In the movie 300, King Leonidas makes an offhand remark that has generated some controversy. He refers to the Athenians contemptuously as “boy-lovers,” imputing effeminate homosexuality among the Athenians in sharp contrast to the soldierly masculinity of the Spartans. It’s a harsh put-down, one that certainly matches the tone of the film, but has the unfortunate disadvantage of being completely false.
It can be fun to watch 300 and pick out the various classical references scattered throughout. For instance, the Spartans’ military application of the double-reeded flute shown while Leonidas and his band are marching to Thermopylae is attested by both Herodotus and Thucydides: Herodotus claims they used it for religious reasons; Thucydides points out that it was really for helping the Spartan hoplites march in time. Still, it would be quite a stretch to call this film “historically accurate.”
There is another error concerning the relationship between Athens and Sparta: in his parley with Leonidas, Xerxes offers the Spartan king the prospect of seeing his “Athenian rivals” crushed into submission before him. Leonidas rejects the offer, quite rightly, too, seeing as Athens was at this time one of Sparta’s closest allies. For almost a century, following the policy of the great ephor Chilon, the Spartans had been crafting a grand alliance of city-states under their leadership. The enemy of this alliance was at first Argos, which according to legend had dominated the Peloponnese in the 8th and 7th centuries. The Athenians joined the alliance after they provoked the Persian Empire, and, knowing that they desperately needed Spartan backing, they made themselves very friendly to their allies. It was only after the Persian Wars that Athens and Sparta drifted apart.
The two cities did have different views on sexual ethics, however. In Sparta, at age twenty, men had to be selected to join one of the four collective messes in order to participate in public life. Within these messes, homosexuality was compulsory: the idea was that men bound together by ἔρος, masculine love, would be more inclined to stand firm in the ranks and not abandon their comrades on the field of battle. Whether this principle was effective or not is unclear, but the Spartans were at least aware of the effects tolerating homosexuality would have on population growth. At age thirty, Spartan men were required to marry a girl of roughly twenty years, a practice designed to produce healthy children more likely to survive infancy. On the wedding night, the woman dressed up as a soldier so that her husband wouldn’t be completely confused. Still, results were not assured, so the Spartans denied childless men social privileges and even condoned wife-sharing. The result was that the loss of less than 400 men in battle at Leuctra in 371 B.C. crippled the core of the Spartan army.
In contrast, the Athenians condemned adult homosexuality, even putting to death homosexuals who appeared in the Assembly. They also expected men to marry at age thirty, but their women married younger, at roughly half her husband’s age. A dichotomy of Athenian growth with Spartan decline is not perfect—in the later years of the Peloponnesian War, Athens was running low on citizens to row her ships—but the Athenians were able to sustain and bounce back from dramatically greater military losses than the Spartans were.
The Greeks did not expect men to have any especially close relationship with their wives. Herodotus recounts the story of Candaules, king of Lydia, who was so enthralled with his wife that he bragged about her constantly to his friend Gyges. Eventually, Candaules decided that Gyges couldn’t truly appreciate her beauty until he saw her naked. (Gyges’ response is worth recording: “With a great cry Gyges said, ‘Master, what you suggest—it is not sane. Are you ordering me to see my master’s wife naked? Indeed, when a woman has removed her clothes, so too is she divested of modesty as well.’”) Herodotus considers it something of a marvel, definitely worth recording, that Candaules was in love with his wife: “This Candaules was in love with his own wife and considered her by far the most beautiful of all women.” Candaules browbeat his friend into snooping in on her, but the wife gets the last laugh in this story. Ashamed that she has been seen naked by someone other than her husband, she convinced Gyges to murder Candaules, marry her, and become king himself, which he promptly did. Herodotus does not record whether she lived up to Candaules’ description.
One sexual practice shared by all the Greeks was pederasty, a fancy word for institutionalized child-molestation. A man in his twenties might take a particular fancy to a pre-teen boy and take him as a lover or ἐρομένος. In addition to slaking his lust, the older man was expected to act as a kind of surrogate father, looking after the younger boy’s education and future prospects. Some notable couplings of this type include the philosopher Parmenides with his student Zeno and the Spartan admiral Lysander with the future king Agesilaus. Alcibiades was the ἐρομένος of Socrates, but we are assured by Plato that theirs was a chaste relationship. In fact, the philosophers were the only organized group to oppose pederasty in Greece.
The Romans disapproved of homosexuality, but this disapproval amounted to little in the later days of the Republic and under the Principate. The educational element of pederasty never caught on, but that was no impediment to its widespread practice. Augustus’ right-hand man Maecenas was notorious for his proclivities in the early Principate, and the scathing satirist Juvenal paints a sordid picture of men posing as philosopher-types but in reality engaging in most unphilosophical pursuits. This remained the case until the combination of Judaic morals, by way of Christianity, and German customs, by way of conquest, replaced the old Roman practices.
It was mildly amusing to see that the second 300 movie was subtitled Rise of an Empire, considering that Greece never amounted to anything so substantial. On the contrary, the only times they actually conquered anywhere were during the Dark Age before the historical period and when the Macedonians conquered them before turning on Persia. Greece was undoubtedly successful culturally, but a single episode serves to illustrate what it amounted to in the long run: after capturing Athens in 86 B.C., Sulla let his troops loot the city for two days. He called them off on the third at the behest of the city fathers saying that he “spared the young for the sake of the old, the living for the sake of the dead.”