What is the best place to visit if you’re interested in the gay past? There is a lot of competition, mostly among major cities. In New York City, you can of course see the Stonewall Inn, or the Angel on the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, which plays a role in Angels in America. London is also a city with a great gay past, with sights like Oscar Wilde’s favorite tobacconist: you can still see his extensive bill—left unpaid when he went to prison and never settled. Or the Warren Cup at the British Museum, a piece of ancient erotica that was the most expensive purchase in the museum’s 200+ year history.
But if I had to choose a country to visit on a gay history quest, the final choice would be between Greece and Italy. Both countries are packed with sights and artworks that speak to us of historical periods in which same-sex love was widely practiced and even widely praised—from the statue of Zeus and his boy toy Ganymede to the island of Lesbos to the famously handsome and homoerotic Davids of Donatello and Michelangelo.
Of the two countries, Greece is better known for its gay history. In fact, many people know there is some connection between ancient Greece and male-male love. At the least, they’ve heard some jokes about “Greek love,” or maybe read something that referred to it in world civ class—though the professor probably skipped over that section. You might also wonder if the naked statues of ancient athletes that you see in art museums have something to do with this side of Greek culture. (Answer: yes!)
In fact, the connection was far bigger than you might imagine. Male-male love was like naked athletics and the worship of the Olympic gods: it was one of the customs that formed the Greek identity—the things they thought made them better than all the surrounding cultures (pasty-faced, cowardly barbarians, in the Greek view). And it was part of their vision of the ideal, elite life. They saw male-male relations as the basis for what they considered the most important virtues: military loyalty and courage.
You can see a monument to this vision by visiting the Lion monument of Chaironeia. Chaironeia isn’t on a standard tour of Greece; in fact, a very experienced Greek guide I took there last year told me that in her long career she had seen it three times (and didn’t know why it was important!) But it’s really not all that far off the beaten track, at most an hour drive from Delphi. It is a monument to the crack regiment of later Classical Greece. They died in the final battle in which the Macedonians, under King Phillip’s son Alexander (future the Great—and also possibly gay), defeated the Greeks. The regiment was famous for their heroic deaths, and also for the fact that it consisted exclusively of male-male couples: they fought in lover-beloved-lover-beloved order!
Another interesting story to follow in Greece is that of Lord Byron, the bisexual rake who left England to lead the fight for Greek independence—and to escape from England’s anti-gay laws. Many things in Greece have a Byron connection, including the lion of Charironeia, which he rediscovered! Another thing connected to him is the Lysikrates monument, an ancient trophy for a victory in a choral contest that is one of the main sights of Athens’ Plaka neighborhood. In Byron’s time, it was built into a French capuchin monastery, where Byron lived, while carrying on a series of romances and flings with the obviously all-male inhabitants. It was here that he met one of his great loves, the young Franco-Greek Niccolò Giraud, who taught him Italian. A great example of Byron’s sexy, witty tone is the letter where he says that they spent a day learning to conjugate the verb “embrace.”
Sound intriguing? Greece is a great place to commune with the gay past. See my next post for some details about Italy. And if you feel like learning more on a lovely trip in Greece, consider Oscar Wilde Tours’ “Gay Greece, from Achilles to Alexander and Beyond” (September 24-October 4, 2018), with five days on the mainland, and three on Mykonos. We’d love to have you on board!
Andrew Lear is a world-renowned expert on sexuality in the ancient world. While a professor of Classics at Harvard, Pomona College and NYU, he published widely on ancient Greek literature and art. He is developing a TV series on LGBT+ history with author/actor Stephen Fry, and he is the founder and CEO of Oscar Wilde Tours, the LGBT+ history and culture tour company.