… [Alexander] remembered his tutor Leonidas and presented him with 500 talents of frankincense and 100 of myrrh: this was in remembrance of the hopes with which his teacher had inspired him in his boyhood. For it seems that one day when Alexander was sacrificing and was throwing incense on to the altar by the handful, Leonidas had remarked to him, ‘Alexander, when you have conquered the countries that produce these spices, you can make as extravagant sacrifices as you like: till then, don’t waste what you have!’ So now Alexander wrote to him, ‘I have sent you plenty of myrrh and frankincense, so that you need not be stingy towards the gods any longer.’
(Plutarch Life of Alexander 25)
Humour is not something that one necessarily thinks off when reading any of the accounts of Alexander’s life. As the above quotation proves, however, it can be found, even when it is ‘just’ a sarcastic retort.
Can we do any better than sarcasm which, as the saying goes, is the lowest form of wit?
Maybe we can. Recently, I came across A Eulogy of Baldness by a late fourth-early fifth century bishop of Ptolemais named St Synesius. This work is a light hearted speech in defence of, yes, baldness; specifically, the good bishop’s.
In the course of his apologia, St Synesius recounts an story mentioned, so he says, by Ptolemy I Soter in his memoir of Alexander’s expedition. If Ptolemy really did write this story nothing and no one is going to persuade me that he did not have a smirk on his face as he did so.
… before the battle of Arbela, which we may justly describe as a great battle, having learned by experience that hair is a disadvantage to soldiers, [Alexander] made the whole host of them shave, and with God, fortune, and valor to help them combined in the struggle of all the Greeks.
Now the reason for the prejudice against hair was the following, as Ptolemy son of Lagus related in his history, one who knew, for he was present at these events, and, because he was king at the time when he wrote his history, did not lie.
A Macedonian with hair unusually long and a thick drooping beard, was attacking a Persian, but the Persian, although in danger, with excellent judgment drops the well-known oblong shield and spears from his hands, as insufficient for coping with the Macedonian. He then charges him, and contriving to slip in under his enemy’s guard, seizes him by the beard and hair, and thus throws the soldier, who had not struck a blow, to the ground, drawing him to himself by the hair like a fish, and once fallen slays him with his drawn scimitar.
Some other Persian also saw this, and another and another, and soon they were all throwing away their shields, and in full pursuit of the enemy through the plain, where one would catch one man [by] his hair, and another, another; for it now passed through the Persian army like a signal that these troops could be captured by their hair, and no one probably of Alexander’s phalanx stood his ground except that portion which was bald. Meantime the king was in sore straits, exposed to unarmed men, against whom when fully armed his army was irresistible.
As it was, Alexander might have been compelled to retreat to Cilicia in disgrace, and to become the laughing-stock of the Greeks, as one who had been defeated in a battle of the hair! But as matters were (for it was already destined that the Heraclids should deprive the Achaemenids of their scepters), speedily understanding the danger, he orders the trumpets to sound the retreat, and when he has led his army as far away as possible, and has placed it in a good position, he lets loose the barbers upon it, and induced by the gifts of the king, they shaved the Macedonians en masse.
As to Darius and the Persians, the campaign no longer proceeded according to their hopes, for as there was no longer anything to hold on to, they were condemned to struggle in armor against much superior adversaries.
Could this story really come from Ptolemy, general of Alexander and pharaoh of Egypt?
To be honest, I don’t think so. The story, as St Synesius writes it, is too ridiculous to be true. I strongly suspect that either he or a third party made it up.
As for Ptolemy, though we know very little to the point of nothing about his character, we do know he omitted fantastical occurrences from his memoir (e.g. the Amazon queen’s two week visit to Alexander’s bed-chamber and the week long party in Carmania). He was not a writer given, therefore, to repeating outlandish tales, which this certainly is.
But let’s say for a moment that Ptolemy did write it. If he did so in later life, when the Wars of the Successors were over and Egypt was settled, I would still not call the story true, but rather, an old man’s indulgence.
If, however, he wrote it during his battle with Perdiccas I would simply view it as a much needed moment of levity during a dangerous and uncertain period.
Having said that, whoever wrote it, and whenever they did so, it remains a funny tale; one that would not look out of place in an Asterix book.