Strolling through the Graeco-Roman section of a museum, I often come face to face with a statue or a head of Antinoüs, the lover of Emperor Hadrian. His outstanding beauty and the perfect traits of his being are a true eye-catcher.
As the arches remained in place, the statues of the emperor were generally safely removed to a museum. It is there that Antinoüs pops up next to him. In the back of my mind, I am confident that when you see one, you are almost certain to find the other nearby.
In antiquity, a man having a male friend or lover was a way of living. Such relations were commonly accepted not like today when many people raise their eyebrows to put it mildly and condemn the relation entirely. In our modern world, people belonging to LGBTQ groups are still far from being accepted. But that is not the point I want to make and this is not the place to discuss the matter either.
We’ll find various examples of such relationships in Classical Greece. The Theban Band, which was ultimately destroyed by Alexander at
, consisted of elite pairs of lovers. It was a fierce and unbeatable Band of Brothers, precisely because they were lovers and would defend their partner to the very end. It was a great honor to belong to this Band famed to be invincible, that is, till they were defeated by Alexander. Chaironeia
Achilles and Patroclus as described by Homer is another example. They were so vividly remembered that when Alexander reached the tomb of Achilles in
Asia Minor, he and Hephaistion stripped their clothes and ran around the burial mound. They identified themselves with Achilles and Patroclus.
Another famous pair of lovers was Harmodius and Aristogeiton from
, who became the symbol of democracy after committing an act of political assassination in 514 BC. They killed Hipparchus, the last tyrant of the city during the Panathenaic Festival. The Athenians recognized them as the founders of democracy and erected a bronze statue group in their honor. It stood on the Acropolis till it was robbed by Xerxes during the Persian War in 480 BC and it was installed in Athens . This is where Alexander found the group in 330 BC, and he sent it back to Susa . Athens
Clearly, the friendship/love between Alexander and Hephaistion was nothing new. It was common knowledge among the troops, who accepted it for what it was. The special place Hephaistion occupied in Alexander’s life was, however, a source of envy and even resentment among the other Companions and generals. They must have watched that relationship with Argus’ eyes as they all coveted Hephaistion’s privileged position. Yet, Hephaistion never took advantage of that position. He must have walked a tightrope trying to stay aloft and still accomplish the missions Alexander entrusted to him. He must have been a gifted diplomat, blessed with a huge dose of self-control and endless love for Alexander.
I find it quite intriguing that most of the statues of Hadrian and Antinoüs were made during their lifetime and have survived to this day. This is not the case for Alexander, whose statues were made after his death. Most are Roman copies from the 1st and 2nd century AD based on originals by Lysippos, Praxiteles and other great artists whose works no longer exist. The images of Hephaistion are even scarcer, and one could wrongly assume that his relationship with Alexander was not important enough to be underscored in the art world.
On the other hand, we know that after the death of Hephaistion, many effigies were made. They were presented to the mourning Alexander by his generals. Perhaps they hoped to clear their own conscience or to find a way to console Alexander. It remains to be seen whether that gesture was genuine or only a way to plea their own case to obtain favors. It is not impossible that after Alexander’s own death, his generals destroyed the effigies of Hephaistion in an ultimate urge to satisfy their own desire for revenge.
The fact remains that Alexander and Hephaistion are rarely seen together. I have come across only two such cases. One set of statues stood in a showcase at the National Archaeological Museum of
(see: Alexander and Hephaistion side by side). Those statues, found in Athens , are a little less than life-size and date from the 1st century BC. The other example is their respective heads that are on display at the Alexandria Getty Museum in (see: Ode to Alexander and Hephaistion). They once belonged to a larger group made as early as 320 BC and found in Malibu, California Megara, near . Both heads have been reworked in antiquity, and Hephaistion’s hair has been trimmed in the process. Athens
Both men are evidently also depicted on the famous Alexander sarcophagus, now at the
Archaeological Museum in . But they are not placed next to each other but on either side of the sarcophagus. Alexander is depicted fighting a Persian on one panel and Hephaistion is part of a hunting scene on the opposite side. Istanbul