We seem to be returning to Ancient Greece for our film plots. The latest entry in this genre, Alexander, being an Oliver Stone film, has stirred up some controversy. And it’s not just about Colin Farrell’s silly wig, or Angelina Jolie’s portraying his mum when she’s only a year older (makes a turnaround from all those 35 year old teenagers in Beverley Hills 90210.)
Twenty-five Greek lawyers are suing Oliver Stone for depicting Alexander the Great as gay, or at least, bisexual.
So what’s the deal here? E.M. Forster enjoyed himself translating the passages from Classical authors which were normally ignored during Oxbridge tutorials with the phrase “omit reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks” or expurgated, but still couldn’t bring himself to publish Maurice during his life time. Is the same sort of thing going on?
Interviewed in the press, Oxford historian Robin Lane Fox –
has said homosexuality was a part of the pre-Christian Greek world, “well established, and sanctioned by state and cultural norms, especially the relationships between older men and teens.
That’s true. Well, partially.
As readers of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality or sometime UNSW Sociologist David Halperin’s One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: And Other Essays on Greek Love will know, the modern constructs of homosexuality and heterosexuality were an invention of the late 19th century. Prior to that, in Western Christian culture, sodomy was a sin, but there was no belief that a preference for male to male sex indelibly marked one’s entire identity, or one’s soul. As Fox points out, sex between older men and younger men was not only entirely normal in Ancient Greek culture, but actually encouraged. The sexual culture distinguished rather between active and passive roles. Male citizens could have active sex with women or slaves, but it was degrading for them to take on the passive role. For this reason, men and young men did not have penetrative sex. I don’t know if that comes across in the sex scenes in Alexander.
Aside from the issues of homophobia that might be raised, is what we are seeing here a refusal to understand Classical Greece in its cultural specificity, so used are we to seeing it as the noble precursor of our civilisation?