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Were Achilles and Patroclus Lovers or Friends?

Depiction of Achilles tending to Patroclus' wound on an ancient Greek vase from Vulci, 500 BCE
Depiction of Achilles tending to Patroclus’ wound on an ancient Greek vase from Vulci, 500 BCE. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Achilles and Patroclus are two prominent characters in the Iliad, written by Homer in the seventh century BCE. This source describes them as having a very close relationship. However, were Achilles and Patroclus just friends, or were they actually lovers? Many ancient and modern commentators have interpreted their relationship as being romantic or sexual, while others interpret it as being platonic. What do the facts reveal?

The story of Achilles and Patroclus

Firstly, let us consider what Homer wrote about Patroclus and Achilles in the Iliad. The overall plot of the Iliad is very much about the two of them. Due to king Agamemnon taking Achilles’ captive bride, a young woman named Briseis (Βρισηίδα), Achilles refuses to fight. This causes immense difficulties for the Greeks.

Eventually, Nestor convinces Patroclus to go to Achilles and try to persuade him to re-join the battle. If Achilles still refuses, Nestor tells Patroclus to take Achilles’ armor and wear it in battle, so that the other Greek soldiers will think that they have Achilles leading them.

Since Achilles still refuses, Patroclus wears his armor and fights against the Trojans. Tragically, he is killed in battle by the Trojan prince, Hector. Achilles experiences immense grief, even refusing to eat for a while. He attacks the Trojans, kills Hector in single combat, and then drags Hector’s body around the city of Troy repeatedly with his chariot.

Why some believe Achilles and Patroclus were lovers

Even from this brief summary, it is clear that Achilles and Patroclus had a very close relationship. Whether it was platonic or romantic, Achilles clearly loved Patroclus in some sense, moving him to suffer intense grief after hearing of his death. Some researchers consider his reactions to be too strong for just friends, indicating that they were actually lovers.

However, there are other reasons why some people reach this conclusion. For example, in Book 16, Achilles expresses his wish for all the Greeks and Trojans to die so that the two of them could conquer Troy together.

In Achilles’ remorseful speech upon learning of Patroclus’ death, he refers to the fact that he loved Patroclus more than all his other comrades, and that he even loved him like his own life.

Furthermore, the ghost of Patroclus later appears to Achilles and asks him to have their bones placed together in a single urn. And later, at Patroclus’ funeral, Achilles places a lock of his hair in Patroclus’ hands, a very common ancient Greek custom.

Beyond the general closeness between the two indicated in the text, these are some of the main specific pieces of evidence used to try to prove that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers, and not merely friends.

Ancient viewpoints on Patroclus and Achilles

In ancient times, it was common to see Patroclus and Achilles in Greek artwork such as  pottery, as well as in written accounts. However, not all Greek commentators had a viewpoint that they were lovers. In fact, it seems that the earliest surviving comment regarding this issue comes from Socrates, who lived between c. 470 and 399 BCE.

As explained by Xenophon in a text called Symposium, Socrates stated the following regarding the two men:

“Homer pictures us Achilles looking upon Patroclus not as the object of his passion but as a comrade, and in this spirit signally avenging his death.”

Since this is apparently the earliest ancient Greek comment on the subject, this might be viewed as significant. Nonetheless, this statement itself indicates that some people in Socrates’ time may have claimed Achilles and Patroclus were lovers. Therefore, this is not really very helpful.

Achilles and the Body of Patroclus, by Nikolai Ge, 1855
Achilles and the Body of Patroclus, by Nikolai Ge, 1855. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

A difference of culture

We cannot know for sure what Homer really had in mind when he composed the Iliad. Nonetheless, it is certainly the case that the modern world is very different to ancient Greece. This difference in culture has certainly contributed to this issue.

For instance, the intense grief displayed by Achilles seems very strange and dramatic for us today. It certainly seems like the sort of grief that a lover would display for their deceased partner. Yet, in the ancient world, such intense displays of grief were much more common.

Another piece of ancient Near Eastern literature, the Bible, shows individuals literally ripping their garments out of grief. People are shown throwing dust over their heads and refusing to eat, sometimes even for days.

For example, when King Saul died, David ripped his garments, wept, fasted, and sang a dirge for Saul out of grief. This is all the more remarkable when we realise that Saul was David’s enemy who had been trying to kill him for years.

When viewed in the context of ancient Iron Age Mediterranean culture, Achilles’ actions are not unusual. Yes, they are more dramatic than normal, but a major part of the Iliad is about how unusually passionate and dramatic Achilles is. The very fact that he refused to fight and let countless fellow Greeks die simply because of a slight of honour is a demonstration of this, and the characters call Achilles out on his drama.

So the intensity of his reaction over Patroclus’s death is simply due to his dramatic personality (the entire point of the whole story), while still fitting the culture of that time regarding how to grieve a friend.

Missing context for Achilles’ grief

Another issue involved in the intensity of Achilles’ grief is the simple fact that it is not all about Patroclus. A simple reading of what Achilles actually says in the Iliad would reveal this. As he expresses his sorrow, he explicitly explains what he is so upset about. Yes, he is upset about Patroclus’ death, but the reason he is in such anguish is far more than that.

Beyond just being upset that Patroclus died, Achilles is also frustrated with himself for not being there to help. His own self-centeredness led to the demise of his comrade, which makes the loss so much more painful, because he is partly to blame.

Furthermore, Achilles goes on to say:

“I have brought no saving neither to Patroclus nor to my other comrades of whom so many have been slain by mighty Hector; I stay here by my ships a bootless burden upon the earth.”

His grief is the realization that virtually everything that happened in the Iliad, all the losses the Greeks experienced, was essentially all his fault. His refusal to put his pride to one side and just go and fight for the Greeks led to all this death, not just of Patroclus but of his other comrades too. Achilles had been utterly useless by his own arrogant choice, becoming simply a ‘burden upon the earth’. That is why Achilles is so distraught.

Does the evidence for Achilles and Patroclus being lovers really hold up?

Aside from the general intense grief shown by Achilles, what about the more specific pieces of evidence used by those who claim that he and Patroclus were lovers? For example, what about the line in which Achilles expresses his wish for all the Greeks and Trojans to die so that he and Patroclus could conquer Troy together? Does that not indicate a romantic relationship?

The reality is that this line is taken out of context. In the passage, Achilles is talking about his honor. Just a few lines earlier, he specifically says to Patroclus:

“Do not fight the Trojans further in my absence, or you will rob me of glory that should be mine.”

The reason that Achilles wants to be involved in conquering Troy is due to his honor. Yet, he also obviously wants Patroclus to be successful, since he cares about him deeply. Therefore, he expresses his desire for the two of them to conquer Troy together. This has nothing to do with romance. Rather, it is about Achilles’ honor.

Achilles fighting Memnon during the Trojan War, depicted on a vase from Vulci, 510 BCE.
Achilles fighting Memnon during the Trojan War, depicted on a vase from Vulci, 510 BCE. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Achilles’ love for Patroclus

What about the fact that Achilles explicitly describes himself as loving Patroclus? For example, there is the line in which he says that he loved Patroclus more than all his other comrades, and that he even loved him like his own life.

The simple fact is that, again due to culture, it was normal to speak of ‘loving’ one’s friends. In fact, this is shown in this very line. Achilles says that he loved Patroclus ‘more’ than he loved his other comrades. This shows that Achilles did love his other comrades as well – are we to believe that Achilles had a romantic relationship with all his fellow soldiers? Obviously, such a notion is absurd.

The thoughts expressed by Achilles here are, again, very similar to what we read in the Bible, from a relatively similar ancient culture. After hearing the death of his son (who had tried to usurp the throne and kill him), David weeps and cries out: “If only I had died instead of you, Absalom my son!”

It certainly seems as if David did not love Absalom any less than he loved himself, similar to what Achilles said about Patroclus. Yet, we understand that this kind of feeling is not limited to romantic relationships.

Achilles and Patroclus in death

What about the fact that Patroclus asks for their bones to be placed together? And the fact that Achilles places a lock of his hair in Patroclus’ hand at his funeral? Again, both of these are taken out of context.

Regarding the first point, Patroclus explicitly explains why he wants their bones to be placed together. It is not because they are lovers. Rather, he explains that it is because they grew up together in Achilles’ home since they were babies. Notably, there are many ancient examples of siblings being buried together, including in ancient Greece.

The second point, about the lock of hair, is an extreme example of taking things out of context. The statement that Achilles placed a lock of hair in Patroclus’ hand comes immediately after a statement about all of Patroclus’ other comrades placing their locks of hair on Patroclus’ body. Achilles is given special attention because he was particularly close to Patroclus, but his actual actions are not unusual or remarkable for a comrade. It does not indicate a lover.

In fact, Achilles explains that this was the lock of hair that he had been intending to give to the god of the River Spercheios. He only decides to give it to Patroclus instead due to being disillusioned with the god. Yet obviously, Achilles was not in a romantic relationship with this river god.

A crucial line missed

Throughout the Iliad, Achilles and Patroclus are referred to as ‘comrades’. This is the same word that the Iliad uses for all the other combatants. It is not a word which indicates lovers. Interestingly, there is an important line which many researchers have evidently missed.

Recall the passage in which Nestor tries to convince Patroclus to speak to Achilles. There, Nestor implores Patroclus to speak with him, saying the following:

“Who knows but with the help of a daimôn (divine being) you may talk him over, for it is good to take a friend’s advice.”

Notice that Nestor specifically refers to ‘a friend’s advice’. He does not refer to ‘a lover’s advice’, but specifically a ‘friend’s advice’. This definitely favors the conclusion that Achilles and Patroclus were friends, not lovers.

Lastly, in neither Homer’s Iliad nor Odyssey is the word “Lovers” used to refer to Achilles and Patroclus.

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