribution to his city. However, in Timarchus’ case, he squanders his birthright and makes no attempt at hiding his indiscretions. According to Aeschines, everyone knew that Timarchus was living with Megalos, and then took money from Hegesandrus among others. At least for professional prostitutes, as Aeschines says, “nevertheless make some attempt to cover their shame: they shut their doors.” (Aeschines 1958)
The problem is this: Timarchus engaged in homosexual practices that were not appropriate for a freeborn man. There was much room for homoerotic relationships in the Athenian culture, Aeschines himself even admits to engaging in an erastes/eromenos relationship from time to time, but this time of relationship differs greatly from the one in which Timarchus was involved. Regarding this delineation Aeschines writes, “The distinction is this: to be in love with those who are beautiful and chaste is the experience of a kind-hearted and generous soul; but to hire for money and to indulge in licentiousness is the act of a man who is wanton and ill-bred.” (Aeschines 1958) The speech against Timarchus gives us some insight into the culture of prostitution in Athens, but more insight into the power dynamic of relationships between Athenians and slaves, and between Athenians who are older and more powerful and those who are younger and more impressionable, and in what settings prostitution and homoerotic relationships are acceptable.
Aeschines (1958). The speeches of Aeschines, with an English translation by Charles Darwin Adams ... Against Timarchus, On the embassy, Against Ctesiphon. Cambridge, Mass.

Dover, K. J. (1978). Greek homosexuality. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.


  1. Nice, thank you for this. It is always complicated isn't it? And it is always about honor and shame, so fine lines . . . even today . . .


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