Achilles and Patroclus: The erasure of LGBT+ History by Reyna Jani
Figure 1: Achilles Displaying the Body of Hector at the Feet of Patroclus
Jean Joseph Taillason, 1769
Arguably this painting could be interpreted in two ways. Achilles appears vengeful, pointing the corpse of Hector at Patroclus’ corpse. Yet, Achilles’ closeness to Patroclus might indicate their intimacy, since though Patroclus is now long dead - indicated by his pallor - Achilles is still connected to him above all others.
To some, it is the love that launched a thousand warriors and a representation that survived the test of time. To others, it is the intimate friendship which brought the wrath of Achilles upon the Trojan walls. But how has homophobia influenced the reading of the Iliad?
Pederasty was an ancient custom wherein an erastes (an older male in his mid-to-late twenties) and an eromenos (a younger male past puberty but under the age of eighteen) would partake in the pleasures of an intellectual and/or sexual relationship. This was seen to be beneficial to Greek society since the erastes ideally had a teacher-like relationship with the eromenos. This was modelled in the relationship of Zeus and Ganymede, which was ideal due to their age difference; Ganymede was a beautiful boy, granted immortality in exchange for entertaining Zeus.
However, when examining the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, scholars over the centuries have debated whether their relationship fits with our conception of homosexuality today – many scholars argue that the Greeks did not have the same labels for sexuality that we do now. Many argue that Homer’s treatment of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship in the Iliad is ambiguous. It is unclear whether they were lovers who slept together, or were simply best friends that shared a tent. So, how has this influenced modern depictions of the pair?
The movie Troy featured numerous historical inaccuracies, deviating far from the narrative of the Iliad; for example, Menelaus and Agamemnon die far too prematurely. Another noticeable difference that transforms the entire plot is Patroclus' minor role as Achilles’ cousin; in the Iliad, he is greatly respected and dies a hero. Homer’s ambiguous language is liable to be interpreted in various ways, especially regarding Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship – Hollywood chose to deny any sexual meaning to it.
In the Iliad, Briseis’ relationship with Achilles was assisted by Patroclus, as she claims that Patroclus promised to convince Achilles to marry her. Yet, in Troy there was no such relationship, with Patroclus having limited influence over Achilles and his decisions. Whilst the Iliad depicts Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship as one of respect, in Troy Achilles is a blasphemous brute, acting only for his own glory and pleasure. By reducing Patroclus to a minor character, Troy reduces Achilles as a hero, and by rendering its storyline entirely heteronormative, the film manipulates the rage of Achilles into selfish wrath, rather than unwavering loyalty to his companion. Troy compares the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus to that of Hector and Paris, depriving the plot of the nuances of relationships in the Iliad, for the sake of heteronormativity in action movies. By depriving the Iliad of LGBT+ history, Troy imagines the Trojan war to be a human battle for empires, with the evil Menelaus and Agamemnon dying and the honourable Paris and Helen surviving to continue their ‘true love’. Achilles and Patroclus both die, supposedly as punishment for their choices in the war.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller takes Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship in entirely the opposite direction. In Troy, they were cousins who spent a few years together before joining battle. From Patroclus’ perspective, Miller narrates an intense love story developing from youth until Achilles’ death. She embellishes the few known details about Achilles’ youth and provides stirring insight into the lives of both heroes. From a mention of Patroclus being a skilled physician in the Iliad, Miller constructs Patroclus’ lifetime of learning about medicine and links it into Patroclus’ decision to fight into the war. She embellishes the ambiguities of the Iliad, taking Homer’s plot and clarifying it in a modern light, whilst avoiding the specific label of ‘homosexual’ in the narrative - arguably this is never clarified, though it is certain that Miller intends for Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship to be more intimate than mere companionship.
In Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, the Greek commanders initially dislike Patroclus because he and Achilles are lovers, which allegedly puts Achilles off fighting. Once it is revealed that it is Polyxena who prevented Achilles from going to war, Patroclus is absolved and convinces Achilles to fight. Interestingly, whilst literary tradition prefers to portray Achilles and Patroclus as comrades, Shakespeare suggests they might be lovers, despite ‘buggery’ (a derogatory term for male same-sex relationships) being criminalised in England just a few decades previously by Henry VIII.
Recent texts tend to portray Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship as close but ambiguous, such as in Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls or Dan Simmons’ Illium. Some, however, such as Miller, attempt to reclaim this element of the narrative, as does Emily Hauser in For the Most Beautiful. Even in DC Comics, Achilles is resurrected as Wonder Woman’s male homosexual counterpart and has a relationship with the reincarnation of Patroclus.
The debate still continues today as to whether Achilles and Patroclus were lovers, or just intimate friends who wished to have their ashes mixed together so they could be together for eternity. Though we will never know for certain what Homer intended, this love story remains heartbreaking to this day.
Illustration on a vase (c.500 BC) of Achilles tending the wounded Patroklos,
found in Vulci, Italy