Classical literature, including Greek and Roman mythology, includes numerous examples of close male friendship. The specific perspective of the Greeks and Romans on same-sex relationships is supported by various mythological situations, where the hero must rely on the help of a trusted male companion or other such stories. The reason for such attitude can be found in the patriarchal culture and the dominant role of free adult males in the Greek and Roman social life. Moreover, male friendship was considered to be a positive concept for the society and was encouraged in the culture. This paper seeks to further expand this thesis and find examples in history and mythology to prove it.
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In Ancient Greece, the social order was largely patriarchal, which meant that the male social roles were often prevailing. Boys lived in women’s quarters but were obliged to attend the gymnasium with their peers to study various disciplines, including physical education. Although the culture of courting younger boys was socially accepted and even encouraged, adding to the concept of preparation for future manhood and war, sexual intercourse was not always the unique outcome of this practice.
As the boys were separated from the society of women, except their own family, until they were coming of age, the occurrences of strong and enduring friendships among peers or boys of different ages were inevitable. The meaning of friendly relations in the life of an adult Greek man was significant; in fact, according to Barry Powell, “in the Archaic and Classical Periods, a man divided his social relations into clear camps of friends and enemies; a man was measured by the richness of gifts to his friends and the thorough punishment he gave to his enemies.”1.
It was a friend to whom the man could turn to in the time of trouble and on whom he could always rely in search for help and support against his enemies. Such attitude has found its reflection in mythology. For example, the some of the most well-known myth where the hero relies on his closest friend includes the story of Achilles and Patroclus of Homer’s “Iliad” or Heracles and Iolaus in the myth of Heracles Twelve Deeds.
The pattern of the story usually follows the folklore and incorporates some specific patterns. Powell notes that in this case, the pattern would be such that the hero’s best and truest companion is always another male. Although the researchers still argue whether the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in Homer’s masterpiece was purely platonic, or they were actual lovers; still, it is evident that the emotions of both men were strong and tender, and the grief and rage of Achilles after Patroclus’ death could be easily explained from both points of view.
In ancient Rome, however, the concept of friendship did not change much from the views of Greeks but rather developed and extended it to other areas of social life. The idea of friendship in Rome also included specific types of relationships, such as patronage, where deference existed between unequal individuals. Friendships were formed due to usefulness, desire for camaraderie, or mutual affinity.
Sometimes in various researches, it is also mentioned that friendship in Rome, probably even more often than in Greece, was encouraged between comrades-in-arms who were thought to fight better with a friend by their side and avenge one’s death with double efforts, like mythological Achilles. Some of the stories depicting male friendship and relations include the myths about Nisus and Euryalus, the part of the “Aeneid” by Vergil, as well as Damon and Pythias, the legend, which was thought to describe an ideal friendship by Pythagoras. Another pair of friends who were sometimes mentioned in Roman literature was Orestes and Pylades, from the Greek myth of Orestes, son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon.
All of these myths illustrate the concept of friendship and devotion of male companions, who are willing to give their lives for each other and try to follow their friends everywhere in their quests. These relationships are also often doubted to be purely platonic by nature; however, homosexuality in Ancient Rome was a concept taken not as lightly as in Greece, although the so-called Greek way was popular during several periods of Roman history. Just like patronage, the idea of homosexual relations relied heavily on the paradigm of domination, and for a free adult male, it could be shameful to be engaged in such a relationship. It is difficult to distinguish the ancient descriptions of friendship and love relationship from the modern point of view, as the Western mindset was largely influenced by Christian culture and ideology.
The patterns and archetypes in ancient mythology have been similar for many cultures and time periods. The myths of Greece and Rome bear similarity with ones of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Middle East. Being highly patriarchal, these cultures would often pick the mythological patterns that could best serve the purposes of explaining the way things went in everyday life and of setting the right order of things in the mindset of every citizen.
However, this was not the only, and probably not the primary goal of male friendship pattern in mythology. Friendship and companionship, as well as love and devotion, were considered to be positive emotions, and usefulness to a companion was also able to ensure the stability of the society in general. The myths praised what was thought to be good and right, proposing the examples of true friendship that survived through the ages until the present day.
Powell, Barry. A Short Introduction to Classical Myth. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2002.
- Barry Powell, A Short Introduction to Classical Myth (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2002), 161.