Oliver Stone perpetuates a classical myth
by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Magazine
The consensus about Oliver Stone’s Alexander is that the film’s splashy gay motifs could not overcome the stilted dialogue, ludicrous Irish-brogue and Count Dracula accents, and excruciating minutes of dead screen time devoted to model-like poses, secretive eye contact, and soap-opera double entendres. Stone’s apparent hope was that he could garner media hype by overt homosexual scenes of kissing and hugging, and by candor about same-sex relations: The world’s first global conqueror was really more a sensitive and feminine creature of the bedroom and banquet hall than a great captain of blood and iron.
In reality, the movie proved not so much scandalous as boring. The problem with Stone’s lurid sexual narrative is not his historical inaccuracies, but the movie’s obsession with sexual intrigue, which causes much of Alexander’s amazing story to be lost. The controversies that emerge from the extant historians of Alexander — Arrian, Curtius, Diodorus, and Plutarch — do not hinge on sex. Rather, the “good” and “bad” ancient and modern traditions of Alexander involve a number of far more fascinating issues — nearly all of them omitted by Stone.
Alexander helped to kill more Greeks at the victory of Chaeronea, the siege of Thebes, the campaigns in Ionia, and the battles of Granicus and Issus than the Persians killed in a century and a half of East-West conflict. The razing of Thebes — the dramatic setting of much of Athenian tragedy, home to Pythagoreans and Pindar — is ignored. The brutal siege of Tyre was considered a military masterpiece; it and the storming of Gaza go unnoticed. How or why Persepolis was torched is never really investigated, but has framed centuries of debate. There is a good-enough description of the battle of Gaugamela, but Granicus and Issus are unmentioned. Some sort of Vietnam-like elephant fight in the bush apparently substitutes for the set-piece against Porus at the Hydaspes. In any case, it resembles more Stone’s mythodrama ofPlatoon than anything out of Arrian.
Alexander’s ego killed more of his men in a needless trek through the Gedrosian Desert than Darius III ever did on the battlefield. That disaster and the dirty fighting in Bactria merit almost no screen time. Also omitted is Alexander’s introduction to the Western world of decimation, crucifixion, and other phenomena.
SEX AND THE ANCIENT CONQUEROR
But the problems of Stone’s three-hour sexual melodrama transcend the omission of important facts. This gay extravaganza ignores the great debate over the assessment of Alexander the Great himself. Was he an avatar of multiculturalism or, in fact, a mass killer of the Caesar and Napoleon stamp, wise enough to cloak his barbarity in intellectual pretension? Is his great decade in the East proof of military genius, or simply explained as the career of a ruthless young firebrand who inherited the army and generals of his far more brilliant father? Did Alexander really Westernize the East, or, in fact, provide only a thin veneer of Hellenism to Asia, and instead doom the five-century legacy of the free Greek city-state by importing Oriental despotism, theocracy, and crony corporate agriculture? Did he die exhausted on the altar of an idealistic “Brotherhood of Man,” or was the worn-out alcoholic finally poisoned by reactionary Macedonian marshals who had enough of his wild-goose chases over the badlands of Afghanistan, India, and Iran? Stone is clueless about these debates over Alexander. Yet all of these issues are not the dry stuff of academia; they could easily have been captured on the screen, inasmuch as they were played out in mayhem and carnage on the battlefield. In lieu of such seriousness, however, we get a glitzy ancient Dallas or the sexual energy of Desperate Housewives.
So be it — but is Stone’s sense of the sex at least historically accurate? Yes and no. Among particular social and economic cadres of the ancient world, there was certainly nothing deemed wrong with homosexual liaisons under accepted protocols. On the other hand, for the vast majority of rural folk in the Mediterranean world, heterosexuality and marriage were, of course, the norms. The pre-Christian poor and agrarian classes considered homosexual acts deviant, not on religious grounds of sinfulness, but rather as proof of corruption and decadence that were the wages of too much money and too much time in town.
Yet among an urban sophisticated elite of both Greece and Rome, in the symposium and palaestra, older men’s interest in feminine companionship and sexuality was not delineated by gender alone, but more along the lines of youth and appearance. In such a rarefied world of Plato’s Symposium or Petronius’Satyricon, feminine-looking boys often were openly seen as desirable sex partners — as long as such idealized relationships reflected the pretense of imparting education and remained one-sided. Free older men did not properly engage in reciprocal acts in a passive manner that suggested a female role, much less shack up with those of the same age in permanent sexual unions. True, we hear sometimes of idealistic relationships of youths roughly the same age — Homer’s Achilles and Patroclus, or the Thebans Pelopidas and Epaminondas — but never any concrete evidence that such rite-of-passage bonding entailed sexual intercourse.
For the last 20 years, classicists have explored every nook and cranny of this asymmetrical sexual game so prominent in the elite life of surviving classical literature. “Gender studies” profs evoke everything from Michel Foucault’s notions of power and sexual-construction to analogies with modern-day transvestitism and campus transgenderism in efforts to cast off Victorian-era silence about our “real” classical heroes. In any case, we have come a long way from Edward Gibbon’s praise for the emperor Claudius, who avoided boys — and thus was the only one of the first 15 Roman emperors he deemed “correct” in matters of sex.
A different, but related, practice abounded in military societies such as Sparta, ancient Thebes, and Macedon. Soldiers — including Philip’s boyfriend and later assassin Pausanias, or Alexander in his apparent erotic fascination with Hephaistion — would on occasion enjoy carnal relations with men, mostly younger and of inferior social or economic status. Spartan kings were often said to have favorite boys, and among the warrior class sex may well have been part of imbuing young soldiers with martial prowess.
Consequently, in the Hellenic world, demarcations such as “homosexual” or “bisexual” did not quite exist, although we hear plenty about excessive “boy-loving” by the likes of Sophocles or, later, the philhellene emperor Hadrian. Indeed there are not even words for such iron-clad “orientations” in the classical or Hellenistic Greek vocabulary. Yet there are plenty of terms of scorn for “pathics” and “catamites” (e.g., kinaidoi or malakoi/malthakoi) who preferred passive relations, did not marry or sire children, and manifested open signs of femininity, including lisping, limp wrists, and girlish makeup and attire. Something like that would describe the precious Agathon, the Athenian playwright, or Giton, the pansy male gigolo of the Satyricon. In the corpus of Aristotle, at least, observations are made of the girlish stares, sashaying, and campy posturing of certain male types — and the anonymous author may inadvertently be describing what we now associate with a genetic bent toward exclusive homosexual desire among 3 to 5 percent of the population. In any case, a Macedonian horse lord would never assume such a public role that even faintly resembled that of the “sodomite.” But he also might not be averse during a drunken spree to using such omnipresent young men as surrogate females for his own sexual pleasure — especially when many were politically savvy and wished to trade their flesh for money or social advancement.
WHAT KIND OF SEXUALITY?
Our closest modern American notion relative to the sex practices of either ancient sophisticates or ancient randy soldiers might be characterized not as omnivorous pedophilia per se, but as a subset of pederasty: the sexual attraction toward young boys of older men, often otherwise “heterosexual,” who seem both indifferent to men their own age and yet not interested in being a passive actor in sexual congress with youths. In present-day society we hear of all this — from the lurid accounts of bachelor Western clergy to married Pashtun tribesmen in the Hindu Kush, who often seek out sexual apprentices among poorer boys, orphans, or those eager to emulate martial bravery.
Whether such homoerotic desire is an expression of innate homosexual tendencies in either participant or more a reflection of the many heterosexual obstacles within tribal societies — involving the sanctity of female virginity, the relative scarcity of educated and empowered women, or life in a mostly male society — is not quite clear either in the present or the past. But what is unmistakable is that in the ancient Mediterranean occasional sex with feminine-looking men or adolescents did not earn the reproach of “acting queer” as it still does in the modern world. In most cases, acts per se did not equate to either a lifestyle or an orientation. Thus it makes little sense to speculate whether figures as diverse as Plato and Philip II were akin to our notion of “gays.”
Alexander’s Macedonians were both more and less tolerant of homosexuality as we would describe it than the modern world, focusing not on the desire per se for male sexual companionship, but rather on the method of its manifestation. In some sense, the Macedonian evening communal tent was not unlike the savage world of the modern prison. In both, constant male intimacy created a strange classification of masculinity, in which active roles involving penetration were seen as quasi-normal sexual expression, a sort of surrogate intercourse when women are not to be found. Those weaker, prettier, or younger who are “used” are seen as little more than “women,” and alone suffer the abuse of surrendering their male identity, whether by inclination or under coercion.
Stone seems to grasp none of this complexity. But had he really believed that Alexander’s sex life should not be separate from his remarkable career, then it would have been portrayed as incidental rather than as essential to his persona, and in no way much different from that of the men he led. In contrast, if Stone, quite without historical support, really believed that Alexander’s desire was both unusual for the time and at the heart of his ambiguous legacy as both founder and destroyer of innumerable cities, then he should have explored the asceticism, rather than the indulgence, of Alexander. The ancients believed not that Alexander was obsessed with sex or that he was at all kinky in his tastes, but that his carnal desires were oddly sublimated to an array of other concerns, from mysticism and religion to Asian politics and fashionable foreign cults.
Indeed, it’s less likely that sex was at the root of Alexander’s relationships with his mother Olympias and his companion Hephaistion, and his various liaisons with Eastern princesses, than that Alexander was — unlike his lusty Macedonian compatriots — rather asexual. He may have liked young men around in the fashion of an aesthete Epaminondas, Lord Kitchener, or General Douglas Haig, and might even have often enjoyed male outlets in the manner of Frederick the Great or Kemal Ataturk, but Alexander the Great was more likely a bore in the bedroom. He was surely not in the class of a Caesar, Napoleon, or Wellington — whose sexual appetites are still irrelevant to understanding their military legacies.
In the beginning, youthful naïveté and half-baked idealism, and later, paranoia, alcoholism, and gratuitous cruelty — never occasional homosexual desire — were at the root of Alexander’s personal enigma. The sex we get from Oliver Stone is either historically misleading or incidental to what made Alexander what he was. So Alexander is more about the prurience and fashion of Malibu and Hollywood than about how the world itself was changed by a single man in the latter 4th century B.C.
Mr. Hanson is a classicist and military historian at the Hoover Institution and the author of The Other Greeks and other books on the ancient world.
©2004 Victor Davis Hanson