|Achilles bandages Patroclus (picture courtesy of Oedipusphinx)|
The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is by far the most emotional connection we see among the Greeks in The Iliad. It is hard for us as modern readers to make sense of exactly what this meant to the characters or to Homer. Are they friends? Are they lovers? Does it make a difference?
There are some people who reject the idea that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers. They argue that such a claim is just part of a political agenda by modern gay activists. But the idea is not just a modern one: both Aeschylus and Plato believed the two men had a sexual relationship. And Shakespeare agreed.
Arguing that such a relationship meant that the two men were gay is a much trickier business. Among the Greeks, such a relationship seems to have been fairly common--and not one that would define the men as "gay" or "homosexual" or anything else. Those words are not only labels but entire categories created in a later era.
There are some indications that Homer might have been playing off the man-boy pederastic relationships common at a slighty later period of ancient Greek culture. I find this argument fairly unconvincing since Achilles and Patroclus are more or less equals (with each being dominant in some categories and subordinate in others).
Although many readers since those ancient days have believed that Homer portrays a sexual relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, it is not stated directly in the text. Perhaps Homer was working under a "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
What is clear from the text, however, is that the two men loved each other deeply, and that they had been close since they were young. Before Patroclus is killed, Achilles says to him (in the Lombardo translation):
Once you have made some daylight for the ships,
You come back where you belong.
The others can fight it out on the plain.
Oh, Patroclus, I wish to Father Zeus
And to Athena and Apollo
That all of them, Greeks and Trojans alike,
Every last man on Troy's dusty plain,
Were dead, and only you and I were left
To rip Ilion down, stone by sacred stone.
Achilles sees Patroclus as more than just a loved one. He is almost a part of himself. His friend's death leaves him grieving and guilty. "My friend is dead, Patroclus, my dearest friend of all. I loved him, and I killed him." He continues, "I no longer have the will to remain alive among men." As he talks with his mother and tells her of his pain, he comes to a decision: "I'm going now to find the man who destroyed my beloved." He will kill Hector, the man who drove his sword into Patroclus.
After his discussion with his mother, Achilles returned to camp and "began the incessant lamentation," as Homer said. His grief took a physical form,
Laying his man-slaying hands on Patroclus' chest
And groaning over and over like a bearded lion.
The next morning, the mother of Achilles came to see him at the camp--here quoted from the Fagles translation.
She found her beloved son lying facedown.
embracing Patroclus' body, sobbing, wailing.
He is unwilling to leave the side of his beloved, unwilling to let Patroclus be buried until Achilles has brought Troy to its knees from his vengeance.
I'll talk in coming posts about how he begins to emerge from this deep grief into both a new heroic stance and, eventually, a newly human one.
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I was shocked at how significant I found the parallels between Gilgamesh's relationship with Enkidu and Achilles' relationship with Patroclus. In both cases, one heroic man (who is both cases is part god) loves another man, someone who is in many ways a mirror-self, whom he watches die. The death causes the hero great pain, but through his grief, the hero is eventually able to accept his own mortality--and rejoin the life of the community in a more profound way.
Do you see this theme in other literature? It seems to me that is the inspiration for so much, even for the "buddy movies" of late twentieth century Hollywood.