The Greeks and Greek Love by James Davidson

published 2007   chapter 11

Xenophon emphasizes that [Spartan] Boys had one cloak which they wore throughout the year, even in summer, the better to prepare them ‘also for summer heats [thalpe]’. Plutarch says tunics were banned from Twelve, they had one cloak for the year, and boys did not bathe or anoint themselves, except on certain days of the year. All of this seems perfectly consistent: Spartan Boys, like Cretan Boys, kept their kit on. Now also perhaps we can understand why the legend of the EarthquakeTomb makes such a play of the Cadets having stripped off and run out to exercise all covered in oil. That ‘stripping off’ and ‘running out’ must, as in Crete, have been the ceremony of leaving boyhood and entering into adulthood, just like the ephebes of Athens at the Panathenaea running naked from the altar of Eros to the altar in the city, carrying torches.

observations: Even James Davidson (who seems absolutely lovely) perhaps doesn’t quite know who this book is aimed at. Near the beginning there is a footnote to explain what the subject and object of a verb are. That’s on page 12. On page 3 there is a quotation from an unnamed ancient author. If you look up the footnote to see who wrote it, you are told ‘Arr.’, and nowhere in the book is there any possibility of finding out what that means – because, apparently, it is a standard abbreviation. I can’t really believe that anyone who knows what ‘Arr.’ means (Arrian) also needs to be told about grammatical cases…

But who cares? This is a fabulous book about the ancient world, beautiful to look at with fascinating illustrations, a joy to read, and very informative. Obviously it is primarily about Greek homosexuality (a subject on which there seems to be little academic consensus) but it also takes in everything else about Greek life. It is serious and scholarly, of course, and Davidson plainly has an extraordinary depth of knowledge, and an easy familiarity (apparently) with every aspect of the ancient Greek world – you’d know that from his previous, wonderful, book, Courtesans and Fishcakes (which even manages to persuade you that the title isn’t just whimsy). But you by no means have to be an academic to read it: you just need to be willing to be pulled into something strange and extraordinary, with a beautiful phrase, a surprising anecdote, or a memorable image on every page. His writing style is easy and accessible, and also inventive: you have to read the book to find out what doing the do, homosex (guess!) and archaeologicable mean.

The picture is of a sculpture of a Spartan officer from the Wadsworth Museum in Connecticut.

Links on the blog: More of the ancient world in Herodotus here and here, and Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy (which contains quite a lot of doing the do).


  1. Moira - It sounds as though it's both thoroughly informative and thoroughly readable. Always a treat when that happens whether or not you happen to know what the difference is between subject and object...


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