Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: RARA-AVIS Digest V4#423

From: Brian Thornton (
Date: 28 Jul 2002

Sorry to those who insist that Achilles and Patroclus were NOT lovers, but this sentiment is just incorrect. The ancient Greeks, both Hellenic and Hellenistic, had no where near the attitude toward male/male sexual relationships I have seen expressed repeatedly in this thread.

In fact, male/male love was prevalent amongst the aristocrats, and seen as something of a rite of passage in some cases. There was no stigma attached as long as it was also a mentoring type relationship between an older, more experienced man and a younger (though still adult) one who was wooed with gifts, and as long as the relationship ended with the marriage of either
(usually the elder man).

As for the ancient Greeks taking a dim view of the homosexual leanings of Achilles, sorry, but that just ain't so either. Achilles was seen as the embodiment of arete, and when offered a choice between a long, mundane life and a short, glorious one, Achilles chose the latter. This was the sort of choice which appealed to Classical and Hellenistic Greeks alike. Alexander the Great himself worshipped (literally) Achilles (and slept with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow), and even sacrificed to him when his army passed the mound of Hisarlik (site of Troy), on their way to smash the hosts of Darius III Codomanus at the Battle of the Granicus River.

What's more, Alexander himself had a life-long love affair with his boon comrade and best friend, Hephaestion. When Hephaestion died, Alexander went nearly mad with grief.

To quote historian David Sacks:

"Ancient Greek literature and art clearly show that certain types of homosexual relationships were considered natural and even admirable in many Greek cities during the epoch between about 600 B.C. and the spread of Christianity. Especially, male homosexuality was encouraged in some (not all) forms. Love between males was seen as harmonious with other Greek social values, such as athletic skil, military courage, and the idealization of male youth and beauty (reflected also in surviving Greek sculpture). Such relationships provided males with a romance not usually found in marriage, since Greek society viewed women as morally and intellectually inferior."

And here, from the Oxford Classical Dictionary:

"No Greek or Latin word corresponds to the modern term homosexuality, and ancient Mediterranean societies did not in practice treat homosexuality as a socially operative category of personal or public life. Sexual relations between persons of the same sex certainly did occur (they are widely attested in ancient sources), but they were not systematically distinguished or conceptualized as such, much less were they thought to represent a single, homogeneous phenomenon in contradistinction to sexual relations between persons of different sexes. That is because the ancients did not classify kinds of sexual desire or behavior according to the sameness or difference of the sexes of the persons who engaged in a sexual act; rather, they evaluated sexual acts according to the degree to which such acts either violated or conformed to norms of conduct deemed appropriate to individual sexual actors by reason of their gender, age, and social status. It is therefore impossible to speak in general terms about ancient attitudes to 'homosexuality', or about the degree of acceptance or toleration by particular communities , because any such statement would, in effect, lump together various behaviours which the ancients themselves kept rigorously distinct, and to which they attached radically divergent meanings and values. (Exactly the same things could be said, of course, and with equal justification, about heterosexuality.)"

Don't just take my word for it though. For further reading on the subject I recommend:

Secondary Sources:

The Ancient Mediterranean by Michael Grant The Rise of the Greeks by Michael Grant The Hellenistic Greeks by Michael Grant Alexander the Great by Robin Lane Fox Alexander of Macedon: A Historical Biography by Peter Green Alexander to Actium: A History of the Hellenistic Age by Peter Green The Greco-Persian Wars by Peter Green The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton Peoples of the Ancient World by Joseph Ward Swain A History of Sparta by W.G. Forrest The Penguin Encyclopedia of Classical Civilizations Arthur Cotterell, ed. The Penguin Encyclopedia of Ancient Civilizations Arthur Cotterell, ed. The Oxford Classical Dictionary Hornblower and Spawforth, eds. A Dictionary of the Ancient Greek World by David Sacks

Primary Sources:

The History by Herodotus The Peloponnesian Wars by Thucydides The Anabasis by Xenophon The History of Alexander by Arrian The Fortune of Alexander by Quintus Curtius Rufus The History of My Time by Ammianus Marcellinus

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