Was He Really Alexander's Lover?

Alexander and Hephaistion
                heads from the Getty MuseumIt seems peculiar to give this question a whole page of its own, but there's so much out there on the internet about Alexander and Hephaistion as lovers that maybe it deserves a page (and some sanity).  First, there are the gay-interest sites who use Alexander and Hephaistion as models.  Then there are the "Alexander wasn't gay!" sites.  But what too often neither group seems to understand is that Alexander and Hephaistion themselves would've been baffled by all the hullabaloo, not to mention the label "gay."

Unfortunately both sides view the question as if Alexander and Hephaistion lived now.  But they didn't.  They lived then.  And they thought about it all very differently than we do.  Too many insist on filtering data through the beliefs and customs of their own society (or religion, or political agenda), and don't recognize that people in other places and times can think quite differently about the most basic of things, including sex.  Some just don't realize their ways of thinking are different, but others don't want to have their safe ideas about the world challenged.  Myself, I don't have much patience for the latter group.

The ancient Greeks didn't worry so much about who one had sex with, but with what role one took.  It was all about power and social position.  If a guy took the passive role with someone of lesser social status, that was a Bad Thing.  (He was making himself like a woman.)  But if he took the dominant role, it didn't matter.  His partner could be a woman, a boy, a slave, or a younger man.  Among some groups, love between two men was considered superior because, of course, men were superior.  Thus, love with an inferior woman would always be an inferior love.

Yet male lovers didn't have an equal partnership by our modern standards, either; one would always stand higher on the social food chain.  Thus as prince, Alexander would have ranked above Hephaistion, although they were about the same age (or even if Hephaistion were slightly older).  That doesn't mean they couldn't genuinely love and care for one another.

See, the ancient Greeks (and Macedonians) had an entirely different set of assumptions about what sex -- and love -- were for.  Once again, we're back to the idea that people in different times and places can think quite differently about fundamental things.

This why I avoid the term "gay" for Alexander and Hephaistion (or any other ancient Greek figure).  I'm very supportive of gay rights, it figures into my voting choices, and it's about time same-sex marriages were recognized.  But to my mind, using gay (or even homosexual) for ancient Greece is anachronistic.  It brings to mind modern pairings with different dynamics and expectations.  The best term to use for Greek same-sex attraction is "homoerotic."

Do I think Alexander and Hephaistion were lovers?  Yes, at least when they were young.  But y'know, it's not something I lose a lot of sleep over.  Being Alexander's sometime-lover was not how they defined their own relationship.  Alexander called Hephaistion "Philalexandros" -- Alexander's friend -- and that was what mattered to them most.


Since Oliver Stone's Alexander film, this particular page has received a lot of attention, so I thought I'd make some additional comments on categorization.  It's a tricky thing.  How we talk about a subject reflects the ways in which our culture and language conceptualizes the world.  How do we discuss -- or even conceive of -- categories for which we have no words?  And ancient Greek had no word that corresponded to our "homosexual."  In fact, modern categories of sexuality are recent constructs reflecting modern (particularly Western) views.  Are they absolutes?  Well, personally, I don't believe in absolutes.  If there's an objective reality, we can't know it, caught as we are in our own time, culture, and personal story.  This is even more true when it comes to social sciences, such as psychology.

Some modern reviewers, enthusiasts, nay-sayers, and interested others have resisted recognizing any distinction between ancient and modern sensibilities when it comes to sex, as if it were all mere semantics.  Gay is gay is gay, right?  But such resistance reflects a disturbing inability to get beyond one's own culturally imbedded assumptions.

That's ethnocentric and arrogant.

A more interesting question is whether the ancients understood what modern psychology might label gay, straight, and bisexual, regardless of whether they had a word for it?  The answer is, "Perhaps."  Ancient sources do suggest at least some Greeks did recognize one might prefer his own sex, the other sex, or both sexes in varying degrees of intensity.  But here's where categorization gets tricky.  Even if they recognized these tendencies, they clearly didn't think them important enough to create labels, much less conceptualize them in the same ways we do.

For instance, it wasn't necessarily "lovers of men" who were assumed to be effeminate, but men obsessed with women.  What a twist!  Yet it reflects quite different assumptions, no?  The modern equation of effeminacy with homosexuality assumes that gay men really want to be women, but the ancient Greek assumption was that loving women "to excess" could cause men to become womanish themselves and behave "ou kata nomon" (contrary to culture) or even "ou kata phusin" (contrary to nature).

Greeks worried about excessive desire of any kind.  We have only to recall the admonition at Delphi from Apollo: moderation in all things.  Sophrosunē (self-control) was the desired goal for any Greek man (or even woman).  It wasn't the object of one's desire that concerned them, but the control exercised over it.  A katapugos or kinaidos was not a "fairy," but simply wanton -- insatiable and constantly seeking sex past appropriate boundaries.  That could mean serving as the passive partner in male-male relations when one shouldn't, or by committing adultery with another man's wife.  Both violated boundaries and displayed a lack of sophrosunē.

Finally, while it's true that male-male relationships tended to involve partners of differing ages, that's a notably Athenian pattern based on Athenian evidence, and quite a mistake to impose Athenian norms on other Greek city-states.  (Rather like assuming everyone in the whole US shares New York sensibilities.)  In fact, we have evidence that in Macedonia at least, the erastes and eromenos could be much closer in age than was (apparently) considered acceptable in Athens.  Sostratos and Hermolaos, Pages in Alexander's army (and infamous for participating in the Pages' Conspiracy), are referred to in Arrian (4.13.3) specifically with the erastes/eromenos terminology, yet they could only have been a few years apart.  No one remarked on that as unusual, suggesting it wasn't considered so.

So yes, ancient Greek (and Macedonian) ideas about sex were just as complicated, paradoxical, and downright confusing as are ours -- they were just complicated, paradoxical, and confusing in different ways.



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