In the new Netflix series “Alexander: The Making of a God”, Alexander the Great shares a kiss with his general and lifelong friend and, according to experts, lover, Hephaestion. Yet, the kiss has aroused the ire of Pan-Macedonian associations and right-wing conservatives in Greece.

Alexander was born in 356 BC in Macedonia, in northeastern Greece and became king at age 19 after the assassination of his father, Philip II.

Over the next few years, Alexander and his armies defeated the mighty Persian Empire. They extended Macedonia’s holdings as far as India. He died of disease in 323 BC in what is now Iraq.

President of Greek far-right political party Niki, Dimitris Natsiou, speaking to The Guardian, denounced the series, calling it “deplorable, unacceptable and unhistorical” and claiming that it aimed to “subliminally convey the notion that homosexuality was acceptable in ancient times, an element that has no basis”.

Controversy surrounding Alexander’s sexuality

A letter by the Pan-Macedonian Federation of Australia, President George Kosmidis, to Netflix CEO Ted Sarandon, complaining about the depiction of the Macedonian king as bisexual, was also sent to Neos Kosmos. The letter was co-signed by Canadian, German, South African and Greek Pan-Macedonian associations.

Kosmidis writes that the presentation of Alexander the Great as “either bisexual or homosexual, and the editorialisation by the chosen historian(s) cements this for the audience without confessing that this is a subject that has divided historical opinion or even mentioning the nuances.”

“Consequently, the scene where he passionately kisses his closest friend and general, Hephaestion, is presented as a historical fact despite it actually being fiction.”

The letter goes on to say that the authors “don’t oppose homosexuality or the advancement of LGBTQ+ issues.”

“On the contrary. We are primarily interested in historical accuracy, especially when it comes to historical documentaries that act as teaching tools.”

It adds that “the goal of your series is to promote diversity, respect, and acceptance, but this is not achieved by spreading historical inaccuracies and half-truths.”

The letter also seeks to pick out what the authors call other “historical inaccuracies”.

The letter’s signatories attack Netflix over what they call “Hollywoodian-like liberties” taken by the director.

For example, “nothing is mentioned about his beloved horse Bucephalus, and nothing is mentioned about the Macedonian phalanx.”

Yet, in Ancient Greece, according to James Flyn, writing for the Humanities Magazine of the National Endowment of the Arts, homosexuality was common and often lauded in military ranks.

The Theban Sacred Band was an elite military unit from Thebes comprised of 150 gay couples. At the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, these 300 gay warriors led the Theban army against the Spartan army and shattered the Spartan control of Greece.

Same-sex relationships in Ancient Greece – a norm

Regardless of the ire of conservatives, and the Pan Macedonian associations, there is ample evidence in ancient texts and art that same-sex relations were often elevated in status among Greek nobility in pre-Christian times.

In the “Symposium” by Plato, dated 370 BC, Socrates shocks his peers discussing same-sex love by saying that the only time he felt true love was through a woman. In the Symposium, Socrates’ peers discuss the elements of same-sex love.

Phaedrus, at the Symposium talks about a lover’s loyalty to his beloved and cites, as evidence, Achilles, who sacrificed himself for his beloved Patroclus in the Trojan War. He goes further and speculates on the bravery that such soldiers might exhibit on the battlefield:

“If by some contrivance a city, or an army, of lovers and their young loves could come into being. . then, fighting alongside one another, such men, though few in number, could defeat practically all humankind. For a man in love would rather have anyone other than his lover see him leave his place in the line or toss away his weapons, and often would rather die on behalf of the one he loves.”

Same-sex relationships were common in ancient Greece, and frequently, there was an age and power differential, with older men being mentors to younger ones and having sex with them as well.

Alexander the Great was married three times and fathered at least one child. Still, according to historian Robin Lane Fox, Hephaestion appeared to be the love of his life.

“Hephaestion was the man whom Alexander loved, and for the rest of their lives, their relationship remained as intimate as it is now irrecoverable: Alexander was only defeated once, the Cynic philosophers said long after his death, and that was by Hephaestion’s thighs,” Lane Fox wrote in his 2013 book Alexander the Great.

Hephaestion died of an illness in 324 BC., which “plunged Alexander into grief,” according to a National Geographic article. “He reportedly draped himself over Hephaestion’s corpse, refused food, cut his hair, and organised an extravagant funeral.”

Paul Cartledge, former A. G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge author of many books, notably “Sparta: An Epic History” and “Alexander the Great The Truth Behind the Myth”, and an occasional contributor to Neos Kosmos in a 2010 interview titled “Love on a battlefield: Alexander the Great’s surprising partners” said that in ancient times, there were no separate categories for “homosexual,” “bisexual,” or “heterosexual.”

“All men were expected to marry one woman and have children for the good of society, but this was a dull, business-like arrangement; husbands would not even kiss their wives in public. When they were feeling romantic, they would head to the gymnasiums and fall passionately in love with downy-cheeked boys, emulating the randy gods and heroes of Greek myths.”

“Men were not castigated for sex with other men,” said Cartledge, “as long as it was done at the right time, in the right way, in the right place, and with the right person.”

Grown men could have their way with adolescent boys up to 16; it was part of a Greek boy’s education, as the older lovers would “mentor” them in the finer aspects of art and philosophy. At the same time, their fathers looked on with approval. But adults had to keep their hands off other grown men. The question of who was active and who the passive partner was crucial; the older, socially superior male could give but not receive.”

The Alexander-Hephaestion relationship doesn’t fit the classic model of same-sex love, as they were about the same age and “Hephaestion was taller and more handsome, so it might have appeared that he held power in their relationship,” scholar Athena Richardson wrote on the George Washington University website. When historians downplay the men’s affection, it amounts to bisexual erasure, she said.

Hephaestion, an embodiment of Patroclus

Before clashing with the Persian army at River Granicus, Alexander visited the tomb of his hero Achilles at Troy. The Macedonian king always slept with a copy of Homer’s Iliad under his pillow. In Troy, among others, Hephaestion laid a wreath at the tomb of Achilles’ friend Patroclus. Many saw the relationship of Alexander and Hephaestion akin to that of Achilles and Patroclus. Later, the two men stood side-by-side as Alexander severed the Gordian Knot.

In the Netflix series, professor Salima Ikram of the American University of Cairo said, “Hephaestion really was not just a cherished companion, but perhaps [Alexander’s] greatest love.”

Some historians also point to a relationship, likely sexual, between Alexander and Bagoas the Younger, a eunuch who served in the court of Persia’s King Darius III and became essentially the property of Alexander after Darius’s death.

Quintus Curtius Rufus, an ancient Roman historian of Alexander, wrote that Bagoas was “a eunuch of exceptional appearance and in the very flower of boyhood, with whom Darius had had a relationship, and with whom Alexander soon had one.”

“Same-sex relationships were quite the norm throughout the Greek world,” Professor Lloyd Jones Llewellyn of Cardiff University in Wales said in the Netflix series.

“The Greeks did not have a word for homosexuality or to be gay. It just wasn’t in their vocabulary whatsoever. There was just being sexual.”

The Netflix series is particularly relevant given Greece’s recent vote to legalise same-sex marriage, catching up with most other European countries and, in a way, honouring its history.

Alexander: The Making of a God trailer