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Alexander the Gay?

by Guy Rogers

Alexander the Gay? by Guy Rogers (of Wellesley College)

Alexander the Great was a prodigy of warfare. A lethal fighter, before his 30th birthday he personally led the Macedonian army to conquer the Persian empire, the largest and most successful empire in Near Eastern history. His military tactics, logistics, and strategic vision will be relevant as long as human beings fight wars.

But was history's greatest warrior also gay?

Oliver Stone's movie depicts Alexander having affairs with two men in his new film about the Macedonian king. Gay rights advocates would like to enlist Alexander into their ranks in their struggle for various rights; meanwhile, Greek lawyers are threatening legal action over what they claim is the misrepresentation of their national hero.

What are the historical facts?

The truth is that modern sexual categories like homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual are alien to Alexander's world. No equivalent terms existed at the time. It is therefore anachronistic to apply them to Alexander or any other ancient. In ancient Greece, acting upon a desire (sent by the god Eros) for another man or woman, simply did not lock any man or woman into a sexual camp.

Moderns tend to slot people into sexual categories. The ancient Greeks did not. To understand Alexander's sexuality, and his identity, one must examine the erotic impulses that Alexander acted upon over time for which we have evidence.

To begin at the beginning: in the late second century A.D. writer Athenaeus reports that because the young Alexander had no interest in sex of any kind, his parents (Olympias and Philip) hired a beautiful prostitute named Kallixena to introduce him to Aphrodite's arts. We are not told how this encounter went. However, Aelian of Praeneste, in a historical Miscellany of the late second century A.D., wrote that a certain Pancaste was the first woman with whom Alexander had sex. If Aelian is correct, we might infer that Olympias and Philip did not get their money's worth from Kallixena.

Be that as it may, Alexander's first long-term, intimate relationship probably was with a Macedonian officer named Hephaestion. Born in the same year (356) as Alexander (perhaps), Hephaestion also was educated with him. By the time Alexander reached Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in 334 at the beginning of his conquest of Persia, Hephaestion and Alexander already were close. Taller than Alexander and said to be handsome, through Alexander's favor Hephaestion advanced to the highest positions of command in the empire, despite what many considered to be a quarrelsome nature.

Nevertheless, Hephaestion was known as the "the dearest" of Alexander's friends. Unlike the rest of Alexander's friends, who loved the king, Hephaestion was said to have loved Alexander, and he, him. One contemporary source commented that Alexander was never defeated, except by Hephaestion's thighs. Most scholars have interpreted this as meaning that Hephaestion was Alexander's lover, rather than merely his wrestling companion.

Whatever their relationship, after his victory at the battle of the Issos (in southern Turkey) in 333, Alexander took a beautiful Persian widow named Barsine as his mistress, by whom he had a son named Herakles, which indicates that Alexander's feelings toward Barsine were not completely Platonic. And after the decisive Macedonian victory over the Persians at the battle of Gaugamela (near Mosul in northern Iraq) in 331, Alexander acquired the Persian King Darius's harem of 365 concubines, who had been selected from all the women in Asia for their beauty. Each night these beauties paraded around Alexander's bed so that he might select the one with whom he might lie that night.

Later, when he was in Bactria (roughly Afghanistan), we know that Alexander fell in love with Roxane ("Little Star" in Persian), the daughter of a local nobleman, at first sight. The young woman apparently caught Alexander's eye when she was performing a dance at a party. After Darius' wife, Roxane was said to be the most beautiful woman in Asia. Alexander married Roxane in 327 and she was pregnant with Alexander's child at the time of the king's death in 323.

Alexander's most controversial relationship was with a handsome young Persian eunuch named Bagoas. At a festival of athletics and arts in a town called Salmus (after Alexander returned from India) Bagoas won a prize. After Bagoas picked up his prize, he walked across a theatre and seated himself beside the king. The Macedonians in the theatre applauded loudly and shouted for Alexander to kiss the winner. At last the king put his arms around Bagoas and kissed him.

Some historians have denied that the episode even took place, but there is no good reason to question its historicity.

The Greek word that our source (Plutarch) uses to describe Bagoas (eromenon) was used by earlier writers to identify a younger man involved in a relationship with an older man. While such relationships were broadly educational, they routinely included an erotic element. The first century A.D. historian Curtius Rufus also believed that there was a sexual relationship between the two men.

Finally, after he returned from India, in Susa (Persia) Alexander married two daughters of former Persian kings. We know that Alexander expected these marriages to produce heirs.

Thus, the more Alexander conquered, the more he was conquered by his desire—for two men and hundreds of women. He also developed long-term relationships of some depth with Hephaestion, his mistress Barsine, Roxane, and possibly Bagoas. The gods had bestowed physical beauty upon most of his known sexual partners. Remarkably, unlike many of his Greek contemporaries, Alexander did not see beauty through ethnocentric eyes. Casting his eyes over the women captured after the battle of Issos, Alexander jested that Persian women were a torment for the eyes.

Alexander the Great was neither "gay" nor "straight," but an ambiguous military genius. He defeats all our polarized and polarizing modern categories. Like the Persian King Darius, we may fight hard to take the measure of the man, but, as the Delphic oracle prophesied, Alexander was and is invincible and will never be defeated—by simplification.

Guy MacLean Rogers is a professor of history at Wellesley College and the author of the just-published "Alexander: The Ambiguity of Greatness" (Random House).

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