three pairs of lovers with space

A review of Alexander's Lovers by Andrew Chugg, 2006

 

                   First edition

Original and mostly excellent  ****

The title sounds promisingly fun, and so indeed is this riveting collection of biographies of the individuals with whom Alexander the Great had love affairs.  But it is much more.  As an exhaustive and scholarly study of these affairs, closely argued from apparently every surviving piece of ancient evidence, it is the best sourcebook there is on not only the individuals concerned, but on what love meant to Alexander, which is to say a great deal.  Even the most serious students of the great one cannot fail to find interesting new food for thought here.

I was initially sceptical encountering a book with this title, knowing how often writers have  represented Alexander's love life as they personally would like it to have been, mostly divided by opposing desires either to dismiss the strong evidence of his affairs with other males or to promote him as an idol for the modern gay cause.  Admirably, Chugg does nothing of the sort.  Alexander was romantically typical of ancient Greeks in enjoying passionate love with both women and boys without any sense of contradiction.  This seems to be incomprehensible to many modernists who cannot imagine life without a fixed sexual orientation, but not to Chugg:  he rightly does not even address the misguided question of Alexander's sexual preferences, but presents him as he surely saw himself, a unique individual untrammeled by such preconceptions.

Statue of Alexander from Alexandria

I suspect Chugg has been much more influenced by Mary Renault's writings about Alexander than might be supposed from his two brief references to her.  Besides sharing Renault's (and my) extremely high estimation of Alexander, he has picked up and expanded on many of her specific interpretations.  One moment when Renault did disappoint me though, as a fervent admirer, was in her abrupt and ill-considered dismissal of Herakles as a genuine bastard son of Alexander by Barsine.  It was so uncharacteristically unreasonable that I'm afraid I suspect her of succumbing to homosexual bias:  she portrayed his marriages convincingly, but the idea that Alexander was sufficiently enthusiastic about the opposite sex to maintain a mistress as well was apparently too much for her to stomach.  Not so Chugg, who shows the evidence for Herakles's paternity to be irrefutable, as well as insisting on the genuineness of Alexander's love for individuals of both sexes.

Alexander and his boyhood special friend Hephaistion sacrificing at Troy, by A. Castaigne

My only serious criticism is his unjustified representation of  Hephaistion, whom I do not think anyone disputes was the great love of Alexander's life,  as sexually intimate with him until death, rather than until manhood.  There is not the slightest evidence for this and it runs counter to every expectation arising from what is known of Greek homosexual love affairs: that they were between adolescent boys and either men or other boys, and, however intense and lifelong the love they generated, the sexual component dropped away as the boy became a man.  In the case of Alexander and Hephaistion , critical evidence comes from the description of Hephaistion by Justin in his Epitome of Trogus (XII 12 xi). Chugg translates this as "a favourite of Alexander's, firstly because of his good looks and boyish charms, then for his absolute devotion to the King", which he makes the basis of a claim that the adult Hephaistion looked boyish.  J. S. Watson translated it very differently as "a great favourite with Alexander, at first on account of his personal qualities in youth, and afterwards from his servility," which I say is far more accurate (though still a bit off in translating "pueritia" as youth rather than boyhood).  Surely Justin's point was that the nature of their love changed?  Moreover, in a fine analysis of Alexander's sexual apathy towards women as a teenager, Chugg shows convincingly that the most likely cause was his sexual involvement with Hephaistion.  But how by this logic can he avoid concluding from the contrary enthusiasm the adult Alexander expressed for the charms of both women and boys that he was no longer thus distracted by Hephaistion?  Finally, if the two were really sexually involved until death, and as open about it as Chugg claims, one of them would have been regarded as what the Greeks termed a "kinaidos" (invert), and it would be inconceivable that none of the several ancient writers who were hostile to Alexander would have said so.  This issue matters very much because it leads Chugg to conclude that Alexander's love life was "exotic" by modern standards because it encompassed women and men.  It did not.  It encompassed in an unusually high-minded manner women and boys, something different and far more challenging for the modern imagination.

Amongst a few minor blemishes, it may be worth mentioning that Chugg is often repetitious, and that numerous fine paintings illustrating the story are cheaply  rendered as little black and white images.  I expect the latter was for understandable reasons of economy, since the book is self-published.  What is harder to understand is why such an interesting and scholarly contribution to our understanding could not find a trade publisher.

 

Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on Goodreads.com, 2 May 2015