“Fighting men aren’t distracted by gays. Fighting men aren’t distracted by anything when they’re fighting.” A congressman said that on Dec. 18, when the Senate repealed “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
So now we have a lot in common with those fierce fighting warriors, the ancient Greek Spartans who took male lovers. Or do we? Well, not exactly. Ancient Greek city states had their own cultures, but, generally, there were some very different guiding principles than our own.
While I believe the repeal of the Pentagon’s rule is a step forward in our cultural maturity, where compassion, empathy, acceptance, are virtues to be commended, it’s also true that the ancient Greek attitude toward homosexuality was quite different from our own.
Here’s Phaedrus, in Plato’s Symposium, on the power of male sexual relationships to improve bravery in the military:
“... he would prefer to die many deaths: while as for leaving the one he loves in a lurch, or not succoring him in peril, no man is such a craven that the influence of Love cannot inspire him with a courage that makes him equal to the bravest born.”
Not exactly our concept of bravery or love, unless you refer to Platonic love, though there are parallels. “The Band of Brothers” shows no hint of homosexuality, but the soldiers are rightly proud that they care for each other and would risk their lives for a comrade. The “Sacred Band of Thebes” was a troop of 150 handpicked male soldier couples who formed an elite force. The Band was annihilated by Phillip II of Macedon in a battle in 338 BC.
Our military attitude is more one of brotherhood than lovers. But in The Greek “Iliad,” the cultural values blur.
Homer’s character Nestor:
“...a band cemented by friendship grounded upon love is never to be broken.”
Strangely enough, one of our most firmly rooted taboos was acceptable behavior among the ancient Greeks, where older men often took young boys for lovers. The older man was dominant and it was his responsibility to train his young lover. The boy was not supposed to become effeminate. If he did, the older lover was blamed for not training him properly. When the younger man became an adult, he took a young male lover to teach. Maybe that was Greek for “love of learning”? But seriously, folks, even the Greeks with their boy lovers held it to be aberrant behavior when a boy was forced into a sexual act. In a time of slavery, this abuse could easily occur without the check of that rule.
While Western civilization is based on ancient Greek laws and just about everything else Greek, we’ve gone in different directions, one of which is the issue of gays and lesbians.
Sappho, acclaimed by the Greeks as one of nine great poets, was purported to be a lesbian. In fact, Lesbos, her verdant home island, lends its name to the term lesbian.
When Ellen DeGeneres heard of the vote to end “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” she sent CNN a message: “Thank you senators for pushing us closer to full equality.” Others called it a civil rights victory. President Obama commented: “It’s time to close this chapter in our history.”
The process that repealed the law in Congress has, at its foundation, the ways of democracy. Just one more Greek gift, but again, a variation on a theme. Even the enlightened Athenians held slaves, but then so did ancient Israel and early Christian societies, and Athenian women could not vote.
There’s a story about an Athenian who went to Sparta and ate with the soldiers. When he returned to Athens he said, “Now I know why the Spartans aren’t afraid to die.”
They say that when Socrates had drunk the hemlock and lay dying, he said, “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Do pay it. Don’t forget.”
We owe much more than a chicken to the Greek legacy.
THE FORUM website (Excerpts)
“The final complexity in dealing with classical Greece involves its relationship to contemporary residents of North America. The framers of the Constitution were intensely conscious of Greek precedents. Designers of public buildings have copied Greek and Roman models. Plato and Aristotle continue to be thought of as founders of our philosophical tradition, and reliance on scientific methods of inquiry owes much to Greek formulations. We need to understand Greek civilization in order to understand our own society. The Western educational tradition has long invited elaborate explorations of the Greco-Roman past.”
We stand on the shoulders of the Greek classical world. But the similarities between homosexuality in ancient Greece and in our own culture is the proverbial comparison of apples and oranges, to say nothing of forbidden fruit or a garden called Eden.
And therein lies the rift between cultures. We have the Judeo/Christian/Islam experience between us and the ancient Greeks. And whether we adhere to one of these religions or not, just by living day by day in our modern society, we are affected by their creeds, for better or for worse. Can any mother imagine telling a son who is headed for Afghanistan to “Come back with your shield or on it”? A Spartan mother instructed her son to do just that before he went off to war.
I like to think that sometime in a gentler future that I won’t be here to see, the world can find a way to end the abomination of war, and with it, the concern over gays and lesbians in the military.