The Flawed Brilliance of Alexander

Justin’s Alexander
Book XII Chapters 11-16
Part Six
Other posts in this series

For this post I am using this translation of Justin’s Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus

Chapter Eleven
During Alexander’s expedition, his men, when not fighting, had somehow managed to get themselves deep in debt. Following the Susa weddings, Alexander paid that debt off in its entirety. It cost him twenty thousand talents to do so. One can only wonder how the men had managed to spend that much. Either way,

[Alexander’s] munificence was highly prized, not only for the sum given, but for the character of the gift, and was received not more thankfully by the debtors than by the creditors, exaction being as troublesome to the one as payment to the other.

Once the debts had been paid, Alexander proceeded to discharge his older veterans. Despite the kindness that their king had just showed them, the remaining men complained (during an assembly) that the discharge should be on the basis of service not age.

Justin describes the men as speaking to Alexander not only with ‘entreaties’ but also with ‘reproach’. Rather sulkily, they bid him to ‘“carry on his wars alone, with the aid of his father Ammon, since he looked with disdain on his soldiers.”’

In reply, Alexander oscillated between berating his men and speaking to them ‘in gentler terms’. When neither approach worked, he leapt down from his dais and personally arrested the ringleaders.

Chapter Twelve
His next action was to commend his Persian soldiers for their loyalty and enrol a thousand of them into his bodyguard as well as a number of auxiliaries into the regular army.

This cut the Macedonians to the quick, and they went to Alexander ‘beseeching him with tears “to content himself rather with punishing than ill-treating them.”’ Their pleas worked and Alexander released more veterans.

It is really striking, in this and the previous chapter, how fraught Alexander’s relationship with his men is. One minute they are friends, then enemies, then friends again. It’s as if their relationship has lost its foundations and has become a matter of shifting sands. And why? I think because of the army’s profound tiredness and Alexander’s perennial desire to get his way.

Justin notes that it was around of what we call the Opis Mutiny that Hephaestion died.

Alexander mourned for him longer than became his dignity as a king, built a monument for him that cost twelve thousand talents, and gave orders that he should be worshipped as a god.

Chapter Thirteen
Alexander returned to Babylon ‘from the distant shores of the ocean’. On the way, he was warned by the Magic’“not to enter the city,” for that the “place would be fatal to him.”’. As a result, the king took a diversion to an uninhabited city called Borsippa ‘on the other side of the Euphrates’.

There, however, the philosopher (and professional flatterer) Anaxarchus persuaded him to go to Babylon after all.  Anaxarchus argued that “if things were fixed by fate, they were unknown to mortals, and if they were dependent on the course of nature, were unchangeable.” Que sera, sera.

I am always rather suspicious when I read of about-turns like this. Alexander was not a puppet. He did what he wanted – even in matters of religion* – not what anyone else would have him do. Still, who knows what mental state he was in after Hephaestion’s death; perhaps this did make him more open to influence?

In Babylon, Alexander rested and resumed ‘the entertainments which had been for some time discontinued’ (no doubt as a result of Hephaestion’s death). One night, at a party given by an officer named Medius, the king collapsed in such extreme pain that he asked for someone to kill him.

His friends reported that the cause of his disease was excess in drinking, but in reality it was a conspiracy, the infamy of which the power of his successors threw into the shade.

* For example, when he took part in the attack of Tyre (Arrian 2:27) and crossed the Tanais (aka Jaxartes Arrian 4:4) despite Aristander’s warnings that the omens were against him

Chapter Fourteen
Justin blames Antipater for Alexander’s death. This chapter has a lot to say about Antipater but less about Alexander. I can’t move on, however, without recording what Justin tells us concerning the poison used to kill the king.

The strength of this poison was so great, that it could be contained neither in brass, nor iron, nor shell, nor could be conveyed in any other way than in the hoof of a horse.

Too strong for metal but able to be safely transported in a hoof. Perhaps Justin was tired when he wrote this.

Chapter Fifteen
Justin has been critical of Alexander. But he allow shim to die in a a noble fashion. Meeting his men for the last time, Alexander

… not only did not shed a tear, but showed not the least token of sorrow; so that he even comforted some who grieved immoderately, and gave others messages to their parents

Alexander, Justin says, was as prepared for death as he was for battle. Can any higher praise be given? Once the last soldier had left, the king asked his friends if they would find another like him. When they did not reply,

he said that, “although he did not know that, he knew, and could foretel, and almost saw with his eyes, how much blood Macedonia would shed in the disputes that would follow his death, and with what slaughters, and what quantities of gore, she would perform his obsequies.”

Finally, the royal friends did speak, and they asked Alexander who should succeed him.

He replied, “The most worthy.”

This response meets with Justin’s whole hearted approval. He says that,

Such was [Alexander’s] nobleness of spirit, that though he left a son named Hercules, a brother called Aridaeus, and his wife Roxane with child, yet, forgetting his relations, he named only “the most worthy” as his successor; as though it were unlawful for any but a brave man to succeed a brave man, or for the power of so great an empire to be left to any but approved governors.

Unfortunately, as Justin recognises, this nobleness opened the door for the wars that followed.


Six days after Medius’ party, Alexander gave his ring to Perdiccas. This act at guaranteed that there would at least be a transitional government while the identity of the next king was decided.

Chapter Sixteen
Justin sums up Alexander by paying him a number of compliments.

He was a man endowed with powers of mind far beyond ordinary human capacity.

[Olympias] certainly bore in her womb a conception superior to mortality… by no one’s influence was she rendered more illustrious than that of her son.

[As king, Alexander] inspired his soldiers with such confidence in him, that, when he was present, they feared the arms of no enemy, though they themselves were unarmed.

Justin also mentions the omens of Alexander’s ‘future greatness’ that were seen at his birth and acknowledges his unbeaten record as a general. Finally, he concludes, when Alexander died,

[h]e was overcome at last, not by the prowess of any enemy, but by a conspiracy of those whom he trusted, and the treachery of his own subjects.

Before starting this series of posts, I had a picture of Justin as being uniformly negative towards Alexander. That was the impression I got after reading From Tyrant to Philosopher-King.

However, while Justin does not hesitate to mention Alexander’s major fault – his medising – and his minor ones – his manipulativeness, for example – it is also true to say that he is very complimentary about the Macedonian king. No where is this more seen than in the last two chapters above.

It is possible, of course, that I have misread what Justin wrote, or that the translation I have used is not an accurate one, but assuming that neither is the case, I finish this series with a sense of Justin’s fairness and ability to recognise Alexander’s good whenever he sees it.

As for the mediaeval writers who used Justin to denigrate Alexander; well, I’m not going to criticise them., even though it seems to me (after reading the Epitome) that their reading must have been rather selective. The fact is, we know from other sources that Alexander did medise.

One last point – in case Justin has expressed any further opinion of Alexander in the other books of his Epitome and you are wondering why I haven’t mentioned it/them here, it’s because I have only read Books 11 and 12. If you know of any other statements of Justin, though, feel free to mention them in the comments below.


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One thought on “The Flawed Brilliance of Alexander

  1. Thank you so much for wading through the histories and presenting them to us with your thoughts. I hope to read another of your studies.


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