Alexander the Great Discussion Series Part 8

What was Alexander's sexual orientation?


PAUL CARTLEDGE Jamie, one aspect of Alexander's life that still arouses huge controversy is what nowadays we'd call his sexuality or sexual identity. I remember that a rather conservative Greek lawyer, convinced that his ancient Greek hero must have been as red-bloodedly heterosexual as he, actually threatened to bring an injunction against Oliver Stone's movie for portraying Alexander as engaging in sex with males. Personally, I think any attempt to categorise Alexander in terms of modern sexual identity is grossly anachronistic, but am I not right that Alexander probably did have sex with at least one male as well as with at least two females?

JAMES ROMM Well, I'm not sure whom you mean by the one male — Bagoas or Hephaestion? I'm guessing the former as the evidence for a sexual relationship is firmer than in the case of Hephaestion (where there is no real evidence, but plenty of assumptions). Even in the case of Bagoas — a eunuch given to Alexander as (dare I say it?) a boy toy by a Persian noble who wished to win his favor — there is some room for doubt, though I would venture to say he "counts" as a male object of Alexander's sexual interest. As far as the women are concerned, I'd say two is a conservative count, assuming you mean the two women who bore Alexander's children — Barsine, the half-Persian widow of the mercenary captain Memnon, and Rhoxane, Alexander's first wife. But then, wouldn't you say that Alexander's marriages to Parysatis and Stateira, the second and third of his multiple wives, were also consummated (though how he pulled off the trick of a double wedding night, after wedding both women at the mass marriage ceremony in Susa in 324, is anyone's guess)?

PC That was a bit of a teaser, I confess – but you got my drift absolutely right, on both sides of the blanket as it were. The evidence for actual sex with Bagoas is firmer than that for anything physical with Hephaestion, who may have been more of a 'bosom buddy' as we (used to?) say than a sexual partner. I'll come back to Hephaestion. The relationship with Bagoas is simply extraordinary, isn't it? He was a non-Greek non-man (as the Greeks saw it) – we know from Herodotus that ordinary Greeks had a peculiar culturally driven horror of the trade in eunuchs: a Greek slave trader called Panionius (the 'all-Ionian'!) was into this business, which Herodotus condemned as 'unholy'. So Alexander, in having an openly acknowledged sexual relationship with him, would have been transgressing all sorts of cultural-political boundaries. I'm inclined to believe he did – and to admire him for it. As for Alexander's women, I'd also agree that two was a conservative estimate… even not counting the alleged one-night stand with an Amazon! But note again that three of those you mention were oriental – two noble Persian, one (Rhoxane) noble Sogdian, and one (Barsine) half-Persian – and note too that, as in the case of Bagoas, there was politics deeply er embedded with the sex.

JR Well as long as we're correcting the scoreboard, let me note briefly that the "one-night stand" you refer to was actually thirteen nights — Sex between a world conquering man (Alexander) and an Amazon woman (Thalestris) being presumably more long-lasting and sensational than any ordinary lovemaking. But Arrian and Plutarch both rightly dismissed the tale as a fiction. Speaking of which, I should note, for the benefit of readers of the new Landmark Arrian, that they will not find Bagoas mentioned anywhere in Arrian's narrative (OUR Bagoas, that is; a different Persian by the same name is mentioned in Book 2). The omission, together with the sensational nature of the stories told by Plutarch and the vulgate sources, prompted at least one modern historian (Sir William Tarn) to dismiss Bagoas as another fiction, as insubstantial as Thalestris. The evidence is carefully reviewed by Daniel Ogden in an article in the volume Alexander the Great: A New History (edd. Heckel and Tritle, 2009) — bearing out the title of the anthology by giving the first-ever in-depth discussion of Alexander's sex life, that I am aware of. Does anyone today still follow Tarn in questioning Bagoas' existence? And, to turn in a slightly different direction, what did you think of Oliver Stone's use of Bagoas, and treatment of Alexander's sexuality, in the film Alexander?

PC I stand corrected on Alexander's Amazonian congress (13 nights, precisely, not a 'one-night stand', of course) – though with these fabulous tales once can never quite be sure, can we? And I take Oliver Stone's Alexander movie to be one long fabulous tale, even though he tried to get the facts right, because the facts of Alexander's life annoyingly just won't stand up to be counted. In general, he took the Oxford ancient historian and Alexander-specialist Robin Lane Fox as his mentor and guide – but then his (Oliver's) romantic instincts got the better of him when his Alexander (played by Colin Farrell) descended on Babylon. Yet, to give Stone his due, he was prepared to take on the chin the welter of homophobic criticism he received for depicting his hero in close homoerotic encounter with the Persian eunuch. And not just with him. At the risk of upsetting Hephaestion's largely female fan-club (I mean the ancient personage Hephaestion, not his filmic avatar, Jared Leto) I'd say Stone was probably also right to imagine that Alexander had had sex with his boon companion Hephaestion, at any rate when they were younger. For ancient Greeks there was no contradiction between youthful homoeroticism and predominantly or wholly heterosexual adult proclivity and activity. It was 'all so unimaginably different' then, as Classicist poet Louis Macneice wrote in 1939, and 'all so long ago'. (Interested readers may care to consult further a book I co-edited with Fiona Greenland, *Responses to Oliver's Stone's Alexander* [University of Wisconsin Press, 2010])

JR Whatever he may have got right or wrong about Hephaestion, Stone took some very big liberties in making a jealous Rhoxane responsible for Hephaestion's death — an idea for which there is no evidence or even speculation in the ancient sources, to my knowledge, although there is a pictorial tradition in which Hephaestion looks on rather scornfully at the moment when Alexander first falls in love with Rhoxane (see the Rotari canvas pictured above).  It's curious that Rhoxane, who seems to have been a rather passive figure historically, has been turned into a Medea by some modern interpreters — a recent book even accuses her of murdering Alexander!  But that's looking ahead to our next blog topic, my current preoccupation: the theories about what caused Alexander's death.  

10. February 2011 by calanus2
Categories: Arrian-Alexander, Lecture | Comments Off on Alexander the Great Discussion Series Part 8