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Were Alexander the Great and Hephaestion lovers?

Since there are no historical shreds of evidence that Alexander regarded Hephaestion as someone more than a friend, are the modern claims only based on the fact that said he was only "defeated by Hephaestion's thighs"?

Edit: I'd be glad to know the reason behind down-voting this question.

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    As there's no proof, this is always just conjecture one way or the other. – Steve Bird Jun 3 at 18:18
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    Upvote for posting a pretty good question about historical sexuality during the Stonewall 50 pride month. – T.E.D. Jun 3 at 20:25
  • This question is difficult to answer because "lover" is a culturally loaded term. In the heteronormative 20th century I was brought up in it meant either people who were dating or people involved in something illicit. But "illicit" is a judgmental term. For example it might be used of a gay couple meaning "in a relationship that I judge to be immoral". Further, some people are monogamous, whereas some people are in a social group where sex with your friends is acceptable. – David Robinson Jun 5 at 9:41
  • So they may have been any of: long-term partners, friends who had sex, friends with benefits, having casual sex with lots of people including each other, in a monogamous but platonic relationship, friends who swapped wives, friends who had group sex with each other and women at the same time, etc. etc. But which amongst this list would you count as "lovers"? – David Robinson Jun 5 at 9:42
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    @DavidRobinson By saying "lovers", I meant to ask if they were in love with each other. But essentially, I meant to ask if they were emotionally attached, deeply affectionate towards each other like a guy and girl in love are, i.e., if they had platonic love. (Initially, I didn't question their sexual relationship with each other but it seems (it may be) that in cases of homosexual beings, friendship can only be distinguished from love when they are sexually intimate or when they explicitly state that they're in love with each other.) – Tapi Jun 5 at 10:18
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The author of that particular claim appears to have been Diogenes the Cynic. This is the same man who was said to carry around a lantern in broad daylight, claiming to be (futilely) looking for an honest man to anyone who asked about it. He was also known to heckle Plato and other philosophers, as well as political leaders, and just generally seems to have delighted in antagonizing people. In modern terms, we'd say he was a troll.

That doesn't mean what he said about Hephaestion was false. But it does mean he probably cared less about its veracity than about the reaction he'd get by saying it. This doesn't make him a particularly reliable source, so I wouldn't take anything he said as an actual historical event unless it was also related by some other independent source.

I believe the only good independent (from Diogenes) source we have is Arrian who lived about 300 years later (rather a long time, really). The thing people key off here is an incident Arrian relates where the friends themselves compared their relationship to that of Achilles and Patroclus.

Now the relationship between those two Homeric figures really could be a whole other answer. Homer himself just cast them as really close friends. However, the portrayal of their relationship in Greek sources over the centuries gradually started to become more sexual in nature. The result of this is that there's a big dispute among modern historians about what exactly Arrian (or Alexander's contemporaries who indirectly related it to him, or the two friends themselves...) meant to be implying about the men's relationship with this story.

All of which is to say we really don't know. Or perhaps even worse, there are a lot of historians who will insist we do know, but they disagree strongly with each other.

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    @Tapi - Yes. And yet, that's the best we have for not only this story, but rather a lot about Alexander and many many other historical figures. This 300 year remote source is in fact considered by many historians our best source about Alexander. Being prepared to deal logically and critically with this kind of thing is what historical analysis of pre-modern events is all about. – T.E.D. Jun 3 at 20:34
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    @Tapi - Just to give you a taste of the counter-argument, one of the ancient sources casting Achilles and Patroclus as lovers was Plato. While Plato's take may have been a minority opinion at the time (I haven't looked into that), Plato taught Aristotle, and Aristotle taught Alexander the Great. So one could argue Alexander was likely taught this view. – T.E.D. Jun 3 at 20:40
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    @LangLangC - After reading up on Diogenes, phrasing it that way was totally him. The closest I can think of in more modern terms is probably Oscar Wilde. Wilde is credited with a lot of sayings that, while he probably didn't invent the sentiment, he clearly invented that way of presenting it. – T.E.D. Jun 3 at 22:07
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    But what shock would that be in this case? That Alex had a sweatheart, a weak spot for people, well one person at least? Or that it would have been somewhat homosexual in nature? The latter would perhaps need some clarification concerning values and customs (cf your comment below Q)? – LаngLаngС Jun 3 at 22:11
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    There is also Quintus Curtius Rufus, 1st century AD, who says (7.9.19) 'Euxenippus was still very young and a favourite of Alexander's because he was still in the prime of his youth, but though he rivalled Hephestaion in good looks he could not match him in charm, since he was rather effeminate'. (Penguin Classics edition tr. John Yardley) – user207421 Jun 4 at 4:28
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We do not know and cannot be sure. But it seems neither likely nor unlikely, but quite possible.

It seems as if many would like to get an answer that either gives the most intimate biographical details about the bedroom behaviour of two concrete ancient persons that are dead for over 2300 years while information on both were quickly enshrouded in myths. Or an answer that simplifies things to "yeah, those Greeks did that, typical".

But for the latter case we should observe that Athens had different customs than Sparta or Thebes or Macedon, and those could change according to fashion. And the analysis of former case is hampered precisely because the story of Alexander was much more prone to be distorted because of his fame.

We cannot know for sure when looking at biographies of both party involved. But we can look at the circumstantial data of Greek/Macedon society. The sexual behaviour reported for Alexander's father Philipp may be more directly trustworthy than anything relayed to for Alexander. And Philipp was infamous in antiquity for having had a verocious appetite in all directions.

The first thing to observe is that our concept of homosexuality is very different from how the Greeks classified sexual behaviour between for example erastes–eromenos. This ranged from something described as ritualised pederasty with clear age-limits (or, well, beard growing limits?) to genuine partnership as seen in the Sacred Band of Thebes with no such limits in age or directions of activity .

The next important clue is the specifity with which Diogenes alludes to "thighs", as in such relationships the vase paintings we have primarily show us intercrural copulation. What he might have meant by that, exactly, is object of speculation, of course. But there are a few possibilities hinted at.

We must remember the two of them had been friends at least nineteen years, if we accept Mieza as a terminus ante quem for their meeting. During much of this, they would have lived in close quarters on campaign and no doubt seen one another daily when not away on independent missions. Nineteen years is longer than many modern marriages. In terms of affectional attachment, Hephaistion-not any of Alexander's three wives-was the king's life partner. Whatever the truth of any sexual involvement, their emotional attachment has never been seriously questioned. No doubt as teenagers, both had learned from Aristotle some version of what he would later write in his Nikomachean Ethics-that perfect love was the highest friendship (1156b), and that friendship was a state of being, not a feeling (1157b). Moreover, Aristotle speaks of the friend as the 'second self (117ob) and indicates that there is only one special friend (1171a).

Thus, given the evidence for same-age homoerotic affairs in Macedonia and the weight of circumstantial testimony – even if it violates Dover's model – I do think it quite possible that Alexander and Hephaistion were physically intimate at some point. I do not necessarily think, however, that they were still physically intimate in their latter years, though they may have been. Mostly, I don't think it greatly significant to the affection they held for one another.

While they may indeed have been lovers, I think it reductive to characterize their relationship solely in this way. Nussbaum (1986: 354) contrasts Greek philia with modern concepts of friendship and says that philia 'includes the vel)' strongest affective relationships that human beings form... English 'love' seems more appropriately wide­ ranging.'60 Greek philia could include a sexual component but extended far beyond that.61 Similarly, and though speaking of Achilles and Patrokios, Van Nortwick (1995: 17­ 18) offers an observation it would do us well to keep in mind:

We need to be careful not to misunderstand this intimacy.... Friendship in general is a difficult relationship to fix. seen in our modern cultures as existing on the boundaries of other bonds, familial or sexual, which provide the categories through which friendship itself is defined. The poems we will read here offer another model for friendship, one accommodating a greater degree of intimacy than is often accorded to nonsexual friendship these days. The first and second selves are intimate because they compose, together, a single entity... – at this level of intensity, sexual love is sometimes inadequate as a model because it may not be intimate enough. [Italics mine]

Van Nortwick's observation is a shrewd one. Our model of friendship is not consonant with theirs. Within these ancient societies where homoerotic desire was freely, sometimes emphatically, expressed, intense friendship might well develop a sexual expression even while that expression was not the focus of the friendship, or even thought of as particularly characteristic of it. 'The ancient Greeks, perhaps because their societies were so highly militarized... simply assumed the centrality of philia' (Shay 1994: 41). It would be inappropriate to refer to the friend as lover (except in very specific circumstances), as such would fall far short of encompassing the whole relationship. Alexander's choice of 'philalexandros' for Hephaistion said more about the nature of his affection than calling him merely erastes or eromenos.

Conclusion

Was the relationship of Alexander and Hephaistion an atypical affair? I do not believe that it was. We have shown that Macedonian society allowed same-age partnerships and seems to have accepted them without comment. Among the Pages, it was not only possible, but perhaps even to be expected that young men would form friendships with one another that included a sexual aspect, but was not limited to it.

What, then, might we gather from this detailed look at one example? Simply that models – even good ones based on careful analysis of the evidence – can put blinders on subsequent scholarship – if we are not careful. Without the cognitive dissonance created by the sheer bulk of circumstantial testimony in the case of Alexander and Hephaistion, it would be easy to overlook a relationship like theirs. Even with the circumstantial evidence, we still cannot be at all certain they were lovers. Because such relationships are not atypical for their societies, sly insinuations – such as those made about Agathon the Tragedian – are absent.

It does cause one to wonder how many other such relationships may have existed between less famous philoi. While the Dover Model describes the most common-and least ambiguous-form for homoerotic expression in ancient Greece, it was not the only one. There were other options, particularly in military contexts. In short, a confusion of terms may make it difficult for us to pinpoint other such typical 'atypical' affairs, and we should take this into account when employing our models. All such models are to some degree artificial constructs; we should expect them, then, to be ultimately inadequate.

Jeanne Reames: "An atypical affair? Alexander the Great, Hephaistion Amyntoros and the nature of their relationship", History Faculty Publications, 17,, The Ancient History BulletinVolume 13, Issue 3, 81–96, 1999. (PDF)

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    That's a nice answer. Though I didn't question about the physical intimacy of Alexander and Hephaestion, I want to ask, why you think that they might have been physically intimate initially but not in the latter years? I've gone through a few articles on the internet and they claim the same. I didn't find a reason for this. Are you referring to the time after Alexander got married?(he possibly might not have anything with Hephaestion at that time because he was already involved but then he married thrice which is again contradictory to the view that he might not be into multiple relationships) – Tapi Jun 4 at 13:42
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    @Tapi Whether or not they were in later years is of low importance to the question, to me, but to readers of answers, I feel. The "prolly not in later years" is an inference from recorded customs of others, as as coevals, this would indeed mean a more romantic element than the usual fooling around or asymmetric teacher-pupil relationship that was very widespread, while this 'love'-thing was rarer, and sometimes frowned upon. (which might have been even more reason to either conceal the fact or present ridicule in ancient texts). Follow the link I gave, that paper is most brilliant. – LаngLаngС Jun 4 at 13:48
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    Yes, I particularly like the quoted point that, regardless of any sexual component, its undisputed that they were what the kids call BFF's. – T.E.D. Jun 4 at 14:27
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As the author of the long quotation, let me address the issue of whether they remained lovers later. I say they may not, not because Alexander got married (he was almost 30 by the first marriage!), but because for two adult men to continue a sexual affair when both could grow a beard began to stray beyond the accepted patterns. While as I note, ancient Macedon was NOT ancient Athens, and shared much more in common with Doric states such as Thebes and Sparta, even there, young men in their 20s were expected to "phase out" of relationships with older (or similar-age) lovers, in favor of teen boys, and by about 30, to marry. Alexander generally seemed to follow that pattern, so while they may well have maintained a sexual relationship (assuming they had one in the first place, which I find if not certain, at least probable) into their early 20s, I think by their late 20s, they may each have turned to others, sexually, even if their primary emotional attachment remained to each other.

I would also note that some scholars believe the entire Achilles-Patroklos pastiche to be Arrian's later attempt to flatter his patron Hadrian (who had Antinoos as a boyfriend), and it was not something Alexander and Hephaistion employed themselves. That Alexander compared himself to Achilles is fairly well-established in other historians (not least Plutarch), but it's really only in Arrian that we get Hephaistion as Patroklos. So the dismissal of Hephaistion as Patroklos is not without scholarly merit, but I tend to think Arrian simply exaggerated something Alexander used.

I would also note that historians no longer elevate Arrian as the most trustworthy of our ancient sources. The so-called "vulgate" (Curtius, Plutarch, and Diodoros) must also be weighed. And EVERYone must remember these are sources two or three times removed from what they're writing about. Sources who wrote about Alexander and knew Alexander (such as Ptolemy, Marsyas, Aristobulos, and Kallisthenes) are now lost.

  • Thank you for answering, that cleared a lot of my questions. The second last sentence of the last para says, "these are sources two or three times removed from what they're writing about", I didn't quite get this. Do you mean that those sources have been edited and cut short? – Tapi Jun 5 at 10:24
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    @Tapi they are not first- or second-hand sources, as those sources are lost to us. – JackArbiter Jun 5 at 15:31
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    What JackArbiter said. These are authors using prior accounts that we no longer have, so it's hard to say how faithfully they follow them. That ancient authors only cite their own sources about half the time (or less) complicates matters even further. Their reasons for trusting a source can also strike us as odd or naive. For instance, Arrian says he trusts Ptolemy because he's a king and it would be dishonorable for him to lie. I think most modern readers would raise an eyebrow over that rationale. – Jeanne Reames Jun 5 at 17:30
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    Heh. Well, since I commented about how much I liked part of that quote, I guess I'm upvoting this too. :-) Thanks for stopping by and clarifying things. – T.E.D. Jun 7 at 20:31

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