For previous posts in this series click here
It has been nearly a month since the last post in this series, so welcome back, and apologies for the delay. By taking so long to write this, I have not done myself any favours in terms of remembering previous scenes in the film, so if you see any errors caused by me forgetful do feel free to point them out in the combox.
- Roxane’s Arrival in Alexander’s Tent
- Hephaestion comforts Alexander
Roxane’s Arrival in Alexander’s Tent
Three days have passed since Alexander murdered Black Cleitus; for three days he has lain in his bed chamber and wept for his crime. The scene opens as Roxane sweeps into the royal tent demanding to see her husband. Her path, however, is blocked by Hephaestion; the king does not want to see anyone, he tells her, “not even you.”
“He needs me.” Roxane insists.
No, he doesn’t.” Hephaestion replies.
“And he needs you?” she retorts, jealously. Hephaestion smiles sarcastically at her pettiness and glances at Cassander, as if to say, Why did you bring her here? She comes with nothing and can give the king nothing.
As Hephaestion turns back to the bed chamber, Cassander calls out that he has made a mistake. Why? I think because he wants Alexander back on his feet by any means possible and as soon as possible. The way to achieve this? By giving him his wife. Sex will sort him out. Hephaestion knows better, though, and thus ignores him as he walks past the joint Macedonian-Persian guard and back into the bed chamber.
Hephaestion comforts Alexander
The first thing we see after Hephaestion returns to the bed chamber is a white snake slithering over Alexander’s leg. Oliver Stone could hardly be more unsubtle about at least one source of the king’s anguish if he tried. Only Philip is mention in the ensuing conversation; after the snake’s appearance, though, Olympias doesn’t need to be.
In this scene, Alexander looks one part grief struck and two parts stoned. Before we turn to his conversation with Hephaestion it is worth nothing who the other person in the room is – Bagoas the eunuch.
Thoughts on Bagoas
Bagoas is only mentioned once by Plutarch (in connection with a dancing contest that he won), and seems to be completely ignored by both Arrian and Diodorus. Curtius mentions him a very few times. His most detailed reference is to a lurid story about how Bagoas brought about the execution of Orsines, satrap of Pasargadae.
I strongly suspect that Curtius embellishes this story. It is far too neat to be completely accurate. For example, Curtius represents the ‘cast’ in a very simplistic fashion. Orsines is the good guy – ‘a man preeminent among all the barbarians for his nobility and wealth’; while Bagoas is condemned as ‘the unconscionable male whore’. Boo, hiss. For me, Curtius’ account reads more like the plot of Othello (Bagoas as Iago, Alexander as Othello and Orsines as Michael Cassio) than an account of a real event.
Despite the above mentioned insult, Curtius’ dislike for Bagoas seems to stem from the fact that the latter is Alexander’s receiving sexual partner, for he refers to Bagoas ‘submitting to the shame of the sexual act’ (Curtius X. 1. 29). To be fair to him, he does elsewhere mention Bagoas in a positive capacity, but it is a real blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment.
Darius had had a sexual relationship with him and presently Alexander did, too. It was Bagoas’ pleas that did most to influence Alexander to pardon Nabarzanes.
(X. 6. 23)
The paucity of references to Bagoas in the sources and Curtius’ probable embellishment of the Orsines story suggests to me that Bagoas was not a very important person within Alexander’s court. If he had been, I don’t think he would have disappeared from the historical record at Alexander’s death. By-the-bye, and rather interestingly given that they were not always so committed to Alexander’s integrationist policies, the Macedonian soldiers (rank and file apart from the senior officers or both?) appear to have liked Bagoas. It may have been the liking of superiors to inferiors but nevertheless, it was there. Plutarch tells us that after Bagoas won his dancing competition, he,
… seated himself beside the king. At the sight the Macedonians applauded loudly and shouted to Alexander to kiss the winner, until at last the king put his arms around him and kissed him.
(Plutarch, Life of Alexander, 68)
Back to the film
Where does this put us in regards the film? I think Oliver Stone’s Bagoas is definitely informed by the sources. His silence – both in this scene and others – evokes the fact that he rarely appears in the source material. It also shows that he is respectful of the hierarchy of relationships that exists in the Macedonian court. That is why he remains quiet even when Hephaestion implicitly criticises him when he tells Alexander that he has ‘gone too far’. If there is any truth at all to Curtius’ Orsines story then it shows that Bagoas was capable of speaking out. That was against a Persian, though; I know of no occasion when he attempted to turn Alexander against a Macedonian. Perhaps that is why the Macedonian soldiers were so humoured by him.
At first glance, Hephaestion appears to be fighting a desperate rearguard action in order to bring Alexander out of his guilt and grief. A couple of things that he says really jumped out at me.
“Come. You know more than any… great deeds are done by men who took and never regretted. You’re Alexander. Pity and grief will only destroy you.”
On the face of it, this is a reprehensible thing for anyone to say as it justifies any amount of wickedness. In the context of that scene, though, I can understand why Hephaestion resorted to saying it. Alexander has sunk so low he can only be saved by a similarly great act of affirmation by his friend. I can just imagine Hephaestion thinking ‘Perhaps I went too far, there; it doesn’t matter – there will be time to row back later.’
“Sometimes to expect the best of everyone is arrogance.”
Really? Really?? Actually, if you are the king of an army, yes, it can be. What seemed at first to be a very unwise comment suddenly comes across as being very wise indeed.
Arrian states that Anaxarchus the sophist philosopher laughed when summoned to Alexander’s tent after Black Cleitus’ death.
“Don’t you know,” he said, “why the wise men of old made justice to sit by the side of Zeus? It was to show that whatever Zeus may do is justly done. In the same way all the acts of a great king should be considered just, first by himself, then by the rest of us.”
(Arrian, IV. 9)
This comment may be contrasted to what Alexander in the film tells Hephaestion,
“Philip once said that there’s a titan in all of us. That they wait, mixed in our ashes. It wasn’t because of the wine, I killed. It was because I wanted to.”
This comment is both ancient – for its reference to the influence of the titans – and modern; how many times have we heard of a famous person who is suffering in some way or another due to their ‘inner demons’? Of course, Alexander appears to literally believe in the presence of the Titans within himself whereas for us ‘inner demons’ are a metaphor for our own faults* but we meet him at the point at which we agree that we humans are a fallible people. What does Hephaestion have to say to that? Unfortunately, we do not get to find out, as the film now cuts to the scene that will lead to Philip II’s death. You can be sure, though, that he stayed close to Alexander for he was his friend.
* I believe this to be the case also in regards educated Christians as well as non-religious people. A Christian who knows his faith will assert that while the Devil is real his rôle is as a tempter of souls rather than – except in a few extreme cases involving either him or one of his minions – a possessor. I avoid mentioning the beliefs of Islam and Judaism in this respect as I don’t know where they stand on this point.