I have to say, I made myself cringe with the title for this diary. In fact, let me just answer that question now: No. Many people, however, believe Alexander the Great was "gay." He frequently makes lists of gay historical figures--so much so that it seems that he's more famous for his perceived sexual orientation than he is for conquering Asia. But spoiler alert: I contend in this diary that Alexander was not "gay."
This is not to say that he was not attracted to men. See, when it comes to things like gay identity, I'm a bit of a social constructionist. I wouldn't call myself a Foucauldian, because enough research exists that challenges the idea that German sexologists "invented" homosexual identity. Indeed, homosexual subculture can be traced to well before the term "homosexuality" was coined. But in my view, applying the term "gay" to an ancient figure such as Alexander is inappropriate. Again, I am not saying that men did not love men and women did not love women in ancient days. Clearly, we have abundant evidence that people with homosexual and bisexual orientations have existed as long as human beings have been on this earth. But the term "gay" invokes a complicated identity of which ancient figures such as Alexander had no conception.
So the real question, then, is: Was Alexander the Great sexually attracted to and/or involved with men?
This question is a bit more appropriate. Unfortunately, it's not much more answerable. The problem is that we do not have any original sources that pertain to Alexander. We have the words of five or so ancient historians, but we do not have access to the material they used. Our ancient sources differ frequently. Saying anything conclusive about Alexander is difficult. But we can weigh our existing evidence and make some educated guesses. That's what I'm going to do in this diary.
A word of warning, though: I am not an ancient historian. I am a twentieth century Americanist specializing in LGBT history. I am approaching this subject with all of the biases inherent in my specialty. This diary is based on a paper I wrote for my Alexander the Great course titled "Alexander, Sexuality, and History: The Historical and Historiographical Question of Alexander the Great's Homoeroticism." Yes, it's as boring as it sounds. Don't worry, I'm going to get straight to the point and not bore you to death with academic mumbo-jumbo. Just keep in mind that I am not an expert in ancient history. But I do know a bit about Alexander, and I definitely know quite a bit about sexuality, so hopefully you'll learn something from this diary. All of that being said, follow me below the fold.
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First, in case you don't know anything about Alexander the Great, here's the Wikipedia introduction. For our purposes in this diary, it tells you everything you need to know.
Alexander III of Macedon (20/21 July 356 – 10/11 June 323 BC), commonly known as Alexander the Great (Greek: Ἀλέξανδρος ὁ Μέγας, Aléxandros ho Mégasiii from the Greek αλέξω alexo "to defend, help" + ανήρ aner "man"), was a king of Macedon, a state in northern ancient Greece. Born in Pella in 356 BC, Alexander was tutored by Aristotle until the age of 16. By the age of thirty, he had created one of the largest empires of the ancient world, stretching from the Ionian Sea to the Himalayas. He was undefeated in battle and is considered one of history's most successful commanders.
Alexander succeeded his father, Philip II of Macedon, to the throne in 336 BC after Philip was assassinated. Upon Philip's death, Alexander inherited a strong kingdom and an experienced army. He was awarded the generalship of Greece and used this authority to launch his father's military expansion plans. In 334 BC, he invaded Persian-ruled Asia Minor and began a series of campaigns that lasted ten years. Alexander broke the power of Persia in a series of decisive battles, most notably the battles of Issus and Gaugamela. He subsequently overthrew the Persian King Darius III and conquered the entirety of the Persian Empire. At that point, his empire stretched from the Adriatic Sea to the Indus River.
Seeking to reach the "ends of the world and the Great Outer Sea", he invaded India in 326 BC, but was eventually forced to turn back at the demand of his troops. Alexander died in Babylon in 323 BC, without executing a series of planned campaigns that would have begun with an invasion of Arabia. In the years following his death, a series of civil wars tore his empire apart, resulting in several states ruled by the Diadochi, Alexander's surviving generals and heirs.
Just about everything we know about Alexander is based on the words of five ancient historians who lived long after Alexander died: Diodorus Siculus (1st century BCE), Quintus Curtius Rufus (1st century CE), Arrian (1st to 2nd century CE), Plutarch (1st to 2nd century CE), and Justin (4th century CE). The work of these historians is based on the writing of some of Alexander's contemporaries and generals, all of which is lost. This leaves us historians in a tough spot--we have to rely on the biased, differing accounts of ancient historians that were very far removed from Alexander. The only way we can draw any conclusions at all about Alexander is by carefully weighing the ancient sources and taking them for what they are: biased portraits of a man based on the biased writings of Alexander's contemporaries.
When it comes to accounts of Alexander's alleged homosexual encounters, the ancient evidence is scant. What evidence exists points to two individuals in Alexander's life with whom he may have had an erotic relationship: Hephaestion, his lifelong best friend, and Bagoas, a eunuch (castrated male) who is said to have once been the sexual subject of Darius and then Alexander after Darius's death. Here are the Wikipedia introductions to these characters:
Hephaestion (Greek: Ἡφαιστίων, alternative spelling: "Hephaistion"; c. 356 BC – 324 BC), son of Amyntor, was a Macedonian nobleman and a general in the army of Alexander the Great. He was "... by far the dearest of all the king's friends; he had been brought up with Alexander and shared all his secrets." This friendship lasted their whole lives, and was compared, by others as well as themselves, to that of Achilles and Patroclus.
His military career was distinguished. A member of Alexander the Great’s personal bodyguard, he went on to command the Companion cavalry, and was entrusted with many other tasks through Alexander's ten-year campaign in Asia, including diplomatic missions, the bridging of major rivers, sieges, and the foundation of new settlements. Besides being a soldier, engineer and diplomat, he corresponded with the philosophers Aristotle and Xenocrates, and actively supported Alexander in his attempts to integrate Greeks and Persians. Alexander formally made him his second-in-command when he appointed him Chiliarch of the empire, and made him part of the royal family when he gave him as his bride Drypetis, sister to his own second wife, Stateira, both daughters of Darius III of Persia. When he died suddenly at Ecbatana, Alexander was overwhelmed with grief. He petitioned the oracle at Siwa to grant Hephaestion divine status, and Hephaestion was honoured as a Divine Hero. At the time of his own death eight months later, Alexander was still planning lasting monuments to Hephaestion's memory.
Bagoas (in Old Persian Bagoi) was a eunuch in the Persian Empire in the 4th Century BCE, said to have been the catamite of Darius III, and later the Eromenos (Beloved) of Alexander the Great.There are a few references in our ancient sources that hint toward the possibility that Alexander was sexually involved with these men. For his relationship with Hephaestion, the most striking is Aelian’s observation in his Varia Historia that “Alexander garlanded the tomb of Achilles and Hephaestion that of Patroclus, the latter riddling that he too was beloved of Alexander, in just the same way as Patroclus was of Achilles.” Achilles and Patroclus were believed, even in the ancient world, to be lovers. Also, Arrian’s Dissertationes ab Arriano refers indirectly to Hephaestion as Alexander’s lover and states that he burned the temples of Asclepius down when Hephaestion died. In addition, Justin infers that Alexander was drawn to Hephaestion because of his boyishness and beauty.
As for Alexander’s alleged relationship with Bagoas, Plutarch tells us that, while in a theatre, Alexander “embraced [Bagoas] and kissed him deeply.” Additionally, Quintus Curtius tells us that Alexander had a “relationship” with Bagoas and that it was under Bagoas’s influence that he spared Narbazanes, one of Darius’s killers. Later, Curtius relates a story in which Darius’s general Orxines meets Alexander and his friends, bestowing honor on everybody but Bagoas. Enraged, Bagoas tells Alexander that Orxines robbed the tomb of Cyrus, for which Alexander executes Orxines. Before the execution, Orxines explicitly refers to Bagoas as a eunuch. All of these stories have been used to indicate a special (and perhaps erotic) relationship between Alexander and Bagoas.
There are other scattered bits of evidence for a homoerotic Alexander, but these are the pieces of evidence that are most cited.
As you can see, there is not a great deal of evidence that confirms an erotic relationship between either Hephaestion or Bagoas. But the evidence that does exist is pretty telling.
Before we proceed, it would also be beneficial to review what we know about ancient Greek homosexuality. The central work in this area is K.J. Dover's Greek Homosexuality, which established what has come to be known as the Dover Model of Greek homosexuality. According to the Dover Model, homosexual relationships in Greece were pederastic in nature, or between a man in his twenties and an adolescent or older teenager. Dover notes that “the reciprocal desire of partners belonging to the same age-category is virtually unknown in Greek homosexuality,” and thus “the distinction between the bodily activity of the one who has fallen in love and the bodily passivity of the one with whom he has fallen in love is of the highest importance.” He argues that Greek homosexuality emphasized relationships between a dominant adult and a passive young, beardless boy. He calls the adult the erastes (or “lover”) and the boy the eromenos (the passive participle of eran, or “be in love with”). This ideal homoerotic relationship was, to a large extent, utilitarian. It was not, as mentioned above, a reciprocal, loving relationship. The eromenos, as we can deduce from the prevalence of flaccid penises in ancient pottery, was not expected to derive any physical pleasure from the (usually) intercrural intercourse. The erastes was the one expected to receive physical enjoyment from the act. The eromenos, on the other hand, gained social status from the relationship, particularly if the erastes was an important figure. When the eromenos reached maturity, the relationship was expected to end, with the erastes turning his attention to women and the former eromenos taking on an eromenos of his own. In other words, homoeroticism in ancient Greek culture, according to the Dover Model, bore no resemblance whatsoever to modern gay relationships.
Now, that's not the whole story, of course. Pederasty may have been what many Greeks thought of when they thought of homosexuality, but the real picture is much more complicated. Although a highly influential idea, the Dover Model possesses a distinct Athenian bias--and not just a bias favoring Athenian culture, but a bias favoring Athenian high culture. Pederasty pervaded elite society in Athens, but it was not common--or particularly accepted--in the lower classes. Also, male lovers lived together as married couples in Boeotia, and Spartan society is thought to have tolerated homosexual affairs. Spartan culture also expected the homoerotic couple to remain together even after the eromenos reached maturity. The overall picture of homoerotic relationships in Greece is actually much more complicated than the Dover Model suggests.
Before examining Alexander’s sexuality, which does not follow the conventions of the Dover Model, homoeroticism in Macedonia--which is not directly governed by Dover's model--needs to be given context. Historian Jeanne Reames-Zimmerman shows in her research that Macedonian homoeroticism did not follow the conventions of the pederastic Dover Model. Instead, homoerotic relationships typically took place in a court or military setting. As in Sparta, these relationships often continued long after the eromenos grew his beard. Of vital importance to understanding Alexander’s sexuality is that Arrian noted the “same age” between Hermolaos and Sostratos, two figures in Alexander's military. Interestingly, and significantly, Arrian also uses the term erastes in this case. Therefore, it becomes clear that Macedonian homoerotic relationships also included members of the same age, in violation of the conventions of the Dover Model. This is of particular significance when examining Alexander’s relationship with Hephaestion, as the two were likely around the same age, so a finding like this establishes precedent for what we might consider "modern" sexual relations between men. All of this discussion of the Dover Model and its severe limitations establishes a necessary context within which to look at the treatment of Alexander’s sexuality.
The question of Alexander's possible homosexuality has been an issue for modern historians since the early twentieth century. But they have not always accepted the ancient evidence. W.W. Tarn, who wrote arguably the most significant book on Alexander, was studying Alexander in the 1910s and 1920s from an idealistic Wilsonian perspective. He therefore wrote about Alexander as a peacemaker who sought to unite the Greeks and Persians--a laughable idea considering the atrocities Alexander oversaw, but understandable given the context in which Tarn was writing. He wrote about Alexander as a "Boy Scout" king who could do no wrong. When he published his book in the 1940s, he was outraged at the idea that Alexander could have possibly been homosexual. So outraged, in fact, that he wrote an appendix for the second volume of his book devoted to "debunking" the notion once and for all. Tarn opens the appendix with “regret [for] having to write this Appendix, for the title might suggest the worst kind of popular historiography; but it is necessary to straighten the matter [of Alexander’s sexuality] out.” The introduction to the discussion is very indicative of Tarn’s cultural context, in which homosexuality was a taboo subject in many corners of American society. Throughout the appendix, Tarn labels claims of Alexander’s homosexuality as an “attack made upon Alexander by the Peripatetics.” He argues that “[t]here is not one scrap of evidence for calling Alexander homosexual.” Indeed, he actually argues Bagoas out of existence entirely, claiming that he was an invention of Dicaearchus to slander Alexander, and thus Curtius, “in his usual careless fashion,” included him in the narrative. He also claims that the deep kiss could not have happened in the theatre because no such theatre existed in Asia Minor. Further, he labels the idea of an erotic relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion as an “absurdity.” In what Tarn calls a “refreshing…turn to the truth of the matter,” he argues that Alexander actually refused a gift of boys from Philoxenus and that Alexander was therefore “neither homosexual nor promiscuous." Given the brutally anti-gay cultural context in which Tarn was writing--right before a purge of gays and lesbians from the US military, not to mention a wholesale McCarthyite witch hunt for gays and lesbians in the federal government--this attitude was almost to be expected.
A generation of Alexander historians followed in the footsteps of Tarn and either denied or ignored the possibility that Alexander might have been homosexual. This changed in the 1970s. After the Stonewall Riots of 1969, the gay liberation movement was in full force from coast to coast. Gays and lesbians became much more visible in American culture, and sexuality in general became much less taboo. This new openness seeped into academia as well as studies in sexuality--from Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality to Dover's aforementioned Greek Homosexuality--became wildly popular. Alexander historians, too, began playing around with the idea that Alexander may have had sexual relationships with men. To cite an extreme example, prominent Alexander historian (and historical consultant for Oliver Stone's 2004 film Alexander) Robin Lane Fox came right out in his 1973 book and called Alexander and Hephaestion lovers.
Historians have been fascinated by Alexander's sexuality ever since. Full-scale studies have been published by historians such as Jeanne Reames-Zimmerman and Daniel Ogden--much to the dismay of Greek authorities who would love to keep Alexander heterosexual--dealing with questions of Alexander's sexuality. Oliver Stone's 2004 film and its portrayal of Alexander and Hephaestion as lovers has only fed widespread interest in the subject. You may remember the fierce backlash the film garnered, especially in the South, as it made its debut in the virulently anti-gay environment of the 2004 presidential election. It also received a great deal of hostility from Greece, where a lawsuit against Oliver Stone was even planned for daring to tar the good name of Alexander (even though ancient Greeks likely despised Alexander, a Macedonian who pillaged Greek city-states). Questions surrounding Alexander's sexuality are anything but ancient. As popular interest in the subject has picked up steam, historians have also become much more interested in the subject.
So what is the consensus? Alexander historians today seem to mostly be in agreement that the evidence suggesting a homoerotic Alexander cannot be discounted as Tarn would have liked. The ancient evidence regarding Alexander's relationships with Hephaestion and Bagoas has generally been accepted by modern scholars. There is simply no reason not to accept it. Specific aspects such as the "deep kiss" with Bagoas may be called into question because of the biases of ancient historians, but what the evidence, taken as a whole, seems to overwhelmingly suggest is that Alexander's relationships with these two men were not merely platonic friendships. We can be sure that, despite also having relationships with women such as Roxanne, Alexander and Hephaestion were very close and were at least rumored to be lovers. There may or may not have been (but likely was, based on existing evidence) an erotic element attached to the relationship. We can be sure that Bagoas, contrary to Tarn's bizarre assertion, actually did exist and that he and Alexander were also very close. Again, there may or may not have been an erotic relationship between the two. We can't be entirely sure, of course, but the evidence that exists seems to point in that direction.
Here's what we cannot conclude: We cannot say that Alexander and Hephaestion were "lovers." We cannot say that Bagoas was definitely Alexander's sexual subject. We cannot say that Alexander was necessarily homosexual. To do so would be to go far beyond what the evidence allows. With the scant ancient evidence that we have, we cannot draw sweeping conclusions about Alexander's sexual orientation, except to speculate that he may have been bisexual. We certainly cannot say that Alexander was "gay."
Barring the introduction of new ancient evidence, we'll never know the full story of Alexander's relationship with either Hephaestion or Bagoas. It is quite possible--indeed, probably likely--that Alexander had erotic encounters with both. But one thing is certain: To boil these rich, complicated relationships down to sex, and to apply a modern identity to Alexander of which he did not even have a concept, would be mistaken and inappropriate.