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Modern Love in Ancient Greece

On October 1, the Greek media exploded with reports about the discovery of a funeral shrine that Alexander the Great may have dedicated to Hephaestion, identified in most reports as his “best friend.” Tiny inscriptions found at the site show Hephaestion’s initials, leading some archaeologists to speculate that it was built in tribute to him. Newspaper stories about the site sold like hot koulouri, or pretzels, one paper noted. “Never before has an archaeological excavation unfolded this way,” the Greek culture minister told television reporters.

Amid all the hype about the site, however, no one mentioned that Hephaestion was most likely more than just a friend.

A personal bodyguard for Alexander the Great, Hephaestion went on to command a cavalry in Alexander’s great Asian military campaigns. When Hephaestion died of an illness in 324 B.C., Alexander fell into deep mourning; he shaved his head and fasted for days. He also executed Hephaestion’s doctor, petitioned an oracle to grant his friend divine status, and ordered the construction of monuments to him across the empire. Alexander died soon after Hephaestion, survived by his wives and an unborn child, and it was said that his grief had greatly damaged his health.

If that sounds like a lover’s sorrow, it should. Although it remains a hugely taboo subject in Greece, sexual relationships between men were fairly common among the ancients (although some argue it was reserved for the upper classes). And yet it is rarely brought up today in Greece, at least in polite company, because acknowledging ancient male-male relations makes the country’s heroes seem, well, gay. And there is deep-seated homophobia throughout the country.

But here’s the thing: Alexander the Great and his friend Hephaestion were not “gay.” Neither were they “straight.” These labels reflect the rigid gender norms that developed much later, in the modern West. And yet today, both pro-gay and anti-gay groups around the world too often assume that people in other times and places defined their sexuality in the same ways it is defined today. ...

Read entire article at Foreign Affairs