Achilles and Patroclus

by Jason Stotts

I hate when writers or directors anachronistically rewrite history to conform to their own beliefs and prejudices.  This is very apparent in the case of Achilles, who is often portrayed at being overcome by grief at the death of his cousin Patroclus, who dies at the hands of Hector. This is why Achilles challenges Hector to solitary combat and slays him. The problem is that Patroclus was, in most versions of the story, not Achilles’s cousin, but his lover.

[The gods] sent [Achilles] to the Isles of the Blest because he dared to stand by his lover Patroclus and avenge him, even after he had learned from his mother that he would die if he killed Hector, but that if he chose otherwise he’d go home and end his life as an old man.  Instead, he chose to die for Patroclus, and more than that, he did it for a man whose life was already over. (Plato, Symp 180a)

This kind of rewriting of history to remove the homoerotic and bisexual elements to conform to the twisted and misanthropic notions of the monotheists sickens me.

6 Responses to “Achilles and Patroclus”


  1. William H Stoddard

    Describing ancient Greeks as "bisexual" or "homosexual" is a bit misleading in itself, in that it will invite the reader to suppose that what is meant by those words is what we mean now. The actual cultural history, and even the language, show that Greek ideas were quite different.

    Fundamentally, the ancient Greeks regarded a sexual relationship between equals as abnormal, if not impossible. They conceived sex to involve a superior, the penetrator, and an inferior, the one penetrated. The fitting role for a free man was as the superior. He might, in some cities, choose to pursue a woman, or a boy, or a slave; most Greeks regarded all those choices as acceptable and as a matter of personal taste. But an adult man who accepted being penetrated by another adult man was despised; there were rude epithets for such men, such as katapygon or eurypygon.

    How this ties to Achilles and Patroclus is an interesting question. Apparently Patroclus was older than Achilles. Achilles might have been a suitable dominant partner because he was a hero beyond the measure of mortal men; or, conceivably, Patroclus might have been the dominant partner, given the emphasis on Achilles dying young and the story about his being able to hide among the girls just before he was recruited for the Trojan War; or they might have had a passionate and deeply committed friends without sexual consummation. But I think an interpretation of the situation in terms of modern concepts of bisexuality is just as anachronistic as one that takes both men to have been exclusively interested in women. (Obviously Achilles was interested in women, given his sexual relationship with one of the girls he was hidden among, his attraction to Penthesilea, and the quarrel over a captive Trojan woman that motivates the Iliad.)

  2. Jason

    Tenure,

    I concede that the original was not as clear at it should have been and would have made a stronger point if it had been phrased differently.

    ~Jason

  3. Jason

    William,

    I completely agree that applying the modern terms like "homosexual" or "heterosexual" to greek persons is inappropriate. I've actually written on this topic before and conclude that the words can be useful to describe the actions, but not as categories of persons, since they did not have such categories.

    In one of the most important works on Greek homosexuality ever, Dover's Greek Homosexuality, he makes the point that "The peculiar feature of Achilles' devotion to Patroklos, as portrayed in the Iliad, were not only the insane extravagence of his grief at Patroklos's death but his decision to stay on at Troy and avenge Patroklos even though he knew that by diong so he doomed himself to an early death when he could have gone home and lived to a peaceful old age" (41) This kind of grief would have been inexplainable, unless they were lovers.

    Further, Dover notes that:

    Homer, as Aiskhines i 142 remarks, nowhere speaks of an erotic relationship between Achilles and Patroklos. We would reasonably attribute the poet's silence to the the absence of any erotic element from the relationship as he envisaged it, but to Aiskhines, as to other Greeks of the classical period, the etravagence of Achilles' emotion when Patroklos is killed, ombined with the injunction of Patroklos that when Achilles too dies their ashes should be interred together, signified homosexual eros, and Aiskhines treats Homer's reticence as a sign of cultivated sensitivity.
    […]
    Phaidros is right in saying that Homer represent Achilles as younger than Patroklos (Il. xi 786), yet he does not discard the erotic interpretation of the story; for him Achilles is the eromenos who so honored his erastes Patroklos that he was ready to die in avenging him. (197)

    Achilles's actions make no sense to a Greek: unless he and Patroklos were lovers.

    ~Jason

  4. Kelly Elmore

    I don't have any particular opinion about whether Patroklos and Achilles were lovers. But, from my reading of The Illiad, anyway, Achilles was not just staying to avenge Patroklos because of grief. He was also fighting for honor; what Greek hero wanted to die of old age? It was better to die as a warrior and be worthy of the Elysian fields. Also, Achilles realizes that Patroklos died because Achilles himself refused to fight. Patroklos was wearing Achilles's armor when he rode out before the walls of Troy. Achilles is also fighting because his friend/lover/whatever is dead BECAUSE OF HIM.

  5. levelek

    Um, Plato was not a monotheist (certainly not in the sense of believing in one personal God). Nor do monotheists as a rule pursue a homophobic agenda. Not even Christians do. Just two cents from a pro-gay Christian (one of many).

  6. Jason

    levelek,

    Never said Plato was a monotheist.

    All monotheistic religions today are against homosexuality. To the extent that any particular practitioner is not (as in any particular christian), they are not correctly observing their religion and are just picking and choosing (bible) passages to fit what they want to believe. Of course, consistently following the bible would mean death, but that's another matter.

    Nevertheless, I'm glad to hear that there are pro-gay christians.

    ~Jason