Content warnings: homophobia, sexism, discussion of sex between minors, discussion of sex between minors and adults.
Spoiler warning: spoilers of the entirety of The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.
When I started reading The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, I knew it would be gay and sad (as Chloe of Girls Gone Canon put it when recommending it), but I didn’t anticipate just how invested I would become in this novel. And I’m not just talking about how I cried my eyes out for ten minutes straight after finishing reading the last chapter. I also spent the next 24 hours going through different parts of the books in my head, thinking about how they compared to the theory and history of sexuality that I have read. So eventually I came to the conclusion that I had to write something about it. Hence this essay.
The Song of Achilles tells the story of Achilles and Patroclus from the Iliad, their life, love, and eventually their death. This relationship has been interpreted in a myriad of ways through the ages, with some focusing on their friendship and others on the erotic aspects of their relationship. A reading that in my opinion is more in line with how the relationship is presented in The Song of Achilles, however, comes from Warwick (2019). Warwick argues that in the Iliad, Achilles and Patroclus are portrayed similarly to the husband-wife relationships of the story (such as Odysseus and Penelope or Hector and Andromache). It seems like Miller had a similar idea when writing A Song of Achilles since there’s even a scene where Odysseus compares his relationship to his wife to that of Achilles and Patroclus when he is trying to convince Pyrrhus to allow Patroclus’ name to be carved into their joint tomb (Miller 2017, 348). In the novel, Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship is clearly both romantic and sexual (even if the sex scenes aren’t explicit). It is clear that the two of them both love each other and desire each other sexually. In an interesting way, their relationship, therefore, reads as queer both in a modern context and in the context of Ancient Greece. As Warwick notes, in Ancient Greece, their relationship would potentially be seen as anomalous (or queer) not because they were both men (as it does today) but because of their similarity in status. This is quite an interesting contrast to modern conceptualisations of sexuality. To explore this further, I will therefore analyse the way Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship is presented in The Song of Achilles in relation to sexuality and gender norms in Ancient Greece.
Sexuality in Ancient Greece
Before getting further into the norms and structures of sexuality in Ancient Greece, it is worth noting that some, including Warwick, has argued that these social norms and conventions are less pronounced in Homer’s work than in other sources (2019). Nonetheless, it seems relevant to consider the social context in which Homer worked and where the story of Achilles and Patroclus would be heard.
In many ways, the norms of Ancient Greece surrounding sexuality and gender were quite different from those of today, even while there are some similarities (that I will get into later). One big difference is that they didn’t use terms such as heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, or anything similar, and didn’t really conceptualise sexuality as a stable identity like we do today. This makes sense considering that it wasn’t really until the 18th century that the homosexual started to be conceptualised as a specific type of person (Foucault 2002 , 64). Before then homosexual acts were generally seen just as that, acts, not as something that informed someone’s identity. They could be shameful or even criminal acts, but as Foucault notes, the difference is that the homosexual of modern times is seen as a type of person, a part of a different species. Some researchers have questioned this, arguing that individual people living before the 18th century might have considered their sexuality as a stable identity, even if society didn’t (eg. Goldberg & Menon 2005; Roelens 2017). Nevertheless, based on the sources that do exist it seems that the people of Ancient Greece didn’t see sexuality as an identity. Still, what sexual acts one participated in could impact one’s reputation, because there were definitely sexual norms to consider in Ancient Greece, even if those were different from those of today.
As many researchers have noted, Ancient Greek societies were very hierarchical, with adult free-born men on top of the hierarchy and everyone else (women, children, slaves, etc) below them. As for instance Mottier (2008) has noted, these norms surrounding gender and status also impacted sexual life:
Normative ideas of masculinity valued aggressive, dominant behaviour, both in public speaking and in other areas of life, including sexual activity. Masculinity was identified with the active, penetrative sexual role. Sexual desire was seen as normal or deviant in relation to the extent to which it transgressed normative gender roles. Specific practices such as sodomy or masturbation did not give rise to moral anxieties in classical sexual culture. Questions of sexual etiquette centred instead on penetration. Penetration symbolised male as well as social status, but it mattered little whether the penetrated was a woman or a boy. What did matter was who penetrated whom. Penetration was seen as active, submission as passive. It was considered unnatural and demeaning for a free-born man to desire to be penetrated, since that would reduce him to the socially inferior role of a woman or slave.(Mottier 2008, 9)
That is to say, a “real man” was supposed to be the active party in sexual intercourse. It didn’t matter who he had sex with (woman, boy, slave, sex worker, etc), as long as he was the one penetrating them. That of course doesn’t mean that there weren’t adult free-born men who enjoyed penetration, it just means that they would be looked down upon for it. One’s sexual behaviour could also impact one’s honour and reputation (Foucault 2018 , 56). As Foucault notes, to have a spotless sexual reputation was especially important for men with large authority who might wish to leave an impressive legacy, since sexual scandals might ruin that legacy.
When discussing sexuality in Ancient Greece, it is impossible to avoid the question of pederasty, i.e., the sexual relationship between boys/teenagers (about 12-20 years old) and adult men, which was often seen as a form of mentorship (Mottier 2008, 12). While obviously deeply problematic to us today, these types of relationships were very normalised at the time, as long as the proper sexual etiquette was upheld. This etiquette included, for instance, that the boy only gives his consent after a significant amount of courting (Foucault 2018 , 203). He should furthermore not gain pleasure from the sexual intercourse, only participate as a form of gift to this older man that he respects. This, in combination with the fact that these boys had not yet grown into manhood, made it possible for them to engage in these relationships without it being considered a blight on their honour (Mottier 2008, 11). It should be noted, however, that relationships between teenagers/young men of the same age were also seen as normal (Foucault 2018,  176). As Foucault describes it, it was considered natural that boys of a certain age would have these types of relationships. Sometimes it would even be accepted that these relationships continued beyond boyhood, but then there would often be speculation about the exact nature and mechanics of the relationship. As mentioned above, the Greeks didn’t disapprove of sexual relations between men per se, but they did find it shameful for a man to be (what they considered to be) the passive part of such a relationship. It was therefore seemingly easier to accept relationships between men where there existed a clear difference in status (e.g. in age or that one was a slave). Warwick makes a similar point, arguing that it was in a way easier to discuss sex between men and boys because then it is clear who is in power, and the subordinate party is expected to grow out of that position when he becomes a man (2019). But relationships between adult free men were more complicated because then one of the adult men has to be passive/subordinate (in the eyes of society).
Interestingly, one example that Foucault mentions when discussing this topic is actually Achilles and Patroclus, describing how their relationship was fascinating for the Greeks because it was unclear who was the more powerful in their dynamic (2018 , 177). As Foucault notes, Homer described Achilles as the one with higher birth and more strength, but Patroclus as the older one and the one with more intelligence. Warwick makes a similar point:
Although pederastic relationships were strictly hierarchical with no ambiguity of active and passive roles permitted (Dover 1978, 16), Achilles and Patroclus do not fit into this paradigm. Patroclus is older than Achilles and is instructed by Menoetius to advise Achilles on the basis of his greater experience and wisdom (Il. 11.785–789). The fact that Achilles is younger (and more beautiful, Il. 2.673–675) than Patroclus should by rights make him the erōmenos, the passive partner in the relationship, but Achilles is also clearly socially dominant over Patroclus, both in terms of his rank and his greater prowess in battle. As has been noted, this ambiguity of statuses led to some confusion among ancient authors over who should properly be seen as the erastēs of the relationship, Patroclus or Achilles.(Warwick 2019, 128)
In a modern context, we might very well find it ridiculous to focus so much on this aspect of a relationship, but then again, it’s not too different from how top/bottom dynamics are sometimes discussed today (cf. Johns, Pingel, Eisenberg, Santana & Baeuermeister 2012). As mentioned previously, the reason it was considered so important who was the active/passive part of a sexual relationship was because it was considered to reflect one’s gender position as well. Men who enjoyed the “passive” position in sex were seen as soft, effeminate, and women-like (Mottier 2008, 11). Essentially, a man being in this position was seen as him relinquishing his position as a man (Foucault 2018, 21). And to voluntarily relinquish the prestige and status of a man was obviously seen as deeply shameful. Similarly, men who dressed or acted in a feminine manner (for instance curling one’s hair, speaking with a soft/feminine voice, singing and dancing, etc) were looked down upon. Clearly, sexuality, gender, and status were very closely intertwined in Ancient Greece.
Queer sexuality in The Song of Achilles
So, how is all of this portrayed in The Song of Achilles? Well, generally, quite accurately. One clear example is in chapter 15 when Odysseus discusses Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship with them as they travel towards Troy:
‘One tent’s enough, I hope? I’ve heard that you prefer to share. Rooms and bedrolls both, they say.’
Heat and shock rushed to my face. Beside me, I heard Achilles’ breath stop.
‘Come now, there’s no need for shame- it’s a common enough thing among boys.’ He scratched his jaw, contemplated. ‘Though you’re not really boys any longer. How old are you?’
‘It’s not true,’ I said. The blood in my face fired my voice. It rang loudly down the beach.
Odysseus raised an eyebrow. ‘True is what men believe, and they believe this of you. But perhaps they are mistaken. If the rumour concerns you, then leave it behind when you sail to war.’(Miller 2017, 165)
As he says, relationships between boys were considered normal (cf. Foucault 2018 , 176). But the tension comes from them almost entering adulthood, and with that comes the potential of rumours and shame… Achilles and (particularly) Patroclus reflects on this afterwards:
Inside the tent there was quietness between us. I had wondered when this would come. As Odysseus said, many boys took each other for lovers. But such things were given up as they grew older, unless it was with slaves or hired boys. Our men liked conquest; they did not trust a man who was conquered himself.
Do not disgrace him, the goddess had said. And this was some of what she had meant.
‘Perhaps he is right,’ I said
Achilles’ head came up, frowning. ‘You do not think that.’
‘I do not mean—’ I twisted my fingers. ‘I would still be with you. But I could sleep outside, so it would not be so obvious. I do not need to attend your councils. I—’
‘No. The Phthians will not care. And the others can talk all they like. I will still be Aristos Achaion.’ Best of the Greeks.
‘Your honour could be darkened by it.’
‘Then it is darkened.’ His jaw shot forward, stubborn. ‘They are fools if they let my glory rise or fall on this.’
His eyes, green as spring leaves, met mine. ‘Patroclus. I have given enough to them. I will not give them this.’(Miller 2017, 166)
This quote gives so much information about the way they, and their society, views sexuality, relationships, and tangentially gender. For one, the line about their society not trusting men who were conquered is a really succinct way of summing up what I spent several paragraphs explaining above. A “real man” has to be active, conquering partners the way he would conquer land or people. So, as Patroclus says, if he wants to have sex with a man it must either be when he is a boy or as an adult with a slave or someone he hires. Therefore, Patroclus is worried about what the world might think about his relationship with Achilles, how that would be interpreted. He worries that it would damage Achilles’ reputation and honour, making people see him as less of an honourable man because they might suspect him of being submissive. As Foucault notes, this is something men in a high position in Ancient Greece would worry about, since their sexual behaviour would impact their reputation and their legacy (2018, 56). But Achilles refuses to let this fear affect their relationship, refuses to give it up. Throughout the novel, it is very clear that Achilles and Patroclus do not only desire each other but also love each other deeply. This, in combination with their similarity in status, is what makes their relationship queer in the eyes of society.
Of course, me calling the relationship queer doesn’t mean that the characters think of it in those terms. As mentioned in the theory section above, terms like homosexual, bisexual or queer didn’t exist at this time and people didn’t really think of sexuality as a stable identity. Still, it is interesting to consider how Achilles and Patroclus’ sexual (and romantic) orientations are portrayed. It’s clear that their most important relationship is the one they have with each other, but they do both sleep with women. From the way it’s portrayed in the book, it’s a bit unclear how much they enjoy this experience. It seems as it wouldn’t be their first choice, they clearly prefer each other. But it is unclear if this is because they prefer sex with men in general or just that they prefer sex with each other. Another aspect to consider here is their relationship with Briseis. When they first rescue her, she is afraid that Patroclus is a threat to her, but he convinces her that he’s not by kissing Achilles. It’s interesting to consider why this works. Is it meant to show her that he prefers men over women? Or is it meant to show that he’s not a threat because he is in a relationship? I imagine modern readers, who tend to see sexuality as an identity, probably read it the first way, even if it shouldn’t work based on the way Greek society viewed sex (but since Miller is writing for a modern audience, I don’t really consider that a problem). A third interpretation could possibly be that this is meant to make Briseis trust them because Patroclus showed her an aspect of their relationship that could damage their reputations if it became known. Throughout the story, Briseis continues to be close to them, not exposing them, even if she sometimes becomes a bit of a threat to the relationship in other ways. One such moment is of course when she kisses Patroclus, in chapter 24. She says that she knows he loves Achilles but that she knows that some men have both wives and lovers. Then she asks if he wouldn’t want to have children. As Patroclus tells her: ‘If I ever wished to take a wife, it would be you.’ (Miller 2017, 253) But as he also explains, he does not wish to take a wife. Afterwards, Patroclus mentions their discussion to Achilles and…
‘Does she wish to have a child?’
‘Maybe,’ I said.
‘With me?’ he said.
‘No,’ I said.
‘That is good,’ he said, eyelids dropping once more. Moments passed, and I was sure he was asleep. But then he said, ‘With you. She wants to have a child with you.’
My silence was his answer. He sat up, the blanket falling from his chest. ‘Is she pregnant?’ he asked.
There was a tautness to his voice I had not heard before.
‘No,’ I said.
His eyes dug into mine, sifting them for answers.
‘Do you want to?’ he asked. I saw the struggle on his face. Jealousy was strange to him; a foreign thing. He was hurt, but did not know how to speak of it. I felt cruel, suddenly, for bringing it up.
‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t think so. No.’
‘If you wanted it, it would be all right.’ Each word was carefully placed; he was trying to be fair.
I thought of the dark-hair child again. I thought of Achilles.
‘It is all right now,’ I said.
The relief on his face filled me with sweetness.(Miller 2017, 256)
In a sense, this becomes a moment where Achilles and Patroclus reaffirm their relationship to each other. Patroclus gets an opportunity to go down a more traditional path, taking a wife and having a bunch of cute dark-haired children with her, even as he keeps Achilles as a lover. But he rejects that, choosing Achilles. He doesn’t need a wife when he has Achilles as a partner.
This is of course not the only time their relationship is compared to a marriage. As mentioned in the introduction, Odysseus compares their relationship to his marriage at one point. But there is also the moment on Scyros when Achilles and Patroclus are reunited and Achilles (being dressed as a woman) calls Patroclus his husband. It is worth noting that if this behaviour, Achilles positioning himself as Patroclus’ wife, became public knowledge, he would most likely be severely shamed by others. Even just the fact of his dress could be used to shame him, as Diomedes makes clear when he notes that they could make Achilles’ dressing as a woman known if he won’t come to Troy. Achilles’ reaction is telling:
Achilles flushed as if he’d been struck. It was one thing to wear a dress out of necessity, another thing for the world to know of it. Our people reserved the ugliest names for men who acted like women; lives were lost over such insults.(Miller 2017, 154)
Again, a man being interpreted as being feminine is seen as deeply shameful. But while Achilles clearly doesn’t want this known, he doesn’t mind people speculating about his relationship with Patroclus. This is somewhat remarkable as that could also be seen as a stain on his reputation, given that people might speculate that it means he is submissive (and therefore unmanly in their eyes). It is worth noting that the book doesn’t comment on how exactly Achilles and Patroclus have sex, if one tends to be the penetrating party, or if they even have sex in that way. In this way, Miller doesn’t have to take a position in this debate around their relationship that’s been going on for thousands of years. But at the same time, not including those details sort of becomes a statement about how it doesn’t matter exactly how they had sex, what matters is their passion and love.
However, the specifics of their relationship did of course matter to their surroundings. This becomes very clear after their death when Achilles’ son Neoptolemus (aka Pyrrhus) comes along and has very strong opinions on the matter.
‘We were talking of your father’s tomb, and where to build it.’
‘On the hill,’ Odysseus says.
Menelaus nods. ‘A fitting place for them.’
There is a slight pause.
‘Your father and his companion. Patroclus.’
‘And why should this man be buried beside Aristos Achaion?’
The air is thick. They are all waiting to hear Menelaus’ answer.
‘It was your father’s wish, Prince Neoptolemus, that their ashes be places together. We cannot bury one without the other,’
Pyrrhus lifts his sharp chin. ‘A slave has no place in his master’s tomb. If the ashes are together it cannot be undone, but I will not allow my father’s fame to be diminished. The monument is for him, alone.’(Miller 2017, 341)
The specific way that Pyrrhus insists on disrespecting Patroclus here is interesting (if infuriating). He keeps describing Patroclus as being of a lower status, even calling him a slave. As mentioned previously, a man having a sexual relationship with a slave was much more accepted in Greek society than him having a relationship with an equal. So, one can argue that what Pyrrhus is doing her is sort of straightening out the queerness of his father, after death. Again, it’s not that it’s illegal for Achilles to sleep with Patroclus, but it’s frowned upon and impact’s his reputation/honour. This is unacceptable for Pyrrhus who wants to have his father be seen as Aristos Achaion. So, casting Patroclus as a slave rewrites the story to make Achilles seem as the unquestionable active and masculine party.
Later, Odysseus tries to convince Pyrrhus to reconsider and Pyrrhus notes that he will not have his father’s name tainted by a commoner (again, positioning Patroclus as having a lower social standing). He also says that Patroclus is a “blot on my father’s honour, and a blot on mine.” (Miller, 347) Odysseus then continues by asking if Pyrrhus has a wife and says:
‘I have a wife. I have not seen her for ten years. I do not know if she is dead, or if I will die before I can return to her,’ (…) ‘My consolation is that we will be together underworld. That we will meet again there, if not in this life. I would not wish to be there without her.’
‘My father had no such wife,’ Pyrrhus said.
Odysseus looks at the young man’s implacable face. ‘I have done my best,’ he says. ‘Let it be remembered that I tried.’(Miller 2017, 348)
Here, at least, someone tries to have the truth of their relationship be remembered. To not have it be taken away from them, as Achilles so adamantinely refused in life.
When the podcast Girls Gone Canon discussed this novel, Chloe made a wonderful point about how this is tragically similar to what many queer people have to go through after death:
There’s something about being different, you know from everyone, that knowing someone has control over your body, and your body’s meaning and what your body stood for, when you die. When your partner or the only person you trusted doesn’t have that control, is horrendous. It is scary. It makes their joint tomb really symbolic.(Girls Gone Canon 2022, 1 h 31 min)
As Chloe notes, queer people (and other marginalised people, such as disabled people) seldom get control over their bodies or their narratives after death. The people they might have trusted to have their wishes carried out aren’t allowed to, because their relationship isn’t seen as legitimate. This is also something that Judith Butler discusses when writing about what types of kinship and relationships are deemed legitimate by the state, and what consequences that has:
Of course, there are consequences to this kind of derealization that go beyond hurting someone’s feelings or causing offense to a group of people. It means that when you arrive at the hospital to see your lover, you may not. It means that when your lover falls into a coma, you may not assume certain executorial rights. It means that when your lover dies, you may not be able to be the one to receive the body. It means that when the child is left with the nonbiological parent, that parent may not be able to counter the claims of biological relatives in court and that you lose custody and even access. It means you may not be able to provide health care benefits for one another. These are all very significant forms of disenfranchisement, ones that are made all the worse by the personal effacements that occur in daily life and that invariably take a toll on a relationship. If you’re not real, it can be hard to sustain yourselves over time; the sense of delegitimation can make it harder to sustain a bond, a bond that is not real anyway, a bond that does not “exist,” that never had a chance to exist, that was never meant to exist. (…) And if you’ve actually lost the lover who was never recognized to be your lover, then did you really lose that person? Is this a loss, and can it be publicly grieved? Surely this is something that has become a pervasive problem in the queer community, given the losses from AIDS, the loss of lives and loves that are always in struggle to be recognized as such.(Butler 2002, 25-26)
It should be noted that Butler also recognises the risks of legitimisation by the state, in that this can cause more control and create new boundaries of normativity, but their point about the consequences of not being seen as legitimate still stands. It also definitely speaks to what happens to Achilles and Patroclus after death. Their wishes aren’t respected because their bond is not respected. Pyrrhus refuses to let them share a tomb because he refuses to allow their relationship to be acknowledged and recognised. Even as Odysseus tries to appeal to him by talking about how they would want the opportunity to be reunited in the underworld, he still refuses. He only sees Patroclus as a blot on his father’s honour since their relationships make it possible to question Achilles’ masculinity.
Yet in the end, their love and their bond are recognised. Thetis is convinced by Patroclus talking about his memories of Achilles and she allows for both their names to be on the tomb. As I was reading, this is where I truly started sobbing. Reflecting on it now, I think it wasn’t just that I was happy that they got to reunite in the afterlife, but also that I got so emotional about their relationship being acknowledged. Living in a world where queer people’s lives and loves are still erased so often, especially after death, this ending was truly beautiful to read. Yet it still hurt, because it was clear how much of a struggle it had been to have their love be publicly recognised. You can be Aristos Achaion, yet still lack power over how you and your love is remembered.
In many ways, The Song of Achilles accurately depicts how sexuality was viewed in Ancient Greece. For the modern reader, this way of thinking of sexuality might seem very strange. But The Song of Achilles manages to describe the norms of the society succinctly and most of all imbue it all with a ton of emotion. From the plot, it also becomes very clear that there are consequences to these societal norms. We read about Patroclus thinks how their actions could impact Achilles’ reputation and honour, and at the end of the novel, we see that it very well could. Achilles asserts that he doesn’t care if their love darkens his honour, but in the end, their love is almost erased by other people trying to protect his honour.
But for all the way that the conventions of Achilles and Patroclus’ society are different from our own, there are a lot of events from the story that might feel painfully familiar for queer readers. There is family trying to stop you from being with the one you love, there are your surroundings judging you for the way you love, and there is a world trying to erase who you truly are. Achilles and Patroclus’ story might not be queer in the way we think of queerness today, but their story still resonates for anyone who has had to fight for who they are and who they love. It also provides a small hope that maybe, just maybe, you can have a happy ending.
May you also find what will make you shine like the sun.
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Buter, Judith. 2002. ”Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 13(1): 14-44.
Foucault, Michel. 2002/1976. Sexualitetens historia 1: Viljan att veta. Translated by Birgitta Gröndahl. Göteborg: Bokförlaget Daidalos AB. [This is the Swedish translation of Histoire de la sexualité I :La volonté de savoir/The History of Sexuality I: The Will to Knowledge]
Foucault, Michel. 2018/1984. Sexualitetens historia 2: Njutningarnas bruk. Translated by Britta Gröndahl. Göteborg: Bokförlaget Daidalos AB. [This is the Swedish Translation of Histoire de la sexualité, II: l’usage des plaisirs/The History of Sexuality II: The Use of Pleasure]
Girls Gone Canon. 2022. “Patreon Episode 41 — New POV Character: Patroclus (The Song of Achilles episode” https://www.patreon.com/posts/patreon-episode-60565252?utm_medium=clipboard_copy&utm_source=copy_to_clipboard&utm_campaign=postshare
Jones, Michelle Marie, Emily Pingel, Anna Eisenberg, Matthew Leslie Santana & José Bauermeister. 2012. “Butch Tops and Femme Bottoms? Sexual Positioning, Sexual Decision Making, and Gender Roles Among Young Gay Men.” American Journal of Men’s Health 6(6): 505–518.
Miller, Madeline. 2017. The Song of Achilles. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Mottier, Véronique. 2008. Sexuality: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Roelens, Jonas. 2017. “A Woman Like Any Other: Female Sodomy, Hermaphroditism, and Witchcraft in Seventeenth-Century Bruges.” Journal of Women’s History 29(4): 11–34.
Warwick, Celsiana. 2019. “We Two Alone: Conjugal Bonds and Homoerotic Subtext in the Iliad.” Helios 46(2): 115-139.