The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is a key element of the myths associated with the Trojan War. Its exact nature has been a subject of dispute in both the classical period and modern times. In the Iliad, it is clear that the two heroes (who are also first cousins once removed) have a deep and extremely meaningful friendship, but the evidence of a romantic or sexual element is equivocal. Commentators from the classical period to today have tended to interpret the relationship through the lens of their own cultures. Thus, in 5th century BC Athens the relationship was commonly interpreted as pederastic. Contemporary readers are more likely to interpret the two heroes either as non-sexual "war buddies" or as an egalitarian homosexual couple.
The Ancient Mediterranean world had vastly different attitudes toward gender and sexuality than those found in 21st century North America or Europe. Although sexual relations between men are well attested, there was no term for, or concept of, homosexuality as an exclusive or lifelong sexual orientation. In addition, much of what is known about ancient Greek sexual practices and beliefs is based on writers and artists who lived at least 200 years after the epics of Homer were created; it is unknown how much these practices and attitudes changed during that time.
For Achilles ... in his own ascending scale of affection as dramatized by the entire composition of the Iliad, the highest place must belong to Patroklos.... In fact Patroklos is for Achilles the πολὺ φίλτατος ... ἑταῖρος — the ‘hetaîros who is the most phílos by far’ (XVII 411, 655).(Hetaîros means companion or comrade; in Homer it is usually used of soldiers under the same commander. Later the word is used of concubines.)
Achilles is tender to Patroclus, callous and arrogant towards others. Although most warriors fought for personal fame or their city-state (including Achilles), at certain junctures in the Iliad, Achilles emphasizes his relationship with Patroclus above all else. He dreams that all Greeks would die so that he and Patroclus might gain the fame of conquering Troy alone. After Patroclus dies, Achilles agonizes touching his dead body, smearing himself with ash, and fasting. He laments Patroclus' death using language very similar to that later used by Andromache of Hector. Achilles returns to the battlefield with the sole aim of revenging himself upon Hector, Patroclus' killer, even though the gods had warned him that it would cost him his life.
In the Oxford Classical Dictionary, David M. Halperin writes,
In the 5th century BC, Aeschylus in his now-lost or destroyed tragedy The Myrmidons clearly regarded the relationship as a sexual one and assigned Achilles the role of erastes or protector (since he had avenged his lover's death even though the gods told him it would cost him his own life), and Patroclus the role of eromenos. He tells of Achilles visiting Patroclus' dead body and criticizing him for letting himself be killed. In a surviving fragment of the play, Achilles speaks of a “devout union of the thighs”.
Plato wrote the Symposium about 385 BC, and by then an established tradition viewed Achilles and Patroclus as lovers. In the Symposium, Phaedrus holds the two up as an example of divinely approved lovers. He also argues that Aeschylus erred in saying that Achilles was the erastes, "for he excelled in beauty not Patroclus alone but assuredly all the other heroes, being still beardless and, moreover, much the younger, by Homer's account." However, Plato's contemporary Xenophon, in his own Symposium, had Socrates argue that Achilles and Patroclus were merely chaste and devoted comrades.
Evidence of this debate is found in a speech by an Athenian politician, Aeschines, at his trial in 345 BC. Aeschines in placing an emphasis on the importance of pederasty to the Greeks argues that though Homer does not state it explicitly, educated people should be able to read between the lines. “Although (Homer) speaks in many places of Patroclus and Achilles, he hides their love and avoids giving a name to their friendship, thinking that the exceeding greatness of their affection is manifest to such of his hearers as are educated men.” Most ancient writers followed the thinking laid out by Aeschines.
Since Homer does not use the terms “erastes” and “eromenos”, it has been argued that their relationship was not pederastic but rather egalitarian. In Homer's Ionian culture it appears homosexuality had not taken on the form it later would in pederasty. However some scholars, such as Bernard Sergent, have argued that it had, though it was not reflected in Homer. Sergent asserts that ritualized man-boy relations were widely diffused through Europe from prehistoric times.
Attempts to edit the text were undertaken by Aristarchus of Samothrace in Alexandria around 200 BC. Aristarchus, who has been called “the founder of scientific scholarship”, believed that Homer did not intend the two to be lovers. However he did agree that the “we-two alone” passage did imply a love relation and argued it was a later interpolation. The majority of ancient and modern historians have accepted the lines to be an original part.
When Alexander the Great and his intimate friend Hephaestion passed through the city of Troy on their Asian campaign, Alexander honoured the sacred tomb of Achilles and Patroclus in front of the entire army, and this was taken as a clear declaration of their own love. The joint tomb and Alexander's action demonstrates the perceived significance of the Achilles-Patroclus relationship at that time (around 334 BC). See Hephaestion article for more detail and citations.
By contrast, some scholars claim that the exact nature of the relationship has profound literary and artistic implications. As Kenneth Dover points out in his Greek Homosexuality , knowing whether Achilles was erastes and Patroclus eromenos, whether the opposite was true, or whether their love was egalitarian, is crucial to the thematic makeup of the Iliad. If indeed Achilles was the lover, then the lesson Achilles learns from Patroclus' sacrifice is rooted in a startling role-reversal: in death, the student becomes the teacher. The change in Achilles' character then hinges on having believed that only glory mattered, and learning otherwise by losing the only thing that mattered more to him than acclaim. Patroclus, the eromenos, in leading the Myrmidons, is elevated beyond the moral caliber of his mentor, and Achilles is redeemed only when, having reflected on his follies, he returns Hector's body to Priam.
If, on the other hand, Patroclus was the lover, then his death represents a deliberate lesson to his pupil, Achilles. In this case, the teacher had to die in order to redeem the student, and the pivotal change in Achilles' character occurs when he resumes leadership of the Myrmidons and takes the field against Hector despite his grievance with Agamemnon.
Of course, if Achilles and Patroclus represent an egalitarian homosexual pairing, then the time and nature of Achilles' pivotal character development are shaded with gray and open to interpretation.
Since the Iliad does not make some details of their relationship explicit, it is also possible that Achilles and Patroclus were close but not sexually involved. Men who fight in combat together often develop deep bonds without becoming sexually involved, and Achilles and Patroclus may have had such an emotional, non-sexual relationship.
The novels of Mary Renault contain frequent references to Achilles and Patroclus, usually presenting the pair as a model for homosexual love. (She also refers to Alexander's homage mentioned above.)
Elizabeth Cook's 2001 verse novel Achilles is not sexually explicit, but a romantic relationship can be inferred. She writes of Achilles, "He also knows the body of his cousin Patroclus." In the beginning of the novel, when Odysseus visits Achilles in the underworld, "He stands apart with Patroclus, his beloved through all eternity, and Patroclus — who loves Achilles, but not so much as he is loved — waits for Achilles to move." The relationship is intensely intimate, and certainly exceeds the common bounds of friendship.
The film Troy glossed over the relationship and presented Patroclus as a younger relative of Achilles, without any romantic or sexual aspects.
The musical Spring Awakening includes an offhand reference where one boy entreats another to 'play a little Achilles and Patroclus.' The two characters are later shown engaged in a homosexual relationship.
In Christa Wolf's novel Cassandra, Achilles is depicted as a somewhat conflicted homosexual male, one who would go after both a young man, whom he actually desired, and a young woman, to prove he was like everyone else. Patroclus is briefly mentioned as the sole man who could get Achilles to feel truly passionate about defeating Troy, and upon his death Achilles butchered several Troy captives - including two royal children - as a sacrifice.
|The Achilles and Patroclus myth as told by story tellers|
|Bibliography of reconstruction: Homer Iliad, 9.308, 16.2, 11.780, 23.54 (700 BC); Pindar Olympian Odes, IX (476 BC); Aeschylus Myrmidons, F135-36 (495 BC); Euripides Iphigenia in Aulis, (405 BC); Plato Symposium, 179e (388 BC-367 BC); Statius Achilleid, 161, 174, 182 (96 CE)|