Was Alexander the Great really gay? The truth behind the myths and hearsay

Alexander the Great as seen in Netflix series Alexander: The Making of a God

Are you one of those who binge-watched Alexander: The Making of a God on Netflix and are now fixating on one of the most notable figures in ancient Greece? Are you wondering what the truth is about his sexuality? Was he really gay, as some historical rumours suggest?

Maybe we can help.

The six-part Netflix docudrama explores the life of Alexander the Great through academic insight, archaeology and ongoing excavations at a site in Alexandria, Egypt.

Alexander was the king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon, succeeding his father, Philip II, taking the throne in 336BCE at the age of 20. By the time he was 30, he had built one of the largest empires ever seen, spanning from his homeland all the way to India.

He is widely considered to be one of the most successful – as well as infamous – military commanders of all time.

Was Alexander the Great really gay? And was he married?

Alexander the Great’s sexuality has been hotly debated by historians. So, was he gay? The answer isn’t straightforward.

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One point that’s regularly referred to is the fact that his mother was concerned he wasn’t interested in women.

“He scorned sensual pleasures to such an extent that his mother was anxious lest he be unable to beget offspring,” first-century Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus wrote, with records suggesting that she brought in a courtesan named Callixena and pleaded with her son to go to bed with her.

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Alexander refused, leading modern-day historians such as James Davidson to consider the ruler could have been gay.

Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great is widely considered to be one of the greatest and most successful military commanders in history. (Image: Simone Crespiatico)

According to Greek philosopher and biographer Plutarch, who lived between about AD 46 and 119, Alexander had sex with one woman: Barsine, the daughter of Artabazus II of Phyrgia. Various reports suggest that he was enticed by her beauty and impressive knowledge of Greek literature.

After Barsine, Alexander was married three times: first to Roxana of Bactria, then to Stateira, the daughter of a Persian king, and finally to Parysatis, whose father was also ruled Persia.

But just because Alexander married, doesn’t necessarily mean he was straight.

Which men did Alexander the Great sleep with?

In terms of Alexander the Great’s potential relationships with his male companions, the most often mentioned is probably Hephaestion, a nobleman and army general.

Hephaestion is described by Rufus as being “by far the dearest of all the king’s friends, he had been brought up with Alexander and shared all his secrets”. And, according to present-day English historian Robin Lane Fox, the pair could have been lovers.

Another of Alexander’s potential lovers was the courtier, Bagoas – described by Rufus as being “in the very flower of boyhood, with whom [another Persian ruler] Darius was intimate and with whom Alexander would later be intimate”.

Again, this relationship is hotly debated, with one historian arguing that Bagoas simply took advantage of king because he had enemies he wanted persecuted.

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History also relates that Bagoas was a eunuch.

There is historic evidence of bisexuality

When assessing whether Alexander the great was gay, it’s important to consider that, as a modern-day audience, the language we ascribe to sex and sexual experiences is vastly different to days of 300BCE.

In ancient Greece, terminology such as “gay”, “lesbian” and “bisexual” didn’t exist. As the historic records suggest, Alexander did enjoy relationships with people of different genders, but we can’t say for certain that he was gay – or anything else – simply because he didn’t have the language to describe himself in that way. And neither did anyone else.

It’s similarly important to understand that social attitudes towards gender and sexuality were notably different in ancient Greece.

In fact, homosexuality was widespread at all levels of society, not just at the very top, and Athenians in particular did not consider it to be against either nature or religion.

So, no, Alexander the Great wasn’t gay in modern terms, but there’s certainly evidence that he could’ve liked both men and women. Did that make him bisexual? Well, possibly – at least on paper.

Alexander: The Making of a God is streaming on Netflix now.

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