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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 13.2 (2002) 35-56

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Women, Boys, and the Paradigm of Athenian Pederasty

David Konstan

I begin with a passage in Aristophanes' Lysistrata (411 BC) to which I shall have occasion to return again in what follows. 1 The women of Athens, having agreed earlier to withhold sex from their husbands in order to compel them to end the war between Athens and Sparta, have now seized control of the Athenian acropolis. The purpose of this second stratagem is to prevent the Athenian men from gaining access to the treasury; thus, they will no longer be able to maintain the fleet on which Athens's power depends and will be obliged to accept peace. At this point in the action, a proboulos, one of the officials elected to exercise plenipotentiary powers in the aftermath of the defeat of the Athenian armada in Syracuse three years earlier, arrives at the gate to the acropolis in order to force an entry into the citadel. 2 When he learns the nature of the women's plot, he complains that the Athenian men themselves are to blame if their wives are now behaving in so outrageous a manner:
hotan gar autoi xumponêreuômetha
taisin gunaixi kai didaskômen truphan,
toiaut' ap' autôn blastanei bouleumata.

(lines 405–06) [End Page 35]

[For when we ourselves collaborate with our wives in their misbehavior and teach them to be licentious (truphan), such are the plots that sprout from them.]
The proboulos gives as an example a husband who summons a jeweller to fix his wife's necklace on an evening when he himself is away and asks him to adjust the peg in the aperture (line 413). The double entendre is not subtle. It is the proboulos's second example, however, that interests me in the present context.
heteros de tis pros skutotomon tadi legei
neanian kai peos ekhont' ou paidikon. (414–15)

[And this is what another man says to a shoemaker, a youngster (neanias) who has a penis that's not boyish (paidikon).]
The joke that follows is somewhat obscure, but I wish to concentrate here on the description of the potential seducer of a citizen's wife. He is a youth [neanias], but, despite his years and, presumably, his boyish appearance, his penis is not that of a child [pais]. Part of the husband's mistake is to imagine that the youth is not a threat because he is still only a boy and hence not ready for an active role in sex; implicit in the phrase peos paidikon, I think, is an allusion to the expression ta paidika, which signifies the erômenos or passive partner in a pederastic relationship. But appearances are deceptive, and this child, the proboulos makes clear, is fully capable of assuming the active role with a woman.

The husband's mistake, however, is not simply that of misjudging the sexual maturity of the shoemaker. He has also erred in inviting into his home a male who is at the age that he is, in Athenian eyes, most attractive to women. The position of neanias at the beginning of the verse is emphatic: far from being harmless, the humble shoemaker is especially dangerous because he is a juvenile. Aristophanes is playing here, I suggest, on the idea that women are particularly susceptible to the erotic charms precisely of adolescents—the theme that I propose to illustrate in this paper. 3 At the age of pubescence, a Greek male's sexual identity was ambiguous. As a boy, he was still an object of desire for men and, as I argue here, for adult women as well. But he was also at the point of changing into a man and hence prepared to assume the role of active lover, conceived as dominant and penetrative. In this capacity, he was a potential rival to the husband, occupying the same position in the sexual hierarchy. The tension or ambiguity between the two roles—boy love and [End Page 36] adult lover&#8212...