Plutarch’s women: Thaïs of Athens, Olympias and Telesippa (Chapts. 38, 39 and 41)

For previous posts in this series click here

This post continues directly on from the last one. I divided them as the number of women I wanted to talk about made the title too long! Anyway, here we are, so let’s proceed to –

Thaïs of Athens
In Chapter 38 Plutarch narrates one of the most memorable and infamous moments of Alexander’s career – the burning of the Royal Palace at Persepolis. According to him, a courtesan named Thaïs incited Alexander to set the palace ablaze, saying that, while it had been a joy to revel in the palace of the Persians, it would be an even ‘sweeter pleasure’ to set fire to ‘the palace of Xerxes, who had laid Athens to ashes’.
As Plutarch admits, there are differing views on how the palace came to be burnt down. Some say it was done on impulse, others that it was a matter of policy. Thaïs’ role, however, is almost uniformly agreed upon (see here for more on what the sources say). Almost. Arrian omits any mention of her. Given, however, that his main source is her lover, Ptolemy, perhaps that is not surprising. Going back to Plutarch, though, the fire seemed to have sobered Alexander up. For he ‘quickly repented and gave orders for the fire to be put out. Whether Thaïs ever repented is not recorded.
We continue with a letter written by Olympias to her son. In Chapter 39 Plutarch tells us about Alexander’s generosity to his friends. We learn of Ariston, to whom he not only gave a gold cup but drank to his honour with it, and the mule driver who shouldered the king’s gold after his mule became too exhausted to carry it any further. Unfortunately, Alexander’s benefactions caused his friends and bodyguards to ‘put on airs’. This displeased Olympias. She wrote,

I wish you would find other ways of rewarding those you love and honour: as it is, you are making them all the equals of kings and enabling them to make plenty of friends, but leaving yourself without any.

I have to admit, I can see the sense in what Olympias wrote. Generosity is not bad but by giving away so much, Alexander was not only creating (metaphoric) equals but – more dangerously – giving potential usurpers the means to challenge his authority with their new friends.
Plutarch says that Alexander bore his mother’s scoldings ‘with great tolerance’ and when Antipater wrote to him complaining about her behaviour again he said that the vice-regent ‘did not understand that one tear shed by his mother would wipe out 10,000 letters’ from him.
I end this post with what I think is a rather lovely story, which is told in Chapter 41. On an unspecified occasion, Alexander was sending home ‘invalid and superannuated soldiers’ when it was discovered that one of those on the list did not qualify for retirement. His name was Eurylochus of Aegae. Under questioning, Eurylochus confessed to the truth. He said he was,

… in love with a with a girl named Telesippa and… planned to travel with her on her journey to the coast.

Alexander duly made enquiries regarding who Telesippa was and discovered that she was a ‘free-born Greek courtesan’ (much like Thaïs, mentioned above). This, it seems, was to Alexander’s satisfaction, for he agreed to help Eurylochus woo her. But not on any terms.

“… since she is a free woman [Alexander said] you must see whether we can win Telesippa either by presents or courtship, but not use other means.”

It seems to me that the implication of Alexander’s words are that had Telesippa been a servant or slave then it would have been alright for Eurylochus to force her to join him, which is an unpleasant thought, even if socially acceptable in those days (?). If we may gloss over that, however, I really do like the fact that Alexander insisted upon things being done properly. It is moments like this which (after all had no practical benefit for Alexander and every inconvenience) persuade me that he genuinely respected women rather than simply affected his respect in order to show how great he was.
Whatever the reason for Telesippa’s journey to the coast, I hope Eurylochus met her in time to walk with her on the way and that they had a long and happy life together.

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