Content Warning: This article discusses instances of enslavement, homophobia and rape.
Madeline Miller’s first book, The Song of Achilles, was originally published in September 2011. The book is a retelling of the story of Achilles from the perspective of Patroclus, an exiled ex-prince, from the pair’s first meeting to Patroclus’ death (the last few chapters are told from the perspective of his ghost). At the heart of the story lies the explicitly (in the novel, at least) romantic relationship between the two protagonists.
An instant success – it won the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted for many other prizes, as well as becoming a New York Times bestseller. It has a devoted fan following and has been the gateway to an interest in the Classics for many. At the time of its release, it was praised for its narrative choices, style, and use of scholarship (Miller has a background in Classics). As Arifa Akbar states in the review for The Independent in 2012: “Miller has combined scholarship with imagination to turn the most familiar war epic into a fresh, emotionally riveting and sexy page-turner”.
Though overwhelmingly positively received, an openly LGBTQIA+ book that gave a new spin on such a ‘traditional’ subject matter was an anomaly. The open focus on a gay relationship in a historical setting, especially one as academically controversial as that between Achilles and Patroclus, was at the time less-than heard of. The fact that Brad Pitt’s heterosexual Achilles had graced cinema screens worldwide only a few years earlier, communicating at every opportunity just how virile, powerful, and undoubtedly straight these heroes were, shows how little popular culture may have been ready to accept a decidedly different take on the character. In 2018, when Netflix produced Troy: Fall of a City, the fact that Achilles and Patroclus were in a sexual relationship brought the same fury, though not as much as the fact that they were portrayed by two Black actors.
The Song of Achilles’ success, however, occurred not in spite of the openly Queer relationship, but because of it. There is no doubt that the book is a precursor to many YA novels which feature openly Queer relationships, from Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (released only a year later in 2012) to the more recent, and just as critically acclaimed, Red, White and Royal Blue (2019).
A 2020 article titled “Eros and Tragedy: How ‘The Song of Achilles’ Revolutionized Classics” interprets the book as actively pushing back against Ancient Greek stereotypes of gay relationships. Unlike the ‘typical’ pederastic relationship, where the erastes (lover) was an older, more experienced man, and the eromenos (beloved) was an inexperienced boy, in the book, Patroclus, albeit a couple of years older than Achilles, describes himself as his father’s disappointing “simple son” and is overall less adept at ‘traditionally’ masculine tasks, such as fighting, compared to Achilles.
This theme is prominent throughout the entire narrative. Once they reach Troy, Patroclus takes upon himself the role of a healer and lets Achilles do the fighting: “I developed a reputation, a standing in the camp. I was asked for, known for my quick hands and how little pain I caused”. This is what sets Achilles and Patroclus apart, as Achilles is slowly consumed by his destiny. Where Patroclus, through his work as a healer, begins to recognise the soldiers and greet them, Achilles says it is “easier for them to remember me” than the other way around. Patroclus is the heart of Achilles, his humanity; this shines through the most when Patroclus reminds the demigod not to treat those around him with disdain.
There is no doubt that The Song of Achilles has been a watershed moment for YA literature. Its immense success showed that books that focused on non-heterosexual storylines geared at a younger audience were just as capable of topping the best-seller charts and winning awards. To many young Queer people it was one of the first introductions to a positive LGBTQAI+ storyline, where the focus was not on a homophobic society’s effects nor on a painful coming out story, but rather adopted many of the tropes of traditional romance novels.
And yet, it did far less to ‘revolutionize’ the field of Classics than the field of YA literature. In this, The Song of Achilles finds itself having to reconcile the fact that it cannot fully escape its original audience, nor its nature as a re-telling. Adapting the Iliad is a difficult task to begin with: the world it describes is utterly alien to our own. It has been argued that the ancient Greeks did not even have the same words for colours that we do. Their moral landscape was certainly not the same.
At Troy, Patroclus and Achilles form what they deem a ‘family’, welcoming Briseis and other enslaved women within their camp with the intention of shielding them from the same type of violence Agamemnon and other Greek generals would have shown them. It is a plotline which betrays one of Miller’s biggest flaws, her propensity for moral anachronism: the heroes’ rejection of sexual assault is her way of putting Achilles and Patroclus on a higher moral pedestal than their peers.
This does not only concern sexual assault, but homosexuality as well. Thetis, Achilles’ mother, is the story’s major antagonist, shown by her continuous opposition to her son’s relationship with Patroclus. The narrative argues it is because she does not want her son developing connections with humans so he can fully embrace his divine side. But when she deceives Achilles into sleeping with a mortal, Deidamia, she does so in order to rid Achilles of any desire for Patroclus. The act is too close to real-life instances of corrective rape for comfort and reveals how Miller applies a modern conception of homophobia and its consequences to a context in which it does not belong.
Were the Ancient Greeks homophobic? Like attitudes in most societies, the answer to this question changed over time. Issues of homosexuality were as complex as the attitudes towards them. Certainly, the Ancient Greeks were not homophobic the same way modern and contemporary society is – homosexual and homosocial relationships were not only accepted but were fundamental to maintaining social connections between men. However, men were also expected to outgrow these relationships, eventually finding a wife and fathering children.
In The Song of Achilles, the issue is barely touched upon. The reader first encounters it in the character of Deidamia, whom Achilles ignores and treats with disdain, especially following the sexual assault orchestrated by his mother, and with whom Patroclus has sex out of pity after she has been scorned by Achilles. In her character, we see the specter of the ‘life cycle’ of pederasty in Ancient Greece: Deidamia is who Achilles should choose as an adult but does not, instead picking Patroclus over her, much to her dismay. The second character who experiences something similar is Briseis, who falls in love with Patroclus. But Patroclus is devoted to Achilles, and though he briefly envisions a future with her, he cannot see her as anything more than a sister, even though Briseis offers a relationship that would allow Patroclus to remain with Achilles while also fathering her children. They resolve to remain friends, and later she calls him her brother.
Where Miller could have introduced interesting moral dilemmas, fueled by the temporal and spatial distance between us and the world she was portraying, she instead chose to paint her world in shades of more easily digestible black and white. It is not, however, a modernising approach, but rather one that shows a lack of will to engage with the inherent moral complexity of talking about the Iliad and its world in a modern setting, with modern language, for a modern audience. Were Miller a layperson or an amateur historian, this would sting less, but Miller used her two Classics degrees as a selling point for the book. The debates I have outlined above were not new nor unheard of by the time she wrote her book, which reportedly took her ten years.
Ten years on, the book finds itself at a crossroads that is hard to reconcile: while it certainly revolutionised the YA genre, opening it to more diverse and engaging voices, proving that a story could sell even if it stretched its wings beyond the cis-normative and heterosexual realm of boy-meets-girl, it falls short of being the revolutionary take on Classics it is often purported to be.
Written by Justin Biggi
Akbar, A. “The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller”. 2012. Accessed 19 March 2021. www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/song-achilles-madeline-miller-7660983.html
Cartledge, P. “The Politics of Spartan Pederasty.” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, (1981): 17–36.
Duè, C. “Learning Lessons from the Trojan War: Briseis and the Theme of Force.” College Literature 34, (2007): 229–262.
Lear, A. “Was Pederasty Problematized? A Diachronic View.” Sex in Antiquity: Exploring Gender and Sexuality in the Ancient World, (2015): 115–136.
Miller, M. The Song of Achilles. HarperCollins, 2011.
Paloma, J. “Eros and Tragedy: How “The Song of Achilles” Revolutionized Classics.” 2020. Accessed 19 March 2021. www.medium.com/vox-populi-ph/eros-and-tragedy-how-the-song-of-achilles-revolutionized-classics-183b646c2ccd