Were Achilles and Patroclus cousins?

Published

Claim

Patroclus and Achilles, the main characters of the Homer’s epic poem the Iliad, were cousins.

Rating

Misleading

Explanation

The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, two warriors who fought and died in the legendary conflict known as the Trojan War, has fascinated audiences ever since their first appearance in Homer’s Iliad. Although in the earliest accounts Achilles and Patroclus feature mostly as devoted friends and brothers-in-arms, later ancient traditions added a homoerotic aspect to their bond, presenting the two heroes as lovers.

As stories about the Trojan War continue to capture the modern imagination in new cinematic and literary retellings, one idea that gained currency in popular discourse is that Achilles and Patroclus were close relatives. This can be credited mainly to Wolfgang Petersen’s Hollywood blockbuster film Troy (2004), where Achilles (played by Brad Pitt) was depicted as the older cousin and guardian of Patroclus (Garret Hedlund), removing hints of any romantic attachment between them.

While this was likely a deliberate move to cater to heterosexual audiences on the filmmakers’ part in the pre-Brokeback Mountain era in Hollywood, it does have some basis in the mythological genealogies of the Greek heroes.

An ancient lineage

According to their lineage, Achilles and Patroclus were related to each other through a nymph called Aegina. After being raped by Zeus, Aegina gave birth to Aeacus, whose son, Peleus, was the father of Achilles. The same Aegina also married a mortal man called Actor, whose son was Menoetius, the father of Patroclus. Based on this, Achilles and Patroclus were first-cousins once removed.

In addition, a more obscure tradition which is attributed to the poet Hesiod (a near contemporary of Homer), suggests that the heroes were direct cousins (F147 Catalogue of Women):

One should know that ancient history records that Patroclus was also a relative of Achilles, since it states that Hesiod says that Patroclus’ father Menoetius was Peleus’ brother, so that accordingly they were each other’s first cousins.

Despite the genealogical link between Achilles and Patroclus, it is important to note that the ancient sources depicting the heroes did not place any emphasis on their kinship; the latter, in fact, is hardly ever mentioned at all. Instead, the main focus of their relationship is always based on their unique bond of friendship, irrespective of any familial ties, and of central importance to the narrative of Homer’s Iliad.

Close friends

In the Iliad, Patroclus is depicted as the dearest friend and companion of Achilles. The two grew up together in the court of Achilles’ father Peleus, to which Patroclus was exiled as a child after killing another boy in a fit of rage over a game of knucklebones (23.84–90). Although Patroclus is the elder of the two, he is considered inferior to Achilles, as summed up in a speech by Menoetius to his son (Il. 11.785-788):

My child, by right of blood Achilles is higher than you are, but you are the elder. Yet in strength he is far the greater. You must speak solid words to him, and give him good counsel, and point his way. If he listens to you it will be for his own good.

The epic highlights the close bond between Achilles and Patroclus in numerous passages. Even though their relationship is defined in traditional terms of comradeship (e.g. hetairos, therapon), the emotional attachment between Achilles to Patroclus is unparalleled compared to other warriors in the poem.

Its depth and intensity comes to the forefront following the death of Patroclus, which sees Achilles exact brutal revenge on his killer – the Trojan prince Hector. To both ancient and modern audiences, the extent of Achilles’ grief over Patroclus reflects the depth of his love for his fallen companion. The final fate of the heroes is to be reunited in death as their bones are mingled together in a single urn (Il. 23.91–2; Od. 24.72–7).

A deeper connection?

The special bond between Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad is never depicted as deriving from shared kinship; Homer does not refer to Patroclus as Achilles’ kin (cousin or otherwise) – epic heroes are always introduced with their father’s name (patronymic). The nature of their relationship in the poem is instead based on an epic ideal of ‘intense male comradeship’ found in other Middle Eastern poems contemporary with the Iliad, as noted by Marco Fantuzzi (2012). Although the reason for the unique relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is not made explicit by Homer, its passion and emotional intensity led subsequent authors to suspect that there was a homoerotic element to it.

The notion of Achilles and Patroclus as lovers appeared first in a play by Aeschylus called Myrmidons, of which only fragments survive. In one of the scenes, Achilles mourns the death of his dead friend, reminiscing their physical intimacy and frequent kisses (Fr. 135).

An erotic interpretation of the bond between the heroes featured also in Plato, who referred to Patroclus as Achilles’ lover (erastes), setting their relationship in terms of pederastic love (Symp. 179e). Despite Homer’s lack of explicit remarks on the latter, the Athenian orator Aeschines suggested that the romantic nature of their bond can be glimpsed in his poems (Aesch. Tim. 142):

I will speak first of Homer, whom we rank among the oldest and wisest of the poets. Although he speaks in many places of Patroclus and Achilles, he hides their love and avoids giving a name to their friendship, thinking that the exceeding greatness of their affection is manifest to such of his hearers as are educated men.

Such interpretations, however, were not taken for granted; some writers were convinced that the friendship between the mythological heroes was not erotic in character. One of them was Xenophon, who maintained that their bond was based on comradeship only (Xen. Symp. 8.31):

Homer pictures us Achilles looking upon Patroclus not as the object of his passion but as a comrade, and in this spirit signally avenging his death.

The exact nature of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was therefore a matter of debate in ancient texts. Most often the interpretations offered varied depending on the agendas of individual authors; they could feature as part of discussions on the Greek ideal of pederasty, or discourses on love between comrades in the context of war. Since the story of Achilles and Patroclus belonged to the realm of mythology, it was open to different readings and interpretations, revealing of the attitudes and expectations of the subsequent generations of audiences engaging with the myth of the Trojan War.

Modern takes on the bond between the mythological heroes are no different. Some, like Petersen’s Troy (2004), might exclude the homoerotic elements; others, like Madeline Miller’s novel The Song of Achilles (2011) or the BBC series Troy: Fall of a City (2018), explore the idea of romantic love between Achilles and Patroclus in more detail. Myths, therefore, tell us as much about ourselves as they do about the ancient Greeks.

Conclusion

Although the claim that Achilles and Patroclus shared a bond of kinship does find some confirmation in the genealogies of the mythological heroes, ancient traditions depicting them as cousins were extremely marginal and insignificant. The relationship between the heroes was instead always defined either as exceptional male comradeship or romantic, homoerotic love.

For this reason, we have rated this claim as misleading.

Related claims

References

  • Horst-Dieter Blume, “Achilles and Patroclus in Troy”, in: Martin M. Winkler (ed.), Return to Troy: New Essays on the Hollywood Epic (2015), pp. 165-179.
  • W.M. Clarke, “Achilles and Patroclus in Love”, Hermes 106.3 (1978), pp. 381-396.
  • Marco Fantuzzi, Achilles in Love: Intertextual Studies (2012).
  • James Hooker, “Homer, Patroclus, Achilles”, Symbolae Osloenses 64.1 (1989), pp. 30-35.
  • Andreas Krass, “Over His Dead Body: Male Friendship in Homer’s Iliad and Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004)”, in: Almut-Barbara Renger and Jon Solomon (eds), Ancient Worlds in Film and Television: Gender and Politics (2012), pp. 153-173.