Athenian pederasty entailed a formal bond between an adult man and an adolescent boy outside his immediate family, consisting of loving and often sexual relations. As an erotic and educational custom it was initially employed by the upper class as a means of teaching the young and conveying to them important cultural values, such as bravery and restraint.
Athenian society generally encouraged the erastes to pursue a boy to love, tolerating up to sleeping on the youth's stoop and otherwise going to great lengths to make himself noticed. At the same time, the boy and his family were expected to put up resistance and not give in too easily, and boys who succumbed too readily were looked down upon. As a result, the quest for a desirable eromenos was fiercely competitive.
In Athens, as elsewhere, pederastic relationships had their beginnings among the aristocracy, but in time the practice was picked up by others sections of the population. With the advent of democracy, whose role models were the lovers and tyrant slayers Harmodius and Aristogiton, "access to gymnastic and sympotic culture widened, so the concomitant pederastic emotions and relationships may also have become more widely admired and imitated."
A great deal of modern knowledge about Athenian pederastic practices has been derived from ceramic paintings on vases depicting various forms and aspects of the relationship. These vases first appear about 560 BCE, a year after the pederastic tyrant Peisistratus seized power in Athens. Their production ceased around 470 BCE, after which they either went out of fashion or were replaced with vases of precious metal which have not survived. The iconography attests to the dominant status of pederasty in Athenian social life. On the strict red-figure vases, Eros only appears in scenes that show the interaction of men and adolescent boys. Kroll reports that ceramic depictions of individuals labeled as beautiful include only thirty of women and girls, καλή, but five hundred and twenty eight of boys, καλός.
While John Boardman in his studies postulated the age of the depicted youths to range from 12 to 14, they are now believed to range in age from 14 to 18.
In Athens the practice of pederasty was more freely constructed than the more formal Cretan and Spartan types. Men courted boys at the gymnasia or the palaestrae, at symposia, at the baths and on the streets of the city. Fathers wanting to protect their sons from unwanted advances provided them with a slave guard, titled "pedagogos," to escort the boy in his travels.
The courtship often was fiery, involving street fights with other suitors, sleeping on the threshold of the beloved as a show of sincerity, and composing and reciting love poems. In encountering the boy, the suitor would attempt to seduce him by reaching up with one hand to turn his face to look him straight in the eye, and with the other reach down to stimulate him sexually, a variant of the standard pleading form in which one would grasp the knees of the person with one hand and turn his face with the other. This ritual has been named by historians the "up and down gesture" and is routinely encountered in depictions on vases.
The erotic and sexual aspect of the relationship, usually consisting of embracing, fondling and intercrural sex, ended when the youth reached adulthood, and evolved into a lifelong friendship (philia).
A number of laws addressed the issue of relations between men and boys. None but citizens could engage free boys in pederastic relationships. A law stated that “A slave shall not be the lover of a free boy nor follow after him, or else he shall receive fifty blows of the public lash”, and slaves likewise were forbidden from the wrestling schools: “A slave shall not take exercise or anoint himself in the wrestling-schools”. Both laws were attributed to Solon. Commercial pederasty involving free boys was also forbidden. The relative who lent out a ward for illicit intercourse was punished. Boys who sold their favors (hetaireesis) risked losing most of their rights as citizens once come to adulthood. One surviving piece of Greek oratory documents a legal case, Against Timarchos, in which Aeschines pleads to enforce precisely that law against his opponent. Hubris (rape) was against the law not only in the case of free boys, but even with slaves.
In order to prevent teachers from taking advantage of their charges, a law was passed forbidding them from opening their schools before dawn or staying open past sunset. Likewise, there was a law threatening with death any man under forty who trespassed onto school grounds.