The Politics of Pederasty in Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae

Chad Schroeder (Cornell University)

Aristophanes frequently exploited pederasty as a source of humor in his early comedies. In Acharnians (425 b.c.e.), Dicaeopolis invokes the god Phales with various epithets, including ‘The Pederast’ (paiderasta) (265). Peisthetairos dreams in Birds (414 b.c.e.) of a place where the fathers of handsome boys criticize him for not pursuing their sons (137–42). And in Peace (421 b.c.e.), two servants mold a dung-cake out of the shit of a pais hētairēkōs (11–12). With such a broad range of dramatic uses at hand, it is curious why Aristophanes included only a single, commonplace joke about pederasty in a play so politically and sexually charged as the Ecclesiazusae. Yet no one has inquired why Aristophanes neglected pederasty and pederastic relationships as a source of humor in a comedy in which sexual mores are at the center of the action; instead, scholarly attention has been focused on gender and the utopian aspects of the play (Saïd 1979; Zeitlin 1999). In this paper, I will offer an explanation of why pederasty is virtually absent from this comedy.

One might assume that the Ecclesiazusae (ca. 392/91 b.c.e.) lacks pederastic jokes simply because this brand of humor was supplanted by cooks, hetaeras, and slaves in the early years of the fourth century b.c.e. But on the contrary, Middle Comedy continued to center jokes around pederasty in exactly the same ways Old Comedy did. Examples from Antiphanes, Diphilus, and Eubulus confirm that pederastic humor remained popular in the plays contemporaneous with Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae and throughout the fourth century.

Pederasty in Ecclesiazusae appears once in a stock joke, found elsewhere in Aristophanes and other comedians (Dover 1989: 140–43), about the sexual histories of politicians. While Praxagora and her fellow conspirators debate how to carry out their coup, doubt arises if women can effectively address the men of the assembly. Praxagora counters that women, in fact, are well-suited to speak in public because oratorical skill derives from the passive role in sexual intercourse. Evidence of this, she argues, is that the most remarkable male speakers (deinotatous einai legein) are those who were promiscuous (pleista spodountai) when they were young men (Eccl. 112–13). Praxagora is apparently correct, as she persuades the men of Athens to hand over control of the city to the women. The new regime that the women institute has complicated laws governing the sexual behavior of the Athenian men: the oldest, ugliest men have the first choice of young women; conversely, handsome young men must first satisfy the sexual needs of the city’s hags. But the women of Athens curiously erect no legal constraints governing pederastic relationships.

I contend that pederasty is absent from Ecclesiazusae because of the changes in political and social structure that the Athenian women institute. Aristophanes deliberately chose to exclude pederasty from this comedy because the high ideal of pederasty as a vehicle of civic education for eromenoi is meaningless in a society in which men are barred from participating in the political sphere. Pederastic relationships are simply rendered irrelevant for good social order. Furthermore, Athens’ newly-fashioned economy, in which private property is abolished and all goods are held in common, prevents erastes from offering courtship gifts. Thus young men have no monetary incentive to engage in pederastic relationships. And finally in a comedic inversion, pederasty is absent from new Athens because attractive youths have become the sexual property of the city’s women, not its men.

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