The Kiss of Life

V. Proskynesis
Read the other posts in this series

… 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.
(Para 55)

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)

Categories: Hephaestion Amyntoros | Tags: , | 5 Comments

Post navigation

5 thoughts on “The Kiss of Life

  1. Thank you for all your attention to Hephaestion lately. I have learned a lot and appreciate it.


  2. It always seemed to me quite logical that Hephaistion would want to “prepare” Callisthenes for doing proskinesis. No doubt he knew that the philosopher wasn’t in favor of this tradition. The question is, whether Callisthenes promised Hephaistion he would do it. Here, again, several scenarios are possible. Callisthenes said yes on purpose to embarrass Hephaistion and Alexander, he never intended performing the act. Or, Callisthenes said yes just to get rid of Hephaistion, not yet quite sure of what he was going to do. Or, Hephaistion might persuade him to do so but later, left alone, Callisthenes decided he can’t do it.

    And at last, if Chares was the source of information, how would he know? Surely, the conversation between Callisthenes and Hephaistion was private. Was Chares eavesdropping? Or, may it be that Callisthenes promised to perform proskinessis to Hephaistion and Alexander in a joint preparatory meeting? Then presence of Charec, MOC, was logical and probably some of his Persian counterparts.

    So many of possibilities of how it might have happen. In any case, it seems more probable than not, that Hephaistion wanted to secure a promise from Callisthenes beforehand, so one would be wrong in accusing the Chiliarch of lying.


    • Delos,

      It is perfectly possible, of course, that Hephaestion set Callisthenes up – just as it is possible that Callisthenes deliberately lied when he said he would do obeisance before Alexander (or vice versa) – but I would hesitate to advocate either view simply because we don’t have enough evidence.

      Thank you for fleshing out the other possibilities for the outcome of the meeting between Hephaestion and Callisthenes. The only one I think less likely is the second. Callisthenes doesn’t strike me as an indecisive man. Of course, we can’t be sure.

      In regards Chares, I imagine he learnt of Callisthenes’ alleged commitment to perform proskynesis when Hephaestion put it out that the former had broken his word. From the way Plutarch writes, it seems clear that no one knew about the meeting until then.



      • Of course, I only listed the possibilities, I don’t have a “preference” for any of them and that is for the reason you pointed out in your initial post, we simply don’t know enough. But I don’t think Hephaistion falsely accused Callisthenes of broken promise; I mean, I don’t think Hephaistion said, “you promised me” if Callisthenes didn’t promise. Not because of the fear to mar Hephaistion’s image but because I don’t see the reason for it.

        Thanks for sharing your views and looking forward to your next post.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: