Why knowing the history of history is vital for any writer drawing from the past

I once had an amiable conversation with a scientist who genuinely couldn’t see what so enthrals me about history. When it’s happened, the past is done, according to him. Once you know the facts, where else is there to go?

Ah, but whose facts? Because this isn’t maths where a particular equation always gives the same result or chemistry where adding Stuff A to Stuff B has a predictable, repeatable outcome. One of the most fascinating things about studying history is analysing the interpretations of a particular set of known facts and seeing what that particular view tells us about whoever drew those particular conclusions. Because historical scholarship invariably tells us as much about the time and place where it was written, and about who wrote it, as it tells us about the actual historical period under discussion.

For those who were interested when I talked about this at Fantasycon 2015 – and begging the indulgence of any genuine academics reading this – here’s a brief and necessarily broad-brush look at the ways in which classical Greek homosexuality has been viewed in successive decades. Because as the first hand sources make very clear, intense friendships between teenage boys and older men were common and even encouraged. This much is known – but what exactly does that tell us about the society of Athens in the 5th century BCE, according to the historians?

According to classical scholars writing in the 50s and 60s, these were perfectly wholesome relationships where gentlemen with more worldly and military experience would mentor and advise the next generation of Athenian citizens – and there’s absolutely no reason to assume any sexual component to these relationships. NOT AT ALL, according to the prevailing not-very-sub-text of those scholars, because as we all know, Decent Chaps Do Not Get Up To That Sort Of Thing! They would cite the mockery of effeminate characters in Aristophanes’ comedies as indisputable proof and move briskly on.

The thing is, these scholars were not in denial. They weren’t lying or distorting the facts. But they were most assuredly viewing the past through the lens of their own times and society. These are academics who would have been educated and be working in predominantly if not exclusively male environments where the Old Boy Network was a flourishing institution. Given study of the classical world was considered to be the study of history’s greatest thinkers and institutions, a shining example for civilized men to emulate ever since the Enlightenment, seeing similar relationships to their own at work in Classical Athens merely served to endorse their belief in the essential and inevitable benevolence of the patriarchal status quo.

More than that, given the way in which that particular system of education considered the classical world’s stamp of approval defined so much that was worthwhile and praiseworthy, the idea that these friendships could have been homosexual relationships is quite simply untenable for them. Because these men grew up, were educated and were writing in an age when homosexuality was illegal. And not merely illegal in a way that wasn’t actually a problem because kindly, blind eyes were turned. Gay men were imprisoned. They lost their jobs and their families. Some killed themselves. Some killed others to protect their shameful, filthy, guilty secret – as it was seen back then. If you want some idea of society’s prevailing views and their reflection in the media, look into the case of John Vassall, a British civil servant who was blackmailed into spying for the KGB. If the Profumo Affair hadn’t come along, Vassall’s case would be the definitive 60s sex scandal.

So for those scholars to uphold classical civilisation as an exemplary model on the one hand and on the other, to accept that it also included behaviour which they’d been taught to believe was repellent, was quite simply impossible.

Fast forward to the 1970s and 80s when legalisation and the gay rights movement meant gay men could be out, loud and proud, challenging prejudice head on. Now we can find classical scholars offering very different views. Of course all these relationships were fully and physically homosexual, as far as their equally honest and sincere interpretations are now concerned. Without the shame-based culture promulgated by subsequent religions, men in Classical Athens were able to express their natural sexuality exactly as they wished before the obligations of citizenship demanded wives and children from them. Bisexuality was effectively the norm, not the exception, certainly according to some.

Obviously, a degree of decorum was expected. According to this scholarship, that same mockery in Aristophanes makes it plain that the 5th century equivalent of aging, flaming queens were a joke. But homosexuality itself was entirely accepted and acceptable – which of course means that those gay rights proponents could and would now claim that very same Classical Civilisation Stamp of Approval previously so jealously guarded by The Establishment.

Fast forward again to scholarship in the 21st century and to current interpretations informed by the ways in which understanding of gender and sexuality is moving beyond a purely binary view. Not only as a result of campaigners’ efforts but also as an unforeseen consequence of other things. After decades of denial, the issue of AIDS forced civil and military authorities to acknowledge the reality of same-sex encounters in all-male environments such as prisons and the armed forces. Public health considerations required supplying condoms both for avowedly gay men and for those who would have same-sex liaisons even though they still considered themselves wholly straight and who opted for heterosexual relationships outside such environments. Which, for instance, casts quite a different light on Socrates sharing a blanket with Alcibiades while on military service and subsequently marrying a woman as a good Athenian citizen was expected to do.

These days the idea that young men might experiment sexually with each other before settling into heterosexual marriage is (hopefully) unremarkable. Now Aristophanes’ mockery is seen not as lampooning gay men for their sexuality but as targeting those whose excessive self-indulgence of sexual alongside other appetites mean they are failing in their duties as citizens. Provided a man meets those obligations, how he chooses to satisfy his sexual desires, gay or straight, isn’t the central issue, according to current readings. Add to that, there’s now plenty of evidence for male and female prostitutes working in classical Athens and no stigma in visiting them.

Which isn’t to say that these relationships between teenage boys and older men aren’t a concern for current scholars. It’s the cause for concern that’s changed. When 5th century sources say that the younger partner should be beardless and with hairless thighs, does this mean prepubescent? If so, academics are now very keen to discuss how very much later puberty occurred in the days before modern nutrition, with secondary sexual characteristics appearing as late as sixteen or seventeen years of age. And how old is the senior partner in that particular historical context? Primary evidence is emphatically cited for such relationships only being socially acceptable for men up to their late twenties or early thirties. Scholars flag up contemporary sources condemning those in their forties and fifties seeking out the very young – in other words, exactly the sort of men whom we now consider predatory paedophiles. It’ll be interesting to see if these interpretations still stand unchanged in twenty years’ time or if they are considered at least in part, as a reflection of this particular decade’s belated acknowledgement of, and overdue resolve to prevent, child abuse.

So it really is at least as important to look at who’s telling you something about history, and the time and context within which they are working, as it is to look at the thing itself. Personally I think this is particularly important for writers of epic fantasy who may well start out, at least, by drawing on the history they recall from school and on general resources, particularly online, which are far more likely to draw on recycled and outdated material than to be keeping current with the latest academic research.

And of course, looking at who’s telling you something is an equally valuable skill when it comes to analysing the pronouncements of modern politicians and the mass media so eager to push their own political and commercial agenda. As Cicero used to say – and he was no slouch when it came to manipulating opinion – ‘Cui bono?’ Who benefits?

6 comments

  1. Finally got around to reading this. Quite simply, brilliant. An excellent piece of historiography and of particular interest because during my time at Sussex, I did a course on the Greek City State and the question of male/male relationships was of interest, especially in the context of military history, the Spartans etc. Well done.

  2. Fascinating read! Am currently researching the lack of LGBTQ+ sleuths in historical mysteries set before Victorian times – examples of which are few and far in-between. One of my questions is whether this absence is due to self-censorship [unwitting or otherwise], the urgings of publishers, a reading public unready for such things, or an inherent conservatism in the sub-genre…

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