Achilles and Patroclus: Close Confidants or Passionate Paramours?
The true nature of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, characters in Homer’s Iliad, has long been a source of speculation. Were they 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 have been translated in numerous ways, therefore changing their innate meaning and any understanding of the bromance between Achilles and Patroclus. And of course, Homer himself isn’t available to answer questions. So readers are left to judge for themselves.
The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus has inspired many artists over the centuries. In this painting by Jean Joseph Taillason, Achilles can be seen displaying the body of Hector at the feet of Patroclus. ( 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.
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By this point, the war was in its tenth (and final) year. Agamemnon had insulted Achilles by taking his war prize, 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 only to be swiftly slain by Hector, prince of Troy. Needless to say, Achilles immediately sought revenge.
The true relationship between Achilles and Patroclus has long caused speculation. In Homer’s Illiad, Patroclus wore Achilles’ armor in battle against the Trojans, only to be killed by Hector. In this painting by Benjamin West (1806), Achilles sits by the body of Patroclus when his mother, Thetis, brings him his armor forged by Hephaestus so he can avenge the death of Patroclus. ( Public domain )
Was the Relationship of Achilles and Patroclus Pederastic?
There are a multiplicity of opinions regarding the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Early archaeology took place during an era in which homosexuality was frowned upon and regarded as sin. Homosexuals were insulted and regarded as effeminate (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 was different to the prudish conceptions of modern times. One long-misunderstood practice was pederasty.
In ancient Greece , pederasty was a relationship between an older man and a younger man or teen. This relationship usually lasted a good many years, but was 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 to incorporate the practice into society in a structural fashion.
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 supposedly 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 a “proper Athenian” - would create, in essence, a "breed" of perfect men.
The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus has long been misunderstood. The image depicts a Pederastic scene, with the older erastes (lover) touching chin and genitals of the younger eromenos (beloved). This is side A of an Attic black-figure neck-amphora from about 540 BC. (Staatliche Antikensammlungen / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Was this the true nature of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus? Possibly. At the time it was not uncommon for males to have sexual relations with one another. 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 lover.
Achilles tending Patroclus having been wounded by an arrow, identified by inscriptions on the upper part of an Attic red-figure kylix from around 500 BC. ( Public domain )
Or Were Achilles and Patroclus Just Good Friends?
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. Aeschylus, for one, 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. Was Achilles a 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.
This latter theory is not as popular among art historians, due to the emotional and mental breakdown of Achilles at Patroclus' death displayed in both artistic and literary depictions of the event. It is described and depicted in the same manner a wife would mourn her husband's death—crying wretched tears or beating his chest.
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 into 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: The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, be it sexual or not, has dominated the conversation over the centuries. Here Achilles can be seen lamenting the death of Patroclus in the famous painting by Nikolai Ge from 1855. Source: Public Domain
By Ryan Stone
Updated on February 11, 2021.
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