THE GAY LOVERS OF ALEXANDER III OF MACEDON,
known as THE GREAT
Alexander the Great
Note on Alexander, the movie by Oliver Stone
When Oliver Stone was thinking of doing a movie on the life of the legendary son of king Phillip II of Macedon and queen Olympias, one unexpected obstacle stood in his way: the Greek government. It didn't want one of their greatest heroes 'besmirched' by public knowledge of his male loves. As a result, the film was shot mainly in Morocco and Thailand. No scenes were filmed in Greece, as the Athens News Agency explains, because of government opposition to Stone's portrayal of the Greek hero.
Not surprisingly, these "erotic reality deniers" provided Mr. Stone with free publicity, as well as comic relief. A group of homophobic Greek lawyers even threatened to sue Warner Bros. and the director for implying Alexander the Great was bisexual. The lawyers, trampling their own intellectual heritage underfoot, sent a letter to the studio demanding they state in the title credits that the movie was a fictional tale.
Drama surrounding the "gayness" of Alexander has a precedent. A couple of years previously, a mob of hundreds of Macedonian Greeks stormed an archeological symposium after a speaker presented a paper on the homosexuality of Alexander. Police were then called in to evacuate . . . the scholarly participants!
Not that Hollywood was any better. The film, which Stone had been trying to get on the screen for 15 years, received only lukewarm applause. It later came out that the studio pressured Stone to cut all the scenes of Alexander's affair with that dangerous brat Bagoas. No wonder the critics found the leftovers boring!
The Life of Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great commanded his first battles while only sixteen years old and went on to conquer the entire known world, leading his troops from the mountains of northern Greece all the way to the mountains of northern India. He subdued every opponent in his path, from the Greek city states to the kingdoms of North Africa, Asia Minor and Persia. His relentlessness in battle, often tempered by his magnanimity to the vanquished, was legendary. But so was his devotion to his friends and companions, and the love which he shared almost exclusively with his male peers starting in tender childhood.
This was no chance event. Born in August of 356 BCE, under the sign of the lion, he was the quintessential product of a patriarchal warrior culture, the very paragon of a male dominated world ruled by masculine values and a masculine aesthetic. His tutor from the age of thirteen on was the philosopher Aristotle, who commented on the excesses as well as the values of pederasty, and who had a number of male beloveds of his own. Alexander embodied those ethics for the rest of his brief but volcanic life. However, he stretched the accepted boundaries of ancient male love. Not only did he have love affairs with boys, but above them all, was his love for a man his own age, his childhood friend Hephaestion. This relationship resembled modern gay love and became legendary for it's passion.
What may seem normal to some of us today, the gay love of one man for another, in ancient days was frowned upon as a threat to masculinity and the structure of society. Love between grown men and teenage boys was the only proper way for two males to love each other. The men vied to be chosen by the boys as their lovers and the boys, ideally, were educated and led into adulthood by their lovers. Their love was an erotic love, and it often had its sexual aspects, but, as many of the philosophical and oratory texts show, men were expected to refrain from penetrating their beloved boys. Though in Alexander's world of palaces, power, and passion, the pedagogic ideal was honored more in the breach than the observance, yet boys remained the focus of men's affection. Philip II himself, Alexander's own father, pursued young lovers tirelessly all his life. His very death came at the hand of a vengeful former beloved, Pausanias, who had been spurned by the king for a prettier boy. One trifled with Greek boys at one's peril!
Unlike Philip's affairs, the love between Alexander and Hephaestion never waned. Alexander saw their love as emulating that heroic love between Achilles and Patroclus, another ancient couple that modern gay couples can look to as an example of devotion. Crossing into Asia on their way to Persia, the two halted their campaign in Illium by the ruins of Troy. There Alexander sacrificed and offered garlands at the shrine of Achilles, while Hephaestion did the same at the shrine of Patroclus. Following the ancient custom, Alexander ran naked around the hero's tomb, proclaiming his admiration for Achilles, "fortunate in life to have so faithful a friend, and in death to have so famous a poet."
Male love did not blind the Greeks, nor Alexander, to the lure of beautiful women: he married Roxane, a Persian princess, daughter of Oxyartes of Bactria, and fathered a child with her. Later, as the Roman/Greek historian Arrian reports, Alexander, while in Persia at Susa "…held wedding ceremonies for his Companions; he also took (another) wife himself - Barsine, Darius' eldest daughter, and, according to Aristobulus, another as well, namely Parysatis, the youngest daughter of Ochlus…"(VII.5)
His love of women, however, may have been an acquired taste. The Roman historian Curtius reports that "He scorned (feminine) sensual pleasures to such an extent that Olympias, his mother, was anxious lest he be unable to beget offspring." To whet his appetite for the fair sex, King Philip and Olympias had Kallixeina, a Thessalian hetaira (a professional courtesan) brought in. And one of his contemporary biographers, Eumenes, claimed Alexander "was not at his ease with sex."
The other great male love of Alexander's life that we know about was the eunuch Bagoas. The two met while Alexander was on campaign against the Persian king Darius. The war had raged for some time, with Darius finally on the run, deserted by his vassals and eventually assassinated by one of his own men. His general, Nabarzenes, went to swear fealty to Alexander and to offer rich gifts, a beautiful boy among them. Curtius describes him as "... Bagoas, a eunuch exceptional in beauty and in the very flower of boyhood, with whom Darius was intimate and with whom Alexander would later be intimate," (VI.5.23) The stormy, outspoken character of the boy matched his stunning looks and the friendship and love which grew between him and the warrior king lasted the rest of their lives.
Alexander saw to it that his young beloved was well provided for. As Eumenes recounts, the king installed Bagoas in a villa outside of Babylon and required all his officers and courtesans, both Greek and Persian, to render him honors (to present him with rich gifts). They all did but one, the faithful satrap Orsines, who claimed that he had come "to honor the friends of Alexander, not his whores," and that "it was not the custom of the Persians to take males in marriage who had been turned into women for the sake of being fucked." Enraged, the young Bagoas wrought Orsines' destruction by means of endless calumnies, rousing Alexander's mind to anger until he condemned the man to death. Still not satisfied with his handiwork, Bagoas struck Orsines as he was being led off to execution. Orsines turned and drove home one final insult: "I had heard that women once reigned in Asia; this however is something new, for a eunuch to reign!" (Curtius, X.1.22)
Alexander's favor to Bagoas can also be seen in his later appointment of Bagoas as one of the trierarchs, men of substance who oversaw and funded the construction of the navy for the journey homeward. Their love affair is attested to by many historians of the time, such as Plutarch, who recounts an episode showing that the love between the two was common knowledge among the troops, and much appreciated. At a dancing contest, Bagoas had won the honors then went to sit by the side of the king, "which so pleased the Macedonians that they shouted out for him to kiss Bagoas, and never stopped clapping their hands and shouting till Alexander took him in his arms and kissed him warmly," (Plutarch, The Lives). The episode is attested by several ancient writers.
This new love in no way affected the deep devotion which bound him to Hephaestion, which was itself famous throughout Magna Graecia. The cynic philosopher Diogenes wrote to Alexander about it, berating him for his sexual enslavement (and incidentally casting a light on the type of sexual intercourse preferred by Greek men: face to face, between the thighs): "If you want to be kalos kagathos ("beautiful and good", the Greek expression for noble and ideal) throw away the rag you have on your head and come to us. But you won't be able to, for you are ruled by Hephaestion's thighs." (Diogenes of Sinope, Letters, 24) Their love was undone only by Hephaestion's death during the summer festivities at Ecbatana (in Persia) on their way home from India.
Alexander, who had borne hardship and wounds that would have felled a lesser man, was completely undone by this loss. It is said that he lay upon Hephaestion's body for a day and a night and finally had to be dragged off by his friends. For another three days he remained mute, in tears, fasting. When he rose he sheared off all his hair and ordered all the ornaments in the city broken off the walls and the manes and tails of all the horses sheared. He forbade all music in the city and ordered every town in the empire to carry out mourning rituals. Then he sent envoys to Ammon's oracle at the oasis of Siwah in Egypt to ask that divine honors be granted to his dead friend. The body of Hephaestion was embalmed and carried on to Babylon, where it was cremated on a pyre, in a funeral on which he planned to spend astronomical sums. Little did Alexander know that Babylon was to become his final stop as well. Forced to stay in the town through the hot, mosquito-ridden summer months, he took sick and died after a short illness. By our accounting the year was 323 BCE. Alexander was only 33 years old.
Yalouris Nikolaos et al., The
Search for Alexander,
New York Graphic Society, 1980.
The Modern Library, New York; 2001.
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