(BLSB) - About Sophocles

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Sophocles (c. 497/6–406/5 BC). Cast of a bust in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow, Russia.


From Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents, edited by Thomas K. Hubbard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003). Footnotes omitted.

Note: The work by Athenaeus quoted in the excerpt below is titled The Learned Banqueters (Ancient Greek: Δειπνοσοφισταί Deipnosophistaí, Early 3rd Century AD).[1]

2.21 Athenaeus 13.601A–B, 601E–605D

Athenaeus, an author of the late second century C.E., wrote a lengthy symposiastic work that assembles anecdotes and quotations from a variety of earlier sources. This section is part of a lengthy speech by Myrtilus, discussing famous boy-lovers.

[...]

Sophocles was as much a lover of young boys as Euripides was a lover of women. The poet Ion of Chios writes thus in his book Encounters.

The poet Sophocles I met at Chios when, as general, he was bound for Lesbos: a playful man, when in wine, and clever. Hermesileus, his own friend and the consular representative of Athens, was hosting him, when there beside the fire, ready to pour out his wine, was a boy . . . of course, and he said, “Do you want me to like my wine?” and the boy said yes. “Then hand me the cup slowly, and take it from me slowly.” The boy was now blushing more and more, and Sophocles said to his neighbor, “Phrynichus put it so beautifully! [604] ‘Shines on his crimson cheeks the light of love.’” Whereupon the other, an Eretrian schoolmaster or else an Erythraean, replied, “Yes, you are learned in poetry, Sophocles, but all the same Phrynichus was wrong to call a beautiful boy’s cheeks crimson. If the painter smeared this boy’s cheeks with crimson, he would no longer seem beautiful. It’s quite wrong to compare beauty with what is not beautiful.” Sophocles laughed at this Eretrian: “Don’t you like that line of Simonides, either, sir? ‘From crimson lips the virgin’s voice was raised’—yet the Greeks all think it’s quite right! or the poet who spoke of ‘golden-haired Apollo,’ although if a painter painted Apollo’s hair gold and not black, so much the worse for the painting; or the poet of ‘rosy-fingered,’ because if you dip your fingers into rose-colored paint you have the hands of a crimson-dyer, not those of a beautiful woman.” They laughed, and the Eretrian was put out of countenance by this retort; Sophocles took up his conversation with the boy again. He was trying to get a bit of straw out of the wine cup with his little finger. “Do you see the bit of straw?” asked Sophocles, and the boy said he saw it. “Don’t dip your finger in, then,” he said. “Just blow it away instead.” Then, as the boy’s face approached the cup, Sophocles brought the cup nearer to his own lips, so that their two heads would be closer; and when they were very close, he put his arm around him and kissed him. There was applause, with laughter and shouts, at how well he had managed the boy, and Sophocles said, “I am practicing strategy, gentlemen. Pericles said that I knew how to make poetry, but not how to be a strategist. This stratagem fell out ‘just right’ for me, didn’t it?” His conversation over wine, and his behavior in daily life, were full of such clever turns; in politics, though, he was no more wise and no more effective than any other respectable Athenian.

Hieronymus of Rhodes, in Historical Notes, says that Sophocles induced a good-looking boy to come outside the city walls to have sex with him:

This boy laid his own cloak on the ground under them, and they wrapped themselves in Sophocles’ cape. After the act the boy snatched Sophocles’ cape and went off leaving Sophocles his own boyish cloak. The incident was widely reported. Euripides heard of it and made a joke out of it, saying that he had had that boy too and it did not cost him anything; Sophocles had let himself go and had paid with ridicule. When Sophocles heard that, he composed an epigram against Euripides in the following sense, alluding to the story of the North Wind and the Sun, and at the same time satirizing Euripides’ adulteries:

It was the Sun, and not a boy, whose heat stripped me naked;
As for you, Euripides, when you were kissing someone else’s wife
The North Wind screwed you. You are unwise, you who sow
In another’s field, to accuse Eros of being a snatch-thief.


Youth using an oinochoe (wine jug, in his right hand) to draw wine from a crater, in order to fill a kylix (shallow cup, in his left hand). His nudity shows that he is serving as a cup-bearer in a symposium, or banquet. Attic red-figure cup by the Cage Painter, ca. 490–480 BC. Paris, Musée du Louvre, G 133.

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