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    AC Benus
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The Great Mirror of Same-Sex Love - Prose - 33. Oliver Goldsmith "Love and Friendship, or the story of Alcander and Septimius"

Now that we have a taste for what Classical novels were like, we can appreciative this retelling of an ancient love story.


Love and Friendship

or, the story of Alcander and Septimius

(Taken from a Byzantine Historian)


Athens, even long after the decline of the Roman empire, still continued as the seat of learning, politeness, and wisdom. Theodoric, the Ostrogoth, repaired the schools which barbarity was suffering to fall into decay, and continued those pensions to men of learning, which avaricious governors had monopolized.

In this city, and about this period, Alcander and Septimius were fellow-students together; the one, the most subtle reasoner of all the Lyceum; the other, the most eloquent speaker in the academic grove. Mutual admiration soon begot a friendship. Their fortunes were nearly equal, and they were natives of the two most celebrated cities in the world; for Alcander was of Athens, and Septimius came from Rome.

In this state of harmony they lived for some time together, when Alcander, after passing the first part of his youth in the indolence of philosophy, thought at length of entering into the busy world; and as a step previous to this, placed his affections on Hypatia, a lady of exquisite beauty. The day of their intended nuptials was fixed; the previous ceremonies were performed; and nothing now remained but her being conducted in triumph to the apartment of the intended bridegroom.

Alcander's exultation in his own happiness, or being unable to enjoy any satisfaction without making his friend Septimius a partner, prevailed upon him to introduce Hypatia to his fellow-student; which he did, with all the gaiety of a man who found himself equally happy in friendship and love. But this was an interview fatal to the future peace of both; for Septimius no sooner saw her but he was smitten with an involuntary passion; and though he used every effort to suppress desires at once so imprudent and unjust, the emotions of his mind in a short time became so strong, that they brought on a fever, which the physicians judged incurable.

During this illness Alcander watched him with all the anxiety of fondness, and brought his mistress to join in those amiable offices of friendship. The sagacity of the physicians, by these means, soon discovered that the cause of their patient's disorder was love; and Alcander, being apprised of their discovery, at length extorted a confession from the reluctant dying lover.

It would but delay the narrative to describe the conflict between love and friendship in the breast of Alcander on this occasion; it is enough to say that the Athenians were at that time arrived at such refinement in morals, that every virtue was carried to excess : in short, forgetful of his own felicity, he gave up his intended bride, in all her charms, to the young Roman. They were married privately by his connivance, and this unlooked-for change of fortune wrought as unexpected a change in the constitution of the now happy Septimius. In a few days he was perfectly recovered, and set out with his fair partner for Rome. Here, by an exertion of those talents which he was so eminently possessed of, Septimius, in a few years, arrived at the highest dignities of the state, and was constituted the city judge, or praetor.

In the meantime, Alcander not only felt the pain of being separated from his friend and his mistress, but a prosecution was commenced against him by the relations of Hypatia, for having basely given up his bride, as was suggested, for money. His innocence of the crime laid to his charge, and even his eloquence in his own defense, were not able to withstand the influence of a powerful party. He was cast, and condemned to pay an enormous fine. However, being unable to raise so large a sum at the time appointed, his possessions were confiscated, he himself was stripped of the habit of freedom, exposed as a slave in the market-place, and sold to the highest bidder.

A merchant of Thrace becoming his purchaser, Alcander, with some other companions of distress, was carried into that region of desolation and sterility. His stated employment was to follow the herds of an imperious master, and his success in hunting was all that was allowed him to supply his precarious subsistence. Every morning awaked him to a renewal of famine or toil, and every change of season served but to aggravate his unsheltered distress. After some years of bondage, however, an opportunity of escaping offered; he embraced it with ardor; so that travelling by night, and lodging in caverns by day, to shorten a long story, he at last arrived in Rome. The same day on which Alcander arrived, Septimius sat administering justice in the forum, whither our wanderer came, expecting to be instantly known, and publicly acknowledged, by his former friend. Here he stood the whole day amongst the crowd, watching the eyes of the judge, and expecting to be taken notice of; but he was so much altered by a long succession of hardships, that he continued unnoticed among the rest; and in the evening, when he was going up to the praetor's chair, he was brutally repulsed by the attending lictors. The attention of the poor is generally driven from one ungrateful object to another; for night coming on, he now found himself under the necessity of seeking a place to lie in, and yet knew not where to apply. All emaciated, and in rags, as he was, none of the citizens would harbor so much wretchedness; and sleeping in the streets might be attended with interruption or danger; in short, he was obliged to take up his lodging in one of the tombs without the city, the usual retreat of guilt, poverty, and despair. In this mansion of horror, laying his head upon an inverted urn, he forgot his miseries for awhile in sleep, and found on his flinty couch more ease than beds of down can supply to the guilty.

As he continued here, about midnight two robbers came to make this their retreat, but happening to disagree about the division of their plunder, one of them stabbed the other to the heart, and left him weltering in blood at the entrance. In these circumstances he was found next morning dead at the mouth of the vault. This naturally inducing a farther inquiry, an alarm was spread; the cave was examined; and Alcander being found, was immediately apprehended, and accused of robbery and murder. The circumstances against him were strong, and the wretchedness of his appearance confirmed suspicion. Misfortune and he were now so long acquainted, that he at last became regardless of life. He detested a world where he had found only ingratitude, falsehood, and cruelty; he was determined to make no defense; and, thus lowering with resolution, he was dragged bound with cords before the tribunal of Septimius. As the proofs were positive against him, and he offered nothing in his own vindication, the judge was proceeding to doom him to a most cruel and ignominious death, when the attention of the multitude was soon diverted by another object. The robber, who had been really guilty, was apprehended selling his plunder, and struck with a panic, had confessed his crime. He was brought bound to the same tribunal, and acquitted every other person of any partnership in his guilt. Alcander's innocence therefore appeared; but the sullen rashness of his conduct remained a wonder to the surrounding multitude; but their astonishment was still further increased when they saw their judge start from his tribunal to embrace the supposed criminal. Septimius recollected his friend and former benefactor, and hung upon his neck with tears of pity and joy. Need the sequel be related? Alcander was acquitted, shared the friendship and honors of the principal citizens of Rome, lived afterward in happiness and ease, and left it to be engraved on his tomb, that


“No circumstances are so desperate,

Which Providence may not relieve.”

—Oliver Goldsmith,[i]







[i] “Love and Friendship or, the story of Alcander and Septimius” Oliver Goldsmith The Bee (London October 6th, 1759), ps. 13-17



Copyright © 2021 AC Benus; All Rights Reserved.
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At last, Septimius became sensible of the identity of the ragged shambling man before him. What words must have passed between them in the twilight of that day when, face to face, they had none but themselves to accompany them into the starry night? 

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On 11/26/2021 at 10:49 AM, Parker Owens said:

At last, Septimius became sensible of the identity of the ragged shambling man before him. What words must have passed between them in the twilight of that day when, face to face, they had none but themselves to accompany them into the starry night? 

Reading these accounts and summaries of ancient tales, one can really acquire a taste for them. It seems Lew Wallace probably had when he wrote his now-famous novel Ben-Hur (in 1880, BTW). 

Thanks for your comments; they are always appreciated

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