Achilles, Patroclos and their special bond

Published July 26, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

I know I’ve been griping a lot about my broken laptop lately (and, to be honest, there’s still a lot of gripe left there) but I thought I should stop griping for a while and instead post something someone might actually want to read.  This is one of several posts I’ve written in the broken-laptop-downtime, which have just been accumulating, waiting a chance to get online.  (Probably the best of them, too, but…well, actually, the one about Tiresias is pretty good, too…)  Anyway, on to the part of the post I pre-wrote!


So earlier I promised to talk about how one of James Davidson’s points in The Greeks and Greek Love provided a new possible meaning for an Aischylos fragment that redefined the relationship between Achilles and Patroclos, thus possibly shattering some of my writing, right?

Uh, okay, starting over. And trying to make sense this time.

Unlike Sophocles and Euripides, Aischylos almost always wrote and presented his plays in neat trilogies. (No, Sophocles did not present his Theban trilogy at the same time, bizarrely enough.) One of Aischylos’ many lost trilogies is his so-called “tragic Iliad” which presents the second half of the Iliad on the tragic stage, one of the rare instances of the major Athenian tragedians tackling the subject matter of the Homeric epics. The Odyssey was covered slightly more often than the Iliad, including in Euripides’ surviving satyr play, The Cyclops, but even it was rare compared to other Trojan War topics, presumably because Homer was viewed as peerless, and any attempt to compete with him was seen as sheer hubris. (Hesiod was held in similar regard, which probably accounts for the lack of other written accounts the ancient Greek theogony other than his.)

Anyway, the first of the plays of Aischylos’ tragic Iliad was the Myrmidons, which featured the death of poor Patroclos, and Achilles’ lament over the corpse. It must have been one heck of a lament. Two quotes survive, from numerous sources, Plutarch’s moralia and various philosophers and such. At the time, they were used to show the depth, intensity and importance of friendship. However, their stark eroticism—it’s hard to interpret someone rebuking a corpse for ‘wasting my many kisses’ without assuming they were lovers—they were eventually held up as proof of just how unabashed and even decadent the ancient Greek men were in their pursuit of, well, each other.

And you did not respect the sacred honour of the thigh-bond, ungrateful that you were for those countless kisses! (trans. Alan. H. Sommerstein)

I’ve quoted that translation before, and not been terribly pleased with it, ‘cause, you know, was it really so sacred for one man to rub his erection between another man’s thighs? Obviously, as a woman, I can’t really imagine what that would be like, but it just doesn’t sound to me like it would be very satisfying to either party, so I’ve always looked askance at the whole thing and felt like there had to be something that we’re just plain missing there.

And it looks like there may well be.

Now, the ancient Greeks did not like to write this stuff down. It’s sex, which meant it was private, and it’s religious, which meant you absolutely didn’t tell anyone anything. So this is all conjecture on Davidson’s part, which he admits freely, but I think his logic is sound, and it makes a lot more sense than any other explantion I’ve seen for some of this stuff. Especially since there’s ancient artwork to try and explain, y’know?

Because, see, we know they actually did do that. The “intercrural” thing. There’s pots showing it. Often with witnesses, who frequently look like they’re partying.

So, based in part on a particular artifact that was contrasting three similar scenes—a heterosexual wedding, an intercrural scene between two men, and two women in one cloak—he thinks that, at least when used in particular public settings, it had a ritual significance.

In fact, it may well have been akin to a marriage ceremony:

We may find it hard to believe that such a sex act was ever performed in front of witnesses, dancing or not dancing, but to show an act as carried out in public ought at least to indicate its public recognition, which will have served inevitably to create a bond between the participants. Just such a bond is indicated by Aeschylus when he makes Achilles allude to the “holy honor of thighs” to signify his relationship with Patroclus, as if it were a kind of pledge that Patroclus might seem to have betrayed by returning to battle and getting himself killed.

So, if he’s right, then—at least in Aischylos’ interpretation—Achilles was acting like a grieving widow because he was one.

I know what you’re thinking: “But, nutbar, you’re always making it very clear you think those two are a couple. Why would that interfere with any of your writing?”

My answer is simple: “There’s a difference between thinking they’re a couple and thinking they’re married. And don’t call me ‘nutbar.’”

Now, in my quasi-Young Adult series—if I can ever bring myself to start working on the monumental task of the re-writes—that’s not a huge impediment. Because, let’s face it, that wasn’t going to come up much. Because:

A) They’re dead.
B) The primary heroine is permanently naïve and childlike. (Athene literally wiped all knowledge of sex out of her mind for, well, reasons. It’s complicated.)
C) Did I mention that they’re already dead? (Admittedly, there are flashbacks to the Trojan War itself in all the prologues, but their romantic/sexual relationship is only barely hinted at in any of them.)

However, in my Trojan War novel! Oh god, it’s going to fall into pieces if I try to even work this in a little bit. For example, let me quote you something out of Briseis’ chapter. (Each chapter is narrated by a different character.)

Many of the other concubines have borne children since being captured here, and it has drawn considerable attention among the other Achaian men that I haven’t. They like to say that Achilles has never shared my bed—no matter how often I tell their concubines that he most certainly has!—and that he prefers to share the bed of Patroclos. Even Tecmessa, who is the concubine of Achilles’ cousin Aias and is therefore in much the same position I am, sometimes says that she has been told by both her master and his half-brother that when Achilles was a boy, he was the beloved of the older Patroclos. But that’s perfectly normal! Even if it’s true, it means nothing—many men do the same! But the Danaan men like to say that Achilles still prefers to play a woman for Patroclos than to be a man with me, and I ache with anger and sorrow every time I hear them say it.

I was slave and lover to Achilles for eight years before vile Agamemnon stole me away, and in all those years, I never once saw him engage in acts of lust or even love with Patroclos. The only time I saw anything even close was several years ago, when Achilles was too filled with wine to be able to see straight, and he kissed Patroclos passionately. But when they parted, Patroclos laughed, and said “You drunken fool, has Dionysos robbed you of your sight? Briseis is over there!” then turned Achilles to face me, and he set upon me with an all too rare passion. But rare as that passion was, he gave me no reason to suspect his ardor was for any other than myself! Ah, why does jealousy cause vile Rumor to spread her ugly wings?

While I could, theoretically, still have Briseis be totally clueless even if they were in a same-sex marriage—they might not have those in Hittite territory, after all—there’s no way the other Achaians would be laughing at them about it. (There’s also the whole fact that I was totally fooled/naïve about the way same-sex relationships worked in ancient Greece, so every place that even vaguely hints at them needs to be re-tooled to be less egregiously wrong, but that’s a lesser thing, and really all that would need to be changed here is to change “boy” to “youth” and “beloved” to something a bit less stock.)


Actually, I’m probably over-reacting. Really, the passage I quoted is probably the only place in the book that’s really affected (though it’s probably my favorite part of her chapter), and—let’s be honest—no one would care if I left it alone. Because how many people in the world think of Achilles and Patroclos as being in a same-sex marriage? Probably about half the people who’ve read that book. Maybe slightly more, but…of the people who haven’t read that book?  Probably very few people think of Achilles and Patroclos as being in a same-sex marriage.  Romantically and/or sexually involved, yes, of course, lots of people do, but married?  No, that’s going to be a much more unusual assumption.  (Outside of Rule 63 fictions, that is.  But that’s a totally different can of worms.  Rule 63, btw, actually pre-dates the Internet by around 2000 years.  There’s Roman stuff depicting two female gladiators fighting, one labelled as Penthesilea, the other as Achillea, so…Rule 63 Achilles dates back a loooooong time.  (Found that one in The Amazons, by Adrienne Mayor, if you want to check my facts.))

More importantly, it’s not as though anyone’s going to read my book anyhow. The chances of my ever taking it back out of retirement on LeanPub are very slim, in fact. I don’t know if I’m ever going to feel like I’ve fixed the problems with it. The more I think about it, the more I realize it’s horrible.

I guess where this really sinks me is that book I want to write someday about Iphis. Because now that I know about this, will I be able to feel like I’m being true to the myth if I go back to the same ludicrously horny Achilles who sleeps with half a dozen slave girls as well as Patroclos? ‘Cause in that book, there was supposed to be crazy amounts of that going on. (Why I thought I could write something like that is beyond me.)

The one thing that’s utterly unaffected is last year’s NaNo novel, which was my Trojan War/giant mech fusion, in which everyone had been repeatedly reincarnated and was repeating the war over and over and over again, and now, five thousand years later, they were on Jupiter’s moon Ganymede (of course!) in a very Gundam-like situation, and so forth and so on. And see there it’s totally all right for (the reincarnation of) Achilles to sleep with virtually everything that moves, because after thousands of years, he’s not really the same person anymore. (And he’s still more in love with the reincarnation of Patroclos than with anyone else.) But his self-destructive love for Patroclos (or for Antilochos, if you prefer that version) was the literal center of his character in the original myths, so…ugh, I’m going around in circles now.

BTW, I thought about calling this post “Achilles, Patroclos, and their Specially Bonded Thighs” but decided that might not actually be the best idea…although it is a punchier title…


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