Big-budget Oliver Stone epic revives age-old question that has rocked the world: Was Alexander the Great gay?
Was Alexander the Great gay?
How often have you heard that question almost as old as time itself?
Perhaps one day the world will find out when exactly Nicole Kidman will have reached movie legend status. Or the difference between a Spanish and a Mexican/Caribbean transvestite. But will we ever come to know the appropriate label for Alexander the Great’s sexual orientation?
To the best of our knowledge, there are no Joan Collins, Lauren Bacall, or Gael García Bernal quotes on the matter, but a group of Greek attorneys have been quite vocal about their opinion of U.S. filmmaker Oliver Stone’s $150 million epic Alexander, starring a seemingly bisexual Colin Farrell as the youthful Macedonian ruler (356–323 BCE) who conquered most of the world known to the ancient Greeks.
Alexander the Great gay? No way, claim outraged Greek attorneys
Some 21st-century Greeks, it seems, abhor the very thought that the megalomaniac warrior was sexually attracted to men. In their view, Alexander the Great must have been 100 percent heterosexual; else, how could he have conquered anything?
Yet Alexander dares to portray the title character as (Oliver Stone’s idea of) a “bisexual” of sorts.
Here’s a quote by the reported leader of said group of inflamed Greek attorneys, pitting the real-life Alexander the Great against Oliver Stone’s Alexander the movie:
“We are not saying that we are against gays, but we are saying that the production company should make it clear to the audience that this film is pure fiction and not a true depiction of the life of Alexander. … We have not seen the film[,] but from the information we have … there are references to his alleged homosexuality, a fact that is in no historical document or archive on Alexander. Either they make it clear that this is a work of fiction or we will take the case further.”
The Alexander-Hephaestion connection
So, was Alexander the Great gay or not?
Despite what the Greek attorneys claim, historians themselves aren’t sure whether he was sexually attracted to men, women, both, or whatever else.
His three wives notwithstanding, Alexander did enjoy an intimate relationship – how intimate remains a topic of dispute – with his right-hand man, Macedonian nobleman Hephaestion (ca. 356 BCE – 324 BCE), played by Jared Leto in Stone’s film.
In The History of Alexander, Roman “historian” Quintus Curtius Rufus (possibly a nom de plume, ca. 1st-century CE) thus describes the Alexander-Hephaestion relationship:
“Hephaestion was by far the dearest of all the king’s friends; he had been brought up with Alexander and shared all his secrets. No other person was privileged to advise the king as candidly as he did, and yet he exercised that privilege in such a way that it seemed granted by Alexander rather than claimed by Hephaestion. While he was the king’s age, in stature he was his superior, and so the [local Persian] queens took him to be the king and did obeisance before him after their manner. Whereupon some of the captive eunuchs pointed out the real Alexander, and Sisigambis [mother of Darius III of Persia] flung herself at his feet, apologizing for not recognizing him on the ground she had never before seen him. Raising her with his hand, Alexander said ‘My lady, you made no mistake. This man is Alexander too.’”
The Greek historian Arrian of Nicomedia (ca. 86 CE – ca. 160 CE) adds that at the time of Hephaestion’s death at age 32 (possibly from typhoid fever), Alexander “flung himself on the body of his friend and lay there nearly all day long in tears, and refused to be parted from him until he was dragged away by force.”
Eight months later, the 32-year-old Alexander would himself be dead possibly after contracting either typhoid fever or malaria.
Something else: Unlike many (most?) modern Greeks (and others elsewhere) and long before the publication of Alfred Kinsey, Wardell B. Pomeroy, and Clyde E. Martin’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, some ancient Greek cultures (there wasn’t just one) saw homoeroticism as “natural” and not necessarily requiring of a label.
That means questions such as “Was Alexander the Great gay (or bisexual or straight or what-have-you)?” wouldn’t have crossed their minds. At least not in these terms.
Lastly, can any attorney, in Greece or anywhere else on the planet, “take the case further” when the case in question relates to the sexual orientation of someone who lived nearly 2,500 years ago?
And wouldn’t any attorney know that?
Big-screen predecessor ignored gay angle
Alexander’s best-known big-screen predecessor is Robert Rossen’s 1956 Alexander the Great, which, understandably, opted to ignore the “Was Alexander the Great gay?” question.
A sullenly macho Richard Burton starred in the title role, with Fredric March as Alexander’s father, Philip II; Danielle Darrieux as his mother, Olympias; and Claire Bloom as the Persian-Rhodian beauty Barsine (not seen in the 2004 movie).
Spanish actor Ricardo Valle was cast as a beefy, darkly handsome, and all but insignificant Hephaestion.
Besides Jared Leto, also supporting Colin Farrell in Oliver Stone’s 2004 epic are Angelina Jolie and Val Kilmer as Alexander’s parents – of, thus far, unclear sexual orientation – in addition to Rosario Dawson as one of Alexander’s wives, the Bactrian princess Roxane; Anthony Hopkins as the Old Ptolemy; and Christopher Plummer as Aristotle.
“Was Alexander the Great Gay?” notes
Greek attorney’s quote via the Sydney Morning Herald.
Quintus Curtius Rufus’ description of Hephaestion is found in the 2004 edition of The History of Alexander, translated by John Yardley, with commentary by Waldemar Heckel.
The Arrian of Nicomedia quote is found in the 1994 edition of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward the Second, edited by Charles R. Forker.
Colin Farrell and Jared Leto Alexander image: Warner Bros.
“Was Alexander the Great Gay?” last updated in May 2023.