Alexander and Hephaistion are a great love story. I don’t mean romantic love (eros), although maybe they had that too, at least as boys. I mean theirs is a true LOVE story (philia).
“Philalexandros” is the name Alexander gave Hephaistion, at least according to Plutarch (Alex. 47.5), who adds it wasn’t a one-time clever come-back to supporters of Krateros (Hephaistion’s chief rival at court). Apparently he used it a lot (Plutarch uses "frequently"). It translates as “Lover of Alexander,” in contrast to Krateros as “Lover of the king” (Philobasileus).
The word used here for love, “philia,” often gets translated as “friendship,” but that doesn’t do it justice. To the Greeks, philia stood above eros, or simple desire. One could eros a boy, a woman, or a well-cooked piece of tuna. They used it much as we use “love” today. But philia was reserved for people, or one’s city-state, or perhaps ideals. Philia was assumed to be of longer standing, if not as fiery. The poets cry out that they’re “sick” with eros. The same language isn’t used of philia. So Alexander is saying that Krateros loves/respects his position as king. But Hephaistion loves Alexander, the man. In another story, where one of the Persian royal women accidentally bows to Hephaistion, not Alexander, and is embarrassed, Alexander replies with, "He is Alexander, too." (See the illustration above [Curt. 3.12.17]).
That’s what I find of interest. How many of history’s most powerful men (or women) had a true best friend? Someone s/he trusted above all others to love him for him/herself? It’s not unique, but it is rare. Power usually kills trust, and I think it did kill Alexander’s trust in a lot of those around him. But not his trust in Hephaistion.
One can question aspects of this legendary friendship. Afterall, we have multiple issues with our original sources. Some issues that pop up like dandelions in spring:
1) Were they really boyhood friends, or is that a later assumption/insertion?
2) Was the Achilles/Patroklos trope one they used themselves, or was it made up by later Roman-era authors (esp. Arrian) seeking to flatter imperial patrons? Or maybe they used it once or twice, but it got padded and blown up by later authors?
3) (The Million Dollar Question) Were they really lovers, or just Bromance Buddies?
All are legitimate questions. My own answers are 1) I think they were, 2) it was probably exaggerated later (Alexander did court Achilles comparisons), and 3) yes, at least when they were boys, but who knows later and it doesn’t really matter to their mutual affection. I tend to be less skeptical about Hephaistion’s importance to Alexander in general, although I remain carefully cautious about the exact nature of that tie (whether ever sexual or not).
The thing is…it didn’t matter. And that’s what I want to elevate on this Valentine’s Day. One of the best historical love stories I know isn’t about romantic love of the sexual variety.
It’s about the most powerful man in his section of the world at the time with a friend he genuinely trusted, even when he’d become paranoid about virtually everyone else. When Alexander lost Hephaistion to some sort of febrile illness, he grieved not unlike a spouse who’d lost a long-time partner, and died about ten months later. If he didn’t die of a broken heart, I’ve argued elsewhere his death wasn’t unrelated to his profound grief (w/ Eugene N. Borza, "Some New Thoughts on the Death of Alexander the Great," The Ancient World 31.1 (2000) 1-9). Alexander speaks of Hephaistion as “more important than my own head.” That’s some serious importance.
It can be tempting for historians to get cynical about our subject matter, or about our sources—not unfairly. Doing real history tends to burst bubbles and quash romantic notions about people in the past. History is not myth, and whatever myths Alexander wanted to perpetrate about himself, that statue had clay feet. Very porous clay feet.
But true love does exist, and some people are lucky enough to find it. I think Alexander was one of the lucky ones. He had a true love and loyal friend.
So on Valentine’s Day, I wanted to celebrate a real historical love story that wasn’t necessarily romantic (eros). Maybe they had romantic love, too; I find it possible, if also impossible to corroborate from the state of our evidence.
Yet it was the love born of long-standing friendship, philia, that sat foremost. This love was remembered and remarked on by both their contemporaries as well as later authors.
And that's pretty romantic.
And that's pretty romantic.