This short story deserves some explication. First off, I didn’t write the passage you’ll soon read as a short story. It comes from the big mess of historical fiction I’ve written about Alexander the Great and his close friend Hephaestion. Over the centuries, various people have speculated that Alexander and Hephaestion were lovers, in part because they compared themselves to Achilles and Patroclus in The Iliad.

My ultimate judgement? It’s difficult to tell. Impossible, really, since we have only scant historical evidence in both directions. From a fictional standpoint, I found the relationship between the two characters more interesting with a romantic aspect in addition to the very strong friendship — but that was a personal choice for the sake of my writing, not an ultimate answer to the question that still stands.

I mean for this passage to be accessible even for those who don’t know much about the history of Alexander and Hephaestion. At the end of the day, they’re two characters in my work, and I hope you can enjoy the humor of the situation without knowing all the details.

One detail is pretty important, though…

Alexander the Great loved to read, and his favorite book was Homer’s Iliad. (I shamelessly linked the Amazon page for The Iliad, because it’s a book everyone should read.) Like I said earlier, Alexander often compared himself to Achilles, the hero of The Iliad, and compared Hephaestion to Patroclus, Achilles’ closest friend. This fact plays a minor role in the story you’re about to read.

One last thing before I let you dig into this work — the courtesan in the scene, Callixena, was a real person (at least according to the histories we have) and the situation is a real situation. So… chew on that.


Alexander and Hephaestion on horseback

For Love of Homer

By Laura Schmidt

The trouble began in earnest when the queen began sending girls to Alexander’s bedchambers, where I often slept at night with him. One night I let myself in and found a girl sitting on the bed, smiling at me. 

“Hello, my lord Hephaestion,” she said, dropping to the floor on feet as light as a doe’s. Surely she was there for Alexander, but that didn’t stop her from winding an arm around my waist and pressing herself close to me, the ends of her honey-sweet hair brushing against my chest. “My lady the queen told me you might come.” 

Then she was either a gift for Alexander or a temptation for me. I extricated myself from her grasp and went to the desk and began to compose a letter — to no one, but that she didn’t need to know. She only needed to see me busy. 

“You should go back to your lady the queen,” I said at length, glancing over my shoulder at her. “We have no need for your services, whatever they may be.”

“We? I see only one,” she purred. 

Just then the door opened and Alexander stepped in. I had heard him whistling in the hall. His eyes fell on the girl. 

“What’s this, Hephaestion?” 

“Your mother sent her,” I said, crumpling up the letter to no one. What a waste of papyrus. I leaned back in his chair. “Do you think we have a use for her?”

“No. She can run along,” Alexander said. He gave her a little push towards the door. “Run along, you. Tell my mother there’s no need for her to waste hands that could be pressing her gowns or arranging her curls.”

So she went, leaving us alone. But the fall of man is inevitable — and inevitably we fell, the both of us, to the same woman on separate occasions. Alexander has had it all written out the histories, though I hear that rumor still lives, and I will not leave it unwritten here. Her name was Callixena. She was a Thessalian courtesan brought to the court at the behest of both Olympias and Philip. This was perhaps the one and only point of agreement between Alexander’s parents.

And it was a pressing concern. Even adequate kings produced offspring, and great kings produced many sons, and that meant that they had sex with at least one but preferably many women. Callixena, unlike the little things Olympias had been sending to Alexander’s chambers, was a woman, not a girl. She had long red hair rather like Olympias’s, and her eyes were green. Many were quick to call her a witch. When she arrived at court, she didn’t go immediately to Alexander, even though that was what she had been instructed to do. She came instead to me on a hot midsummer night, barging into my chamber uninvited. 

“Well, you’re every bit as beautiful as they said you would be,” she said, her eyes traveling up and down my body. I was wearing only a robe. “And so tall. No wonder he loves you. But you…” She reached out and raked one hand down my chest. “I wonder if you are not a hot-blooded man.”

“Did the queen send you?” I asked. 

“No. I sent myself. Because I believe you’re the way into his heart,” she said. 

She tossed her hair and stepped around me. She didn’t smell like honey, like the other girls. Her smell was deeper and darker, like myrrh, like the exotic spices from Arabia. She settled herself on my bed, nestled between pillows, the folds of her gown draped demurely over her knees. She patted the spot next to her. After a moment’s hesitation I joined her there, and she slipped her head beneath my arm to rest it in the hollow of my breastbone. Glancing up at me, she laughed, her fingers dancing across my shoulder. 

“You know he’ll need to have children. Love a woman or not — his mother knows this. But he needs to tolerate one.” 

“Do you know your philosophy?” I asked her. 

She batted her lashes at me. “Yes, I’ve read my Plato and my Socrates.”

“Good. You read. That’s a start. And your Homer?” I asked. 

When she shook her head, I reached over to my desk and picked up my copy and pressed it into her hands. 

“Learn it well. Compare yourself to Briseis, if you will. Call him your Achilles, and mention that Patroclus was friendly to you.” 

“Wouldn’t you prefer to be friendly with me?” she asked, turning the book over in her hands. Her eyes were sparkling at me. 

“That’s not how the story goes,” I said. 

“I wouldn’t know. I haven’t read it,” she said, settling the book between the pillows. 

She was the first woman I made love to, with a copy of Homer between us and beneath us at times. Only a week later, Alexander came to me crying. 

“It’s such a terrible emptiness,” he wept, clutching his heart. “It eats away at me — oh, Hephaestion, I’m so sorry! I’m a pitiful man! No, not even a man, a boy!”

Then I knew it had happened. A little while later, he was asleep in my bed, tear-stained cheek pressed into the pillow. A few days after that, my copy of Homer appeared in front of my door, a piece of blue ribbon tied around it and a bouquet of lavender resting on top. She had no further use of it, and we had no further use for her. She had shown Olympias the truth: that Alexander could love a woman, if only for love of Homer.

Did you enjoy this read? Did you like my fictional recreation of Alexander and Hephaestion? Let me know in the comments…

Check out more of my short stories:
Skinny People Sleep Naked

You can learn more about the history and literature on Alexander and Hephaestion by reading my review of Mary Renault’s book Fire From Heaven.

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