Before Alexander the Great forged his continent-spanning empire, there was his father, Philip II of Macedon. While not as flashy of a military boy wonder, Philip had his own share of sizable military victories, triumphing over the Sacred Band of Thebes and coining the phrase “divide and conquer”; he even perfected the phalanx, a formation instrumental to his successes. His grip on mineral resources gave him the wealth to elevate his rule into a full monarchy, then unusual for Greece. Alexander inherited and executed his plans after Philip fell to assassination, the details of which make for a historiography question.
Accounts of Philips death are consistent (he was murdered by a former bodyguard) but the motives vary from one account to another. Aristotle, Philip’s contemporary, claims that Philip’s father-in-law offended the assassin, and other historians believe that Alexander and his mother were involved. The third prevailing theory (and the reason Philip is included in this blog) is a complicated story of revenge, wherein Philip and the bodyguard had once been lovers. If true, it would suggest that Philip was as bisexual as his son.
The Grecian “Father of the Gods and Men” gained his title after freeing his siblings from their cannibalistic father’s digestive tract, then banishing him and his fellow Titans to the underworld. As he is a mythological figure, there are no shortage of tales and variations on his deeds: Wikipedia’s list reads like a series of Chuck Norris jokes, with each legend more outrageous than the last. (“When Hera gave birth to Hephaestus, Zeus threw him off the top of Mount Olympus because of his repulsive appearance.”)
Zeus’s extensive (and often upsetting) sexual history is a story in itself. The mating practices of the Greek gods combined the drama of a human soap opera with the fantastical, creating scandals like the birth of Athena, goddess of wisdom, who sprung fully-formed from Zeus’s head after he swallowed her mother whole. Nowadays Zeus might be classified as bisexual because his liaisons included the pedaristic relationship he shared with Ganymede, the world’s most handsome boy, whose Latin name Catamitus was the origin for the term catamite. (Interestingly, Zeus also plays a pivotal role in Plato’s speech on the origin of love in his Symposium, in which he inadvertently creates both hetero- and homosexuality, along with the opening number of the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch.)
The poet whose name gave rise to ‘sapphic’, a 19th century term for lesbian love ( taken from her home island of Lesbos), is remembered through a combination of her fragmented writings and secondhand accounts from her literary contemporaries and successors, including Plato. (And, as is the way of romantic historical figures, from a panned film that uses her life as a framing device.) She was likely educated as part of an aristocratic upbringing and married into wealth, which allowed her to compose the lyric poetry for which she became famous.
Sappho poses an unusual historiographic challenge in that, despite being the iconic Classical lesbian, it is difficult to determine if she was even sapphic herself. How much of her poetry can be taken as autobiographical fact is, excepting details like her daughter that were independently verified, a matter of interpretation. She did participate in a thiasos, the Classical equivalent of a romantic tension-charged women’s book club, and wrote erotic works about women, but debate exists as to whether or not they depict lesbian relationships, and men were also featured as subjects of poetic lust. Barring the discovery of new historical documents, Sappho will remain tagged only as ‘Historiography Saturday’.
A selection of Sappho’s poetry is available here and on numerous other websites.
Boasting astonishing physical, mental, and sexual prowess, Heracles (his original Greek name) was the paragon of fictional heroism. Over the course of his Twelve Labors he captures and slays a full menagerie of mythical beasts and cleans out the raunchiest stables in all the Mediterranean, then moves on to joining the quest for the Golden Fleece, which he ditches after his love affair with a male companion takes a tragic turn – a common thread in his stories, as curses from the goddess Hera repeatedly force him to kill those he loves the most. (She had ample cause for complaint: he was born after her philandering husband Zeus tricked a mortal woman into sex by pretending to be her husband, and – after another round of trickery, this time from Athena – Heracles nursed from Hera so violently that her breast milk sprayed into the sky and formed the Milky Way.)
Heracles’s legendary accomplishments are far too extensive to list in a short blog post, and his list of lovers poses a similar problem. Following one of his Labors he – no pun intended – impregnated 49 women in a single night. His same-sex affairs were celebrated, to the point where one of his lovers was worshipped alongside him by the Thebans; King Eurystheus, for whom he performed the Labors, is treated in some interpretations as his lover as well.