How gay is the Iliad?

The Iliad is the archetypal war story. Over nearly 16,000 lines and 24 books it hones in with a laser-like focus on the events that bring the Trojan War to a close. There’s a lot of stabbing and a lot of blood (pretty much every character gets to die “on the page”), and a lot of people lamenting the awfulness of war while acting otherwise. But putting all that aside, there’s that age-old question: is it gay?

It might surprise people coming to the Iliad from the film Troy to find that the poem doesn’t start with the Greek princess Helen being stolen away by the Trojan prince Paris. Although this is the event that “launches a thousand ships”, by the time the poem starts the fighting has been going on for nearly ten years. It’s reached a stalemate, and everyone is getting bored, particularly the gods who watch from Olympus and occasionally swoop down to meddle in the fighting. The gods are very important in The Iliad; the war is essentially the result of a domestic spat between Zeus and his wife Hera. All the other gods have had to choose sides.

When the Iliad opens, the Greek king Agamemnon has had to return a slave girl to her father, so he poaches the girl, Briseis, of the hero Achilles. Achilles is brutal, handsome, slightly immortal, extremely arrogant and incredibly fast. The theft of the girl is a mortal wound to his pride, so he resolves to sit out of the fighting until everyone is begging for him to come back. 

Lots of stabbing ensues (not a euphemism). Then Patroclus, who is very dear to Achilles, dresses up as the hero and leads his unknowing men into battle. Patroclus is killed by the Trojan king Hector. Achilles goes mad with grief and commits numerous war crimes, such as dragging Hector’s body round and round behind his chariot for days on end. Eventually Hector’s father comes and begs for the body of his son to be returned. Achilles concedes, the two sides call a truce for 12 days, and the poem ends. But we know from various prophecies spelled out in the poem that this is the beginning of the end for Troy, and that Achilles will die on the battlefield, so becoming immortal in name if not in body.

Achilles mourning the death of Patroclus, Nikolai Ge, 1855

People have been speculating about the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus for over two thousand years. Plato definitely thought they were at it, and even had thoughts as to the roles each would take (he thought Achilles was definitely the “fairer” one). Alexander the Great was said to be very interested in their relationship, seeing them as a symbol of his own love for his companion Hephaestion. It was undoubtedly close. But how close?

I’ve read or watched four versions of the Iliad. In the spirit of speculating about sexuality (something that is only ok for ancient fictional characters!), here’s a ranking of the tales by gayness:

The Iliad by Homer (translated by Caroline Alexander)

In the original, and still extremely compelling poem, Patroclus is introduced as Achilles’ “beloved companion”. Oh the thousands of words that have gone into interpreting that tiny phrase! Undoubtedly there was a culture of a male-male love and sex at the time, but it is not depicted in the poem, which is otherwise not shy about heterosexual or divine couplings.

Everyone has pretty strong feelings in the Iliad, but still Achilles’ reaction to the news of Patroclus’ death is extreme. He immediately falls to the earth, pours ash on his head, and tears at his hair. Otherwise the Iliad is not very gay, although there are lots of excessively beautiful men and the divine squabble happening on Olympus is pretty camp. Ryan Murphy should consider it for his next season of Feud. 

Gay rating: 1/5 for Hera’s various antics against her husband Zeus.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Pat Barker’s 2019 novel flips the script and tells the story from the perspective of Briseis, Achilles’s “prize” who is roughly traded to Agamemnon, sparking the events of the Iliad. As such it does not shine a particularly favourable light on the men of the Iliad (rapists and murderers that they are), although there is still a certain admiration for Achilles. I think it is my favourite retelling, because it adds a very 20th-century war horror to the story, which is really the essence of the tale anyway.

In the novel, Patroclus is said to treat his own female slaves with “kindness”, although he seems to be a bit naive about his complicity in their subjugation. Briseis notes that his relationship with Achilles “invited speculation”. One night watching them on the beach, she recognises the frightening power of their connection, “beyond sex, and perhaps even beyond love”. But theirs “was not a relationship of equals”, and Achilles often seems to exploit and manipulate Patroclus’ essential goodness.

As in the Iliad, when Patroclus is killed, Achilles falls to the ground “his hands clawing at the filthy sand, scooping it up and throwing it over his face and hair.” It is a potent, complicated depiction of love and war.

Gay rating: 2/5 for the intense, non-explicit love between Patroclus and Achilles.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

In this book, Miller famously turned the Iliad into a Queer Romance with a capital QR. Told in Patroclus’s voice, she imagines how Patroclus and Achilles met and grew up together and eventually fell in love. The key word here is romance: there are hundreds of descriptions of Achilles dripping with gold and honey. There’s even some good ol’ fruit action, although not quite as explicit as what happens to that poor peach in Call Me By Your Name.

One particular adventure sees Achilles hiding by dressing as a woman, and Patroclus and Achilles even formalise their relationship in a kind of marriage. The fighting, and Patroclus’s death when it comes, are suitably devastating. While I love this book as a contemporary gay love story, its sweetness ultimately saps something essential from the story.

Gay rating: 5/5. This book is pretty damn gay, from Achilles’ golden locks to its soft-core sex scenes.

Troy

Controversial I know, especially considering the strong contender in second place, but I reckon the gayest retelling of the Iliad is the 2004 film starring Brad Pitt as Achilles. How? you might ask. Written by David Benioff, who went on to adapt Game of Thrones for TV, the film trashes thousands of years of lore and speculation and makes Patroclus and Achilles “cousins” (they’re close?). Achilles gets a bit upset, but no more than is respectable.

But it is everything else around the relationship that makes this film a gay classic. The skimpy costumes, Helen gazing out of a smokey eye to sea, King Priam’s makeup, Eric “daddy” Bana, Orlando Bloom’s acting: this thing is camper than the thousands of tents pitched on the beach at Troy. And that’s before we even get to Brad Pitt’s butt.

Gay rating: Brad Pitt made me gay.

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