Achilles and Patroclus
The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is a key element of the stories associated with the Trojan War. Its exact nature has been a subject of dispute in both the Classical period and modern times. 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. Homer never explicitly casts the two as lovers but they were depicted as lovers in the archaic and classical periods of Greek literature, particularly in the works of Aeschylus, Aeschines and Plato.
In the Iliad
Achilles and Patroclus are close comrades in the fight against the Trojans.
Due to his anger at being dishonored by Agamemnon, Achilles chooses not to participate in the battle. As the tide of the war turns against the Achaeans, Patroclus convinces Achilles to let him lead the Myrmidon army into battle wearing Achilles’ armor. Patroclus succeeds in beating back the Trojan forces, but is killed in battle by Hector.
News of Patroclus’ death reaches Achilles through Antilochus, which throws him 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 that later used by Andromache of Hector.
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, whom he loves dearly. 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).
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 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 is the most dominant, and among the warriors in the Trojan War he has the most fame. Patroclus performs duties such as cooking, feeding and grooming the horses, yet is older than Achilles. Both characters also sleep with women; see Iliad, IX.663–669.
Achilles' attachment to Patroclus is an archetypal male bond that occurs elsewhere in Greek culture: Alexander the Great and Hephaestion who made symbolic public references to Achilles and Patroclus, Damon and Pythias, Orestes and Pylades, Harmodius and Aristogeiton are pairs of comrades who gladly face danger and death for and beside each other.
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.
Classical views in antiquity
In Athens, the relationship was often viewed as being loving and pederastic, although these roles were anachronistic for the Iliad. The Greek custom of paiderasteia between members of the same-sex, typically men, was a political, intellectual, and sometimes sexual relationship. 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. 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.
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.”
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.
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). 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.
Plato’s contemporary, Xenophon, in his own Symposium, had Socrates argue that Achilles and Patroclus were merely chaste and devoted comrades. Xenophon cites other examples of legendary comrades, such as Orestes and Pylades, who were renowned for their joint achievements rather than any erotic relationship. Notably, in Xenophon's Symposium, the host Kallias and the young pankration victor Autolycos are called erastes and eromenos.
Further evidence of this debate is found in a speech by an Athenian politician, Aeschines, at his trial in 345 BC. Aeschines, in placing 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." Most ancient writers (among the most influential Aeschylus, Plutarch, Theocritus, Martial and Lucian) followed the thinking laid out by Aeschines.
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. However, Sergent and others have argued that it had, though it was not reflected in Homer. Sergent asserts that ritualized man-boy relations were widely diffused through Europe from prehistoric times.
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.
When Alexander the Great and his intimate friend 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 friendship. The joint tomb and Alexander's action demonstrates the perceived significance of the Achilles-Patroclus relationship at that time (around 334 BC).
Post-classical and modern interpretations
Commentators from the Classical period on have interpreted the relationship through the lens of their own cultures. As a rule, the post-classical tradition shows Achilles as heterosexual and having an exemplary asexual friendship with Patroclus. Medieval Christian writers deliberately suppressed the homoerotic nuances of the figure.
David Halperin 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.
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).
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.
William Shakespeare's play Troilus and Cressida portrays Achilles and Patroclus as lovers in the eyes of the Greeks. Achilles' decision to spend his days in his tent with Patroclus is seen by Ulysses and many other Greeks as the chief reason for anxiety about Troy.
The novels of Mary Renault contain frequent symbolic references to Achilles and Patroclus; the pair represent a model for the non-effeminate, comradely homosexual love that was her ideal.
Elizabeth Cook's 2001 verse novel, Achilles, is not sexually explicit, but a romantic relationship can be inferred. She writes of Achilles, "He also knows the body of his cousin Patroclus." In the beginning of the novel, when Odysseus visits Achilles in the underworld, "He stands apart with Patroclus, his beloved through all eternity, and Patroclus — who loves Achilles, but not so much as he is loved — waits for Achilles to move," an allusion to Iliad Book 9, when the embassy of Greek leaders find Achilles playing the lyre and singing, while Patroclus waits for his friend to end his song. The relationship is intensely intimate, and certainly exceeds the common bounds of friendship.
The film Troy presented Patroclus as a younger relative of Achilles, without any romantic or sexual aspects. (In the Iliad, it is explicitly stated that Patroclus was the older and more responsible of the two.)
The musical Spring Awakening, includes an offhand reference where one boy, Hanschen, entreats another, Ernst to 'do a little Achilles and Patroclus'. The two characters are later shown engaging in a homosexual relationship.
In Christa Wolf's novel Cassandra, Achilles is depicted as a somewhat conflicted homosexual male, one who would go after both a young man, whom he actually desired, and a young woman, to prove he was like everyone else. Patroclus is briefly mentioned as the sole man who could get Achilles to feel truly passionate about defeating Troy, and upon his death Achilles butchered several Troy captives — including two royal children — as a sacrifice.
Byrne Fone's 2008 novel Achilles: A Love Story portrays Achilles and Patroclus as lovers.
David Malouf's novel, Ransom (2009), is a reconsideration of the Iliad, and among others, depicts the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus as intense and intimate.
A version of Achilles in DC Comics depicts a modern-day resurrected Achilles as Wonder Woman's male counterpart, who is gay. He later forms a relationship with Patroclus' reincarnation, Patrick Cleese.
Pat Barker's "The Silence of the Girls" (2018) depicts the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus as nuanced, describing their close bond as stated in the Iliad but leaving the rest for inference.
Emily Hauser's "For the Most Beautiful" touches upon the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Achilles calls Patroclus the only one he ever loved and Patroclus is depicted as jealous of Achilles' relationship to Briseis.
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There is certainly no evidence in the text of the Iliad that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers.
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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.) If Alexander and Hephaestion did have a sexual relationship, it would have been transgressive by majority Greek standards...
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