A few days ago I posted my thoughts on Chapter 5 of Mary Renault’s Fire from Heaven over at the Alexander the Great Reading Group on Facebook. You can find the post here.
In this comment, the author talks about how ancient historians treated Hephaestion. Here is my response. As I wrote it, I started wondering why exactly Arrian portrayed Hephaestion in the way that he did.
Unfortunately, the answer to that question died with him but it has made me want to look at Hephaestion’s portrayal throughout his work to see what kind of picture he paints of him not in one moment but overall. As I work (or write) my way through it, I will compare what Arrian says to the other historians.
I would like these posts to be quite short so in each one I will look at just one ‘scene’ and sum up at the end.
Read the other posts in this series
We meet Hephaestion for the first time at Troy. According to Arrian,
One account says that Hephaestion laid a wreath on the tomb of Patroclus; another that Alexander laid one on the tomb of Achilles, calling him a lucky man, in that he had Homer to proclaim his deeds and preserve his memory.
Alexander’s actions had a two-fold purpose. He wished to,
i. publicly associate himself and Hephaestion with Achilles and Patroclus
ii. honour Achilles, his ancestor**
Arrian presents Alexander’s and Hephaestion’s actions in an even-handed manner, neither mocking their arrogance for comparing themselves to Achilles and Patroclus nor praising the appropriateness of their actions. Instead, he simply gives the facts of what happened according to the two sources that he is using.
This passage is testimony, therefore, to Arrian’s desire to write an accurate history of Alexander’s life. I think it also stands as testimony to his desire to treat Hephaestion fairly, too. It would have been easy for Arrian to omit mention of Hephaestion’s wreath-laying and focus only on the king’s, and yet, he chose not to do so.
This is in contrast to Diodorus who says simply that Alexander ‘visited the tombs of the heroes Achilles, Ajax, and the rest and honoured them with offerings and other appropriate marks of respect’ (XVII.17) and Justin ‘He also sacrificed at Troy, at the tombs of the heroes who had fallen in the Trojan war.’ (XI.5).
Plutarch writes the account that Arrian might have done if he did not care about, or wished to suppress, Hephaestion’s role.
Once arrived in Asia, [Alexander] went up to Troy, sacrificed to Athena and poured libations to the heroes of the Greek army. He smeared himself with oil and ran a race naked with his companions, as the custom is, and then crowned with a wreath the column which marks the grave of Achilles; he also remarked that Achilles was happy in having found a faithful friend while he lived and a great poet to sing of his deeds after his death.
(Life of Alexander Para 15)
Plutarch’s account makes me think that Arrian wanted to not only give an accurate account of Alexander’s life but also a full one, that is to say, one that does not omit mention of other people in Alexander’s life for the sake of keeping the narrative focused (which is what I think Plutarch is doing).
One final point – Arrian’s two principle sources are Ptolemy I Soter and Aristobulos. They are, in his opinion, ‘the most trustworthy writers’ (I.1) on Alexander. As Arrian doesn’t name his sources for the Troy story, I assume that neither Ptolemy nor Aristobulos mention it, but that the sources come from that part of the ‘popular tradition’ (Ibid) which he is happy to use (as it ‘may well be true’).
If this is the case, the question that naturally arises is why don’t Ptolemy or Aristobulos mention it? I have no answer for Aristobulos as he is supposed to be a flatterer – but perhaps Ptolemy had no interest in Alexander’s Homeric pretensions. Given his position as satrap and pharaoh, it would be easy to understand why he chose to focus on Alexander, son of Ammon.
* I am using the Penguin Classics (1971) tr. J R Hamilton edition
** On his mother’s side