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Published On: Mon, Jun 19th, 2017

Achilles and Patroclus: Brothers from Other Mothers or Passionate Paramours?

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A woman launched a thousand ships. Men traveled far to rescue her, though her motives and intentions were shrouded in haze. But when one warrior quit, it did not take a woman to bring him back to the battleground. It took the death of one very important, sexually ambiguous man to make the war worth fighting for once again.

The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is one of consistent debate. Were these two warriors friends or lovers? Brothers from other mothers or passionate paramours? In translations of the Iliad, Homer’s language is ambiguous. Depending on the scholar, different Greek terms could be translated in numerous ways, therefore changing the innate meaning. And of course, Homer himself cannot be questioned. So readers are left to judge for themselves.

Achilles Displaying the Body of Hector at the Feet of Patroclus (1769) by Jean Joseph Taillason.

Achilles Displaying the Body of Hector at the Feet of Patroclus (1769) by Jean Joseph Taillason. ( Public Domain )

The Death that Launched a Thousand Warriors

Patroclus, a young comrade of Achilles, travels to Troy to help the Greeks win Helen back from the clutches of the Trojan Paris. Achilles is the strongest, more virile of men—the son of a nymph and a mortal man, Achilles was prophesized at birth to either die an unimportant old man, or to die a young hero. Achilles, knowing these paths, chose the latter and agreed to go to Troy under the Mycenaean king (and leader of the Greek army) Agamemnon. The pivotal point of the Iliad from Achilles’ perspective is the death of Patroclus, occurring after Achilles himself refused to fight the Trojans in the name of Agamemnon.

By this point, the war was in its tenth (and final year), and Achilles had been insulted when Agamemnon took one of Achilles’ war prizes, a concubine named Briseis. As Achilles refused to fight, his men (the Myrmidons) also refused. Thus, Patroclus, taking up his dear Achilles’ armor, led the Myrmidons into battle pretending to be Achilles.

He was swiftly slain by Hector, prince of Troy.

Needless to say, Achilles immediately sought revenge.

Thetis Bringing Armor to Achilles (1806) by Benjamin West.

Thetis Bringing Armor to Achilles (1806) by Benjamin West. ( Public Domain )

Was the Relationship of Achilles and Patroclus an Example of Pederasty?

The varying views of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus exist in so many forms for just as many reasons. Early archaeology took place in an era when homosexuality was frowned upon as sin, and the men following this lifestyle were insulted as women (as this was also an age when women were still considered “weak”). It also took many long years of intensive study into ancient Greek culture, religion, literature, language, and art for scholars to understand that the ancient Greek mindset worked differently from our own and thus could not be fathomed or imagined as an accurate interpretation of these materials. In this case, the long-misunderstood practice was pederasty, in which two men are, in fact, lovers.

Pederasty is a relationship between an older man and a younger man or teen. This relationship usually lasts a good many years, but it is not necessarily considered a relationship in the modern sense of the word. Pederasty was common in Ancient Greece, and most widely recorded by Athenian writers and playwrights. This is likely because the Athenians were the first Ancient Greek city state to incorporate the practice into society in a structural fashion.

Pederastic scene: erastes (lover) touching chin and genitals of the eromenos (beloved). Side A of an Attic black-figure neck-amphora, ca. 540 BC.

Pederastic scene: erastes (lover) touching chin and genitals of the eromenos (beloved). Side A of an Attic black-figure neck-amphora, ca. 540 BC. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

The older man, called the erastes, would take a young male lover, called the eromenos, and teach this boy the ways of war, politics, and sex. While these men had intercourse with one another, it was more of an educational relationship. Just as they would practice swordplay or discuss the political agenda of the current day, so would they practice and discuss the ways of sexual pleasure. The Athenians believed that this kind of relationship–literally learning every aspect of the self from another proper Athenian–would create, in essence, a “breed” of perfect men.

Was this what the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was? It is possible. It was not uncommon for males to have sexual relations with one another, and homosexuality was not a point of contention as it has been in the more recent past. It is entirely possible that Achilles started out as Patroclus’ teacher, and then became his boyfriend or lover.

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