I'm working on an in-depth post on the nature of the relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion. Hopefully, I'll have that up in the next few days.
In the meantime, here's a summary of what Arrian, probably the premier ancient source on Alexander's campaigns, says about that relationship.
Arrian (The Campaigns of Alexander - 2nd Century AD)
Arrian's first mention of Hephaestion comes in Book I of his account, when Alexander and his army visit the ruins of Troy. There, Arrian writes that Alexander traded armor at the Temple of Athena, then proceeded to honor the tombs of those who fought at Troy.
"One account says that Hephaestion laid a wreath on the tomb of Patroclus; another that Alexander laid one on the tomb of Achilles, calling him a lucky man, in that he had Homer to proclaim his deeds and preserve his memory" (Penguin Classics edition, pg. 67).
Arrian glosses over the interpretation that Alexander's purpose in honoring the tomb(s) of Achilles and Patrolcus was to signify his relationship with Hephaestion. One could certainly infer that Alexander meant to do so, but Arrian's version emphasizes Alexander's desire to be remembered after death over his feelings for his boyhood companion.
The next significant mention of Hephaestion comes after the Battle of Issus, when Alexander visits the captured royal family of Persia. One version of the story says that Alexander visited them alongside Hephaestion, who wore similar clothing as him. When the Queen, who had never met Alexander, bowed to the taller Hephaestion, Alexander could have been enraged. Instead, he comforted her:
"...but Alexander merely remarked that her error was of no account, for Hephaestion, too, was an Alexander - 'a protector of men'" (123).
Typically, this story is meant to attest to the closeness of Alexander and Hephaestion. Yet, in Arrian's version, Alexander's response to the Queen's mistake is about the meaning of his name, not anything intimate between he and his friend. Additionally, Arrian seems to think this story was invented after the fact. But even if that's the case, he writes, it is still likely in line with Alexander's character.
It is near the book's end, at Hephaestion's death, where we learn the most about Alexander's feelings for Hephaestion. Alexander rushes back to the palace after hearing news of his friend's illness, but he is too late.
"The accounts of Alexander's grief at this loss are many and various. All writers have agreed that it was great, but personal prejudice, for or against both Hephaestion and Alexander himself, have coloured the accounts of how he expressed it" (pg. 371).
Arrian explains that some writers found Alexander's extreme despair a noble trait, one worthy of his legend. Others, however, saw his behavior as embarrassing for a great king.
"We are told, for instance, that he (Alexander) flung himself on the body of his friend and lay there nearly all day long in tears, and refused to be parted from him until he was dragged away by force by his Companions; and again, that he lay stretched upon the corpse all day and the whole night too...for two whole days after Hephaestion's death Alexander tasted no food and paid no attention in any way to his bodily needs, but lay on his bed now crying lamentably, now in the silence of grief" (371-373).
But Alexander's despair does not end there. He allegedly took many actions while trying to cope with Hepheastion's death. Arrian ascribes varying degrees of credibility to these stories, which include:
- Alexander had Hephaestion's doctor, Glaucias, hanged for letting him die
- He cut his hair short, which Arrian believes was connected to his emulation of Achilles (notice - another connection between his relationship to Hephaestion and to Achilles/Patroclus)
- He personally drove the funeral carriage for a short time (to Arrian, this story is "quite incredible", meaning either quite unlikely or extraordinary, not sure which one).
- He had the shrine of Asclepius (Greek god of medicine) burned to the ground which, to Arrian, seemed "uncharacteristic" of Alexander
- When Alexander was visited by Greeks who worshipped Asclepius, he remarked that the god "has not treated me kindly; for he did not save the friend I valued as my own life."
- "Most authorities" claim Alexander sent an envoy to the Oracle of Ammon in Egypt to ask for Hephaestion to be declared a god; however, the Oracle denied this request, replying that Hephaestion would instead be honored as a hero
- Alexander declared a time of mourning in the East
- He had a funeral pyre constructed in Babylon at a cost of at least 10,000 talents
- Alexander made no new appointments to the Companion Cavalry and changed the name of his finest fighting force to "Hephaestion's Regiment" and had them carry an image of Hephaestion in front before battle
- He sent a letter to the governor of Egypt ordering massive shrines be built in Hephaestion's honor in Alexandris and on the island of Pharos
- He organized the most spectacular series of Games of his career, in which 3,000 men from Greece and elsewhere competed in everything from literature to sports
Alexander himself then dies a few months later. Reflecting on the timing of his death, Arrian again falls back on his comparison to Achilles.
"Even in Alexander's case, Hephaestion's death had been no small calamity, and I believe he would have rather been the first to go than live to suffer that pain, like Achilles, who surely would rather have died before Patroclus than to have lived to avenge his death" (377).
Arrian also returns to the matter of Alexander's orders to Egypt. In his letter to the governor, Cleomenes, Alexander promises to pardon him of his past crimes if he successfully builds and maintains the shrines to Hephaestion. Arrian finds such a promise, from a great king to a former criminal, to be "shocking, yet he does mention that the contents of the letter demonstrate Alexander's "love for Hephaestion, a love which persisted even beyond the grave" (389).
So how do we summarize Arrian's take on their relationship?
Arrian never directly says Alexander and Hephaestion were lovers. On the surface, it appears he treats them as very loyal, committed friends. However, his tendency to compare Alexander to Achilles and Hephaestion to Patroclus is a sign that Arrian suspected they had an even more intimate relationship. By the time Arrian was writing, the Greeks and Romans believed Achilles and Patroclus had been lovers (whether or not Homer meant to imply this is another question).
Arrian is not interested in exploring the intimate details of Alexander's relationship with Hephaestion. A military man, he is content to let the facts speak for themselves on such a personal matter. However, even he cannot ignore the romantic character of Alexander's grief after Hephaestion's death, nor the king's statement that he valued his friend's life equally to his own. For that reason, and many others, Arrian draws again on the theme of Alexander as a "new Achilles". He is content to let his readers decipher the rest.
If you have any questions, or helpful criticism, to add, please do so in the comments section below.
*** An interesting addition
A few weeks after initially publishing this post, it has come to my attention that Arrian did, in fact, refer to Hephaestion as Alexander the Great's eromenos, a term with romantic implications, in his Discourses of Epictetus (2.22.17-18). While Arrian is a relatively credible source, Discourses was meant to be a collection of Epictetus' teachings, not Arrian's own historical account. For that reason, this reference is not a game-changer.