Achilles and Patroclus

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Achilles bandages the arm of Patroclus

The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is a key element of the stories associated with the Trojan War. In the Iliad, Homer describes a deep and meaningful relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, where Achilles is tender toward Patroclus, but callous and arrogant toward others. Its exact nature—whether homosexual, a non-sexual deep friendship, or something else entirely—has been a subject of dispute in both the Classical period and modern times. Homer never explicitly casts the two as lovers,[1][2] but they were depicted as lovers in the archaic and classical periods of Greek literature, particularly in the works of Aeschylus, Aeschines and Plato.[3][4]

The nature of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad has been the subject of debate. Some contemporary critics, especially in the field of queer studies, have stated that their relationship was homosexual or latently homosexual. Some historians and classicists have disputed this, stating that there is no evidence for such an identification within the Iliad and criticize it as unfalsifiable.[1]

In the Iliad[edit]

Achilles mourning Patrocles, John Flaxman, 1795.

Achilles and Patroclus quarter together in a tent near their Greek allies fleet of ships. King Agamemnon realizes that Achilles, due to his heroic reputation, needs to enter the fight, but Achilles, having been disrespected by Agamemnon, refuses. Agamemnon sends an envoy to change his mind. In Book IX (lines 225 to 241) the diplomats, Odysseus and Ajax, hear Achilles playing the lyre and singing all alone with Patroclus. They both spring to their feet in surprise as the guests enter. After much talk, the embassy fails to convince Achilles to fight.

After more battle, Nestor arrives back to the Greek allies base with a wounded soldier. Achilles sends Patroclus out to speak with him. In Book XI (lines 786 to 804) Nestor reminds Patroclus that his father had long ago taught him that, although Achilles was nobler, he (Patroclus) was still Achilles' elder, and therefore he should counsel and guide Achilles wisely so that perhaps he would finally enter the fight against the Trojans, but if not, then he himself (Patroclus) should don Achilles' armor to deceive the Trojans into thinking that Achilles had joined the fight, which should scare them away from their base and back to their own walls.

Later on, the Trojans continue their advance on the Greek allies' base and breach the defensive wall guarding their ships. Patroclus eventually dons Achilles' armor and scares the Trojans back as planned, and Patroclus also kills Sarpedon, a son of Zeus, but then Hector kills Patroclus. News of Patroclus' death reaches Achilles through Nestor's son Antilochus, which throws Achilles into deep grief. The earlier steadfast and unbreakable Achilles agonizes, touching Patroclus' dead body, smearing himself with ash and fasting. He laments Patroclus' death using language very similar to the grief of Hector's wife. He also requests that when he dies, his bones be mixed with Patroclus' in a vase.[a]

The rage that follows from Patroclus' death becomes the prime motivation for Achilles to return to the battlefield. He returns to battle with the sole aim of avenging Patroclus' death by killing Hector, despite a warning that doing so would cost him his life. After defeating Hector, Achilles drags his corpse by the heels behind his chariot.

Achilles' strongest interpersonal bond is with Patroclus. As Gregory Nagy points out:

For Achilles [...] in his own ascending scale of affection as dramatized by the entire composition of the Iliad, the highest place must belong to Patroklos [...] In fact Patroklos is for Achilles the πολὺ φίλτατος [...] ἑταῖρος — the 'hetaîros who is the most phílos by far' (XVII 411, 655).[5]

Hetaîros meant "companion" or "comrade"; in Homer it is usually used of soldiers under the same commander. While its feminine form (hetaîra) would be used for courtesans, a hetaîros was still a form of soldier in Hellenistic and Byzantine times. In ancient texts, philos (often translated "most beloved") denoted a general type of love, used for love between family, between friends, a desire or enjoyment of an activity, as well as between lovers.

Achilles' attachment to Patroclus is an archetypal male bond that occurs elsewhere in Greek culture: the mythical Damon and Pythias, the legendary Orestes and Pylades, and the historical Harmodius and Aristogeiton are pairs of comrades who gladly face danger and death for and beside each other.[6]

In the Oxford Classical Dictionary, David M. Halperin writes:

Homer, to be sure, does not portray Achilles and Patroclus as lovers (although some Classical Athenians thought he implied as much (Aeschylus fragments 135, 136 Radt; Plato Symposium 179e–180b; Aeschines Against Timarchus 133, 141–50)), but he also did little to rule out such an interpretation.[7]

Classical views in antiquity[edit]

In the 5th and 4th centuries BC, the relationship was portrayed as same-sex love in the works of Aeschylus, Plato, Pindar, and Aeschines.

In Athens, the relationship was often viewed as being loving and pederastic.[8] The Greek custom of paiderasteia between members of the same-sex, typically men, was a political, intellectual, and sometimes sexual relationship.[9] Its ideal structure consisted of an older erastes (lover, protector), and a younger eromenos (the beloved). The age difference between partners and their respective roles (either active or passive) was considered to be a key feature.[10] Writers that assumed a pederastic relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, such as Plato and Aeschylus, were then faced with a problem of deciding who must be older and play the role of the erastes.[11]


According to Xenophon's Symposium, Socrates stated that Achilles and Patroclus was strictly platonic.[12] Specifically, according to Socrates: "Homer pictures us Achilles looking upon Patroclus not as the object of his passion but as a comrade, and in this spirit signally avenging his death".[13]


Aeschylus, in his lost tragedy The Myrmidons (5th century BC), assigned Achilles the role of erastes or protector (since he had avenged his lover's death, even though the gods told him it would cost him his own life), and assigned Patroclus the roles of eromenos. Achilles publicly laments Patroclus' death, addressing the corpse and criticizing him for letting himself be killed. In a surviving fragment of the play, Achilles speaks of "the reverent company" of Patroclus' thighs and how Patroclus was "ungrateful for many kisses."[14][15]


Pindar's comparison of the adolescent boxer Hagesidamus and his trainer Ilas to Patroclus and Achilles in Olympian 10.16–21 (476 BC) as well as the comparison of Hagesidamus to Zeus' lover Ganymede in Olympian 10.99–105 suggest that student and trainer had a romantic relationship, especially after Aeschylus' depiction of Achilles and Patroclus as lovers in his play Myrmidons.[16]


In Plato's Symposium, written c. 385 BC, the speaker Phaedrus holds up Achilles and Patroclus as an example of divinely approved lovers. Phaedrus argues that Aeschylus erred in claiming Achilles was the erastes because Achilles was more beautiful and youthful than Patroclus (characteristics of the eromenos) as well as more noble and skilled in battle (characteristics of the erastes).[17][18] Instead, Phaedrus suggests that Achilles is the eromenos whose reverence of his erastes, Patroclus, was so great that he would be willing to die to avenge him.[18]


Plato's contemporary, Xenophon, in his own Symposium, had Socrates argue that Achilles and Patroclus were merely chaste and devoted comrades.[8] Xenophon cites other examples of legendary comrades, such as Orestes and Pylades, who were renowned for their joint achievements rather than any erotic relationship.[18] Notably, in Xenophon's Symposium, the host Kallias and the young pankration victor Autolycos are called erastes and eromenos.


Aeschines, at his trial in 345 BC, placed an emphasis on the importance of paiderasteia to the Greeks, argues that though Homer does not state it explicitly, educated people should be able to read between the lines: "Although (Homer) speaks in many places of Patroclus and Achilles, he 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 are educated men."[19] Most ancient writers (among the most influential Aeschylus, Plutarch, Theocritus, Martial and Lucian)[20] followed the thinking laid out by Aeschines.


According to Pseudo-Apollodorus, Patroclus was the son of Menoetius and Polymele. After Patroclus killed a young boy in anger, Menoetius gave him to Peleus, the father of Achilles. As such, Patroclus can be seen as a brother-like figure to Achilles.[12]

Other interpretations from antiquity[edit]

Attempts to edit Homer's text were undertaken by Aristarchus of Samothrace in Alexandria around 200 BC. Aristarchus believed that Homer did not intend the two to be lovers. However, he did agree that the "we-two alone" passage did imply a love relation and argued it was a later interpolation.[21]

Statius in the Achilleid states that Achilles and Patroclus were either within the same age group, or acted as if they were.[22][23]

When Alexander the Great and his confidant Hephaestion passed through the city of Troy on their Asian campaign, Alexander honoured the sacred tomb of Achilles and Patroclus in front of the entire army, and this was taken as a clear declaration of their own relationship. The joint tomb and Alexander's action demonstrates the perceived significance of the Achilles-Patroclus relationship at that time (around 334 BC).[24][25]

Post-classical and modern interpretations[edit]

Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus (1855) by the Russian realist Nikolai Ge

Commentators from the Classical period interpreted the relationship through the lens of their own cultures. The post-classical tradition shows Achilles as heterosexual and having an exemplary platonic friendship with Patroclus. Medieval Christian writers deliberately suppressed the homoerotic nuances of the figure.[26]


William Shakespeare's play Troilus and Cressida portrays Achilles and Patroclus as lovers in the eyes of the Greeks.[27] Achilles' decision to spend his days in his tent with Patroclus is seen by Odysseus (called Ulysses in the play) and many other Greeks as the chief reason for anxiety about Troy.[28]

Achilles in Vietnam[edit]

Jonathan Shay, whose book Achilles in Vietnam proposes readings of the Iliad that have been helpful and therapeutically useful for the healing of mental wounds in Vietnam veterans, pointed out that their familial relationship in the Iliad must not be overlooked: Patroclus is Achilles' cousin and his foster brother; symbolically, comrades in battle are "like brothers," making the Achilles/Patroclus model useful for thinking about the intensity of Vietnam veterans' feelings of loss when their comrades fell beside them. Shay places a strong emphasis on the relationships that soldiers who experience combat together forge, and points out that this kind of loss has in fact often led to "berserking" of soldiers stunned with grief and rage, in a way similar to the raging of Achilles in the Iliad. Shay points out that a frequent topos in veterans' grief for a companion is that companion's gentleness or innocence; similarly, while a warrior of great note, Patroclus is said in the Iliad by other soldiers and by Briseis the captive to have been gentle and kind.

Troy (2004)[edit]

The film Troy presented Patroclus as a younger relative of Achilles, without any romantic or sexual aspects.[29] (In the Iliad, it is explicitly stated that Patroclus was the older and more responsible of the two.)

The Song of Achilles[edit]

Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles (2011) is a coming-of-age story told from Patroclus' point of view, showing the development of a loving and sexual relationship between Achilles and Patroclus.[30][31]

Modern academics[edit]

David Halperin in One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (and in other works) compares Achilles and Patroclus to the traditions of Jonathan and David, and Gilgamesh and Enkidu, which are approximately contemporary with the Iliad's composition. He argues that while a modern reader is inclined to interpret the portrayal of these intense same-sex male warrior friendships as being fundamentally homoerotic, it is important to consider the greater themes of these relationships:

The thematic insistence on mutuality and the merging of individual identities, although it may invoke in the minds of modern readers the formulas of heterosexual romantic love [...] in fact situates avowals of reciprocal love between male friends in an honorable, even glamorous tradition of heroic comradeship: precisely by banishing any hint of subordination on the part of one friend to the other, and thus any suggestion of hierarchy, the emphasis on the fusion of two souls into one actually distances such a love from erotic passion.[32]

According to Halperin, these extra-institutional relationships were of necessity portrayed by using the language of other, institutionalized love relationships, such as those of parent/child and husband/wife. This can explain the overtones in Book 19 of the Iliad wherein Achilles mourns Patroclus (lines 315–337) in a similar manner used previously by Briseis (lines 287–300).[8] Halperin maintained that Achilles and Patroclus had a non-sexual platonic friendship.[33]

According to William A. Percy III, there are some scholars, such as Bernard Sergent, who believe that in Homer's Ionian culture there existed a homosexuality that had not taken on the form it later would in pederasty.[34][relevant?]

Robin Lane Fox has written that "There is certainly no evidence in the text of the Iliad that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers. [...] Those contemporary critics who see all literary instances of male affection for males as proof of "repressed homosexuality" have the same problem as other conspiracy theorists: their hypothesis is invulnerable to disproof; we have no way of knowing if they are wrong".[1]

Classicists Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath argue that modern authors who identify the pair as homosexual ingeniously reinvent the Homeric text at will.[35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Reading The Odyssey (Book XXIV), one discovers that Achilles' bones have indeed been placed in a vase with those of Patroclus, but also learns that Antilochus became closer than any other to Achilles following Patroclus' death, and that Antilochus' bones were also placed within the same vase, but separated from the bones of Achilles and Patroclus, which had been stirred together.


  1. ^ a b c Fox, Robin (2011). The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind. Harvard University Press. p. 223. ISBN 9780674060944. There is certainly no evidence in the text of the Iliad that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers. [...] Those contemporary critics who see all literary instances of male affection for males as proof of "repressed homosexuality" have the same problem as other conspiracy theorists: their hypothesis is invulnerable to disproof; we have no way of knowing if they are wrong.
  2. ^ Martin, Thomas R (2012). Alexander the Great : the story of an ancient life. Cambridge University Press. pp. 99–100. ISBN 978-0521148443. The ancient sources do not report, however, what modern scholars have asserted: that Alexander and his very close friend Hephaestion were lovers. Achilles and his equally close friend Patroclus provided the legendary model for this friendship, but Homer in the Iliad never suggested that they had sex with each other. (That came from later authors.)
  3. ^ Fantuzzi, M. (2012). Achilles in Love: Intertextual Studies. OUP Oxford. p. 227. ISBN 978-0-19-162611-1.
  4. ^ Aeschines. "Against Timarchus", Section 133
  5. ^ Gregory Nagy (1999) The Best of the Achaeans, second edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 105 (online edition Archived 2020-07-26 at the Wayback Machine). ISBN 0-8018-6015-6.
  6. ^ Johansson, Warren (1990) Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, U.S.
  7. ^ Oxford Classical Dictionary, third edition. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. p. 721. ISBN 0-19-866172-X.
  8. ^ a b c Clarke, W. M. (1978). "Achilles and Patroclus in Love". Hermes. 106 (3): 381–396. JSTOR 4476069.
  9. ^ Holmen, Nicole (2010). "Examining Greek Pederastic Relationships". Inquiries Journal. 2 (2): 1.
  10. ^ Marguerite, Johnson; Ryan, Terry (2005). Sexuality in Greek and Roman Society and Literature: A Sourcebook. New York: Routledge. pp. 3. ISBN 9780415173315 – via Google Books.
  11. ^ Percy, William A. (1998). Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. pp. 39. ISBN 9780252067402 – via Google Books.
  12. ^ a b Wood, Christopher (2021). Heroes Masked and Mythic: Echoes of Ancient Archetypes in Comic Book Characters. McFarland. p. 44. ISBN 978-1-4766-8315-7.
  13. ^ Xenophon, Symposium, 8.31
  14. ^ Michelakis, Pantelis (2007). Achilles in Greek Tragedy. Cambridge University Press. p. 51. ISBN 978-0-521-81843-8.
  15. ^ Aesch. Myrmidons fr. 135 Radt.
  16. ^ Hubbard, T (2005). "Pindar's Tenth Olympian and athlete-trainer pederasty". J Homosex. 49 (3–4): 137–71. doi:10.1300/j082v49n03_05. PMID 16338892. S2CID 27221686.
  17. ^ Percy, William Armstrong (2005) "Reconsiderations about Greek Homosexualities," in Same–Sex Desire and Love in Greco-Roman Antiquity and in the Classical Tradition of the West, Binghamton. p. 19. ISBN 9781560236047
  18. ^ a b c Dover, Kenneth J. (1978). Greek Homosexuality. New York: Vintage Books. pp. 197–199. ISBN 978-0-394-74224-3.
  19. ^ Holmen 2010.
  20. ^ Clarke 1978.
  21. ^ Crompton, Louis (1993) Homosexuality and Civilization. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. p. 6. ISBN 9780674022331
  22. ^ Butler, Shane (5 May 2016). Deep Classics: Rethinking Classical Reception. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 29. ISBN 978-1-4742-6053-4. For good measure, Poliziano throws in a unique example of a compromise view, reporting that the Roman poet Statius, in his unfinished epic, the Achilleid, makes Achilles and Patroclus 'equals in age', though Poliziano curiously (and uncharacteristically) misparaphrases the relevant lines (which he then quotes), in which we are told that the two, as boys, simply acted the same age, though the latter 'fell far behind in strength'.
  23. ^ Ingleheart, Jennifer (4 September 2018). Masculine Plural: Queer Classics, Sex, and Education. Oxford University Press. p. 268. ISBN 978-0-19-255160-3. ... and that Patroclus is par studiis aeuique modis, 1.176. This latter phrase is difficult: it probably means something like 'equal in the pursuits and ways of youth', and Bainbrigge may have taken it as inspiration ...
  24. ^ Plutarch (1973) Age of Alexander, Life of Alexander. p. 294, Penguin Classics edition
  25. ^ Arrian (1958). The Campaigns of Alexander. p. 67, Penguin Classics edition.
  26. ^ King, Katherine Callen (1987) Achilles: Paradigms of the War Hero from Homer to the Middle Ages, Berkeley.
  27. ^ Shakespeare, William (1609), "Troilus and Cressida", in Muir, Kenneth (ed.), The Oxford Shakespeare: Troilus and Cressida, Oxford University Press, pp. 47–48, doi:10.1093/oseo/instance.00027413, ISBN 9780198129035
  28. ^ Shakespeare, William (1609), "Troilus and Cressida", in Muir, Kenneth (ed.), The Oxford Shakespeare: Troilus and Cressida, Oxford University Press, pp. 24–5, doi:10.1093/oseo/instance.00027413, ISBN 9780198129035
  29. ^ Michael, Michael G. (2011). Of Muscles and Men: Essays on the Sword and Sandal Film. McFarland. p. 46. ISBN 978-0786489022.
  30. ^ Haynes, Natalie (September 29, 2011). "The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller – review". The Guardian.
  31. ^ Leidich, Sarah (2021-04-28). "From Muse to Material: The Defiance of Homeric Identity Through Creative Adaptation". Meliora: A Journal of Barnard English Theses. 1 (1). Retrieved 2022-03-21.
  32. ^ Halperin, David M. (2000). "How to do the history of male homosexuality" (PDF). GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. 6: 87–124. doi:10.1215/10642684-6-1-87. S2CID 145019034. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-12-20. Retrieved 2016-12-09.
  33. ^ Percy, William A. (1996). Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece. University of Illinois Press. p. 40. ISBN 978-0-252-06740-2.
  34. ^ Percy, William Armstrong (2005). "Reconsiderations About Greek Homosexualities". Journal of Homosexuality. 49 (3–4): 13–61. doi:10.1300/j082v49n03_02. PMID 16338889. S2CID 20548741.
  35. ^ Hanson, Victor Davis; Heath, John (2001). Who Killed Homer?: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom. Encounter Books. pp. 137–138. ISBN 978-1-893554-26-9.