Saturday, October 07, 2006

Alexander’s Great Love

I watched Oliver Stone’s 2004 film, Alexander, the other night.

Up until now, I’ve avoided this particular film adaptation of the life of Alexander the Great (starring Colin Farrell in the title role) as I’d heard that Stone downplays Alexander’s relationship with Hephaistion, his best friend, military companion, and lover.

Well, I’m happy to say that that is not the case. Indeed, the film depicts with honesty and, at times, great beauty, Alexander’s love of men, and the affectionate and sexual expression of such love – primarily with Hephaistion (played by Jared Leto, pictured below), but also with the Persian eunuch, Bagoas. [NOTE: See the 2007 update, “Alexander’s Other Great Love,” at the end of this post.]

Of course, those uncomfortable with the thought of Alexander the Great being intimate with other men are prone to stress that “homosexuality” and “bisexuality” are modern-day concepts that cannot and should not be projected back onto the lives of the ancients. This is true. But neither can or should the idea of men of ancient times being lovingly and physically intimate with each other be denied outright or minimalized by insisting, for instance, that Alexander and Hephaistion simply shared a deep and close “friendship”.

Some also point to the historical record of Alexander’s disgust towards the selling of young and beautiful male youths and, by extension, his disdain towards relationships based solely on carnal satisfaction, as proof that Alexander would not have been sexually intimate with another male. His ethical stance on such matters, however, doesn’t automatically mean that Alexander was not attracted to the male form or that he did not cultivate loving and consentual relationships with men that were foundational in his life and which were emotionally and physically expressed and sustained.

Yet does our acknowledgment of this mean that we can say that Alexander the Great was gay?

“Categories of male honor and male shame [in ancient Greek culture] did not revolve around the homo/hetero axis,” says Roger Lancaster, a professor of anthropology and cultural studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and author of The Trouble with Nature: Sex and Science in Popular Culture. “It was more complex and freer in some ways, but way more constrained in others.”

To the question of whether or not Alexander the Great can be considered gay, Lancaster insists that, “the angle that most historians or anthropologists would take [ . . . ] is that it’s a meaningless question. It’s not a question the Greeks would ask, nor would they understand the question.”

Yet as
Brian Moylan notes, “other observers say this doesn’t mean [Alexander's] same-sex relationships should be completely ignored.”

One such “observer” is Bill Leap, a professor of anthropology at American University in Washington, D.C. “To say [Alexander] wasn’t gay is pushing him in the closet,” he says.

Although Leap doesn't go so far as to describe Alexander as gay, he is nevertheless adamant that “we can say he had sexual relationships with men and he favored the company of men and he enjoyed them with great commitment and gusto [ . . . ] The bottom line was Alexander was romantically and sexually attracted to men. There’s room to argue if he was gay, but there is no way to argue that he was straight in any way shape or form.”

In his extensive piece for the Washington Blade, Brian Moylan notes that, “In Greek and Macedonian society, sexual relationships between older men and younger men were not uncommon. Not only would the older male, called the erastes in Greek, be the active partner sexually, but he would also mentor the younger eromenos in things such as civic life and warfare. When the young man grew older, he would take on his own eromenos.

“However, these sexual relationships were always based on the higher social status of one man over the other, and both men would eventually have to marry women and engage in family life, so there were few exclusively homosexual men.”

“One noteworthy facet of Alexander and Hephaistion’s relationship”, says Moylan, “ is that they were of similar age and social standing, though Alexander was the king.”

Alexander thus broke a taboo in Greek society, but that taboo wasn’t male love.

Yet, even before the release of Alexander in 2004, the thought of “male love” in a cinematic depiction of the life of Alexander the Great incensed some people. A group of Greek lawyers, for instance, threatened to sue both Oliver Stone and the Warner Bros. film studio for what they claimed was as inaccurate depiction of the personal life of Alexander, despite the fact that Stone had hired Robin Lane Fox, an Oxford University historian and a highly regarded Alexander scholar, to work as a consultant on the movie to ensure its historical accuracy.

Not surprisingly, historians and other commentators viewed the threatening lawyers to be in error, noting that they were looking at the film’s depiction of sexual mores through a contemporary lens, one heavily overlaid with a type of morality that reflects fundamentalist Christian taboos on various issues of human sexuality. Interestingly, after an advanced screening of the film, the lawyers dropped their threat of litigation.

I guess the depiction of Alexander’s personal life was not, in their eyes, too gay. To others, however, most notably gay people, the film’s depiction of Alexander wasn’t gay enough!

Interestingly, Sean Lund, national news media coordinator for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), saw the lack of overt sex scenes involving Alexander and Hephaistion as a positive, noting that, “The only sex acts portrayed in the film are thematic representations of battle and conquest and power. Obviously what Hephaistion and Alexander had was completely different from that. They had a deep romantic love for one another, and that difference might go some way in explaining why you don’t see caring loving intimacy portrayed on the screen.”

As I've noted previously, I was actually quite pleasantly surprised by the film’s treatment of Alexander’s relationships with Hephaistion and Bagoas, perhaps because I was expecting the worst. There was little else in the film, however, that I found of great interest.

David Walsh succinctly notes that, “Stone’s film treats the best-known episodes in the life of Alexander of Macedon”, basically “his education at the hands of Aristotle, his early military exploits as an adolescent, his succession as king of Macedonia after the assassination of his father, Philip of Macedon, his defeat of the Persians, his travels to and conquest of much of the known and unknown world (Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, Media, Bactria, the Punjab and the valley of the Indus) before his death at the age of 32.”

“In Stone’s version”, continues Walsh, “Alexander the Great (Colin Farrell) seems driven by the desire to compete with and surpass the feats of his father (played by Val Kilmer) and escape his dreadful, all-consuming mother, Olympias (Angelina Jolie). Furthermore, he apparently conquers Asia largely to overcome his fear of death. The desire to ‘Hellenize’ (spread the influence of Greek civilization) the Eastern world or make economic and political gains seem like afterthoughts.

Alexander tells us little about its central figure or the sort of society he emerged from or envisioned. Its goings-on are rather silly. It’s not at all clear what Stone is getting at, other than suggesting that conquering the world is exhausting and psychologically damaging work. He wants us to admire youth and heroism, but a sensibility that finds it difficult to distinguish between the exploits of Jim Morrison of The Doors and Alexander of Macedon may be lacking some fundamental ingredient.”

Racheline Maltese, writing for the
Associated Press, complains that “Stone’s retelling of Alexander the Great’s military conquests is muddled”, and that, “We are never given a sense as to Alexander’s motivation, nor a clear explanation of the progress of Alexander’s empire. We get no hint at matters of Alexander the Great’s character and skill as supported by the historical record – the intellect, strategy and military genius are never discussed, and the battle scenes are so poorly written that one of them needs subtitles just for the audience to follow it.”

Oh well, at least the film’s depiction of Alexander and Hephaistion’s loving relationship satisfies and inspires some folks, as can be seen by the artwork of "Theband" (right) and "Mrs. Ledger" (below).

UPDATE: Alexander’s Other Great Love

In February 2007, Alexander Revisited – The Final Cut was released as a 2-DVD set.

Critic Jeff Shannon notes that this release “should stand as the definitive version of [Oliver] Stone’s much-maligned epic about the great Asian conqueror . . . This is unquestionably a better film than it used to be, leaving us to wonder why it took three separate efforts to shape Alexander into its best possible presentation.”

From my perspective, one of the strengths of Alexander Revisited is that it explores in much greater depth than its predecessors, Alexander’s relationship with the eunuch Bagoas (played by actor and dancer Francisco Bosch, pictured below).

Stone may have Alexander and Hephaistion talk all lovey-dovey and exchange a brotherly hug in a couple of scenes, but it’s definitely Bagoas’ show when it comes to getting the great king to respond with any real physical tenderness and passion. Indeed, the film presents one particularly beautiful and sensual love-making scene between the two men that leaves one to wonder if it was in fact Bagoas, and not Hephaistion, who was Alexander’s great love.

In a February 2006 interview with The Advocate, Stone himself expressed his belief that this was indeed the case, declaring that: “Bagoas was the main one in Alexander’s life.”

“Francesco [Bosch], who was a Spanish dancer, was amazingly sensitive,” says Stone of the actor who played Bagoas. “I just thought he was not only sexy, but the way that he kisses Alexander, the way they kiss, tongu[ing] each other . . . there’s a tenderness there that you feel, and that’s what matters to me. And in a way, I thought that [scene when Bagaos dances for Alexander] in India was a carnal scene between them.”

“There was a different relationship between Alexander and Hephaistion,” Stone contends. “I never felt that he and Alexander were lovers after youth. I felt that they had a bond created from their youth that was indestructible, but I don’t think they continued that relationship.”

In the “Author’s Note” at the conclusion of her acclaimed 1972 novel The Persian Boy, Mary Renault also muses on the nature of Alexander’s various relationships: “That Hephaistion was [Alexander’s] lover seems, on the evidence, probable to the verge of certainty, but is nowhere actually stated . . . Bagoas is the only person explicitly named in the sources as Alexander’s eromenos [‘beloved’].”

A synopsis of Renault’s book reads as follows: “Alexander is a man with little experience of sensuality, but a profound need of affection. Bagoas’ famous beauty has been much exploited, but his affection has been needed by no one. Their meeting is irresistible to both. The adventures of Alexander’s last seven years, some stirring, some tragic, are thus told by Bagoas, an expert courtier and courtesan, sophisticated far beyond his years, boyish only in his devotion. It is a tale rich in historical insight and detail, especially in Bagoas’ view of Alexander's growing sympathy with his Persian subjects, a markedly different view from that of the victorious Macedonians, jealous of their status as master race.”

According to Wikipedia, Alexander and Bagoas’ relationship “seems to have been well-known and approved among Alexander’s troops, as Plutarch recounts an episode (also mentioned by Dicaearchus) during some festivities on the way back from India in which his men clamor for [Alexander] to openly kiss the young man, who had just won a song and dance contest: ‘Bagoas . . . sat down close by [Alexander], which so pleased the Macedonians, that they made loud acclamations for him to kiss Bagoas, and never stopped clapping their hands and shouting till Alexander put his arms round him and kissed him’.”

Renault has pointed out that this incident took place very soon after the crossing of the Gedrosian desert, “when all those present were survivors of that harrowing incident.” In the author’s note in The Persian Boy she writes: “After all these vicissitudes, Bagoas was not only still high in [Alexander’s] affection, but evidently well liked even by the xenophobe Macedonian troops, in itself surprising.” Elsewhere she argues that Bagoas “must have earned the admiration and affection of the army by his courage and fortitude, and his help to others, during the desert crossing.”

The Persian Boy is written from the perspective of Bagoas, and following is how, in the book, he comprehends his relationship with his rival Hephaistion:

How easily he could have had me poisoned, or accused me through false witness, or had jewels hidden in my pack and charged me with their theft; something like that would have happened long ago at the Persian court, if I’d displeased a powerful favorite. He had a rough tongue among fellow soldiers, yet had never used it on me. If we had to meet, he would just speak to me as if to some well-born page, civil and brisk. In return I offered respect without servility. Often I wished him dead, as, no doubt, so he did me; but we had reached an unspoken understanding. Neither of us would have robbed Alexander of anything he valued; so we had no choice.

Of Bagoas’ fate after the death of Alexander, little is known. It is generally believed that he spent his remaining days living quietly in Alexandria – the ancient Egyptian capital founded by his famous lover.

Above: Theband's portrait of Bagoas.


Anonymous said...

The movie did not show the historical fact about Bagoas : he was a 14-15 yo boy, not a man.

Man-boy love was usual in Greece, Macedonia and Persia at that time.

It would have been more authentic to use a 14-15 yo actor to play Bagoas.

Anonymous said...

Actually... Bagoas had BEEN a 14-15 year old boy when he was first a eunuch. But, after years under Darius III's reign, he was older. It mentions this in Alexander: Revisited when Alexander meets Bagoas. The fat eunuch says that Bagoas is about 19 or so. Though, Mary Renault has it that Bagoas was about 25 or so when Alexander died.

Unknown said...

Yes, but that age fits also; in The Persian Boy, Renault has Bagoas and Alexander as lovers for seven years. It starting with Bagoas at 19 and ending with him at 25 or so is about right.

Unknown said...

Very good article! Found it as I'm just now finished with The Persian Boy.

It is a very interesting and well-addressed speculation you have at the top, about whether Alexander was "gay"; even more satisfying in your conclusion. As for Bagoas, I doubt history will ever remember him as Alexander's great love, seeing how Alexander mourned Hephaestion. Certainly in the vivid painting of Renault's novel, his love for Alexander was unique and beautifully deep; even more to her credit, Hephaestion is not lessened in his role. I will be thinking of your review as I watch Alexander this weekend! How sad if there truly is nothing else remarkable in the film. There was much to this man worth studying, both in romantic intrigue and as the champion of the ancient world.

Michael J. Bayly said...


Thanks for your comments. I hope you enjoy Alexander this weekend. I take it you'll be viewing the "Revisited - Final Cut" version? I'd like to hear your thoughts on it, if you feel so inclined to share them.



Anonymous said...

1. how does alexander the movie depict gayness as a cultural construct?
2. how does this cultural construct influence viewers?

hi author maybe you could help me to answer this question and give some elaboration..

Penina said...

This was written in 2008, so I hope I'm still allowed to post. Bagoas, according to Ms. Renault, was gelded at 10, bought for Darius at 13 and a half, and was presented as a peace gift to Alexander when he was 16. Alexander kept him until he died at age 32, when Bagoas was 24. Stone would not have gotten permission for a 16 year told to play that part. The actor had to be older, so the script says he was 18 or 19. Considering, Francisco Bosch did a beautiful job. I only saw the revisited version, as I bought it to see Bagoas. The battle scenes were filmed for drama, not for accuracy. Alexander's beloved horse was dead before the battle with the elephants.
Thank you for all the insight.

Unknown said...

They couldn't do that legally. And actor of that age wouldn't be allowed to have sex scenes. So they would've had to keep those out. That's why they got an older actor.

Unknown said...

I don't believe Bagoas was Alexander's great love. I believe that Alexander found company in Bagoas. I believe that Bagoas was in love with Alexander. And even if Alexander and Hephaestion's sexual relationship ended when they were children doesn't mean that he ever stop loving him. I believe that they were still lovers other wise why would they have been so jealous of each other.

Unknown said...

But honestly there's no real evidence that he had either one as a lover. Rules and customs were faster and loser then then they are now.

Unknown said...

I have a BFF who is my sole sister we've known each other for 15 years have lived together for nearly that long we do literally everything together we are basically married we share our finances we bought a house together we have kids together in the form of dogs we know each others secrets we confide in each other and not really anyone else. Yet, with all that I wouldn't be as upset over her death as much as Alexander was over Hephaestion's death. I'll be upset and sad but I'm not in love with her. Same with my sisters I'll be severely upset but not overly devastated. Honestly I don't even see myself being overly upset about losing someone that I'm in love with.

To be that devastated by someone's death you have to be completely emotionally dependant on them. Wheather they were just friends or lovers doesn't matter. But Bagoas was not his great love. A great love can be platonic.

My mom I would say is my great love. I cannot picture a day without knowing she's in this world. And when the day comes that she passes my BFF and sisters and my Dad all know to tell me in person to have a box of tissues and medication, because I'm going to be inconsolable and unstable.