We’ve all heard the tragic love story of Romeo and Juliet but did you know that a queer love story was just as popular in archaic Greece?
I’m talking about the love affair between Patroclus and Achilles, whose friendship was established in Homer’s epic poem the “Iliad” but was immortalized as a homoerotic relationship by the ancient playwright, Aeschylus. Only fragments from Aeschylus’ once massively popular tragedy survive but his portrayal of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship is indisputably romantic. In his three-part series titled, “Achilleis,” Aeschylus wrote about the life and love of Greek mythological hero, Achilles.
For those of you unfamiliar with Homer’s “Iliad”, Achilles was prophesized to either die a hero in battle or live a long, uneventful life. Ultimately, Achilles decides to become a soldier and fights in the Trojan War with his best friend, Patroclus. Sadly, Patroclus is slain by Trojan Prince, Hector, and Achilles goes wild with grief. He beats his chest, smudges ashes on his head and acts like a recent widow. Motivated by sadness and, despite being warned that pursuing vengeance will result in his own death, Achilles murders Hector.
In “Myrmindons”, the first installment of Aeschylus’ trilogy, Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship differs from the “Iliad” because it’s made to be explicitly sexual.
An example of this blatant eroticism can be seen after Achilles finds Patroclus’ body stripped naked on the battlefield by the Trojans. Achilles laments his dead lover by saying, “Had you no reverence for the unsullied holiness of your thighs/ Ungrateful for the many kisses I gave you?” (Can’t get much gayer than that).
It’s important to understand that these plays of Aeschylus were so popular that the content was considered common knowledge even a hundred years later. To put that in context, the Great Gatsby was published just under a hundred years ago and most people in modern society are aware of the book’s plot. In fact, Aeschylus’ rendition and interpretation of Homer’s epic poem was nearly universally accepted or recognized in ancient Greece.
In Plato’s philosophical text, “Symposium”, the character Phaedrus discusses the bond between Achilles and Patroclus in great detail. Instead of attempting to refute their sexual relationship, Phaedrus operates on the assumption that there was indeed a romantic and sexual affiliation between the two men. His only concern is labeling them into the categories of “erastes” and “eromenos”.
In ancient Greek society, erastes, referred to an older man who had a sexual and educational relationship with a younger boy (eromenos). It was the erastes’ job to protect, guide and instruct the eromenos. In the “Symposium,” Phaedrus struggles to agree with Aeschylus’ classification of Achilles as the “erastes” because of his supreme beauty.
In addition to Aeschylus’ essential fan fiction about Achilles and Patroclus, their homosexual relationship was also referenced by an Athenian politician, Aeschines, in 345 CE. Aeschines was advocating for the importance of paiderastia (or the loving relationship of an older man with a younger boy) to Greek culture. To add validity to his point, Aeschines, argued that Homer’s “Iliad” was meant to portray Achilles and Patroclus as lovers. In his defense, Aeschines says, “Homer hides their love and avoids giving a name to their friendship, thinking that the exceeding greatness of their affection is manifest to such of his hearers as educated men.” Meaning, while Homer does not clearly state the two men are lovers, sophisticated and well educated Greeks will read between the lines.
[Anyone else feel if Aeschines was born during the age of technology he’d be a total fan boy. I imagine him on Tumblr reblogging pictures of Achilles’ muscles, reading far too much into their dialogue and hardcore shipping “Achilus”]
Interestingly, there is direct evidence of a romantic, not overtly sexual, relationship between Achilles and Patroculus in Book 16 of Homer’s “Iliad”. In a tender moment, Achilles confesses that he wishes all other Greeks might perish so he and Patroclus might face the enemy together and conquer Troy. However, attempts have still been made to challenge or discredit the homosexual interpretation.
Aristarchus of Samothrace, writing between 220-143 BC, could not deny the passage about fighting the enemy together was romantic so he suggested that the lines must have been added at a later date. He couldn’t admit that Homer could have intended for his protagonist to be involved with another man.
Whether you believe Achilles and Patroclus were lovers or just had a really solid bromance, it’s clear most ancient Greeks would admit the men had a lover-like relation. Admittedly, there is no indication of a sexual relationship in Homer’s original text but Aeschlyus’ plays, which were also extremely popular, overtly portrayed the men as lovers.
Regardless of Homer’s intent, Achilles and Patroclus became known as an epic, queer love story in Ancient Greece and the intriguing nature of their relationship has spanned the centuries.
What are your thoughts?
Once again the book “Homosexuality and Civilization” by Louis Crompton has been instrumental in writing this post and I highly recommend checking it out.
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