And neither was Achilles.
I have heard several times now someone assert that Patrokles and Achilles were not merely good friends, or cousins, as depicted in Troy (2004). It has become somewhat popular to say that the love that Achilles demonstrates for Patrokles implies a sexual relationship, one which seems to dovetail with a later Greek proclivity for homosexual relationships of the kind championed in Plato’s Symposium.
But this position is — to borrow from Wolfgang Pauli — not even wrong. It is classically unfalsifiable, but the assertion grossly underestimates the depth of what Homer is doing in the story, and takes a superficial and crassly literal reading of a relationship that extends beyond individual people.
To explain why this theory is both wrong and yet superficially plausible, one must understand the etymology of the name “Patrokles” — especially in the context of the Iliad — and juxtapose it with a sub-narrative presented within the story. In Book IX, Achilles — having withdrawn from the fighting — is approached by an old man named Phoenix, along with Ajax and Odysseus. Phoenix attempts to persuade Achilles to accept Agamemnon’s reconciliatory offer to return to battle by recounting a story of one Meleagros, a warrior who, like Achilles, had withdrawn in anger from the fighting. Soon after Meleagros’ withdrawal, the fighting became dire, and with the enemy pounding at the gates, various envoys attempted to persuade the hero to rejoin the fight:
Presently there was thunder about the gates, and the sound rose of towers under assault, and the Aitolian elders supplicated him, sending their noblest priests of the immortals, to come forth and defend them; they offered him a great gift: wherever might lie the richest ground in lovely Kalydon, there they told him to choose out a piece of land, an entirely good one, of fifty acres, the half of it to be vineyard and the half of it unworked ploughland of the plain to be furrowed. And the aged horseman Oineus again and again entreated him, and took his place at the threshold of the high-vaulted chamber and shook against the bolted doors, pleading with his own son. And again and again his honoured mother and his sisters entreated him, but he only refused the more; then his own friends who were the most honoured and dearest of all entreated him; but even so they could not persuade the heart within him until, as the chamber was under close assault, the Kouretes were mounting along the towers and set fire to the great city. And then at last his wife, the fair-girdled bride, supplicated Meleagros, in tears, and rehearsed in their numbers before him all the sorrows that come to men when their city is taken: they kill the men, and the fire leaves the city in ashes, and strangers lead the children away and the deep-girdled women. And the heart, as he listened to all this evil, was stirred within him, and he rose, and went, and closed his body in shining armour. So he gave way in his own heart, and drove back the day of evil from the Aitolians; yet these no longer would make good their many and gracious gifts; yet he drove back the evil from them. Listen, then; do not have such a thought in your mind; let not the spirit within you turn you that way, dear friend. It would be worse to defend the ships after they are burning. No, with gifts promised go forth. The Achaians will honour you as they would an immortal. But if without gifts you go into the fighting where men perish, your honour will no longer be as great, though you drive back the battle.’
What is of import here is Meleagros’ wife, whose placement in the list (last) and whose success in persuading her husband make her the most loved (the ‘nearest and dearest’) to the hero. By contrast, Phoenix is not successful in persuading Achilles, much as Meleagros was not persuaded by the elders in his tale. Since Meleagros’ wife ultimately persuades him to return to the fighting, and since Patrokles in death finally persuades Achilles to return to the fighting, Patrokles is analagous to Meleagros’ wife, not merely in plot, but in affection. Patrokles is nearest and dearest to Achilles, in the same way that Meleagros’ wife is nearest and dearest to him.On its face, this seems to support the homosexuality hypothesis…
Meleagros’ wife has a name. Her name is Kleopatra. Both Patrokles and Kleopatra are not merely names for characters, but distillations of a concept manifest in symbolic human form as an object for the hero. We know this because the etymology of these two names are the same, deriving from Patres (“fathers/ancestors”) and Kleos (“glory in song”). Both are, by name, the glory of men of old, the very thing which Achilles has been weighing against a long life throughout the story:
For my mother Thetis the goddess of the silver feet tells me I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either, if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans, my return home is gone, but my glory [kleos] shall be everlasting; but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers, the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly.
Kleos is not merely the hinge upon which Achilles decision rests, but it is also the very medium of the story itself. The “glory” referred to by kleos is specifically glory of those in the past, remembered in song… or, as the case may be in poetry, of the kind that Homer is now reciting for his audience. Patrokles/Kleopatra are not so much people as they are symbols for this medium. Their disparate genders, far from making insinuations about homosexuality, emphasizes the irrelevance of their gender. They are embodiments of a concept.
When Achilles was approached by the envoy of Phoenix, he himself was playing the lyre, and singing the glories of men of the past:
Now they came beside the shelters and ships of the Myrmidons and they found Achilles delighting his heart in a lyre, clear-sounding, splendid and carefully wrought, with a bridge of silver upon it, which he won out of the spoils when he ruined Eëtion’s city. With this he was pleasuring his heart, and singing of men’s fame [klea andron], as Patrokles was sitting over against him, alone, in silence…
Achilles doesn’t love Patrokles in a sexual manner. At a basic level, Achilles loves Patrokles in the manner that
Hektor “Hoot” in Black Hawk Down loves his teammates:
They won’t understand it’s about the men next to you. And that’s it. That’s all it is.
Indeed, they won’t understand. They might even think it’s sexual, that unique love for ones’ friends under fire. They might see a statue of a soldier risking his life to protect the body of a dead comrade, and, noticing a penis, miss the greater drama of the story in favor of some crass insinuations of a more conventional, less noble kind.
But of course, the man next to you isn’t quite all it is…
We have memorialized the heroism of the soldiers of Mogadishu in the film, as Homer immortalized the heroism of the soldiers of Troy in his poem. There is an identification of ones’ friends in combat with the story, as if the two are not distinct, but inseparable. The tradition of remembering the stories of Medal of Honor recipients in our modern military — such as those awarded to MSG Gordon and SFC Shughart — is a modern example of this relationship. The men by your side are the story; they are the glorious dead of the past, and you too may soon be among them.
Achilles’ love of Patrokles is not a lustful, sexual love. It is far deeper, more powerful, more masculine, and more noble than that. It is a love simultaneously for the story, for song, for glory, for honor, and for a kind of friendship which the English language does not have an adequate equivalent for. But it implies a brotherly love. It means “we’re in this together.” It says no one gets out of this alive, so I’m fighting for you.
For more in-depth reading on Homer and Greek heroism, I strongly recommend The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. While Why Homer Matters is still the best basic introduction to the importance of Homeric stories, Nagy’s masterpiece is the most in-depth explanation of what is going on in Homer’s world I have yet come across. Much of the information above is drawn from his work, and I will go so far as to say that an understanding of Homer might be incomplete without at least a cursory understanding of the content he covers in this masterpiece.
And while I recommend purchasing the book, the content is also available online for free.