Achilles and Patroclus: Love Conquers All

*Spoiler alert!!! This post entails the plot and ending of the story of Iliad and Odyssey, The Song of Achilles and the 2004 movie, Troy. If you’re wanting to read or watch without any giveaways, please read this post afterwards.*  

“We were like gods at the dawning of the world, and our joy was so bright we could see nothing else but the other.” – Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles, 2011.  

Hi friends! My name is Rose and today, you’ll be reading my first post of 2022! 

Happy New Year, and thank you so much for clicking on today’s blog post. I do not think I’ve been this excited to publish, so suit and boot up for my analysis on the Greek mythical characters, Achilles and Patroclus

These two are an intriguing pair, among many others from Homer’s epic poems, Odyssey and Iliad. The way they have been portrayed in popular culture differs from author to author, however, their story according to Greek Myth generally unfolds in a consistent manner. Academic interpretations typically sit on both sides of the fence because there is limited evidence to suggest various truths about the nature of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship. 

The tale of the two lovers in Madeline Miller’s novel, The Song of Achilles, is an interpretation of a relationship that idealises Achilles’ character, narrated through the love-struck eyes of Patroclus. The narration of the novel by Patroclus masterfully enhances the significance of his character in Achilles’ life, from childhood till their inevitable death in the Trojan War.

Miller’s opinion of the two characters as lovers is driven by the suggestion that both shared more than a platonic companionship, as referenced in Plato’s Symposium. This piece of historical fiction is just one interpretation of the powerful love that Achilles and Patroclus shared as children and during the ten year period of the Trojan War.

The Song of Achilles is a historical interpretation of Homer’s epics that unpacks a blooming relationship between the two protagonists whilst maintaining a sense of accuracy
according to the remaining literature we have discovered and translated.

In Book XVII of the Iliad, Achilles states that Patroclus was:

“… the man I loved beyond all other comrades, loved as my own life”.

Although many debate the idea of the two characters sharing a romantic relationship, it was not uncommon for elite men in ancient Greece to share intimate interactions with other men, often younger than themselves. The ancient Greeks were not identified by their sexual orientation and in fact, did not have any phrases that equate to the modern words, “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality”.

There was simply no construct outlining the difference between male and female sexual intercourse. The word most commonly used by the Greeks to describe their sexual practices is aphrodisia, meaning the longing for, or the approach to sexual intimacy (sometimes including violence). The use of the word was not just limited to male and female relationships. Ancient Greece was notable for building a culture that made sexual activities regardless of gender, a part of everyday social life.

The writings of Plato and Homer have brought an interesting tale into the spotlight of modern literature and historical investigation, leaving the question of whether Achilles and Patroclus actually shared a romantic relationship or not. The truth is, we will probably never know the solid facts, for even Greek philosophers such as Xenophon argued against a love affair involving the famed hero and his discerning and gentle lover.

So, who are these guys and what is their deal?

I’m sure many of you are aware of the general outline of the story involving Patroclus and Achilles. For those of you who are still unsure, I will briefly introduce the characters and their role in the synopsis:

Patroclus: Originally known as Menoitiades (Son of Menoetius), was born into royalty but was soon exiled from his kingdom for murdering another child after becoming defensive over a game. The young Patroclus was given to a nearby kingdom known as Phthia, where King Peleus (Achilles’ father) accepted him into a new life that trained him to become a soldier and join the army, when of age. While training at the palace, Patroclus noticed Achilles, who took a liking to him and subsequently appointed him as his companion. It is during this time that both became extremely close with one another.

Patroclus is mostly referred to by Homer as the gentle and wise character, the perfect counterpart to Achilles’ quick anger and irrationality. For this reason, it seems clear that Patroclus was appointed companion to the Prince of Phthia. He was plain, intelligent, kind and thoughtful, traits that Achilles struggled to possess and that seemingly balanced the two harmoniously.

Achilles: Prince of Phthia, courageous, handsome, popular and strong. These were traits that elite Greek men typically aspired to possess, as they defined their masculinity by dominant characteristics evidenced throughout the Iliad and Odyssey. He was an incredible fighter, extremely agile and undoubtedly successful with a spear. Achilles was mostly defined by his anger (literally the first word written in the Iliad, μῆνιν, meaning “rage/wrath”). Achilles was born to the Goddess/Sea Nymph, Thetis and Mortal King, Peleus. He was destined to become the greatest hero to ever live, hence the powerful
name given to him, Aristos Achaion (“the best of the Greeks”).

Now that our two characters have been identified, what’s the story with the Iliad and Odyssey?

Basically, the Iliad and Odyssey are written over a number of years and generally focus on specific points in time, such as the battles that occurred in the fictional city of Troy, located in the regions of modern-day Turkey. In 2004, Wolfgang Petersen released the glamorous film adaptation, Troy, involving perfectly oiled and handsome Brad Pitt as the star of the show. The film is mainly subjected to the last year of the Trojan War where Achilles finally jacks up and decides to fight after years of confinement over a dispute with Mycenaean King, Agamemnon.

In the film, Patroclus, played by Garrett Hedlund is portrayed as “Achilles’ cousin”. Interestingly, there is no reference whatsoever to a romantic relationship between the two in the film. This could possibly be a case of Hollywood misinterpreting a lot of historical analysis and reference to ancient sources that do not suggest even slightly that the two were cousins. Although the Iliad doesn’t expressly declare that their relationship was romantic, sources from Plato and Aeschylus agree that they were lovers, and Achilles’ reaction to Patroclus’ death suggests that both shared a very long and intimate history with each other.

This leads me to the very climax of the war in Troy where Achilles learns of Patroclus’ death. A few hours before this revelation, Patroclus begged Achilles to allow him to suit up as the latter, disguised to fight against the Trojans. Achilles’ fall-out with Agamemnon was so detrimental, that he refused to fight for a number of years. His excessive pride caused him to fear that his honour would be tarnished so he agreed with the plan to disguise Patroclus as himself and send him to battle on the condition that he return alive. When Patroclus is speared by the mighty Prince of Troy, Hector, Achilles’ fire is fuelled to the absolute max.

In Achilles’ reaction to this truth, Book XVII of the Iliad states:

“A black cloud of grief came shrouding over Achilles.
Both hands clawing the ground for soot and filth,
he poured it over his head, fouled his handsome face
and black ashes settled onto his fresh clean war-shirt.
Overpowered in all his power, sprawled in the dust,
Achilles lay there, fallen . . .
tearing his hair, defiling it with his own hands”.

Extremely angry, guilt-stricken and burdened with hateful grief, Achilles hastily grabs his spear, screaming Hector’s name, as he runs along the plains of Troy to murder the man who took the life of his most beloved companion.

Eventually, Achilles murders Hector and mutilates his body, dragging the dirt-stained corpse along the ground, hanging by a rope tied to his chariot. For Achilles, this is nearing the end of his life. He feels hopeless and lost without Patroclus. He is aware that he will soon die, as foretold by the Fates.

When Achilles is finally shot in the heel (Achilles’ tendon) by Hector’s brother, Prince Paris, he is cremated on a pyre and his ashes are combined with Patroclus’. In the Odyssey, their tomb is said to have been placed on the beach at Troy where they both sought refuge in the underworld and rested peacefully in eternity together.

Apollodorus speaks in Symposium about the devoted, eternal love shared between both characters:

“Very different was the reward of the true love of Achilles towards his lover Patroclus…
And greatly as the gods honour the virtue of love, still the return of love on the part of
the beloved to the lover is more admired and valued and rewarded by them, for the
lover is more divine; because he is inspired by God.”

How divine indeed!

Reader, what are your thoughts on this subject? Mostly left to speculation, this
enigmatic pair of characters is definitely an insightful topic of conversation, especially
with regards to our modern context.

Further Readings: 

Achilles and Patroclus in Love

Greek Homosexuality

Guide to the Classics – Homers Illiad

Who was Achilles?

Thanks for joining us, we hope to see you next time!

The Arting the Ancients Team

One response to “Achilles and Patroclus: Love Conquers All”

  1. […] outlined in my previous blog post on Achilles and Patroclus, (shameless self-promo!), I mentioned that same-sex relationships in Greece were not uncommon. To […]

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