Achilles binds the wound of Patroklos (5th century BC)

Achilles & Patroklos

[The following excerpt, on the lover-warriors Achilles and Patroklos (or Patroclus), is from Edward Carpenter's book, Ioläus: An Anthology of Friendship (1902). Carpenter himself translated the passage from the Iliad.]


THE fact, already mentioned, that the romance of love among the Greeks was chiefly felt towards male friends, naturally led to their poetry being largely inspired by friendship; and Greek literature contains such a great number of poems of this sort, that I have thought it worth while to dedicate the main portion of the following section to quotations from them. No translations of course can do justice to the beauty of the originals, but the few specimens given may help to illustrate the depth and tenderness as well as the temperance and sobriety which on the whole characterized Greek feeling on this subject, at any rate during the best period of Hellenic culture....
    It is not always realized that the Iliad of Homer turns upon the motive of friendship, but the extracts immediately following will perhaps make this clear. E. F. M. Benecke in his Position of Women in Greek Poetry (p. 76) says of the Iliad: —

        It is a story of which the main motive is the love of Achilles for Patroclus. This solution is astoundingly simple, and yet it took me so long to bring myself to accept it that I am quite ready to forgive any one who feels a similar hesitation. But those who do accept it cannot fail to observe, on further consideration, how thoroughly suitable a motive of this kind would be in a national Greek epic. For this is the motive running through the whole of Greek life, till that life was transmuted by the influence of Macedonia. The lover-warriors Achilles and Patroclus are the direct spiritual ancestors of the sacred Band of Thebans, who died to a man on the field of Chæronæa.

    The following two quotations are from The Greek Poets by J. A. Symonds, ch. iii., p. 80 et seq.: —

        The Iliad therefore has for its whole subject the passion of Achilles — that ardent energy or μηνις of the hero which displayed itself first as anger against Agamemnon, and afterwards as love for the lost Patroclus. The truth of this was perceived by one of the greatest poets and profoundest critics of the modern world, Dante. When Dante, in the Inferno, wished to describe Achilles, he wrote, with characteristic brevity:  
                  Che per amore al fine combatteo.”

                  Who at the last was brought to fight by love.”)

        In this pregnant sentence Dante sounded the whole depth of the Iliad. The wrath of Achilles for Agamemnon, which prevented him at first from fighting; the love of Achilles, passing the love of women, for Patroclus, which induced him to forego his anger and to fight at last; these are the two poles on which the Iliad turns.

    After his quarrel with Agamemnon, not even all the losses of the Greeks and the entreaties of Agamemnon himself will induce Achilles to fight — not till Patroclus is slain by Hector — Patroclus, his dear friend “whom above all my comrades I honored, even as myself.” Then he rises up, dons his armor, and driving the Trojans before him revenges himself on the body of Hector. But Patroclus lies yet unburied; and when the fighting is over, to Achilles comes the ghost of his dead friend: —

        The son of Peleus, by the shore of the roaring sea lay, heavily groaning, surrounded by his Myrmidons; on a fair space of sand he lay, where the waves lapped the beach. Then slumber took him, loosing the cares of his heart, and mantling softly around him, for sorely wearied were his radiant limbs with driving Hector on by windy Troy. There to him came the soul of poor Patroclus, in all things like himself, in stature, and in the beauty of his eyes and voice, and on the form was raiment like his own. He stood above the hero's head, and spake to him: —

            Sleepest thou, and me hast thou forgotten, Achilles? Not in my life wert thou neglectful of me, but in death. Bury me soon, that I may pass the gates of Hades. Far off the souls, the shadows of the dead, repel me, nor suffer me to join them on the river bank; but, as it is, thus I roam around the wide-doored house of Hades. But stretch to me thy hand I entreat; for never again shall I return from Hades when once ye shall have given me the meed of funeral fire. Nay, never shall we sit in life apart from our dear comrades and take counsel together. But me hath hateful fate enveloped — fate that was mine at the moment of my birth. And for thyself, divine Achilles, it is doomed to die beneath the noble Trojan's wall. Another thing I say to thee, and bid thee do it if thou wilt obey me: — lay not my bones apart from thine, Achilles, but lay them together; for we were brought up together in your house, when Mencœtius brought me, a child, from Opus to your house, because of woeful bloodshed on the day in which I slew the son of Amphidamas, myself a child, not willing it but in anger at our games. Then did the horseman, Peleus, take me, and rear me in his house, and cause me to be called thy squire. So then let one grave also hide the bones of both of us, the golden urn thy goddess-mother gave to thee.

    Him answered swift-footed Achilles: —

            Why, dearest and most honoured, hast thou hither come, to lay on me this thy behest? All things most certainly will I perform, and bow to what thou biddest. But stand thou near: even for one moment let us throw our arms upon each other's neck, and take our fill of sorrowful wailing.

        So spake he, and with his outstretched hands he clasped, but could not seize. The spirit, earthward, like smoke, vanished with a shriek. Then all astonished arose Achilles, and beat his palms together, and spake a piteous word: —

            Heavens! is there then, among the dead, soul and the shade of life, but thought is theirs no more at all? For through the night the soul of poor Patroclus stood above my head, wailing and sorrowing loud, and bade me do his will ; it was the very semblance of himself.

        So spake he, and in the hearts of all of them he raised desire of lamentation; and while they were yet mourning, to them appeared rose-fingered dawn about the piteous corpse. Iliad, xxiii. 59 et seq.

PLATO in the Symposium dwells tenderly on this relation between Achilles and Patroclus: —

        [And great] was the reward of the true love of Achilles towards his lover Patroclus - his lover and not his love (the notion that Patroclus was the beloved one is a foolish error into which Æschylus has fallen, for Achilles was surely the fairer of the two, fairer also than all the other heroes; and, as Homer informs us, he was still beardless, and younger far). And greatly as the gods honor the virtue of love, still the return of love on the part of the beloved to the lover is more admired and valued and rewarded by them, for the lover has a nature more divine and worthy of worship. Now Achilles was quite aware, for he had been told by his mother, that he might avoid death and return home, and live to a good old age, if he abstained from slaying Hector. Nevertheless he gave his life to revenge his friend, and dared to die, not only on his behalf, but after his death. Wherefore the gods honored him even above Alcestis, and sent him to the Islands of the Blest. Symposium, speech of Phædrus, trans. by B. Jowett.

And on this passage Symonds has the following note: —

        Plato, discussing the Myrmidones of Æschylus, remarks in the Symposium that the tragic poet was wrong to make Achilles the lover of Patroclus, seeing that Patroclus was the elder of the two, and that Achilles was the youngest and most beautiful of all the Greeks. The fact however is that Homer raises no question in our minds about the relation of lover and beloved. Achilles and Patroclus are comrades. Their friendship is equal. It was only the reflective activity of the Greek mind, working upon the Homeric legend by the light of subsequent custom, which introduced these distinctions. The Greek Poets, ch. iii. p. 103.

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