Ancient History & Civilisation

Alex & Hephaestion:
Love conquers all—even Alex the Great

Theirs was a love often compared to that of Achilles and Patroclus, the great heroes of the Trojan War; the comparison is apt. Homer’s Iliad revolves around the relationship—by turns friends, lovers, and male bonding in a war setting. As Alexander and Hephaestion would do, Achilles and Patroclus face injury, treachery, and tragic loss.

Before he was even Great, Alex knew and loved Hephaestion, who was probably one year his senior. Sons of Macedonian nobles, they were boyhood chums who studied in tandem with philosopher-teacher Aristotle in a green and lovely part of Macedonia called Mieza. Aristotle, invariably thought of as “Athenian Greek,” was actually from Macedonia; Philip II hired him to give his son and a select few of his peers the best possible education.

Besides Aristotle’s lectures and classes, the two boys learned to ride, sail, and fight on foot and horseback, skills that they’d need as warriors. Did the teens become intimate at that time? We cannot know, but it seems likely.

At age eighteen, Prince Alex got his first taste of warfare at the battle of Chaeronea in Greece. He led the successful charge against the enemy—and his performance stunned his father.

By the time that steadfast friends Alex and Hephaestion were twenty and twenty-one, King Philip II had been assassinated and his son took on the mantle of leadership. With alacrity and skill, Alex and the Macedonian fighting force began what would become his decade-long world conquest, moving south through Greece and then into Asia Minor.

In May of 334 B.C., the Macedonian juggernaut reached the ancient city of Troy. Alex and his best bud immediately went to the resting place of Achilles and Patroclus to lay wreaths on their tombs. Afterward, they ran a footrace in the nude to honor their dead heroes. This much-told story cemented the general belief that the two were lovers.

Their army continued to record victory after victory as they worked their way south and east. At the battle of Issus, the Macedonians defeated the Persians for the first time. Persian king Darius was killed and his queen Statira captured. In her first meeting with Alexander, the queen immediately kneeled in front of the taller young man—Hephaestion. Terrified at her blunder, she began to apologize to Alex, who said, “Don’t worry, Mother. Everywhere, he is Alexander, too.”

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Like his father, Alexander the Great was bisexual. He, however, maintained a steadfast love for his partner Hephaestion until death parted them.

In that long-ago egocentric and boastful world, his graceful and greathearted tribute remains one of the most moving endorsements of love and friendship.

In our world, where sexual identity is often parsed into neat categories, Alexander and Hephaestion would both be called bisexuals, since they subsequently married a variety of women and also carried on love affairs with ones they did not wed. Despite both men’s affection for their women and Alex’s probable liaison with the Persian eunuch known as Bagoas, the tight bond between them continued.

Hephaestion was not a great warrior, but he did a good job, commanding under the most trying of circumstances. He was an excellent organizer and a skilled diplomat by all accounts; Alex trusted him implicitly. Unlike others in the inner circle, Hephaestion never betrayed his commander or let him down. That says much about his character—and likewise the character of Alex, who wasn’t always a benign and loving leader, either.

In 330 B.C., Hephaestion uncovered and revealed a plot against his friend’s life. Inevitably that made others more jealous of his special relationship with Alex, given the power struggles between ambitious men in the inner circle.

After years of harsh battles, difficult weather, struggles through awful terrain and unknown territories as far as India, Alex’s four armies, including one under Hephaestion’s command, rejoined Alexander at a place called Carmania in southwest Asia (today’s Iran). In December of 325 B.C., they celebrated wildly, Alex decorating his key officers and giving some of them, Hephaestion included, golden diadems. A few years earlier, these macho Macedonians would have considered these crowns effeminately Persian, but in their travels they’d all become more accepting of others’ customs.

Next, since Alexander never did anything in a small or conventional way, he organized a mass wedding ceremony between eighty of his top Macedonian officers and eighty Persian princesses who’d gotten a Greek education in the five years since Alex had conquered their nation. Days of lavish ceremonies followed, with Hephaestion marrying a daughter of Persian king Darius, and Alex tying the knot as well. All seemed smooth sailing now; Alex was happy and busy with plans for sending a naval expedition to Arabia.

Then it all came crashing down. In the fall of 324 B.C., Alex came to Ecbatana, one of his new capital cities. Naturally the Macedonian boys threw a drinking party. The next day, Hephaestion fell sick. A hangover, everyone assumed. Seven days later, he died of a fever.

Alex was beyond stunned. He had lost what he called “the friend I valued as my own life.” As historian Arrian wrote, “Alex flung himself on the body of his friend and lay there in tears, refusing to be parted until he was dragged away forcefully by the men in his inner circle.” Plutarch noted that “Alex ordered mourning throughout the empire, and asked the oracle at Egyptian Siwa if the god Amon would permit Hephaestion to be worshipped as a god.” Amon refused but did permit Alex’s lover to be worshipped as a divine hero.

Hephaestion’s funeral was spectacular and costly, the equivalent of millions of dollars in today’s currency. The funeral pyre resembled a Babylonian ziggurat, seven stories high, loaded with 240 ships and scenes rendered in gold of centaur battles, lions, and bulls. Part of Babylon’s city walls were demolished to build the platform for the pyre, and according to Greek historian Strabo, it took ten thousand workmen two months to clear the site afterward.

The permanent memorial to Hephaestion that Alex planned may never have been completed. In a strange echo of his lover, Alexander himself was to die, unexpectedly, of a mysterious fever the following June of the year 323 B.C.

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