Alexander: Cross Dressing Conqueror of the World?

Alexander

Alexander

Last night I visited the British Museum to hear Professor Tony Spawforth of Newcastle University give a public lecture entitled ‘Alexander the Great: Cross Dressing Conqueror of the world?’
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First of all, I must apologise for being a bad note taker. I hope I have accurately remembered the gist of what Prof Spawforth said but can’t guarantee it. As it is, this blog post has turned out to be more about my impressions, anyway!
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So, was Alexander the Great a transvestite?
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Our sole source for this claim is a Greek writer named Ephippus of Olynthus. He was either a contemporary of the king’s or lived just after him. Either way, his work is known to us through Athenaeus who lived in the third century AD.
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According to Prof Spawforth, Ephippus was hostile to Alexander and his writing is as much a hatchet job as Ptolemy’s (Arrian’s chief source) is a whitewash. And the reason we know this is because he, Ephippus, wrote that Alexander liked to dress up as Artemis when riding around in his chariot.
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Women were second class citizens in ancient Greece (in fact, I don’t think they were citizens at all – more the property of their fathers or husbands?) so it was not the done thing for a man to pretend to be one even if she was a goddess.
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A couple of questions immediately arise. Why was Ephippus hostile? and Is Alexander’s apparent transvestism feasible?
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In response to the first question, the only reason that I recall Prof Spawforth giving for Ephippus’ hostility is that his home city, Olynthus, was razed by Philip II.
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Presumably, in the years after Alexander’s death, Ephippus saw the pro-Alexander narratives emerging and, remembering the destruction of his home, decided to even them out with his own, more negative, account.
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By-the-bye, in his own history of Alexander, Arrian mentions that the king appointed a man named Ephippus as a superintendent of his government in Egypt. It has been suggested this was our author; if so it raises the possibility that he later served under Alexander’s great friend Ptolemy. Perhaps it was in Ptolemy’s court that Ephippus first heard those pro-Alexander narratives.
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In response to the second question, I would say that it is not at all beyond the realm of possibility that Alexander could have dressed up as Artemis. He was, after all, not afraid to flout convention. In a period where men wore beards, Alexander went clean shaven. He adopted Persian dress and customs in his court. He was uncommonly civil to women. He may have had a sexual relationship with Hephaestion when both were men.
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However, it is one thing to say that someone is capable of behaving in a certain way but quite another to prove that they do or did. This is important because Ephippus did not accompany Alexander on his journey east and so was not present when he began to ‘go native’ that is, take on the Persian dress and customs mentioned above.
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Of course, it is possible that he recorded what he had been told happened, but it is equally possible that in order to make his subject look as bad as possible, Ephippus took the known facts about Alexander’s court and embellished them. Greek writers were not afraid to do that. I have previously met the habit in accounts of battles with zeros being added to the enemy’s strength and subtracted from casualties in one’s own army after the hard fought win.
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A third question. If Alexander’s dressing up was feasible what motive could he have had to do so?
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Ephippus states that Alexander dressed up as several Greek gods (and as Ammon). I suppose it could all have been for fun but I also like the idea that he dressed up to make a political statement – i.e. to remind the Greeks who his real father was. That only covers Ammon, though; what about the Greek gods? Was he reminding his Persian subjects who the best gods were?
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No, I don’t think so. I could be misremembering, but my impression of Alexander is that he wanted to united Greek and barbarian. For this reason, I am going with the idea that Ephippus embellished the known facts.
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One last point on why Alexander took on Persian dress and customs. Spawforth noted that historians have seen this as a political gimmick; he believes, however, that Alexander admired the Persians. This ties in with what I said above about Alexander’s wanting to unite the two races.
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The lecture was a very interesting one albeit based on the slenderness thread of evidence. The only discordant note in it was when someone asked if the nature of Alexander’s and Hephaestion’s relationship could have been distorted. Spawforth declared his uninterest in the question. To his credit, he immediately admitted that one could not take that approach but it was disappointing that he dismissed it in the first place. If the question was worth asking it was worth answering and he brought no credit to himself for suggesting that it was not.

First known time Alexander that uses a chariot? The picture that got Prof Spawforth thinking

First known time Alexander that uses a chariot? The picture that got Prof Spawforth thinking

Categories: On Alexander | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Alexander: Cross Dressing Conqueror of the World?

  1. Kizzykat

    Thank you for this report.

    First, that picture – Alexander is known to have used a moving chariot to jump on and off as a training exercise while the army was on the march, so that chariot hasn’t really got anything to do with cross-dressing.

    It is also very possible that reports of Alexander dressing as Artemis may be a wilfull misunderstanding or misinterpretation of his wearing Persian dress by Greek sources hostile to his Persianization. They didn’t have to have any specific reason to be hostile to him except the fact that he and the Macedonians had eroded their Greek liberty and self-importance.

    Yet Alexander is also known to have dressed as Heracles and Amon, so it is possible his dressing as Artemis was part of a religious ceremony to honour a specific god, maybe with a chariot procession.

    There is also the possibility that Alexander had got to the point where he thought he could do anything, and that the boundaries between reality and his visions of his own omnipotence became blurred. This seems more likely than any nonesense about trans-gender issues.

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  2. Apart from the way women found their way in the world then, there was still that sense of male and female being parts of a greater whole. I enjoy your articles when they come out and I happen to have time to go through the reader, but I will rectify that today. Thank you.>KB

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  3. Thanks a lot for this very interesting report. I read about the upcoming lecture and hoped that somebody would attend and post a report.

    I think there are too many unknowns to have the answer to the question why Alexander dressed up as Artemis if it indeed happened (sorry for pointing out the obvious). Any of the reasons mentioned above by you and then by kizzikat are possible. Though each time I read about this occurrence, the first question that pops up in my mind was “why Artemis” and not for example Athena? Both were Zeus’ daughters so dressing like one should stress/remind the world that he was Zeus’ son. Athena made far more sense as goddess of wisdom and war craft whereas Artemis, being Apollo’s twin sister, the god whom Alexander couldn’t love much because of his involvement in Achilles’ death, was less “attractive” to impersonate.

    I also wonder about the meaning of the phrase of the person who asked about Alexander/Hephaistion relationship. What did he/she meant by saying “distorted”? Was the meaning “they were best of friends and calling them lovers distorts their relationship”? Or was it opposite “they loved each other and had physical relationship and calling them just best friends distorts their relationship”?

    On a more general note, thanks for your wonderful blog. I am a big fan and always looking forward to a new post!

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    • Kizzykat

      Artemis was a huntress who used a bow, and I don’t think Greek noblemen would have used bows as being ‘unmanly’. I have a vague recollection that Persian paradises were essentially game parks and that the Persian nobles fired arrows as animals were driven past them – although this may belong to a later, Arabic period. Yet if this was a Persian pasttime that Alexander indulged in, it might have been misrepresented by Greek commentators as dressing up as a goddess with bow and arrows.

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  4. Coco

    Thanks, to this I really enjoyed reading this article. rrborree@yahoo.com

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  5. Arethusa33

    As usual in Alexander’s story we miss crucial pieces to reconstruct the puzzle.We have only fragments of an interesting subject and we can only speculate about it.

    I’m sure Ephippus explained elsewhere why or when Alexander dressed up as Artemis and this book untitled “The Deaths of Alexander and Hephaestion” certainly shed some light on their relationship which is not a question of minor interest contrary to what Spawforth seems to believe.

    (He has also written a 45 pages article about that subject in Histos 6.)

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