Were Achilles and Patroclus Gay Lovers?

A partial transcript of Episode 15 of THE ART MOVEMENT. To listen to the full radio show, click here.

We talked about Stonewall and I called that a mythical occurrence. And I don’t know about you but when I hear the term myth or mythology, I instantly think of Ancient Greece. And since it is a well known fact that homosexuality was widespread in Ancient Greece, I just can’t help myself. I may possibly make a fool out of myself over the next couple of minutes but I have been legitimately fascinated with Greece and the Ancient Greeks since I was a child so I will try to make some sense out of all the information I have gathered over the years.

When it comes to discussions of Ancient Greece, we should generally accept that most of it is based on speculation. This was truly an ancient civilization and not so many original documents of the time have been recovered as we like to think. In addition, many of the texts that recount tales of those times are at least partly fictional, which means that in theory they should be taken with a grain of salt. For example, Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey tell us about the Trojan War but the versions of these two epic poems are not originals and were compiled out of tales handed down from oral tradition. So, we actually don’t even know whether the Trojan War happened at all.

But let’s take it from the top. Yes, like I said, we know that the Ancient Greeks engaged in homoerotic activities. And we know that, for example, because there have been many archaeological finds of vases depicting men engaging in such erotic activities. Notice two things about what I just said: one is I used the term men because I will primarily talk about gay men and the second is that I used the term homoeroticism rather than homosexuality. Actually, the term homosexuality is a surprisingly new and scientific term coined in a modern era. Eroticism, on the other hand, comes from the Greek word “eros,” which means sexual desire and what we would refer to as romantic love.

We also know that homoeroticism was prevalent in the Athens intelligentsia of the 7th and 6th centuries because of the tales from these times of men who openly liked both sexes. These centuries have in fact been called the first to openly celebrate same-sex relationships. But more on that later. For now, let’s return to the Trojan War, which may or may not have happened. We all know about this War not least of all because of the famous tale of the Trojan Horse.

But just for a greater — if slightly superfluous context for my argument — this is a war that may have occurred during the 12th and the 11th century BC, where war was waged against the city of Troy by the Achaeans (eh-Cians) after Paris of Troy took Helen from her husband, the king of Sparta. Achilles, the greatest of all Greek warriors, is the central character of Homer’s Iliad. He fought on the side of the Achaeans alongside his great friend Patroclus. And much has been said about them also being lovers. The question is, was this true?

Well… we should know that not much is known about what happened in Ancient Greece from the 11th century to the 8th century, and so it’s surprising that we know anything at all about the 12th and the 11th centuries at all. The fact that there is no primary documentation of the time of the Trojan War makes it impossible to distinguish fact from fiction, which means that much of the history of Ancient Greece from this period is just mythistory — so it’s practically impossible to know whether Achilles and Patroclus existed and basically impossible to know whether they preferred oysters or snails.

The reason we talk about it at all is not so much because of Homer’s epic poems but because in the 5th century, Achilles’ homoeroticism comes much more to the fore in the Myrmidon by Aeschylus (isclus), particularly in his relationship with Patroclus, which feels more like a romantic relationship than a friendship. The Myrmidon is the first part of a trilogy that is essentially an updated version of the Iliad but that only survives to this day in fragments,

So, conclusions on their relationship being a homoerotic one are actually drawn on Plato’s Symposium, roughly from around a century later, where a war of words among notable men is depicted, much of which revolves around eroticism, including homoeroticism. Here, Achilles and Patroclus are referred to as an example of divinely approved lovers – a conclusion drawn from the Myrmidon.

I don’t know when or why homoeroticism became a normal thing but it’s possible that its acceptance by the older and younger generation may have been aided by a time of peace and by the widespread practice of pederasty, which seems shocking to this day but entailed the consensual copulation of older gentlemen with adolescent boys – a practice that naturally though by today’s standards problematically removed the generational obstacles that always prevent the acceptance of progress within modern societies.

What I do find remarkable about such texts the Symposium is not so much that it doesn’t really tell us whether or not Achilles and Patroclus, who may or may not have existed, were lovers or just B.F.F.s. It’s just that it proves how openly homoeroticism could be discussed by such an ancient civilisation, whereas almost every civilisation that followed it has treated sexuality and especially homosexuality as sinful or taboo. And that, I believe, that’s the real thing worth thinking about here…