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In recent years, many scholars in the fields of Classical Reception Studies and Queer Studies have explored in detail the fascinating role that “imaginary ‘returns’ to ancient Greece by gay men and lesbians” (Bravmann 1997, 48) played in the articulation of queer identities during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Less attention has been paid, however, to the ways in which Greek antiquity was evoked and transformed by queer writers, artists, and activists in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s as a result of the sudden onset of HIV/AIDS. In this paper, I will focus on one aspect of this engagement with the ancient Greek world, namely, on allusions to and co-optations of the militant eroticism embodied by the figures of Achilles and Patroclus as well as the army of lovers described by Plato in the Symposium.

            These queer “ancestors,” I will argue, were evoked as models of a possible resistance against the threat posed by the virus and by heightened homophobia. Thus, for instance, a leaflet distributed at the 1990 NYC Pride March contained a section entitled “An Army of Lovers Cannot Lose” that urged queer people to fight to protect their very existence and to reassert the legitimacy of their desires. That the title’s allusion to the regiment of erastai and erōmenoi of the Symposium and the Sacred Band of Thebes was intentional is made clear by the emphasis that the anonymous authors placed on the “gifts from our ancient Greek Dykes, Fags.” In this manifesto, as in a short essay by the same title that the Chicano artist Ray Navarro wrote that same year, the military and erotic partnerships found in ancient Greek texts became archetypes of successful defiance in the political sphere.

Similar references and allusions occur also in more intimate reflections on the epidemic – such as memoirs and poems – written in the same years. Not all of them, though, display the same optimistic tone as the leaflet, for the uneven progression of the disease in different persons often disrupted the similarity between ancient and modern lovers. Emblematic are some of the remarks of the writer Emmanuel Dreuilhe in the diary Mortal Embrace (1987). Discussing his “immense solitude” facing the virus after the death of his lover Oliver, he compares himself to “Achilles without Patroclus” and openly admits his envy for “those AIDS patients who are partners in a loving relationship” since “[t]hey’re like Spartan warriors, a regiment of lovers” (p. 74). Yet in a previous section of the diary he makes clear that the rapidity with which Oliver’s health declined made the imitation of that model impossible for them; as he supported Oliver, Dreuilhe resembled not Achilles on the battlefield but Aeneas trying “to carry a frail old man’s body on [his] back” (p. 41).

As is clear, then, in Greek myth and literature gay men facing HIV/AIDS found examples of militant eroticism that they attempted to imitate both publicly and privately.