Happy Birthday to Alexander the Great, the Queer King of Ancient Greece
Happy 2,374th birthday to Alexander the Great, queer king of Ancient Greece. Believed to be born on July 20, 356 B.C.E., Alexander spent his 20s overseeing the creation of one of the world’s largest empires while taking male lovers.
We’ll never know the exact nature of the relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion, one of his generals. But we do know that it was regarded as fairly steamy at the time. Their friendship went back to boyhood, and letters of the time described Alexander yielding to Hephaestion’s thighs. “One soul abiding in two bodies” is how their tutor, Aristotle, described the two men.
“The friend I valued as my own life,” Alexander wrote of his partner. After Hephaestion died, Alexander went without food for days, mourning deeply and asked religious leaders to offer his former partner the status of divine hero. Alexander died not long after Hephaestion, and scholars have suggested that he became careless with his health after losing his lover.
There was another male figure in Alexander’s life: Bagoas, a eunuch and slave who was presented to him by another ruler. Accounts at the time record Alexander caressing Bagoas and kissing him before an audience.
He had relationships with women as well. Alexander is thought to have lost his virginity to a society woman named Campaspe, whose name later became a synonym in poems for a man’s mistress.
Barsine, another of Alexander’s partners, was at first a captive after a conquering campaign. Her royal lineage and traditional education intrigued him, and eventually they are said to have had a son named Heracles. Questions linger about the veracity of that particular account — it’s possible that Heracles was procured in an attempt to usurp the throne after Alexander’s death. Though there were some who supported Heracles’ claim to Alexander’s lineage, he vanished not long after his supposed father died.
More is known about Alexander’s marriage to Roxana, who was said to be of striking beauty. They married when Alexander was 28, and after he died she murdered his other wives to eliminate any other claims to the throne. She was carrying a son at the time, whom she named Alexander IV; but doubt was cast over the identity of the father.
In general, Alexander’s focus was on uniting Persian and Greek culture, and so he arranged marriages that spanned the two groups. He went so far as to organize a mass wedding that lasted five days and included 90 couplings, usually tying highly regarded Macedonian women to Greek soldiers whom Alexander trusted.
Throughout all these tumultuous relationships, Alexander earned a reputation as an unusually ethical lover. Plutarch wrote extensively about his many partners, citing Aristotle as inspiration for Alexander’s kind treatment of all he loved. Though the historical record is at times spotty, and though the circumstances of their lives are unimaginable by today’s standards, it is impossible not to wonder what passions existed two and a half millennia ago, and how recognizable those feelings would be to us today.