16.11.14: Read my update to this post here
Alexander the Great’s final resting place is a matter of enduring mystery. As is well known, Ptolemy stole his body in 322/1 BC while it was being taken back to Macedon for burial. He interred it in Memphis and it remained there until either he or his son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, relocated it to Alexandria. The body was lost sometime between the early third and fifth century AD.
Unless, or until, Alexander’s body is recovered interest in its fate will continue. Given that, I wonder why there is very little interest in what happened to the mortal remains of his best friend, and probable lover, Hephaestion.
Before going any further, I must confess that up until now I have been one of those who was not interested. In fact, I don’t think the question ever even occurred to me. The only reason I am writing this post now is is because a few weeks ago someone found their way to The Second Achilles by asking their search engine, ‘where did alexander the great put hepheastians remains body?’. If it was you who wrote that – thank you for inspiring this post.
The short answer to the question of what happened to Hephaestion’s remains is that we don’t know.
Before we speculate, let’s look briefly at what we do know. We know, for example, that Hephaestion died in Ekbatana in October 324 BC. Arrian tells us that Alexander had a funeral pyre built in Babylon for his friend at the cost of 10,000 talents – a staggering sum of money. After holding Funeral Games in Ekbatana Arrian says that Alexander rode south to Babylon with the funeral cortege. He gives no details about the funeral itself. Or even if it took place. As a result he is also silent about what happened to the remains.
For his part, Plutarch also gives the cost of Hephaestion’s funeral (and tomb) as being 10,000 talents. He adds that Alexander intended for the
… ingenuity and originality of the design to surpass the expense[;] he was especially anxious to employ Stasicrates, as this artist was famous for his innovations, which combined an exceptional degree of magnificence, audacity and ostentation.
We can certainly take from this that Hephaestion’s funeral would not have taken place in 324. What about in the first half of 323? i.e., before Alexander’s own death in June.
Well, Diodorus, who agrees with Arrian and Plutarch that Hephaestion’s body was taken to Babylon, says that
… Alexander threw himself into preparations for the burial… He showed such zeal about the funeral that it not only surpassed all those previously celebrated on earth but also left no possibility for anything greater in later ages.
(Diodorus VIII. 17. 114)
So, as far Diodorus is concerned is the funeral did take place. In his biography of Alexander, however, Robin Lane-Fox suggests two things i. that the pyre might actually have been a monument (the Greek word ‘pyra’ can refer to one or the other) and ii. what Diodorus presents as a fact may just have been a ‘rumour’. He notes that ‘no trace of this monument [pyra] has been found’.
One major source is left to us: Curtius. Unfortunately, he seems to ignore Hephaestion’s death altogether, referring to it only in passing after Alexander’s own demise*.
And as far as I am aware, that’s it. Thats the limit of our knowledge regarding the fate of Hephaestion’s body. He died. His body was taken to Babylon. Was he buried? Or cremated? We don’t know, and to be honest I don’t think we have enough information to make an educated guess on the matter.
That needn’t stop us from making an uneducated guess, of course, so here goes. My feeling is that Hephaestion’s funeral didn’t take place – at least, not in the fashion that Alexander wanted. Eight months was not enough time to prepare for it. I imagine that after Alexander’s death, his body would have been quietly cremated according to the usual Greek practice and the ashes deposited somewhere in Babylon.
Had anything untoward or unexpected happened to his remains I believe someone would have written about it. In the febrile atmosphere of the diadochi period it would have suited someone to accuse anyone who had mistreated his body or ashes of doing so. Those are my thoughts; what do you think?
In the early third century BC, a Babylonian king (I believe Antiochus I Soter but do let me know if I am wrong), transported nearly all of Babylon’s population to Seleucia. Only a few people remained behind. By the middle of the second century BC the city was finished as a going concern. All that was left to happen was for her surviving buildings to crumble and fall.
It would be nice to think that somewhere under the site of Babylon, Hephaestion’s remains lie undisturbed; nestled, perhaps, in a golden coffin or urn. This is just a dream, though. Just as Alexander’s gold coffin was later appropriated to give a Ptolemaic king more money, the same would have happened to Hephaestion’s. No, I imagine he had a normal coffin/urn and wherever it rested, it did so in obscurity – people’s memories are short and the Seleucids had no reason to promote his cult – until the decay of the city brought about – or simply concluded – the remains’ own decay.
* In his notes to the Loeb Diodorus, Jeffrey Henderson says that Curtius probably did give an account of the funeral but that it was most likely lost from his manuscript