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Achilles and Patroclus: Brothers from Other Mothers or Passionate Paramours?

Achilles and Patroclus: Brothers from Other Mothers or Passionate Paramours?

A woman launched a thousand ships. Men traveled far to rescue her, though her motives and intentions were shrouded in haze. But when one warrior quit, it did not take a woman to bring him back to the battleground. It took the death of one very important, sexually ambiguous man to make the war worth fighting for once again.

The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is one of consistent debate. Were these two warriors friends or lovers? Brothers from other mothers or passionate paramours? In translations of the Iliad, Homer’s language is ambiguous. Depending on the scholar, different Greek terms could be translated in numerous ways, therefore changing the innate meaning. And of course, Homer himself cannot be questioned. So readers are left to judge for themselves.

Achilles Displaying the Body of Hector at the Feet of Patroclus (1769) by Jean Joseph Taillason.

Achilles Displaying the Body of Hector at the Feet of Patroclus (1769) by Jean Joseph Taillason. ( Public Domain )

The Death that Launched a Thousand Warriors

Patroclus, a young comrade of Achilles, travels to Troy to help the Greeks win Helen back from the clutches of the Trojan Paris. Achilles is the strongest, more virile of men—the son of a nymph and a mortal man, Achilles was prophesized at birth to either die an unimportant old man, or to die a young hero. Achilles, knowing these paths, chose the latter and agreed to go to Troy under the Mycenaean king (and leader of the Greek army) Agamemnon. The pivotal point of the Iliad from Achilles' perspective is the death of Patroclus, occurring after Achilles himself refused to fight the Trojans in the name of Agamemnon.

By this point, the war was in its tenth (and final year), and Achilles had been insulted when Agamemnon took one of Achilles' war prizes, a concubine named Briseis. As Achilles refused to fight, his men (the Myrmidons) also refused. Thus, Patroclus, taking up his dear Achilles' armor, led the Myrmidons into battle pretending to be Achilles.

He was swiftly slain by Hector, prince of Troy.

Needless to say, Achilles immediately sought revenge.

Thetis Bringing Armor to Achilles (1806) by Benjamin West.

Thetis Bringing Armor to Achilles (1806) by Benjamin West. ( Public Domain )

Was the Relationship of Achilles and Patroclus an Example of Pederasty?

The varying views of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus exist in so many forms for just as many reasons. Early archaeology took place in an era when homosexuality was frowned upon as sin, and the men following this lifestyle were insulted as women (as this was also an age when women were still considered "weak"). It also took many long years of intensive study into ancient Greek culture, religion, literature, language, and art for scholars to understand that the ancient Greek mindset worked differently from our own and thus could not be fathomed or imagined as an accurate interpretation of these materials. In this case, the long-misunderstood practice was pederasty, in which two men are, in fact, lovers.

Pederasty is a relationship between an older man and a younger man or teen. This relationship usually lasts a good many years, but it is not necessarily considered a relationship in the modern sense of the word. Pederasty was common in Ancient Greece, and most widely recorded by Athenian writers and playwrights. This is likely because the Athenians were the first Ancient Greek city state to incorporate the practice into society in a structural fashion.

Pederastic scene: erastes (lover) touching chin and genitals of the eromenos (beloved). Side A of an Attic black-figure neck-amphora, ca. 540 BC.

Pederastic scene: erastes (lover) touching chin and genitals of the eromenos (beloved). Side A of an Attic black-figure neck-amphora, ca. 540 BC. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

The older man, called the erastes, would take a young male lover, called the eromenos, and teach this boy the ways of war, politics, and sex. While these men had intercourse with one another, it was more of an educational relationship. Just as they would practice swordplay or discuss the political agenda of the current day, so would they practice and discuss the ways of sexual pleasure. The Athenians believed that this kind of relationship--literally learning every aspect of the self from another proper Athenian--would create, in essence, a "breed" of perfect men.

Was this what the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was? It is possible. It was not uncommon for males to have sexual relations with one another, and homosexuality was not a point of contention as it has been in the more recent past. It is entirely possible that Achilles started out as Patroclus’ teacher, and then became his boyfriend or lover.

Achilles and Patroclus.

Achilles and Patroclus. ( CC BY 4.0 )

Or Was Theirs a Strong Friendship?

Was it possible these two warriors were just friends? This is also not impossible. The language of Homer's text is somewhat ambiguous, likely intentionally, and later ancient authors have interpreted this language to be indicative of Achilles and Patroclus as paramours. (Such as Aeschylus, who wrote a play in which bonds of a sexual nature were powerful in the Myrmidon army.)

However, as the language is ambiguous, it is possible these men engaged in pederasty in a completely platonic fashion—Achilles was teacher of all things violent, political, or sexual in words rather than actions. It is also possible that they were not, in fact, engaged in pederasty at all, but were genuine friends (as argued by Plato in his Symposium).

Achilles tending Patroclus wounded by an arrow, identified by inscriptions on the upper part of the vase. Tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix, ca. 500 BC. From Vulci.

Achilles tending Patroclus wounded by an arrow, identified by inscriptions on the upper part of the vase. Tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix, ca. 500 BC. From Vulci. ( Public Domain )

This latter theory is not as popular among the research of art historians, due to the artistic and literary emotional and mental breakdown of Achilles at Patroclus' death. It is described and depicted in the same manner a wife would mourn her husband's death—crying wretched tears, beating one's chest, keening like a Banshee, etc.

Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus (1760-1763) by Gavin Hamilton.

Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus (1760-1763) by Gavin Hamilton. ( Public Domain )

It appears that there is rather strong evidence both for and against the idea of a homoerotic relationship between the Greek warriors. The debate of pal versus paramour is still ongoing, and dominates a large portion of the archaeological, literary, and art historical investigations of Achilles' character. The ambiguity of Homer's language, the interpretations of Homer by later ancient authors, and the early historical and archaeological bias against homosexuality have all created a convoluted mess of data for both arguments, still leaving readers to wonder about the context of one of the most famous relationships—whether sexual or not—of all time.

Top Image: Achilles and the body of Patroclus (1855) by Nikolai Ge. Source: Public Domain

By Ryan Stone

Bibliography

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Barrett, D.S. 1980. "The Friendship of Achilles and Patroclus." The Classical Bulletin . 57.1 pp. 87-93.

Clarke, W.M. 1978. "Achilles and Patroclus in Love ." Hermes 106.3 pp. 381-396.

Homer. The Iliad . (trans. Robert Fagles, 1998.) New York/London: Penguin Classics.

Kerényi, Karl.1959. The Heroes of the Greeks . New York/London: Thames and Hudson.

Morales, Manuel Sanz and Gabriel Laguna Mariscal. 2003. "The Relationship Between Achilles and Patroclus According to Chariton of Aphrodisias." Classical Quarterly . 53.1 pp. 292-326. Accessed June 14, 2017.

Morales, Manuel Sanz and Gabriel Laguna Mariscal. 2005. "Was the Relationship between Achilles and Patroclus Homoerotic? The View of Apollonius Rhodius." Hermes. 133.1. pp. 120-123. Accessed June 14, 2017.

Nagy, Gregory. 1999. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry . Baltimore: JHU Press.

Ovid. Heroides. (trans. Harold Isbell, 1990.) New York/London: Penguin Classics.

Percy, William. 1998. Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece . Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Plato. Symposium. (trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff, 1989.) Hackett Publishing Co.

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