Hephaestion, Regent or King

The exact date of Alexander the Great’s death is not known but it appears to have been either today, 10th June, or tomorrow, in 323 BC.
In this post, I would like to indulge in a little counter factual discussion by asking what might have happened to Alexander’s empire after his death if Hephaestion had still been living in June 323.
The reason this question interests me is that at the time of his own death in November 324, Hephaestion held the rank of chiliarch, meaning that he was Alexander’s deputy. Had he lived, therefore, it would have been him assigning satrapies to Alexander’s senior officers in June 323 rather than his successor in that office, Perdiccas.
So, what might have happened?
I see no reason to think that the same men would not have got the same offices, barring changes here and there, that they got in real settlement. The key difference would have been ideological. I am certain that Hephaestion, unlike Perdiccas, will have wanted Alexander IV to ascend to his throne in the fullness of time. Perhaps Hephaestion would also have continued Alexander’s integrationist policies out of loyalty to his friend’s ideals.
Of course, Hephaestion would have had to have stayed alive in order to see his – Alexander’s – legacy secured, but he was as good a soldier as any in Alexander’s high command. His relationship to the late king was probably unorthodox – it wasn’t the done thing for adult men to be in a sexual relationship with one another in those days – but I am sure that with a good propagandist Hephaestion could have convinced the army, which was pro-Argead, to support him. Certainly, so far as staying alive is concerned, he would never have made the same mistake as Perdiccas did outside Memphis.
In other words, I believe that had Hephaestion gone to war against Ptolemy as Perdiccas did, or tried to do, there is no reason to believe that he would not have seen it through, and once he controlled Egypt… well, Ptolemy did alright from there, didn’t he?
In fact, Ptolemy was so well entrenched in Egypt that he survived a catastrophic mauling at the hands of Demetrius Poliorcetes in 306 during the fourth diadoch war. Ptolemy lost half of his armed forces and control of the Aegean in the naval battle for Cyprus but to the best of my knowledge did not face any challenge to his authority in Egypt. Antigonus Monophthalmus and Demetrius subsequently tried to invade Egypt with a huge – 90,000 strong – army but the Ptolemaic defences were still too strong for them.
Again, if Ptolemy – a man with considerably less high level military experience than Hephaestion – could manage that, then why not/how much more Patroclus himself?
The above notwithstanding, the ability to fight well would not have been enough to see Alexander IV to the throne. I suspect Hephaestion would have needed to have make a few deals along the way as well – especially since what really happened after Alexander’s death shows that very few of the Successors – perhaps only Eumenes, and maybe Craterus (?) – had any interest in seeing Alexander IV come to the throne. None so far as I can tell had any time for the late king’s integrationist policies. Hephaestion was a seasoned diplomat, though, and I am sure he would have held his own on the negotiating table. Not that treaties in those days seemed to have been worth the papyrus or clay that they were written on. With the right cunning, though, Hephaestion could easily have worked even that to his advantage.
Had Philip Arrhidaeus and Alexander IV died anyway, could Hephaestion have reunited Alexander’s empire under his own name? I am determined to say ‘yes’ to this. The two men who really came closest to doing so – Antigonus Monophthalmus and Seleucus – were, in Alexander’s lifetime, high ranking officers but no more special than any of the others. We hardly see Antigonus at all since he got left behind in Asia Minor at the start of the anabasis. As with Ptolemy, If they nearly managed it, I see no reason why Hephaestion could not have done. I must admit, though, I doubt he would have proved any more successful than Seleucus at holding back the Indian conqueror, Chandragupta.
Such questions! And all, ultimately, unanswerable ones. For sadly, Hephaestion died eight months before Alexander. Still, we can dream. And if we feel that dreaming of what might have been is too hard or simply useless then perhaps we might dream instead about Achilles and Patroclus in Elysium, at play in the land of the gods.

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8 thoughts on “Hephaestion, Regent or King

  1. Terri Oak

    I have often wondered about that myself. I have no doubt of Hephaestion’s abilities and think he would have been brilliant in charge. I wonder, though, how many would want him dead and try to accomplish that?


    • Terri,

      The two things I think I have really learnt about the Successors lately are that almost to a man they acted according to their ambition rather than personal dislike of a person. All of the other Successors might have wanted Hephaestion dead but only in the same way that they might have wanted everyone else *who got in their way* dead as well. If he had to be accommodated then that is what they would have done.



  2. Jen Jones (@army_of_apollo)

    It is a very interesting question to consider. I, myself, have always been interested in the question of how a large a role Hephaestion’s death played in Alexander’s own. It seems in some ways what made Alexander Alexander died alongside Hephaestion. I would be very interested to know your thoughts.


    • Jen,

      I have to admit I have not paid as much attention to Hephaestion’s death as I have Alexander’s. In fact, as I write, all I can remember is that he was ill for a few days then died. I need to correct this.

      You seem to be getting at the possibility that Alexander could have died, in one sense, of a broken heart. I don’t suppose Alexander’s past injuries and his lifestyle were ever going to grant him a long life, but given how closely he identified himself with Hephaestion (“He is Alexander, too”), the latter’s death *must* have affected him very, very deeply indeed.

      “What made Alexander, Alexander?” is a big question. On the one hand, I would say that it was his desire to emulate – or better – Achilles. As we know, that desire certainly did not die with Hephaestion. What probably did, though, was something far more essential to Alexander’s identity, namely, an element *of* his identity: his friendship and love for Hephaestion.

      That element was as important to Alexander as the air in his lungs or blood in his veins. Hephaestion was that important to him; when he died, therefore, it was akin to a great blood loss or inability to breath properly. No wonder he suffered grievously afterwards.



  3. What a wonderful idea to have this discussion on the day of Alexander’s death. As weird as it probably sounds, I think Alexander would love it.

    Now, as you said it before, anything anybody can say on the matter is a pure speculation, so I hope whoever is going to read it, will bear it in mind. I don’t want to impose (and obviously I can’t prove) anything I write here, it’s a pure presumtion based on…. feelings.

    This possibility was discussed before in many different forums and in most discussions I read, the consensus was that Hephaistion didn’t stand a chance. This always surprised me. The reasons were from him being not ruthless enough to not powerful enough and anything in between. I think what most people don’t realize (or choose to ignore) is that their judgement of Diadochi’s abilities based on what they did after Alexander’s death, not on their “service record” under Alexander. I dare anybody to say that knowing about Seleukos only what was known about him before Alexander’s death anybody could anticipate that he would reach such heights (or that Eumenos would defeat Krateros!).

    Before I go any further I want to admit that I have a weakness for Perdiccas who I think was much maligned after his death and I really, really don’t like Ptolemy (he would for sure try to make problems for Hephaistion) and Seleukos (not so much sure about him, he may never realize his potential).

    But going back to Hephaistion. I think he had as good chances as any to survive and remain on the top for a long time and quite possible even emerge as an ultimate winner. I agree with you, it’s a safe bet to say that he would want to assure Alexander IV being proclaimed a king and make his best to see him to grow to adulthood. And he would continue with Alexander’s policies of integration to the best of his abilities. I am not so sure that he would start doling out satrapies as Perdiccas did. Officially, he would be a Regent and I think he would like to keep his enemies close instead of allowing them to run off in different directions as Perdiccas did.

    Officially, nobody would have an excuse to refuse his orders, as was a case with Perdiccas. Anybody who would like to split out (like Ptolemy) would have to do it against Hephaistion’s will (i.e. against a man appointed by Alexander himself), in open revolt. The whole incident with Meleagros would probably never take place as there would be no official reason to question Hephaistion’s authority as a Regent (though plenty not official ones).

    Another thing that rarely mentioned in any discussions of what if Hephaistion survived Alexander is his “closeness” to the Persian highest nobility. Not that Persian highest nobility mentioned much in any description of events after Alexander’s death. Presumably, Stateira and Parisatis would survive Alexander’s death (I am not so much sure that indeed theirs and Drypetis’ deaths were result of Perdiccas/Roxana collusion) but they both would be widows. I doubt that Hephaistion would divorce Drypetis, as a daughter of Darius she would be too valuable at securing the cooperation of Persian nobility. And I think most of them would stand behind Hephaistion. As a result he would have an advantage on his side that none of the Diadochi had and quite a plus from military POV.

    I think, Antipater would still like to marry off his daughters to the highest bidders, the question is, would he like the power to himself or would prefer to side with Hephaistion? If we put aside the possibility that he had something to do with Alexander’s death, I think he would still want to preserve the unity of Argead Empire and support Hephaistion, though I can’t deny the very high possibility that he may try to sow discord by offering his daughters to different allies. I think it’s pretty obvious that Olympia would support Hephaistion and wouldn’t abandon him as she did Eumenos.

    It’s difficult to predict Athens’ reaction but taking into account Hephaistion’s possible Athenian origins and a speculation that he once secretly negotiated a reconciliation between Alexander and Demosthenes, Hephaistion might have here advantage as well.

    All in all, I think Hephaistion had very high chance to survive the competition using his diplomatic, military and logistical (!) skills. If he would cut supply chains (with which he had such a good familiarity) to any of the would-be rebellious rivals, he could starve them (both food wise, weapons wise and money wise) before they managed to do any major damage. And, as episode with Pilotas clearly showed, he wouldn’t hesitate to kill his opponents in order to save Alexander’s empire.

    I think I’ll stop now. It’s a pleasure to have this conversation and I hope more will join to share their opinions.


    • Delos,

      I am glad you enjoyed the post!

      I am as surprised by you by some of the responses as to whether or not Hephaestion would have stood a chance in the successor battles. Especially the argument that he wouldn’t have been ruthless enough to do so. I wonder if people have been too influenced by the Oliver Stone/Jared Leto version of Hephaestion. There, I think his ‘softer’ side is shown without being balanced by his battle-hardenedness, which he must absolutely have had.

      I completely agree with you regarding Seleucus and Eumenes. I still find myself being surprised myself at what they achieved. Especially Eumenes. He must have fought in Alexander’s battles but I don’t recall him every being mentioned as having done anything notable and yet it turns out he was a skilled general! If only he had been Macedonian perhaps he would have got further.

      I would be interested to know why you didn’t like Ptolemy. I have to admit, I have a soft spot for him – as the founder of the Museum/Library of Alexandria etc etc. You make a good point about Perdiccas being maligned after his death.

      It’s an interesting point – that Hephaestion would have kept the other successors close by him rather than send them off to the satrapies. It never occurred to me that that might have happened, and yet, now that you mention it – I ask myself ‘why not?’

      Again, that is a very good point regarding the Persian nobility. If Hephaestion had lived and continued the integrationist course then they would certainly have enjoyed greater power, which would have helped him no end. Having said that, it does make me wonder what kind of power they had in Alexander’s last years and if it wasn’t great, would it be realistic to expect that to change after his death?

      Antipater – I’m not sure how to answer this as I can’t remember if he was a pro-Argead or not. Do we even know? I need to go back to my notes. As for Olympias, I think she would support Hephaestion but she does seem ruthless enough to do something else.

      Athens – I am more sceptical about Athens. I think she would have rebelled if she had half a chance. This is what Greek cities did. I don’t think Hephaestion’s connections there would have been able to stop this.

      I agree with your summing up. Thank you very much for taking the time to write your thoughts down. You have certainly given me much to think about.



  4. But why no one thought Hephaestion himself could have died of a broken heart, as such as Alexander did , eight months after Alexander himself? Why Hephaestion had to be different from Alexander?


  5. Alina,

    That is a very good point, which I had overlooked.



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