Waugh on Knossos

EvelynwaughIn 1929 Evelyn Waugh went on a Mediterranean cruise, which he subsequently wrote an account of in a book titled Labels (Duckworth 1930).

Part of this book was republished in When the Going was Good (Duckworth 1946) and it was while reading this today that I came across Waugh’s account of his visit to the Minoan royal palace at Knossos.

As will be seen, Waugh was not impressed by what he saw. The reason for his criticism of the palace is interesting. It’s almost as if some baleful memory has stuck to the walls of the palace and casts its long shadow on him as he walks around.

The Minoan period is not this blog’s usual area of interest, though Achilles does give the two a connection. That, and the fact that Evelyn Waugh is one of my favourite writers means I could not possibly ignore his foray into the ancient past.

On our way east we stopped for the day at Crete…

I accompanied a party of fellow passengers to the museum to admire the barbarities of Minoan culture.

One cannot well judge the merits of Minoan painting, since only a few square inches of the vast area exposed to our consideration are earlier than the last twenty years, and their painters have tempered their zeal for reconstruction with a predilection for covers of Vogue.

We chartered a Ford car and drove with a guide to Cnossos, where Sir Arthur Evans (our guide referred to him always as “Your English Lord Evans”) is rebuilding the palace. At present only a few rooms and galleries are complete, the rest being an open hillside scarred with excavations, but we were able to form some idea of the magnitude and intricacy of the operation from the plans which were posted up for our benefit on the chief platform.

I think that if our English Lord Evans ever finishes even a part of his vast undertaking, it will be a place of oppressive wickedness. I do not think that it can be only imagination and the recollection of a bloodthirsty mythology which makes something fearful and malignant of the cramped galleries and stunted alleys, these colonnades of inverted, conical pillars, these rooms that are mere blind passages at the end of sunless staircases; this squat little throne, set on a landing where the paths of the palace intersect; it is not the seat of a lawgiver nor a divan for the recreation of a soldier; here an ageing despot might crouch and have borne to him, along the walls of a whispering gallery, barely audible intimations of his own murder

(A Pleasure Cruise in 1929 from When the Going was Good pp.55-56)

The picture of Evelyn Waugh and partly restored Knossos are from Wikipedia

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The Kiss of Life

V. Proskynesis
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… Callisthenes… without prostrating himself, walked up to Alexander and offered to kiss him. Alexander, at the moment, was talking to Hephaestion, and did not trouble to observe whether or not Callisthenes had properly performed the act of obeisance, but one of the Companions – Demetrius, son of Pythonax – mentioned the fact that he had omitted to do so before going up for his kiss. Thereupon Alexander refused to allow him to kiss him.
…..‘Well then,’ Callisthenes exclaimed, ‘I must go back to my place one kiss the poorer’

Arrian’s source for this anecdote is Chares, Alexander’s chamberlain. We know this because Plutarch names him as such when telling the exact same story (Life of Alexander Para 54).

Plutarch’s account also includes a postscript that may also have come from Chares. In it, he describes how a ‘rift… developed’ between Alexander and Callisthenes as a result of the latter’s refusal to prostrate himself before the king. As a result of this,

… it was easy for Hephaestion to be believed when he said that Callisthenes had promised him that he would do obeisance to Alexander and had then broken his word.
(Para 55)

When I first read this, it seemed to me that Plutarch was implying bad faith on Hephaestion’s part; or, to put it more baldly, that he was lying. When I read ‘to be believed’ I heard straight after ‘even though no such thing happened’.

We know from the Philotas affair that Hephaestion was not beyond acting maliciously (see Curtius VI.11.15) but whether he is lying here I can not say. A feeling about a text – especially one that is a translation – is really not enough to convict a man.

What I would say is that the postscript, if true, definitely provides proof that Hephaestion was not above manipulation. We should not be shocked by this. Indeed, we should not even be surprised: manipulation of one kind or another is part and parcel of all political systems and people’s lives. The polite word for it is persuasion. The real question is whether it is done honestly and for a good cause.

Was Hephaestion honest?
As we have no proof that Hephaestion lied when he said that Callisthenes had broken his word we are bound to give him the benefit of the doubt and say that – at the very least – he believed he was telling the truth (if we go any further we risk slandering Callisthenes).

Was Hephaestion’s cause good?
Callisthenes appears to have been a rather proud man, perhaps one who was easy to dislike; Hephaestion’s actions, though, were more likely inspired by the fact that the court historian belonged to the rival traditionalist party – that is, those who opposed the king’s adoption of Persian customs and dress.

To us, supporting the progressives in Alexander’s court, that is, those who stood alongside the king in his efforts to draw Greek and barbarian together, seems a straight forward decision. Such an inclusive policy is in perfect accord, after all, with dominant ideology of our own age. However, the matter is more complicated than that. It is not at all clear that Alexander intended Greeks and barbarians to be equal* (any more than it is clear in our age that some who profess to believe in equality really believe in any such thing).

Personally, I think Hephaestion’s cause was not only good but necessary. Callisthenes had shown disrespect to the king and for the sake of Alexander’s authority this needed to be made known. If it wasn’t, Callisthenes’ power would continue to rise and Alexander’s, in however small a way, would fall.


Why did Arrian not include Plutarch’s ‘postscript’? It could be that he didn’t know of it. If it came from Chares, though, maybe he omitted the story because it portrayed Hephaestion in what might be seen as a bad light. Up till now, the son of Amyntor has been portrayed in a wholly complimentary way. If that continues, I would definitely see this as an act of suppression.

* I’m thinking here of Badian’s reply to Tarn’s essay ‘Alexander the Great and the Unity of Mankind‘ in Historia 7 (1958)

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Divide and Rule

IV. Joint-Command of the Companion Cavalry
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Alexander split the Companions into two separate divisions and appointed, respectively, Hephaestion son of Amyntor and Cleitus son of Dropidas to command them.

The appointment of Hephaestion and Black Cleitus as joint-commanders of the Companion Cavalry was necessitated by the death of its previous leader – Philotas.

Waldemar Heckel takes a cynical view of Hephaestion’s appointment, calling it ‘a blatant case of nepotism involving a relatively inexperienced officer’. This is why, according to him, Hephaestion was only given command of half the Companion Cavalry.

For his part, Arrian is quite clear about why Alexander split the command between the two men. ‘The reason for this step’, he says,

was that he did not think it advisable that one man – even a personal friend – should have control of so large a body of cavalry – especially as the Companions were the most famous and formidable of all his mounted troops

Arrian’s view makes perfect sense. Philotas was dead. Whether or not he died a traitor or an innocent man doesn’t matter; he was dead and Alexander had to consider the possibility that the next commander of the Companion Cavalry might take advantage of his men’s anger and grief at the loss of his predecessor, and use it to launch a second conspiracy.

The way Arrian presents the story, Alexander split the Companion Cavalry to protect himself against treachery even from Hephaestion. Given what we know of their friendship, it seems hardly creditable that Alexander should have such a fear, but who knows what the state of his mind after the Philotas affair was. Maybe he really was sufficiently unnerved to want to guard against every – no matter how unlikely – eventually.

Either way, I am not convinced by Heckel’s assertion a. To the best of my knowledge, Alexander was not given to acts of nepotism b. Hephaestion was not ‘a relatively inexperienced officer’. How could he having been part of the expedition since its beginning?


What do the other historians say about Hephaestion’s appointment? Actually, nothing. Unless I have missed a reference (do let me know if I have!), Arrian is the only person to mention it. That is a little surprising as the division and the reason for it were surely very significant matters.


Finally, the absence of this information from the other historians suggests to me that it comes to us via Ptolemy and the royal diaries, where it would have been recorded. As a general himself, Ptolemy would have been perfectly aware of the importance of Alexander’s decision to split the Companion Cavalry and recorded it accordingly.


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Among the Wounded

III. The Battle of Gaugamela
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About sixty of Alexander’s Companions were killed; among the wounded were Coenus, Menidas, and Hephaestion himself.

I am intrigued by the translation ‘and Hephaestion himself‘ (my emphasis). If it reflects what Arrian wrote, the ‘himself’ cuts Hephaestion off from Coenus and Menidas. It is as if Arrian mentions them for one reason – I believe their rank, unless they had another connexion to Alexander that I am not aware of – and Hephaestion for another – undoubtedly his friendship with the king, which Arrian has already firmly established.


Arrian doesn’t mention any particular source for the information he provides. This is in contrast to i. his account of Alexander at Troy where he writes that ‘[o]ne account says that Hephaestion laid a wreath on the tomb of Patroclus’. Of course, Ptolemy or Aristobulos could be that ‘one account’ but if they are it does seem strange that Arrian doesn’t name them, and ii. the anecdote of Sisygambis’ mistake, which Arrian specifically says doesn’t come from Ptolemy or Aristobulos. Can we, then, make any deductions regarding who the source of the Gaugamela quote might be?

I think Arrian got his information from Ptolemy but that Ptolemy used a source common to himself and Diodorus and Curtius, the other two Alexander historians who mention Hephaestion in this context. My reason for saying this is because all three accounts are very similar. Here is Diodorus’ version.

Of the most prominent group of commanders, Hephaestion was wounded with a spear thrust in the arm; he had commanded the bodyguards. Perdiccas and Coenus, of the general’s group, were also wounded, so also Menidas and others of the higher commanders.

And here Curtius’,

Hephaestion suffered a spear-wound in the arm; Perdiccas, Coenus and Menidas were almost killed by arrows.

So, all three accounts state that Hephaestion was injured. Diodorus and Curtius add the detail that he was stabbed in the arm with a spear. All three accounts also state that Coenus and Menidas were injured. Diodorus and Curtius, however, tell us that Perdiccas was among the wounded.

This is why I think Arrian’s source is Ptolemy. In the first years of the Wars of the Successors, Perdiccas was Ptolemy’s mortal enemy. I think Ptolemy excluded him from his memoir as a form of payback. If he wrote his memoir after 310 B.C., over ten years after Perdiccas died, it was a very petty form of payback but that’s beside the point.

On the issue of Ptolemy’s pettiness, could that be why he doesn’t give Hephaestion’s injury – he’ll mention him if he has to, but he’ll go no further than that.

I’m against this idea. If we are going to have a go at Ptolemy, we might also ask ‘if he didn’t want too much attention given to Hephaestion, why did he bother to mention him at all?’ Could it be that actually, Ptolemy simply wasn’t interested – as a matter of course – in dwelling on people’s injuries*? He was a soldier, after all.


One final point. If Ptolemy, Diodorus and Curtius all used the same source, who could it be? Cleitarchus is the obvious name to mention here but I wonder. I doubt Cleitarchus could have got his information from the Macedonian veterans living in Alexandria at the close of the fourth century B.C. If any of them had fought at Gaugamela near Hephaestion et al I doubt they would have had time to observe them.

Rather, I imagine that Ptolemy took his information directly from Callisthenes’ war reports and/or the royal diaries, which he obtained after stealing Alexander’s body. These would have have confirmed to him what he already remembered learning after the conclusion of the battle in 331 B.C.

* Excluding Alexander. If what I say is correct, Arrian will only mention specific injuries when the narrative demands it or when his source is someone other than Ptolemy

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Protector of Men

II. Sisygambis’ Tent
(Arrian II.13)
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Alexander… entered the tent accompanied only by Hephaestion… Darius’ mother, in doubt, owing to the similarity of their dress, which of the two was the King, prostrated herself before Hephaestion, because he was taller than his companion. Hephaestion stepped back, and one of the Queen’s attendant’s rectified her mistake by pointing to Alexander; the Queen withdrew in profound embarrassment, but Alexander merely remarked that her error was of no account, for Hephaestion, too, was an Alexander – a ‘protector of men’.

Hephaestion’s second appearance in Arrian’s text is, perhaps, one of his most famous. It is the moment when not only is he mistaken for Alexander, but is then confirmed as another Alexander by the king himself.

But note that the translator, J R Hamilton, has Alexander say that Hephaestion is ‘an Alexander – a ‘protector of men” (my emphasis). This is not quite the same as saying that Hephaestion is his alter ego.

When I noticed this, I immediately went to the other Alexander historians to see what form of words they used in their accounts of the same scene.

Justin records Alexander’s visit to the royal women’s tent (here) but does not mention Hephaestion. Plutarch quotes a letter from Alexander to Parmenion in which he says,

‘… I have never seen nor wished to see Darius’ wife… I have not even allowed her beauty to be mentioned in my presence’.
(Para 22)

So far, so unhelpful. Fortunately, Curtius’ and Diodorus’ accounts are of great interest. Not only do they record Alexander’s and Hephaestion’s visit to the royal women’s tent, but after Sisygambis’ mistake, they have Alexander say to her,

‘My lady, you made no mistake. This man is Alexander too.’
(Curtius III.12.17)

“Never mind, Mother. For actually he too is Alexander.”
(Diodorus XVII.37)

Not ‘an Alexander’ but ‘is Alexander’. The difference is only two letters but they throughly alter the meaning of the phrase. Arrian represents Alexander as punning on his name; he does not tell Sisygambis that Hephaestion is him but that he – Hephaestion – is a protector of men like him. Curtius and Diodorus, however, have Alexander saying that Hephaestion is him – that he is his ‘second self’ as the note in Diodorus says.


The disparity between Arrian, Curtius and Diodorus leads us to ask which version of Alexander’s comment is correct? Actually, neither might be. In the passage preceding the above quote, Arrian tells us that the anecdote is not mentioned by Ptolemy or Aristobulos and that he does not record it as being ‘necessarily true’. However, he doesn’t give a reason for saying this.

In his notes to John Yardley’s translation of Curtius, Waldemar Heckel takes the matter a little further by suggesting that the anecdote was invented by Cleitarchus.

Livius would probably agree with him. They say that Cleitarchus,

… sometimes sacrificed historical reliability to keep the story entertaining and to stress the psychological development. Therefore, Cleitarchus’ History of Alexander contains many errors (some serious).

If the story of Sisygambis’ mistake is fictional, I imagine Cleitarchus invented it in order to show how good a man Alexander was in order to show how far he fell after replacing Darius III as Great King – all part of the story’s ‘psychological development’. Hephaestion’s appearance in it, therefore, is no more than a means to an end.


For us, it is a shame if one of Hephaestion’s (most famous) appearances in the histories must be considered a fiction. However, even if it is, the fact that Cleitarchus chose to use the chiliarch bears witness to the latter’s special status with Alexander. Bearing in mind that Cleitarchus was writing within living memory of both men, had Hephaestion been other than the man of the anecdote, it would have fallen flat on its face when Cleitarchus read his work to his audience.

For this reason, perhaps, after consulting other histories, Arrian says that though he doesn’t think Cleitarchus’ anecdote ‘necessarily true’, it does seem to him to be ‘credible enough’. For a moment, I feel as if we have come within touching distance of the historical Hephaestion son of Amyntor but held back from reaching him by the invisible chains of time and an Alexandrian writer’s literary conceit.

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The Second Patroclus

A few days ago I posted my thoughts on Chapter 5 of Mary Renault’s Fire from Heaven over at the Alexander the Great Reading Group on Facebook. You can find the post here.

In this comment, the author talks about how ancient historians treated Hephaestion. Here is my response. As I wrote it, I started wondering why exactly Arrian portrayed Hephaestion in the way that he did.

Unfortunately, the answer to that question died with him but it has made me want to look at Hephaestion’s portrayal throughout his work to see what kind of picture he paints of him not in one moment but overall. As I work (or write) my way through it, I will compare what Arrian says to the other historians.

I would like these posts to be quite short so in each one I will look at just one ‘scene’ and sum up at the end.


I. Troy
(Arrian I.12*)
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We meet Hephaestion for the first time at Troy. According to Arrian,

One account says that Hephaestion laid a wreath on the tomb of Patroclus; another that Alexander laid one on the tomb of Achilles, calling him a lucky man, in that he had Homer to proclaim his deeds and preserve his memory.

Alexander’s actions had a two-fold purpose. He wished to,

i. publicly associate himself and Hephaestion with Achilles and Patroclus
ii. honour Achilles, his ancestor**

Arrian presents Alexander’s and Hephaestion’s actions in an even-handed manner, neither mocking their arrogance for comparing themselves to Achilles and Patroclus nor praising the appropriateness of their actions. Instead, he simply gives the facts of what happened according to the two sources that he is using.

This passage is testimony, therefore, to Arrian’s desire to write an accurate history of Alexander’s life. I think it also stands as testimony to his desire to treat Hephaestion fairly, too. It would have been easy for Arrian to omit mention of Hephaestion’s wreath-laying and focus only on the king’s, and yet, he chose not to do so.

This is in contrast to Diodorus who says simply that Alexander ‘visited the tombs of the heroes Achilles, Ajax, and the rest and honoured them with offerings and other appropriate marks of respect’ (XVII.17) and Justin ‘He also sacrificed at Troy, at the tombs of the heroes who had fallen in the Trojan war.’ (XI.5).

Plutarch writes the account that Arrian might have done if he did not care about, or wished to suppress, Hephaestion’s role.

Once arrived in Asia, [Alexander] went up to Troy, sacrificed to Athena and poured libations to the heroes of the Greek army. He smeared himself with oil and ran a race naked with his companions, as the custom is, and then crowned with a wreath the column which marks the grave of Achilles; he also remarked that Achilles was happy in having found a faithful friend while he lived and a great poet to sing of his deeds after his death.
(Life of Alexander Para 15)

Plutarch’s account makes me think that Arrian wanted to not only give an accurate account of Alexander’s life but also a full one, that is to say, one that does not omit mention of other people in Alexander’s life for the sake of keeping the narrative focused (which is what I think Plutarch is doing).

One final point – Arrian’s two principle sources are Ptolemy I Soter and Aristobulos. They are, in his opinion, ‘the most trustworthy writers’ (I.1) on Alexander. As Arrian doesn’t name his sources for the Troy story, I assume that neither Ptolemy nor Aristobulos mention it, but that the sources come from that part of the ‘popular tradition’ (Ibid) which he is happy to use (as it ‘may well be true’).

If this is the case, the question that naturally arises is why don’t Ptolemy or Aristobulos mention it? I have no answer for Aristobulos as he is supposed to be a flatterer – but perhaps Ptolemy had no interest in Alexander’s Homeric pretensions. Given his position as satrap and pharaoh, it would be easy to understand why he chose to focus on Alexander, son of Ammon.

* I am using the Penguin Classics (1971) tr. J R Hamilton edition

** On his mother’s side

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Camp Notices: Pelium Edition

Megas Alexandros

Megas Alexandros

Camp Notices
Outside Pelium

As I write these words, we prepare ourselves for the first great siege of my reign. Pelium stands before us, proud and unyielding. Inside, Cleitus shakes like a leaf in the wind.

I know this because I have spies everywhere – something that those of you who were not pleased to hear of my accession to the throne might wish to keep in mind.

As for Pelium, her walls may be standing tall today, but they hide a cowardly people – a people who were pleased to sacrifice children in order to defeat us. In doing so, they killed their future. We will smash those walls down and bring an end to their present.



Thar Be Dragons (and Olympias)
Look out of your tent, Macedonian, and you will see commanding heights, thickly wooded (thank you to Ptolemy son of Lagos for letting us use his description). Rumour has it that King Glaucias and his men are moving among the trees, getting ready for an attack. But what or who do YOU think is up there?

Amyntas son of Amyntas My best friend, Amyntas who went missing yesterday
Alexander Lyncestes My chance of ever sitting on the throne
Craterus son of Alexandros I love King Alexander, did you know that?
A Slave [No reply has he has no voice]
Seleucus son of Antiochus My future wife. I’m going to name a tree after her <3
Sparta [Reply not preserved on grounds of irrelevance]

The Daisy List
He loves me, he loves me not… the Macedonian way
Alexander’s enemies do not pick a flower to find out if the king loves them. They do so to find out whether or not he will kill them on the morrow. Those at the top of the list need have no fear. The further down you are, however, watch out

Hephaestion – Obviously
 – a life long friend of the king
Syrmus, king of the Triballians – knows how to show respect
Celts in general – more concerned with the sky falling on their heads
Alexander Lyncestes - alive thanks to his praise
Autariates – a bunch (tribe) of nobodies (acc. to Langaros)
Cleitus son of Bardylis – a revolting man
Glaucias – Cleitus’ mule
Philip II – Stopping Alexander from achieving glory

Expedition Scorecard
First Year of Alexander’s Reign

i. Autariates Illyria MACEDONIAN ALLIED WIN


What makes a Wine Master sad? This does.

(The Master of the Wine)
As we have not progressed very far geographically since my last message I have no new wines to offer visitors to the Pella Wine Tent. However, the wines of Pelium have a good reputation among wine connoisseurs back home so I look holding a tasting session with any available vintage once Alexander has seized control of the city.

To this end, I would be grateful if all Macedonian soldiers could kindly avoid destroying whichever building the tasting session is taking place in when they burn the city down. The fire will artificially raise the temperature of the wine and will ruin what should be a pleasant diversion. Also, it is very difficult to appreciate the full flavour of a wine when you have to keep an eye on the wall beside you that is either ablaze or is about to crash down on top of you.


WANTED – An Exit Strategy
Contact: Cleitus son of Bardylis, Pelium
It is not okay to contact me with negative augurs

WANTED – Any gossip relating to King Langaros
Contact: Cynnane daughter of Philip II, Pella
Please do contact me with (believable) lies

SELLING – booty
Contact: Lysanias and/or Philotas
Sale carried out under orders of Alexander

Contact: Any member of the Macedonian Phalanx
One previous owner, slight damage from shields

GIVING AWAY – Vol. 1 of War Report
Contact: Callisthenes
A must for all loyal Macedonians (forward by Alexander) 

Clubs and Societies

Aristobulos and the Chicken
Hemera Heliou
Aristobulos would like to thank all those who sent their best wishes to his chicken after she nearly drowned during his demonstration of Alexander’s Danube crossing last week. Tonight, Aristobulos will be using rations to create a food-map of the growth of Macedon under Philip II.

After the symposium, his chicken will be eating the map. Guests are welcome to stay and watch.

Aristander Discusses
Hemera Selenes
This week, Aristander and Menelaus Lagides will be discussing how training for the priesthood has changed in the last fifty years. After the symposium, both men will be signing copies of their scroll Fumes from the Ground – High as a kite and holy Mt Olympus.

The Sarissa Wine Club
Hemera Areos
The Club President writes,
“The fact is we are in a camp that is surrounded on all sides by very high land, which is infested with enemy soldiers. We are dead men walking. So why not join the Sarissa Wine Club and be drunk dead men walking? We are a friendly society. But even if you end up with an idiot, you’ll be too wasted to care before too long. Win – win!”
Club Stats
Deaths During Last Meeting – 6
Vacancies 12

Would you like to join the Sarissa Wine Club but are not sure if you have got what it takes to drink wine out of the sharp end of a hollowed out sarissa? Why not visit our merch shop and buy a wine dagger and practice with that? Practice makes perfect, or at least a smaller injury.

The Union of Macedonian Mothers
Hemera Hermu
The UMM is looking for volunteers to visit King Langaros’ court to make sure he is worthy of Princess Cynnane. Full training in assassination techniques will be given in case he is found wanting.

Philotas son of Parmenion – Foraging Techniques
Hemera Dios
Ever wanted to forage but not sure how? Join Philotas and his men as they take to the hills around Pelium in search of roots and berries and all edible shrooms. A fun day out is guaranteed.

Baggage Train

Pella Theatre Company
Hemera Aphrodites
The PTC will be putting on a production of the story of Orestes using interpretive dance. Patrons are asked not to sit in the front three rows due to the amount of flailing about the actors are required to do during the murder scenes.

NB Patrons will also be asked to sign a waiver in the event that Elektra’s dagger should go flying out of her hand again during the unpleasant, matricidal finale of Act One. The company sends its condolences to Amyntas’ widow.

Solon’s Daughters
Hemera Khronu
WANTED Men to bed in our new Celtic girls. Do you see what we did there?

 Sports News

Bull Jumping
The Amyntas son of Amyntas Memorial Bull Jumping Cup will take place on the next hemera Hermu. Prizes will be handed out by his sister Amyntas Cleopatra.


Bull Jumping. Are you “up” for it?

Dangerous Runners
The Dangerous Runners will be holding a marathon in the heights above Pelium – twenty six miles (12 laps) – of avoidable risk. Prizes will not only be given to whoever finishes 1st, 2nd and 3rd but to anyone who comes back with the head of one of Glaucias’ men. Cheats will be executed.

From The Royal Archives
Deleted Portions of Herodotos’ Manuscript
“… the truth is, I hate travelling. All I ever wanted to do was tend my garden during the day and put my feet up at in front of the fire at night.”

Sophocles’ Elektra
(Scored out in the MS)
Elektra Why can’t we all just get along?

Editor Eumenes of Cardia
Deputy Editor A Slave

Picture Credits
Oxeye Daisy – Wikipedia
Broken Amphora – Penelope Wilson Western Delta Regional Survey
Bull Leaper – Wikipedia

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The Flawed Brilliance of Alexander

Justin’s Alexander
Book XII Chapters 11-16
Part Six
Other posts in this series

For this post I am using this translation of Justin’s Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus

Chapter Eleven
During Alexander’s expedition, his men, when not fighting, had somehow managed to get themselves deep in debt. Following the Susa weddings, Alexander paid that debt off in its entirety. It cost him twenty thousand talents to do so. One can only wonder how the men had managed to spend that much. Either way,

[Alexander's] munificence was highly prized, not only for the sum given, but for the character of the gift, and was received not more thankfully by the debtors than by the creditors, exaction being as troublesome to the one as payment to the other.

Once the debts had been paid, Alexander proceeded to discharge his older veterans. Despite the kindness that their king had just showed them, the remaining men complained (during an assembly) that the discharge should be on the basis of service not age.

Justin describes the men as speaking to Alexander not only with ‘entreaties’ but also with ‘reproach’. Rather sulkily, they bid him to ‘“carry on his wars alone, with the aid of his father Ammon, since he looked with disdain on his soldiers.”’

In reply, Alexander oscillated between berating his men and speaking to them ‘in gentler terms’. When neither approach worked, he leapt down from his dais and personally arrested the ringleaders.

Chapter Twelve
His next action was to commend his Persian soldiers for their loyalty and enrol a thousand of them into his bodyguard as well as a number of auxiliaries into the regular army.

This cut the Macedonians to the quick, and they went to Alexander ‘beseeching him with tears “to content himself rather with punishing than ill-treating them.”’ Their pleas worked and Alexander released more veterans.

It is really striking, in this and the previous chapter, how fraught Alexander’s relationship with his men is. One minute they are friends, then enemies, then friends again. It’s as if their relationship has lost its foundations and has become a matter of shifting sands. And why? I think because of the army’s profound tiredness and Alexander’s perennial desire to get his way.

Justin notes that it was around of what we call the Opis Mutiny that Hephaestion died.

Alexander mourned for him longer than became his dignity as a king, built a monument for him that cost twelve thousand talents, and gave orders that he should be worshipped as a god.

Chapter Thirteen
Alexander returned to Babylon ‘from the distant shores of the ocean’. On the way, he was warned by the Magic’“not to enter the city,” for that the “place would be fatal to him.”’. As a result, the king took a diversion to an uninhabited city called Borsippa ‘on the other side of the Euphrates’.

There, however, the philosopher (and professional flatterer) Anaxarchus persuaded him to go to Babylon after all.  Anaxarchus argued that “if things were fixed by fate, they were unknown to mortals, and if they were dependent on the course of nature, were unchangeable.” Que sera, sera.

I am always rather suspicious when I read of about-turns like this. Alexander was not a puppet. He did what he wanted – even in matters of religion* – not what anyone else would have him do. Still, who knows what mental state he was in after Hephaestion’s death; perhaps this did make him more open to influence?

In Babylon, Alexander rested and resumed ‘the entertainments which had been for some time discontinued’ (no doubt as a result of Hephaestion’s death). One night, at a party given by an officer named Medius, the king collapsed in such extreme pain that he asked for someone to kill him.

His friends reported that the cause of his disease was excess in drinking, but in reality it was a conspiracy, the infamy of which the power of his successors threw into the shade.

* For example, when he took part in the attack of Tyre (Arrian 2:27) and crossed the Tanais (aka Jaxartes Arrian 4:4) despite Aristander’s warnings that the omens were against him

Chapter Fourteen
Justin blames Antipater for Alexander’s death. This chapter has a lot to say about Antipater but less about Alexander. I can’t move on, however, without recording what Justin tells us concerning the poison used to kill the king.

The strength of this poison was so great, that it could be contained neither in brass, nor iron, nor shell, nor could be conveyed in any other way than in the hoof of a horse.

Too strong for metal but able to be safely transported in a hoof. Perhaps Justin was tired when he wrote this.

Chapter Fifteen
Justin has been critical of Alexander. But he allow shim to die in a a noble fashion. Meeting his men for the last time, Alexander

… not only did not shed a tear, but showed not the least token of sorrow; so that he even comforted some who grieved immoderately, and gave others messages to their parents

Alexander, Justin says, was as prepared for death as he was for battle. Can any higher praise be given? Once the last soldier had left, the king asked his friends if they would find another like him. When they did not reply,

he said that, “although he did not know that, he knew, and could foretel, and almost saw with his eyes, how much blood Macedonia would shed in the disputes that would follow his death, and with what slaughters, and what quantities of gore, she would perform his obsequies.”

Finally, the royal friends did speak, and they asked Alexander who should succeed him.

He replied, “The most worthy.”

This response meets with Justin’s whole hearted approval. He says that,

Such was [Alexander's] nobleness of spirit, that though he left a son named Hercules, a brother called Aridaeus, and his wife Roxane with child, yet, forgetting his relations, he named only “the most worthy” as his successor; as though it were unlawful for any but a brave man to succeed a brave man, or for the power of so great an empire to be left to any but approved governors.

Unfortunately, as Justin recognises, this nobleness opened the door for the wars that followed.


Six days after Medius’ party, Alexander gave his ring to Perdiccas. This act at guaranteed that there would at least be a transitional government while the identity of the next king was decided.

Chapter Sixteen
Justin sums up Alexander by paying him a number of compliments.

He was a man endowed with powers of mind far beyond ordinary human capacity.

[Olympias] certainly bore in her womb a conception superior to mortality… by no one’s influence was she rendered more illustrious than that of her son.

[As king, Alexander] inspired his soldiers with such confidence in him, that, when he was present, they feared the arms of no enemy, though they themselves were unarmed.

Justin also mentions the omens of Alexander’s ‘future greatness’ that were seen at his birth and acknowledges his unbeaten record as a general. Finally, he concludes, when Alexander died,

[h]e was overcome at last, not by the prowess of any enemy, but by a conspiracy of those whom he trusted, and the treachery of his own subjects.

Before starting this series of posts, I had a picture of Justin as being uniformly negative towards Alexander. That was the impression I got after reading From Tyrant to Philosopher-King.

However, while Justin does not hesitate to mention Alexander’s major fault – his medising – and his minor ones – his manipulativeness, for example – it is also true to say that he is very complimentary about the Macedonian king. No where is this more seen than in the last two chapters above.

It is possible, of course, that I have misread what Justin wrote, or that the translation I have used is not an accurate one, but assuming that neither is the case, I finish this series with a sense of Justin’s fairness and ability to recognise Alexander’s good whenever he sees it.

As for the mediaeval writers who used Justin to denigrate Alexander; well, I’m not going to criticise them., even though it seems to me (after reading the Epitome) that their reading must have been rather selective. The fact is, we know from other sources that Alexander did medise.

One last point – in case Justin has expressed any further opinion of Alexander in the other books of his Epitome and you are wondering why I haven’t mentioned it/them here, it’s because I have only read Books 11 and 12. If you know of any other statements of Justin, though, feel free to mention them in the comments below.


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The Fatal Macedonian

Justin’s Alexander
Book XII Chapters 5-10
Part Five
Other posts in this series

For this post I am using this translation of Justin’s Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus

Chapter Five
In the last post, we saw how Alexander ‘easternised’ and tried to guide his friends and the army towards doing the same. Justin’s exact words are that Alexander ‘desired’ that his friends adopt Persian dress (Chapter 3) and ‘permitted’ his men to marry barbarian women (Chapter 4).

To my mind desired and permitted are positive words. But there is no doubt that Justin himself regarded these developments as a bad thing. He says that Alexander only ‘permitted’ his men to marry barbarian women so that he did,

not appear to be the only person who yielded to the vices of those whom he had conquered in the field

and he talks about Alexander acting ‘as if he gave himself up to the customs of those whom be had conquered.’ (my emphasis).

At the start of Chapter 5, Justin repeats the assertion (made in the previous chapter) that what angered the Macedonians was not simply that Alexander had taken on Persian mores but that in doing so he had ‘cast off the customs of his father Philip and of his country.’

It might have been better for Alexander to row back on his innovations and proceed thereafter more slowly and with greater caution – although in an inherently aggressive society such as his that is debatable – but instead, he turned inwardly against his men for the first time.

Justin describes the king as showing ‘a passionate temper towards those about him, not with a princely severity, but with the vindictiveness of an enemy’. He states that Philotas’ and Parmenion’s execution came about as a result of their criticising the king’s behaviour.

Parmenion’s and Philotas’ executions drove a wedge between the king and his men. What he has done to the ‘innocent old general and his son’, they said, we must expect to happen to ourselves.

What was Alexander’s response? Did he reassure his men that this would not happen*? No. He manipulated them into writing letters home, letters which he then took possession of and read. On doing so,

… he put all those, who had given unfavourable opinions of his conduct, into one regiment, with an intention either to destroy them, or to distribute them in colonies in the most distant parts of the earth.  

It’s one thing to adopt foreign customs, but quite another to treat his own men so badly. The Justinian anti-Alexander propaganda machine is getting into its stride now.

* In the same way he reassured Philotas’ relatives that they would not be punished along with him by repealing the law which allowed for the relatives of a condemned man to be executed as well (Curtius 6.11.20)

Chapter Six
Propaganda it may have have been, but true it also was*. And that was Alexander’s problem – he made these rods for his own back. For example, the king’s murder of Black Cleitus after the latter ‘defended the memory of Philip’ during a drunken party.

To his credit, though, Justin doesn’t simply say ‘Alexander got drunk and killed Cleitus out of pride’. He also relates the king’s regret, his attempt to kill himself, his continued remorse and realisation of how dreadful he must now appear to his men. In the end, Alexander was saved from his grief by his men, and Callisthenes, in particular. The wedge between them, it seems, was not unbridgeable.

* I’m giving Justin the benefit of the doubt here as Curtius (7.2.35-38) and Diodorus (XIII.17.80) also mention the incident.

Chapter Seven
… and yet, still Alexander persisted with his desire to be treated as if was a Persian monarch. Thus, though admittedly with hesitation, ‘he gave orders that he should not be approached with mere salutation, but with adoration’.

Black Cleitus’ death had not lessoned the opposition of the Macedonians. Callisthenes refused to prostrate himself to the king. And, having saved Alexander’s life, now lost his own to him. I wonder if that is why Justin made sure to mention the historian’s role in saving Alexander’s life as it now makes the his death all the more poignant – and bitter.

Several Macedonians died because they refused to indulge Alexander’s whim. But they did not die in vain; at least, not completely – Justin states that while the ‘custom of saluting their king was… retained by the Macedonians, adoration [was] set aside’.

In the Daedalian Mountains, Alexander received the submission of Queen Cleophis. Justin adds tartly that she ‘recovered her throne from him by admitting him to her bed’.

Curtius (8.10.35-36) also mentions Cleophis, though he only says that – according to some – it was simply her beauty that won her back her throne. He recognises, however, that at some point, she did give birth to a son which she named Alexander.

The Notes to my edition of Curtius cite A V Gutschmid (n.68) who said that Cleophis was a Roman invention*. I can well believe it. Even if Alexander did not abstain from sex, as Plutarch suggests (with the exception of Barsine), the respect he had for women surely makes the scenario given by Justin unlikely.

* An allusion to Cleopatra VII

Chapter Eight
The end of this chapter marks the end of Alexander’s eastward journey. Worn out by the constant travel and war, the Macedonian army begged their king to take them return home. Rather surprisingly (to me, anyway) given the antagonism between them since his adoption of Persian dress and customs, Alexander agreed to the men’s request.

Chapter Nine
This chapter covers more of Alexander’s battles, including the occasion when the king leapt into the city of the Sigambri* where he fought ‘alone against thousands’ until he was felled by an arrow. Typically, the ‘curing of the wound caused him more suffering than the wound itself.’

* Or, the Mallian city (See Arrian 6.9-12 and Plutarch Para. 63); Curtius calls it the City of the Sudracae (9.4.26-33; 9.5.1-21). Diodorus deals with the assault in VIII.17.98-99 but it isn’t clear to me from his narrative where the city was located

Chapter Ten
Alexander had returned to Babylon, where,

many of the conquered people sent deputations to accuse their governors, whom Alexander, without any regard to his former friendship for them, commanded to be put to death in the sight of the deputies.

I can’t decide whether Justin means this statement to be taken positively or otherwise.

On the one hand, a just judge should not be thinking of friendships when trying cases.

On the other, I do get the impression that when Justin says the governors were put to death ‘in the sight of the deputies’ Alexander was using the executions as a means of intimidation. But again, perhaps that was a good thing for him to do.

Justin concludes with a brief reference to the Susa Weddings. Alexander, he says, married Stateira II. He had his leading men marry

… the noblest virgins… in order that the impropriety of the king’s conduct might be rendered less glaring by the practice becoming general.

This is the third time Alexander has acted along these lines*. Given the king’s pride, I think it is better to take this statement as Justin’s opinion rather than of fact.

* After asking and permitting his friends and army to wear Persian dress and marry barbarian women, as described above

The storm clouds have definitely broken. And yet, Justin still mentions aspects of Alexander’s behaviour that could be taken positively. I have to give him credit for that. What the above chapters have really brought home to me is the fact that the Macedonian army’s estrangement from its king – in Justin’s eyes – was wholly connected to their love for Philip. I am not used to thinking of Philip II as a king beloved of his men.

One last point – Justin’s narrative contains a number of errors. For example, his assertion that Parmenion and Philotas were executed after criticising Alexander’s adoption of Persian dress and customs, and that Parmenion was tortured before being killed. A list of the mistakes are for another post; for now, I just wanted to acknowledge them here lest anyone thought they weren’t in my mind.


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The Light of Philip Recedes

Justin’s Alexander
Book XII Chapters 1-4
Part Four
Other posts in this series

For this post I am using this translation of Justin’s Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus

Chapter One
For the Greeks, burying the dead was a matter of religious necessity. If they were not laid to rest in the proper fashion, their souls could never pass through ‘the gates of Hades’ (Iliad 23:71*) and have peace.

Justin states that Alexander lost a number of his men ‘in the pursuit of Darius’. Being religiously devout, he made sure to bury them before resuming his eastward march.

But though Alexander was a pious man, he was also, as we have seen, an expert manipulator of people. Thus, he not only buried his men, but did so ‘at great expense’.

This reminds me of the burial of those who died in the Battle of the Granicus River. In 11:6, Justin states that they were buried,

… sumptuously as an encouragement to the rest, honouring them also with equestrian statues, and granting privileges to their relatives.

I am sure the men deserved the special care and honour given to them. But I am equally sure that Alexander was keen to forestall any disquiet in his army occasioned by losses** so early on in the expedition. This, of course, was no longer an issue after Darius’ death, but Alexander was surely keen to keep his men’s morale up so that he could keep pushing east. Lavish funerals were one way to achieve that (as, no doubt, were the 13,000 talents he distributed to the survivors, afterwards).

Following the death of Darius, Justin reports that Alexander was given news of King Agis’ failed revolt back in Greece, King Alexander of Epirus’ failed war in italy, and the death of Zopyrion, the ‘lieutenant-general’ of Scythia (Thrace, according to Curtius – see Chapter One). Alexander cried for Zopyrion’s loss; but, lest we get too dewy-eyed about his empathy, Justin says that the king,

…was affected with various emotions but felt more joy at learning the deaths of two rival kings, than sorrow at the loss of Zopyrion and his army.

It seems to me that here we either have proof of where Alexander’s ultimate priorities lay or an attempt by Justin to blacken his character.

Staying with Justin, he clearly liked Agis as he dedicates the next paragraph of his short work to an account of the king of Sparta’s fall. Agis kept fighting even as his men fled the battlefield. He wanted the world to know that if he was ‘inferior to Alexander [it was] in fortune only, not in valour’. Justin was convinced. When Agis died, he did so ‘overpowered by numbers… superior to all in glory.’

‘Superior to all’. Even, one must assume, to Alexander the Great.

* The Iliad tr. by Stephen Mitchell (Wiedenfeld & Nicholson 2012)

** Admittedly, Justin says that only 129 Macedonians died at the Granicus River. I am presuming that this is an under-exaggeration (is that a real phrase?)

Chapter Two
This chapter is given over to an account of Alexander of Epirus’ actions and death in Italy and of Zopyrion’s death.

Chapter Three
Justin now confuses me a little. As mentioned above, he states that Alexander ‘felt… joy at learning the deaths of two rival kings’. I.e. Agis and Alexander of Epirus. Now, however, he reports that,

…he  [Alexander of Macedon] assumed a show of grief on account of his relationship to Alexander [of Epirus], and caused the army to mourn for three days.

By saying that Alexander ‘assumed a show of grief’, is he suggesting that it was not real?

Whatever the answer, Justin doesn’t dwell on it. Instead, he gives us another example of Alexander the manipulator. With Darius dead, his men think they will be going home. In a general assembly, the king tells them Not so. We did not come for Darius’ body but his throne. If we return west now, our victories in previous battles will count for nothing.

The barbarians of the east had to be subjected, and – perhaps more to the point for Alexander, – those who had killed Darius had to be punished. Now that Alexander was Great King, he had to avenge his predecessor.

At this point, Justin pauses long enough to tell the story of Alexander’s thirteen day tryst with Thalestris (aka Thallestris), whom he also calls Minithya. Once that is over, he states that,

Alexander assumed the attire of the Persian monarchs, as well as the diadem, which was unknown to the kings of Macedonia, as if he gave himself up to the customs of those whom be had conquered.

At the same time, and in emulation of the Persian kings, he began holding extravagant feasts, games alongside them, and sleeping ‘among troops of the king’s concubines of eminent beauty and birth.’. To forestall criticism of this medising, Justin says that Alexander ‘desired his friends also to wear the long robe of gold and purple.’

Justin himself has no time for this behaviour, and he accuses Alexander of ‘being utterly unmindful that power is accustomed to be lost, not gained, by such practices’. This is the most critical Justin has been of Alexander since 11:10.

Chapter Four
Alexander’s army was equally unimpressed. According to Justin, there was,

… a general indignation that he had so degenerated from his father Philip as to abjure the very name of his country, and to adopt the manners of the Persians, whom, from the effect of such manners, he had overcome.

But Alexander was undeterred, and just as he had asked his friends to adopt Persian dress, he encouraged the rank and file to marry barbarian women. This policy had a duel purpose. Firstly, to make the Macedonians accept Alexander’s behaviour, and secondly, to make the men think of home – Macedon – less often, for if their wives were here, their home would now be the camp. Thirdly, the marriages would produce sons who would grow up to succeed their fathers in the army. We can argue about the morality of Alexander’s actions, but there’s no denying the cleverness of this policy, one which was – Justin says – continued by the Successors.

The gathering clouds are definitely getting very dark now. It’s true, we see him being pious but perhaps also fake (in his supposed grief for Alexander of Epirus) and definitely effete according to the Macedonians. Alexander’s adoption of Persian dress and customs, and his attempt to draw his men into that lifestyle, is driving a wedge between him and his army.

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