Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 70-72 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here
Macedonians Turn On Each Other During Gold Rush
Alexander Secures Citadel Treasury
Courtesan Incites Destruction of Royal Palace
Persepolis was the capital of Persia and Alexander described it to his men, perhaps for that reason, ‘as the most hateful of the cities of Asia’ before handing it to them to plunder.
For a day, the Macedonian soldiery ran riot through the city, stripping every home of its riches. By Alexander’s command, only the royal palaces were exempt from looting. The native men were slaughtered and women taken as slaves.
The Macedonians’ avarice was so great that they turned on each other in order to gain more wealth. Fights broke out, Macedonians were killed; some had their hands cut off as they grasped for the gold and silver before them, others cut valuables in half rather than give them all up to a rival. Diodorus describes a people ‘driven mad by their passions’.
While his men devastated Persepolis, Alexander went to its citadel to take ‘possession of the treasure there’. Two hundred years of treasure was stored inside. Its total value was 120,000 talents. Alexander kept some of the money ‘to meet the costs of the war’, and had the rest sent back to Susa.
For the rest of this chapter, Diodorus tells us about the royal palace precinct.
- ‘[S]urrounded by a triple wall’
- Outer (?) wall – 16 cubits high, ‘topped by battlements’
- Middle wall – 32 cubits high
- Inner (?) wall – Rectangular & made of stone; 60 cubits high
- Bronze doors in each wall
- Bronze poles stand next to each door; 20 cubits high
- To the East on ‘the so-called royal hill’ are the royal tombs
- ‘Scattered About’ the terrace – royal quarters, homes of nobility, guard houses
In the days following his arrival in Persepolis, Alexander ‘held games in honour of his victories’ and ‘performed costly sacrifices to the gods’. He entertained his friends with lavish feasts where copious amounts of alcohol as well as food were consumed.
One night, when the festivities were well advanced, ‘a madness took possession of the minds of the intoxicated guests’. A woman stood up and declared that ‘it would be the finest of all [Alexander’s] feats in Asia’ if he were to set the royal palace ablaze and permit her to share in the destruction of ‘the famed accomplishments of the Persians’.
The woman was Thaïs of Athens and had she no special connection to the king he might just have laughed off her request. But Thaïs – who was a courtesan – had once been his close companion, possibly even his lover, and now lived with Alexander’s friend, Ptolemy Lagides. Her voice carried weight.
It also captured the vengeful mood of the Macedonians that night, a mood that was, it seems, as yet unsated by the day-long plundering of the city; for no sooner had Thaïs spoken than her call was taken up by the other guests.
The Loeb translation says that Alexander ‘caught fire at their words’. I can’t decide if this is a singularly appropriate or inappropriate metaphor to use given the circumstances. Anyway, Alexander leapt to his feet. A ‘victory procession in honour of Dionysus’ was formed and torches lit. Female musicians provided the soundtrack to this momentous moment. Alexander threw his torch into the palace first. Thaïs was permitted to do so second. Everyone else followed thereafter.
The fire took hold and the royal palace went up in flames. Athens was finally avenged; how remarkable, says Diodorus, ‘that the impious act of Xerxes… against the acropolis at Athens should have been repaid in kind… by one woman, a citizen of the land which suffered it, and in sport’.
Alexander’s expedition was – at least ostensibly – carried out to avenge the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 B.C. so the destruction of the Persepolis, the capital of Persia, marks its natural conclusion. I guess that is why Alexander went to the effort of calling the city the most hated in Asia, which he did not do – for example – in the imperial capital of Babylon.
Further to this, Diodorus is also at pains to personalise Alexander’s hatred towards Persepoleans. ‘He felt bitter enmity to the inhabitants. He did not trust them, and he meant to destroy Persepolis utterly’. Actually, thinking about it, I would suggest that Alexander saw the Persepoleans as icons of the hated empire rather than truly as individuals.
Diodorus paints a lurid picture of Macedonian avarice. There was an ‘orgy of plunder’, ‘boundless greed’, and ‘exceeding lust’. The funny thing is, though (funny peculiar, that is), so far as I can tell, the Macedonians were acting within accepted boundaries. The only thing that they did differently was go after the valuables before killing/enslaving the native population because Persepolis was such a rich place.
By the way, the reason I have put question marks next to the inner and outer wall bullet points is that it isn’t clear to me which Diodorus is describing. I might have it the wrong way round.
In describing the events leading to the destruction of the royal palaces, I have missed out one occurrence. Some of the guests who urged Alexander to set fire to the palaces, said that to do so would be ‘a deed worthy of [him] alone’.
imagine the guests were thinking in terms of Alexander’s leadership of the Hellenic League. However, so far Thaïs is concerned, their words do seem to have a slight hint of rebuke about them – either a personal one, or one that is founded on the fact that she was an Athenian not Macedonian.
We don’t know enough about Thaïs to know whether or not she was a popular person within Alexander’s court (practically speaking it didn’t matter on account of her past and present patrons) but we do know from the unhappy example of Eumenes in the successor period that Macedonians did not take to other Greeks very well. I would be very surprised if prejudice wasn’t somewhere in the drunken guests’ minds.
If there was hostility to Thaïs in the court, it is interesting that Alexander permitted her to throw her torch into the palace after him. If nothing else, it shows that he appreciated the symbolism of their act.
One final point about Thaïs – I am sure her motive to burn the royal palaces was to avenge her home city but I can’t help but note that Diodorus represents her as only wanting to destroy the Persians ‘famed accomplishments’. His Thaïs is rather a nihilist. The issue of vengeance is raised by an unknown person a moment later.
Coming Soon to an amphitheatre near you. Watch contestants try to persuade Thaïs that their home, palace or city should not be destroyed. The winners get to live. The loser will hear the immortal words – “You’re fired”.