Achilles and Patroclus – Homosexuality in Ancient Greece

Edward Edge

The tale of Achilles and Patroclus is possibly the oldest, and most enduring, love story between two men

The tale of Achilles and Patroclus is possibly the oldest, and most enduring, love story between two men that the world has ever known. Featured in the poet Homer’s The Iliad, the story goes that Achilles, the greatest hero on the Achean (Greek) side of the Trojan War, is angered by King Agamemnon claiming his slave and soon-to-be bride Briseis, for himself. As a result of this insult, Achilles refused to fight in the war, and soon, Ilios (alternative name for Troy) gained the upper hand. Patroclus, Achilles' dearest friend, felt that there was pressure for Achilles to rejoin the fight and to help, he chose to take up his friend's legendary armour and weapons, stepped out onto the field, and was cut down by Hector, one of Troy’s greatest of warriors. Achilles was so angered by the death of his friend that he rejoined the war and killed Hector. Achilles demonstrated his grief for Patroclus in a thousand ways, including fighting a river god. The epic is a beautiful display of the power of love, hate, war, honour, pride, tragedy, sacrifice, death, grief, and above all, forgiveness. What this story seems to indicate is that as early as 725BC (estimated), homosexual relationships were a common occurrence across Ancient Greece. We cannot concretely say whether the nature of the relationship between the two men was sexual. Within The Iliad, sex or even romance is never explicitly alluded to. It is only ever indicated that the bond between the two men was deeply emotional Achilles and Patroclus are undoubtedly an example of how Greece and much of the Ancient Mediterranean accepted the idea of same-sex love. It was almost impossible not to. Bearing in mind that the Iliad is considered one of the most important Ancient Greek texts (some say it is the closest thing the Greeks had to the Bible), how widespread was this acceptance in Greece? Well, like most things in Ancient Greece, it very much depends on who you ask, but mostly on where you ask this question.
Achilles and Patroclus – Homosexuality in Ancient Greece
Achilles and Patroclus

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Achilles and Patroclus – Homosexuality in Ancient Greece
Achilles and Patroclus

Greece was a complicated, fractal land

Greece was a complicated, fractal land with many city-states, societal structures, and values. In some states of Greece, homosexuality of any kind was unacceptable, but to the more enlightened or tolerant states, same-sex pairing, especially in men, was seen not as an alternative to heterosexuality, but as a stepping stone on the path to manhood. As seen in the story of Achilles and Patroclus, the pair may have been lovers, and their bond may have been strong, but Achilles’ ultimate plan was to wed Briseis and start a family. Family was the most important, sacred institute in Ancient Greece. Any crime committed against it was the greatest offence to society and the Gods and was punished harshly, and it was considered the duty of all Greeks to have progeny and raise them to be strong. In some parts of Greece, homosexual pairings between erastes (lovers) and younger eromenos (beloved) was the norm among the upper classes, but it was handled with strict rituality. The Thebans even made use of the strong bonds that often formed between the erastes and eromenos by using them together in combat. The Theban Sacred Band were renown for fighting fiercely to protect and impress their lovers, which Philip II of Macedon commended, saying "No one should consider these men guilty of any shameful act". What this says about the society he was leading is open to interpretation. All-in-all, attitudes towards homosexuality in Ancient Greece boil down to a big, unsatisfying "It depends on who and where you ask it". However you slice it, homosexual relationships were extremely different to how we view and accept them today, but what will undoubtedly endure, whichever way you interpret their relationship, is the bond that Achilles and Patroclus shared in the story, and how that bond cruelly sealed the fate of Greece's most cherished mythological hero, only to be immortalised for all time in our memories.
Ancestry UK
Achilles and Patroclus – Homosexuality in Ancient Greece

Edward Edge

No one of consequence – amateur armchair historian, archer, blacksmith, Robin Hood enthusiast and pirate cosplayer. Aspiring novelist with a book currently in the pipeline, passionate about gaining a functional knowledge of history and civilisation.
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