Shipping in Plato's Symposium

Juliette Harrisson

[0.1] Abstract—A comparison between Achilles/Patroclus shipping in Plato's Symposium (ca. 427–347 BC) and Dean/Castiel shipping in Supernatural (2005–), asking whether slash shipping is always necessarily deliberately transgressive.

[0.2] Keywords—Audience analysis; Fan community; Fan fiction; Gender; TV

Harrisson, Juliette. 2016. "Shipping in Plato's Symposium." In "The Classical Canon and/as Transformative Work," edited by Ika Willis, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 21.

1. Introduction

[1.1]Homer never explicitly describes the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus as sexual in the Iliad, yet when Phaedrus compares Homer and Aeschylus' representations of their relationship in Plato's Symposium, he takes it for granted that they were lovers. This has been much discussed among classicists over the years and is usually understood in terms of classical Greek cultural sexual norms. But what does that really tell us about Plato, or about fan readings of popular works? My aim here is to offer a fresh perspective on both ancient literature and modern shipping by comparing Plato's shipping of Achilles/Patroclus in the Symposium (ca. 427–347 BC) with Dean/Castiel shipping in Supernatural (2005–). We often think of fan works and reinterpretations of texts as transgressive, deliberately going against the cultural flow and reworking culturally normative texts into something subversive and different. However, I want to suggest that in these two particular cases, fan interpretations of a text—even slash interpretations—can in fact work to make the text more culturally normative, to bring it in line with a more traditional story thought to be lacking in the source text.

[1.2]Classical scholars take it for granted that ancient literature reworks and reimagines mythic material in many different ways, and when we teach, we explain how different this sort of approach is to much of modern literature. However, as Cynthia Jenkins has pointed out, fan fiction is one area where authors reimagine and rewrite the same events or relationships between the same characters in a myriad different ways, creating a multiplicity of readings on the same basic setup in the same way as those who work with Arthurian legends or Robin Hood stories (Green, Jenkins, and Jenkins 2006). In the case of myths told in the Homeric poems the Iliad and the Odyssey, the similarity is even stronger because Homer, the father of Greek literature, was so revered by later generations that although the myths theoretically remain malleable, in practice, nearly all later retellings, especially those in writing, are responding to, retelling, or deliberately deviating from the Homeric source text, which therefore fulfills a role analogous to the source text or canon provided by a film, book series, or TV show in modern fan communities.

[1.3]Shipping, the desire to see two particular characters in a work of fiction engage in a romantic and/or sexual relationship, manifests itself in two primary ways in modern fandom: reading and writing fan fiction, and reading and writing metacommentary—that is, analyses of the source text focused on drawing out perceived subtext relating to the desired relationship. Slash shipping, the desire to see two male characters in a romantic/sexual relationship, is a particularly popular form of shipping (Green, Jenkins, and Jenkins 2006). The Dean/Castiel pairing, also known as Destiel, like the discussion of Achilles/Patroclus shipping in Plato, is the subject of heated arguments between fans. Many who ship these couples do not just enjoy reading the source text in a subversive way, choosing to prefer a romantic interpretation where they know, canonically, that none exists; they also argue that the ship is or will be made canonical (this is related to the equally popular interpretation of Dean as bisexual), so metacommentaries as well as fan fiction are particularly lively (note 1). In Plato's case, it was of course impossible for Homer to elaborate on the nature of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus; however, because it was equally impossible for the long‐dead poet to deny it categorically, metacommentaries on the subject in the ancient world remained lively, with authors firmly insisting their reading and their reading alone is correct (Clarke 1978).

[1.4]Both Achilles/Patroclus (assuming the Iliad as a source text) and Destiel fall into an area somewhere between canon shipping (rooting for relationships that are already romantic or sexual in the source text, or that become so at some point, such as Ron/Hermione in the Harry Potter franchise [1997–2011]) and crack shipping (mostly writing fan fiction about relationships that have little or no foundation in the source text and which may be a little bizarre, such as Ron/Giant Squid) (note 2). Many slash ships sit between the two; most of the time, they will never become canon (the characters concerned in modern source texts are often established as heterosexual), but they are far from crack ships—there is enough possible subtext in scenes or dialogue that could be interpreted as indicative of underlying romantic feelings that the relationship can be read that way if the viewer chooses to do so, even if it is never explicitly depicted as romantic in the source text. In canon shipping, viewers respond to the subtext deliberately presented to them by the authors. In crack fiction, they see subtext that was clearly never intended to be there, or they entirely invent relationships. In much slash fiction, the subtext is either unintentional or is included as a wink to the shippers, but it is never intended to become part of the canon. However, it is not entirely the invention of the shippers either; there is something there in the source text that they are responding to.

[1.5]Homer never explicitly defines whether Achilles and Patroclus' relationship is romantic or sexual in the Iliad. As Aeschines puts it, he "avoids giving a name to their friendship" (1.142). Clarke (1978) has summed up the main arguments on either side, himself concluding that although no sexual relationship is made explicit, the two are intended to be in love with each other. Although scholarship on Greek sexuality has developed significantly since Clarke's article, the arguments remain much the same, bar the occasional new suggestion for the translation of a particular word (Davidson 2007). The point remains inconclusive. Homer, no doubt deliberately, leaves the relationship open to alternative readings. While modern TV show runners and writers like those on Supernatural have the advantage of being able to tell viewers unequivocally that any particular two characters' relationship is not intended to be read as romantic, that does not prevent viewers from reading it that way, and in some cases, including that of Dean and Castiel, a combination of humorous scenes revolving around the characters' sexuality, in‐jokes aimed at the shippers, and willful alternative readings of scenes relating to different kinds of love mean that many fans have argued vehemently that the relationship can and perhaps should be read as romantic, regardless of the repeated statements to the contrary by the actors, writers, and producers (note 3).

2. Achilles/Patroclus in Plato's Symposium

[2.1] Plato's Symposium is a fascinating hybrid text; it is a philosophical dialogue with elements of tragedy, comedy, and what we might now call real person slash, providing all sorts of dramatically imagined details about romantic or sexual relationships between tragic poet Agathon and Pausanias, and between infamous Athenian statesman Alcibiades and the philosopher Socrates (note 4). Plato was also, like many Greek writers, quite the fan of Homer, and he quotes Homer in the majority of his works (Yamagata 2012). Sitting nested within an elaborate framing device, the main text of the Symposium reports a conversation between a group of men, including Socrates, at a drinking party, in which several different characters give speeches eulogizing Eros, the god personifying erotic, desiring love. The first speaker, Phaedrus, talks about the benefits of Love, one of which is the willingness to die for a sexual partner, and it is in this context that Plato, through Phaedrus, offers a brief metacommentary on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus as portrayed in the Iliad.

[2.2]In Phaedrus' short speech, we see evidence of both fan fiction and metacommentary on Achilles/Patroclus. Phaedrus has a disagreement with a lost trilogy of Aeschylus that depicted the Achilles/Patroclus relationship as that between Achilles as an older lover and Patroclus as a youth with whom Achilles was in sexual relationship—a relationship common in Greece at the time (Aeschylus, fragment 64). Phaedrus does not doubt that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers, but he objects to Aeschylus' depiction of Patroclus as the eromenos, the younger object of Achilles' love, and Achilles as the erastes, the older man who actively loves Patroclus. Phaedrus is responding to Aeschylus' fan fiction, which wrote a particular form of homoerotic relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, with a metacommentary on how he believes the relationship should be read in the Iliad:

[2.3] Aeschylus talks nonsense when he says that Achilles was Patroclus' lover: he was more beautiful than Patroclus…and was still beardless, as well as much younger than Patroclus, as Homer tells us. Although the gods certainly give special honour to the courage that comes from love, they show still greater amazement and admiration, and respond more generously, when a boyfriend [eromenos, "beloved"] shows affectionate concern towards his lover [erastes] than when a lover [erastes] does towards his boyfriend [paidikos, "youth," "darling"]. (Plato, Symposium, 180a–b) (note 5)

[2.4]In some ways, what Phaedrus is doing here may seem quite different than modern shipping and fan fiction. Modern slash shipping, and particularly the writing of slash fan fiction, is predominantly carried out by female fans, especially in the specific case of Supernatural, a show with a predominantly female fan base (Green, Jenkins, and Jenkins 2006). The speakers and intended audience of Plato's Symposium are, as was traditional in Greek symposia, all male, with the sole female voice (Diotima) mediated through Socrates, himself written by Plato.

[2.5]More significantly, slash shipping and fan fiction, and indeed cult fandom in general, are often identified with a feeling of Otherness among the fans and a conscious desire to transgress social boundaries and norms (note 6). However, Phaedrus' aim here is to force Homer's characters into what is for him a cultural norm.

[2.6] In ancient Greece, equal relationships between adult men were far from unknown, and indeed two of the (adult) speakers in the Symposium, Agathon and Pausanias, are referred to as a couple (Plato, Symposium, 193b–c). However, the most common type of homoerotic relationship seems to have been that of an older lover and a younger protégé/beloved. Following Kenneth James Dover (1989), these are referred to as the erastes (older lover) and the eromenos (younger beloved). Dover emphasized the importance of the power differential in these relationships, which is based primarily on which lover takes the active role and which the passive in the sexual act. Younger, beardless youths may take the passive part of the eromenos, but as they get older, they must stop playing this role and take on the role of the active lover (Dover 1989). The extent to which the exact sexual positions adopted were significant has been questioned in recent years by Davidson (2001), but the essential fact remains that one of the most common homoerotic relationships in classical Greece was understood as being between an older man who would tutor his younger "boyfriend" in a variety of ways, possibly but not necessarily including a sexual relationship (Skinner 2014). Both Aeschylus and Plato's Phaedrus see what they perceive to be a homoerotic relationship between Achilles and Patroclus and read Homer through these cultural norms.

[2.7]Phaedrus is not trying to demonstrate that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers; he seems to assume this assertion will be accepted largely without question by his audience. Rather, his problem with Aeschylus' fan fiction is that Aeschylus has portrayed the lovers the wrong way around, presenting Patroclus as the eromenos, the beloved, even though Homer clearly states that Achilles is younger than Patroclus. Phaedrus is not suggesting a transgressive or controversial reading of the relationship but rather is forcing the relationship to conform to what he sees as culturally and socially appropriate. Moreover, the gender of the characters is not particularly important to him, as his main point compares Achilles' relationship with Patroclus with the relationship of heteronormative married couple Alcestis and Admetus. It is the relative positions of the lovers in a hierarchical relationship (with Achilles as eromenos compared to the female partner, Alcestis) that concerns him.

3. What is a romantic norm anyway?

[3.1]Is this, then, a very different type of reaction to the source text than modern slash shipping, whether through metacommentary or fan fiction? There are certainly ships out there, especially crack ships, that are designed to be transgressive, and to some extent, any slash ship is deviating from what is usually a strongly heteronormative source text. However, in an increasingly liberal Western society in which many shippers also support gay rights, just because a ship is slash does not make it drastically transgressive. This is where the comparison with Destiel shipping becomes especially revealing, as Destiel shipping, by Supernatural standards, is actually conforming to more of a cultural norm than the other two main ships in the Supernatural fandom, Wincest and J2.

[3.2]In the early years of Supernatural, the two most popular ships were both, in their different ways, somewhat controversial and distinctly outside Western social norms. Assuming fans were not interested in heterosexual or canonical relationships, the choice was between Wincest or J2, with Wincest by far the most popular (Turner 2009). That is, most authors of slash fan fiction were, for the most part, choosing between stories embracing the taboo subject of incest (Wincest, or Winchester incest), or real person slash imagining sexual encounters between the actors who play the Winchester brothers, Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki (J2), a genre of fan fiction that makes many fans uncomfortable because it co‑opts real people, rather than fictional characters, into fans' sexual fantasies (Flegal and Roth 2010; Larsen and Zubernis 2013). Opportunities for metacommentary, reading the show as a love story, were limited. No matter how great the actors' chemistry on screen or how important the brothers' relationship, it is clear that the actors are not in a sexual relationship, and it is also clear that the brothers are not going to enter into a sexual relationship on the show. Such activity is thus always beyond and slightly separated from the show itself.

[3.3]In season 4, however, with the introduction of a non‑Winchester‑related character, Castiel, new possibilities opened up for a much more socially acceptable, ship‑based reading of the series. There were still issues, primarily concerning consent (since Castiel, an angel, is occupying the body of a human being, Jimmy Novak), but most Destiel shippers were happy to gloss over this or assume that Jimmy died on one of the two occasions when Castiel was blown to bits, and indeed this was finally confirmed in canon (for non‑ship‑related reasons) in 10.9 "The Things We Left Behind." With the confirmation that Castiel's body is now definitely his own, there is nothing especially controversial or unusual about the relationship, aside from the fact that it is between two men. Although this means it is unlikely to be written into the source text, because, a few teasing references aside, both characters have been established as heterosexual, this is hardly a controversial or taboo idea in modern, liberal, Western society. Far from breaking cultural norms and taboos, shipping Destiel actually provides a more culturally acceptable romantic relationship for Dean Winchester—a character whose canonical heterosexual romances have not often connected with viewers.

[3.4]One might suggest that if fans are after a traditional romantic story, they will surely turn to shipping the canonical heteronormative romances provided by the source text. However, although both the Iliad and Supernatural provide their male heroes with female love interests, in both cases, these women play a far less significant role in the story than Patroclus or Castiel, and in neither case are the female characters especially popular with fans.

[3.5]In the Iliad, the only significant female characters who are not goddesses are Helen and Briseis. Helen is a pawn of Aphrodite, and Briseis is a trophy who exists solely to motivate male characters and mourn them when they die (compare this with the much more three‑dimensional character of Odysseus' wife, Penelope, in the Odyssey). Supernatural, meanwhile, is notorious for lacking engaging female characters and killing off those it has, with only mother or daughter figures (Jody Miller, Krissy Chambers, and Claire Novak) standing much chance of survival. Although Sam Winchester is associated with a series of tragic romances often ending in the death of the female partner (starting with the pilot episode), Dean's love interests have tended to be lackluster and have met with fan disapproval (Borsellino 2009; Flegal and Roth 2010). A frequently repeated online rumor has it that one of the more promising potential love interests, Anna Milton, was killed off after her story and relationship with Dean (minus the sexual element) were given to Castiel. Although the character is known for his many one‑night stands, Dean has not had a significant female love interest since his girlfriend, Lisa Braeden, was written out late in season 6. Because Castiel has apparently largely usurped any other relationship story for Dean (with the notable exception of a male character, Benny the vampire, in season 8), by making Dean and Castiel's story a romance, fans are not so much looking for an outsider alternative as writing a fairly traditional love story onto a character who has not been given a really satisfying romantic story line in 10 years of the series.

[3.6]Readers or viewers interested in the hero's love life therefore turn to other male characters in viewing the work through this lens, either in their reading of the original work or by writing fan fiction. Both Plato and modern writers of fan fiction have explained the attraction of slash in this way, albeit coming from very different views of men and women. The second speaker in Symposium, Pausanias, is of the opinion that the best type of love, heavenly love, is directed at boys who have grown a beard and never at women, because only mature men have gained intelligence (Plato, Symposium, 181d). In 1990, slash fiction fan Cat Anestopoulo suggested that the lack of depictions of intelligent women in fiction is one of the reasons some fans turn to slash fiction. It is impossible, Anestopoulo explains, to identify with the "screaming ninny" usually presented as a romantic interest in genre fiction or to root for the hero to form a romantic relationship with such a woman; he has to have a relationship with "someone who produces emotional reactions in him that you find interesting. And that person is unlikely to be the screaming ninny . . . [the 'male buddy'] is the only one who shows a sustained interest in the hero" (quoted in Green, Jenkins, and Jenkins 2006, 67–68). While I am sure Anestopoulo would not agree with Plato's Pausanias on the general intelligence of women, she has produced more or less the same explanation for the popularity of slash that Pausanias suggested for the superiority of homoerotic relationships. In Plato's case, it may be that neither he nor his audience was interested in female characters, whereas female slash authors lack interesting female characters with whom to identify. The net result is the same: a strong interest in male/male relationships that are not explicit in the text. For a relationship, romantic or otherwise, to be compelling, it has to be between two fully rounded, intelligent characters.

4. Conclusions

[4.1]What I hope to have demonstrated here is that in some cases slash shipping can be about imposing a traditional story where there is none. This is by no means a prescriptive statement about slash shipping in general, much of which remains deliberately Othered and transgressive. None of the prompts for slash shipping suggested here will apply to every text—the BBC/HBO series Rome (2005–7), for example, also produces a high proportion of slash shipping despite including a number of richly drawn female characters, and the popular combinations of Pullo/Vorenus and Antony/Brutus are certainly less normative than the canonical heterosexual relationships existing for three of these four (Potter 2015).

[4.2]However, in some cases, slash fiction may be about looking for a relationship that does conform to cultural norms—homoerotic but not otherwise transgressive—where no satisfying relationship of this kind is provided by the source text. Much has been written trying to understand why people write slash fan fiction or ship slash couples. There are many different reasons, but primary among them is the desire to read our own fantasies onto the fictional characters we enjoy. We want to read love into the stories we connect with. Sometimes that might be a transgressive, taboo‑breaking love, but sometimes we simply crave an intimate relationship between fully realized, three‑dimensional characters. If such a relationship is not provided within the source text, we go looking for it elsewhere. Gender is largely irrelevant—it is about love, wherever we find it. It was like that for Aeschylus and for Plato's Phaedrus, and it is the same for Destiel fans.

5. Acknowledgments

[5.1]Thanks to Billie Doux for alerting me to the joys of Supernatural, to Naoko Yamagata and Amanda Potter for kindly sharing their work with me, to Gideon Nisbet and Tony Keen for further help and suggestions, and to Ika Willis for getting me involved.

6. Notes

1. Destiel is a particularly popular ship, being the most frequently reblogged ship on Tumblr in 2014 ( Further examples of Supernatural meta on various topics, including slash shipping and Dean's sexuality, can be found at the Supernatural wiki ( Further, it should be noted that Achilles/Patroclus shipping is alive and well, accounting for (as of March 17, 2015) 94 of 173 fan fiction stories responding to the Iliad at the Archive of Our Own (, and represented in the mainstream by Madeline Miller's 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction–winning novel The Song of Achilles. However, the aim here is to compare Plato's response to Homer with a modern response to a modern text.

2. See TV Tropes on crack pairings ( On Supernatural crack fiction, see Turner (2009). Crack fiction in ancient literature is less in evidence, probably because when the most common versions of many stories feature gods turning into swans, men turning into women, and, in the case of Achilles in particular, the hero disguising himself as a woman and living among maidens to escape battle, crack fiction is both unnecessary and difficult to tell apart from more widely accepted retellings.

3. Humorous scenes implying that Dean has a crush on a male TV character (5.8 "Changing Channels") or suggesting he's flattered when he thinks another man is flirting with him (8.13 "Everybody Hates Hitler") are frequently read by Dean/Castiel shippers (among others) as evidence that Dean Winchester is not so fervently heterosexual as outward appearances would suggest, allowing them to read declarations of affection toward Castiel such as "I need you" and "We're family" (8.17 "Goodbye Stranger") as romantic rather than brotherly or platonic. This is a significant difference between Dean/Castiel shipping and the older Wincest ship. While Wincest fans might choose to read declarations of brotherly love in a sexual way and see subtext in their interactions (Larsen and Zubernis 2013), they are far less inclined to assume that anyone on the writing staff is writing it that way deliberately or to claim that this is the best or only way to read the scene.

4. On tragedy, comedy, and drama in the Symposium, see Crick and Poulakos (2008).

5. A more literal translation of the first section in Greek would be, "Aeschylus talks nonsense when he says that Achilles loved Patroclus"; however, since Phaedrus' point is that, like Alcestis, who sacrificed herself for her husband, the love of Achilles for Patroclus was especially impressive because he was willing to die for him, this should be understood as meaning that Phaedrus sees Achilles as the beloved, the eromenos, or, as Phaedrus puts it, the paidikos (young boy) rather than the erastes (older lover), not an assertion that the love in the relationship was one‑sided.

6. On cult fandom and identification with the Other, see Felschow (2010).

7. Works cited

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Potter, Amanda. 2015. "Slashing Rome: Season Two Rewritten in Online Fanfiction." In "Rome" Season Two: Trial and Triumph, edited by Monica Cyrino, 219–30. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Skinner, Marilyn B. 2014. Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture. 2nd ed. Chichester: Wiley‑Blackwell.

Turner, Emily. 2009. "Scary Just Got Sexy: Transgression in Supernatural and Its Fanfiction." In In the Hunt: Unauthorized Essays on "Supernatural," edited by Leah Wilson and, 155–64. Dallas: BenBella Books.

Yamagata, Naoko. 2012. "Use of Homeric References in Plato and Xenophon." Classical Quarterly 62 (1): 130–44.