Alexander the Great & Greek love

  • by Tavo Amador
  • Tuesday July 28, 2015
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Classical busts of Alexander the Great and Hephaestion:<br>lovers.
Classical busts of Alexander the Great and Hephaestion:
lovers.

Aristotle tutored him. He became king of Macedonia at 20. At 30, his unprecedented military victories made him ruler of an empire stretching from modern-day Greece southward to Egypt and eastward to India. He founded many cities, most notably Alexandria, and spread Hellenistic civilization. Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) is among the most famous and controversial figures in history, and in the West, probably the best-known ancient ruler. Sadly, all the information we have about  him is from authors writing centuries after his death, although they based their works on older, and in some cases contemporary material.

He was born in Macedonia. His father, Philip the Great, was an outstanding military leader who envisioned conquering Persia. He subjugated Athens, Thebes, Sparta, and other Greek city-states. Alexander's mother, Olympias, was one of Philip's many wives. Their marriage was a political alliance, but they clashed. Fiercely independent and ambitious for her son, Olympias must have been remarkable, or else little would be known about her.

Macedonian politics were violent. Philip was assassinated, perhaps by a former male lover, one of several the king had. The challenges facing Alexander were extraordinary. Yet he retained the loyalty of his nobles and his soldiers, and expanded his empire. At his death, however, it was divided among his key generals.

Even Alexander's critics acknowledge his brilliance as a military strategist, and heroic, indeed inspiring, leader of armies. There is less agreement about how he would have governed his vast, multi-ethnic empire had he lived longer. Did he want to unify diverse peoples? Is that why he ordered his aides and soldiers to marry Persian women? He himself married an Afghanistani chieftain's daughter. Was this why, to the dismay of the Macedonians, he adopted Persian clothing, including pants? Or were these necessary to maintain order while he pursued his insatiable ambition to conquer as many lands as possible? He stopped at India, but only when forced by his weary soldiers to turn back.

Equally controversial is his personal life, specifically his relationship with his lifelong intimate, Hephaestion (356-324 BC). Was he, in a modern sense, "homosexual?" The question isn't easily answered, since "homosexuality" and "heterosexuality" as social constructs didn't exist before the 19th century. Romantic relationships between men in the ancient world were commonplace, dating back to Minoan Crete (2700 BC-1400 BC). They flourished in Periclean Athens (ca. 400 BC), Sparta, and Thebes, among other city-states. They may be described as homoerotic. No shame was attached to them. Indeed, they were the idealization of romantic love. Zeus, Apollo, Hermes, Poseidon, and Herakles had boyfriends. Pairs of male lovers fought in the armies of Thebes and Sparta. These relationships likely included a sexual component.

Often, these homoerotic relationships were between a young man in his 20s and a teenage boy, theoretically pre-pubescent. Because they have been traditionally presented that way, many writers have argued that Alexander and Hephaestion, who were the same age, weren't lovers. But James Davidson in The Greeks and Greek Love (Random House, 2007) demonstrates that male couples frequently were peers. For example, lovers Harmodius and Aristogeiton (d. 514 BC) killed Hipparchus, an Athenian tyrant. In gratitude, the city erected a statue of the heroes near the temple of Olympian Zeus. The original no longer exists, but a Roman copy in the Archeological Museum in Naples depicts two handsome, muscular youths, both of whom are clearly post-pubescent.

Most ancient sources agree that Alexander was attracted to young men. According to Plutarch, Hephaestion was the man whom "Alexander loved most of all." Their relationship was all-encompassing. They drank, hunted, and campaigned together. Hephaestion acted as Alexander's Chief of Staff. It was most likely sexual.

Alexander claimed descent from his favorite hero, Achilles. In the Iliad, Achilles becomes enraged when his intimate companion, Patrocles, is killed. While Homer never explicitly calls them lovers, that is how they were perceived in antiquity. Achilles' operatic grief over his beloved's death implies they were lovers.

Plutarch wrote that soon after arriving in Asia Minor (ca. 334 BC), Alexander and Hephaestion visited the presumed tombs of Achilles and Patrocles. Many tributes were paid to the dead heroes. These included Alexander "crowning" Achilles' tomb and Hephaestion "crowning" that of Patrocles. The implications are obvious.

Plutarch also writes that in 333 BC, after Alexander's triumph in the Battle of Issus, Darius, Great King of Persia, fled, leaving his family, including the Queen Mother, behind. When she and her attendants came before Alexander, she, noting that Hephaestion was taller and better-looking, knelt before him. When advised of her mistake, she began apologizing, but Alexander elegantly comforted her, saying, "This one, too, is Alexander."

Also left behind by the Great King was his boyfriend, the beautiful eunuch Bagoas, who soon found his way into Alexander's bed. Bagoas' presence doesn't rule out physical intimacy between Alexander and Hephaestion. In any case, they remained inseparable.

Nothing demonstrates Alexander's passion for Hephaestion more than his reaction to his death. En route to Ecbatana in modern Iran, Hephaestion developed a virulent fever. After battling it for a week, he seemed better, but upon eating food, relapsed and died, suggesting he had Typhoid. Alexander had thought he was improving, and thus was away. He rushed back, but failed to arrive before he died.

Alexander's grief was overwhelming. In a rage, he ordered Hephaestion's doctor executed. He cut his own hair. He commissioned an enormous funeral pyre. Inconsolable, he drank excessively and wept uncontrollably. Hephaestion was given divine honors, and memorials to him were built. Alexander was planning more memorials when he died, only eight months later, perhaps from grief as much as anything else.

Unless new evidence is uncovered, the exact nature of Alexander's sexual orientation (to use an anachronistic term) will never be known. Nonetheless, a reasonable interpretation of extant sources, studied within the context of the sexual mores of Classical and Hellenistic Greek societies, leads to the conclusion that his erotic feelings were primarily directed at males.