UPDATE: Episode III of the Achilles Gene podcast, which investigates the mystery of Alexander and Hephaestion, is now available! It features stories from their life and analysis from the world's leading expert on this topic. You can listen here.
The age-old question: Were Alexander the Great and Hephaestion lovers? Or merely close friends? It has been debated, and commented on, by countless historians and philosophers. Hopefully, this post will add something fresh to the conversation.
Let's start with a basic truth: There is no credible, direct evidence linking Alexander and Hephaestion romantically or sexually.
The most reliable sources we have refer to them as especially close friends. In previous posts, I have summarized the views of these sources as it relates to their relationship. You can check them out below:
Even though the most reliable sources refer to Alexander and Hephaestion as friends, there is some circumstantial evidence suggesting they were especially close. Hephaestion alone was allowed to know the secrets in Alexander's letters. When he died in Ecbatana, Alexander suffered a complete mental breakdown, refusing to eat or drink for days. There are many clues like this scattered throughout the key sources.
Some historians have deemed this circumstantial evidence compelling enough to assume Hephaestion was indeed Alexander's lover.
Notable Alexander biographer Robin Lane Fox believes the two lived openly as lovers, writing that:
"Hephaestion was the one whom Alexander loved, and for the rest of their lives their relationship remained as intimate as it is now irrecoverable: Alexander was only defeated once, the Cynic philosophers said long after his death, and that was by Hephaestion's thighs" (Alexander the Great, pg. 56).
Many others agree with Fox's interpretation of their relationship. However, there is clearly a hint of wishful thinking underlying many of these modern perspectives. The idea that one of the world's greatest conquerors was openly involved in a more or less lifelong, same-sex relationship with someone his own age has a political and emotional appeal for many.
Fox goes as far as to explain Alexander's attraction to Hephaestion as a product of the absence of his father, Philip II. This kind of pseudo-psychological analysis seems absurd considering the lack of definitive evidence that Alexander and Hephaestion were even lovers at all. But I guess it's fun to speculate nonetheless.
It seems to me that there are three especially interesting aspects of this whole Alexander-Hephaestion debate.
The first has to do with the cultural norms surrounding homosexuality in ancient Greece, specifically the royal court of Macedon.
The second aspect, which is related to the first, is the fact that Alexander's contemporary biographers never explicitly referred to the pair as lovers. Is there a reason they would not have just come out with it directly, assuming it were true?
And third, you have Alexander's association with Achilles and Hephaestion's with Patroclus. For some, this association is the strongest evidence pointing toward a romantic relationship. For others, it is little more than pro-Alexander propaganda invented after his death. Below, I'll explore all three of these areas and conclude with a theory of my own.
Issue #1: Ancient Macedon and homosexuality
This paper by Pennsylvania State University professor Jeanne Reames, titled "An atypical affair? Alexander the Great, Hephaistion Amyntoros and the Nature of their Relationship", gives a careful treatment to this mystery.
Reames begins by providing context to the ancient Greek institution of pederasty, in which a two young men of different societal status (which was determined by social rank and/or age) engaged in romantic relations before they married women. Sir Kenneth Dover's careful analysis of this kind of same-sex affair in modern times led to the popularization of the "Dover model" for understanding ancient Greek homosexuality.
Despite the prevalence of the Dover model in the historical record (both in literature and art), Reames makes the case that all same-sex affairs didn't fit neatly within its requirements. Most of the evidence comes from Athens, which may distort our perspective. More warlike places such as Sparta and Macedon had slightly different expectations about expressing same-sex desire. For instance, a younger partner's athleticism and skill in battle may be valued above his beauty in these places (whereas in Athens, beauty was paramount). It's also possible that affairs between militaristic youth of a similar age were more common in Macedon than in Athens.
Given the context, Reames ultimately concludes that the relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion was not "atypical":
"Thus, given the evidence for same-age homoerotic affairs in Macedonian and the weight of circumstantial testimony - even if it violates Dover's model - I do think it quite possible that Alexander and Hephaestion 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 (pg. 93)."
There is also the tradition that links same-sex intimacy with masculinity and courage on the battlefield. The Sacred Band of Thebes, widely considered Greece's most lethal fighting force before the rise of Macedon, was allegedly composed solely of 150 pairs of male lovers. The underpinning logic was that the men fought more bravely with their lovers by their side. There is evidence to suggest that Philip and Alexander, although rivals of the Sacred Band, greatly admired the group's spirit. Plutarch reports that after defeating them at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE, Philip wept and cursed anyone who had ever questioned their lifestyle (Parallel Lives, Pelopidas).
Even though modern scholars have developed theories to explain certain kinds of same-sex relationships in certain regions, much about how the Greeks, especially the Macedonians, viewed homosexuality remains unclear.
We know male same-sex relations occurred in many circumstances, as Philip II (Alexander's father) and other earlier Argead kings got caught up in drama with their younger male lovers. And we know that same-sex intimacy was associated with masculine virtues, at least in some cases (like with the Sacred Band of Thebes). But it remains difficult to account for the full range of same-sex relations and norms in ancient Macedon. If new evidence can answer enough of the lingering questions, a clearer portrait of Alexander and Hephaestion could come into focus.
Issue #2: The lack of any explicit mention of a romantic/sexual relationship
The only explicit references to a romantic relationship between Alexander the Great and Hephaestion came from the Cynic philosophers and other second-tier sources. To my knowledge, the key contemporary biographers of Alexander do not mention any sexual or romantic relations between the pair. If they were in fact lovers, this strikes me as odd.
There is an argument that says that because same-sex affairs were common in 4th century Greece, Alexander's biographers didn't need to explicitly mention it. Defenders of this view say that these writers provided enough clues for readers to assume that which was obvious.
In addition, it can be reasonably assumed that if the precise nature of his affair with Hephaestion was frowned upon by conventional standards, it may have been in the best interest of contemporary historians (especially those using Alexander's legend to further their political aims) to downplay the romantic aspects of this relationship.
While these explanations are plausible, I am not convinced. Many, many people wrote about Alexander's life at the time and in the immediate decades that followed. Are we supposed to believe that not one of them was willing to directly address the proverbial elephant in the room (if there even was one)?
Regardless of what reason one subscribes to, one has to admit that it says something that none of the biographers we know about were willing to just come out with it.
The conclusion I'm forced to draw is that either these biographers (include both those from the late 4th century BCE and later Roman times) didn't believe Alexander and Hephaestion were lovers, or that the evidence for such a claim was too thin to merit speculation, even if some suspected it were true.
Issue #3: Alexander's (alleged) association with Achilles
There are many parallels between Alexander the Great and the mythological Greek hero Achilles. Most obviously, they were both Greek warriors who led armies against Eastern civilizations. According to credible ancient sources, Alexander admired and envied Achilles (who he believed was his ancestor on his mother's side).
For those who believe Alexander did indeed believe himself to be a kind of "new Achilles", like Robin Lane Fox, this association is the key to understanding Alexander's relationship with Hephaestion. Achilles and Patroclus were widely regarded to have been lovers in late-4th century Greece. When Alexander openly embraced the comparison of he and Hephaestion to Achilles and Patrolcus, as they may have done at ruins at Troy, it sent a message that they too were more than just friends - or so the logic goes. For Fox, this serves as "proof" that Alexander and Hephaestion were lovers.
There are, however, at least a couple of problems with this argument. First off, it's far from certain that Alexander's association with Achilles (and Hephaestion's with Patroclus) were nearly as relevant during Alexander's lifetime as it became afterwards. A tradition that depicted Alexander as a kind of successor to Achilles was clearly present by Roman times, but its origins are hard to pin down. Did Alexander himself embrace this identification? Or is much of it the product of literary license by later writers? I get into the weeds of this controversy in the article below:
Secondly, even if we assume Alexander and Hephaestion did indeed embrace this parallel to Achilles and Patroclus, it seems rash to assume that this, by definition, meant they were lovers. It's worth remembering that Homer himself did not portray Achilles and Patroclus as lovers, no matter how many people wish to believe he did. Did he imply it? Possibly. But it's debatable by virtually any standard. I find it unlikely that the Greeks of the 4th century had a uniform view of such an ambiguous matter.
In other words, we may know what a specific philosopher or a few Athenian citizens thought about Achilles and Patroclus, but that doesn't mean we know what Alexander and Hephaestion thought, much less the soldiers of a Graeco-Macedonian army. It seems entirely possible that Alexander and Hephaestion could have used this comparison to highlight their heroic qualities and friendship, without making any kind of romantic or sexual statement whatsoever.
A New Theory
So now, with the facts accounted for, what are we to make of Alexander and Hephaestion? I believe that it's perfectly possible, maybe even likely, that Alexander and Hephaestion were "more than friends" at one point or another. In this way, my take is similar to Reames'. However, my theory differs in that I believe the defining aspect of their relationship was its lack of reciprocity.
When we study history, we often make the mistake of oversimplifying, or standardizing, the thought processes and social dynamics of our subjects. Because a few prominent people believe something, or a group declares something, we ignore the reality of individual variation. We forget that obvious fact that human desires, personalities, and beliefs aren't neatly organized. This is especially apparent in politics, when terms like the "black community" and "women" are used frequently with the effect of drowning out individual differences.
I believe that we have been applying this same unrealistic lens to the relationship of Alexander and Hephaestion. Sure, it's nice to believe they were the same soul occupying a single body but, in reality, it was probably more complicated. How many situations between two young men in their situation work out so neatly?
My theory is that Alexander did indeed love Hephaestion as more than a friend, but Hephaestion did not reciprocate that same desire. At first glance, I'm sure this seems speculative. But hold your judgement for a moment and consider how this scenario may help resolve some of the lingering discrepancies in how their relationship was documented.
Multiple credible sources comment on Hephaestion's good looks. Curtius goes as far to imply that Alexander valued Hephaestion for his looks by comparing him to a handsome youth named Euxenippus who had caught Alexander's eye (Histories of Alexander the Great, 7.9.19). Yet, despite clues like this, none of these top-tier sources refer to Alexander or Hephaestion as lovers, nor do they use the terms erastes and eromenos - common designations for male same-sex partners of that era.
My theory is perfectly in line with this pattern. Based on Alexander's relations with the Persian youth Bagoas, it appears the king's interest in the same sex was publicly known. That Alexander was in love with Hephaestion (or at least attracted to him) seems to have been an "open secret" among those close to the king.
Yet the two men weren't actually lovers. They didn't sleep together, nor engage in public displays of romantic affection. For this reason, it wouldn't have made sense for Alexander's biographers to label them as anything more than friends. Problem solved.
Furthermore, I believe this scenario is also consistent with the bigger picture of Alexander's life - his relative indifference to captured/enslaved women, his use of the Achilles-Patroclus comparison (wishful thinking), his incredible reaction to Hephaestion's death, etc. Alexander was sexually attracted to certain women, yet his most intense relationships were with men. Unfortunately for him, the loyal and handsome Hephaestion had a more conventional disposition. While Hephaestion may have been intimate with Alexander and other male peers in his youth (as was common in Macedonian military academies), he was not interested in having a man as a lifelong lover. But that didn't stop Hephaestion from being Alexander's closest confidant and most trusted ally. He loved Alexander too, but in a different way.
I hope you enjoyed this post. I may elaborate more on this theory later, as it is not yet fully formed in my mind. If I have overlooked anything, please let me know. I welcome all questions and criticism, as long as they're constructive. Please reply in the comments box below.