Is Achilles gay?

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In this brief guide we are going to answer the question ‘’Is Achilles gay?’’. We will analyze the sexuality of Achilles, the protagonist of the Iliad, a renowned book of classical literature.

Is Achilles gay?

No, Achilles is not gay. Achilles develops a close relationship with another boy named Patroclus, but he is not explicitly homosexual.

The relationship between Homeric heroes Achilles and Patroclus has been a source of constant controversy over the centuries, almost from the very moment Homer’s work was put into writing and began to be popularized among the Greeks. Were they friends, comrades, comrades-in-arms or were they lovers following the models of Greek homosexual love? Were Achilles and Patroclus lovers or just close friends?

The oldest source that tells us about these two literary characters is the Iliad, an epic poem attributed to a poet named Homer that according to tradition was written sometime between the end of the Dark Ages and the beginning of the Archaic Age.

Achilles is the undisputed protagonist of the Iliad, since it is his anger, aroused by being wronged by King Agamemnon, that gives meaning to the poem. He is the son of Peleus, king of Phthia, and the nereid Thetis, and leader of the Myrmidons.

Achilles is the most powerful and complete warrior of all those who fight in the ranks of the Achaeans, and his name alone makes the Trojan warriors tremble. Patroclus in turn is the son of the hero Meneceus, although a crime committed in his early youth forced him to live in exile at the court of Phthia, where he met Achilles, with whom he immediately formed a close friendship.

The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is one of the central elements of the Iliad. When the son of Peleus decides to withdraw from combat, furious with Agamemnon, Patroclus asks him for his armor so that he can fight and repel the lethal attack with which Hector and the Trojans are about to take the Achaean camp.

Achilles agrees; Patroclus goes to battle and, after a series of initial exploits, ends up facing Prince Hector, who ends up killing him. The body of Patroclus is rescued by the Argives leaders, but not before Hector strips him of his armor, and is brought before Achilles.

The hero, seeing the corpse of his friend, weeps inconsolably for several days and swears to avenge his death. When he regains his composure, Achilles holds a funeral game to honor the memory of Patroclus.

Once this is done, he sets off again for battle and, after several episodes in which he demonstrates his enormous courage and strength, he confronts Hector in single combat and kills him.

This is in summary what Homer tells about the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus in his verses. Can it be extracted from the reading of the Iliad that Patroclus and Achilles were lovers? The truth is that Homer says nothing clear about it, and certainly at no time describes a scene of erotic intimacy between the two characters.

It is true that Achilles’ reaction to the death of Patroclus is excessively dramatic and has no parallel with that of any other hero to the fall in battle of one of his friends. Was Achilles crying for the death of his lost love or is his a natural reaction to the loss of his dearest friend?

This is one of the arguments that have been used most often to conclude that in the mind of Homer, if there was someone with this name, the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus did have erotic overtones.

Of course, even the most daring have not wanted to prove that both heroes were exclusively homosexual, since we are told that both shared their tent with female slaves. In fact, Achilles had had a previous relationship with one of the daughters of Licomedes of Scyro, Deidamia, from whom his son Neoptolemus was born.

From our point of view it is impossible to prove from Homer’s verses alone that a homosexual relationship existed between Achilles and Patroclus. However, his testimony is sufficiently ambiguous that we cannot consider it conclusive to affirm the contrary.

Where does the idea that Patroclus and Achilles were lovers come from? 

Although Homer does not say so openly, most Greeks, at least from archaic times, did see in the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus an erotic component.

As it could not be otherwise, they interpreted their relationship based on their own vision of homosexual love, with an eromenos, a younger, passive part of the relationship, and an erastes, a mature man who would be the active part in all senses.

An example of this can be found in Aeschylus’ tragedy The Myrmidons, of which unfortunately only a few fragments have survived, and in which the playwright presents Achilles weeping after the death of Patroclus and stating bluntly that he missed the beauty of her body and the tenderness of her kisses.

Some generations later, Plato, in the Banquet, also puts in the mouths of some of his characters statements in this sense. The writer Aeschines, already in the fourth century B.C., affirms that Homer had no need to state explicitly that between the two heroes there was a sexual relationship, since all educated men who heard or read the poems would know it beforehand by tradition.

In fact, the only doubt these authors had was not whether Achilles and Patroclus were lovers, but which of the two was the Erastes and which the Eromenos. This doubt was not only among writers, but also among ceramic illustrators who showed different versions of the subject.

The erastes was usually represented with a beard and were more mature, while the eromenos was a boy in his adolescence, without facial or body hair. We have preserved some pottery in which Achilles appears with a younger face than that of Patroclus, which could be interpreted as an identification with the figure of the eromenos.

This, however, clashed with the character of the two heroes, since Achilles was more powerful on the battlefield, so the tradition that eventually prevailed made Patroclus the eromenos and Achilles the erastes.

There were also authors who denied this love affair, although it is true that we have preserved less evidence of them. Xenophon, in his Banquet, says explicitly that it is a mistake to attribute erotic components to the friendship of Achilles and Patroclus.

Later Latin authors moved between these two traditions, although in general, alien as they were to these models of Greek love, they tended to silence any idea that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers.

Conclusion: the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus

Having said this, we can conclude that although there are no elements in Homer’s verses that allow us to affirm categorically that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers, several generations of Greeks did understand it this way, so for them these two characters did maintain this type of relationship.

For centuries, Hellenic culture developed a whole tradition that revolved around this idea, although there were also contrary voices.

The same can be said of the readers of other eras, up to our own. In the absence of conclusive evidence, it is we, the readers, who can construct in our minds these classical characters, filling the gaps that Homer’s verses left in the plot.

References

Was Achilles Gay? What We Know From Classical Literature. Retrieved from https://www.thecollector.com/was-achilles-gay-what-we-know-from-classical-literature/

Were Achilles and Patroclus lovers? Retrieved from http://ancientheroes.net/blog/achilles-patroclus-lovers

Achilles and Patroclus: The erasure of LGBT+ History. Retrieved from https://www.academuseducation.co.uk/post/achilles-and-patroclus-the-erasure-of-lgbt-history-by-reyna-jani

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