Plutarch’s Women

Fever Pitch

This afternoon, after finishing the last of my posts on Plutarch’s Women, I continued reading Paradise Lost by Giles Milton, which is an account of the destruction of Smyrna in 1922.

According to Pausanias, Alexander refounded Smyrna during his passage through Asia Minor*. I’m still early on in the book so don’t yet know who – if anyone – Milton blames for the city’s loss to a great fire that killed many thousands of people in September 1922; Wikipedia says that both the Turkish troops who took control of the city just four days before its devastation have been blamed as have Greeks and Armenians who lived there.

The reason I mention Smyrna here is not to discuss the fire but on account of a man named Alfred Simes.

In the last chapter of his Life of Alexander, Plutarch gives a day-by-day account of Alexander’s last illness. The Macedonian king developed a fever following a drinking party. For a few days he was able to bathe, play games, sacrifice and talk to his officers. On the third night, however, the fever grew worse. From the next day until his death Alexander was bedridden. On the eighth day he lost the ability to speak. On the tenth day, ‘he died’.

What was the ultimate cause of Alexander’s death? Plutarch discusses the allegation that he was poisoned on Antipater’s orders. Plutarch is sceptical that this happened as Alexander’s body did not decompose in the days following his death.

Now, it often happens that when a famous person dies, conspiracy theories regarding their death spring up. A mysterious bike rider was supposedly seen at the scene of the accident that killed T. E. Lawrence. How was 93 year old Rudolph Hess able to hang himself in Spandau Prison? Surely it was murder.

Events also breed conspiracies. Why did the twin towers of the World Trade Centre fall in the way they did? Why were there no Jews in the Towers at the time? Allowing for the fact that just because something is a conspiracy theory that does not mean it is therefore false, we do – as a race – find it difficult sometimes to accept that the most rational explanation for an occurrence is the correct one. On other occasions, of course, the conspiracy theory relies on the propagation of out and out falsehoods for its life.

The length of time that has passed between Alexander’s death and the present makes it hard to reach a definitive judgement regarding the cause of his death one way or another. I do suspect, though, that when we look for conspiracies we fly in the face of the simplest – and in this case, best – answer to what happened; namely, that he caught a bug and that it killed him.

The problem with saying that is that it does feel too simple an explanation. Alexander was a tough man! He was also an very injured one – not just physically by psychologically. It is here that I come back to Alfred Simes. His father died in 1916. Here is his account of what happened, as recorded by Milton,

‘He went fishing in the torrential rain,’ recalls Alfred, ‘and fell ill with a fever soon after.’ With no medication available [due to a British Naval blockade of Smyrna’s port], he died after an illness lasting just a few days.

Alfred Simes was just five years old when his father died. I daresay he thought his father a strong, perhaps indestructible, man as well. Despite this, like Alexander, Mr Simes died after doing no more than catching a bug and developing a fever. Sadly, these things happen.

Of course, this is a fact that I knew before I wrote this post. What Paradise Lost has done is connect me to the past – and enabled me to appreciate it more – through an event that happened in the present. Well, not the present but when you are considering an event that took place 2,337 years ago, 100 years is hardly more than yesterday.

* See Alexander the Great’s Dream of the Nemeses at Smyrna

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Plutarch’s Women: The Susa Weddings, Olympias, Roxane & Philinna (Chapts. 70 and 77)

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The Susa Weddings
Chapter 70 of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander opens with Alexander hosting a drinking contest. Sadly for the winner he was only able to enjoy his prize – more wine – for three days before dying. Plutarch doesn’t give his cause of death but if he had said it was alcohol poisoning I would not have been surprised. It certainly seems to have been the cause-of-death of the other forty one (forty one!) people who are said to have died following the contest.

Immediately after his account of this deadly party, Plutarch gives a brief account of the famous Susa Weddings. On this occasion, we are told, Alexander married Stateira ‘the [eldest] daughter of Darius’ and assigned ‘the noblest of the Persian women to the bravest of his men’. Furthermore, he ‘also invited to a collective wedding-banquet the Macedonians who had already married Persian wives’. It was a very great feast with 9,000 in attendance.

Plutarch does not have anything else to say about the weddings but if you would like to know more, Arrian contains further details. He states that Alexander also married Parysatis, the daughter of Ochus, while Hephaestion married Stateira’s sister, Drypetis; Craterus married Amastrine, daughter of Oxyatres; Perdiccas married an unnamed daughter of Atropates; Ptolemy married Artacama, daughter of Artabazus, and Eumenes married Artacama’s sister, Artonis.

As a result of reading Arrian, what becomes clear to me is that Plutarch’s assertion that Alexander married the noblest women to the bravest men is not all of the story. Let’s take a quick look at the fathers of the brides mentioned above.

  • Darius – Darius III the former Great King.
  • Ochus – Artaxerxes III Ochus, who was Great King between 358 – 338 B.C. Diodorus says Bagoas the eunuch (not the Bagoas whom Alexander was fond of) poisoned him, but according to Wikipedia there is a cuneiform tablet at the British Museum which says Ochus died of natural causes.
  • Oxyatres – Darius III’s brother.
  • Atropates – Governor of Media so a nobleman who remained in Alexander’s service after (?) Darius’ death and performed good service for him.
  • Artabazus – grandson of Artaxerxes II (who reigned 405/4 – 359/8 B.C.). I presume, therefore, that he was a senior member of the Persian nobility?

While I have no doubt that Alexander’s officers were all brave men, Eumenes’ presence in Arrian’s list makes me think that politics was an important factor in Alexander’s decision making regarding which woman was given to which man. After all, as far as I am aware, Eumenes played no significant role in any of the great battles.

One final point – I am surprised that Arrian does not name Perdiccas’ wife. I presume her name was not known to him? Perhaps this is an example of Ptolemy’s alleged bias against Perdiccas?

We now jump forward to the final chapter of Plutarch’s Life – Chapter 77. Alexander has just died following an illness that lasted ten days. Plutarch says that,

[n]obody had any suspicion at the time that Alexander had been poisoned, but it is said that five years afterwards some information was given, on the strength of which Olympias put many men to death…

Now, it’s perfectly possible that in 318 B.C., the truth about what happened to Alexander finally came out.

Or maybe…

In 319 B.C. Antipater died. Before his death, he appointed Polyperchon – rather than his son, Cassander – his successor as Alexander IV’s guardian. This was ‘… to avoid giving the impression that he was trying to set up an Antipatrid dynasty’ (Waterfield Dividing the Spoils p. 73).

This move led to war between Cassander and Polyperchon. For his part, Cassander soon won the support of Antigonus, and (though to a lesser extent) Ptolemy and Lysimachus. Polyperchon, however, was short of friends. He kept going, though, and by 317 B.C. had convinced Olympias to back him.

Could it be possible that this alliance was rooted in a message sent by Polyperchon to Olympias the previous year in which he intimated that Antipater had ordered his sons, Cassander and Iollas, to assassinate Alexander? It would certainly explain why Olympias very vindictively ordered Iollas’ ashes (he died on an unknown occasion between 323 – 317 B.C.) to be scattered.

If Polyperchon did make this allegation ‘five years afterwards’ we can be sure that Olympias would soon connect the dots and fear that just as he had killed her son Cassander would, if he had the chance, kill her grandson. Which is precisely what did, in the end, happen.

For his part, though, Plutarch is sceptical that Alexander was poisoned. He cites the lack of corruption in the king’s body in the day’s following his death as proof of this.

Moving on, at the time of Alexander’s death,

… Roxane was expecting a child and she was therefore held in special honour by the Macedonians. But she was jealous of Alexander’s second wife, Stateira, whom she tricked into visiting her… [w]hen she… got her into her power, she had her murdered, together with her sister, threw the bodies into a well and filled it up with earth. In this crime her accomplice was Perdiccas…

Roxane’s actions are altogether horrible but before we condemn her out of hand we have to ask ourselves what would have happened had Stateira (and Drypetis) lived? Given half a chance, would they have let Roxane alone? Perhaps Stateira and Drypetis were in a weak position as they were Persian and – in the former’s case – had not had time to bear Alexander any children but given their family connections I can’t believe that had Roxane and Perdiccas not murdered them they would have been allowed to slip into obscurity like Bagoas.

Philinna and Olympias
The penultimate reference to a woman is Philinna who Plutarch describes as being ‘obscure and humbly born’. She is mentioned here because she was also Philip III Arrhidaeus’ mother. Plutarch has no more to say about Philinna but one more allegation to make against Olympias. He says that she,

… was believed to have given [Philip III Arrhidaeus] drugs which impaired the functions of his body and irreparably injured his brain.

And that is the end of the book. Plutarch has ended it on a bit of gossip. It should come, I suppose, as no surprise – he has not liked Olympias since the start. Perhaps she really was an unlikable person but I’m not sure she was worse than any of the men.

I have enjoyed reading Plutarch’s Life of Alexander. Thinking about what I have read, I shall always be a little disappointed that he did not deepen his narrative to allow us a little more insight into the character of the women he mentions. I understand that his focus is Alexander and not anyone else – male or female – but it is a shame that they both really just have walk on-walk off parts. I shall always appreciate the Life for reminding me of the existence of obscure people like Philinna, above, and Telesippus but the one thing that has really struck me about the narrative is Plutarch’s deficient treatment of Olympias in the early chapters. He could have treated her better.

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Plutarch’s Women: Antigone, Frenzied Women, Olympias & Cleopatra, Women of Persis (Chapts. 48, 49, 67 – 69)

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We start this post with the effective beginning of the Philotas Affair. In Chapter 48 of his Life of Alexander, Plutarch tells us how Philotas, while being an extremely generous man was also a proud one; so much so that even his father, Parmenion, was obliged to ask him to tone his behaviour down.
Unfortunately, the warning didn’t work. Perhaps it was too late. For, as Plutarch says,

… accusations against Philotas had been reaching Alexander for many years.

The beginning of the end came after Parmenion captured Darius III’s treasure in Damascus. He brought numerous prisoners to the Macedonian camp, one of whom was a ‘beautiful girl’ named Antigone. She became Philotas’ lover.
Over time, Philotas boasted to Antigone that Alexander’s achievements were actually due to Parmenion and himself. According to Plutarch, Philotas,

[spoke] of Alexander as a mere boy who owed his title of ruler to their efforts.

Plutarch says that Philotas’ boastings were fuelled by alcohol. However much Antigone had drunk, she remembered what he said and shared it with a friend. Who then told another friend. Before long, Philotas’ indiscreet words reached the ear of Alexander. He had Antigone brought before him and ordered her to spy on Philotas for him.
There is no indication in the text that Antigone was acting maliciously when she repeated Philotas’ words to her friend. I imagine they were friends simply catching up with each other’s news and the latest gossip. If so, being hauled before Alexander must have been a big shock for her. According to Heckel*, Plutarch describes Antigone as a gynaion, which means a ‘weak, little woman’**. If indeed she was, meeting Alexander would have been terrifying.
Antigone appears one more time, at the start of Chapter 49, when Plutarch records that

… in his conversations with Antigone he uttered many indiscretions and often spoke slightingly of the king, sometimes through anger and sometimes through boastfulness…

It is a great shame we don’t know anything more solid about Antigone’s character or her relationship with Philotas other than what Plutarch tells us. Whether or not Philotas was a means to an end for her, spying on him could not have been easy. Who knows what stresses it caused. Such information is now, it seems, lost to history.
Frenzied Women
After Antigone, there are no further references to any women until Chapter 67. Alexander is now on his way back to Babylon, reclining on a couch set on a large wheeled platform at the head of a ‘Bacchanalian procession’. As Alexander sat with his companions, feasting day and night, the Macedonian soldiers behind him ambled along,

… dipping their cups, drinking-horns or earthenware goblets into huge casks and misxinf bowls… as they marched…

… except, that is, for those who had given up walking and were now ‘sprawled by the wayside’!
Drinking was not the only order of the day, though,

… the whole landscape resounded with the music of pipes and flutes, with harping and singing and the cries of women rapt with the divine frenzy…

This puts me in mind of Olympias’ ‘Orphic religion’, which Plutarch describes in Chapter 2 (and which I wrote about in this post), the rites of which she celebrated with such wild abandon.
Olympias and Cleopatra
Speaking of Olympias, she is referenced again – along with Alexander’s sister Cleopatra – in Chapter 68. Unsurprisingly, given Plutarch’s view of the queen, we find her ‘intriguing against Antipater’. In fact, according to Plutarch, she and Cleopatra had done no less than taken Epirus (Olympias) and Macedon (Cleopatra) for themselves.

When Alexander heard of this, he remarked that his mother had made the wiser choice, since the Macedonians would never tolerate being governed by a woman.

This, of course, is not wholly true. Macedonians were happy to be led into war by Adea Euridike in 317 B.C. And who knows, if the soldiers hadn’t realised that the army opposite was being led by Olympias, Euridike might have won and had a chance at ruling Macedon properly.
Women of Persis
In Chapter 69, Plutarch gives an account of how Alexander ‘distributed money to the women’ of Persis, which was a ‘custom of the Persian kings’. Or most of them, anyway; Plutarch names and shames Ochus who ‘never set foot’ in Persis despite it being his native country. ‘[h]e was mean enough to exile himself from his native land’. Alexander’s actions again recall how Plutarch says he avoided meeting the Persian Royal family or indeed women in general in order to prove himself better (i.e. more chaste) than the Persians.

* Waldemar Heckel Who’s Who in the World of Alexander the Great (2009)
** I am indebted to a kind friend, EY, for this information. Further to the above, when used by a husband/lover, gynaion becomes a term of endearment, meaning simply ‘little woman’

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Plutarch’s Women: The Persian Royal Family, Barbarian Women, the Amazonian Queen, General Ref. & Roxane (Chapts. 43, 44, 46 & 47)

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The Persian Royal Family
We pick up the story of Plutarch’s women in Chapter 43 of his Life of Alexander. In July 330 BC Alexander finally caught up with Darius III. The Great King had been on the run since losing the Battle of Gaugamela the previous October.
Plutarch tells us that Alexander ‘burst into’ Darius’ camp. He met no opposition there, however, only ‘great heaps of gold and silver vessels’ and ‘wagons full of women and children that were moving aimlessly about’.
How empty these remnants of his riches must have seemed to Darius; how broken his people.
Today, however, the Great King wasn’t in the camp but further up the road. He was found by a Macedonian named Polystratus, lying in a wagon, ‘riddled with javelins’. At Darius’ request, Polystratus gave him some water to drink.
By-the-bye, could we compare this incident to the moment, during his pursuit of the Great King when Alexander refused water because there was not enough for his men? If so, perhaps Darius’ request could be said to demonstrate his weakness in comparison to Alexander.
Sipping the water, Darius regretted that he would not be able to repay Polystratus’ act of kindness. ‘[b]ut,’ he said to the Macedonian, ‘Alexander will reward you… and the gods will repay him for his courtesy towards my mother, and my wife and my children.’ Darius then placed his hand in Polystratus’ and died. Afterwards, Alexander sent his body to Sisygambis, Darius’ mother, ‘to be laid out in royal state’.
It might be stretching things to say that Darius died happy but it does seem to me that we can’t overestimate how important it was to him that his family were treated with ‘courtesy’. As to weather this was because of their political value or because he genuinely loved them, I cannot say. I imagine it was a combination of the two.
Barbarian Women
In Chapter 44, Plutarch tells how Hyrcanian tribesmen kidnapped Bucephalas. Could you imagine a worse thing for anyone to do? No wonder, then, that Alexander warned the tribe that if Bucephalas was not returned, ‘he would exterminate the whole tribe, together with their women and children.’ Naturally, Bucephalas was returned – unharmed.
This episode has an ending that is typical of Alexander. Once Bucephalas had been returned, the king gave a ransom (Plutarch calls it that) to his kidnappers. Perhaps the king was just relieved to have his beloved horse again, but when I think of people like Porus, Oxyartes and Artabazus, to name but three, I feel I could write a book titled

Resist Then Submit
A Guide to Surviving being Alexander the Great’s Enemy

The next reference to a woman comes in Chapter 46; and what a reference it is, for it is here that Plutarch tells us that, while in Parthia, Alexander met the queen of the legendary Amazons.
Well, kind of.
Firstly, Plutarch acknowledges that while several historians provide an account of this meeting, others – including Ptolemy – ‘maintain that [it] is a fiction’.
Secondly, he records a letter sent by Alexander to Antipater in which Alexander describes the occasion when he is supposed to have met the Amazonian queen. He does not mention her at all – only that a Scythian king had offered him his daughter in marriage.
Finally, he also relates how, years later, Lysimachus smiled at Onesicritus’ account of the incident and said, ‘I wonder where I was then.’

For Plutarch’s sake, it is probably just as well that Alexander never met the queen of the Amazons. He has already undermined his view that Alexander was chaste once (read here – Who was the father of Stateira’s baby?); goodness knows how he would deal with a woman who is supposed to have kept Alexander in bed for two weeks in order to make her pregnant.
General Reference
To tell another man that he is doing X ‘like a woman’ is an age old insult. In Chapter 47 we see that it goes back to at least 330 BC. In Hyrcania, Alexander became ‘anxious’ – for reasons not precisely explained – that his men would refuse to follow him any further. Standing before the Macedonian army, he explained to them that,

… up to now the barbarians had watched them as if they were in a dream, but that if they merely threw the whole country into disorder, and then retired, the Persians would fall upon them as if they were so many women.

Presumably, the Persians had never fought the Amazonians.
As for the toughness of women – Olympias was already showing that she was no feeble female, Thaïs had shown her credentials in Persepolis, and in a few years time, Adea Euridike would give an equally good account of herself.
To end this post, we stay in a Chapter 47 for a quick reference to Roxane. Plutarch says the Alexander fell in love with her after seeing her dance. He admits, though, that the marriage was politically convenient. Despite Stateira I’s pregnancy, he persists with the idea that Alexander was wholly chaste. He records that,

… the barbarians were encouraged by the feeling of partnership which [the] marriage created, and they were completely won over by Alexander’s moderation and courtesy and by the fact that without the sanction of marriage he would not approach the only woman who had ever conquered him.

It is interesting that Plutarch speaks of the barbarians as seeing the marriage in terms of being a ‘partnership’ whereas for him it was a victory for Roxanne. It seems to suggest that the barbarians were reconciled to Alexander’s kingship. As for Plutarch, I suppose it is in the nature of those who have, or in Plutarch’s case, take the side of those in power, to always fear its loss.

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Plutarch’s women: Thaïs of Athens, Olympias and Telesippa (Chapts. 38, 39 and 41)

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This post continues directly on from the last one. I divided them as the number of women I wanted to talk about made the title too long! Anyway, here we are, so let’s proceed to –

Thaïs of Athens
In Chapter 38 Plutarch narrates one of the most memorable and infamous moments of Alexander’s career – the burning of the Royal Palace at Persepolis. According to him, a courtesan named Thaïs incited Alexander to set the palace ablaze, saying that, while it had been a joy to revel in the palace of the Persians, it would be an even ‘sweeter pleasure’ to set fire to ‘the palace of Xerxes, who had laid Athens to ashes’.
As Plutarch admits, there are differing views on how the palace came to be burnt down. Some say it was done on impulse, others that it was a matter of policy. Thaïs’ role, however, is almost uniformly agreed upon (see here for more on what the sources say). Almost. Arrian omits any mention of her. Given, however, that his main source is her lover, Ptolemy, perhaps that is not surprising. Going back to Plutarch, though, the fire seemed to have sobered Alexander up. For he ‘quickly repented and gave orders for the fire to be put out. Whether Thaïs ever repented is not recorded.
We continue with a letter written by Olympias to her son. In Chapter 39 Plutarch tells us about Alexander’s generosity to his friends. We learn of Ariston, to whom he not only gave a gold cup but drank to his honour with it, and the mule driver who shouldered the king’s gold after his mule became too exhausted to carry it any further. Unfortunately, Alexander’s benefactions caused his friends and bodyguards to ‘put on airs’. This displeased Olympias. She wrote,

I wish you would find other ways of rewarding those you love and honour: as it is, you are making them all the equals of kings and enabling them to make plenty of friends, but leaving yourself without any.

I have to admit, I can see the sense in what Olympias wrote. Generosity is not bad but by giving away so much, Alexander was not only creating (metaphoric) equals but – more dangerously – giving potential usurpers the means to challenge his authority with their new friends.
Plutarch says that Alexander bore his mother’s scoldings ‘with great tolerance’ and when Antipater wrote to him complaining about her behaviour again he said that the vice-regent ‘did not understand that one tear shed by his mother would wipe out 10,000 letters’ from him.
I end this post with what I think is a rather lovely story, which is told in Chapter 41. On an unspecified occasion, Alexander was sending home ‘invalid and superannuated soldiers’ when it was discovered that one of those on the list did not qualify for retirement. His name was Eurylochus of Aegae. Under questioning, Eurylochus confessed to the truth. He said he was,

… in love with a with a girl named Telesippa and… planned to travel with her on her journey to the coast.

Alexander duly made enquiries regarding who Telesippa was and discovered that she was a ‘free-born Greek courtesan’ (much like Thaïs, mentioned above). This, it seems, was to Alexander’s satisfaction, for he agreed to help Eurylochus woo her. But not on any terms.

“… since she is a free woman [Alexander said] you must see whether we can win Telesippa either by presents or courtship, but not use other means.”

It seems to me that the implication of Alexander’s words are that had Telesippa been a servant or slave then it would have been alright for Eurylochus to force her to join him, which is an unpleasant thought, even if socially acceptable in those days (?). If we may gloss over that, however, I really do like the fact that Alexander insisted upon things being done properly. It is moments like this which (after all had no practical benefit for Alexander and every inconvenience) persuade me that he genuinely respected women rather than simply affected his respect in order to show how great he was.
Whatever the reason for Telesippa’s journey to the coast, I hope Eurylochus met her in time to walk with her on the way and that they had a long and happy life together.

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Plutarch’s Women: Stateira I, her daughters; Persian women and a wolf’s mother; the Pythia (Chapts. 30 and 37)

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Stateira I
Welcome back Plutarch’s Women. We begin this post at the start of Chapter 30. There, Plutarch records some sad news – the death of Stateira I, Darius III’s wife. Stateira’s death is all the more tragic because she died in child birth (although, see below). What would have become of the child had he or she lived? I suspect the eventual fate of Alexander IV, and indeed the baby’s siblings, answers that question. RIP.
Stateira I died in September 331. Alexander’s reaction to her death was to regret writing to Darius telling him to give himself up because it meant that he had lost the opportunity ‘to show… magnanimity’ towards him. What I find difficult about this passage is that Alexander did not think of Stateira herself first. But I have to remind myself that perhaps he did and Plutarch did not record it. He is not so much writing what happened as trying to make sense of it. There is a difference.

According to Plutarch, Alexander made up for this lost opportunity by giving ‘the queen a magnificent funeral’. The queen. Not, the queen and her unborn child. Plutarch does not mention him or her. Why? I am wondering if it is because up until a child was recognised by its father it had no status, but do not know for sure. If you have another idea do leave a comment below.
Going back to Stateira’s baby – who was his or her father? Stateira I was taken prisoner after the Battle of Issus, which took place in November 333. She died sometime in 331. The father, then, could not have been Darius. Did Alexander allow her to be taken by one of his officers? I would agree that this is most unlikely given her status. Perhaps Alexander himself slept with her? Plutarch’s protestations that Alexander had nothing to do with women notwithstanding, I suspect this is the case. If so, the child would be the first of Alexander’s children to die young (Roxane miscarried). However, we do not know for sure, either way. There is a great deal of uncertainty about Stateira’s death: the sources even disagree right down to the time and cause of it (See this article on Pothos for more information).
While Stateira was being laid to rest, one of her her attendants – a eunuch named Tireos – escaped  from (or could he have been allowed to leave…?) the Macedonian camp and made his way to Darius’ where he told the Great King what had happened. Darius was, unsurprisingly, distraught.
Stateira I, Stateira II and Drypetis; also, Persian Women
And yet, Darius did not grieve because his wife was dead but because Alexander, he assumed, had denied her a royal funeral. He also feared that Alexander must have taken advantage of his wife. Tireos allayed all of Darius’ worries and then some. Not only had Stateira been given a royal funeral but, while alive, she – and his mother and children – were treated according to their station. And not only  them but all the Persian women whom Alexander had captured. Upon hearing this, Darius made his great prayer to the gods, that ‘no other man but Alexander… sit upon the throne of Cyrus’.
A Wolf with a Persian Mother
We now jump forward, over the Battle of Gaugamela and Alexander’s arrival in Babylon, to Chapter 37 and his advance through Persis. The mountainous territory proved tough going for the Macedonians. Fortunately, a guide was on hand to help them on their way. This man, we are told, had ‘a Lycian father and a Persian mother’ and was the subject of a prophecy by no less than the Delphic oracle.
The Pythia’s Prophecy
As Plutarch relates it, when Alexander was a boy, the Pythia prophesied that he would one day be guided by a wolf (lycos – lycian) against the Persians. And so it happened. Plutarch doesn’t mention it but it appears that this wolf showed him the way round the Persian Gates, which Alexander proceeded to attack from behind and gain control of. If nothing else, it is a nice story.

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Plutarch’s Women: Seduced Wives, Ada, Olympias & Cleopatra & Stateira II (Chapts. 22, 25, 27 and 29)

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We ended the last post with Plutarch showing how Alexander demonstrated his moral superiority to the Persians – by avoiding all contact with women. Except, of course, Barsine, the wife of Memnon; but that was only because Parmenion told him he should have sex with ‘a woman of beauty and noble lineage’. As the meme says, ‘sounds legit’.
The theme of Alexander the great and sexually pure king continues in chapter 22. He fiercely rebukes an officer named Philoxenus for asking if he would like to buy ‘two exceptionally handsome boys’ being offered for sale by a slave-merchant, and has similarly harsh words for a man named Hagnon who wanted to buy him a young man named Crobylus ‘whose good looks were famous in Corinth’.
This is not the end of the matter. Plutarch then describes how Alexander dealt with two Macedonian soldiers who had seduced the wives of several Greek mercenaries. He orders the men’s commander, Parmenion, to investigate the matter and, if the alleged adulterers were found guilty, to put them to death, as if they were ‘wild beasts which are born to prey upon mankind’.
Alexander justifies his order to Parmenion by referring to his own behaviour towards women. Plutarch quotes him as saying,

In my own case it will be found not only that I have never seen nor wished to see Darius’ wife, but that I have not even allowed her beauty to be mentioned in my presence. 

The Alexander that Plutarch gives us here is less a Macedonian king and more a member of the Silver Ring Thing. There’s nothing wrong with being chaste but I do question the historicity of what Plutarch is telling us, especially in regards the Macedonian soldiers. Alexander’s uncompromising attitude towards them just doesn’t ring true. His account, like Curtius’ of Orsines’ fall, is too simple, too straight-forward. It lacks the nuance of reality. I’m not going to say that the story is totally false but I can not help but feel that if Alexander really was the kind of man to be so concerned about his men’s sexual morality we would hear more about it through his life rather than isolated incidents.
Having said that, if there is any truth to what we have already read, Plutarch’s Alexander does appear to have had a somewhat ambiguous attitude to sex in general. Following on from the above, Plutarch mentions the king’s famous line about sex and sleep reminding him that he is mortal. ‘[B]y this’, Plutarch tells us, Alexander,

… meant that both exhaustion and pleasure proceed from the same weakness of human nature (my emphasis).

So sex is evidence of a weakness? Well. All I can say to that is Alexander is lucky he was a pagan. Had he been a Christian king he would no doubt have been accused of being sexually repressed.
Chapter 22 ends with an account of how Ada ‘whom [Alexander] honoured with the official title of ‘Mother’ used to treat her ‘son’ in a most motherly fashion – by giving him ‘delicacies and sweetmeats’ to eat. I can’t imagine that Alexander would have given Ada that title had he not met her. For me, then, so much for the Macedonian king not associating with women except for Barsine. For his part, Plutarch uses Ada to show once again how restrained Alexander was. Thus, when Ada offers him the use of her cooks, he declines her offer,

… because his tutor Leonidas had provided him with better cooks… [namely] a night march to prepare him for breakfast and a light breakfast to give him an appetite for supper. ‘This same Leonidas’ [Alexander told Ada,] ‘would often come and open my chests of bedding and clothes, to see whether my mother had not hidden some luxury inside’

I doubt it happened but a part of me does wish that Ada’s response to this letter was to say, ‘Yes, dear, but take the cooks, anyway; you’re looking thin.’.
We now leave not only Queen Ada but Asia Minor behind and jump forward to chapter 25. After successfully laying siege to Gaza, Alexander,

… sent a great part of the spoils… to Olympias, to his sister Cleopatra and to his friends.

This isn’t the first reference to Alexander doing this – as we saw in chapter 16, he sent (almost all of) the luxury items that he won after the Battle of the Granicus to Olympias. It is nice to see one of his sisters mentioned, though.
By-the-bye, I can’t help but wonder – is it significant that Alexander did not send any loot back to Antipater? Perhaps Olympias – as the most senior member of the Argead dynasty in Macedon – was simply the correct person to whom to send the loot?
Olympias is mentioned again in chapter 27 following Alexander’s visit to the Oracle of Ammon at Siwah. Plutarch says that Alexander wrote a letter ‘to his mother’ in which he explained that ‘he [had] received certain secret prophecies which he would confide to her, and her alone, after his return’ to Macedon. It’s interesting that Alexander appears to have intended – at some point – to go back to Macedon. Quite what the secret prophecies could have been though, I can’t imagine. Presumably they related to Zeus-Ammon, somehow, but how?
In chapter 29, Plutarch describes a letter that Darius III sent to Alexander (written, according to Timothy E. Duff in the Notes, ‘at the time of the siege of Tyre’) in which he offered terms. To end the war against him, Codomannus offered Alexander 10,000 talents in ransom money for Persian prisoners, all territory west of the Euphrates ‘and the hand of one of his daughters in marriage’ Unsurprisingly, Alexander did not accept the offer. Why should he? He had Darius on the run. That aside, which daughter might Darius have been willing to hand over? Well, as we saw in the last post, Alexander eventually married Stateira II in 324 B.C. The supposition is that he chose her over Drypetis because she was the older of the two so maybe she is the one who was being offered now.

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Plutarch’s Women: Athena, the Persian Royal Family, Barsine & Callixeina (Chapts. 15, 19 & 21)

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We pick up Plutarch’s narrative again in chapter 15 of his Life of Alexander when, upon his arrival at Troy, the Macedonian king ‘sacrificed to Athena’. Unfortunately, that’s all Plutarch has to say about her. Understandably, he is more interested in Alexander’s acts of homage to his great hero, Achilles.
By-the-bye, I could not help but note Alexander’s remark 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.’ This comment appears to suggest that Alexander considered that – in contrast to Achilles – he had neither a faithful friend nor a great poet. The latter is true; Callisthenes was no Homer; but where does that leave Hephaestion?
Going back to Athena, I wish Plutarch had given a context for Alexander’s act of worship. I suppose he assumed, no doubt rightly, that his audience would be aware of why the sacrifice was carried out. We who come to the text so many years later, however, may need a little help. Theoi reminds me that Athena supported the Greeks during the Trojan War (you can read more about her here) so perhaps that is why Alexander sacrificed to her.
After Athena, no more women are mentioned until chapter 19 when (in 333 B.C.), as he lay seriously ill in bed, Alexander was given a note from Parmenion warning him that his doctor, Philip, meant to poison him. According to Parmenion Darius had ‘… promised [Philip] large sums of money and even the hand of his daughter if he would kill Alexander’.
When I wrote about this incident a few weeks ago (here) I mentioned my suspicion that Parmenion was using Alexander’s illness to carry out a coup. If we pretend for a moment, however, that the threat was real, who might Darius have married Philip to in the event that the latter did successfully  assassinate Alexander? Darius married twice and had at least three daughters – an unnamed one from an unnamed wife (who was the daughter of a Persian nobleman named Pharnaces) and two by his sister-wife Stateira, namely, Stateira II and Drypetis.
We don’t know when Stateira II was born, but because Alexander took her as his wife at the Susa Weddings (in February 324 B.C.) she is believed to be Drypetis’ elder sister. As for the ‘younger’ sister, depending on when she was born, Drypetis could have been as young as 12 when Alexander fell ill, or as old as 16. Either way, she would go on to make a good match at Susa in that she became Hephaestion’s wife.
Sadly, their marriage only lasted a few months as Hephaestion later the same year. After Alexander died the following June, the sisters’ days were numbered and indeed they were both soon killed by Perdiccas and Roxane as part of the dynastic struggle.
We move on now to chapter 21 of Plutarch’s Life but stay with Stateira II and Drypetis as Plutarch relates how, following Alexander’s capture of the Persian camp after the Battle of Issus,

… word was brought to him that the mother, the wife and the two unmarried daughters of Darius were among the prisoners…

Darius’ mother was named Sisygambis; the wife being referred to here is Stateira I. Upon being taken prisoner by the Macedonians and seeing Darius’ bow and chariot they beat their breasts and cried in the belief that their lord was dead. This is the only insight into their character that Plutarch gives us before detailing Alexander’s most gentlemanly response to the news that his army had captured them. It isn’t much of an insight – perhaps ‘just’ a ritual response? Although even if it is it tells us something about their fidelity to Persian mourning traditions.
Either way, and in fairness to him, Plutarch does add that the women were ‘chaste and noble’ (Plutarch adds that Stateira I was regarded as being ‘the most beautiful princess of her time’ and that Stateira II and Drypetis ‘resembled their parents’. It’s interesting that propaganda of this nature survived even though the daughters fell victim to more powerful interests after Alexander’s death).
Chapter 21, and this post, ends with a delineation of Alexander’s moral character, which references a few women. Plutarch tells us that,

… Alexander… thought it more worthy of a king to subdue his own passions than to conquer his enemies…

To this end he avoided meeting the Persian queens and princesses. In fact, Plutarch explains that until his marriage (i.e. to Roxane), he avoided women altogether… almost: Barsine, Memnon’s widow, and daughter of Artabazus ‘who had married one of the Persian king’s daughters’, became his mistress. Citing Aristobulos as his authority, Plutarch adds,

Alexander slept with [Barsine], as… Parmenion had encouraged him to have relations with a woman of beauty and noble lineage.

This reminds me of the story of Callixeina ‘[a]n exceptionally attractive Thessalian heteira‘*. Philip and Olympias were worried that Alexander was showing no interest in women. So, his mother entreated her son to sleep with one. Eventually, Alexander did, with Callixeina being the lucky lady. According to Waldemar Heckel, however, this story is suspect as it comes from a hostile tradition. I’d like to think that Alexander did not sleep with Barsine at Parmenion’s suggestion but why would Aristobulos lie about something like that? Let’s hope his information was just, plain wrong.
The final reference to women in chapter 21 is an aside that Alexander makes after seeing the other female Persian prisoners. We are told that Alexander,

… took no… notice of them than to say jokingly, ‘These Persian women are a torment for the eyes’ He was determined to make such a show of his chastity and self-control as to eclipse the beauty of their appearance, and so he passed them by as if they had been so many lifeless images cut out of stone.

Timothy E. Duff, in the Notes, compares Alexander’s words to the actions of the Persian ambassadors to Macedonia in Book 5:18 of Herodotus’ Histories. They describe the Macedonian women as a torment to their eyes but, unlike Alexander, are unable to control themselves. We end, then, with women becoming a means by which Alexander may prove his superiority to the Persians. It wasn’t enough to defeat them twice on the battlefield, he had to do it in love as well.
* Waldemar Heckel Who’s Who in the Age of Alexander the Great (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009)

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Plutarch’s Women: Timocleia of Thebes and the Delphic Prophetess (Chapts. 12 & 14)

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In my last post, I quoted this passage from chapter 10 of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander.

When Pausanias assassinated the king because he had been humiliated by Attalus and Cleopatra could get no redress from Philip, it was Olympias who was chiefly blamed for the assassination…

I did so because it read to me like Plutarch was saying that Cleopatra Eurydice had tried to intercede on behalf of Pausanias after he was assaulted on Attalus’ orders. I wasn’t sure, though, because Cleopatra Eurydice was Attalus’ niece and helping Pausanias would have meant going against him. So, I asked you what you thought. My thanks go to Silasaila who left a comment containing the correct quotation from Plutarch. Here it is (from my copy of the Life),

When Pausanias assassinated the king because he had been humiliated by Attalus and Cleopatra and could get no redress from Philip, it was Olympias who was chiefly blamed for the assassination… (my emphasis)

As you can see, I was thrown off track by missing the second ‘and’ in the sentence. It is a rather amateur mistake to make so I am grateful to Silasaila for taking the time to correct me. While we are here, the edition of the Life that I am using for this post (and indeed, all those in the Plutarch’s Women series) is the 2011 Revised Edition of the (1973) Penguin Classics Age of Alexander, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. Silasaila quoted from the 1919 Loeb Classical Library edition. You can read his (or her) comment, and the Loeb version of the above quotation, here.
As a final point, if you ever see any mistakes on this blog do feel free to alert me to them in the comments. I am a student of Alexander not an expert and so not at all infallible in what I say.
Timocleia of Thebes
Chapter 11 of Plutarch’s Life describes how Alexander subdued the tribes in the barbarian north and confirmed his leadership of the Greek city states. The next reference to a woman comes in chapter 12 when Plutarch tells us about Timocleia of Thebes.
Timocleia was ‘a woman of noble birth and character’. She was also wealthy, and during the Macedonian sack of Thebes, Plutarch tells us, Thracian troops looted her house. While this was happening, the Thracians’ leader raped her.
After assaulting Timocleia, the captain demanded to know if she had any gold or silver hidden away. Timocleia confirmed that she had and she led him to a well in the garden. As the Thracian peered over the edge to see if he could spy the valuables, Timocleia pushed him into it and proceeded to stone him to death.
To late to save their leader, the Thracians realised what had happened. They bound Timocleia’s hands and le

d her to Alexander,

…who immediately saw from her expression and from her calm and fearless bearing… that she was a woman of dignity and spirit.

And no wonder as she came from noble stock; her brother, she told Alexander, was Theagenes,

‘… who commanded our army against your father, Philip, and fell at Chaeronea fighting for the liberty of Greece.’

Plutarch concludes the chapter by noting how impressed Alexander was, not only by Timocleia’s words, but also her act of revenge, and so ordered her (and her children) to set free.
The Delphic Oracle
This incident marks Alexander’s first significant interaction with a woman other than his mother in Plutarch’s narrative. If you had asked me before I began this series ‘what was Alexander’s view of women?’ I would have replied that according to my understanding he was ahead of his time in the respect he accorded them. However, while he undoubtedly treats Timocleia very well, he does not do so on account of her sex, but, as I noted above, on account of her words and actions.
That Alexander did not (always? We’ll have to wait and see on that point) treat women according to their sex was brought home to me when I read of his confrontation with the Delphic oracle in chapter 14, the next occasion that a woman appears in the narrative.

As Plutarch relates it, Alexander visited Delphi to consult the oracle about his expedition against the Persian empire. No doubt he wanted to know what his chances of success were. Unfortunately for him, however, he arrived on an ‘inauspicious’ day, and the oracle refused to see him, explaining that she was forbidden by law from answering petitions on such days. Upon hearing this, Alexander went to the oracle’s home (?),

… and tried to drag her by force to the shrine.

Well, that is very rough behaviour and not to be commended at all. Perhaps Alexander needed at-all-costs to see the prophetess but even so manhandling another person – especially a woman – like that is very disreputable behaviour.
That’s Alexander; what about Timocleia and the prophetess? Of the latter, we can only say that she was – if nothing else – a religiously devout and law abiding person. There is this little fly in the ointment,

At last, as if overcome by his persistence, she exclaimed, “You are invincible, my son!” and when Alexander heard this, he declared that he wanted no other prophecy…

and left Delphi to return to Macedon. The prophetess’ words read more like an exclamation rather than a prophecy, though. Alexander heard what he wanted to hear and left.
As for Timocleia, the only part of her story that does not ring true is the length of time that it took the Thracian soldiers to find her. Perhaps, though, she lived in a big house or the location of the well was in a secluded part of the garden. Either way, there’s not much else I can say about her other than to highlight again her bravery in the most trying of circumstances. I wonder what happened to her next. Did she marry again? Was she able to rebuild her life at all? Who knows. Such answers are now, sadly, lost to history.

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Plutarch’s Women: Olympias, Cleopatra Eurydice & Pixodarus’ Daughter (Chapt. 10)

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In Chapter 10 of his Life of Alexander, Plutarch tells us about the Pixodarus Affair and the background to Philip II’s assassination.
Pixodarus was the satrap of Caria in south-western Asia Minor. In 337 B.C., he made an offer to Philip: his daughter’s hand in marriage Arrhidaeus in return for – ? Timothy E. Duff, in his Notes suggests that Pixodarus’ aim was a military alliance.
Unfortunately, Plutarch gives us no further details regarding Pixodarus’ daughter so she must remain a shadowy figure.
What he does say, however, is that Olympias and a number of Alexander’s friends conspired to convince Alexander that Philip intended to marry Arrhidaeus to Pixodarus’ daughter as a prelude to giving him the Macedonian throne..
Unsurprisingly, Alexander was ‘disturbed’ by this idea and so sent his friend, the famous tragic actor Thessalus, to Caria to tell Pixodarus that not only was Arrhidaeus an illegitimate son of the Macedonian king but feeble-minded as well. To make sure that that the marriage did not go ahead, Alexander offered to marry Pixodarus’ daughter himself.
Pixodarus was delighted with the idea. When Philip found out, however, he was not. He went to Alexander’s quarters and ‘scolded his son’ for wanting to marry the daughter of a man ‘who was no more than the slave of a barbarian king’. The episode concludes with Philip ordering Thessalus – then at Corinth – to be brought back to Macedon in chains, and the exile of four of Alexander’s friends and, presumably, Olympias’ co-conspirators: Erygius, Harpalus, Nearchus, and Ptolemy.
Chapter 10 doesn’t end there. In the last paragraph, Plutarch jumps forward to Philip’s assassination the following year. He notes that Cleopatra Eurydice tried and failed to get satisfaction from Philip on Pausanias’ behalf after the latter was assaulted on Attalus’ orders. Also, that when Pausanias asked Alexander for his help, Alexander quoted,

… the verse from Euripides’ Medea, in which Medea is said to threaten ‘The father, bride and bridegroom all at once’.

But just in case we think that Alexander had anything to do with his father’s death, Plutarch quickly adds that after becoming king, Alexander ‘took care to track down and punish those who were involved in the plot’ to kill Philip. If this is not enough for you, he was also angry at Olympias for her ‘horrible revenge’ on Cleopatra Eurydice.
Some Thoughts – The Pixodarus Affair
Of Pixodarus’ daughter we can say nothing due to the lack of information regarding her. What about Olympias?  In chapter 9, Plutarch accuses her of being ‘a woman of a jealous and vindictive temper, who incited Alexander to oppose his father’. Plutarch no doubt wishes us to see her actions in chapter 10 as being the product of the same spiteful mind. He says, specifically, that Olympias gave Alexander a ‘distorted account’ of Pixodarus’ marriage proposal.
I do wonder, though, why she felt the need to scupper Pixodarus’ proposal. I wonder if she did. Success would ‘bless’ Alexander with a second rate (i.e. foreign) bride. Failure would make him look like an idiot. Surely, Olympias was not so naïf to think that Philip would favour Arrhidaeus over Alexander or, if he did, the army would favour him over Alexander if Alexander chose to make a bid for the throne on his father’s death? I may well be betraying my lack of knowledge here but I see no motivation – other than pure spite, which I doubt Olympias was a slave to – for her to stop Arrhidaeus’ marriage to Pixodarus’ daughter.
I am equally surprised that Alexander could have been so naïve as to believe his mother’s and friends’ story – that Philip,

… was planning to settle the kingdom upon Arrhidaeus by arranging a brilliant marriage and treating him as a person of great consequence.

By 337, Alexander had fought at the battle of Chaeronea, founded a city in his own name and served as a regent of Macedon. Surely, he would have had to be paranoid to fear that his ‘feeble-minded’ half-brother was a genuine rival for the throne. He certainly never thought so after he came to power as he let him live. That fact makes me very suspicious of Plutarch’s representation of this whole episode. Assuming that it has a basis in reality I do not think we are being told the full story, but rather, just enough for Plutarch to make his point regarding Alexander’s character with a soupçon of blame for Olympias on account of his bias against her.
The Background to Philip II’s Assassination
Above, I noted Cleopatra Eurydice’s failed attempt to get justice for Pausanias. This is what Plutarch writes,

When Pausanias assassinated the king because he had been humiliated by Attalus and Cleopatra could get no redress from Philip, it was Olympias who was chiefly blamed for the assassination….

The reason I quote it directly is because I am still surprised that Cleopatra Eurydice interceded for Pausanias; in doing so, she would have been acting against her uncle/guardian. I am wondering, therefore, if I have interpreted Plutarch wrongly. Could he be referring to a different Cleopatra? Perhaps to a different matter? What do you think?
Of course, if I have interpreted the sentence correctly it would say a great deal for Cleopatra Eurydice’s bravery and nobility of character. Both of these are missing from Olympias, firstly, in her unnecessary murder of Cleopatra Eurydice and her daughter, and secondly, in the way she is said to have killed them – by roasting them over a brazier.
If, that is, she did indeed kill Cleopatra Eurydice and her child, and if she killed them in the aforementioned manner.
They are big ifs. That Olympias would seek to eliminate Cleopatra Eurydice and her daughter makes sense from a dynastic point-of-view. I am doubtful, however, that she was executed in the manner described. Timothy Duff cites a second century AD author named Pausanias as the/a source for this fact. The reason for my doubt is because the period following Philip’s murder was a time of crisis for Alexander. And in times of crisis you get rid of your enemies quickly (and, if possible, quietly). Roasting them over a brazier seems more of James Bond form of execution than a likely one in Macedon in 336 B.C. It smells, not of burnt human flesh but a blackening of Olympias’ name.
So, where does chapter 10 leave us? In regards Olympias, still nowhere clear. I am suspicious that Plutarch has misrepresented her over the Pixodarus Affair and in the manner of Cleopatra Eurydice’s death. I have no problem believing that she killed her rival queen without Alexander’s permission but that does not make her the dreadful harridan that Plutarch wants us to take her for; ruthless, yes, but as I mentioned in the last post, she had to be in order to survive.

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