Renaissance in Italy: Echoes of Paederastia in Symonds’ Published Work

Today, the literary legacy of John Addington Symonds includes edited versions of his memoirs, biographies he penned of Percy Shelley and Philip Sidney, and of course his privately-printed essay A Problem in Greek Ethics. Yet a large percentage of his work fell into a very different genre: many of his books were sold as a sort of history of Italy, complete with commentary on the art, culture, and natural beauty of the country. The most expansive of these is Renaissance in Italy, a seven-volume series covering important episodes of Italian history and literature, from the dramatically titled first volume The Age of the Despots to The Catholic Reaction, Parts I and II, the sixth and seventh volumes. Originally published during Symonds’ lifetime in 1875, the series returned to print several times after Symonds’ death (including a late publication date of 1914), presumably due to widespread popularity. Though they are not particularly ornamented volumes, the Renaissance in Italy books were printed on quality paper, suggesting that they were truly intended to be read instead of displayed.

Title page of John Addington Symonds, Renaissance in Italy Vol. 3, The Fine Arts. London: John Murray, 1914 . Source: Internet Archive.

The third volume of Renaissance in Italy, subtitled The Fine Arts, first published in London in 1877, is a guide to the art of Italy. It recalls the pieces proudly displayed in galleries across the country, most notably the Uffizi. It opens with this phrase:

“It has been granted to only two nations, the Greeks and the Italians, and to the latter only at the time of the Renaissance, to invest every phrase and variety of intellectual energy with the form of art.”

The Fine Arts, 1.

This line certainly serves its purpose as an eye-catching opening sentence, one that could now be contentious considering the artistic skill of many non-European nations at the time. However, to readers intent on discerning the interests of the author himself, this line lends itself to another reading, revealing the idea that Symonds’ esteem of Italian culture rivals the importance he places on classical Greek authors. Perhaps his interest in each culture can be attributed to his curiosity about paederastia.

We can trace the references in A Problem in Greek Ethics to mentions of paiderastia in classical Greek works, and the presence of many of those same works in Symonds’ library suggests they had a notable influence on his writing, and scattered amidst Symonds’ appreciation of Italian sculpture and painting are a few echoes of paederastia. Though the first publication of The Fine Arts in 1877 predates that of the 1883 A Problem in Greek Ethics, it is likely that he was working on the latter while writing the book, and so it is easy to trace Symonds’ ruminations on paederastia back through his earlier publications. In The Fine Arts, Symonds mentions the pieces of Italian sculptor Donatello, saying of St. George and David:

Donatello, David, 1428-32 Bargello Museum, Florence. Photo by Patrick A. Rodgers via Wikimedia Commons,Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.

“Without striving to idealize his models, the sculptor has expressed in both the Christian conception of heroism, fearless in the face of danger, and sustained by faith. The naked beauty of the boy David and the mailed manhood of St. George are raised to a spiritual region”

The Fine Arts, 100.

The two figures are not displayed together today and Symonds’ comparison of them is not intended to suggest that the people they depict took part in a paederastic relationship. Instead, he assigns them roles that are reminiscent of people who assumed paederastic relationships: the pre-pubescent boy and the educated adult man. It is unlikely that Symonds’ intention here was to imply that Italy followed the Greek tradition. Instead, this phrase is a tiny window into Symonds’ mind, where A Problem in Greek Ethics was just beginning to solidify into an idea to pursue.

Donatello, St. George, 1415-1417. Bargello Museum, Florence, Italy. Photo by Rufus46 via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

The Renaissance in Italy series is proof that Symonds was both an astute scholar and a brilliant observer of the world, especially the Italian peninsula that so interested him. Symonds’ books are a reminder to recognize the beauty of the classical history still visible in Italy today, and reading them with an understanding of the pertinence of paederastia to Symonds’ own life only supplements the experience.

Works Cited:

Symonds, John Addington. Renaissance in Italy: The Fine Arts. New edition. London: Smith. 1877.

Symonds and Aeschylus’ Tragedy of Agamemnon

Title page of Aeschylus, Agamemnon. London: Quaritch, 1876. Source: Internet Archive.

As befits a well-educated nineteenth century writer, the library of John Addington Symonds was extensive both in volume number and in subject matter. Of course, cataloguing the contents of his library—recreating it at least digitally, and assembling as many physical components of its contents as possible—provides insight into Symonds’ interests and allows us to trace the sources of ideas furthered by his own writing.

Yet choosing to believe that every volume contained in Symonds’ library correlates directly to his publications-thus assuming that he acquired books with the intent of creating a cohesive research library-is impractical. Some books were doubtlessly purchased as souvenirs, others were passed down to Symonds by his father or were copies he may have picked up in school, and a few were presented to him as gifts from their respective authors or publishers.

One of these is a translation of Aeschylus’ Tragedy of Agamemnon, which contains the inscription “With the Publisher’s Compliments.” Published by Bernard Quaritch in London during the year 1876, the title page reads “Agamemnon A Tragedy taken from Aeschylus.” (1) Symonds’ copy contains a scrawling handwritten signature crediting the book to Edward Fitzgerald. Whether it was the translator himself who signed the book or merely the publisher’s effort to clarify the source of the material, it is worth noting that a copy from the same edition available online contains the same inscription, though the hand is different. Symonds’ copy is clearly expensive, a collectible: the text on each of its pages is framed by ornate detailing, and the format of the book is clearly meant to be beautiful rather than utilitarian.

Gold death-mask known as the “Mask of Agamemnon,” 1600-1500 BC. Discovered in Shaft Grave V, Grave Circle A, Mycenae in 1876, the same year as Fitzgerald’s translation of Agamemnon was published. National Archaeological Museum, Athens.. Photo by Xuan Che via Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

The preface—presumably also written by Fitzgerald, though it is unsigned—is amusingly apologetic for the “per-version” of Aeschylus’ original text that this translation constitutes. (2) As the first volume in the Oresteia, widely considered to be Aeschylus’ most famous work, the Tragedy of Agamemnon chronicles the death of its titular character King Agamemnon of Argos, who is betrayed by his queen Clytemnestra. Although it is likely that Symonds was also familiar with the other pieces in the Oresteia, which countinue the tale of the house of Atreus with Aeschylus’ “Choephori” (or “The Libation Bearers”) and “The Eumenides,”this particular translation is only the first book.

As a classicist, it is not odd for Symonds to have possessed Fitzgerald’s Agamemnon. Aeschylus’ name appears in Symonds’ memoirs a few times, as well as in some of his letters. Agamemnon is referenced specifically in a postscript found in a letter to Mrs. Blanche Arthur Hugh Clough: the reference reads, “Soul-wounding flower of love is in AEschylus.” A footnote in the Letters explains this relatively cryptic sentence, providing a quote from Arthur Way’s translation of Agamemnon: (3)

An arrow of desire

That archer-eyes were winging

A flower soul-thrilling, springing

Out of love’s bed of fire. (4)

Another reference, this time to the Oresteia as a whole rather than Agamemnon, appears in one of Symonds’ first letters, written during his time at Harrow to Charlotte Symonds. Once again in a footnote, Symonds writes,

Would you look and see whether in Schlegel’s Dramatists there is any thing on the characters of Clytaemnestra & Lady [Blank] or about the plays of Macbeth & Aeschylus’ Orestea. I am going to take Aeschylus’ idea of Clytam (5)

The rest of the letter is incomplete, and Symonds’ decision to take up an idea belonging to Aeschylus remains unexplained. However, it is interesting to note that this letter, written in 1858, predates the Fitzgerald Agamemnon. Clearly, Symonds knew the story of the first volume of the Oresteia long before a copy of Fitzgerald’s translation came into his possession: perhaps it is even possible to guess that the earlier copy of the Way translation he cites in the first letter provided his first reading of the Agamemnon

Apart from taking place in Greece, the material found in Fitzgerald’s translation of Agamemnon is not closely connected to Symonds’ more famous works. Instead, the play’s presence in Symonds’ library provides an insight into the complex and interconnected world of authors, publishers and scholars during the nineteenth century, and remind us that Symonds read widely and was interested in more than the subjects for which he is remembered.


(1) Aeschylus. Agamemnon.

(2) Aeschylus. Agamemnon.

(3) Letters II:365.

(4) Aeschylus, Agamemnon (Way).

(5) Letters I:134.

Works Cited:

Aeschylus. Agamemnon, a Tragedy. Translated by Edward FitzGerald. London: Bernard Quaritch, 1876.

Aeschylus. Aeschylus in English Verse. Translated by Arthur S. Way. London: Macmillan, 1908.

Symonds, John Addington. 1923. Letters and Papers of John Addington Symonds. Edited by Horatio F. Brown. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons.

Symonds, John Addington. 2016. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: a Critical Edition. Edited by Amber K. Regis. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

The Embassy to Achilles

The letters and memoirs of John Addington Symonds are filled with references to authors whose work spans centuries, from his contemporaries to the Greek writers on which Symonds’ own early curriculum at Harrow was built. Exposure to these works began even before Symonds’ school days due to his easy access to his father’s extensive library. Among the material available to Symonds in that library were many works pertaining to the Homeric poems. Although it is hard to identify the exact date that a version of the engravings of John Flaxman’s illustrations of Homer arrived at Clifton Hill House, it is not unreasonable to assume that Symonds had access to them.

The versions of Flaxman’s drawings that Symonds likely grew up with were large, printed in the center of thick, heavy paper with plenty of space in the margins. Though the volumes’ decoration is understated, it is clear that the books were expensive items, and would have occupied a distinguished shelf in the library at Clifton Hill House.

Among the many pages of Flaxman’s simple, clean line drawings—detailing important scenes from the journeys and trials of Greek heroes, organized chronologically—is an image relevant to Symonds’ essay A Problem in Greek Ethics. In the Iliade d’Homere, a volume composed of Thomas Piroli’s engravings of Flaxman’s drawings first published in Rome in 1793, there is an image entitled The Embassy to Achilles. The image is captioned in swirling, handwritten French, and reads, “Ulisse, Ajax, Phenix, et deux Herauts viennent à la tente d’Achille pour traiter de la paix avec Agamemnon.” In English: “Odysseus, Ajax, Phoenix, and two heralds come to the tent of Achilles to treat peace with Agamemnon.”

Piroli, The Embassy to Achilles in Iliad d’Homere. Photo by Isabel Lardner via MSE Libraries.

The drawing, then, is an illustration of Homer’s Iliad, Book 9, where three of the foremost leaders of the Greek forces attempt to persuade Achilles to return to battle during the Trojan war. A translation of the original Homer reads:

And they came to the huts and the ships of the Myrmidons,

and found [Achilles] delighting his soul with a clear-toned lyre…

he sang of the glorious deeds of warriors;

and Patroclus alone sat over against him in silence,

waiting until Aeacus’ son should cease from singing.

But the twain came forward and goodly Odysseus led the way,

and they took their stand before his face; and Achilles leapt up in amazement

with the lyre in his hand, and left the seat whereon he sat;

and in like manner Patroclus when he beheld the men uprose.

Then swift-footed Achilles greeted the two and spake, saying:

“Welcome, verily ye be friends that are come—sore must the need be

—ye that even in mine anger are to me the dearest of the Achaeans.”

So saying, goodly Achilles led them in

and made them sit on couches and rugs of purple;

and forthwith he spake to Patroclus, that was near:

“Set forth a larger bowl, thou son of Menoetius;

mingle stronger drink, and prepare each man a cup…

So he spake, and Patroclus gave ear to his dear comrade.

Homer, Iliad 9.185-205.

Detail of The Embassy to Achilles showing Patroclus near Achilles’ lyre.

This scene is exactly replicated in Flaxman’s drawing, though the ceremony evident in Homer’s words seems subdued in the drawing. On the far left is Patroclus, positioned near the lyre set down by Achilles, who greets his visitors led by Odysseus. Following him are Ajax and Phoenix, and then two additional unnamed men. Flaxman’s faithfulness to the poem makes it easy to identify these characters as Odius and Eurybates, who are mentioned a few lines earlier in the Iliad during a portion that describes planning the delegation to Achilles:

First of all let Phoenix, dear to Zeus, lead the way,

and after him great Aias and goodly Odysseus;

and of the heralds let Odius and Eurybates attend them.

Homer, Iliad 9.168-170.

A Problem in Greek Ethics contains several references to the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus, mostly asserting that it took the form of heroic friendship rather than constituting an actual paederastic arrangement. Symonds writes that “Homer, who knew nothing about [paederastia] as it afterwards existed, drew a striking picture of masculine affection in Achilles. Friendship occupies the first place in his hero’s heart, while only the second is reserved for sexual emotion”(1). This image, then, may have been of interest to Symonds because of what it depicts: two men, a powerful older man and his subservient companion, living together in a situation that could very easily be interpreted either as paederastic or as the heroic friendship situation posited by Symonds. The fact that recognized Greek leaders come to ask Achilles for help serves to reinforce the normality of heroic friendship in Greek society: by mentioning it only in passing, the text makes clear that the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus follows typical custom.

This image is not cited in Symonds’ writing: as a mere visual interpretation of an important but brief scene in the Iliad, it would not have formed particularly strong academic proof of the kind needed by Symonds for his writing. The significance of the engraving lies instead in the fact that the idea of heroic friendship as an early form of paederastia was something Symonds may have been exposed to at an early age, perusing the books of his father’s library. It is easy to imagine a young Symonds stumbling across this image, wondering what it might mean for him.


  1. John Addington Symonds and Sean Brady, “A Problem in Greek Ethics,” 58.

Works Cited:

Homer. The Iliad with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, Ph.D. in two volumes. ll.185-205. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1924.

Iliade d’Homere gravée par Thomas Piroli d’apres les desseins composés par Jean Flaxman, sculpteur á Rome. [Rome? 1793?]

Symonds, John Addington. “A Problem in Greek Ethics,” in John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) and Homosexuality: a Critical Edition of Sources. Edited by Sean Brady. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

The Companionship of Achilles and Patroclus: Homer in A Problem in Greek Ethics

As a well-educated nineteenth-century English man, John Addington Symonds read the ancient Homeric epics at an early age. In addition to the aid works like these provided in students Latin and Greek like Symonds, they seem to have contained the terms and ideas that ultimately led him to write A Problem in Greek Ethics. Symonds references Homer often throughout his collected works for varied reasons, but many of the allusions to the Iliad concern the story of Achilles and Patroclus.

In his essay, after defining the Greek social custom of paederastia, the first thing Symonds references is the famed Achilles and his companion Patroclus, included in only the second section of his piece. The placement of this story in the opening of the unedited version of the essay places it in conjunction with paederastia, defined mere sentences before. The most logical path, then, would be for Symonds to expound upon the paederastic nature of that connection.

Instead, the first part of Symonds’ essay states that Homer makes no effort to portray Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship as paederastic, writing that “in the delineation of the friendship of Achilles and Patroclus there is nothing which indicates the passionate relation of the erastes and eromenos”(1). He writes that “the tale of Achilles and Patroclus sanctioned among the Greeks a form of masculine love… afterwards connected with paederastia” (2), in short, paederastia became an accepted social custom after Homer’s time, and the oft-referenced relationship between Achilles and Patroclus did not become a paederastic model until long after the stories in Homer’s Iliad. Homer’s role in Symonds’ work, then, is a counterintuitive one: Symonds uses stories of his that have since become models of paederastia, like Achilles and Patroclus or Zeus and Ganymede, as an example of the heroic friendship that preceded the common practice of paederastia in Greece. Of all Homer’s work, it is these two pairs that are referenced most often in A Problem in Greek Ethics.

The debate about Achilles’ and Patroclus’ relationship can be seen very clearly in a painting of the two dated around 500 BC, where Achilles is assisting a wounded Patroclus. Their physical intimacy is striking, and could suggest either the intimacy of friendship or a more romantic connection, neatly summarizing the frustrating ambiguity of their relationship.

Kylix drawing attributed to the Sosias Painter or the Kleophrades Painter, Achilles Binding Patroclus’ Wounds, ca. 500 BCE. Altes Museum, Berlin. Photo by Bibi Saint-Pol via Wikimedia Commons.

Symonds uses this argument as the basis for the first few sections of A Problem in Greek Ethics: he explains how heroic friendship differed from paederastia, and theorizes that the origins of paederastia were not exclusively Greek. Using a line from the Iliad to prove his point, Symonds writes that “Homer, who knew nothing about [paederastia] as it afterwards existed, drew a striking picture of masculine affection in Achilles. Friendship occupies the first place in his hero’s heart, while only the second is reserved for sexual emotion”(3). Analyzing Achilles’ character in this way supports Symonds’ assertion that the connection between him and Patroclus was merely a precursor to the custom of Greek paederastia, falling more neatly into the category of heroic friendship.

Through A Problem in Greek Ethics, Symonds uses more concrete evidence than the stories of Homer’s epics to illustrate the existence and practice of paederastia, exploring the potential origin of the custom and how it was realized in the gymnasiums and military institutions of Greece. But a thread drawn from the epics of Homer runs beneath Symonds’ work, for it is from the stories told about Greece that understanding of cultural practices like paederastia can be best understood.


1. John Addington Symonds and Sean Brady, “A Problem in Greek Ethics,” 44.

2. Ibid, 45.

3. Ibid, 58.

Works Cited:

Symonds, John Addington. “A Problem in Greek Ethics,” essay, in John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) and Homosexuality: a Critical Edition of Sources. Edited by Sean Brady. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Symonds, John Addington. 1923. Letters and Papers of John Addington Symonds. Edited by Horatio F. Brown. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons.

Symonds, John Addington. 2016. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds: a Critical Edition. Edited by Amber K. Regis. London: Palgrave Macmillan.