Updated: Jun 24, 2020
Love in the Ancient World
Sexuality in Ancient Greece is a notoriously thorny issue for scholars ancient and modern alike. Greek and Roman society held fundamentally different and sometimes complex views of how sexual relationships operated. As such we have often faced difficulty in ascribing a sexual identity to figures from antiquity, as labels such as homosexual or bisexual are incompatible with ancient concepts of sex and intimacy. The conception of human sexuality as an innate and immovable part of human identity is something that has only entered society fairly recently. Some have suggested that ancient sexuality can be viewed as a vertical rather than horizonal system- this means that in the ancient mindset, many sexual relations were entered into not just for the purpose of mutual intimacy but were partially a reflection of the hierarchy of ancient society. Under this framework sexual attraction to, and intimate relationships between, men were acceptable so long as they adhered to certain roles. Usually, a citizen male of a Classical city would have been permitted to pursue intimacy with another person regardless of their gender so long as they occupied a social role that, at the time, was considered inferior. This could include younger men, enslaved men, and women.
However, not all relationships documented from the ancient world adhered so strictly to the confines of social hierarchy. There is a plethora of evidence from ancient literature and art that suggests that same-gender attraction was apparent between couples for purposes of genuine affection. While previous generations of scholars had made attempts to sanitise, or indeed completely redact, evidence of same-sex attraction in the ancient world, in recent decades there has been more consideration of love and relationships that appear outside of the typical heterosexual hierarchy. One of the most prominent figures of antiquity who is known to have engaged in intimate relationships with both men and women is the Macedonian King and Conqueror, Alexander the Great.
Monument of Alexander the Great in Thessaloniki, Macedonia
Alexander’s Wives and Mistresses
Alexander is well known for his ambiguous sexuality. His attitudes towards sex and relationships were complex during his lifetime, as he was famously known to have remarked that the sex was one of the few things that reminded him that he was mortal. It is said that his mother was so concerned about the young Alexander’s lack of interest in women that she was worried he would never marry or produce heirs. Her worries were apparently unfounded as Alexander made three marriages to Persian women during his lifetime and fathered two children. Some ancient sources also note that Alexander took a mistress early on during his eastern campaign by the name of Campaspe. Pliny the Elder notes a famous anecdote where Alexander had his beautiful mistress painted by his favourite artist Apelles. During the process, the artist fell in love with his model and Alexander, seeing that Apelles loved her much more than he did, gifted the beautiful women to Apelles while he kept the painting. Another famous mistress of Alexander’s was a Persian woman by the name of Barsine, by whom Alexander fathered an illegitimate child he named Herakles.
Roxane, the first of Alexander’s wives, was said in antiquity to be one of the most beautiful of Alexander’s wives and tradition tells that their union was a love match rather than a political one. In the view of some scholars, this is a romanticised view as Roxane was the daughter of a Bactrian noble, an area which Alexander had faced some resistance in conquering, and so their union would have come with some political benefits. Roxane was the mother of Alexander’s only legitimate son, Alexander IV, who was born some months after the King’s death.
His other marriages, to Stateira and Parysatis, the daughters of the previous king of Persia, were recorded by ancient historians but produced no children and little is known about the nature of the marriages.
Marriage of Alexander and Roxana detail from The Women of Darius's Family before Alexander the Great, Il Sodoma, 1517
Much more is known about Alexander’s intimate relationships with men during his lifetime. Specifically, Hephaestion, son of Amyntor, a Macedonian noble and Alexander’s friend since childhood. The nature of the relationship has been subject to ambiguous interpretation, as due to their proximity in age and rank they did not suit the typical sexual hierarchy of the Classical age. Because of this some scholars suggest that while the two may have been physically intimate in their adolescence this would not have continued into adulthood.
However, this does not negate the closeness of their adult relationship, as demonstrated by the prominent role Hephaestion had within Alexander’s royal circle: he was entrusted with some of the highest administrative responsibilities and one of the highest ranks of command’s within the army. Ancient evidence does suggest that Alexander openly acknowledged the homoerotic and intimate nature of his relationship with Hephaestion throughout their lifetime and that Alexander’s ancient biographers intended to record it as such. One of the key focuses of this argument is the persistent allusions made between their relationship and that of Alexander’s mythical ancestor and personal hero, Achilles and his own companion Patroclus.
The nature of the relationship between Homer’s two Iliadic heroes was a reoccurring discussion in Classical literary discourse. Much like Alexander and Hephaestion with their proximity in age and rank, it is difficult to impose the ideal sexual paradigm onto Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship in a way that made a homoerotic relationship between them permissible by Classical standards. In Xenophon’s Symposium, Socrates argues that Patroclus was not Achilles’ lover but his companion without necessarily implying that the two were physically intimate. However, many suggest that in Alexander’s time it was common knowledge that the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was seen as sexual, with the debate only existing over which role the lovers would take during intercourse. If this is to be the case, then Alexander and Hephaestion’s own relationship dynamic must have been of a sexual and intimate nature also as the association of the two pairs is explicitly made in an anecdote related by several of the Alexander historians. When on campaign in Asia minor Alexander and Hephaestion paid a visit to the sacred site of Troy and made offerings to the tomb of Achilles and Patroclus, honouring their close and potentially intimate bond as it mirrored their own.
It is also worth noting that contemporaries of Alexander and Hephaestion were known to interpret their relationship as sexual, as shown by a pithy quip by cynic philosopher Diogenes which said that Alexander was ‘held fast by Hephaestion’s thighs’. The reference to thighs is undoubtably indicating a physically sexual relationship between the two into adulthood. Also notable is the unique vocabulary used in reference to Hephaestion. While Alexander was never short of devoted friends, Diodorus notes how another of his closest companions from Macedon, Craterus, was merely ‘king-loving’ (philbasileus) while only Hephaestion was ‘Alexander-loving’ (philalexandros) further hinting at an unparalleled level of intimacy between the two men. In one of the most famous and romanticised tales of Alexander and Hephaestion’s closeness, when the mother of the defeated Persian king visited Alexander’s camp to appeal for mercy she at first mistook Hephaestion, who ancient historians record as being taller and more handsome than the king, for Alexander himself. Rather than be embarrassed or angered by this, Alexander replied that ‘He too is Alexander’. This undoubtably denotes the closeness of their relationship and suggest a level of emotional intimacy at the very least that is understandable by both modern and ancient ideas of interpersonal relationships. After Hephaestion’s premature death, Alexander was said to be overcome with an inconsolable grief and attempted to construct an unprecedented funerary monument in honour of his deceased companion. The monument would not be completed however as Alexander himself died less than a year later, and some historians have suggested that Alexander’s intense grief over the loss of his dearest companion was one of the contributing factors to the decline in Alexander’s emotional health and general wellbeing.
In popular culture, it is Alexander’s relationship with Hephaestion that has been subject to most consideration. In Mary Renault’s novels of the mid-twentieth century, Alexander’s intimate relationship with Hephaestion is central to the narrative and had a lasting legacy on how Alexander’s sexuality was viewed in both scholarship and public history. The legacy of this intimate and romantic rendition of their relationship is keenly seen in Oliver Stone’s 2004 film Alexander which brought this ancient couple even further into the mainstream. While Alexander’s sexuality in the ancient tradition and in scholarship is more ambiguous and up for debate, in the realm of LGBTQIA fiction and popular culture the relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion remains a popular source of inspiration.
Deer hunt mosaic from Pella, possibly depicting Alexander (right) and his companion Hephaestion (left) circa 4th century BCE