The philosopher Socrates. The poetess Sappho. The great Trojan heroes Achilles and Patroclus. Not only are they some of the most famous and celebrated figures of ancient Greece, but their stories of war, wit and passion have captured both the hearts and minds of audiences for centuries. While we might know a lot about the brave deeds and wise words we may not know quite as much about that most human of emotions - desire. So, lets take a quick peak into the love lives (or what we know of them) of some well-known ancient icons.
Socrates and Alcibiades
“Wisdom is actually one of the most beautiful things, and Love is love in relation to what is beautiful, so that Love is necessarily a philosopher.”
(Plato. The Symposium, 204b2 – 4).
Socrates (470 – 399 BCE) was a Greek philosopher from classical Athens, often credited as one of the founders of western philosophy. Although the philosopher authored no texts, his student Plato wrote down his words and conversations to capture his teacher’s impressive breadth of knowledge and his insatiable desire to question the world.
As recorded by Plato (424/423 – 348/347 BC) and Xenophon (c. 430 – 354 BCE), Socrates was surrounded by young men, a reflection of a culture in which intimate male attachment and relationships were a part of the social landscape (1). One particularly noteworthy man was Alcibiades, whom Plutarch (46 BCE – after 119 CE) and Plato describe as Socrates's beloved, the former stating that Alcibiades revered Socrates alone, and was harsh and stubborn with his other lovers (Plutarch. Alcibiades, 4.4). It sounds as though Socrates’ star pupil was a little star-crossed for the philosopher!
Much of the epistemology Socrates (through Plato) gifted to his listeners were dialogs of desire and eros (love), often homoerotic, being pathways to philosophical wisdom and the possession of all good things (Plato. The Symposium, 204d4-205a3). To Socrates, being a lover of males and wisdom even meant a promised a return to a blissful afterlife! (Phaedro, 257b6) (2).
Sappho and her Girls
"But wandering back and forth, she often remembers gentle Atthis, and her fragile heart is consumed with blanching desire. (3)
(Sappho, Fragments, 96.)(4)
Sappho was an archaic poet from the isle of Lesbos and was widely regarded as the ‘tenth muse’, as Plato remarks, “some say there are nine Muses, but this is too few; for behold, Sappho from Lesbos is the tenth.” (5)
In a biographical excerpt of the poet from the 2nd – 3rd century CE, she was “accused by some of being irregular in her ways and a woman-lover”(6). In fact, the modern terms sapphic and lesbian derive from the poets own name and home!
It is thought that Sappho was a part of an all-women circle, teaching girls music and other skills before marriage. Although heavily fragmented, Sappho’s literary legacy of loving women is heralded through her lyrical poetry, describing the strong feelings the women in her circle have for each other (7).
This is not to discount her love poetry dedicated towards men, but the lone song of Sappho stands out against the sea of masculine shouts and invites us into the ancient and often closed off world of feminine desire (8).
ACHILLES AND PATROCLUS
“Love me as guilelessly as I love you, so that when you are a man, we may be friends to each other like Achilles and Patroclus”
(Theocritus. Idylls, 29.34)
In popular culture, Achilles and Patroclus were not just the greatest warriors of Greece, but they were also the greatest lovers. In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates claimed them as the ‘poster-boys’ of love between males. Achilles’ grief and revenge towards Patroclus’ death in The Iliad “won special admiration and exceptional honours from the gods, because it showed how much he valued his lover” (Plato. Symposium, 179e-180a).
From the fifth century BCE onward, most ancient writers and commentators assumed Achilles and Patroclus were lovers in every sense of the word (9). Even in Hellenistic love poetry, the paradigms of Achilles and Patroclus were used to metaphorically show deep and noble homoerotic desires.
Romantic and erotic bonds were highly valued between male Greek warriors, as it was believed to make soldiers more competitive and hungrier for glory and honour. If this were the case, how could Achilles and Patroclus be anything but devoted to each other? The Iliad does not explicitly tell us if the heroes were engaged in a romantic relationship, but the language and dramatic development of war and camaraderie in the Iliad is believed to indicate that they are not just friends, but lovers from the heart (10).
Experiences of love are not just universal, but everlasting. The histories of Socrates, Sappho, Achilles, and Patroclus have persevered through time, allowing us, three thousand years later a glimpse of ancient same-sex love and desire.
Written by Tobias J. Fulton.
Tobias J. Fulton is a current student at La Trobe University, undertaking a Masters by Research in Classics. Their thesis explores the concepts of sexuality and identity in antiquity and its influence on modern audiences.
1 Hubbard 2003, p. 163.
2 Plato. Phaedro, 257b6; Price 2002, p. 174.
3 Bing & Cohen 1993, p. 78.
4 trans. Bing & Cowen 1993, p. 78
5 Non vidi, quoted within Gosetti-Murrayjohn, A 2006, “SAPPHO AS THE TENTH MUSE IN HELLENISTIC EPIGRAM”, p. 32.
6 Testimonia, 1.
7 Bing & Cohen 1993, p. 71.
8 Rupp 2009, p. 33.
9 Clarke p.395.
10 Clarke 1978, p. 395.
Plato, 1999, The Symposium, trans. Christopher Gill, Penguin Books, London.
Plutarch 1916, Lives: Alcibiades and Coriolanus. Lysander and Sulla, trans. B. Perrin Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
Plato 2015, Plato: Euthyphror. Apology. Crito. Phaedo. Phaedrus, trans. H. N. Fowler, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
Sappho & Alcaeus, Greek Lyric, Volume I: Sappho & Alcaeus, trans. D. A. Campbell, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
Theocritus 2015, Theocritus – Moschus – Bion, trans. N. Hopkinson, Harvard University Press, Cambridge
Hubbard, T. K 2003, Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents, University of California Press, California.
Price, A. W 2002, “Plato, Zeno, and the Object of Love”, in M. C. Nussbaum & J. Sihvola (eds.), The Sleep of Reason: Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Bing, P & Cohen, R 1993, Games of Venus: An Anthology of Greek and Roman Erotic Verse from Sappho to Ovid, Routledge, New York.
Gosetti-Murrayjohn, A 2006, “SAPPHO AS THE TENTH MUSE IN HELLENISTIC EPIGRAM”, Arethusa, vol. 39, no. 1, pp. 21-45.
Rupp, L. J 2009, Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women, New York University Press, New York.
Clarke, W 1978, “Achilles and Patroclus in Love”, Hermes, vol. 106, pp. 381-396.
Ungaretti, J. R 1978, “Pederasty, Heroism and the Family in Classical Greece”, Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 3, no. 3, p. 291-300.