This article will feature in Issue 38: Language and Culture
Alexander III of Macedon (356 BC – 323 BC) is immortalised as one of history’s greatest generals for having never lost a battle and establishing a massive empire from the Balkans to the Indus River. His impact on history is immense: Alexander introduced the Persian idea of absolute monarchy to the Greco-Roman world, forever changing global governance. For such an influential figure, it should come as no surprise that historians have been interested in his personal life, notably his sex lif
Modern terminology that describes sexual identity is not appropriate for a historical figure when such ideas did not exist. To avoid anachronism, one must consider how the Greeks of the 300s BC viewed sex. Homosexual relations were ordinary amongst the upper classes, especially in the form of pederasty. Sexual orientation was not the defining factor in sex, rather the role that each participant played: the dominant, higher-class, older partner took an active role, and the younger, lower-class partner took a passive one. Nonetheless, homosexual men of the same class experienced social stigma as the passive role was more effeminate. As Macedonian king, Alexander could partake in sexual relations with anyone, so long as he maintained the dominant role.
One must examine the sparse remaining evidence about Alexander’s life to understand his sexuality. In his early years, he showed little interest in sexual relationships. Quintus Curtis stated that Alexander’s parents purchased a courtesan fearing that the young prince was γύννις, meaning ‘womanish’. As the two did not engage in sex ancient authors praised Alexander’s self-control whereas modern advocates, like James Davidson, use it as conformation of homosexuality. However, it is more reasonable to assume that teenage Alexander had not experienced sexual attraction yet.
The most contested individual for the title of Alexander’s lover is Hephaestion. Whilst never explicitly stated as Alexander’s lover – always referred to as his epithet Φιλαλέξανδρος (friend of Alexander) – several modern historians interpret the relationship as amorous, rather than platonic. Hephaestion secured high-ranking positions in the army and, in Troy, the two made sacrifices at the shrines of Achilles and Patroclus: two other likely lovers that suffered history’s homosexual erasure. Moreover, Alexander was mocked for abandoning imperial administration due to lusting after handsome Hephaestion’s thighs. These interactions strongly suggest the two were not merely friends.
After Hephaestion’s sudden death in 324 BC, the grief-stricken Alexander mourned over the body and refused to depart until dragged away by his companions. The king ordered that the whole empire be plunged into a state of mourning; all music was banned and the statue of Asclepios, god of medicine, was demolished. Since mortals were supposed to respect the gods, Alexander’s subjects were deeply offended. This mark of poor governance demonstrated Alexander’s hysteria after the death of the one he loved the most.
Alexander did engage in heterosexual relations and fathered at least one son. He married at least twice, first to Roxana in 327 BC and later to Stateira in 324 BC. Sources describe how Alexander instantly fell in love with Roxana’s beauty and wit, immediately desiring marriage.
In 324 BC, Alexander organised the Susa weddings – a mass wedding of Macedonian and Persian nobles to symbolically combine both cultures and consolidate Macedonian rule in the region. Alexander and Hephaestion married Stateira and Drypetis, Darius III’s daughters. Advocates for Alexander’s homosexuality argue that he yearned for children with his lover, Hephaestion, and utilised the Persian princesses as surrogates given that the men’s offspring would be cousins. Adversaries counterpoint that the marriage was merely a political gesture applauding Hephaestion for his services. It is unclear whether the Susa weddings are a political ceremony or a secret gay lovers’ union.
The idea of an LGBT or gay icon was created in the 20th century and is a person revered by the LGBT community for being a champion of LGBT rights and/or being a notorious LGBT person themselves.
Employing a broad definition, Alexander could be considered an LGBT icon for being a remarkable person that likely engaged in homosexual relationships. Yet, if all necessary modern criteria are applied, this may not be the case; Alexander did not further acceptance of homosexual relations between social classes. Furthermore, an LGBT icon should be a role model. By 21st century standards, Alexander was a war criminal who broke the Geneva Convention several times, including civilian murder, torture, and unnecessary civic destruction (although these military decisions were mild compared to his contemporaries). Nevertheless, our modern morality should not be imposed on Alexander as ethics change over time. It is destructive to view history through this moralistic lens because it is not an objective analysis and the mindset of the people of the past cannot be understood.
Since the sexual revolution over half a century ago, Alexander’s sexual identity has been reclaimed by liberal Western communities as a gay hero. Whether he deserves this title or not, it is already bestowed upon him.
Using contemporary terminology, it is reasonable to assume that Alexander was bisexual. Historical evidence suggests that he experienced lust, and potentially love, towards both men and women. Is this enough to honour him with the title ‘LGBT Icon’? Though by our modern standards Alexander would be a tyrant, in the context of his time, he is an icon, and thus, if he is analysed relatively, Alexander thoroughly deserves our homage. This leaves us with the question, almost 2500 years later, would Alexander want to be our LGBT icon?
By Alexandra Birch