Alexander Revisited: Olympias’ Warning to Bagoas’ Kiss

Welcome back to this series of posts on Oliver Stone’s film. It’s been a couple of weeks since I wrote the last post so it was both a challenge and a pleasure to pick up from where I left off.
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In the last post, I mentioned that the elder Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) states that during their hunt for Bessus, the Macedonians got completely lost, and I expressed scepticism that this really happened. Well, I was reading Robin Lane Fox’s account of the search the other day and sure enough he does not mention that the Macedonians got lost despite their difficult ascent and descent of the Hindu Kush. I found out from Arrian, though, that there was an occasion when it happened. I should have remembered it, too, because it was a very famous one; namely, as Alexander and his Companions were on the way to Siwa. Then, they were saved either by snakes (Ptolemy) or crows (Aristobulos). Perhaps we might say that having omitted Siwa from his film, Oliver Stone decided – albeit in a limited way – to allude to it later on.
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Scenes Covered

  1. Olympias’ Quarters
  2. The Royal Tent, Sogdia
  3. Hermolaus’ Suicide
  4. The Trial of Philotas
  5. The Execution of Philotas
  6. Outside the Macedonian camp
  7. Antigonus’ and Black Cleitus’ Journey / Alexander Writing
  8. Parmenion’s Assassination / Bagoas kisses Alexander

Olympias’ Quarters
The first scene finds Olympias in full schemer mode. As Attalus and his niece Eurydice arrive at the Royal Palace ahead of her marriage to Philip, Olympias warns Alexander that Attalus will persuade Philip to make his son his with her his heir, and Attalus the boy’s regent should anything happen to him. She continues, Alexander will be sent on ‘an impossible mission’ that will cause him to be ‘mutilated’ while Olympias herself ‘no longer queen’ will be executed. Olympias’ solution to this problem is for Alexander to marry and produce an heir; the child would be a ‘pure’ Macedonian, which would force Philip to name Alexander as his heir.
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Several things about this scene confuse me. Firstly, as far as I am aware, Olympias’ royal status would not de facto be affected by Eurydice becoming Philip’s wife. Secondly, Olympias’ apparent belief that producing a pure blood Macedonian heir would guarantee Alexander the throne seems entirely novel. If it was a matter of blood, then upon Philip’s death, surely the country would skip Alexander and put his son on the throne.
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In real life, Alexander’s inheritance was indeed threatened by Philip’s marriage to Eurydice (who, by-the-bye, was called Cleopatra before her wedding to Philip) on account of her being Macedonian whereas Olympias was an Epirote. He eventually won the throne by being in the right place at the right time at Philip’s death. Alexander could have had a hundred pure blood sons but if he had been in the Peloponnese when Philip was assassinated none of them would have stopped someone else claiming the throne first.
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Alexander is not convinced by his mother’s reasoning so she – rather randomly – drops into the conversation the fact that ‘there is still Kynnane’. Number one: who? Number two: so…? Presuming that this is the same Kynnane who was the real Alexander’s half-sister, is Olympias threatening Alexander? “If you won’t do as I say, she will.”? I’m still trying to work that out when Olympias suggests that “Eurydice was perfect. If your father, that pig, had not ravaged her first!” Who is she??
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“To ravage” something is to bring great destruction upon it. I’m not sure I would use the word to describe an action done by one person to another (I think I would use ‘ruined’ instead). What, I suspect, the scriptwriter meant was ‘ravish’. But whether Olympias is saying that Philip raped or destroyed/ruined Eurydice who exactly is this Eurydice in the first place? From the context, she is obviously not Attalus’ niece. Could she another sister of Alexander’s? She might be, but then, who – in the context of the film – is Kynnane? I have to ask that because Stone explicitly states that he only has one sister.
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As quickly as the mysterious Kynnane and Eurydice come they go; Alexander is not impressed by his mother’s talk although that does not prevent him from falling into her lap a moment later in what seems to be a mildly orgasmic moment for Olympias (cf. 1:40:12ff)
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Speaking of which, could the film be implying an incestuous relationship between Alexander and his mother? In the moment referred to above, I think it at most plays with the idea that they were also lovers. Having said that, Oliver Stone’s queen and prince do not exactly have a normal relationship. When they are close, they come too close; when they are apart, they treat each other like enemies. Case in point – look at how Alexander reacts when Olympias suggests (not even directly) that he should assassinate Philip. Predictably, he is angry, but also physically intimidates Olympias before – when she tells him that Zeus slept with her, putting his hand over her mouth.
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It’s all so jarring that one hardly notices Alexander’s reason for not assassinating Philip – it would start a civil war. As if he would worry about that. A neat reference to Orestes’ torment by the Erinyes (referred to here as the Furies) follows before Olympias’ last gnomic utterance. “I wonder,” Alexander asks, “did you ever love [Philip]?”. To which Olympias replies, “I never stopped.”. All I can say is she has a strange way of showing that love.
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The Royal Tent, Sogdia
From Olympias’ quarters in 337 we move forward ten years to the Macedonian camp somewhere in Sogdia. A series of quick scenes follow, all threaded together by the elder Ptolemy’s narration.
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Alexander is given a cup of hot wine (?). Perhaps it smells funny because he turns back to his page; the young man knows that the drink is poisoned; he breaks down and confesses. Just as we have seen Alexander and Olympias fall out, we have reached the start of the break down of Alexander’s relationship with his men.
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Hermolaus’ Suicide
The page, whose name is Orestes, points the finger of blame at someone named Hermolaus, whose tent the film now cuts to. Looking out into the dark, Hermolaus realises that he is about to be arrested. As Perdiccas walks in, Hermolaus runs himself through with his sword, crying, “Death to tyrants”. This phrase is supposed to have been said by Marcus Brutus when he and the conspirators assassinated Julius Caesar. I read that John Wilkes Booth also shouted it when he shot Abraham Lincoln. Tyranny, it seems, can be what you make it.
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The Trial of Philotas
Hermolaus dies, but the conspiracy against Alexander is uncovered. As the conspirators stand before the king, one voice is heard – Philotas’. He has been implicated in the plot. He defends himself nobly but is still found guilty. Clearly, Philotas’ fate is meant to reflect the continuing degeneration of Alexander’s character. But it isn’t only Alexander who is responsible for his death. Hephaestion, Ptolemy and Antigonus sit in judgement (standing in here for the Macedonian army). They also have Philotas’ blood on their hands.
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The Execution of Philotas
The senior officers’ complicity is stated very boldly and without shame by the elder Ptolemy when, as Philotas is speared to death, he says, “None of us defended Philotas,” he says, “But then again none of us ever liked him. And of course his power was carved up by the rest of us.” It is a very shocking, even if honest, display of venality that portends the ever shifting alliances of the Successor period.
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Outside the Macedonian camp
A brief scene in which Alexander and his high command decide what to do about Parmenion follows. The decision to execute him is taken. I don’t suppose Alexander had much choice except to give the go ahead for this. As the elder Ptolemy makes clear, under Macedonian law the head of the household was responsible for everyone in his family’s actions. Therefore, if the son died, the father had to as well. That was the law, though, and a king could overrule it. And yet, Alexander could hardly let Parmenion live having killed his son contentious circumstances. Especially since Parmenion had 20,000 men under his command and through them control of Alexander’s supply line.
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Antigonus’ and Black Cleitus’ Journey / Alexander Writing
So, off Antigonus and Black Cleitus go; to Babylon where Alexander sent Parmenion after the ‘Macedonian council’ (see last post) in Bactria. The elder Ptolemy says that it took Antigonus and Black Cleitus ‘three days’ hard riding’ to get to Babylon.
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Here is a map from what appears to be a very interesting website My Reading Mapped, which features an interactive map of Alexander’s expedition. I shall enjoy looking into that. Anyway, Sogdia is in the north-east corner (just above Bactria) of the empire. Babylon is away to the west on the Euphrates River. Oliver Stone is asking us to believe that Antigonus and Black Cleitus covered that distance in three days.

Alexander's Empire

Alexander’s Empire

In reality, Alexander sent a man named Polydamas not to Babylon but Ecbatana (modern day Hamadan, Iran) where Parmenion was then residing. You can see Ecbatana on the map above just under Media. Thanks to his guides and their camels, Polydamas arrived in Ecbatana after eleven days of no doubt hard riding over desert and waste land*. Upon his arrival, Polydamas gave Alexander’s written orders to the relevant generals and it was they who assassinated Parmenion.
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* This reduced the travelling time from three weeks
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Bagoas kisses Alexander / Parmenion’s Assassination
The final scene that we’ll cover in this post juxtaposes Alexander and Bagoas in bed together with Parmenion’s death in Antigonus’ arms. On the face of it, this scene is all about the contrast between  positive and negative themes; for example, love / hate, personal / public, and faithfulness / betrayal.
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I would take the view, however, that the primary meaning of the scene is not to be found in the juxtapositions that it offers but the theme of degeneration that both the bedroom and Ecbatana scene reveal.
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Parmenion should never have been assassinated. There was no evidence linking Philotas to the plot against Alexander. Parmenion may have opposed Alexander at Gaugamela and in Sogdia but he is never represented as being tempted by treachery. His death is really an act of judicial murder.
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As a eunuch, Bagoas represents a sexual tradition that the ancient Greeks found effete and distasteful. For Alexander to take him into his bed, therefore, is for him to associate himself with that tradition and represent, in terms of the film, another step in the degeneration of his character. Many people will watch Bagoas kiss Alexander and think what a sweet moment it is; in actual fact, it is a profoundly sad one for the door out of that bedroom leads into the chamber where Alexander will kill Black Cleitus in a drunken rage.
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Oliver Stone uses a number of metaphors to show Alexander’s decline. They range from simple things like the length of his hair, to his sex life, to his drinking and so forth. He doesn’t use Hephaestion. The intimacy of their relationship is only ever hinted at. In this, Stone is faithful to what we know from the historical record. I wonder, though, if the reason why he doesn’t show Alexander and Hephaestion together is because he wanted to keep the relationship in a sense ‘pure’. Bear in mind that sexual relationships between two grown men were also disapproved of in Greece, perhaps Stone didn’t want to distract attention from the fact that they were so close by sexualising the affair. We criticise him for not showing Alexander and Hephaestion together when in actual fact Stone was doing his best to uphold them all along. It’s just a thought.
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Read the index of posts in this series here

Categories: Alexander in Film | Tags: , | 9 Comments

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9 thoughts on “Alexander Revisited: Olympias’ Warning to Bagoas’ Kiss

  1. Terri Oak

    I never thought about Stone actually trying to keep the relationship of Alexander and Hephaestion “pure”, but I think you may be exactly right. Hephaestion embodied all that was good and honorable in Alexander’s life, and did his best to protect Alexander. I like to think that, had he not died, he may have kept Alexander’s decline somewhat under control. Without Hephaestion, Alexander was lost. I appreciate your insight on this. Food for thought.

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  2. Do you give any credit to Mary Renault’s interpretation? In The Persian Boy, Bagoas, knowing he felt bad, came to comfort him. I didn’t see any decline in Alexander until his men insisted they would go no further. I think Stone showed he felt guilty about having Parmenion killed, and comforted himself with Bagoas.

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    • Hallo Penina,

      I started “A Persian Boy” a while ago but unfortunately got no more than a few pages in so I can’t comment on Renault’s interpretation. I agree that Alexander feels guilty about ordering Parmenion to be killed though I would tie that in to what I see as his on-going decline. Thank you for your comment!

      AOS

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  3. Terri,

    Thank you also for your comment. Could Hephaestion have slowed/prevented Alexander’s decline?

    My initial feeling is ‘no; he was too close to him’.

    However, it would be equally true to say that that closeness may just have likely enabled Hephaestion *to* influence the king. If we don’t see it happen that’s only because a) it didn’t suit the writer’s agenda to show it, or b) Hephaestion worked behind the scenes.

    A is an absolute certainty for me (Ptolemy, for example, was not writing an objective history but one that served his purpose as king of Egypt). B also seems very likely if for no other reason than Hephaestion would not have wanted to make Alexander look bad in public.

    I’ve rewritten this reply a few times, so hope it makes sense!

    AOS

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  4. Istvan

    One observation I have is how Stone makes it explicitly clear how unjust the murder of Parmenion was. At beginning of the scene of Parmenion’s murder, we see him walking and speaking to another individual. I forget the exact contents of the line, but Parmenion talks about how Alexander’s royal ring’s signature is necessary for the document to be valid, demonstrating Parmenion’s loyalty to Alexander as well as the loyalty of the rest of hierarchy below Alexander. No one would accept anything without Alexander’s approval.There is no plot. Parmenion’s murder is therefore unjust in the highest level, as he himself proves to be devoted and loyal only moments before he is run through by a sword. This fact makes the scene all the sadder, and it makes Cleitus’ later anger more understandable and agreeable.

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    • Recall that this was Stone’s interpretation. The custom was if a near relative was executed for treason, even if that relative had nothing to do with it, he had to be executed as well to avoid a blood feud retaliation. Parmenion had too much power and might have cut off lines of supply. Alexander couldn’t take the chance. Other interpretations of the letter was that Parenion’s reaction to it showed his knowledge of his son’s complicity. If P thought Alexander survived the attempt on his life, he might have shown fear. Stone chose the dramatic use of his choice to mimic the assassin holding holding him as in a love scene with Alexander holding his lover Bagoas to comfort himself for having to order the death of a friend.

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  5. Istvan

    Yes, I understand Alexander’s reasoning in reality- I was speaking strictly in terms of Stone’s vision. In my mind, Parmenion’s final line to his scribe before approaching Cleitus demonstrates and enforces the questionable authority of Alexander. Therefore, Parmenion shows devotion and acts contrary to how he would act if he were involved in a plot against Alexander, and that adds to make the film’s scene more saddening and symbolic of the decline of Alexander’s character. I never meant to offer an analysis of the real events.

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  6. Thanks for your reply Istvan. It is Stone’s interpretation that Alexander was in decline at this time, but that is debatable. Some said it began when he began to imitate Persian practices, but it could simply be that he liked and admired what was best about Persia and hoped to combine the peoples. The great marriage would confirm that, although all the wives were deserted after he died. His real decline began when his men rejected his plan to go on and worsened when Hephastion died. Being king of the world paled without his best friend to share it with.

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  7. Istvan

    I agree that the decline probably came later. Alexander’s ‘going Asian’ was probably not so much a sign of the corruption of his character and a descent from Aristotelian virtues, but was rather just a practical way of gaining and maintaining the support of his Persian subjects, who constituted the majority of his army. While it might have alienated him from his Hellenic supporters, it probably helped maintain his Asian supporters, and so it wouldn’t be a decline in an aggregate sense.

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