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The Susa Weddings
Chapter 70 of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander opens with Alexander hosting a drinking contest. Sadly for the winner he was only able to enjoy his prize – more wine – for three days before dying. Plutarch doesn’t give his cause of death but if he had said it was alcohol poisoning I would not have been surprised. It certainly seems to have been the cause-of-death of the other forty one (forty one!) people who are said to have died following the contest.
Immediately after his account of this deadly party, Plutarch gives a brief account of the famous Susa Weddings. On this occasion, we are told, Alexander married Stateira ‘the [eldest] daughter of Darius’ and assigned ‘the noblest of the Persian women to the bravest of his men’. Furthermore, he ‘also invited to a collective wedding-banquet the Macedonians who had already married Persian wives’. It was a very great feast with 9,000 in attendance.
Plutarch does not have anything else to say about the weddings but if you would like to know more, Arrian contains further details. He states that Alexander also married Parysatis, the daughter of Ochus, while Hephaestion married Stateira’s sister, Drypetis; Craterus married Amastrine, daughter of Oxyatres; Perdiccas married an unnamed daughter of Atropates; Ptolemy married Artacama, daughter of Artabazus, and Eumenes married Artacama’s sister, Artonis.
As a result of reading Arrian, what becomes clear to me is that Plutarch’s assertion that Alexander married the noblest women to the bravest men is not all of the story. Let’s take a quick look at the fathers of the brides mentioned above.
- Darius – Darius III the former Great King.
- Ochus – Artaxerxes III Ochus, who was Great King between 358 – 338 B.C. Diodorus says Bagoas the eunuch (not the Bagoas whom Alexander was fond of) poisoned him, but according to Wikipedia there is a cuneiform tablet at the British Museum which says Ochus died of natural causes.
- Oxyatres – Darius III’s brother.
- Atropates – Governor of Media so a nobleman who remained in Alexander’s service after (?) Darius’ death and performed good service for him.
- Artabazus – grandson of Artaxerxes II (who reigned 405/4 – 359/8 B.C.). I presume, therefore, that he was a senior member of the Persian nobility?
While I have no doubt that Alexander’s officers were all brave men, Eumenes’ presence in Arrian’s list makes me think that politics was an important factor in Alexander’s decision making regarding which woman was given to which man. After all, as far as I am aware, Eumenes played no significant role in any of the great battles.
One final point – I am surprised that Arrian does not name Perdiccas’ wife. I presume her name was not known to him? Perhaps this is an example of Ptolemy’s alleged bias against Perdiccas?
We now jump forward to the final chapter of Plutarch’s Life – Chapter 77. Alexander has just died following an illness that lasted ten days. Plutarch says that,
[n]obody had any suspicion at the time that Alexander had been poisoned, but it is said that five years afterwards some information was given, on the strength of which Olympias put many men to death…
Now, it’s perfectly possible that in 318 B.C., the truth about what happened to Alexander finally came out.
In 319 B.C. Antipater died. Before his death, he appointed Polyperchon – rather than his son, Cassander – his successor as Alexander IV’s guardian. This was ‘… to avoid giving the impression that he was trying to set up an Antipatrid dynasty’ (Waterfield Dividing the Spoils p. 73).
This move led to war between Cassander and Polyperchon. For his part, Cassander soon won the support of Antigonus, and (though to a lesser extent) Ptolemy and Lysimachus. Polyperchon, however, was short of friends. He kept going, though, and by 317 B.C. had convinced Olympias to back him.
Could it be possible that this alliance was rooted in a message sent by Polyperchon to Olympias the previous year in which he intimated that Antipater had ordered his sons, Cassander and Iollas, to assassinate Alexander? It would certainly explain why Olympias very vindictively ordered Iollas’ ashes (he died on an unknown occasion between 323 – 317 B.C.) to be scattered.
If Polyperchon did make this allegation ‘five years afterwards’ we can be sure that Olympias would soon connect the dots and fear that just as he had killed her son Cassander would, if he had the chance, kill her grandson. Which is precisely what did, in the end, happen.
For his part, though, Plutarch is sceptical that Alexander was poisoned. He cites the lack of corruption in the king’s body in the day’s following his death as proof of this.
Moving on, at the time of Alexander’s death,
… Roxane was expecting a child and she was therefore held in special honour by the Macedonians. But she was jealous of Alexander’s second wife, Stateira, whom she tricked into visiting her… [w]hen she… got her into her power, she had her murdered, together with her sister, threw the bodies into a well and filled it up with earth. In this crime her accomplice was Perdiccas…
Roxane’s actions are altogether horrible but before we condemn her out of hand we have to ask ourselves what would have happened had Stateira (and Drypetis) lived? Given half a chance, would they have let Roxane alone? Perhaps Stateira and Drypetis were in a weak position as they were Persian and – in the former’s case – had not had time to bear Alexander any children but given their family connections I can’t believe that had Roxane and Perdiccas not murdered them they would have been allowed to slip into obscurity like Bagoas.
Philinna and Olympias
The penultimate reference to a woman is Philinna who Plutarch describes as being ‘obscure and humbly born’. She is mentioned here because she was also Philip III Arrhidaeus’ mother. Plutarch has no more to say about Philinna but one more allegation to make against Olympias. He says that she,
… was believed to have given [Philip III Arrhidaeus] drugs which impaired the functions of his body and irreparably injured his brain.
And that is the end of the book. Plutarch has ended it on a bit of gossip. It should come, I suppose, as no surprise – he has not liked Olympias since the start. Perhaps she really was an unlikable person but I’m not sure she was worse than any of the men.
I have enjoyed reading Plutarch’s Life of Alexander. Thinking about what I have read, I shall always be a little disappointed that he did not deepen his narrative to allow us a little more insight into the character of the women he mentions. I understand that his focus is Alexander and not anyone else – male or female – but it is a shame that they both really just have walk on-walk off parts. I shall always appreciate the Life for reminding me of the existence of obscure people like Philinna, above, and Telesippus but the one thing that has really struck me about the narrative is Plutarch’s deficient treatment of Olympias in the early chapters. He could have treated her better.