Sunday, August 20, 2023

Were They Or Weren't They? Patrochilles and 5th century Athens

Gender and sexuality are constructs defined by the society that created them, and there are considerable differences between what ancient Greeks (and later, Romans) believed was queer identity in comparison to our modern ones. It is important to be careful when assigning a modern label or orientation to a person from an ancient culture, and in many cases, it can be dangerous to do so, as it can warp our understanding of the person in question. For example, whereas it is universally known that Sappho transcended heteronormative identity and behavior patterns, people often argue whether Sappho was a lesbian or bisexual, when the reality is that she was simultaneously neither and both, and would not have easily fit into any modern term.

This conflict of identification also existed in ancient times. One of the most obvious examples of this is “Patrochilles,” the relationship between Trojan War veterans Achilles and Patroclus. In Athens during the 5th century BCE, the prevalent model of same sex relationships was one with an imbalance of power, not of equality. Because they did not understand that Homeric culture would have different concept of the spectrum of gender and sexuality, many Athenians were baffled by the Achilles / Patroclus relationship. This couple did not easily fit into the Athenian model; Patroclus was older of the two, but politically inferior, while Achilles was top-tier socially, but younger than Patroclus. An entire section of Plato’s Symposium was dedicated to the discussion on which of the two was the dominant lover (180a).  Plato’s contemporary, the orator Aeschines, however, argued the opposite. Since the couple did not fit the contemporary model, their relationship must not be romantic, but merely a friendship (In Timarchum 1.142:[Homerus] cum multis locis Patrocli & Achillis meminerit: amorem & Cognomentum amicitiae illorum dissimulat cum insignem illam benevolentiam eruditis auditoribus esse conspicuam existimet, translated into Latin by Jerome Oporinus, 1553). It is clear from this and other contemporary treatments of the Achilles / Patroclus relationship that ancient Athenians struggled with understanding how interpersonal relationships were influenced by the culture they exist in.

One of the ways that LGBT Meets SPQR tries to counteract this difficulty is by using overlapping labels. The blog readily acknowledges that one ancient person or myth might simultaneously fit into multiple conflicting modern identities. Modern labels are provided in the tag section to help sort material into topics of interest, but it is important to remember that ancient people would use their own spectrum and not ours.

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