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… Callisthenes… without prostrating himself, walked up to Alexander and offered to kiss him. Alexander, at the moment, was talking to Hephaestion, and did not trouble to observe whether or not Callisthenes had properly performed the act of obeisance, but one of the Companions – Demetrius, son of Pythonax – mentioned the fact that he had omitted to do so before going up for his kiss. Thereupon Alexander refused to allow him to kiss him.
…..‘Well then,’ Callisthenes exclaimed, ‘I must go back to my place one kiss the poorer’
Arrian’s source for this anecdote is Chares, Alexander’s chamberlain. We know this because Plutarch names him as such when telling the exact same story (Life of Alexander Para 54).
Plutarch’s account also includes a postscript that may also have come from Chares. In it, he describes how a ‘rift… developed’ between Alexander and Callisthenes as a result of the latter’s refusal to prostrate himself before the king. As a result of this,
… it was easy for Hephaestion to be believed when he said that Callisthenes had promised him that he would do obeisance to Alexander and had then broken his word.
When I first read this, it seemed to me that Plutarch was implying bad faith on Hephaestion’s part; or, to put it more baldly, that he was lying. When I read ‘to be believed’ I heard straight after ‘even though no such thing happened’.
We know from the Philotas affair that Hephaestion was not beyond acting maliciously (see Curtius VI.11.15) but whether he is lying here I can not say. A feeling about a text – especially one that is a translation – is really not enough to convict a man.
What I would say is that the postscript, if true, definitely provides proof that Hephaestion was not above manipulation. We should not be shocked by this. Indeed, we should not even be surprised: manipulation of one kind or another is part and parcel of all political systems and people’s lives. The polite word for it is persuasion. The real question is whether it is done honestly and for a good cause.
Was Hephaestion honest?
As we have no proof that Hephaestion lied when he said that Callisthenes had broken his word we are bound to give him the benefit of the doubt and say that – at the very least – he believed he was telling the truth (if we go any further we risk slandering Callisthenes).
Was Hephaestion’s cause good?
Callisthenes appears to have been a rather proud man, perhaps one who was easy to dislike; Hephaestion’s actions, though, were more likely inspired by the fact that the court historian belonged to the rival traditionalist party – that is, those who opposed the king’s adoption of Persian customs and dress.
To us, supporting the progressives in Alexander’s court, that is, those who stood alongside the king in his efforts to draw Greek and barbarian together, seems a straight forward decision. Such an inclusive policy is in perfect accord, after all, with dominant ideology of our own age. However, the matter is more complicated than that. It is not at all clear that Alexander intended Greeks and barbarians to be equal* (any more than it is clear in our age that some who profess to believe in equality really believe in any such thing).
Personally, I think Hephaestion’s cause was not only good but necessary. Callisthenes had shown disrespect to the king and for the sake of Alexander’s authority this needed to be made known. If it wasn’t, Callisthenes’ power would continue to rise and Alexander’s, in however small a way, would fall.
Why did Arrian not include Plutarch’s ‘postscript’? It could be that he didn’t know of it. If it came from Chares, though, maybe he omitted the story because it portrayed Hephaestion in what might be seen as a bad light. Up till now, the son of Amyntor has been portrayed in a wholly complimentary way. If that continues, I would definitely see this as an act of suppression.
* I’m thinking here of Badian’s reply to Tarn’s essay ‘Alexander the Great and the Unity of Mankind‘ in Historia 7 (1958)