‘Sing, Muses, sing to me a story of heroes, and the deathless gods who govern earth, sea and sky.’

That is what Alexander of Macedon asks. For years, ever since he heard the tales of Troy, he has dreamt of seeing it. A place suffused with history, with legend. And now that he is here, he can feel the Muses close by. The lap of the tide, the whistle of the wind – these are their singing, their dancing, their playing of the lyre and the flute. 

But there is one story he wishes to hear above all others.

That is why he has left his army in the plain below and climbed to this weather-beaten monument upon the coast. 

He has not gone alone. He climbs with a man his own age – Hephaestion. His companion, his confidant, his lover. 

They work together to shed their armour, and the process is quick; they are accustomed to the angle of the straps upon each other’s gilded greaves, the position of the ties upon each other’s bronze blades.

They disarm because they wish to stand before the monument not as soldiers, but as men.

They come because they wish to hear the story of Achilles and Patroclus. 

The Muses set their scene in the eye of a storm: a single Greek tent on the beaches of Troy. Beyond its canvas walls, the beating of drums and the blast of horns sound a muster. The Trojans have stormed the beach, putting so many ships to flame that the dawning sun shines as little more than a dirtied rind through the smoke. Now the Greeks are scrabbling, every soldier reaching for his armour, his weapons, in panic.

But inside the tent, all is calm. The only sounds are the creak of leather and the clink of metal. The occupants are two men, two soldiers: swift footed Achilles, the finest warrior in the Greek army; and Patroclus, his companion, his confidant, his lover. 

Only one of them is arming though. 

Achilles will not fight. Agamemnon, the Greek king, has insulted him grievously; he has deprived him of his war prizes, his glory. And now Achilles says nothing will return him to this war. No argument, no entreaty, no number of Greek dead. 

Patroclus is not so implacable. From the mouth of their tent, he has seen the wounded return each day, he has heard their wails – and with the Trojans so close, he can stand by no longer.

‘If you will not take up your arms and armour to inspire the Greeks, I will.’

And Achilles sees that same obstinacy that has kept him from the fight reflected in Patroclus’s desire to enter it. Already Achilles’s refusal has festered like a splinter in the flesh of their bond – red and raw and quick to irritation. Every day, they have quarrelled. Only the depth of their love for one another that has seen them nightly reconciled.

To refuse Patroclus now would be to lose him forever. 

And so Achilles agrees.

He is unaccustomed to arming another. He is unaccustomed to the angle of the straps upon his gilded greaves, the position of the ties upon his bronze blade. But he remains silent, so that the only sounds are the creak of leather and the clink of metal. He stands behind Patroclus, places his cuirass against the man’s back and begins to tighten the fastenings.

It is an imperfect fit.

Patroclus is taller, his chest is broader, and the hardened leather of Achilles’s armour does not quite meet. The gap is just wide enough for Achilles to run a finger between, to feel the warm skin beneath. Patroclus leans into the touch, and the two share a look, a smile. But it barely hides Achilles’s concern; the width of a finger – that is the width of a spearhead too.

And its touch will not be so gentle.

He tells Patroclus so: ‘My armour will not protect you for long. Just enough for you to push the Trojans back from the beach. You must not carry on the assault to the high walls of Troy. Promise me.’

Patroclus nods his agreement, but he laughs too. After all who else but swift-footed Achilles could think of leading an assault on Troy now, when a mere defence of the Greek camp is already so desperate. It is his talent for war, his hunger for glory; it blinds Achilles to the limits of other men.

But Patroclus is blind too. And it is exactly because he does not have Achilles’s talent for war that he does not know it like Achilles does. Patroclus understands war in terms of tactics and strategy – these virtues of wise Athena. He has never tasted those vices of blood-soaked Ares. He has never fought in the melee at its thickest where the god dances from blade to blade, slipping into men’s hearts and minds as that most fatal intoxicant: bloodlust. 

It obliterates all other concerns. You think not of safety. You care not for glory. You forget even that promise you made to your companion, your confidant, your lover.

The final item is Achilles’s ashen spear. It stands proud and unused upon the rack outside. When Achilles presses it into Patroclus’s hands, there are no more words to be said. They couldn’t even be heard over the storm that rages about the tent.

So all they share is a nod. Then Patroclus is swept up in the throng, pumping the spear above his head till the Greek war cry splits the sky.

Achilles keeps his eye on its glinting bronze head and reminds himself one final time: to refuse Patroclus now would be to lose him forever.

But another thought intrudes upon his mind; it comes piercing like the head of a spear through the gap in a cuirass: nothing will return Achilles to this war. No argument, no entreaty, no number of Greek dead.

Except one.

Commissioned by HistoryHit for The Ancients podcast

Written by Andrew Hulse