Plutarch’s Women: Athena, the Persian Royal Family, Barsine & Callixeina (Chapts. 15, 19 & 21)

For the other posts in this series click here

We pick up Plutarch’s narrative again in chapter 15 of his Life of Alexander when, upon his arrival at Troy, the Macedonian king ‘sacrificed to Athena’. Unfortunately, that’s all Plutarch has to say about her. Understandably, he is more interested in Alexander’s acts of homage to his great hero, Achilles.
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By-the-bye, I could not help but note Alexander’s remark that ‘Achilles was happy in having found a faithful friend while he lived and a great poet to sing of his deeds after his death.’ This comment appears to suggest that Alexander considered that – in contrast to Achilles – he had neither a faithful friend nor a great poet. The latter is true; Callisthenes was no Homer; but where does that leave Hephaestion?
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Going back to Athena, I wish Plutarch had given a context for Alexander’s act of worship. I suppose he assumed, no doubt rightly, that his audience would be aware of why the sacrifice was carried out. We who come to the text so many years later, however, may need a little help. Theoi reminds me that Athena supported the Greeks during the Trojan War (you can read more about her here) so perhaps that is why Alexander sacrificed to her.
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After Athena, no more women are mentioned until chapter 19 when (in 333 B.C.), as he lay seriously ill in bed, Alexander was given a note from Parmenion warning him that his doctor, Philip, meant to poison him. According to Parmenion Darius had ‘… promised [Philip] large sums of money and even the hand of his daughter if he would kill Alexander’.
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When I wrote about this incident a few weeks ago (here) I mentioned my suspicion that Parmenion was using Alexander’s illness to carry out a coup. If we pretend for a moment, however, that the threat was real, who might Darius have married Philip to in the event that the latter did successfully  assassinate Alexander? Darius married twice and had at least three daughters – an unnamed one from an unnamed wife (who was the daughter of a Persian nobleman named Pharnaces) and two by his sister-wife Stateira, namely, Stateira II and Drypetis.
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We don’t know when Stateira II was born, but because Alexander took her as his wife at the Susa Weddings (in February 324 B.C.) she is believed to be Drypetis’ elder sister. As for the ‘younger’ sister, depending on when she was born, Drypetis could have been as young as 12 when Alexander fell ill, or as old as 16. Either way, she would go on to make a good match at Susa in that she became Hephaestion’s wife.
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Sadly, their marriage only lasted a few months as Hephaestion later the same year. After Alexander died the following June, the sisters’ days were numbered and indeed they were both soon killed by Perdiccas and Roxane as part of the dynastic struggle.
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We move on now to chapter 21 of Plutarch’s Life but stay with Stateira II and Drypetis as Plutarch relates how, following Alexander’s capture of the Persian camp after the Battle of Issus,

… word was brought to him that the mother, the wife and the two unmarried daughters of Darius were among the prisoners…

Darius’ mother was named Sisygambis; the wife being referred to here is Stateira I. Upon being taken prisoner by the Macedonians and seeing Darius’ bow and chariot they beat their breasts and cried in the belief that their lord was dead. This is the only insight into their character that Plutarch gives us before detailing Alexander’s most gentlemanly response to the news that his army had captured them. It isn’t much of an insight – perhaps ‘just’ a ritual response? Although even if it is it tells us something about their fidelity to Persian mourning traditions.
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Either way, and in fairness to him, Plutarch does add that the women were ‘chaste and noble’ (Plutarch adds that Stateira I was regarded as being ‘the most beautiful princess of her time’ and that Stateira II and Drypetis ‘resembled their parents’. It’s interesting that propaganda of this nature survived even though the daughters fell victim to more powerful interests after Alexander’s death).
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Chapter 21, and this post, ends with a delineation of Alexander’s moral character, which references a few women. Plutarch tells us that,

… Alexander… thought it more worthy of a king to subdue his own passions than to conquer his enemies…

To this end he avoided meeting the Persian queens and princesses. In fact, Plutarch explains that until his marriage (i.e. to Roxane), he avoided women altogether… almost: Barsine, Memnon’s widow, and daughter of Artabazus ‘who had married one of the Persian king’s daughters’, became his mistress. Citing Aristobulos as his authority, Plutarch adds,

Alexander slept with [Barsine], as… Parmenion had encouraged him to have relations with a woman of beauty and noble lineage.

This reminds me of the story of Callixeina ‘[a]n exceptionally attractive Thessalian heteira‘*. Philip and Olympias were worried that Alexander was showing no interest in women. So, his mother entreated her son to sleep with one. Eventually, Alexander did, with Callixeina being the lucky lady. According to Waldemar Heckel, however, this story is suspect as it comes from a hostile tradition. I’d like to think that Alexander did not sleep with Barsine at Parmenion’s suggestion but why would Aristobulos lie about something like that? Let’s hope his information was just, plain wrong.
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The final reference to women in chapter 21 is an aside that Alexander makes after seeing the other female Persian prisoners. We are told that Alexander,

… took no… notice of them than to say jokingly, ‘These Persian women are a torment for the eyes’ He was determined to make such a show of his chastity and self-control as to eclipse the beauty of their appearance, and so he passed them by as if they had been so many lifeless images cut out of stone.

Timothy E. Duff, in the Notes, compares Alexander’s words to the actions of the Persian ambassadors to Macedonia in Book 5:18 of Herodotus’ Histories. They describe the Macedonian women as a torment to their eyes but, unlike Alexander, are unable to control themselves. We end, then, with women becoming a means by which Alexander may prove his superiority to the Persians. It wasn’t enough to defeat them twice on the battlefield, he had to do it in love as well.
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* Waldemar Heckel Who’s Who in the Age of Alexander the Great (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009)

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One thought on “Plutarch’s Women: Athena, the Persian Royal Family, Barsine & Callixeina (Chapts. 15, 19 & 21)

  1. When we read the Alexander’s remark on Achilles and Homer quoted by Plutarch, we must remember that now we know how ended up the friendship between Hephaistion and Alexander, but the latter, when in Ilium, didn’t know at all whether their relationship would end up like the one between himself and – for instance – Philotas. Therefore it seems to me rasonable that Alexander – the Second Achilles, as you call him – wished to follow closely his hero steps even in having a Second Patroclus. What is amazing is rather that his dream will become true, even too much, in their untimely death!

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