Did they or didn’t they? Only Homer knows for sure. But readers of the Iliad have wondered for centuries about the love between Achilles and Patroclus. The topic was so disturbing to Wolfgang Petersen that he turned the two heroes into cousins in his 1994 Hollywood epic.
But the ancients took it for granted that the erotic had a place in male relations. Although we don’t have the extant work, evidence suggests that Aeschylus had written a play called "The Myrmidons" in which he represented a sexual bond between Achilles and Patroclus. We know of this from Plato’s Symposium where Phaedrus criticizes Aeschylus for misrepresenting the attachment between the two heroes. The issue for Phaedrus was not whether Achilles and Patroclus were sexually involved but who was the lover or erastes (older and active) and who the beloved or eromenos (younger and passive).
Neither Aeschylus, nor Plato, nor Xenophon could have imagined Achilles and Patroclus as gay. Madeline Miller, however, in her recent novel The Song of Achilles, recasts the Iliad as a coming of age tale in which the boys discover their sexuality. They realize, for instance, that they are different from other teenagers who can’t wait to take servant or slave girls to bed. When Achilles’ father, Peleus, suggests that he spend the night with a beautiful maid, the superhero Achilles, who on the plain of Iliad turns into a human tank, wimps out, saying that he was “tired.”
Miller describes with some delicacy the development of their relationship, the brush of their first kiss, and their inaugural sexual encounter in a cave on Mount Pelion. These moments seem magical and constitute the best parts of the novel.
(The writing is uneven. For every exquisite sentence such as the definition of hubris as “arrogance that scrapes the stars” or the comparison of Patroclus’ lyre playing to bright lemons, we get hurried lines such as “time passed quickly on Mount Pelion” or “Thetis hissed like a snake,” or the day was “oppressively warm.” Contrast this with the lyric splendor of David Malouf’s Ransom, which deals with the confrontation between Achilles and Priam over Hector’s corpse.)
What is strange here is less the sexual relationship per se than the contemporaneous take on it. Patroclus, for instance, experiences “shame” in masturbating -- a Christian imposition upon the Bronze Age. He also seems to feel guilty about his relationship with Achilles and wonders if his friend’s mentor, Chiron, suspects that they are lovers. Should they tell, he asks, Peleus or even Thetis, Achilles’ vindictive mother who despises Patroclus? Patroclus’ self-doubts show that his (gay) sexuality is trapped in a modern tension between concealment and revelation.
Unlike Wolfgang Petersen, Peleus and Thetis would not have been disturbed by the erotic turn of their son’s friendship. Petersen and Miller fail to capture what seems to us a contradictory conception of human relations -- that it was possible for Achilles to love both Patroclus and the captured woman, Briseis, at the same time.
A similar “strangeness” is operant in the Epic of Gilgamesh in which the super-stud Gilgamesh falls in love with Encidu and “caresses him like a woman.” Similarly in the Hebrew Bible David breaks into a lament upon learning of Jonathan’s death with whom he had sworn a covenant of friendship: “I am distressed for thee my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26).
To make Achilles and Patroclus gay is not historically false in the way it would be if they were given Facebook accounts or were discussing multiculturalism over cappuccino. Making them homosexual imposes upon them a fixed identity, like a heavy armor, an ontological essence foreign to antiquity and one that constrains behavior. In this way modern readers miss the opportunity to apprehend a different conceptions of human practice.
The question here is not historical accuracy. Obviously a work of fiction has to follow neither the laws of history nor of gravity. Consider Gilgamesh, the contemporary reworking of the Epic of Gilgamesh by Derrek Hines, a Canadian poet living in Britain. The first four lines give us a taste of the modern street idiom Hines uses to make Gilgamesh exciting and strange to modern readers:
Here is Gilgamesh, king of Uruk:
two-thirds divine, a mummy’s boy
zeppelin ego, cock like a trip-hammer,
and solid chrome, no-prisoners arrogance.
Pulls women like beer rings.
Grunts when puzzled.
A bully. A jock. Perfecto. But in Love?
Alice Oswald’s poem, Memorial. An Excavation of the Iliad, is another innovative reimagining of an ancient text. She “translates” the atmosphere of the Iliad by creating an antiphonal structure, or what she calls bipolar, that alternates between biographies of the dead heroes and similes, between lament and pastoral lyric.
So the appearance of writing on the tomb of Achilles does not jar in Miller’s novel. It does not matter to us that this would not have been possible in Homeric society. We are yearning less for historical accuracy than to be transported to the awesomeness of the Bronze Age – an unknown and unknowable world.
When we look for antiquity in this novel, we don’t see the Other staring back at us. Instead of contradiction and paradox, we find a familiar love story told in romantic discourse: My sexuality is my truth and by loving me you discover who I am. You can’t get more contemporary than this.