eleven or twelve. They adopted and educated these ephebes , training them in music and oratory. Each Greek aristocrat had his favorite boy, but Alexander was different. Though he had plenty of ephebes , Hephaestion was his preferred lover. Hephaestion was a military man and a general of at least the second rank. Alexander often dispatched him to deal with military matters, sometimes far away, but the two lovers always remained loyal to each other. They were bound by more than just sex.
Alexander must have viewed Hephaestion as almost an alter ego. On one occasion in Darius’s court, Darius’s mother confused the two men, and apparently believing that the taller and more aristocratic-looking of the two was Alexander, addressed Hephaestion as Alexander. When her error was pointed out to her, she was extremely embarrassed and apologized profusely. Alexander responded, “Your confusion over the name is unimportant, for this man is also Alexander.” 7
When Alexander’s relationship with Hephaestion ended after two decades, owing to the latter’s death, Alexander grieved deeply. Two writers of antiquity describe Alexander’s actions after Hephaestion’s death. Aelian (a Roman author of the late second and early third centuries AD, who wrote in Greek) says that Alexander hurled arms onto the funeral pyre, melting down gold and silver and burning expensive clothing along with the body. He sheared off his hair, emulating Achilles’ grief at the death of his friend Patroclus. According to Arrian (a Greek from Bithynia who became a Roman citizen during the reign of Hadrian), he spent all day and all night prostrate beside the corpse, and others said he hanged the doctor who attended his friend for giving him the wrong medicine. 8 Alexander planned to build a huge monument to his friend and lover, a project that was scrapped when he himself died. The violence of his grief over Hephaestion’s death possibly contributed to Alexander’s own premature death.
Why were the Greeks bisexual, with a strong proclivity to homosexuality, preferring usually boys and sometimes cohabiting with other adult males? One could make the argument that homosexuality was a traditional, long-standing condition of human males, practiced in antiquity not only by the Greeks but also by the Romans. There was no social stigma attached to the homosexual relationship. As long as the man did his familial duty and begot children, he was left alone to pursue whatever extramarital relationships he wanted. There was no AIDS in those days, and many Greek men viewed their wives only as breeding sows. It was only around AD 400, with the triumph of the Christian Church, that a revolution in gender relationships occurred.
The Christian bishops and priests wanted to stress the unit of the intergendered family and community. They wanted also to give an enhanced dignity to women, hitherto so badly treated in the Greco-Roman world, because women made up more than half of the membership of the church. Furthermore, at a time of drastically declining population in the early Middle Ages, the bishops and priests sought to foster heterosexual copulation.
Another way of looking at Greek homosexuality is to see it as following from the rigorous training in military life, which in turn fostered gay relationships. As is seen in the populations of jails today, men in close proximity to other men, with little recourse to female company, will frequently seek out homosexual relationships.
The impact of homosexuality on the birthrate in some societies was drastic. In Sparta in the fourth century BC the personnel of the army declined from 10,000 to 1,000 available soldiers. Homosexuality was responsible for at least part of this decline. In sixteenth-century Persia, where homosexuality was also increasingly practiced, there was a sharp decline in population.
A prominent and pioneering biographer of Alexander, W. W. Tarn, while denying that Alexander was homosexual, said that he