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 the internet is RIFE with oversimplification, misinformation, and straight-up nonsense about ancient Greek sexual behavior. So, maybe it deserves its own page (and some sanity).

Unfortunately protestors and advocates alike tend to 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. (For more: "Ancient Greek Sex[uality] for Dummies")

Alexander and Hephaistion would've been baffled by all the hullabaloo, not to mention the label "gay." I have elsewhere argued that I think "queer" is fine applied to Alexander because it's a very flexible term, but "gay" brings with it modern assumptions that don't fit antiquity
("Was Alexander the Great Gay?"). Not to mention Alexander had sexual relationships with both sexes.

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 modern standards; one always stood higher on the social food chain. Thus as prince, Alexander would have ranked above Hephaistion, although they were about the same age. 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 quite basic things.

This why I avoid the term "gay" for any ancient Greek figure. It's anachronistic, bringing to mind modern pairings with different dynamics and expectations. The best term to use for Greek same-sex attraction is "homoerotic." Or, again, just "queer." Alexander wasn't gay, but he was queer.

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? Ancient Greek had no word that corresponded to our "homosexual" (or heterosexual or bisexual). 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.

Some modern reviewers, enthusiasts, nay-sayers, and interested others resist 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? (This occurs whether pro- or anti-gay rights.) But such resistance reflects a disturbing inability to get beyond one's own culturally embedded 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 recognized people might prefer their 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 always "lovers of men" who were assumed to be effeminate, but men obsessed with women. What a twist! But 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. S
ophrosunē (self-control) was the goal for all Greek men. It wasn't the object of one's desire that concerned them, but the control exercised over it. A katapugos or kinaidos was not (necessarily) a "fairy," but 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 the prized sophrosunē.

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.


Do I think Alexander and Hephaistion lovers? Certainly in my fiction, I've depicted them as being so. But were they historically? It's very possible, even likely, at least when they were young. But being lovers was not how they defined their relationship. Alexander called Hephaistion "Philalexandros" -- Alexander's (dearest) friend -- and that mattered to them most. For the ancient Greeks, philia was the higher love over mere eros (desire).

I'd like to link to a charming short story by Elizabeth Hopkinson, which I think illustrates well the importance of Alexander and Hephaistion to the LGBTQIA movement. Although usually publishing SFF short fiction, Ms. Hopkinson won the National Gallery competition from Liars' League for her story. It's performed by actor Nick Delvallé:

"Desperately Seeking Hephaestion"
Elizabeth Hopkinson's Website
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Dancing with the Lion
Hehaistion is a main protagonist in the duology

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