Monday, March 25, 2013

Alexander the Great... Gay?

 Was Alexander the Great gay? It’s a tricky question since people in ancient Greek society didn’t have rigid labels based on sexual preference. Although it was considered normal for men to have sexual relationship with each other, men from a privileged backgrounds were expected to marry and produce an heir. Who they brought to their beds for fun wasn't an issue. Even Alexander’s father, Philip, had a male lover named Pausanius. 

 Alexander’s boyhood friend, Hephaestion, was his closest friend and most likely also his lover. Their tutor, Aristotle, described their intense closeness as “one soul abiding in two bodies.” 

 The relationship of Alexander and Hephaestion went beyond friendship, something not mentioned in history books. Most accounts were written more than 300 years after their deaths, at a time when homosexual relationships were considered indecent. Gradually Hephaestion’s role was rewritten as "best friend" in order to be more acceptable.

 According to Arrian, Alexander and Hephaestion publicly identified with Achilles and Patroclus, each laying a wreath on their tombs. Both Plato and Aeschylus acknowledged that the Achilles and Patroclus were lovers, so this wreath laying ceremony would have been seen as a very public declaration of their love. 

 Robin Lane Fox, wrote: "It was a remarkable tribute, uniquely paid, and it is also Hephaestion's first mention in Alexander's career. Already the two were intimate, Patroclus and Achilles even to those around them; the comparison would remain to the end of their days and is proof of their life as lovers…”

 Alexander had another male lover, a eunuch named Bagoas.  Bagoas was given to Alexander by a Persian nobleman to be used as “boy toy.

According to Curtius, "... Bagoas, a eunuch exceptional in beauty and in the very flower of boyhood, with whom Darius was intimate and with whom Alexander would later be intimate." Herodotus stated that the Greeks were horrified by the trade of eunuchs and called it “unholy” since it involve the castration of boys before they hit puberty.

By keeping Bagoas as a companion, Alexander was publicly acknowledging a sexual relationship with a eunuch. Plutarch tells us that, while in a theatre, Alexander “embraced Bagoas and kissed him deeply.” Alexander also took up Persian dress and customs at court for a while, but when it cost him the sympathies of his subjects, he eventually quit, however he still kept Bagoas as life long companion.

In 324BC, Hephaestion contracted what a now appears to have been typhoid, while he was in Susa. Alexander, hearing the news rushed to be at his side, but the time he arrived, Hephaestion has passed away. Plutarch says "... Alexander's grief was uncontrollable ..." and adds that he ordered many signs of mourning, notably that the manes and tails of all horses should be shorn, the demolition of the battlements of the neighboring cities, and the banning of flutes and every other kind of music. Arrian related that "... he flung himself on the body of his friend and lay there nearly all day long in tears, and refused to be parted from him until he was dragged away by force by his companions ..." . Arrian states that "... for two whole days after Hephaestion's death Alexander tasted no food and paid no attention in any way to bodily needs, but lay on his bed now crying lamentably, now in the silence of grief."

 Alexander ordered a period of mourning throughout the empire. Alexander sent messengers to the oracle at Siwa to ask if Amon would permit Hephaestion to be worshipped as a god. Word came back that he could not be worshiped as a god, but as a divine hero. Alexander erected many shrines to Hephaestion; there is evidence that the cult took hold. Hephaestion was given a magnificent funeral.

Plutarch says that Alexander employed Stasicrates, "... as this artist was famous for his innovations, which combined an exceptional degree of magnificence, audacity and ostentation ...," to design the funeral pyre for Hephaestion. The pyre was 197 feet high, square in shape, and built in stepped levels. Alexander gave orders that the sacred flame in the temple should be extinguished, something that was only done on the death of a Great King. 

Alexander’s most telling tribute: he cut his hair short in mourning, this last a poignant reminder of Achilles' last gift to Patroclus on his funeral pyre. According to Arrian "... he laid the lock of hair in the hands of his beloved companion, and the whole company was moved to tears."

 Alexander (left) and Hephaestion (right) together again at The Getty Villa, Malibu California


  1. wow., I remember covering this in history class in high school but nothing as in depth as this. Thanks! This was very enlightening.

  2. Amazing article, thank you a lot for sharing this uncanny knowledge.

  3. Alexander's reaction over Hephaestion's death is so heartbreaking

  4. Love that Alexander has been described as outgoing and charismatic. Would have loved to have been present at a dinner party with those two, .Heff. and Alex.!

    1. Me too, even though we wouldn't understand a thing they were saying. Haha

  5. We need a movie made of this love story.

  6. A most beautiful pair of lovers, told in such a wonderful way.