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Alexander’s Erotic Impulses & Human Sexuality

To those who study history, it becomes annoying when contemporary writers, considering the sexual proclivities of great men from other eras, rush to label as “gay” any figure from the past who once enjoyed sexual relations with members of his own sex.   In the process, they both blind themselves to evidence that that individual also enjoyed sexual relations with the opposite sex and to the mores of his time.

The notion that our sexuality is fixed in one direction is relatively recent one.  Many in other cultures, particularly in the ancient Mediterranean world, even where different-sex married couples were a defining institution, accepted — and often celebrated — men’s attraction to their same-sex fellows.  They saw sexuality as more fluid than we do today. We are guilty of presentism, interpreting historical events in light of modern notions, when we ignore that fluidity.

Perhaps, the greatest example of this presentist worldview is how all too many treat Alexander the Great.  He had to be “gay,” they claim because he and Hephaestion were lovers.  And, to be sure, some historians, eager to show that no great man could have sexual proclivities toward his own sex, write off allegations of his same-sex relations as historians’ embellishments or perhaps just metaphorical descriptions of intense emotional bonds forged in the heat of battle.

In his biography, Alexander: The Ambiguity of Greatness (a book which explains what its subtitle describes), Guy Maclean Rogers addresses the ambiguous nature of Alexander’s sexuality:

But modern sexual categories such as “homosexual” and “heterosexual” cannot be usefully applied to describe the sexuality of Alexander.  He belonged to a culture in which the erotic impulse (eros) was not necessarily assumed to be confined to feelings or acts directed to either men or women that, if they were consummated, thereby placed individuals in one category or the other.  Rather than striving to fix Alexander within one modern sexual camp or another, it is far more illuminating to examine the evidence for the trajectory of the erotic impulses he acted upon.

If we look at Alexander’s sexuality historically, it is striking that the farther he got from Macedon, the stronger and more varied his impulse toward erotic expression became.  At the same time, a consistent thread can be discerned.  Alexander was drawn to physical beauty without regard either to modern sexual categories or ancient prejudices about ethnic origins.

Every time I read about Alexander and his Hellenic peers, I wonder about human sexuality.  While I have occasionally encountered exceptions, most gay men I know tend to enjoy the company of women without finding them erotically appealing.  When we relate the history of our own, shall we say, emotional awakening, it does seem that our sexuality is fixed — and often at a very young age.  Yet, in the stories that survive from the ancient world, we read of few men (Pausanias/Agathon and Aristogeiton/Harmodius are two couples who spring to mind) who share a sexuality similar to our own.

It could well be the incomplete nature of our records.  Or it could be the worldview of those who kept them.  Or it could be something else altogether.

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21 Comments

  1. “If we look at Alexander’s sexuality historically, it is striking that the farther he got from Macedon, the stronger and more varied his impulse toward erotic expression became. ”

    I’m not sure the record supports this statement. The author seems to be limiting his conclusion upon the available texts; however any absence of evidence doesn’t necessarily prove he had no sexual/affectionate feelings or activities with Hephastion or others.

    As Alexander’s successes became more notable, of course more was observed and written. It’s not surprising that less was written of him as a strapping, testosterone-filled youth, but as yet without his more notable accomplishments.

    What do we know of Hadrian’s sexuality as a youth?
    Must we believe he discovered same-sex love only when he met Antonius?

    Comment by man — June 1, 2011 @ 6:41 pm - June 1, 2011

  2. man, good questions, very good questions.

    Comment by B. Daniel Blatt — June 1, 2011 @ 6:55 pm - June 1, 2011

  3. Even in the not too distant past, gender relations, and the variability and acceptance of an emotional bond between two members of the same sex, of were somewhat different. Lets take Abe Lincoln and his best friend Joshua Speed. Now, some have argued that they were lovers, but I believe that they simply were allowed by the culture of the day to develop incredibly tight bonds of friendship, and able to express the love they had for each other in ways that we now consider taboo. During the same period, Civil War combatants Winfield Scott Hanckock and Lewis Armistead were also very very close. Problem was, Hancock was a Union officer, and Armistead fought on the Confederate side. They fought against each other in the Battle of Gettysburg, where Armistead was killed in battle. Armistead had left instructions for his personal bible to be sent to Hancock’s wife if he should die in battle. It is said that Hancock was never the same after the loss of his friend.

    Lets face it, life was much more dangerous than it is today. I believe they were more aware of their fragile existence, and that made a health close bond that much more valuable.

    Comment by Sonicfrog — June 1, 2011 @ 7:49 pm - June 1, 2011

  4. that would be “healthy close bond”

    Comment by Sonicfrog — June 1, 2011 @ 7:52 pm - June 1, 2011

  5. The notion that our sexuality is fixed in one direction is relatively recent one.

    And the notion that is is fixed in time is another false belief. It is entirely possible for some people to go through phases of being more inclined toward one sex than another as they grow throughout their lives.

    Comment by V the K — June 1, 2011 @ 8:50 pm - June 1, 2011

  6. As most gays have, I also pondered the definitions of the words used to define homosexuality in our modern time. I cringe when the term ‘gay’ is used to define ancient men or women, and I realize that our concepts are rooted more in modern sexual theory and cultural practice than a strict interpretation of historical literature. Much of this is rooted in our religious past, but I think more of it has to do with our language and cultural desire to define subjects rather than allow them to simply be as other languages might. Take for example the word ‘love’, we have one word to describe every feeling of tenderness to each other. Other languages like greek have at a minimum 4 and the russians have dozens given their ability to add subtle emotional nuance to any action or word. This limiting of terms means that everyone most use the same word regardless of type of emotion. I love sushi, but I have no sexual desire for sushi, I love men, and their bodies, despite those being two separate things. The moral crusade of the 50′s colored our national debate by trying to define what was the perfect family, despite almost no one experiencing that type of family. The very concept of masculinity was force fed down the national throat by moralists and censors who often seemed to be over compensating themselves or plainly misguided. The backlash of behavior of soldiers when they returned home from the WW2 and the close sometimes sexual bonds they formed with their comrades, as well as the sexual freedom that came about with wider worldly experience made many of the puritan sort shudder in dread. So new rules were passed in the cinemas and television, Men did not cry, men did not feel emotion, men did not write poetry, men were stoic knights that led and never felt fear. All clearly at odds with both our history and mankinds history. The backlash of the 60′s came the sexual revolution came, people started talking about sex again, homosexuals came out and women were able to regain their independence. But than came language, what were men who slept with men? were all homos the pedophiles that were warned about, were all homos and lesbians locked in their sexuality? To those who sought to define these things it was easier to say, all homos were ONLY attracted to men, therefore they weren’t at risk as long as they were never attracted in the first place. For me it’s true, I’ve only really been sexually attracted to men, I made out with girls and women but in comparison to even a kiss from a man my feelings were nonexistent. Do I think that men like me have always existed? Yes, of course, but in times past when marriage was a parents decision or a matter or gain the option to refrain from women was nonexistent. So saying that because someone was married to a woman means that they weren’t gay in the sense that we understand would be false. How many of us have been propositioned by married men? or known men that left their wives for other men? To me being gay is not the sexual act, being gay is the depth of feeling I feel for men who I am attracted to or love. But most opponents of gays cannot understand or make this distinction. To them being gay is the act, not the feeling. So when opposing those who cannot understand my differentness, it limits my ability to explain what makes me different. I think that this fact is lost on younger gays caught up in the throes of puberty and cultural conflict. While understood subconsciously they cannot yet separate sexual attraction from emotional needs and desires in their brains. This is why to my marriage between gays is important, as older gays we must teach the young that it is not the sex that makes us different but our ability to love. Our opponents never fail or miss the chance to make this battle about sex, missing the point entirely and creating more of the very sexual promiscuity that they decry.

    Comment by Tim — June 1, 2011 @ 8:51 pm - June 1, 2011

  7. Ever since Adam nailed Steve, men have been having sex with each other just as some tribes in Papua-New Guinea, Amazonia and Africa do to this day.

    The tribes in Papua-New Guinea, Amazonia and Africa have all surrounded their proclivity for homosexuality with magical rituals as did the ancient Minoans. The ancient Greeks, being sophisticated people, also limited their appetites for cock and ass with elaborate rules and regulations.

    Of course most of this ancient man-on-man whoopy was usually old-on-young. Alex’s case was unusual (but not unknown – see Harmodius and Aristogeiton who, I am sure you already know, are regarded by some as the founders of Athenian democracy) in having an intimate relationship with another adult, Hephaestion.

    Most (not all) men will stick it into any warm hole. In the old days, us ancient fags knew those who enjoyed the occasional foray into homosexuality as TBH (To Be Had.)

    As Shakespeare said: “If God had meant for men to fuck each other in the ass, he would have given them assholes.”

    Comment by Redneck Fag — June 1, 2011 @ 10:27 pm - June 1, 2011

  8. No matter how many times I read the testimony or how many years I been given to study the behaviors, the justification for homosexual and bisexual behavior always amuses me.

    Comment by rjligier — June 2, 2011 @ 1:36 am - June 2, 2011

  9. Ah Mr. Blatt you’ve opened up a can of worms. I doubt Perez Hilton would be accepted in ancient Greece. Even among her same-sex attracted males, effeminacy was generally despised, grown male couples were considered contemptible, and although some mature men took adolescent beardless boys, mainstream homosexuality (as Hollywood understands it) was never accepted by members of every class.

    There is certainly wide confusion. Modern minds also confuse blood-brotherhoods with sexual intercourse (a big mistake). I don’t think moderns understand the nature of preindustrial climate changes on the ancient Mediterranean world either. Men’s clubs or the gymnasia (“places to be nude in”) were central to political/cultural lives. It was literally hot.

    Comment by Ben — June 2, 2011 @ 7:03 am - June 2, 2011

  10. A global/historical survey shows several different styles of male/male sexual interaction: initiatory, age-graded (older w younger)…Greece seems to a combo of both…situational (military, prisons, etc.)…transvestic, with a masculine-status top and a feminine-status bottom (I call this “heteroid” because it mimics male/female structure: everything from the “rough trade” and “queen” style of preStonewall days, and the “berdache” of the AmerIndians). Tiny minority of military couplings (Theban band, some samurai).

    What all these have in common (Thebans perhaps excepted) is a hierarchy of top/bottom, so that the male/male coupling, rather than undermining or subverting the masculine culture, supports it. Tops did not lose masculine status; bottoms had feminized status (which they outgrew if based on age). All these formats reflect the fundamental concern about gender identity and gender opposition. Exceptions were very rare indeed.

    What is (or was) unusual, even revolutionary, about the modern “gay” construct is that the distinction of masculine tops and femininine bottoms was submerged into a commonly embraced identity based on the gender of the partner, not the role; and that this was proclaimed as an enduring and important marker of personal and group identity, like race; and that all “gays” either laid claim to full status as men OR used their difference, drawing from feminism, to deconstruct (aka attack) the idea of masculinity for all males, not just themselves.

    The current sexual Yugoslavia known as LGBT follows that last stream. IMHO, same-sex attracted men who wish to assert their share in the male tribe are a minority, while the public face of gaydom is dominated by the gender-deconstruction ideology. It had two novel possibilities: to have men who love men claim their place in the male world, rejecting the historical assignment of tops and bottoms to separate genderized realms OR joining with dissatisfied females to attack the ancient regime of nature as sexually binary: males and females as distinctly different and opposite ways of being human. Especially with the inclusion of the T in LGBT, this agenda is solidified.

    For this conservative “gay” man, only the prior novelty is attractive. The LGBT model and its feminist dominated agenda is both personally unappealing and IMHO unsustainable over the long term and therefore culturally suicidal. To put it in Jack Donovan’s typically brusque way: A society dominated by women and effeminates cannot survive.

    Comment by EssEm — June 2, 2011 @ 2:43 pm - June 2, 2011

  11. PS It is perfectly possible for men to develop deep emotional, passionate attachments to each other that are not sexual. Male bonding is a powerful archetypal force.

    My guess is that most friendships of this type were, as advertized, not sexual, even if they sounded, or even were, romantic. (I’ve had some experience of this myself.)

    But that having been said, if two males whose sense of themselves is that they are men did or do in fact have a passionate physical connection, it would make sense for them to deny (and to believe) that they were “queer”. Because the price of that admission is loss of manhood status. And in any society not in the process of decay, that is a priceless possession, usually gained at a cost. And as any honest homosexual can tell you, that judgment against them, that they are not really men, remains one of their deepest wounds.

    Comment by EssEm — June 2, 2011 @ 2:51 pm - June 2, 2011

  12. http://guyism.com/lifestyle/on-masculinity-a-brief-history-of-the-bromance.html

    Comment by EssEm — June 2, 2011 @ 7:10 pm - June 2, 2011

  13. Or (and I’ll try to not be offensive here), it could be that the 70s and 80s gay movement was threatened by bisexuality, and ruthlessly suppressed it. AKA discrimination. They did the same to bisexuals that others did to them, for the same reason: fear. Fear of being labeled bisexual, and thus having a “choice”.

    Some days I want to go back in time and burn San Francisco to the ground.

    Comment by joeedh — June 2, 2011 @ 7:27 pm - June 2, 2011

  14. “The current sexual Yugoslavia known as LGBT follows that last stream.”

    I love this line.

    It’s also been my experience in most devient groups. You have the leather daddys looking down on the straights as posures, the ‘old guard’ lamenting the SSC crowd etc.

    It’s not just sex either. Gamers are united in their geekdom until you get into their exclusive circles, then it’s wargamers vs role players vs roll players vs grognards vs 4tards etc.

    Yugoslavia indeed.

    Comment by The_Livewire — June 3, 2011 @ 8:04 am - June 3, 2011

  15. I think the common misconception that bottoming is somehow shameful is kinda silly. It’s easy to understand why the stigma is there but it has no place in rationale thought. After all if bottoming were shameful than every woman would be less than a man simply because of her sexual position and this is an idea we no longer hold true.
    The main reason that the gay message was simplified is that human sexuality is complicated but it’s being opposed by religious groups who actively work to ignore the diversity of human sexual expression because it does not seem to be in accord with their religious texts. As in every case where religion meets hard facts it falls short of being able to encompass diversity, trying to shove everyone into tiny expected roles and boxes.

    Comment by Tim — June 3, 2011 @ 12:11 pm - June 3, 2011

  16. Tim, sexual repression has nothing to do with religion, as the history of every major religion shows. Cultures become repressed after being burned, severely, and will de-repress if “this time seems different” (which it is, sometimes, though usually its not).

    Islam has a big history of acceptance of homosexual sex acts, for example, because the Ottomon empire had a stable equilibrium where a libertine attitude to same-gender sex didn’t have dire life-threatening consequences.

    The same is true of Christianity, in cycles. Oddly, I think Islam is the only religion to avoid large cycles in libertine attitudes (until the past 100-200 years, when they started experiencing the large swings we see today).

    Comment by joeedh — June 3, 2011 @ 7:13 pm - June 3, 2011

  17. You see this today. Gay males in my generation tend to be much more skeptical that a libertine sexual attitude is beneficial then our elders. American society has had libertine sexuality peaks multiple times; it’s hard to get accurate data, but supposedly the late 1800s, the 1920s and the 1950s (sexual revolution started before the 60s). Each instance saw new generations voluntarily repress themselves due to what they saw before.

    Comment by joeedh — June 3, 2011 @ 7:17 pm - June 3, 2011

  18. @joeedh given the percentage of gays to the population I’m not sure how a population can either be burned or how a libertine attitude towards homosexuality can inspire terror. but given that all arguments on the table against gays are moralist or natural order arguments I’m not sure that your position is defensible. Are all the current religious arguments merely phantasms? While I can see that there are STI arguments meriting monogamy and safe sex (which I support) I do not find any strong historical evidence that backlashes haven’t been accompanied with religious fundamentalism, especially in our country.

    Comment by Tim — June 3, 2011 @ 7:26 pm - June 3, 2011

  19. Tim, I’m not talking about gays. I’m talking about periods of society-wide libertine sexual attitudes, including huge numbers of bisexual behavior (historically, bisexuals are certainly *far* more common then the exclusively homosexual).

    E.g. ancient Greece, various periods during the Enlightenment, the late 1800s/early 1900s, etc.

    As for not being “burned”, I remind you that the notion of “safe sex” is very recent. Promiscuity is emotionally hard on most people, women more so than men (but by no means is the vast majority of males immune to that, despite popular myth).

    In a diseased, shallow, emotionally-unfulfillable world, where starving children run through the streets and women are afraid to walk at night for being raped, people will eventually choose sexual repression and a rigid system of marriage. Remember marriage isn’t just about rearing children or making males take care of their family, it’s also about enforcing responsible adult living within a community.

    Obviously, some of these problems have been solved in modern times. But some haven’t.

    Comment by joeedh — June 4, 2011 @ 12:41 am - June 4, 2011

  20. Also, religion fundamentalism is not a static thing. What may be considered fundamentalist in one time period may be a totally different thing in another. Religion fundamentalism is another word for ideology, and most fundamentalist sects have little real support for their extreme positions in their sacred texts (the bible, for example, says remarkably little about homosexuality, other then a ban on anal sex that might’ve been a good idea until modern medicine came along) .

    Comment by joeedh — June 4, 2011 @ 12:49 am - June 4, 2011

  21. Oh I think I confused you Tim. By “libertine attitude to same-gender sex” of the Ottomans I meant a significant part of the population felt free to sexually experiment with same-gender partners (it was a culturally acceptable way to act out sexual desire), but were more repressed when it came to hetero sex.

    Most of those people were probably not gay.

    Comment by joeedh — June 4, 2011 @ 12:57 am - June 4, 2011

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