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Wednesday, August 25, 1999 Published at 11:26 GMT 12:26 UK

World: Europe

Love and sex in ancient Greece

The Acropolis - centre of conservative society?

By Helena Smith in Athens

In Greece it is the hottest read this summer. Everyone from academics to tourists is, it seems, lapping up "Love, Sex and Marriage - a Guide to the Private Life of the Ancient Greeks".

Forget the ancients being sexually free, "Love, Sex and Marriage" portrays the classical Greeks as being anything but liberal.

If the book is to be believed, homosexuals were frowned upon, paedophiles were punished, and masturbation was seen fit only for barbarians and slaves.

It is a thesis that debunks almost every popular perception of the ancient bedroom antics. At a time of renewed interest in the ancient world, book stores say the public cannot get enough of it.

[ image: Life in ancient times]
Life in ancient times
Even the Athens Hilton - the preferred hotel for straight-laced retirees and businessmen - says its bookshop cannot keep abreast of demand for the tome, whose graphic illustrations include depictions of men and women cavorting on vases and urns.

"It takes a very different point of view to the traditional one that is held around certain sexual practises in ancient Greece," says author Nikos Vrissimtzis. "Contrary to popular opinion, that world was not a paradise for homosexuals, and paedaracy was held in such contempt that it was very heavily punished."

Mr Vrissimtzis, a sociologist who specialises in ancient Greece, wrote the book after years of work in museums and libraries, studying classical text, inscriptions and pottery.

The research proved, yet again, that the ancients saw sex as completely natural and - unlike their modern day descendants - had no inhibitions or taboos.

But, the author says, his findings also show that in the absence of religious doctrines, the ancients were ruled by social rather than moral dictates.

[ image: Great demand in Athens for the book]
Great demand in Athens for the book
In an exclusively patriarchal society where only women were meant to be submissive, such strictures made life especially difficult for homosexuals.

"Homosexuals were not, as many believed, openly accepted by society. They were marginalised and punished by law," Vrissimtzis says. "For example, they could not enter the ancient Agora or participate in ranks and rituals involving the state."

The author's claims contradict the views of hundreds of western classicists. Throughout the centuries, academics have argued that homosexuality was not only socially acceptable - and rife - but actively encouraged in ancient times.

But in the book he goes even further. Social pressures were such, says the Greek author, that only the bravest of men indulged in the performance of oral sex on women, because the perceived passivity of the act was considered improper.

Masturbation was also out, although sex toys, not least ancient dildos, were regularly used by prostitutes and slaves.

[ image: Part of Ancient Greece]
Part of Ancient Greece
"Ancient Greece was not a liberal society." Vrissimtzis continues. "The sexual habits of its people have been misunderstood due to the misinterpretation of the sources and biased Christian morality."

"Love, Sex and Marriage" is not, however, the only work to deal with the hot issue of how the ancients conducted sex. Since the onset of the 1990's there has been an explosion of books, both in Greece and abroad, on the topic.

"We've noticed this huge surge in interest in everything to do with the ancient Greeks, especially their personal lives," says Markos Voutsinos at Athens's biggest book store, Eleftheroudakis. "Forget the great philosophers, it is books about sex, women and food in the ancient world that are really selling."

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