Alexander’s Sexuality

The Bay Area Reporter of San Francisco has published an article titled Alexander the Great & Greek Love on its website. You can read it here.

By the standards of most on-line articles concerning Alexander, the article is a really good one; the writer has clearly looked more deeply into the topic than plenty of other journalists. Occasionally, however, he lets himself down.

Paragraph 1
This is an excellent introduction to Alexander. It’s the kind of passage that I wish I had written. I would dispute that Alexander ‘in the West, [is] probably the best-known ancient ruler’. In my opinion that honour belongs to Julius Caesar.

Paragraph 2
Another good paragraph. Unfortunately, it does contain one mistake: contrary to what the writer asserts, Philip II did not ‘subjugate’ Sparta. He threatened the Spartans but never invaded their country. Ultimately, he had no need to do so. On the positive side, the writer makes a nice point about Olympias, one that is always worth remembering: ‘Olympias must have been remarkable, or else little would be known about her’.

Paragraph 3
Again, a good paragraph. The line ‘Philip was assassinated, perhaps by a former male lover’ (my emphasis) stood out for me. Diodorus (XVI.93) says that that a man named Pausanias was ‘beloved by [Philip] because of his beauty’. In English, to be beloved of someone is not necessarily to be their lover, which is perhaps the reason for the writer’s caution in describing Pausanias. However, Diodorus goes on to describe how he – Pausanias – bad mouthed another man of the same name when he – Pausanias the assassin – ‘saw that the king was becoming enamoured’ of them. Pausanias accused his namesake ‘of being a hermaphrodite and prompt to accept the amorous advances of any who wished’. If Pausanias the assassin was not Philip’s lover I don’t think he would have had any reason to speak to the second Pausanias in that way.

Paragraph 4
This paragraph opens with some excellent questions regarding Alexander’s empire that we will debate until the end of time. The writer then states that Alexander ‘married an Afghanistani chieftain’s daughter’. Roxane, of course, was not from Afghanistan. The country did not exist then. She was Bactrian.

Paragraph 5
It’s hard to judge this paragraph one way or the other as the writer dives into history too early and late for me. However, I like very much that he recognises that it is anachronistic to talk of Alexander being homosexual on the grounds that ‘”homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” as social constructs didn’t exist before the 19th century’. For the record, I have no idea when homo- and hetero- sexuality were invented so I take him at his word that it was indeed in the nineteenth century.

Paragraph 6
The writer points out that ‘many writers’ believe Alexander and Hephaestion could not have had a sexual relationship as they ‘were the same age’ (Curtius III.12.16 says they were the same age) and points to evidence in James Davidson’s The Greeks and Greek Love to show that peers could be lovers. He cites Davidson’s example of Harmodius and Aristogeiton. They lived in the sixth century B.C. It would, I suppose, have been more helpful to use an example from Alexander’s own time as times do change but given how slowly this seems to have happened in the past I doubt much changed between the late sixth century and the middle of the fourth.

Paragraph 7
The following two quotations contain the whole of this paragraph. The writers states,

Most ancient sources agree that Alexander was attracted to young men.

This is more than I know. I know that he was certainly attracted to one young man – Bagoas; I am not aware of any others with whom he had an affair. It would be interesting to know who the writer’s source was, or who his sources were, for this statement.

According to Plutarch, Hephaestion was the man whom “Alexander loved most of all.”

This quotation doesn’t appear in my Penguin Classics (2011) edition of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander but I think it comes from Chapter 47. In my edition, the text there reads ‘In general [Alexander] showed most affection for Hephaestion’.

Their relationship was all-encompassing. They drank, hunted, and campaigned together. Hephaestion acted as Alexander’s Chief of Staff. It was most likely sexual. 

Really? It is equally likely that they were simply very close friends. In terms of how the writer sees Alexander’s and Hephaestion’s relationship, I am on his side, but here I think the last sentence is an example of his wish for the two to have been lovers rather than because the facts he mentions prove it to have been so.

Paragraphs 8 – 9
Here, the writer turns to the best ‘evidence’ to my mind for Alexander and Hephaestion being lovers: their imitation of Achilles and Patroclus (Arrian I.12 cf. Plutarch Life 15)who in their day were believed to be lovers. As a side note, I like that the writer acknowledges that Homer doesn’t call Achilles and Patroclus lovers. It’s this attention to detail which really sets the article above any other I have read on Alexander.

Paragraph 10
The writer now turns to the famous moment when Sisygambis mistook Hephaestion for Alexander (Arrian II.13, Curtius III.12.16-17) only for the king to reply “This one, too, is Alexander.” in support of his case that they were lovers. When considering this passage, I feel that I am at the limit of my understanding of what Alexander meant with those words. Was he implying that the two were one as lovers are or was he referring to a very deep and platonic friendship?

Paragraph 11
The writer refers to Bagoas as Darius III’s ‘boyfriend’ which is a wholly inaccurate and misleading way to describe him. Bagoas was a eunuch, a slave. There was no equality between Darius and Bagoas, such as exists between lovers of the same or opposite sex. The writer goes on to say that Bagoas ‘soon found his way into Alexander’s bed’ as if he managed to inveigle his way there. Far more likely that Alexander told or asked him to come to him. Finally, he writes ‘Bagoas’ presence doesn’t rule out physical intimacy between Alexander and Hephaestion. In any case, they remained inseparable.’ Both these statements are surely and certainly true.

Paragraph 12 – 13
This paragraph begins ‘Nothing demonstrates Alexander’s passion for Hephaestion more than his reaction to his death.’ I could not agree more. The writer goes on to give an account of Alexander’s response to Hephaestion’s death, to which I can only say that even if they did not share a bed, if there is an ounce of truth in account, it is proof positive that Alexander loved Hephaestion very deeply indeed.

Paragraph 14
This paragraph begins with the admission that ‘Unless new evidence is uncovered, the exact nature of Alexander’s sexual orientation (to use an anachronistic term) will never be known.’ It concludes,

Nonetheless, a reasonable interpretation of extant sources, studied within the context of the sexual mores of Classical and Hellenistic Greek societies, leads to the conclusion that his erotic feelings were primarily directed at males.

This I disagree with. Alexander had three wives – Roxane, Stateira II and Parysatis. But these were dynastic marriages, one may say; this is true, but what of his mistresses: Barsine, Pancaste/Callixeina, Thalestris, Cleophis and perhaps Thais, later Ptolemy I’s lover? Some of these relationships may be legendary (e.g. Thalestris) but all? I doubt it. My conclusion to all that I have read is that Alexander was sexually attracted to both men and women, and of them both he liked Hephaestion most.

Categories: Of The Moment, On Alexander | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Alexander’s Sexuality

  1. Paragraph 7
    “Many ancient sources agree that Alexander was attracted by young men”
    I think that with ‘many ancient sources’ the author refers to a quote of Athenaeus (Deipnosophistae 603b) who says:
    ‘Alexander the king loved boys (philòpais, in Greek) to distraction (ekmanos, in Greek)’. But (as Tarn noted already in 1948) afterward there is only a quote of Dicaearchus (F 23 Wehrli) telling the story of Bagoas’ kiss in the theatre. Therefore you are right when you say : “I know that he was certainly attracted by one young man – Bagoas; I am not aware of any others with whom he had an affair.”


  2. Janet Fauble

    I just read through your post in which you commented paragraph by paragraph. I think it is wishful thinking on the part of the author. I wish that I had noted each and every book and author who I have read in studying Alexander. Alas. I did not take any author very seriously no matter their opinion about this topic. Some claim that he hated homosexuality which is why he was so savage against the Sacred Band, and another that he hated femininity in men. His friendship with Hephaestion had the quality needed to fill his spiritual mystical state which many rejected and disliked. Hephaestion accepted his strange devotion to the gods. I do not know if you will receive this so will close now.


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