Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Moral Values

Pederastic couples at a symposium;
from a wall-painting in Paestum, Italy

This post in indebted to the Joint Association of Classical Teachers’ The World of Athens, 1st edn. (Cambridge University Press, 1984), to Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World: An Epic History of Greece and Rome (Penguin, 2006), and to John Dillon’s, Salt and Olives: Morality and Custom in Ancient Greece (Edinburgh University Press, 2004).


The term aretē is usually translated virtue but it may more accurately be rendered human excellence. It denotes the sum total of the moral, social, and even physical excellence proper to a human being. It is conventionally divided into four particular virtues, wisdom, courage, self-control, and justice. The virtues of men and women were thought to be quite distinct. Courage was inappropriate for a woman, timidity for a man.


There are a whole set of values associated with competition (agōn) and manliness. Games played in the public eye were part of this value system. Each athlete competed against each other to win a prize. In the law courts, the adversarial system was similar to our own. In the theatre, choruses competed with each other.

The Iliad shows the Greeks quarrelling among themselves, as much as fighting the Trojans. They quarrel over their fighting skills, their wealth, the number of their subjects etc. The behaviour of Achilles illustrates this. At first he refuses to fight for the Greeks because King Agamemnon has slighted him, but he is won round by gifts. To us, this conduct appears petulant and childish, and we have the proverbial phrase 'sulking in his tents' taken from this incident. But the Greeks understood Achilles' actions by their concept of timē, which we translate variously as acclaim, honour or value (in other words, it depends both on personal conduct and on being respected). The opposite of time is aidos, shame.

Classical Athens (the 5th and 4th centuries) kept this system of values. However, the nature of warfare had changed and the Athenians did not need individual heroes as much as groups of hoplite fighting men. Intellectual, social and athletic rivalry took the place of military competitions. When Alcibiades demanded that he should be given the command of the expedition to Sicily, his argument was based on his winning the chariot race and providing choruses as public events. To us, this seems childish boasting. To the Athenians, he was using powerful arguments.

People like Alcibiades could be envied for their success. But the Athenians liked to be envied, and to be talked about by others.

Dishonour and revenge

Medea kills her son, Campanian
c. 330 BC
Louvre, public domain

If a man did not receive the timē that was due to him, then he suffered from dishonour (atimia). The consequences of this were grave. If a man did not take revenge for atimia, he was thought to be cowardly. Thucydides tells us that the Greeks had a proverb that nothing was sweeter than revenge. In the story of Jason and Medea, as told in Euripides' Medea, Jason marries Medea and at first treats her well. Then he deserts her and takes a new wife. In revenge, she kills her children.

Friends and enemies

The Greeks divided human beings into friends (philoi), who must be helped, enemies (ekhthroi), who must be defeated, and outsiders to whom there was no particular obligation. 

This made sense. In a society with a fairly rudimentary legal system, a dearth of written records, and minimal law enforcement procedures, one is dependent on friends and relatives. If you lack friends or your friends let you down, your position is perilous.  Enemies also have to be watched. Enmities were a driving force in Athenian life, prompting the majority of court cases.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defined friendship (philia) as one of the greatest of the virtues. Hospitality to friends was a sacred duty, and the exchange of gifts was a visible sign of the relationship.  A lavish funeral, often accompanied by games, was the final tribute to a friend, or to soldiers who had died in battle.  Reciprocity was the fundamental concept. You treated your friends well because they treated you well, your enemies badly because that was how they treated you. If  you do a god favours, he is bound by honour to do the same for you. Aphrodite was the ally of Troy, because the Trojan prince, Paris, had declared her to be the fairest of the goddesses. For the same reason, the slighted goddesses, Hera and Athena, were the enemies of Troy. 


Hubris can be translated as pride, but it also has the meanings of violence and aggression. If a man has too much pride and ambition, he can incur the anger of the gods, and be punished by them. Xerxes showed pride when he attempted to bridge the Hellespont, the barrier between Europe and Asia, decreed by Zeus.


To counter the dangerous tendencies of honour and revenge, the Greeks also stressed the necessity of moderation and wisdom (the word sōphrōn) covers both meanings. The two mottoes at Delphi summarise this: ‘Know thyself’ and ‘Nothing in excess’. The choruses in Greek plays are continually urging this on the characters. This symbolises the tension in Greek thought between two sets of values, those stressing competition and those urging restraint.

Sexual morality

Women were regarded with suspicion and were believed to be sexually rapacious. For this reason they were kept secluded and guarded by their menfolk. Sexual relations with women were commonly,though not universally, regarded as purely for procreation. But heterosexual sex was widely available through prostitutes or slaves.

While women were kept isolated, men were thrown together in the school or the gymnasium.  There was a widespread tolerance of homoerotic relationships between young men and boys of a certain age-group, broadly between fifteen and twenty-five (with a little leeway at either end). Pederastic relations between an adult man and an adolescent boy (from paiderastia – boy love) were common, and were generally approved of, though under certain conditions. At least for younger men below the age of thirty, the pursuit of boys was a perfectly respectable and well-tolerated outlet for one's sexual impulses.  Often the age-gap between the participants was not large. 

The Greeks did not see homosexuality as a condition and popular attitudes were not burdened with modern preoccupations about whether it was ‘natural’.  The issue for Athenians was what behaviour was consistent with manliness and with the ideal of moderation in all things. Society did not differentiate sexual desire or behaviour by the gender of the participants, but by who played the active and who played the passive role: who was the erastēs and who the eronemos. The active role was associated with masculinity, higher social status and adulthood.  Greek writers disagreed about who played which role in the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus.  

Achilles bandages the arm of Patroclus
Antikensammlung Berlin
Public domain

Relations between adult men were seen as more problematic and the passive partner in the relationship could be despised. It was even more problematic when the youthful Alcibiades attempted to seduce the elderly Socrates. Male prostitution was regarded with aversion and any man found taking part in it lost his Athenian citizenship.

One possible scene of homoerotic relationships was the drinking party, the symposium. Attic drinking cups of the fifth century show paintings of men wearing effeminate dress, possibly as cross-dressers. The symposia seem to represent an anti-populist aristocratic subculture that was hostile to the democracy

Plato is the great theorist of 'platonic', homoerotic love. The Symposium takes the form of a series of after-dinner speeches on the theme of the praise of Eros, the god of love. One of the characters, Phaedrus states: 

'There can be no greater benefit for a boy than to have a worthy lover from his earliest youth, nor for a lover than to have a worthy object for his affection.' 

The Athenians never considered the possible effect of a pederastic relationship on a vulnerable young boy. As John Dillon writes (p. 126):
 ‘Either we must conclude that Athenian adult males were quite oblivious to the harm that they were doing to the psyches of the young (and of course the harm that had previously been done to them), or that in fact, in a society where such practices were accepted, no significant harm was done.’


Athens was a slave society. There are no precise figures, but it is likely that some 55,000 adult male citizens owned some 80,000 – 120,000 slaves, almost all of them non-Greeks, whom they could buy and sell. All landowners of any substance owned at least one or two slaves. At the top end of the scale Nikias at the end of the fifth century hired a thousand slaves to a concessionary at Larium. 

The supply was abundant, usually from war or raids. Following the Persian wars there was a widespread feeling that Asiatic races in particular, but also northerly peoples such as the Thracians and the Scythians, were intellectually and morally inferior to the Greeks and therefore ideally suited to slavery. Because most slaves were foreigners, most of them probably looked different from their masters. Herodotus described them as andrapoda (‘man-footed beasts’) and Aristotle as ‘animate tools’. These slaves were central to the Athenian economy. Those who were worst off worked in the silver mines; others worked in agriculture but slaves could also be tutors and doctors. Until the sophists began to raise fundamental questions about the nature of society, no-one questioned the morality of slavery.

If a slave was murdered no-one could take the case to court since only blood relatives could sue. The evidence of slaves could only be taken under torture. The rack would seem to have been the normal instrument.


The Greeks engaged in vigorous ethical debate and their greatest thinkers agreed that the pursuit of virtue was essential to the good life. They could value mercy and pity and many of their plays show a profound understanding of human nature. However, they did not put a high value on the needs of the individual.