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.
English historian Robin Lane Fox is one of the world's most influential scholars when it comes to Alexander the Great. His 1974 book Alexander the Great offers one of the most compelling, and detailed, portrayals of the conqueror in modern times. For this reason, director Oliver Stone hired Fox as the primary historical consultant for the film Alexander. You can read more about Fox's involvement in the film here.
Even though Fox's account of Alexander is immensely detailed, he admits it is not exactly a biography of Alexander the Great. Rather, it is an interpretation - one plausible take on Alexander and his career.
With that in mind, what does Fox have to say about Hephaestion?
Basically, Fox fully subscribes to the theory that Alexander and Hephaestion were (more or less) lifelong lovers. Their affair began while they were pupils of Aristotle at Mieza, if not earlier, and ended only after Hephaestion's death.
In Fox's own words:
"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).
The famous line Fox references, of an Alexander being "ruled by Hephaestion's thighs" comes from a collection of letters, written during Roman times, purporting to quote Diogenes of Sinope, a contemporary of Alexander. However, the authenticity of these letters have been questioned by modern scholars. The context and questionable authorship of the letter make its historical value tenuous.
Fox goes on to analyze Alexander's attachment to Hephaestion:
"...it is not always fanciful to explain the homosexuality of Greek young men as a son's need to replace an absent or indifferent father with an older lover. Hephaestion's age is not known and its discovery could put their relationship in an unexpected light: he may have even been the older of the two, like the Homeric hero with whom contemporaries compared him, an older Patroclus to Alexander's Achilles" (56).
There are a few layers of unanswered questions here. (1) Were Alexander and Hephaestion lovers? (2) How old was Hephaestion? and (3) If they were lovers AND Hephaestion was older, is it plausible to invoke Philip's absenteeism from Alexander's life as an explanation for their relationship?
Honestly, I find it very difficult to speculate on the third question, considering how contingent it is on other information we simply don't know.
In Fox's interpretation of Alexander's life, the conqueror views himself as a kind of "new Achilles", both a rival and admirer of this Homeric hero. In Alexander's narrative, Hephaestion is Patroclus. This becomes clear during Fox's account of Alexander's visit to the ruins of Troy at the onset of their campaign:
"Anointing himself with oil, he ran naked among his companions to the tombstone of Achilles and honoured it with a garland, while Hephaestion did likewise for the tomb of Patroclus. It was a remarkable tribute, uniquely paid, and it is also Hephaestion's first mention in Alexander's career. Already the two were intimate, Patroclus and Achilles even to those around them; the comparison would remain to the end of their days and is proof of their life as lovers, for by Alexander's time, Achilles and Patroclus were agreed to have enjoyed the same relationship which Homer himself had never mentioned" (113).
Throughout the book, Fox writes about Hephaestion as though his romantic relationship with Alexander is a certainty. After Hephaestion's sudden death, Fox refers to Hephaestion as the "one sure relationship" of Alexander's life (434).
So, it's clear where Fox stands on the debate over the nature of the pair's relationship. But what are we to make of this?
Although Fox's work is quite impressive, I am curious as to where he gets his certainty from. As far as I can tell, the only good evidence in favor of Fox's view is circumstantial. Additionally, a case can be made that Alexander and Hephaestion's association with Achilles and Patroclus came about, or was at least exaggerated, after their deaths. Some scholars believe that Hephaestion was not involved at all in Alexander's sacrifice at Troy - that this story was invented later as part of this "new Achilles narrative" that Fox embraces.
Besides, even if Alexander did view himself as Achilles and Hephaestion as Patroclus, who's to say that that absolutely meant he and Hephaestion were lovers?
Fox and others cite the apparently mainstream 4th century interpretation of Achilles and Patroclus as lovers. But, even if that was the predominant view, that doesn't necessarily mean Alexander accepted it. After all, Homer never directly says Achilles and Patroclus are lovers in the Iliad. Some argue it is implied. Others believe it's not. Regardless, it's hard to believe that there wasn't some ambiguity surrounding this matter even in Alexander's time. I just don't see this symbolic comparison at Troy (if it even happened) or any other association with Achilles and Patroclus as being "proof of their life as lovers".
As always, Fox's characters are compelling. Is his interpretation plausible? Yes. Is it likely? I'm not sure. I certainly don't think some of his psychological analysis is worth much considering all of the unknown variables.