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A painting by Charles Le Brun depicting Alexander and Hephaestion (in red cloak), facing Porus, during the Battle of the Hydaspes.

What was the REAL relationship Between Alexander the Great and Hephaestion?

Alexander the Great was known as a womanizer – his list of romances quite extensive. However, some researchers suggest that he also fell in love with at least two men, one of them being Hephaestion, a General in Alexander’s Army.

Researchers cannot make empirical studies to be sure about the thoughts and feelings of the people who lived in the times of Alexander the Great. At most, they can only make deductions from the historical records that are available. All that really exists is a puzzle, which researchers try to interpret and put together.

The companion of brothers

Hephaestion was born, like Alexander, in around 365 BC. He was a son of Amyntor, a noble man of Macedonia. Hephaestion was a friend, companion and a general in the army of Alexander. According to the ancient resources, he had a special bond with the king. He was described as his dearest friend, the person who was witness to the most significant moments in Alexander's life, but also the one with whom the king shared his most personal secrets.

Head of Hephaistion sculpted in marble. Statue is at the Getty Museum in California.

Head of Hephaistion sculpted in marble. Statue is at the Getty Museum in California. ( Public Domain )

Alexander and Hephaestion spent time with each other nearly their whole lives, until the death of Hephaestion in 324 BC. They traveled, fought in battlefields and experienced many adventures together. Alexander is said to have felt a strong bond with him also due to his sensitivity, love of literature and intelligence. When Hephaestion died, Alexander’s life collapsed. As a ruler, he didn't have too many people who he could trust. It seems that he believed in the loyalty his mother Olympias, Hephaestion, and his friend Ptolemy, future pharaoh Ptolemy I Soter. According to some later writings, Alexander felt extreme loneliness after the death of his dear friend, and he himself died just a few months after the burial of Hephaestion.

Friends or Lovers?

Throughout history, the Greek male friendship may be considered somewhat unique. Greek men could love their best friends like brothers and like family, and their way of treating each other could often be misinterpreted.

At the same time, Ancient Greek military forces (for example, the Spartans), believed that homosexual sex made bonds between the soldiers stronger. This same-sex interaction was a very popular topic to many ancient authors. The great philosopher Plato in his work Symposium wrote that the interlocutor Phaedrus made a comment on the importance of sexual relationships between men, which improves the brotherhood and bravery on the battlefield. Many researchers interpreted his interest in this topic as confirmation that he was in such a relationship with Socrates, although there is no evidence to support this theory.

The Warren Cup, portraying a mature bearded man and a youth on its "Greek" side

The Warren Cup, portraying a mature bearded man and a youth on its "Greek" side ( Public Domain )

According to the Paul Cartledge, a Professor of Greek History in the University of Cambridge, who described his theory of Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past:

''The question of Alexander's sexuality--his predominant sexual orientation--has enlivened, or bedeviled, much Alexander scholarship. That he loved at least two men there can be little doubt. The first was the Macedonian noble Hephaestion, a friend from boyhood, whom he looked on--and may actually have referred to--as his alter ego. The Persian queen mother, it was said, once mistook the taller Hephaestion for Alexander, who graciously excused her blushes by murmuring that 'he too is Alexander'. Whether Alexander's relationship with the slightly older Hephaestion was ever of the sort that once dared not speak its name is not certain, but it is likely enough that it was. At any rate, Macedonian and Greek mores would have favored an actively sexual component rather than inhibiting or censoring it. Like hunting, homosexuality was thought to foster masculine, especially martial, bravery.''

If we follow this way of thinking, there was at least one more man who could have been the male lover of Alexander. His name was Bagoas and he was a Persian eunuch. However, it is impossible to really know the truth of their relationship as there is no direct information about the sexual preferences of Alexander.

'Bagoas pleads on behalf of Nabarzanes'

'Bagoas pleads on behalf of Nabarzanes' ( Public Domain )

Searching for the truth

Homosexuality was a norm in the ancient times, but in the case of Alexander the Great and Hephaestion, it is hard to rationally conclude what the true relationship was between them. Even if they were lovers, the beliefs and perceptions about homosexual relationships was definitely different than the way it is considered today. However, the author of this article doubts the theory that Alexander and Hephaestion were in a romantic relationship.

The weddings at Susa; Alexander to Stateira (right), and Hephaestion to Drypetis (left). Late 19th-century engraving.

The weddings at Susa; Alexander to Stateira (right), and Hephaestion to Drypetis (left). Late 19th-century engraving. ( Public Domain )

After the death of Hephaestion, Alexander decided to build an impressive monument in his memory in Macedonia. Currently it is suggested that the Amphipolis tomb could have been built in memory of Hephaestion. It is also possible that the ashes of the great friend of Alexander were brought there from the desert in Persia. The answer to the question of what was between Alexander and Hephaestion remains buried in their graves.

Top image: A painting by Charles Le Brun depicting Alexander and Hephaestion (in red cloak), facing Porus, during the Battle of the Hydaspes. ( Public Domain )

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

Kenneth J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality, 1978.

Paul Cartledge, Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past, 2004.

Greek Homosexuality, available at:
http://www.livius.org/articles/concept/greek-homosexuality/

An atypical affair? Alexander the Great, Hephaistion Amyntoros and the nature of their relationship by Jeanne Reames, available at:
https://www.academia.edu/2512447/An_atypical_affair_Alexander_the_Great_Hephaistion_Amyntoros_and_the_nature_of_their_relationship

Alexander the Great, available at:
http://www.gayheroes.com/alex.htm

Comments

I find it quite ridiculous you would call Alexander a womanizer? The supposed list is not extensive and it is not even certain some of the women in this 'list' were actually his mistresses. Yes, of course he did marry more than once and I am not saying per se that Alexander was not attracted to women, but saying he was a womanizer is, truthfully, misguiding.

I was going to make a similar comment, but will simply agree. I'm not sure what "list" you're referring to, but find it a curious remark. Alexander had 3 wives, but like his father Philip II, and his grandfather Amyntas III, he practiced royal polygamy, a Macedonian practice. In short, these marriages served *political* functions, not romantic or sexual. I would also not call Alexander "gay" (certainly not in the modern sense), but ancient Macedonians formed very different sorts of emotional and sexual ties (which is the point I made in the very article of mine that you cite).

"Womanizer" is anachronistic and modern. I would strongly suggest that you remove it from your article as misleading. Because compared to other Greek and Macedonian men, Alexander's list of female OR male lovers is rather short. This is, after all, the man who once said, "Sleep and sex remind me I'm mortal."

It has been written, and even made into a film, that Alexander not only loved men but he was also a genus, greek for an effeminate gay male.He only married to procreate. He did have one main lover his adult life.

For me it is quite clear from the historical evidence that Alexander and Hephaestion were lovers, while marriages with persian women were basically political aliases.

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