People with a History/CLGH Book Review:
Cashman Kerr Prince:
Review of Percy, Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece
Cashman Kerr Prince, Department of Classics, Stanford University
Review of Percy, William Armstrong, III. Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece.
Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1996. $24.95, cloth. x +260 pp.
The British novelist and Oxford professor of philosophy, Iris Murdoch, in The Nice and
the Good, has written that early Greek history "is a game with very few pieces, where
the skill of the player lies in complicating the rules." (Both Ian Morris and Chester
Starr have cited Murdoch approvingly in their own scholarly histories of early Greece.)
What further complicates this game is the widely scattered and fragmentary nature of the
few pieces of evidence extant. Then, when one comes to write about sexuality in ancient
Greece, the rules of the game become infinitely more complex. It is such a game upon which
Percy embarks in Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece.
Marshalling the evidence, Percy argues that pederasty became an institutionalized
phenomenon in Archaic Greece during the seventh century B.C.E. In Percys reading,
pederasty began and spread from Dorian Crete; from there, pederasty "spread to other
parts of Greece because of its success in stemming, at least among the upper classes, the
population explosion that began in the eighth century" (p. 68). Sparta seems to have
first brought this Cretan system of pederasty to mainland Greece; hence various parts of
the institutionalized system of pederasty spread to other city-states, including Athens.
Once diffused throughout Greece, pederasty had a profound impact. As Percy writes,
whereas source material for Archaic Greece is scanty or nonexistent, in later eras
documents abound to attest to the importance of pederasts and pederasty to Greek
civilization. There we discover from unimpeachable authorities the degree to which Greek
society not only once accepted pederasty but also deemed it a worthy path to intellectual
and military distinction (p. 185).
For Percy, then, pederasty is the Greek miracle.
Percy has done an admirable job reading both the source material and the scholarship to
date on sexuality and Eros in ancient Greece. In addition to the more obvious and
widely-discussed sources, such as Platos dialogues (Phaedrus, Symposium, Charmides)
and Aeschines oration "Against Timarchus" (a reading of which forms the
basis of Sir Kenneth J. Dovers Greek Homosexuality), Percy cites "Homer,"
Hesiod, and various archaic Greek poets, as well as such late sources as Procopius,
Tacitus, and Diodorus Siculus (a first-century B.C.E. historian). Even fragments of
Aeschylus which rarely figure in discussions of Greek sexuality are discussed by Percy.
The breadth of source material presented in the first section of Pederasty and Pedagogy in
Archaic Greece make it a good point of entry into this scholarly discussion. All sources
are presented and discussed in translation -- either Loeb translations, older standard
versions or the authors own, as accuracy and reliability demanded (p. 193n.1) -- so
Percys argument is accessible to the reader who does not read Greek or Latin. (Those
of us who do read Greek and Latin could wish for the original texts to be included in the
notes, saving us the time of checking quotations and passages of interest.)
Marshalling sources is merely half the job of an ancient Greek historian; once
gathered, the sources must be interpreted. It is these acts of interpretation upon which
the worth and credibility of critics of ancient Greece rely. Unfortunately, I do not find
Percy to be a reliable critic. My concerns range from the niggling to the overwhelming; I
present one of each. On page 2, Percy discusses the Platonic corpus, specifically the Symposium and Laws, as though these texts give us some insight into Platos thought. As
even a casual reader of Plato knows, the dialogues abound with contradictory opinions --
within the same dialogue, and from one text to the next. The reference to Symposium 182b, which Percy does not inform the reader is from Pausanias speech, is used to
support Percys claim that Plato included pederasty among the traits that mark noble
Greek civilization apart from that of the barbarians. Yet such an argument is undercut by
the later speech of Socrates -- or even of Alcibiades -- in the Symposium, speeches
which are arguable closer to representing Platos thoughts. Perhaps I am splitting
hairs here, but I would expect careful and sound scholarship to make such fine
distinctions manifest. Now for an overwhelming concern; on pp. 57 - 58, Percy writes
Even more troubling, however, is Sargents assumption that the Cretan model was an
ancient one. I believe that though it involved ritual abduction and perhaps even
theoretical rape as well, the Cretan system was relatively recent and that the dramatic
myths of local founders of pederasty reflected the Cretan model and not some ancient
prototype. If pederasty represented a very ancient practice brought to the peninsula by
preliterate proto-Greeks, it is hard to understand why each region would have felt obliged
at a later date to name a local founder of the custom.
Disagreeing at this point with Sargent, and most other scholars of ancient Greek
sexuality, Percy presents no solid evidence for his belief in the relatively recent nature
of Cretan pederasty. The last sentence quoted above betrays an incomprehension of the
highly competitive nature of Greek city-states, with each city-state vying to outdo the
others and claim various institutions and customs as their own invention.
Finally, Percy seems to write an ancient type of history, which is very different from
what we today call "history." Percys "history," like the history
of Herodotus, combines what we would distinguish as fact and myth. Sources of various time
periods are cited indiscriminately when they further Percys argument; the citation
of any ancient author serves as proof for Percy. As such, Pederasty and Pedagogy in
Ancient Greece is less a critical and scholarly history than a recapitulation of
ancient hearsay on the subject.
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