The Spies of Ancient Athens

Ochus’ Unlikely Saviour

  • The index of posts in this series can be read here
  • Read the introduction to this series here

Based on The Spies of Ancient Athens by Reynard and Grün (London, 2004)
“Darius III had three known children by his second wife, Stateira; two daughters, Stateira (also known as Barsine) and Drypetis, and a son, Ochus.
In February 324 B.C. Stateira II and Drypetis married Alexander and Hephaestion respectively as part of the Susa marriage ceremonies. IN October of that year, Hephaestion died. Alexander followed him to the grave the following June. The widows did not long outlive their husbands for both were  murdered at the behest of Roxane and Perdiccas not long later.
What of Ochus? Neither the vulgate or good sources make any reference to him. However, given that Staeira II’s and Drypetis’ murders were politically inspired it has been assumed that Ochus would have been killed for the same reason.
However, the Athenian spies at work in Babylon following Alexander’s story offer a very different and surprising version of events.
Their reports begin familiarly enough. On the day after Alexander’s death, a spy on Roxane’s staff stated that,

… while I busied myself with the cleaning of [Roxane’s] quarters, she spoke but feet away from me to Perdiccas. They were plotting. He wanted power. She wanted life. He offered [Roxane] what she wanted in return for her absolute loyalty.

Three days later, the same spy – presumably while working in Roxane’s quarters – saw the queen write her response to Perdiccas.

… [it] contained but two words: I accede. She gave it to her favourite servant, and urged him to pass it into Perdiccas’ hands and his alone with all haste.

It is at this point that the story takes its first turn. Two weeks later, the spy in Perdiccas’ office reported how a Macedonian officer named Amyntas had burst into Perdiccas’ study while he was working.

… [Perdiccas was] angered by Amyntas’ sudden coming but the officer begged him to listen to the reason for it before punishing him. Perdiccas ordered him to continue. Amyntas advised Perdiccas with great haste and feeling that he had just come from the royal chambers. Four drunk Macedonian soldiers of the infantry had broken into Ochus, son of Darius’ rooms, assaulted and castrated the boy.

Perdiccas was for a time too shocked by this report to make comment but eventually asked how the soldiers had broken past the prince’s guard. Amyntas said that one guard had been found dead at his post and the other was missing. Perdiccas cursed him for a traitor.

Unfortunately, Perdiccas then ordered the spy – and every other person except Amyntas – out of the room while they carried on talking alone. To find out what happened next, we must return to Roxane’s servant-spy.

… [we receive]ed report of the mutilation of Ochus just before our lady [i.e. Roxane] retired for the night. The staff were much worried about what this might portend for her ladyship but she assured them Ochus was harmed because he was a Persian while she, though also a barbarian, was also Alexander’s wife

This report was written 5 – 7 days (the fragment is not clear) after Ochus was attacked.

… Prince Ochus is near death. No one believes he will survive. Perdiccas has Philip of Arcanania  looking after him…

Unfortunately, we do not know when this following report was written. Given the type of injury that Ochus suffered it was presumably several weeks later.

… [I] saw Prince Ochus from a distance. He limped heavily but could walk with the aid of a stick. He looked grievously ill.

… three months have past since I saw Prince Ochus. None of the servants I have asked know anything of him. I believe he is dead.

But he wasn’t, as the spy was to discover five days after sending the above report.

Ochus lives. I fell asleep while working in her ladyship’s chambers. When I came to I heard her and Perdiccas talking in the room next door. I hid and listened to what they said.
“He is finally at ease and is ready to be moved.”
“Where will Bagoas take him?”
“To his own village where the eunuch’s own people may care for him.”
“Can we really trust that the boy will not act against us in the future?”
“Ochus has no future. No man will follow one who has been unmanned.”
“Yet still I fear that he may be used by our enemies.”
“You need not. As soon as Philip judged him able to be moved I hid him away from the palace for a reason. My deception has worked – all now think he died with his sisters.

Three years later, Perdiccas failed to invade Ptolemy’s Egypt. The same spy who reported on him in Babylon sent this report back to Athens apparently following the failure of the general’s second invasion.

[Perdiccas] knew his officers now hated him and waited for his killers to arrive with a disconsolate heart. I tried to cheer him but until I mentioned Prince Ochus’ name, he would not listen.
“What do you know of that name?” he asked me.
“I know that you did not kill him.” I replied.
“How so?”
“For that you only kill when you must not because you can. I refuse to believe you would hurt a boy already in a sense dead,”
“Aye,” he said, “You are right. Death is a monstrous thing and is to be given only to those who are worthy; he was not. We destroyed his family, his country, and his chance to be remembered by sons and grandsons. Yes, I intended to kill him with his sisters but when I was about to give the order I felt my tongue stopped. By what or whom I do not know but for once in my life mercy overcame power. I do not regret it.” 

There is a certain contradiction in the reports. The servant-spy implies that Perdiccas never intended to kill Ochus along with Stateira II and Dryeptis – presumably because of his castration – while the spy in Perdiccas’ camp suggests that the boy’s fate was in doubt until just before the sisters were murdered.
We have no way of knowing which account is correct. My inclination, however, would be to go with the servant-spy’s, as the Perdiccan spy’s dialogue smacks of romanticism in terms of the way it talks about tongues being stopped by unknown powers. By contrast, the servant-spy’s report is much more organic and rational. However, we will never know for sure.”

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The Spies of Ancient Athens: Olympias’ Real Purpose

The index of posts in this series can be read here
Read the introduction to this series here

Zeus seduces Olympias by Giulio Romano

Zeus seduces Olympias by Giulio Romano

In the last chapter, I wondered aloud if Olympias told her handmaid that Zeus had had sex with her because she wanted Philip II to be angry and fearful of her. This would only make sense if she had a reason for wanting his enmity. But what could that reason be? Before we look at a possibility, let us look at proof that Olympias did not speak accidentally to her handmaid. She wanted Philip to turn against her; I am sure of this because at the end of 357 BC, P. sent this report back to Athens,

… [text missing] came to my rooms. Pale. Weak. [He said] King Philip ordered me to look into his bed chamber. I remembered Gyges and Candaules. I looked. Olympias lay upon her bed. Naked. A snake was curled round her thigh. Its tail rested upon her [pubic] hair. Its head rested upon her breast. [Philip said] She is a witch. Look at what I have to suffer. Look. He w[a]s drunk.

Plutarch states that Olympias may have belonged to a snake worshipping Dionysian religion and that,

[i]t was Olympias’ habit to enter into… states of possession and surrender herself to the inspiration of the god with even wilder abandon than others…

‘Look at what I have to suffer’. These words indicate not only Philip’s upset but the fact that Olympias was pursuing a policy of upsetting him as much as possible without being openly disloyal. Judging by Plutarch’s description of her religion, she had chosen the perfect vehicle to do this. But, again, why was Olympias making such an effort to anger and distress her husband? At the same time as she was sleeping with her snakes, B. was writing,

I witnessed another fight in the market place today – once again between Macedonians and a group of Epirotians. The Macedonians were complaining that there are too many Epirotians in Pella today; that they upset their wives and children; that they cast spells upon both friends and enemies; that they want to seize the throne for Epirus [my emphasis].

Did the fights in Pella just happen or were they orchestrated? The Macedonians clearly thought there was more to them than just the violence. If they were orchestrated, perhaps Olympias’ religious ‘devotion’ was simply a ruse to destabilise her husband so that he was  a shadow of his former self; a softening up exercise such as the street fighters were engaged in. It seems incredible that Olympias might have been plotting against Philip at such an early stage but one day, murder did – in the eyes of many – enter her mind, for she has been plausibly accused of orchestrating Pausanias’ murder of the king.

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The Spies of Ancient Athens: The Conception of Alexander

The index of posts in this series can be read here
Read the Introduction here
Based on The Spies of Ancient Athens by Reynard and Grün (London, 2004)
“Philip II of Macedon and Olympias of Epirus married in 357 BC. Their wedding was celebrated in Aegae, where Philip would meet his end at the hands of an assassin twenty-one years later.
On the eve of the marriage, Aegae was struck by a fierce storm, which caused panic across the city. Athens appears to have had only two spies in the Macedonian court at this time; unamed in the sources, they have – since the time of Stern – been nicknamed B(road) and P(ersonal)  for the type of the intelligence that they sent back to Athens.
Thus, while B. tells us about the storm itself,

[the] … thunderstorm caused palace to shake. I saw lightening stike several homes, destroying them and burning people alive. In the market this morning, many were frightened. The storm is believed to be gods’ anger, though no-one knows for what. Whispers against king in marketplace

P. – whose reports are tightly condensed – focuses on what was happening within the palace – to no less a person than Olympias,

Myrtale* awake all night. Severe headache. Temporary blindness. Myrtale told handmaid that Zeus was ma love to her. She was not strong enough for him. Story repeated among servants. Believed to be nonsense as queen watched all night. Despite all, servants relieved – Myrtale [was] feared to be dying.

Both these reports are dated, which is how we now that Olympias suffered her migraine, or visit from Zeus, on the night of the storm. What is intriguing, though, is the fact that Olympias saw fit to tell a servant that Zeus had had sex with her. She must have known that there was a fair chance the handmaid would gossip about it and that the information might eventually come to Philip’s ears. Would he appreciate hearing that he had been cuckolded by a god? But maybe that is what Olympias wanted. Maybe she wanted him to be angry, and even fearful. We’ll come back to this idea later on.
A few days after the storm, P. sent another report to Athens. It gives a fascinating, if rather unnerving, insight into Olympias’ character.

Myrtale entered her bed chamber. Stood at her offering table. Offerings made. [She] said, You blessed me and I was not afraid. She took a knife. Exposed her left breast and cut it next to her nipple letting the blood drop onto the offering table. She repeated the words You blessed me, and I was not afraid. I left the bed chamber in fear.

Several weeks now passed during which – Philip and Olympias’ wedding aside – nothing of consequence happened. Then, B. suddenly reported that there was,

… great consternation among seers. They walk quickly and with darting eyes through the palace, seeing everyone but speaking to no one. The servants and guards are very worried. Even Parmenion looked anxious as he drilled the men this afternoon.

B.’s next few reports contained no further information. But Athens wanted to know more.

It is very difficult to obtain information. The seers no longer walk among us but either with one another or in the shadows. When they meet, they admit no servants or slaves. Even the guards are told to wait outside.

In the end, it was P. who came good. One of the seers fell ill. As he lay on his deathbed, he spoke to his son who, it seems, was also a seer. P. was present waiting on Aristander.

Aristander** worried for Olympias. Told son Philip dreamt he sealed [her] womb. [Has she been] unfaithful?. Aristander told his son seers have advised Philip to ignore dream[. U]rged him to do same in future. Coughing fit. Expired.

There is no mention here of the ‘fact’ (according to Plutarch) that Philip – after sealing Olympias’ womb, put a seal in the shape of a lion on it. Could it be that this detail was added a later date – after Alexander had proved his leonine nature? Perhaps, but it is worth noting the following report that P. wrote in late 357 BC.

Olympias did not bleed this month. The Telmessian*** confirmed she is with child. Olympias excited. [She asked] what manner of child she would give birth to. [Aristander said i]f her child has her blood then he will be exceedingly strong and cunning.

Six months later…

Olympias bedridden. Child kicks her with great strength. Impatient to be born. Olympias said It is as if I have a lion inside me, not a baby. Many servants now afraid to go near her lest the lion break out.

P.’s use of the word ‘confirmed’ is significant as it shows that Aristander had already stated his belief that Olympias was pregnant. This would tie in with Plutarch’s sources who say that he – Aristander of Telmessus – was the only seer to correctly interpret Philip’s dream as meaning his wife was pregnant rather than unfaithful. Further to this, I wonder if – even if unwittingly – Aristander is the ultimate source of the lion seal detail. Perhaps Olympias was remembering his ‘strong and cunning’ comment when she said ‘It is as if I have a lion inside me’; her aside then became part of palace oral tradition before eventually finding its way to the Macedonian people and into Plutarch’s Lives.
* Olympias changed her name a number of times throughout her life. The name ‘Olympias’ came in 356 BC to reflect her husband’s success at the Olympic Games
** Not Aristander of Telmessus who accompanied Alexander on his expedition across Asia
*** From later reports, we know this to be Aristander of Telmessus

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The Spies of Ancient Athens

The index of posts in this series can be read here
Athens’ period of dominance in Greek affairs ended with her defeat to Sparta at the end of the Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BC). Despite this, she continued to play an important part in the internecine conflicts that bedevilled Greece until 338 when Philip II of Macedon defeated a joint Athenian-Theban army at Chaeronea. Athens – like every other Greek city – was now a pawn to be moved about wherever the Macedonian king wished.
However, although down, Athens was not out. Demosthenes continued to rage with all his oratorical might against Philip, and at the beginning of Alexander’s reign, the city successfully persuaded the new king to forgive her for not immediately recognising his authority over the Greeks.
Athens’ strength was not limited to fulminating and reacting to events. She also sought to change them.
After Philip’s murder, Alexander ordered the assassination of anyone who he feared might oppose his rule. Amongst those killed was Philip’s last wife, Cleopatra Euridike, and her children, Europa and Caranus. Europa and (especially) Caranus had to die as their bloodline made them too dangerous for Alexander to let live. Cleopatra didn’t but – according to Peter Green – was murdered by Olympias anyway out of spite.
The deaths of Philip’s last family put the future of Cleopatra Euridike’s guardian, the general Attalus, into question. He was in Asia Minor when Philip was killed, waiting for the arrival of the king and the start of the campaign against the Persian Empire.
Attalus had no claim of his own to the Macedonian throne, but it is not hard to imagine that on hearing of the death of his ward and her children, he would seek to take revenge by making common cause with Alexander’s Greek enemies, and lead a Greek army into Macedon. Diodorus tells us that this is exactly what Alexander did fear. And indeed, it might have happened as Athens sent secret agents to Asia Minor to discuss a possible alliance with the general.
As we know, Attalus was assassinated. What really intrigues me about this moment in history, though, is Athens’ use of ‘secret agents’. In truth, they are probably more accurately called envoys rather than spies but there was definitely a cloak and dagger feel to their mission. As Diodorus says, the city ‘[c]ommunicated secretly’ with him. I would be very surprised if the agents did not bring back to Athens intelligence relating to the size and state of the Macedonian army under Attalus’ command.
These questions have lead me to ask myself (whimsically, I admit) what if Athens had a secret intelligence service? What if she had agents in foreign courts sending reports back to the city? What would those reports say? For all I know, this is exactly what did happen; if so, I confess it is not an element of ancient Greek history I know anything about. These posts, therefore, are my imagining of what those reports would say. To give them a little context, the posts are presented as if they were extracts from a book titled ‘The Spies of Ancient Athens’.

  • The chief inspiration for this series of posts is a book titled Russian Roulette on how British spies took on Bolshevik Russia following the 1917 Revolution there. I have not enjoyed reading a book so much recently and heartily recommend it. It’s Amazon page is here but I am sure it will be available from all good bookshops.
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