31 may. 2011

Achilles and Patroclus

The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is a key element of the myths associated with the Trojan War. Its exact nature has been a subject of dispute in both the classical period and modern times. In the Iliad, it is clear that the two heroes have a deep and extremely meaningful friendship. Contemporary readers are more likely to interpret the two heroes either as non-sexual "war buddies", or as an egalitarian homosexual couple.

Due to this strong relationship, the death of Patroclus becomes the prime motivation for Achilles to return to battle. The friendship of Achilles and Patroclus is mentioned explicitly in the Iliad. Whether in the context of a tender friendship or military excellence, Homer makes their strong connection clear.

The death of Patroclus underpins a great deal of Achilles' actions and emotions toward the Trojan war for the rest of the poem. Achilles' strongest interpersonal bond is with Patroclus, whom he loves dearly.

The friendship with Patroclus blossomed into overt homosexual love in the fifth and fourth centuries. In the works of Aeschylus, Plato and Aeschines, and as such seems to have inspired the enigmatic verses in Lycophron's third century Alexandra that make unrequited love Achilles' motive for killing Troilus.

In the 5th century BC, in Aeschylus' tragedy The Myrmidons, which is now lost, Aeschylus clearly regarded the relationship as a sexual one and assigned Achilles the role oferastes or protector (since he had avenged his lover's death even though the gods told him it would cost him his own life), and Patroclus the role of eromenos. He tells of Achilles visiting Patroclus' dead body and criticizing him for letting himself be killed. In a surviving fragment of the play, Achilles speaks of a “devout union of the thighs”.

In Plato's Symposium, written around 385 BC, Achilles and Patroclus were viewed as lovers. In the Symposium, Phaedrus holds the two up as an example of divinely approved lovers. He also argues that Aeschylus erred in saying that Achilles was the erastes, "for he excelled in beauty not Patroclus alone but assuredly all the other heroes, being still beardless and, moreover, much the younger, by Homer's account." However, Plato's contemporary, Xenophon, in his own Symposium, had Socrates argue that Achilles and Patroclus were merely chaste and devoted comrades.

Of course, if Achilles and Patroclus represent an egalitarian homosexual pairing, then the time and nature of Achilles' pivotal character development are shaded with gray and open to interpretation.

Specially dedicated to Marouane.

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