Was Plato the only Greek gay?

The appeal of classical Greece lies in the ease with which we idealise it

The news about the ancient Greeks and their sexual habits keeps changing. One minute the Greeks were supposed to be into homosexuality, orgies and "free love". Now a study says that the Greeks were a pretty prudish lot after all. Nikos Vrissimtzis says that his book "takes a very different point of view to the traditional one that is held around certain sexual practices in ancient Greece". We cannot judge which of these views is more accurate, as all the evidence we have comes from a narrow range of sources. What is certain is that received opinion for many years has viewed homosexuality as being fairly tolerated in the ancient Greek world.

Although professional classicists spend much of their time trying to debunk misconceptions of the ancient world, it is those very notions that have had the most impact in our own time. From the Hollywood epics in the 1950s and 1960s to crass shows such as Up Pompeii, the ancient world has fascinated millions who would not know or care about the minutiae of classical scholarship. The impressions created by watching Spartacus may be wholly false but they leave a mark. For centuries people have appropriated the classics and distorted them. The myths about Greek homosexuality are an example of this.

This, I suppose, goes with liberal humanist ideas about the Greeks. All liberals love the Greeks. Greece, in the traditional liberal mind, represents the spirit of philosophy, intellectual inquiry and democracy, which are meant to be good things. The fact that those good things are all associated with Athens, just one city-state in ancient Greece, is irrelevant. Greece, which usually means Athens, is regarded as a benign force in world civilisation.

Classicists have known for centuries that the truth was very different. The Athenians, the originators of democracy, could not have enjoyed their vigorous political debate without slaves; women and foreigners could not vote. Ancient Athens turns out to have been remarkably similar to that liberal nightmare, the pre-civil war southern states of America - the only other human society in which slavery and "democracy" coexisted so happily.

The image of Greece as the cradle of democracy persists. Along with free political participation and equal rights, sexual tolerance is taken as another token of enlightenment. Stories of Greek homosexual love have titillated public schoolboys over the decades. But ancient homosexuality was different from modern practice. Greek homosexuality almost invariably involved a youth and an older man, a junior and senior partner. According to Sir Kenneth Dover, who wrote a book about the subject, "the distinction between the bodily activity of the one who has fallen in love and the one with whom he has fallen in love is of the highest importance".

The most celebrated account of homosexual love comes in Plato's Symposium, in which homosexual love is discussed as a more ideal, more perfect kind of relationship than the more prosaic heterosexual variety. This is a highly biased account, because Plato himself was homosexual and wrote very beautiful epigrams to boys expressing his devotion. Platonic homosexuality had very little to do with sex; Plato believed ideally that love and reason should be fused together, while concern over the body and the material world of particulars should be annihilated. Even today, "Platonic love" refers to non-sexual love between two adults.

Behind Plato's contempt for heterosexual desire lay an aesthetic, highly intellectual aversion to the female body. Plato would have agreed with Schopenhauer's opinion that "only a male intellect clouded by the sexual drive could call the stunted, narrow-shouldered, broad-hipped and short-legged sex the fair sex". But Plato is no more representative of the ancient world than Oscar Wilde is of late-Victorian Britain. The sexual attitudes of both men tell us very little about the prevailing moral atmosphere of their time.

Both modern western society and ancient Greek culture connect homosexuality and the arts. Even now, boys who like "the arts" tend to be thought of as effete; "manly pursuits" involve physical activity. From the other side, homosexual aesthetes regard athletic types as Neanderthals and heterosexuality as sordid and common. Greek homosexuals thought in a similar way. That does not mean that Greek society "approved" of homosexuality in general.

Plato's ideal vision of homosexual love is far more interesting and important than the findings of any number of modern Greek sociologists. They may "prove" that "contrary to public opinion, the world was not a paradise for homosexuals", but this discovery does not in itself mean very much. The legacy of "Platonic love" has inspired poets and philosophers, while prosaic facts about the "real" lives of the ancient world can appeal only to the kind of sordid sensationalism of the hour. One modern Greek bookseller summed up the dichotomy quite well: "Forget the great philosophers, it's books about sex, women and food in the ancient world that are really selling."

But why should we forget the great philosophers? The truth is that any real interest in the classical world is stimulated by a kind of idealism. Details matter, but details alone cannot sustain interest. Part of the charm of the classical world is bound up in the grandeur we perceive to have existed there. Without the myths and idealisation, classical studies would probably have been abandoned long ago. Greek homosexuality was no doubt a complicated business, but the idea of a sophisticated, intellectually engaging society that tolerated it may still captivate the liberal mind and inspire people today.

The writer is a researcher in history at Cambridge University