Alexander the Great or the Straight?

We seem to be returning to Ancient Greece for our film plots. The latest entry in this genre, Alexander, being an Oliver Stone film, has stirred up some controversy. And it’s not just about Colin Farrell’s silly wig, or Angelina Jolie’s portraying his mum when she’s only a year older (makes a turnaround from all those 35 year old teenagers in Beverley Hills 90210.)

Twenty-five Greek lawyers are suing Oliver Stone for depicting Alexander the Great as gay, or at least, bisexual.

So what’s the deal here? E.M. Forster enjoyed himself translating the passages from Classical authors which were normally ignored during Oxbridge tutorials with the phrase “omit reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks” or expurgated, but still couldn’t bring himself to publish Maurice during his life time. Is the same sort of thing going on?

Interviewed in the press, Oxford historian Robin Lane Fox –

has said homosexuality was a part of the pre-Christian Greek world, “well established, and sanctioned by state and cultural norms, especially the relationships between older men and teens.

That’s true. Well, partially.

As readers of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality or sometime UNSW Sociologist David Halperin’s One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: And Other Essays on Greek Love will know, the modern constructs of homosexuality and heterosexuality were an invention of the late 19th century. Prior to that, in Western Christian culture, sodomy was a sin, but there was no belief that a preference for male to male sex indelibly marked one’s entire identity, or one’s soul. As Fox points out, sex between older men and younger men was not only entirely normal in Ancient Greek culture, but actually encouraged. The sexual culture distinguished rather between active and passive roles. Male citizens could have active sex with women or slaves, but it was degrading for them to take on the passive role. For this reason, men and young men did not have penetrative sex. I don’t know if that comes across in the sex scenes in Alexander.

Aside from the issues of homophobia that might be raised, is what we are seeing here a refusal to understand Classical Greece in its cultural specificity, so used are we to seeing it as the noble precursor of our civilisation?

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

Technically Alexander was a Macedonian not a Greek however in raising this I will be disowned since My grat Grandfather on mum’s side was supposedly the first Greek immigrant to Australia!

saint
2022 years ago

Oh I don’t know. I was in Greece around the time of the Euro cup. A cabbie proceeded to tell me how he had just told off a male customer who was creeping him out until he realised he was gay and making eyes at him. He then informed me that 25% of the Greek male population was gay and hid it, another 25% was gay and out, another 25% was gay and married with children but played on the side (the worst type according to him) and only 25% of the Greek male population, including him, was straight unadulterated male.

AFter whingeing about advances by men, he then went onto a diatribe about the difficulty of finding a good woman , because they were all only interested in men who could provide them with good times and lots of money.

He had studied in England, and with low job prospects in his field in Greece – hence the cab driving – and a cousin in Melbourne (surprise) was thinking of emigrating. Not just because of the better job prospects, but also to get away from the men and maybe find himself a good woman.

He then asked me about Australian women. I cheekily albeit truthfully began my answer with: oh I dunno, most of the women I work with at the moment are lesbians.

Norman
Norman
2022 years ago

In this case, the [mythical] Homer’s advice would be, “There’s no need to beware Greeks bearing law suits”. No one could argue seriously that the evidence suggested Aleaxander was exclusively heterosexual; and the Ancient Greeks didn’t even consider him to be a Greek.
Clearly posymodernist “thinking” thrives in modern Greeece.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

It’s weird – I can’t see how a group of Greek lawyers would be accorded standing to sue on behalf of Alexander the Great or Greeks generally in a US court!

harry
harry
2022 years ago

It was stunning the lengths they went to in Troy to not have the merest whiff of homosexuality, but this outcry from uptight greeks is simply astounding.
I fail to understand what their problem is – it doesn’t make Alexander any less Great or his empire any less great.

I mean, imagine if the great achievemnts of the 20th century were diminished because the people concerned were gay. Just say Crick and Watson were lovers – that means DNA is gay and therefore less of a breakthrough. Or maybe penecillin is gay because Fleming shared the love that dare not speak its name. It doesn’t make penecillin any less effective.

Where were these said same greek lawyers when Xena and Gabriel were steaming it up in Zena Warrior Princess? Are they protecting their culture or not?

For such a farcical suit they definately need Judge Judy.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

I’m not sure about that either, Mark. How could these guys assert a sole right to pronounce definitively on the sexual expression of a guy who lived 2,300 years ago? The notion is patently absurd. You’d almost be smelling a PR beat-up rat….And the notion that a bunch of Athenian lawyers descended from Slavic/Turkic antecedents who arrived in Greece over the last millenium are somehow the lineal descendants of classical Greek culture, is also pretty weird.

I’ve no doubt that Alexander operated within the context of his time and we know that same sex bonding was an established part of that context. That doesn’t mean that Alexander was ‘gay’ – a cultural rather than just a sexual context that has no resonance prior to the late 1960’s – or even ‘bisexual’ in the modern sense. However I’m prepared to overlook it if it pisses these dudes off.

Anyway, the reviews I’ve read of the movie thus far might indicate that these lawyers are more likely to have success if they take a case against Oliver Stone on the basis of massive artistic ineptitude.

Janice
Janice
2022 years ago

sex between older men and younger men was not only entirely normal in Ancient Greek culture, but actually encouraged. The sexual culture distinguished rather between active and passive roles. Male citizens could have active sex with women or slaves, but it was degrading for them to take on the passive role. For this reason, men and young men did not have penetrative sex.

Are you saying that the sex that went on between older and younger male citizens did not include anal intercourse and that only male slaves were subject to being anally penetrated?

Janice
Janice
2022 years ago

I apologise. Tags don’t seem to be working. If I’d know I would have used quote marks. The first paragraph in my post above is copied from the article.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Yes, Janice, that’s right. You can read more about this in the books I’ve cited, if interested. Sex between older and younger male citizens in Ancient Greek culture typically involved rubbing the penis between the thighs.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Geoff, I’m sure you’re right about the movie. Ancient Greece isn’t getting a good run at the flics – ‘Troy’ was crap.