A cropped fourteenth-century miniature Greek manuscript depicting scenes from the life of Alexander the Great. In this illustration the infantry of Alexander the Great invades Athens.

On October 1, the Greek media exploded with reports about the discovery of a funeral shrine that Alexander the Great may have dedicated to Hephaestion, identified in most reports as his “best friend.” Tiny inscriptions found at the site show Hephaestion’s initials, leading some archaeologists to speculate that it was built in tribute to him. Newspaper stories about the site sold like hot koulouri, or pretzels, one paper noted. “Never before has an archaeological excavation unfolded this way,” the Greek culture minister told television reporters.

Amid all the hype about the site, however, no one mentioned that Hephaestion was most likely more than just a friend.

A personal bodyguard for Alexander the Great, Hephaestion went on to command a cavalry in Alexander’s great Asian military campaigns. When Hephaestion died of an illness in 324 B.C., Alexander fell into deep mourning; he shaved his head and fasted for days. He also executed Hephaestion’s doctor, petitioned an oracle to grant his friend divine status, and ordered the construction of monuments to him across the empire. Alexander died soon after Hephaestion, survived by his wives and an unborn child, and it was said that his grief had greatly damaged his health.

Alexander and Hephaestion enter the tent of the captive royal family of Darius.

If that sounds like a lover’s sorrow, it should. Although it remains a hugely taboo subject in Greece, sexual relationships between men were fairly common among the ancients (although some argue it was reserved for the upper classes). And yet it is rarely brought up today in Greece, at least in polite company, because acknowledging ancient male-male relations makes the country’s heroes seem, well, gay. And there is deep-seated homophobia throughout the country.

But here’s the thing: Alexander the Great and his friend Hephaestion were not “gay.” Neither were they “straight.” These labels reflect the rigid gender norms that developed much later, in the modern West. And yet today, both pro-gay and anti-gay groups around the world too often assume that people in other times and places defined their sexuality in the same ways it is defined today.

So when the news broke about Hephaestion’s shrine, gay-themed websites across the West proudly trumpeted the discovery of a monument to Alexander’s “gay lover.” The Greek blogosphere responded with predictable indignation, rallying to defend the nation’s most famous military hero from this “scurrilous” charge.

The reactions echoed the discord surrounding Oliver Stone’s 2004 film Alexander, in which a long-haired Jared Leto—playing Hephaestion—shares physical moments with Colin Farrell’s Alexander the Great. The film won applause from gay-rights groups in the United States but faced angry protestations in Greece, where a group of lawyers threatened to sue the film’s studio, Warner Brothers.

“We cannot come out and say that President John F. Kennedy was a shooting guard for the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team,” one of the Greek attorneys said, “and so Warner cannot come out and say that Alexander was gay.”

But the film didn’t say that. It shows Alexander in an intimate relationship with his wife Roxana—played by Rosario Dawson—as well as with Hephaestion. And we know that the real-life Alexander took two more wives, both from Persia, and that Hephaestion married one of their sisters.

The weddings at Susa: Alexander to Stateira and Hephaestion to Drypetis.

So does that make these guys “bisexual,” then? Hardly. That’s a modern term, too, which we use to describe a distinct sexual identity. But no such identity existed in the ancient world, where it was perfectly normal—and, mostly, unremarkable—for a married man to express his love for another man, though usually a younger one.

These relationships, known as pederasty, usually involved an older partner, or the erastes; he offered guidance and protection for his eromenos, the youthful object of his desire. A sexual relationship with an older mentor was also one of the ways that young men were initiated into adulthood and marriage. On their wedding night, wives in the Greek city of Sparta were expected to dress in masculine clothes—presumably, to help their husbands make the transition from sex with a man to sex with a woman.

But these roles were temporary, coming to an end when the younger partner graduated into adulthood, around the age of 17 or 18. To the Greeks, sex inevitably placed one party in a passive or submissive position. Once a man became a full adult, he was expected to assume the active, dominant role. He might, in turn, take a younger male lover, but not an older one.

Because Alexander and Hephaestion were roughly the same age, some historians question whether their relationship was sexual. But there are fewer doubts about Alexander’s association with Bagoas, a Persian eunuch famed for his youthful beauty. The ancient scribe Plutarch writes of an episode in which Alexander’s troops clamor for their general to kiss Bagoas, who had just won a song and dance contest. Bagoas sat down next to Alexander, Plutarch writes, and the soldiers “never stopped clapping their hands and shouting till Alexander put his arms around him and kissed him.”

With the rise of Christianity, same-sex love became vilified in Greece—and across the West—because the religion prohibited all sexual activity outside of male-female marriage. But it placed special taboos on a man who “lies with a male as with a woman,” to quote the Book of Leviticus.

The rise of modern nations put the force of the state behind these prohibitions. With the passage of its Buggery Act in 1533, England became the first country to make same-sex love punishable (by hanging, as it turned out) under secular law. Nearly every other European nation followed suit.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, physicians redefined same-sex love as a disease rather than a crime. They called it “homosexuality,” insisting that its victims needed to be “cured” of their “ailment.” Over time, of course, the medicalization of same-sex love came to be seen as a tool of oppression instead of sympathy. Under pressure from the gay rights movement, medical communities dropped the disease model in 1970s, when Western attitudes towards same-sex love began to shift dramatically.

Busts of Alexander the Great and Hephaestion at the Getty Villa Museum in Malibu, California.

But contemporary Greece remains extraordinarily hostile to same-sex relations, especially compared to other European countries. In a 2013 Pew Charitable Trust poll, only 40 percent of Greek respondents agreed that their society should “accept” homosexuality. By contrast, over three-quarters of respondents in Spain, Germany, France, and Britain favored social acceptance of gay people.

Part of this discrepancy has to do with the Greek Orthodox Church, which has condemned the country’s small but growing movement for gay rights. Another might be a lingering association between same-sex love and physical submissiveness. Greeks are a famously proud and independent people, so submission—of any sort—seems positively un-Greek.

When he came to power earlier this year, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras—a self-described atheist—pledged support for a gay civil unions bill as well as for a measure allowing gays to adopt children. But Tsipras soon backed away from his promise, claiming—without evidence—that there are “contradictions in the scientific community” about whether gay couples could be adequate adoptive parents.

Then there’s the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party, which engages in routine anti-gay violence and harassment. It also enjoys robust support among police officers, who rarely intervene to protect gay victims. Meanwhile, the Orthodox Church has joined Golden Dawn and other right-wing parties in opposing the civil unions bill for gays. One bishop denounced same-sex relationships as “an unnatural aberration not even observed in animals.”

Perhaps teaching the true story of Alexander the Great can help reduce some of the vicious bigotry against gays in present-day Greece. And it may begin with dropping the term “gay.” It not only distorts history but also misguidedly attempts to find a precursor for modern homosexuality, imposing our own vocabulary on people from long ago who spoke about sexuality in very different ways. As historian Guy MacLean Rogers has written about ancient Greece, “acting upon a desire for another man or woman simply did not lock any man or woman into a sexual camp.”

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  • JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, which was published by Princeton University Press in March.
  • More By Jonathan Zimmerman