Pedophilia in Ancient Greece and Rome

While the practice of pedophilia today is a morally wrong and illegal act, some of the Ancient Greeks and Romans regarded it as a common practice and sometimes something to be celebrated. Pedophilia was common in Greek and Roman mythology and daily life.

May 23, 2020By Jenna Ross, BA Photojournalism
wine flask depicting the practice of pederasty
Attic Red-Figure Psykter, wine flask depicting the practice of pederasty, or the courting of a younger boy by an older man, common among Greek nobility, Getty Museum


Pedophilia is defined as a sexual attraction to children. In modern times, pedophilia is seen as morally abhorrent behavior, and it is defined a psychiatric disorder. Acting on pedophilia, either by obtaining pornographic material of children or partaking in sexual or romantic relations with a minor who is under the legal age of consent, is illegal. But the Ancient Romans and Greeks openly practiced forms of pedophilia, although it was not legally or morally regarded as it is today. Forms of pedophilia were common among nobility and were often seen as rites of passage for the youth involved in them. 


Practice of Pederasty in Ancient Greece


Pederasty is defined as the sexual relationship between an adult man and a pubescent or adolescent boy. The older man, or the erastes, was usually in his mid to late twenties, and was the pursuer in the relationship. The eromenos, or “beloved,” was usually in his mid to late teens, and was actively pursued by the erastes. These relationships were often complicated and involved a lot more than just sex. Being an eromenos was seen as a benefit and path to maturity, while being an erastes seen as a civic duty. Part of the pederastic relationship was indeed sexual, but at its core it was a mentorship. 


The Warren Cup
The Warren Cup, a Greek drinking cup depicting multiple scenes of boys with older men, British Museum


While this practice was accepted despite its taboo nature, there were delicate parameters surrounding the relationship to ensure the dignity of both males. The older, more experienced erastes was the dominant male in the relationship and was in constant control of his eromenos, ensuring his position in society as powerful and masculine. The eromenos, although he was being dominated by another man, was earning respect and admiration by being taken under the wing of a respected member of Greek society. Pederasty was, based on substantial amounts of historical and mythical evidence, the most common form of both pedophilia and homosexuality at the time. While homosexual relationships between two adult men did occur, both in myth and in daily life, they were often discussed discreetly, and were only openly accepted when the two men were of high social standing, such as with Alexander the Great and Hephaestion. 


The Roman Take on Pederasty 


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The Romans were not as open to the practice of pederasty, as they were not open to many of the Greek ideals or ways of life. The ways of the Greeks were often seen as beneath them, despite the fact that a lot of Roman culture and myth is taken and expanded upon from the Greeks. The Romans would pursue sexual relationships with younger men, but these relationships were only seen as forgivable if the older man was a freeborn Roman and he was having sex with a younger slave or prostitute who wasn’t of Roman origin. The Lex Scantinia was a law set in place in Rome that penalized sex with a young freeborn male, preventing any form of pederasty as the Greeks practiced it from happening in Rome.  


Greek wall painting known as the Tomb of the Diver, depicting pederastic scenes at a symposium, Brown University
Greek wall painting known as the Tomb of the Diver, depicting pederastic scenes at a symposium, Brown University


It should be noted that the younger boys involved in pederastic relationships were often of the same age as young girls who were set into arranged marriages with much older men, around the ages of 12 to 16. This occurred in both Greek and Roman culture. The rituals of marriage symbolized a girl becoming a woman, just as a pederastic relationship symbolized a boy becoming a man. Another important note to make is that there is little to no evidence of a pederastic relationship existing between two women. Women were often highly secluded from men, and this could account for the lack of documentation of female pederasty, if it did exist. This does not make these relationships exempt from scrutiny in the present day, as modern research has proven that romantic or sexual relationships between teenagers and adults with this type of power dynamic have very negative impacts to the mental health and development of the teenager in both men and women.


Examples of Pederasty in Greco-Roman Myth and Legend

Zeus, seated on eagle
Zeus, seated on eagle, embraces Ganymede with wine jug, ca 1790-1800, British Museum


As pederasty was popular in Greek culture, so it was popular in Greek myth. One of the most famous depictions of mythical pederasty is the story of Zeus and Ganymede. Zeus, the notoriously pugnacious womanizer, becomes enamored with the mortal shepherd Ganymede. Ganymede was portrayed as inconceivably beautiful and beardless, which was usually the indicator that a boy was still an adolescent in Greek art. Zeus either turned himself into an eagle, or summoned an eagle, depending on the version of the myth, to whisk Ganymede away to Olympus, where Zeus granted him immortality and made him the cupbearer of the gods. This celestial relationship was the most common one used to justify pederasty among elite Greek men.  


Achilles bandaging Patroclus’ wounds
Achilles bandaging Patroclus’ wounds illustrated on the interior of a Greek kylix, or drinking cup, Antes Museum in Berlin, Germany


The most well-known Greek story of pederasty between mortals is that of Achilles and Patroclus. The two were portrayed as an erastes and eromenos by many writers and poets, although there has been much debate about who assumed each role. The first appearance of the heroic duo was in Homer’s Iliad, in which the two men are companions fighting the Trojans in the Trojan War. While they don’t have a sexual relationship in the epic, they share an emotional and passionate bond that is much stronger than the typical male friendship. Because the pair do not fit the mold for a typical pederastic relationship in the Iliad, later Greek poets like Aeschylus and Plato attempted to force them into the mold in their own works. Aeschylus wrote that Achilles was Patroclus’ erastes, while Plato claimed the opposite. Regardless of who was right about their relationship dynamics, Achilles and Patroclus’ close companionship was manipulated to fit the pederastic mold to suit the practices of noble Greek men in the 6th, 5th and 4th centuries. 


Heterosexual Pedophilia and Marriage Customs

Aldobrandini Wedding Fresco
Aldobrandini Wedding Fresco, a portion of a fresco showing a typical Roman marriage scene, Vatican Museum


As mentioned earlier, women were often exceptionally young when they were married in Ancient Greece and Rome. Just like in many other ancient cultures, girls were married off around the ages of 12 to 16, and often to a much older man. By contemporary, Western standards, this drastic age gap is wrong, but the Greeks and Romans saw this as the ideal age to marry. As marriages were often arranged to benefit familial ties, the main goal of marriage was procreation. Girls at this age had often just reached menarche and would be able to produce many children of their own once married. Many of the rituals surrounding marriage in both Greece and Rome were about the child becoming a woman on her wedding day, with the consummation of marriage. 


Roman sarcophagus relief wedding ceremony
Roman sarcophagus relief, depicting a wedding ceremony, British Museum


In Greece, the proaulia was an entire day before the wedding dedicated to rites, sacrifices, and ritual baths to prepare the bride. The bride would give sacrifices of her childhood toys, locks of hair and her girdle, a woven or rope belt symbolizing her virginity, to goddesses like Artemis, Aphrodite, Athena and Hera. All of these offerings were made to ensure her safe passage from childhood to womanhood. In Rome, the rituals surrounding the passage from child to woman were less meticulous but still regarded as sacred. There were many types of marriage under Roman law, such as coemptio, marriage by purchase, or usus, marriage by habitual cohabitation. The typical marriage in early Rome was manus marriage, in which the bride was passed from her father’s hand (manus) to that of her new husband. These marriages put a large focus on the fact that the bride was young, innocent and virginal, and needed guidance from her husband just as she needed it from her father. 


Heterosexual Pedophilia in Greco-Roman Myth and Legend

The Abduction of the Sabine Women
The Abduction of the Sabine Women by Nicolas Poussin, a depiction of the Roman myth where at least 30 underaged Sabine women were kidnapped, Metropolitan Museum of Art


Because the standard age for Greco-Roman women was between 12 and 16, it is assumed that most of the popular, lusted after women in mythology were quite young, most notably Helen of Troy. Based on different accounts from Hellanicus of Lesbos and Diodorus, she was somewhere between seven and ten years old when she was abducted by Theseus. Based on this and descriptions of other Greco-Roman maidens, it is assumed that the abduction of the Sabine women was an abduction of teenage girls. The abduction was orchestrated by Romulus and his men, shortly after the founding of Rome. The newly founded city was flourishing but missing one essential thing: women. The men devised a plan to abduct the women of Sabine, a neighboring population, during their festival celebrating the Neptune Equester. The young girls were abducted and promised a lawful marriage and rights to citizenship. This story paved the way for traditional marriage customs in Rome, where women, albeit young and innocent, were given equal rights to citizenship and property just like their husbands. 


Venus and Adonis sculpture
Venus and Adonis sculpture by Antonio Canova, Musee d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva


Although it is minimal, there is evidence that women participated in some sexual activities with minors, although it was not a mentorship or celebrated relationship in the way that pederasty was. One example tells the tale of Aphrodite (or Venus according to the Romans), the goddess of love, falls madly in love with the mortal Adonis. Although it is common to hear “Adonis” used to refer to strapping, strong men in modern times, he was often portrayed in art and writing as a youthful, beardless boy. Beardedness was a symbol of male adulthood in Greco-Roman art, so seeing Adonis depicted as beardless and childlike points to the idea that he was indeed an adolescent teenager. There were female cults devoted to Adonis who celebrated the Adonia, a festival of highly secretive rituals that made the men of Greece, specifically Athens, feel  suspicious and inferior.


The Implications of Ancient Greco-Roman Pedophilia

statue of Nisus and Euryalus
A 17th century statue of Nisus and Euryalus, Roman comrades who were described as a pederastic couple, Louvre Museum


Since its cultural impact and practice in Ancient Greece and Rome, pederasty has been criticized, scrutinized, thoughtfully studied, and even used to vindicate the practice of pedophilia in modern times by organizations of men advocating for the legalization and conventionalization of “boy love.” The practice of pederasty, Greco-Roman marriage customs that would be deemed illegal in most countries today, and even the ancient female desire for youthful male figures like Adonis explain a great deal about Ancient Greek and Roman customs and values, and compel historians, researchers, and students alike to look at these societies with a critical eye, but also a veil of cultural relativism


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By Jenna RossBA PhotojournalismJenna Ross is a contributing journalist and photographer with an extensive interest in the history of photography and art. She has a BA in Photojournalism from California State University, Fullerton. When she isn’t working, she loves to travel, and always takes her camera along with her.