Reminder: The Ancient Greeks had a very different concept of sexuality than modern audiences, making efforts to apply modern labels to ancient relationships complicated.
The nature of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is disputed, and has been for thousands of years.
Although Homer did not explicitly portray Achilles and Patroclus as lovers in the Iliad, they were characterized as such by many later authors in antiquity, particularly in Athens during the 5th century BCE, when the relationship was often viewed in light of the custom at that time of paiderasteia, a practice which was never alluded to in Homer, either in connection with Achilles and Patroclus or any other couple, and which may not have existed during Homer's era. (The Trojan War itself, if it was indeed a historical event, is believed to have taken place sometime during the 13th to 11th centuries BCE, and Homer, if he was a real person, is thought to have lived sometime between the 9th and 12th centuries BCE.) However, the relationship as depicted in Homer does not follow the typical pattern of paiderasteia and later authors in antiquity were often forced to change details in order to make it fit more neatly with what audiences of their time would have expected. For example, paiderasteia involved a dominant, older partner (the erastês) and a younger, submissive partner (the erômenos or paidika). In Homer, however, Patroclus is described as the older of the two men, but Achilles as the dominant partner in the relationship. For this reason, while some contemporary readers maintain the same pederastic view as the ancient Athenians, many others see it as an egalitarian homosexual relationship, or believe the relationship to be a strong friendship rather than a romantic or sexual relationship.
David Halperin writes in The Oxford Classical Dictionary that "Homer, to be sure, does not portray Achilles and Patroclus as lovers[...], but he also did little to rule out such an interpretation."
The earliest surviving depiction of Achilles and Patroclus as lovers dates from the early 5th century BCE, in the Achilleis, a lost trilogy by Aeschylus that survives only in fragments. Part of Achilles's lamentation over Patroclus's corpse (fr. 135) is among the surviving fragments of the first play in the trilogy, The Myrmidons:
σέβας δὲ μηρῶν ἁγνὸν οὐ κατῃδέσω / ὦ δυσχάριστε τῶν πυκνῶν φιλημάτων
It is translated variously as:
"Does it mean nothing to you, the unblemished thighs I worshipped and the showers of kisses you had from me?" (as quoted in The Invention of Love, by Tom Stoppard)
"And you did not respect the chaste consecration of the thighs, oh ungrateful that you were for those countless kisses!"
"You abjured the holy sacrament of the thighs! You spurned a profusion of kisses!" (unknown translation)
Another fragment (fr. 136) Achilles states:
μηρῶν τε τῶν σῶν ηὐσέβησ’ ὁμιλίαν / κλαίων
This translates to:
"I honored the intimacy of your thighs by bewailing you."
Terms such as "the chaste consecration of the thighs" and "the intimacy of the thighs" are references to intercrural sex, which would seem to leave little doubt that Aeschylus regarded the pair as lovers.
In the Symposium, Plato also suggested (via Phaedrus) that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers, although unlike Aeschylus, who seems to have regarded Achilles as the erastes and Patroclus as the eromenos, Phaedrus argues that it was Achilles who was the eromenos. Yes, one of the greatest philosophical works ever written devotes an entire passage to the argument that Achilles was the bottom in the relationship. Ain't the Greeks great?
Αἰσχύλος δὲ φλυαρεῖ φάσκων Ἀχιλλέα Πατρόκλου ἐρᾶν, ὃς ἦν καλλίων οὐ μόνον Πατρόκλου ἀλλ᾽ ἅμα καὶ τῶν ἡρώων ἁπάντων, καὶ ἔτι ἀγένειος, ἔπειτα νεώτερος πολύ, ὥς φησιν Ὅμηρος.
Aeschylus is talking nonsense when he says that it was Achilles who was in love with Patroclus, because Achilles was more beautiful not only than Patroclus, but than all the heroes, and his beard was not yet grown, moreover he was much younger, as Homer says.
However, as Celsiana Warwick points out in The Chaste Consecration Of The Thighs: Post-Homeric Representations Of Achilles And Patroclus In Classical Greek Literature:
The Iliad does state that Achilles is younger and more beautiful than Patroclus, which to a classical audience would have meant that it would be inappropriate for him to be Patroclus’ erastês. Phaedrus has picked out specific details from the Iliad which bolster his claim, but his characterization of Achilles as Patroclus’ physically immature erômenos is no more supported by the original text than is Aeschylus’ adolescent Patroclus. The passage in Book 11 does not say that Achilles is younger by far (neôteros polu), as Phaedrus claims, but only that Patroclus is older (presbuteros) by some unspecified amount. Phaedrus ignores Patroclus' subservient role as Achilles’ therapôn ("servant/charioteer") and the multiple passages which refer to Achilles as larger and stronger than the other heroes. Furthermore, the portrayal of Achilles as a beardless youth that Phaedrus cites is not Homeric, but rather a convention of vase painting that was especially popular in the second half of the fifth century.
Unlike Aeschylus and Plato, Xenophon did not regard Achilles and Patroclus as lovers, but argued in his own Symposium that they were companions, not lovers.
Xenophon's Socrates uses Achilles and Patroclus as an example of an ideal relationship between men, one based solely on philia rather than erôs. Their prowess comes not from a sexual bond (οὐ διὰ τὸ συγκαθεύδειν), but from mutual respect and admiration (τὸ ἄγασθαι ἀλλήλους). He has chosen to characterize them this way in order to provide proof for the overall argument of his speech: that pederastic sex is without benefits, especially in a martial context.
In his speech Against Timarchus given in 346 or 345 BCE, Aeschines also argued that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers, stating that:
[Homer] hides their love and the name of their friendship, thinking that the remarkable strength of their affection is obvious to the educated among his audience.
Aeschines goes on to cite several passages from Homer that he believes support his case, most particularly Achilles's request that he and Patroclus be buried in the same vessel.
The novels of Mary Renault make frequent reference to Achilles and Patroclus as lovers.
In the 2004 film Troy, Patroclus (Garrett Hedlund) was identified as a younger cousin of Achilles (Brad Pitt). Achilles and Patroclus were in fact cousins (first cousins once removed, via Aegina, who was Patroclus's paternal grandmother and Achilles's great-grandmother - see chart), but in Homer, Patroclus is described as the elder of the two men.
One of the most interesting modern discussions of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is found in Jonathan Shay's Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, which discusses the psychological trauma of war by comparing the soldiers of the Iliad with the experiences of combat veterans of the Vietnam War. Among other topics, Shay discusses the phenomenon of "berserk" rage as it manifested in Achilles and Vietnam veterans, and the close bonds formed between combat soldiers. Concerning the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, Shay concludes: "Achilles' grief for Patroklos would not have been greater had they been a sexual couple, nor less if they had not been."
- Oxford Classical Dictionary, third edition. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. p. 721. ISBN 0-19-866172-X.
- pg 42
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