Little is known of Hephaestion’s personal relationships, beyond his extraordinarily close friendship with Alexander The Great. Alexander was outgoing, charismatic man, who had many friends, but his dearest and closest friend and confidant was Hephaestion. Theirs was a friendship which had been forged in boyhood. It endured through adolescence, through Alexander’s becoming a king, through the hardships of campaigning and the flatteries of court life, and their marriages.
Their tutor, Aristotle, described such a friendship as “..one soul abiding in two bodies”. That they themselves considered their friendship to be of such a kind is shown by the stories of the morning ater the battle of Issus. Diodorus, Arrian and Curtius all describe the scene, when Alexander and Hephaestion went together to visit the captured Persian royal family. Its senior member, the queen Sisygambis, knelt to Hephaestion to plead for their lives, mistaking him for Alexander, because he was taller, and both young men were wearing similar clothes. When she realised her mistake, she was acutely embarrassed, but Alexander reassured her with the words, “You were not mistaken, Mother; this man too is Alexander”. Their love for each other was no secret, as is borne out by their own words. Hephaestion, when replying to a letter to Alexander’s mother, Olympias, said “..you know that Alexander means more to us than anything”. Arrian says that Alexander, after Hephaestion’s death, described him as “..the friend i valued as my own life”. Paul Cartladge describes their closeness when he says: “Alexander seems actually to have referred to Hephaestion’s as his alter ego”.
Their friendship was also a working partnership; in all that Alexander undertook, Hephaestion was at his side. They worked well together; it is possible to discern a pattern, when studying Hephaestion’s career, of Alexander’s constant trust in, and increasing reliance on Hephaestion. By the time of the advance into India, after the deaths of senior generals from the older generation, there had been worrying instances among senior officers of their own generation, of treachery, a lack of sympathy with Alexander’s aims of further integration of Persians into the army, and of sheer incompetence. Time ater time, when Alexander needed to divide his forces, he entrusted half to Hephaestion, knowing that in him he had a man of unquestionable loyalty, who understood and sympathised with his aims, and above all, who got the job done.
Hephaestion played a full part in Alexander’s regular consultations with senior officers, but he was the one to whom Alexander would also talk in private, sharing his thoughts, hopes and plans. Curtius states that Hephaestion was the sharer of all his secrets, and Plutarch describes an occasion when Alexander had a controversial change to impose, and implies that Hephaestion was the one with whom Alexander had discussed it, and who arranged or the change to be implemented. According to the painting done by Aetion, o Alexander’s first wedding, Hephaestion was his torch bearer (best man), showing by this not only his friendship, but also his support or Alexander’s policies, as Alexander’s choice of an Asian bride had not been a popular one. By the time they returned to Persia, Hephaestion was officially, by title, Alexander’s second in command, as he had long been in practice, and also his brother in law. Hammond sums up their public relationship well: “It is not surprising that Alexander was as closely attached to Hephaestion as Achilles was to Patroclus”, and “At the time of his death Hephaestion held the highest single command, that of the Companion Cavalry; and had been repeatedly second in command to Alexander in the hierarchy of the Asian court, holding the title o Chiliarch, which had been held by Nabarzanes under Darius. Thus Alexander honoured Hephaestion both as the closest o his friends and the most distinguished of his field marshals.”.
It has been suggested that as well as being close friends, Alexander and Hephaestion were also lovers. None of the ancient sources states this in so many words. By the time the extant sources were written, some three hundred years later, homosexual affairs were looked upon with less favour than they had been in ancient Greece, Horace speaks of the Greek vice, and so had already begun the process which has continued intermittently ever since, the “airbrushing” of Hephaestion out of history. However, Arrian describes the occasion when Alexander and Hephaestion publicly identified themselves with Achilles and Patroclus, who were acknowledged, by Plato and Aeschylus among others, to have been lovers. It happened right at the beginning of the campaign in Asia, when Alexander led a contingent of the army to visit Troy, scene of the events in his beloved Iliad. He laid a wreath on the tomb of Achilles, and Hephaestion laid a wreath on the tomb of Patroclus, and they ran a race, naked, to honour their dead heroes. Arrian discreetly draws no conclusions from this. However, Robin Lane Fox, writing in 1973, says: “It was a remarkable tribute, uniquely paid, and it is also Hephaestion’s first mention in Alexander’s career. Already the two were intimate, Patroclus and Achilles even to those around them; the comparison would remain to the end of their days and is proof of their life as lovers, for by Alexander’s time, Achilles and Patroclus were agreed to have enjoyed the relationship which Homer himself had never directly mentioned.”
Hephaestion and Alexander grew up in a time and place where homosexual affairs were seen as perfectly normal, but the pattern that such affairs followed was not the same in every city state. Roman and later writers, taking the Athenian pattern as their example, have tended to assume either that their sexual relationship belonged to their adolescence, after which they left it behind, or that one of them was older, the lover (erastes) and the other was the beloved (eromenos).
The former assumption has persisted to the present day, with writers of fiction, such as Mary Renault, and the film director Oliver Stone among its proponents, as well as modern historians such as Paul Cartledge, who says: “Rumour had it and rumour was for once surely correct that he (Hephaestion) and Alexander had once been more than just good friends.” Aelian takes the latter view when he uses just such an expression when describing the visit to Troy: “Alexander laid a garland on Achilles’ tomb and Hephaestion on Patroclus’, indicating that he was Alexander’s eromenos, as Patroclus was of Achilles.”
However, what was the case in Athens was not necessarily the case in Macedon. As Robin Lane Fox says, “… descendants of the Dorians were considered and even expected to be openly homosexual, especially among their ruling class, and the Macedonian kings had long insisted on their pure Dorian ancestry.” This was no fashionable affectation; this was something that belonged at the heart of what it was to be Dorian, and therefore Macedonian, and had more in common with the Theban Sacred Band than with Athens. In light of this, it is not surprising that there is evidence that their sexual relationship was indeed lifelong. Lucian, writing in his book On Slips of the Tongue describes an occasion when Hephaestion’s conversation one morning implied that he had been in Alexander’s tent all night, and Plutarch describes the intimacy between them when he tells how Hephaestion was in the habit of reading Alexander’s letters with him, and of a time when he showed that the contents of a letter were to be kept secret by touching his ring to Hephaestion’s lips. Diogenes of Sinope, in a letter written to Alexander when he was a grown man, accuses Alexander of being “… ruled by Hephaestion’s thighs.”
No other circumstance shows better the nature and length of their relationship than Alexander’s overwhelming grief at Hephaestion’s death. As Andrew Chugg says, “… it is surely incredible that Alexander’s reaction to Hephaestion’s death could indicate anything other than the closest relationship imaginable.”The many and varied ways, both spontaneous and planned, by which Alexander poured out his grief are detailed below. In the context of the nature of their relationship however, one stands out as remarkable. Arrian says that Alexander “… flung himself on the body of his friend and lay there nearly all day long in tears, and refused to be parted from him until he was dragged away by force by his Companions.”
Such an all-encompassing love often leaves little room for other affections. Hephaestion’s lover was also his best friend, his king, and his commanding officer, so it is not surprising that we hear of no other close friendships or attachments in his life. There is no evidence, however, that he was anything but popular and well liked among the group of Alexander’s close friends and Companions who had grown up together, and worked well together for so many years. It is possible that he was closest to Perdiccas, because it was with Perdiccas that he went on the mission to take Peuceolatis and bridge the Indus, and by that time, as Alexander’s effective second-in-command, he could doubtless have chosen any officer he cared to name.They accomplished everything they set out to do with great success, which indicates that the two of them worked well together, and that Hephaestion found the irrepressible Perdiccas a congenial companion. It is notable that their two cavalry regiments in particular were selected by Alexander for the dangerous crossing of the river Hydaspes, before the battle with the Indian king, Porus. On that occasion, superb teamwork would have been of paramount importance.
It would be wrong to imply that Hephaestion was universally liked or admired. Outside the close-knit coterie of the Macedonian high command, he had his enemies. This is clear from Arrian’s comment about Alexander’s grief: “All writers have agreed that it was great, but personal prejudice, for or against both Hephaestion and Alexander himself, has coloured the accounts of how he expressed it.”
However, given the factions and jealousies that arise in any court, and that Hephaestion was supremely close to the greatest monarch the western world had yet seen, it is remarkable how little enmity he inspired. Arrian mentions a quarrel with Alexander’s secretary, Eumenes, but because of a missing page in the text, the greater part of the detail is missing, leaving only the conclusion, that something persuaded Hephaestion, though against his will, to make up the quarrel. However, Plutarch, who wrote about Eumenes in his series of Parallel Lives, mentions that it was about lodgings, and a flute-player, so perhaps this was an instance of some deeper antagonism breaking out into a quarrel over a triviality. What that antagonism might have been, it is not possible to know, but someone with the closeness to the king of a secretary might well have felt some jealousy for Hephaestion’s even greater closeness.
In only one instance is Hephaestion known to have quarrelled with a fellow-officer, and that was with Craterus. In this instance, it is easier to see that resentment might have been felt on both sides, for Craterus was one of those officers who vehemently disliked Alexander’s policy of integrating Greek and Persian, whereas Hephaestion was very much in favour. Plutarch tells the story: “For this reason a feeling of hostility grew and festered between the two and they often came into open conflict. Once on the expedition to India they actually drew their swords and came to blows …”.Alexander, who also valued Craterus highly, as a most competent officer, was forced to intervene, and had stern words for both. It is a measure of how high feelings were running over this contentious issue, that such a thing should have happened, and also an indication of how closely Hephaestion identified Alexander’s wishes with his own. Hephaestion gave perhaps the ultimate proof of this in the summer of 324 BC, when he accepted as his wife, Drypetis, daughter of Darius and sister to Alexander’s own second wife, Stateira. Up till this time, Hephaestion’s name had never been linked with any woman, or indeed any man other than Alexander. Of his short married life, nothing is known, except that at the time of Alexander’s own death, eight months after Hephaestion’s, Drypetis was still mourning the husband to whom she had been married for only four months.
For Alexander to marry a daughter of Darius made good political sense, allying himself firmly with the Persian ruling class, but for Hephaestion to marry her sister shows the high esteem in which Alexander held him, bringing him into the royal family itself. They became brothers-in-law, and yet there was more to it than that. Alexander, says Arrian “… wanted to be uncle to Hephaestion’s children …”. Thus, it is possible to imagine Alexander and Hephaestion hoping that their respective offspring might unite their lines, and that ultimately, the crown of Macedon and Persia might be worn by one who was a descendant of them both.