Master of the Griselda Legend, Portrait of Alexander the Great (made 1494/5, acquired 1951), tempera on wood, 105.4 x 50.8 cm, currently in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts (Birmingham) (http://mimsy.bham.ac.uk/browser.php?m=objects&kv=100180&i=6021)
Object: Portrait of Alexander the Great
Maker: Master of the Griselda Legend
Date: Around 1494/5
Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as ‘Alexander the Great’, was King of the Ancient Kingdom of Macedon from 336–323 BCE. Considered among history’s most successful military commanders, he reportedly never lost a battle. By the age of thirty (30), he ruled one of the largest empires of the Ancient world.
Alexander married three times, at least once being more for personal than political motivations. However, most accounts of his life highlight his relationship with his friend, general and bodyguard Hephaestion as the closest and perhaps most significant of his life. The pair most likely met under the tutelage of Aristotle at Mieza, aged around thirteen/fourteen (13/14) years old, along with several other adolescent sons of high ranking noblemen. The closest of these contemporaries would eventually make up ‘The Companions’, Alexander’s most trusted friends and generals. Hephaestion was among this group, seemingly Alexander’s most intimate friend for most of his life. Though debate as to the exact nature of their relationship varies, it was undoubtedly an incredibly close one. Roman historian Curtius wrote Hephaestion was ‘by far the dearest of all the king’s friends; he had been brought up with Alexander and shared all his secrets’ and Aristotle supposedly once called the pair ‘one soul abiding in two bodies’.
Aristotle sparked Alexander’s interest in the works of Homer, particularly the Iliad, a passion which he shared with Hephaestion. He and Hephaestion aligned themselves with the figures of Achilles and Patroclus, who, as the Iliad tells, were a similarly intensely bonded pair. When visiting Troy, they garlanded the tome of Achilles and Patroclus together. Debate continues over whether Alexander and Hephaestion’s relationship was a romantic and/or physical one, though calling it a normal ‘friendship’ seems a vastly unfair reduction.
Hephaestion’s death in 324 BCE struck Alexander undeniably hard. Some reports claim he flung himself on the body and lay there a day and night in tears, refusing to be parted from Hephaestion until he was dragged away by force by his Companions. Another claims he had his doctor, Glaucias, executed for his supposed lack of care in allowing Hephaestion to succumb to illness.
Afterward, Alexander saw that Hephaestion had the highest of honours in his funeral ceremonies at Babylon. Alexander also petitioned the oracle at Siwa to grant Hephaestion divine status. Reportedly, he asked for the right to honour Hephaestion as a God, but he was granted instead the status of Divine Hero. Hephaestion thus saw a Hero’s rites and shires in his name.
Alexander lived only eight months longer himself. His mental and physical health seemed to decline rapidly in the wake of his loss. Many have speculated as to the contribution of his grief to his state of health and eventual death.
It is highly likely Alexander was (by modern terms) gay, bisexual, pansexual or otherwise queer. His relationship with Hephaestion, certainly, has become iconic within queer historic canon, regardless of the labels one may apply to either men.