Of The Moment

2,374 Years Strong

diary – birthday edition

We don’t know which day exactly Alexander was born on but it usually taken to be 20th/21st July (though I have also seen 26th mentioned). With that in mind, I took the day off work yesterday to commemorate it by visiting a Greek restaurant in Primrose Hill called Lemonia. It is a lovely place and well worth a visit if you are in the neighbourhood. I ate zatziki for starters, keftedes for mains and finished off with a Greek coffee. Sadly for my future as a food blogger and instagrammer I didn’t take any photographs of either the food or drink – I washed the food down with half a bottle of Restina Kourtaki. Oh, and I bought a bottle of Greek Macedonian red wine. When I open that I will certainly take a photograph and upload it here.

While I waited for the courses to arrive, I read the opening chapters of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, our only (substantial) account of Alexander’s birth. The account is infused with legend as well as bald facts; one might also say it is laced with propaganda as well – particularly regarding Alexander’s divinity. Most interestingly, it also contains what is probably the only example of Olympias being humble. Plutarch records two traditions regarding her; in the first, she tells Alexander ‘the secret of his conception’ and urges him ‘to show himself worthy of his divine parentage’. In the other, Plutarch says that ‘that she repudiated this story and used to say, ‘Will Alexander never stop making Hera jealous of me.’

Who were the authors who maintained this latter tradition, and why did they do so? After Olympias died, in 316 BC, there was no motivation for anyone to defend her from whatever charge her erstwhile enemies cared to bring.

***

The mystery of the large, black coffin found in Alexandria has been solved – for now. It was opened and found to contain three skeletons and sewage water. Yuk. Read more here. Of course, we are disappointed that it didn’t contain Alexander’s body. On the other hand, though, isn’t it nice that the mystery over where his final resting place is, still remains?

***

Hornet, the gay news site, has a curate’s egg of an article on Alexander, here.

… letters of the time described Alexander yielding to Hephaestion’s thighs.

Robin Lane Fox mentions this anecdote and states that it comes from ‘the Cynic philosophers… long after [Alexander’s] death’.

“One soul abiding in two bodies” is how their tutor, Aristotle, described the two men.

Aristotle was respond to the question of ‘what is a friend’; he wasn’t referring to Alexander and Hephaestion (Diogenes Laertius Lives of Eminent Philosophers Book V.20 here)

“The friend I valued as my own life,” Alexander wrote of his partner.

I don’t think Alexander did say this – did he?

Scholars have suggested that he became careless with his health after losing his lover.

I think it would be fair to say that Alexander was always careless of his health! In respect of the statement, I don’t think he was. I don’t recall anything in the sources to indicate it.

… eventually [Alexander and Barsine] are said to have had a son named Heracles. Questions linger about the veracity of that particular account — it’s possible that Heracles was procured in an attempt to usurp the throne after Alexander’s death. Though there were some who supported Heracles’ claim to Alexander’s lineage, he vanished not long after his supposed father died.

This is the first time I have heard anyone doubt that Heracles lived. He is well attested in the sources – Curtius, Diodorus and Justin all mention him. Also, Heracles didn’t ‘vanish not long after his supposed father died’ – he lived until 310/09 BC when Polyperchon tried to use him to reclaim Macedon from Cassander only to be executed after Cassander made Polyperchon an offer suitable to his irrelevant status in the Wars of the Successors.

She was carrying a son at the time, whom she named Alexander IV; but doubt was cast over the identity of the father.

Again, this is the first time I have heard anyone doubt Alexander’s paternity of Alexander IV.

In general, Alexander’s focus was on uniting Persian and Greek culture, and so he arranged marriages that spanned the two groups. He went so far as to organize a mass wedding that lasted five days and included 90 couplings, usually tying highly regarded Macedonian women to Greek soldiers whom Alexander trusted.

If Alexander was intent on uniting ‘Persian and Greek culture’ I don’t know why he would hold a mass wedding involving Macedonian women to Greek soldiers. Of course, he didn’t; the reference here is to the mass weddings at Susa in which Macedonians were married to Persians – see Arrian VII.4-8).

So the article is a bit hit and miss. I did like the closing passage, though:

… it is impossible not to wonder what passions existed two and a half millennia ago, and how recognizable those feelings would be to us today.

***

Judging by the way people write about Alexander and Hephaestion today, their feelings are very recognisable today! As it happens, I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to consider my own. I was asked who my heroes were. Alexander was suggested but then someone said that perhaps he was someone I was just fascinated by rather than considered heroic.

I wouldn’t consider Alexander heroic in the modern sense – he was no Superman, selflessly acting for the good of others; he was, though, heroic in the ancient Greek manner: devoted to winning glory for himself, proving himself better than anyone else.

Alexander certainly fascinates me but for me it goes much deeper than that, and for that reason, I try to think about him as critically as I can so that I don’t descend into fanboyism – excusing or ignoring the bad things he did and complexities of his life just because he looked good and (probably) slept with Hephaestion. I can’t say how good I am at that, probably not as much as I want to be, but for me it is important to try. It has the added benefit as well of enabling me to learn more about the Alexander who lived rather than the one I hold in my heart.

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A Grave Matter

diary

As I write this post, we are just ninety minutes away from the start of the World Cup final. Sadly, football will not be coming home for England as the national team were knocked out on Wednesday by Croatia. It’s hard to be too upset by this as football hasn’t come home for an awfully long time.

On Twitter a few days ago, I considered (as one does) who else never went home. The best answer, of course, is Alexander. After leaving Macedon in 336 B.C. he never looked back. It looks like he didn’t even want to return home in death, either. Michael Wood states that Alexander wished ‘to be buried with his ‘father’ in Siwa’ (In the Footsteps of Alexander, p.217). Of course, his body never made it there; after hijacking the cortege, which under Perdiccas’ instructions was on its way to Macedon, Ptolemy took the coffin, first to Memphis and then to Alexandria a few years later, once the city had been built.

***

On the subject of coffins, there has been a great deal of interest in a large black coffin that has been discovered in Alexandria, Egypt. You can read about it here. The coffin dates to the Ptolemaic period so naturally there has been speculation that the body inside is Alexander’s.

Well, the size of the coffin certainly indicates that it belonged to someone of great wealth, and therefore importance, and it has been found in Alexandria – Alexander’s last known resting place – so… However, the Macedonian king was not the only important person to be buried there. Maybe the coffin belongs to one of the Ptolemys. I would be very happy for it to be Ptolemy I’s. We just don’t know who was laid to rest inside it and will have to be patient and wait for the Egyptian archaeologists to open it. Let’s hope they find enough evidence inside to solve the mystery.

***

A link to Alexander: Gay or Straight? appeared on my Twitter timeline earlier today. It is a 2011 blog post on the Forbes website. The post is quite short but still worth your time as it features Paul Cartledge and James Romm – two classicists who know all about Alexander. James Romm is particularly worth paying attention to as he co-edited the lovely Landmark Arrian book. On a personal note, I like Paul Cartledge, too, as he signed a book for me after a talk once and was very friendly.

Anyway, back to Alexander: the title of the blog post is, of course, unhelpful as it imposes a modern understanding of sexuality on someone who lived in the fourth century B.C. The highlight of the post for me was learning that some scholars doubted the existence of Alexander’s eunuch, Bagoas.

***

I have finally started reading Mary Renault’s The Nature of Alexander. I’m commenting on it as I read over at the Facebook Alexander the Great Reading Group. I may post them on this blog after I have finished the book but for now, you can read them, here.

***

One last point – I first found out about the Alexander: Gay or Straight blog post when someone I follow retweeted the original post containing the link. The retweeter was none other than @Olympias_Epirus. Alexander was very fortunate to live in an age where he never had to come out as gay, straight, bisexual, etc. Instead, however, Olympias or Philip II worried about their son’s apparent lack of interest in sex. Athenaeus (Deipnosophistae X.435) states that Olympias hired a courtesan to sleep with him; ‘they feared he might prove to be a womanish man’, which perhaps means a eunuch? Unfortunately for Olympias it would be a little longer before Alexander set her mind at rest.

***

It is now 3:37pm. Kick-off is in 23 minutes. Time to get ready for the game!

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What’s in a Name?

A Catch-Up post.

It has been a month since I last wrote anything, here.

Troy: Fall of a City continues on the BBC on Saturday on Saturday night. I have to admit, though, that I have not felt any great desire to keep up with it. I will try to at some point.

‘At some point’ – there’s a fatal phrase if ever there was one. We’ll see.

***

Yesterday, I read an article titled The Ignorant Parkland Kids Don’t Speak for Their Dead Classmates by John Hawkins on the PJ Media website here.

The article is by-and-large a contemptuous piece of right wing trash. In arguing that the teenagers who survived the Parkland School gun massacre should shut up because they are ‘high school kids’ who know nothing it cynically employs the feeble tactic of being as controversial as possible in order to draw readers in either through their outrage or approval.

The reason I mention it here is because of a reference to Alexander as one of the few teenagers to know anything. Hawkins links to an article on a voting website, which says of Alexander,

At age 16, Alexander the Great, having just finished studying under Aristotle, was the regent in charge of Macedonia. The Thracian Maedi revolted against him, and Alexander quickly responded, driving them out of their own territory. He colonized it with Greeks, and founded a city named Alexandropolis.

I imagine that Hawkins’ focus is on Alexander’s studentship under Aristotle as his regency, attack on the Maedi, and the establishment of Alexandropolis is not of itself really relevant to a view of him as being an especially knowledgable person. Perhaps he employed revolutionary new tactics, which he created, in the battle, but it is unlikely.

So what about Alexander and Aristotle? Did being the famous philosopher’s student make him especially knowledgable? Alexander certainly did have a keen intellect. Plutarch tells us (Life of Alexander 8) that Aristotle gave him an interest in medicine and philosophy and that in adulthood, Alexander had a love of literature and history. We might add to this that his baggage train included men of science who surveyed the lands that the army traversed and sent back to Greece perhaps much information about it.

Back in his teenage years, however, I get no sense that Alexander was intellectually precocious. Reading the early chapters of Plutarch, you certainly get a picture of a more generally precocious young man but this is not the same thing. For example, in Chapter 4, Plutarch talks about Alexander for  whom fame was already of the greatest importance; Chapter 5 continues that theme as Alexander quizzes the Persian ambassadors about their country, foreshadowing, of course, his expedition; in Chapter 6 Alexander tames Bucephalus thus proving his bravery.

Alexander was clearly very bright but if the aforementioned events happened, or if they are simply based on the truth about Alexander in his formative years, we may say that his intelligence was focused on the winning of renown and glory. Just like the Parkland ‘kids’ are focused on using theirs to achieve greater gun control.

Having said all that, I do share John Hawkins’ reservations about the living speaking for the dead. This should not – cannot – be done unless one knows that in life the dead supported the cause of the living. This sympathy does not mean, however, that I regard the article as anything other than a hectoring, sneering piece of rubbish.  

***

Speaking of Alexandropolis, I received an interesting enquiry via my Alexander Facebook page the other day: Why did Alexander name his cities Alexandria? The fact that Alexandria is the feminine version of his name was also brought up. In truth, I don’t know. Unfortunately, I seem to have deleted the message so can’t refer back to it, but if the person who wrote to me reads this, I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on the matter. And indeed, I would be very interested to hear anyone else’s too, in the comments below or on Facebook.

***

Finally, I have written a few posts on Tumblr; well, indulging my love for the film Call Me By Your Name. You can find them, and my latest on Philip II, here.

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Watch Alexander’s War Unfold

I love my Alexander books but it is always good to see what happened as well. Recently, therefore, I was delighted to discover BazBattles, a You Tube channel dedicated to showing how famous battles unfolded.

Amongst those featured are Alexander’s three battles against the Persian Empire.

The Battle of the Granicus River

The narrator’s strong (Spanish?) accent can make this video a little hard going but stick with it as his voice is actually rather charming in its way. The video is livened up by speech bubbles representing the voices of the Persian satraps. You’ll have to excuse the rather sweary one. The word used is nothing particularly bad but doesn’t really belong in this narrative.

The Battle of Issus

The language is better in this video, and more modern, too; look out for Alexander saying ‘GG’! Also, look out for the extra facts at the end. I don’t think I knew (or had forgotten) that Alexander only started calling himself ‘king’ after Issus. I read, recently, that he referred to himself as King of Asia after this battle so I wonder if the two facts are being conflated? Something to look into, perhaps.

The Battle of Gaugamela

An American narrates The Battle of Issus and I have to say a very caddish sounding Englishman narrates this video. I’d love to know who it is and what other work he has done. The video does not mention how the Persians sacked the Macedonian camp during the battle but does highlight one very salient fact about Alexander – the attention he paid to logistics. One other thing – look out for The Lord of the Rings reference!

All in all I found all three of these videos really useful in helping me to see how the battles turned out so I thoroughly recommend them to you. They aren’t BazBattles‘ only Macedonian videos, either; he – or she – also covers the Battle of the Erigon Valley (one of Philip II’s earliest battles. I have to admit, I don’t recall this one), Chaeronea, the Siege of Tyre and the Battle of the Persian Gates. No sign of Hydaspes yet. I hope it will be included in the future. For a play list of the Macedonian videos, click here.

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Four Names, One Love

Yesterday was Mothering Sunday in the UK so let’s remember one of the most important mothers of antiquity. A descendent of Achilles, she was born Polyxena. Circa 357 BC she changed her name to Myrtale and then in 356 BC she took the name by which we know her: Olympias. In the same year, her son Alexander the Great was born. Following his death, she took the name Stratonice.

The historical record has not been kind to Olympias. Plutarch sums it up in his Life of Alexander (9) where he calls her ‘a woman of a jealous and vindictive temper’.

There is no doubt that Olympias was a tough lady but then, if she wanted to be a serious force in Macedonian politics and not just a pawn to be moved about by others, she needed to be.

On occasion, she may well have gone too far in her actions – we think of the murder of Cleopatra (and possibly her daughter) here (Plutarch 10) – but she lived for her son and must have loved him very, very deeply, indeed.

If we are unconvinced by this, it is only because that love was tainted by an inherently violent political system. In the unstable, Win or Die, world of Fourth Century BC Macedonian politics, however, Olympias had no choice but to fight for Alexander’s right to be king, and defend him once he became king. To step back from that would be to expose herself to attack.

If Olympias is anything, she is a tragic figure rather than an evil one. Most of all, though, she is proof of the intensity of a mother’s love.

  • This is a slightly revised version of a post I wrote for my Alexander Facebook page yesterday
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A Reflection

Earlier this month I read a comment on Twitter by someone who, if memory serves, expressed a need for medievalists to stop white supremacists from using the Middle Ages to justify their ideological views.

Unfortunately, I can’t remember who made the comment but this article in The Economist explains the issue fairly succinctly.

One thing I do remember is that afterwards, I thought to myself how fortunate it is that Alexander had not been dragged into this contemporary ideological battle. He would seem to be the perfect candidate, after all, given that his expedition – his crusade, you might say – was carried out against the decedent people of the East.

But then, three days ago, I read an article regarding a meeting between members of the Greek government and Orthodox Church and a representative of Donald Trump during which, the Greek defence minister, Panos Kammenos, gave to Trump’s man ‘a copy of the sword of Alexander the Great’ (see my post here).

Mr Kammenos’ gift is as historically authentic as a quack medicine is useful. This is of little comfort, however, as extremists are rarely known for their commitment to the truth. What to do? Hope that no extremist read about the meeting and move on? Or how about this; take the opportunity to ask myself more deeply, ever more deeply, who was Alexander? Who was he, and what did he stand for?

This question can be asked both negatively and positively. For example, Alexander was not a racial supremacist. Aristotle may have taught him that Greeks were superior to non-Greeks but while Alexander did not intend to create a ‘unity of Mankind’ he did want non-Greeks to be part of his empire and not just subject to it. Alexander was not a Warrior of the West fighting the good fight against the Evil East. Officially, the expedition started out as a War of Revenge. This immediately alloys its moral value but even if we accepted it as something virtuous, the expedition became over time a personal affair as Alexander conquered not to avenge wrongs but to prove himself greater than his Heroic ancestors. As for the idea of the East being evil, let us not talk of the way the Greeks treated each other.

The question of Alexander’s identity is of such importance that it transcends what will in the fullness of time prove to be transitory political concerns. It is of especial importance to anyone who, like me, is an Alexander supporter. Because if we don’t ask the question we risk dwelling only on those parts of his life that are agreeable to us and glossing over, or just plain ignoring, those parts that are less so. And if we do this, we are not much better, in terms of our thinking, than political extremists. They sin by commission, we do so by omission.

So, while I still regret that Alexander’s name was used by the Greek delegation to curry President Trump’s favour (though I can well understand why they did it), now that it has been, it has afforded me an excellent opportunity to think more deeply about him and maybe to share any insights I come up with here with who knows what result. Positive, I hope!

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Of Swords and Ghosts

Last Thursday, on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the U.S.A., members of the Greek Orthodox Church in America and the Greek government met Mr. Trump’s Chief-of-Staff, Reince Priebus. You can read Greek Reporter USA‘s account of the meeting here.

(Presumably) after the speeches were over the Greek Minister of Defence, Panos Kammenos, gave ‘Priebus a copy of the sword of Alexander the Great as a gift to President Trump.’

Unfortunately, the Greek Reporter report does not contain any further information about the sword than the quotation above. Its video footage of the event does not show it, either. Not that this really matters. Alexander did not have a special sword. Not in the same way, for example, he had a special shield – that of Achilles – or horse, in Bucephalus. The the sword Mr. Kammenos gave Mr. Priebus was probably just a generic sword of the Fourth Century B.C., one labelled as Alexander’s no doubt to appeal to Mr. Trump’s ego.

On that point, it would be very tempting to bemoan the fact that Alexander the Great is being used to foster relations between Greece and one of the most controversial Presidents of America in its entire history, a man whose character would seem to make him wholly unsuited to holding that great office. Well, what’s done is done, but I wonder who is being used here. Is it Alexander? Or is it the Greeks and President Trump? The sword, whose ever it is, symbolises Alexander far more than it does modern Greece or America. Its presentation, therefore, surely represents yet another – running right back to the Successors, via Rome, into the Middle Ages and up to the present – attempt to bring Alexander back to life. He remains dead, of course, but the ghost also remains on his throne.

What ties white supremacism, Alexander and Donald Trump? That will be the topic of my next post.

Categories: Of The Moment, On Alexander | Tags: | 4 Comments

The Club of Lethal Trades

Last Saturday, 30th July, I took part in a 27 mile walk from Kensington to Beaconsfield in honour of G. K. Chesterton.

Chesterton (1874-1936) was born in the former and is buried in the latter. He was baptised at St. GKCThomas’ C of E church at Campden Hill, where we started our walk, and prior to his death, lived at two homes in Beaconsfield – Overroads and Top Meadow. He was by trade (or profession?) a journalist but also engaged in Catholic apologetics, writing many books and taking part in debates with his friend Hilaire Belloc in one corner and George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells in the other. Belloc and Wells couldn’t stand each other but Chesterton could make friends with a brick wall.

Our walk took just over twelve hours – breaks included – and by the end although I was in good spirits I was very footsore. This got me to thinking about the Macedonian army.

Between 336 – 323 Alexander took his men on numerous forced marches. for example, from Thrace to Thebes (Arrian I.7), which he accomplished in a fortnight. On other occasions, the men – and women – had to walk for extended periods through very difficult territory on pain of death; I am thinking here particularly of the Gedrosian desert crossing (Arrian VI.24-27).

What must these walks have done to their feet? I had plasters to cover my blisters; cuts can be covered with ointment. How did the Macedonians dress their injuries? And how strong mentally they must have been to endure these long walks day-after-day: I was done for at the end of Day One!

Anyway, I wish I knew more about ancient Macedonian feet and how they cared for them. Walking on tender feet is horrible but they made a career out of it. As usual, I am in awe. Not so much of Alexander this time, but his very faithful soldiers and camp followers.

***

In the photo below: this author on a pontoon bridge somewhere between Ealing and Uxbridge. As can be seen, this bridge doesn’t cross the canal but runs alongside the path while it is being resurfaced. Hephaestion and Perdiccas could not have done a better job.

IMG_1710

Photo Credits
Chesterton Way of Wonder
The picture of me S. McCullough

Categories: By the Bye, Of The Moment | Tags: | 1 Comment

And the Loser Is…

If there was such a thing as the Bad Luck, Old Chap award and it had a category for antiquity, I would definitely nominate –

Craterus
Serves Alexander with distinction,
Could have been the man to whom Alexander left his empire,
Falls under his horse and dies early in the Wars of the Successors (Diodorus XVIII.30).

Perdiccas
Serves Alexander loyally,
Forms an effective team with Hephaestion in India,
Is deserted by his friends after failing to clear a disused canal (a canal!) (Diodorus XVIII.33)
And is assassinated after failing – wait for it – to cross a river (Diodorus XVIII.36).

Sometimes, it’s just not meant to be.

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He Conquered Through His Tears

In an article on The Myth of the Macho Christ for Patheos (here), Simcha Fisher writes quotes a correspondent who complained about her definition of masculinity. They wrote,

If an affinity for babies and not having sex is manliness or courage or masculinity then some anemic nerd virgin gamer who babysits his cousins on the weekend is literally more manly and masculine than Achilles or Alexander the Great or Gengis Khan, since they fornicated.

To which Fisher replies,

In charity, we’ll overlook the facts that Alexander the Great almost certainly had sex with men, and is best known for sitting down and crying,

Before proceeding to prove her correspondent wrong in his, or her, definition of what masculinity really is.

I agree with Fisher that Alexander ‘almost certainly had sex with men’ although I would limit their number to either one (Bagoas) or two (Bagoas and Hephaestion)*.

She is, however, is quite wrong when she says that Alexander is ‘best known for sitting down and crying’. Not even the village idiot would say such a thing. I suspect she is thinking of Achilles here, although I don’t know The Iliad well known to say how much time he spends sitting and sobbing. Having said that, I don’t think anyone in their right mind would say Achilles’ greatest claim to fame is the amount of tears he shed. Fisher has created a parody in order to make a point. In charity let’s say that on this occasion her memory of Alexander and Achilles both fooled her. It’s a great shame as the rest of the article is, in my opinion, a good one.

* On that point, see this comment

Categories: Of The Moment, On Alexander | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

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