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  • Anterastai:Competition in Eros and Politics in Classical Athens
  • Velvet Yates

The purpose of this paper is to restore the competitive dimension to our understanding of the institution of pederasty, and thereby enhance our understanding of the erotic metaphors applied to Athenian politics by authors in the classical period. The pederastic erastes-eromenos pair has often been treated in scholarship as if it existed in a vacuum,1 when, of course, ancient Greece was an intensely agonistic society and competition over a desirable eromenos was fierce, as our ancient sources acknowledge. I hope to show that this aspect of competition helps to explain why metaphors derived from the elite practice of pederasty were so well suited to describing the politics of the Athenian democracy. First, however, I will examine the literary evidence for competition in pederasty and the association of competition with both pederasty and athletics.

I. Competition in Athletics and Pederasty

Pederasty, as Thomas Scanlon puts it, seems to have "come out of the closet in the seventh century," closely followed and fostered by the convention of competing in the nude (around 650-600).2 Competition was a [End Page 33] vital characteristic in the expansion of both athletics and pederasty.3 There were two main forms of athletic competition in ancient Greece: individual vs. individual (as in boxing or wrestling), and individual vs. a field of other individuals (as in footraces).4 The first holds obvious analogies to an erotic relationship, which have been well observed since antiquity.5 What has been less clear is the application of the second type, the "field competition," to erotic relationships, specifically within a pederastic context. In a running event, one athlete is competing against many for the same goal, much as anterastai compete for a desirable eromenos.

In ancient Greece, it was easy to find eros, athletics, and competition mingling together in the same place; most commonly, perhaps, in the unofficial election of the "most beautiful boy" at each palaestra.6 Sometimes there was too much mingling: the Hermaia, the Athenian festival for boys, apparently became such a "pick-up" opportunity that adults were eventually banned from attending.7 Also noteworthy is the kissing contest for boys that was held at Diocles' tomb at Olympia. As Scanlon (2002.95) comments: "The Olympic victor and beloved is aptly remembered in an event which puts eros itself into an agonistic context." [End Page 34]

In pederasty (as practiced in classical Athens), restrictions existed that guaranteed the intense competition of aristocratic anterastai over a small, select pool of prized eromenoi. To win such an eromenos enhanced the honor of the erastes and shamed his rivals. As Pausanias declares in Plato's Symposium (182E): "conquest is deemed noble, failure shameful." A "trophy" eromenos was rendered such by his socio-economic class, physical beauty, and youth. He was maintained as such by the vigilance of older male relatives and guardians8 and the cultural expectation that he would play hard to get and finally yield to only one worthy erastes.9

Even if an eromenos was one of the select few being fought over, his desirability (itself enhanced by competition)10 did not last for long; he had only a small window of prepubescent attractiveness. For a select few boys, for a short time, elite anterastai would become "slaves to love,"11 and engage in "slavish" behavior.12 Beyond this window, all desire and pursuit dropped away, and the eromenos was abandoned.

This small window of opportunity finds expression in lyric poetry as warnings or taunts concerning the onset of puberty and its accompanying body hair (considered unattractive) directed at a handsome and popular eromenos. Thus Alcaeus (Greek Anthology 12.30): "Your legs, Nicander, are becoming hairy; / Take care this doesn't happen to your ass, / Or you will find your lovers getting very / Scarce. Irrevocably, your youth will pass."13 [End Page 35] Body hair was even in a sense liberating: "the beard, appearing on the eromenos, 'liberates the erastes from the tyranny of eros.'"14

Likewise, Socrates is admonished for still chasing Alcibiades, though he is already growing a beard (Protagoras 309A). In the pseudo Platonic Alcibiades, this pursuit is expanded upon, so that...


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