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An olive pit, a lyre, a fig

Unravelling the queer-coding of the Iliad and its representation in modern retellings.

The final words of Madeline Miller’s 2011 historical fiction novel The Song of Achilles read as follows: 

In the darkness, two shadows, reaching through the hopeless, heavy dusk. Their hands meet, and light spills in a flood, like a hundred golden urns pouring out the sun. 

As my eyes scanned these italicised letters, and my mind’s eye formed their images, I realised I had never felt so satisfied by a queer narrative. I broke the spine of this paperback into submission, I pried pages away from the glue of their binding for want of getting a closer look, and other pages still I stained with tears and graphite.

A modern retelling of Homer’s Iliad, the novel follows the lives of Achilles and Patroclus as they grow up and grow together as friends, comrades in the Trojan War, and lovers. Confined to closed quarters, their love as written by Miller is a true masterpiece of language and representation. The success of this novel, speaking both personally and to its 10,000 weekly sales since its resurgence on BookTok, led me to consider the ways in which this adaptation uplifts queer-coded elements woven ampongst Homer’s original text, that have been erased and overlooked in other modern retellings. 

Throughout modernity it has been the generally accepted position that Achilles and Patroclus were outstanding ‘friends,’ and nothing more. However, Gender Studies and Queer Theorist David Halpern, writes that though Homer does not explicitly depict the pair as lovers, he also “did little to rule out such an interpretation.” One then has to wonder, does this ambiguity contribute to an intentional ‘queer coding’ of the epic, or is it merely inconsequential? Personally, I favour the former and I suppose Miller did too. 

Perhaps even more problematically for the Patrochilles naysayers, is that this ambiguity throughout Homer’s original epic is really not that ambiguous. 

Achilles is callous and aggressive to everyone but Patroclus, to whom he is tender and attentive. As noted by scholar W. M. Clarke, no other character in the epic is described so frequently in relation to their companionship with another, as Patroclus is to Achilles. Patroclus is frequently and regularly referred to as “[Achilles’] dearest companion.” 

Perhaps the most damning evidence for their love — spoiler alert for thousands of years old mythology — is Achilles’ response to Patroclus’s death. Entirely unraveled, he is inconsolable and driven to avenge Patroclus at the expense of his own life. 

ACHILLES: “For I have no wish to live and linger in the world of men, unless, before all else, Hector is hit by my spear and dies, paying the price for slaughtering Patroclus…”

THETIS: “You are doomed to die immediately after Hector—”

ACHILLES: “Then let me die immediately.”

Notably, there are also extensive parallels between the behaviour of Andromache when her husband Hector dies, and Achilles when Patroclus dies. Both fall to the floor after hearing of their deaths, their hair falls over their faces and they hold the heads of the deceased. I see these parallels as suggestive of the role shared between Hector and Patroclus: lovers of Andromache and Achilles. Achilles responds similarly to Andromache because they both loved the deceased they mourn over. 

This behaviour is largely ignored by modern scholars; Clarke believes believes that it sets their relationship apart from others, where it  “goes beyond all precedents for companionship set by the Iliad.” In comparison, the relationship between Odysseus and Diomedes is entirely business-like and heroic, not homo-heroic. 

Finally, Achilles requests that their ashes be buried together. 

“My dearest companion, Patroclus, who was more to me than any other of my men, whom I loved as much as my own life.” 

***

The undefined nature of their relationship is a question as old as the tale itself, as is its divisiveness in the public domain. In the 4th and 5th centuries BC, many philosophers wrote and portrayed the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus as romantic. This can be observed in Plato’s Symposium where the pair are used as an exemplar of divine lovers — it was clearly an interpretation that appealed to many in this period of history, although there were some dissenters, such as Xenophon in his own Symposium

There is surely no harm in historical retellings that write their characters to be queer — especially when there is significant scholarship surrounding it, and affirming it — but there is, however, harm in categorically denying the potential queerness of these figures. Choosing to ignore queer histories, even where uncertain, directly contributes to the erasure that damages queer communities today.  I speak specifically to the 2004 movie adaption of the Iliad, ‘Troy’, in which Patroclus is written as Achilles’ younger cousin, and any ambiguity of queerness present in the Iliad is eliminated. 

***

With a Bachelors and Masters Degree in Latin and Ancient Greek from Brown University; Miller’s scholarly voice shines through the murk and brings us a story of queer love to be proud of. Regardless of the truth behind the myth of Achilles and Patroclus, Miller’s adaption displays critical engagement with Homer’s Iliad. And, I for one, am glad there is finally a modern work that shows the other side of the story because the world is (and has been) ready for an openly queer Achilles and Patroclus. 

The olive pit, the lyre, the fig. All tender themes and moments in Miller’s novel that are veiled with gentle, queer-coded love — I implore you to go read them yourself.

“He is half of my soul, as the poets say.”