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Romantic Friendship: Male  
 
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Critics use the term male romantic friendship to describe strong attachments between men in works ranging from ancient epics and medieval romances to Renaissance plays, Gothic novels, westerns, and war movies.

The Potential for Homophobia

In traditional scholarship, the term is potentially : By distinguishing "normal," nonerotic relationships between men from "abnormal," overtly sexual ones, it allays suspicions that literary masterpieces might condone homosexuality. Whenever one critic questions the intensity of Antonio's love for Sebastian in William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (1601), for example, another reassures readers that the play merely illustrates a long-standing Renaissance convention of friendship.

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By arguing that earlier cultures expressed the least carnal affections in the most impassioned language, such critics ignore the embarrassing possibility that such cultures might have tolerated actual .

Less than Absolute Distinctions

Recent work in gender studies exposes the opposition between romantic friendship and homosexuality as a theoretical red herring. In societies that located relationships along a continuum between the extremes of nonsexual affection and genital contact, distinctions between romantic friendships and homoerotic attachments were less absolute.

As critics and historians have come to recognize, earlier cultures accepted the possibility that erotic attraction colored all significant relationships between men. But as norms of "proper" sexual conduct became more codified in the early modern period, readers found the literary records of less homophobic centuries increasingly disturbing.

The same-sex couples upheld by previous generations as models of friendship occasioned heated debates. Whereas readers sympathetic to homosexuality hailed Alcibiades's love for Socrates in Plato's Symposium (ca 380 B.C.E.) as proof that the Greeks championed homoeroticism, homophobes glossed over it as a literary convention.

Romantic Friendships in the Ancient World

The ancient world proved particularly resistant to the homophobic goal of denying an erotic aspect to romantic friendships in literature and history. Writers in Palestine, Greece, and Rome highly praised such friendships. In the Hebrew Scriptures, David proclaims that Jonathan's love for him "was wonderful, passing the love of women" (II Samuel 1:26).

Throughout the Iliad (ca 750 B.C.E.), heterosexual desire leads to disaster: Paris's abduction of Helen is the immediate cause of the Trojan War. When Agamemnon steals the maiden Briseis from Achilles, the latter avenges himself by withdrawing from battle and letting the Trojans advance against the Greek camp. But when Achilles learns that Hector has killed his beloved friend Patroclus, he forgets Briseis and resumes the fight against Troy with a ferocity that assures the Trojans of final victory.

The Iliad held an obvious moral for later writers: Whereas Achilles's love for a woman led to dangerous divisions among the Greek soldiers, his love for a man inspired decisive military action.

The Greek idealization of friendship--further exemplified by such mythical pairings as Damon and Pythias, Pylades and Orestes, Pirithous and Theseus, Hylas and Hercules, Apollo and Hyacinthus--had a strong impact on Roman culture. Cicero's essay "De Amicitia" ("Of Friendship," 44 B.C.E.) evokes the language of erotic union in hailing the mixture of two friends' souls in a single consciousness.

Book IX of Virgil's Aeneid (19 B.C.E.) offers the ancient world's most poignant image of romantic friendship. When Nisus volunteers for the dangerous mission of crossing the enemy camp at night, his comrade Euryalus insists on accompanying him. By testifying to their commitment both to each other and to their country, their tragic death establishes same-sex love as a basis for Roman patriotism.

Aeneas himself must renounce the Carthaginian Queen Dido as a distraction from his destiny. But his devotion to a male comrade inspires his last heroic action. Just as Achilles slays Hector to avenge Patroclus, Aeneas kills his arch-antagonist Turnus specifically to avenge the death of his beloved Pallas.

Romantic Friendship in the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, the classical cult of friendship merged with two other traditions of same-sex bonding: the Germanic comitatus, or bond of reciprocal obligations between lord and thanes, and Christian monasticism.

For centuries Christ's affection for the Apostle John inspired devoted friendships between bishops, priests, monks, scholars, and laity. As John Boswell has noted, Saint Paulinus wrote passionate poetry to Ausonius, Gottschalk expressed tender affection to a younger monk, and St. Anselm praised Lanfranc and Gilbert in the most extravagant hyperboles.

Medieval works written outside clerical circles often thematize a conflict between same-sex friendship and heterosexual attachment. In the Decameron (ca 1351), Boccaccio tells the story of Titus and Gisippus, two friends whose mutual devotion is threatened when Titus falls in love with Gisippus's fiancée.

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Mythical male pairings such as Orestes and Pylades (above) served as models of male romantic friendship among the Romans and later Westerners.
  
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