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Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Harmodius & Aristogiton: Gay Soldiers at the Foundation of Democracy

The idea of male love was deeply embedded in early Greek culture. Even the gods enjoyed men. Zeus, leader of the pantheon, was renowned for his capture of Ganymede; almost all the remaining make gods also had affairs with men or boys. The heroes of Greek myth ere also affected – Achilles and Patroclus were celebrated by Homer for their prowess as warriors, by later poets and dramatists as lovers.

Athenian democracy began with the overthrow of the rulers known as the “tyrants”. What I didn’t realise until I re-read it in Boswell’s “Same Sex-Unions in Pre-Modern Europe”, was that this overthrow (and hence paving the way for democracy) was credited by Plato to two lovers, Harmodius and Aristogiton.

Athens at the time was under the control of two Tyrants, the brother Hipparchus and Hippias. Hipparchus made a pass at Harmodius, which was rejected.. After he had been rejected a second time, Hipparchus retaliated, then the two lovers got up a conspiracy to overthrow the two. In later years, their fame was such that they were the first men ever to have statues built to them in the public square of Athens, and had images of those statues imprinted on the city’s coinage. These images are said to have become ,as much identified with democracy in Athens as the Statue of Liberty is in New York. They had a popular song sung about them for centuries, recorded by Athenaeus 700 years later. Miltiades used their memory to inspire his troops before the battle of Marathon, saluting them as “Athens’ greatest heroes.” Callisthenes, described them as the men most honoured by Athenians, because they destroyed one of the tyrants and so destroyed the tyranny. Demosthenes called them

“the men to whom you have allotted by statute a share of your libations and drink-offerings in every temple…… and in worship, you treat as the equal of gods and demi-gods.”

With all this praise for the men what does this say about attitudes tot heir love? Plato clearly linked their action to their love, and had some harsh words for critics of their orientation –those whom we today would call the “homophobes”. Here’s Plato:

“Our own tyrants learnt this lesson. Through bitter experience, when the love between Aristogiton and Harmodius grew so strong that it shattered their power”.

Did you get that? Plato states clearly that the power of the tyrants was “shattered” by the strengthening love of two men. He continues with some observations on the origins of opposition to same sex love, which are pertinent to modern homophobia too:

“Wherever, therefore, it has been established that it is shameful to be involved in sexual relationships with men, this is die to evil on the part of the legislators, and to despotism on the part of the rulers, and to cowardice on the part of the governed. “

That’s right, folks. Homophobia originates in evil, despotism, and cowardice. Cowardice? But, wait, isn’t that typical of those weird queers, aren’t they the sissies? That’s not how the ancients saw it, and they had evidence on their side, evidence from the military record. The Greeks were familiar with male lovers among the heroes of with and legend, from Zeuss himself, at the head of the gods, who had abducted Ganymede to be his lover and cupbearer, through Achilles and Patroclus, celebrated by Homer for their bravery and for their love, and also Iolaus, companion of Hercules and participant in his celebrated labours, by whose tomb pairs of lovers were said to pledge their commitments to each other.

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