Achilles and Patroclus

From Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core
Jump to: navigation, search
Achilles bandages the arm of Patroclus

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, the two heroes have a deep and meaningful friendship. Achilles is tender towards Patroclus, while he is callous and arrogant towards others. In the Iliad Homer never suggests that Achilles and his close friend Patroclus were lovers.[1] However, this omission was challenged by some later authors.[2][3] Commentators from the Classical period on have interpreted the relationship through the lens of their own cultures. In Athens during the 5th century BC, the relationship was often viewed in light of the Greek custom of paiderasteia. While some contemporary readers maintain the same pederastic view, others see it as an egalitarian homosexual pairing or believe the relationship to simply be a strong, non-sexual friendship between two war heroes.

In the Iliad

Due to this strong relationship, the death of Patroclus becomes the prime motivation for Achilles to return to battle. The friendship of Achilles and Patroclus is mentioned explicitly in the Iliad. Whether in the context of a tender friendship or military excellence, Homer makes their strong connection clear.[3]

The death of Patroclus underpins a great deal of Achilles' actions and emotions toward the Trojan war for the rest of the poem. 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).[4]

Hetaîros meant companion or comrade; in Homer it is usually used of soldiers under the same commander. While its feminine form (hetaîra) would be used for courtesans, an hetaîros was still a form of soldier in Hellenistic and Byzantine times. In ancient texts, philos denoted a general type of love, used for love between family, between friends, a desire or enjoyment of an activity, as well as between lovers.

Although most warriors fought for personal fame or their city-state (including, at times, Achilles), at certain junctures in the Iliad, Achilles fights for Patroclus. He dreams that all Greeks would die so that he and Patroclus might gain the fame of conquering Troy alone .[5] 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. For a brief moment Achilles' character shifts from a strong and unbreakable warrior to an emotional and vulnerable character. However, Thetis motivates Achilles to return to the battlefield. Achilles returns to the battlefield with the sole aim of avenging Patroclus' death by killing 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: Alexander the Great and Hephaestion who was based directly on the one between Achilles and Patroclus, Damon and Pythias, Orestes and Pylades, Harmodius and Aristogeiton are pairs of comrades who gladly face danger and death for and beside each other.[6]

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.[7]

Classical and post-Classical views in antiquity

In the 5th and 4th centuries, the relationship with Patroclus was portrayed as same-sex love in the works of Aeschylus, Plato and Aeschines. Enigmatic verses from Lycophron's 3rd-century Alexandra seem to 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 between Achilles and Patroclus was presented as loving and pederastic,[8] although these roles are anachronistic for the Iliad. 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; see Iliad, IX.663-669:

But Achilles slept in the innermost part of the well-builded hut, and by his side lay a woman that he had brought from Lesbos, even the daughter of Phorbas, fair-cheeked Diomede. And Patroclus laid him down on the opposite side, and by him in like manner lay fair-girdled Iphis, whom goodly Achilles had given him when he took steep Scyrus, the city of Enyeus.

In the 5th century BC, in Aeschylus' lost tragedy The Myrmidons, Aeschylus 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".[3][9]

Plato presented Achilles and Patroclus as lovers in the Symposium, written around 385 BC. The speaker 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."[3] However, Plato's contemporary, Xenophon, in his own Symposium, had Socrates argue that Achilles and Patroclus were merely chaste and devoted comrades.[5]

Further 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 paiderasteia 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."[10] Most ancient writers (among the most influential Aeschylus, Plutarch, Theocritus, Martial and Lucian)[5] 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, a deep friendship or an egalitarian sexual relationship. Furthermore, such scholars[who?] believe that in Homer's Ionian culture homosexuality had not taken on the form it later would in pederasty.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

Attempts to edit Homer's 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.[11] The majority of ancient and modern historians have accepted the lines to be an original part.[citation needed]

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 friendship. The joint tomb and Alexander's action demonstrates the perceived significance of the Achilles-Patroclus relationship at that time (around 334 BC).[12][13]

Post-classical and modern interpretations

Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus (1855) by the Russian realist Nikolai Ge

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.[14]

Aeschylus' 5th century (lost) play Myrmidons made their relationship explicitly sexual, with Achilles as he laments his friend speaking of how he longs for Patroclus' thighs and sweet kisses. In the Iliad itself, the two share an intense but non-sexual relationship: David Halperin ("Heroes and their Pals") compares the traditions of Jonathan and David, and Gilgamesh and Enkidu, which are approximately contemporary with the Iliad's composition, and argues that, while none of these three relationships is portrayed as explicitly sexual in its literary and social context, all of them show how intense same-sex male warrior friendships, being extra-institutional within their societies, were of necessity portrayed by using the language of other, more institutionalized love relationships, such as those of parent/child and husband/wife. This explains well the overtones in the Iliad of having Achilles mourn Patroclus in the manner just used by the girl Briseis a few lines before him, in Book 19, lines 287–300 (Briseis' lament) and lines 315–337 (Achilles' lament) .[5]

Jonathan Shay, who in his book "Achilles in Vietnam" proposes readings of the Iliad that have been helpful and therapeutically useful for the healing of mental wounds in Vietnam veterans, pointed out that their familial relationship in the Iliad must not be overlooked: Patroclus is Achilles' cousin and his foster brother; symbolically, comrades in battle are "like brothers," making the Achilles/Patroclus model useful for thinking about the intensity of Vietnam veterans' feelings of loss when their comrades fell beside them. Shay places a strong emphasis on the relationships that soldiers who experience combat together forge, and points out that this kind of loss has in fact often led to "berserking" of soldiers stunned with grief and rage, in a way similar to the raging of Achilles in the Iliad. Shay points out that a frequent topos in veterans' grief for a companion is that companion's gentleness or innocence; similarly, while a warrior of great note, Patroclus is said in the Iliad by other soldiers and by Briseis the captive to have been gentle and kind.

Classical tradition

William Shakespeare's play Troilus and Cressida depicts Achilles and Patroclus as lovers. Achilles' decision to spend his days in his tent with Patroclus is seen by Ulysses and many other Greeks as the chief's reason of anxiety about Troy.[citation needed]

The novels of Mary Renault contain frequent symbolic references to Achilles and Patroclus; the pair represent a model for the non-effeminate, comradely homosexual love that was her ideal.

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," an allusion to Iliad Book 9, when the embassy of Greek leaders find Achilles playing the lyre and singing, while Patroclus waits for his friend to end his song. The relationship is intensely intimate, and certainly exceeds the common bounds of friendship.

The film Troy presented Patroclus as a younger relative of Achilles, without any romantic or sexual aspects. (In the Iliad, it is explicitly stated that Patroclus was the older and more responsible of the two.)

The musical Spring Awakening, includes an offhand reference where one boy, Hanschen, entreats another, Ernst to 'do a little Achilles and Patroclus'. The two characters are later shown engaging 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.

Byrne Fone's 2008 novel Achilles: A Love Story portrays Achilles and Patroclus as lovers.

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

Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles (2011) is a coming-of-age story told from Patroclus' point of view, showing the development of a loving homosexual relationship between Achilles and Patroclus.

In Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, the characters Enjolras and Grantaire are compared to Achilles and Patroclus, suggesting a romantic attachment between them.

Literary significance

  • Nature of the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles

Some scholars claim that the exact nature of the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles has profound literary and artistic implications. As Kenneth Dover points out in his Greek Homosexuality,[15] knowing whether Achilles was erastes and Patroclus eromenos or whether their love was egalitarian, was crucial to understanding the thematic makeup of the Iliad, from the perspective of later Greeks.

There are many possible interpretations on the nature of the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. Three popular ones are:

  1. Achilles was the dominant lover, and he learns from Patroclus' that sacrifice is rooted in a startling role-reversal: in death, the student becomes the teacher. The change in Achilles' character 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.
  2. Patroclus was the dominant lover, 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.
  3. Achilles and Patroclus represent an egalitarian homosexual pairing, the time and nature of Achilles' pivotal character development are shaded with gray and open to interpretation.
  • The Death of Patroclus

The way in which Patroclus died offers another kind of literary significance. Patroclus dies by masking himself as Achilles; when he dies, those around him mourn him as the "best of the Achaians," a title usually reserved for Achilles. Patroclus' attempt to mask his identity sets off a line of people that will do the same. Hiding and revealing one's identity becomes a constant theme throughout Greek epics.

Death, in general, is an obvious key element of the Iliad. The importance of human life versus the gods' immortality and ability to play with human life is a constant struggle. Homer makes it clear that human life is precious by giving every character that dies a brief biography. While Homer uses such deaths as Patroclus' to further show impertinence and the mourning of a warrior, it is death throughout the Iliad that makes this theme so important.

See also


  1. Fox, Robin (2011). The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind. Harvard University Press. p. 223. ISBN 9780674060944. There is certainly no evidence in the text of the Iliad that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Martin, Thomas R (2012). Alexander the Great : the story of an ancient life. Cambridge University Press. pp. 99–100. ISBN 0521148448. The ancient sources do not report, however, what modern scholars have asserted: that Alexander and his very close friend Hephaestion were lovers. Achilles and his equally close friend Patroclus provided the legendary model for this friendship, but Homer in the Iliad never suggested that they had sex with each other. (That came from later authors.) If Alexander and Hephaestion did have a sexual relationship, it would have been transgressive by majority Greek standards...<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Pequigney, Joseph (2002). "Classical Mythology: Achilles, Patroclus, and the Love of Heroes". p. 5. Retrieved February 5, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Gregory Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans, second edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. p. 105 (online edition). ISBN 0-8018-6015-6.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 W. M. Clarke, "Achilles and Patroclus in Love," in Hermes 106. Bd., H. 3, pp. 381-396, Franz Steiner Verlag, 1978 JOSTOR
  6. Warren Johansson, Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, USA, 1990
  7. Oxford Classical Dictionary, third edition. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. p. 721. ISBN 0-19-866172-X.
  8. 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
  9. Aesch. Myrmidons fr. 135 Radt.
  10. Michelakis, Pantelis (2007). Achilles in Greek Tragedy. Cambridge University Press. p. 51. ISBN 0-521-81843-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "Homosexuality & Civilization" by Louis Crompton. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993, p. 6.
  12. Age of Alexander, Life of Alexander by Plutarch, p. 294, Penguin Classics edition 1973
  13. Arrian. The Campaigns of Alexander. p. 67, Penguin Classics edition (1958).
  14. Katherine Callen King, Achilles: Paradigms of the War Hero from Homer to the Middle Ages, Berkeley, 1987
  15. *Greek Homosexuality, by Kenneth J. Dover; New York; Vintage Books, 1978. ISBN 0-394-74224-9