Achilles and Patroclus: Wikis


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Achilles bandages the arm of his friend, Patroclus. The scene has been interpreted as an act of welfare and comradeship, or as a scene with sexual overtones. Ancient Greek culture often held the two to be lovers

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.


In The Iliad

In the Iliad, the death of Patroclus is the prime motivation of Achilles' return to battle – and subsequent quest for revenge – in the second half of the poem.

The friendship of Achilles and Patroclus is mentioned explicitly only once in the Iliad, and then in a context of military excellence; it is the comradeship of warriors who fight always in each other's company:

From then on the son of Thetis
urged that never in the moil of Ares
should Patroclus be stationed apart
from his own man-slaughtering spear.

Although Homer does not dwell on the relationship in great detail, it underpins a great deal of Achilles' actions. Achilles' strongest interpersonal bond is with Patroclus, whom he loves dearly. As Gregory Nagy points out,

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).[1]

(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 avenging himself upon Hector, Patroclus' killer, even though the gods had warned him that it would cost him his life.

Achilles' attachment to Patroclus is an archetypal male bond that occurs elsewhere in Greek culture: Damon and Pythias, Orestes and Pylades, Harmodius and Aristogeiton are pairs of comrades who gladly face danger and death for and beside each other. [2]

In the Oxford Classical Dictionary, David M. Halperin writes,

Homer, to be sure, does not portray Achilles and Patroclus as lovers (although some Classical Athenians thought he implied as much (Aeschylus fragments 135, 136 Radt; Plato Symposium 179e–180b; Aeschines Against Timarchus 133, 141–50) ), but he also did little to rule out such an interpretation.[3]

Classical and post-Classical views in antiquity

The friendship with Patroclus blossomed into overt homosexual love in the fifth and fourth centuries, in the works of Aeschylus, Plato and Aeschines, and as such seems to have inspired the enigmatic verses in Lycophron's third century Alexandra that make unrequited love Achilles' motive for killing Troilus.

From the times of Classical Greece, and especially in Hellenism, to the time of the Romans the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus was most often seen as loving and pederastic,[4] despite the fact that it is not possible to designate the roles of Homer's Achilles and Patroclus along pederastic lines. (Achilles is the most dominant, and among the warriors in the Trojan War he has the most fame; Patroclus performs duties such as cooking, feeding and grooming the horses, and nursing yet is older than Achilles. Both also sleep with women.)

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, 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.[5] 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).

Literary significance

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,[6] 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.

Post-classical and modern interpretations

As a rule, the post-classical tradition shows Achilles as heterosexual and having an exemplary asexual friendship with Patroclus. Medieval Christian writers deliberately suppressed the homoerotic nuances of the figure[7].

Many modern scholars tend to either hold up the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus as the first model of homosexual love in literature or assert that it was an entirely non-sexual relationship. Both positions usually reflect the speaker's position in contemporary culture wars.

Some have argued that an important aspect of their relationship must not be overlooked: that is that Patroclus is both Achilles' cousin and his foster brother. According to the Iliad, he is also the elder of the two. This close familial relationship, along with the traditional role of a Greek hero to act more boldly than an ordinary mortal, may be sufficient to explain the depth and violence of Achilles' reaction to his comrade's death, but not the fact they were buried in the same tomb with their bones mingled.

William Shakespeare's play Troilus and Cressida depicts them as lovers. Achilles' decision to spend his days in his tent with Patroclus is seen by Ulysses and many other Greeks as the chief reason for their lack of success at Troy. Homoeroticism, privacy, and the cynical performances that the lovers put on together are conflated in the Greek leader's anxiety about Troy.

On the other hand, the novels of Mary Renault contain frequent references to Achilles and Patroclus, usually presenting the pair as a model for homosexual love.

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 'do 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.

In Ilium by Dan Simmons, Achilles and Patroclus share a close "brothers in war" type bond, but are also shown to engage in group sex, each with a woman and possibly each other.

David Malouf's novel Ransom (2009) is a reconsideration of the Illiad, and among others depicts the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus as intense and intimate.


  1. ^ Gregory Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans, second edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. p. 105 (online edition). ISBN 0-8018-6015-6.
  2. ^ Warren Johansson, Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, USA, 1990
  3. ^ Oxford Classical Dictionary, third edition. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. p. 721. ISBN 0-19-866172-X.
  4. ^ William Armstrong Percy III, "Reconsiderations about Greek Homosexualities," in Same–Sex Desire and Love in Greco-Roman Antiquity and in the Classical Tradition of the West, Binghamton, 2005; p.19
  5. ^ "Homosexuality & Civilization" by Louis Crompton. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993, p. 6.
  6. ^ *Greek Homosexuality, by Kenneth J. Dover; New York; Vintage Books, 1978. ISBN 0-394-74224-9
  7. ^ Katherine Callen King, Achilles: Paradigms of the War Hero from Homer to the Middle Ages, Berkeley, 1987

See also

External links

  • [1] - The Story of Achilles and Patroclus

Spoken-word myth (audio)

The Achilles and Patroclus myth as told by story tellers
1. Achilles and Patroclus, read by Timothy Carter
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)

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