So, I ran across this post on Tumblr (cw: flashing background) containing a lot of interesting historical things that we tend to keep out of history. You know, the kinds of things we try to neglect mentioning or find pleasant euphemisms for because – oh, my god – aspects of these people’s identities are offensive if they’re not meeting our hyper-straight and super-puritan values.
But while I love the fact that it includes a lot of facts, it doesn’t include anything that enables me to learn more. As a result, I decided to start taking it piece by piece and finding sources for a lot of those fun (and extremely necessary) facts. As I love history, I thought I’d spend a little time researching these things and providing what I did find.
Alexander the Great
“My fave part was when Alexander wanted to have his ASHES MIXED INTO THOSE OF HIS GODDAMN LIFELONG LOVE… and because that love was a dude, the amount of historians that have basically gone, “True brotherly love/just guys being dudes” I mean… hilarious.
I’m making the educated assumption that this was regarding Alexander III of Macedon, otherwise known as Alexander the Great; the above quote provides little information, and it definitely doesn’t give me much in the way of a period of time. It doesn’t even give me a source to go and follow up, which is what I am constantly frustrated by when people go to the trouble to give me historical quips. But it felt like a very Ancient Greek thing to say, and I remembered that Hephaestion was cremated.
Many know him for his military prowess, spending the majority of his years employing military campaigns through Asia and Africa and creating one of the largest empires that spanned from Greece to India. We acknowledge him for being one of the most successful military commanders that we know about, as he was said to be undefeated in battle. We’re even aware of his having spent time studying under Aristotle.
Yet we’re squeamish to mention that he had an intimate relationship with Hephaestion, even if we’re kind of okay with mentioning that “homosexuality was normal in Ancient Greece.” We’re even fine with trying to use our own modern interpretations of homosexuality in Ancient Greece in some of our Supreme Court cases, as if Ancient Greek culture has any relevance to the cultures that survive today. Anyway…
It’s interesting to learn about some of the choices that Alexander III made with regard to Hephaestion, cementing a lot of evidence for his relationship with him. According to Robin Lane Fox’s Alexander the Great (1974), there are multiple instances detailing their relationship (though it fails to provide footnotes or citations of any sources, especially primary documentation). This includes how Alexander and Hephaestion respectively performed the rituals to Achilles and Patroclus (link tw: homophobic language and phrasing), indicating that Hephaestion was the eromenos of Alexander as Patroclus was to Achilles (though this particular word was, according to most sources, used by Alexander to describe their relationship). He was also said to have married the sister of his Persian wife to Hephaestion, as Alexander wanted the children to be his nieces and nephews. He also promoted Hephaestion to second-in-command, known as a Chiliarch, and refused to re-fill the position upon his death.
But it’s the deep grief and mourning that Alexander had after Hephaestion’s death that, for many people, cement their more-than-platonic friendship. Using materials that people held in high regard, Alexander ordered that Hephaestion’s pyre would be completed regardless of the cost, even while their contemporaries may have believed this to be excessive. The Hamadan Stone Lion is believed to be one of the monuments that was built to commemorate the death of Hephaestion, but this is somewhat contentious. Supposedly, Alexander also decreed that “all should sacrifice to Hephaestion as god coadjutor,” while Zeus Ammon at Siwah granted that there could be a heroic cult to Hephaestion. It has also been written that Alexander gave up tending to his personal appearance for three days and instead spent it “bewailing [Hephaestion] and refusing to depart from him, until he was forcibly carried away by his Companions” among the other actions he may have performed.
That their relationship was close is not contentious, but the level of that closeness is. There are several factors that make it problematic. First, there’s the fact that the writings available to us may not be entirely reliable; this can be seen as we use the accounts written by Arrian, which compiled multiple writings including those of Ptolemy and Aristobulus, both of whom worked with and under Alexander. Second, our own modern interpretations are bound by our own cultural problems; the fact that we’ve lost a lot is due to the destruction of sources that indicate anything other than heterosexuality, and the inclusion of euphemisms and code words for any “non-traditional” relationship in history does nothing more than cause problems. We lose the context for many of the individuals, just as we seem intent to define an ancient culture using modern terminology and structure that wouldn’t have existed in the past.
Regardless of the level of closeness that Alexander and Hephaestion had in their relationship – and I am of the opinion that it was anything other than platonic – it’s unquestionable that they cared deeply for each other. I couldn’t find information stating that Alexander requested to have his ashes mixed with Hephaestion’s, but that could be related to one or more of the following:
- We’ve lost the documents stating as such for whatever reason (intentional or unintentional).
- Prior historians have re-interpreted the information in order to remove the ‘abominable’ non-heterosexuality of a time.
- It’s an apocryphal statement.
- I just didn’t look hard enough or read something incorrectly in my day of research.
Next up: NSFW History in the Ancient World.