Pederasty in ancient Greece was a socially acknowledged erotic relationship between an adult male (the erastes) and a younger male (the eromenos) usually in his teens. It was characteristic of the Archaic and Classical periods. The influence of pederasty on Greek culture of these periods was so pervasive that it has been called "the principal cultural model for free relationships between citizens."
Some scholars locate its origin in initiation ritual, particularly rites of passage on Crete, where it was associated with entrance into military life and the religion of Zeus. It has no formal existence in the Homeric epics, and seems to have developed in the late 7th century BC as an aspect of Greek homosocial culture, which was characterized also by athletic and artistic nudity, delayed marriage for aristocrats, symposia, and the social seclusion of women. Pederasty was both idealized and criticized in ancient literature and philosophy. The argument has recently been made that idealization was universal in the Archaic period; criticism began in Athens as part of the general Classical Athenian reassessment of Archaic culture.
Scholars have debated the role or extent of pederasty, which is likely to have varied according to local custom and individual inclination. The English word "pederasty" in present-day usage might imply the abuse of minors in certain jurisdictions, but Athenian law, for instance, recognized consent but not age as a factor in regulating sexual behavior.
The Greek word paiderastia (παιδεραστία) is an abstract noun of feminine gender. It is formed from paiderastês, which in turn is a compound of pais ("child", plural paides) and erastês . Although the word pais can refer to a child of either sex, paiderastia is defined by Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon as "the love of boys," and the verb paiderasteuein as "to be a lover of boys."
Since the publication of Kenneth Dover's work Greek Homosexuality, the terms erastês and erômenos have been standard for the two pederastic roles. Both words derive from the Greek verb erô, erân, "to love"; see also eros. In Dover's strict dichotomy, the erastês (ἐραστής, plural erastai) is the older lover, seen as the active or dominant partner, with the suffix -tês (-τής) denoting agency. Erastês should be distinguished from Greek paiderastês, which meant "lover of boys" usually with a negative connotation. The erastês himself might only be in his early twenties, and thus the age difference between the two lovers might be negligible.
The word erômenos, or "beloved" (ἐρώμενος, plural eromenoi), is the masculine form of the present passive participle from erô, viewed by Dover as the passive or subordinate partner. An erômenos can also be called pais, "child." The pais was regarded as a future citizen, not an "inferior object of sexual gratification," and was portrayed with respect in art. The word can be understood as an endearment such as a parent might use, found also in the poetry of Sappho and a designation of only relative age. Both art and other literary references show that the erômenos was at least a teen, with modern age estimates ranging from 13 to 20, or in some cases up to 30. Most evidence indicates that to be an eligible erômenos, a youth would be of an age when an aristocrat began his formal military training, that is, from fifteen to seventeen. As an indication of physical maturity, the erômenos was sometimes as tall as or taller than the older erastês, and may have his first facial hair. Another word used by the Greeks for the younger partner was paidika, a neuter plural adjective ("things having to do with children") treated syntactically as masculine singular.
In poetry and philosophical literature, the erômenos is often an embodiment of idealized youth; a related ideal depiction of youth in Archaic culture was the kouros, the long-haired male statuary nude.