Posts Tagged With: Achilles

Changing the Past: In Antiquity and Today

New Year is well and truly over and I am back at work. When is my next holiday?


This week I read Come, Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie Mallowan. Don’t be confused by the last name, she is that Agatha Christie. Mallowan was her married name. The reason for its use here is because Come, Tell Me is not a crime novel but an account of the archaeological trips to the Near East that she undertook with her archaeologist husband, Max Mallowan, in the 1930s.

In Chapter One, Christie and her husband make their way to Syria on the Orient Express. They witness no murders, fortunately, but do pass the Sea of Marmora and Cilician Gates in Turkey.

As soon as I saw these names, my mind went back to Alexander. Christie’s Marmora became Diodorus’ Marmarens. The Marmarens (who, I should say, lived in Lycia rather than around the Sea of Marmara) attacked the Macedonian army as it marched past, killing no few soldiers, kidnapping others and stealing booty. Alexander, unsurprisingly, was rather displeased by this, and lay siege to the Marmarens’ fort.

For two days, Alexander attacked it. However, although he failed to break its defences, he did enough to persuade the Marmaren elders that he would stay until he had done so. Upon realising this, the elders,

… advised their younger countrymen to end their resistance and make peace with the king on whatever terms were possible.
(Diodorus XVII.28)

Interestingly, the younger Marmarens refused to do this. Diodorus tells us that they ‘were eager to die together simultaneously’ (Ibid) for the sake of their freedom. Now, at this point, you might have thought that the elders would have knocked their children’s heads together, remind them of who was in charge and lead the surrender before the youngsters came out with another tom fool idea. But no, they acquiesced to this, and came out with a tom fool idea of their own. The elders told the young men If you are determined to die, kill your wives, children and elderly relatives then break out of the fort and hide yourselves in the mountains.

The young men liked this idea and went away to have a last meal with their families. That evening, however, some of them reneged on the plan. But they didn’t run away with their loved ones. Instead of killing their families ‘with their own hands’ (Ibid) as the elders had suggested, they set fire to their homes and burned them alive. Six hundred men did this, and having done so, they should have had the decency to die with their loved ones. But no. They duly broke out of the fort and headed to the mountains.

This story has stuck with me since I read it. I am fascinated by the apparent equality of power between the young and old Marmarens. I have not heard of any other society in antiquity, or since, for that matter, where a similar situation has existed.

But… Did it exist? It may not have. The above quotations from Diodorus comes from my Loeb edition. The notes there state that ‘Appian… tells the same story of Xanthus, traditionally destroyed in this way three times… it was something of a literary topos’ (Diodorus XVII.28 n.5). Indeed, as the notes say, Diodorus repeats the story in Book XVIII.22 of his Library. There, it is the Isaurians in Pisidia who, seeing that they have no chance of breaking Perdiccas’ siege, burn their families alive in their homes. The Isaurians, however, do not try to flee afterwards. Instead, they destroy their possessions in the fire and, after defending the city for a little while longer, jump into the flames themselves.

Diodorus calls the Isaurians’ actions ‘a heroic and memorable deed’ (Dio.XVIII.22). I can only wonder if he changed the original account of what happened to the Marmarens and Isaurians to highlight their perceived heroism or if his sources did so.


Only Diodorus mentions the Marmarens. In contrast, both Arrian (II.4.3-6) and Curtius (III.4.11-14) refer to Alexander’s passage through the Cilician Gates on his way to Tarsus. There, their similarity ends.

Curtius states that Alexander looked at the narrow path ahead of him and,

… they say [was] never more surprised at his good fortune. For, he observed, he could have been crushed just by rocks, if there had been anyone there to hurl them down on his approaching troops.
(Curtius III.4.11)

According to Arrian, however, the Cilician Gates were heavily defended when Alexander arrived, but when the Persian soldiers realised ‘that Alexander was leading the attack in person’ (Ar.II.4.4), they fled. This sounds altogether a more likely version of events than Curtius’ as it would make no sense for the local satrap, Arsames, to leave the pass undefended.


One of the things that makes Alexander such an interesting figure to study is the fact that he defies our expectations. I was reflecting on this the other day and contemplating writing a blog post titled ‘Alexander the (Social Justice) Warrior’ focusing on how he pardoned Timoclea after she killed the Thracian soldier who raped her (Plutarch Life of Alexander 12), his treatment of the Persian queen and princesses (Pl. Life 21) and the conquered Persians (e.g. in the way he tried to integrate them into his imperial hierarchy as satraps). These were all very progressive social actions.

Alexander was not just about the fighting; and when he did fight he did not do so just to make Greece look good. Like any social justice warrior he wanted to change the world for the better. Hence, the above mentioned actions and the fact that he took surveyors and scientists on his expedition.

Of course, the name ‘social justice warrior’ has a pejorative meaning as well. And guess what. Alexander can be found there as well.

Thus, taking the Urban Dictionary’s definition (here),

… an individual who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments on social justice on the Internet, often in a shallow or not well-thought-out way, for the purpose of raising their own personal reputation.

Having been taught by Aristotle, Alexander could hold his own in an argument. However, he was undeniably concerned with his reputation. That was the whole reason for the expedition.

Social Justice Warriors or SJWs are: People with paper thin skin who always find something to be offended about. They generally have no concept of humour.

As Black Cleitus (Curtius VIII.1.22-52), Callisthenes (Pl. Life 53) and Cassander (Pl. Life 74) found out to their collective cost Alexander could be very easily offended sometimes, with fatal consequences.

[SJWs] aggressively call for the downfall of the person who carelessly offended them.

Philotas (Curtius VI.7.1-11.40), anyone?

But as I said above, Alexander defies our expectations. He is not only a progressive but also very conservative. Perhaps I will come back to that in my next or a future post.


The BBC and Netflix are producing a new drama based on the Trojan War. Controversy is following in the series’ wake, however, due to the fact that some of the characters, including Achilles, are being played by black actors. For more, see the Greek Reporter here.

If I had been the casting director, I would have chosen a white actor to play Achilles. That’s what he was. However, the more I think about it, the less I think that the casting director is obliged to hire a white person.

The Iliad is not history. Homer’s Achilles did not exist. He might be based on a real person but he is not them. Homer’s Achilles is a myth. He is a meaning. And in that capacity, he can be reinterpreted by every age as it sees fit. Indeed, it is only by being reinterpreted that he remains relevant to us.

If a law was made that permitted only one, single version of Achilles, we would bound him to the meaning of a specific time and place, and one day, he would become strange and unknowable to us. I would a thousand thousand times over rather have a black Achilles, a female Achilles, an Achilles who loves Hector rather than Patroclus or a pacifist Achilles rather than an irrelevant Achilles.

Categories: Alexander in Film, Arrian, Books, Diodorus Siculus, Homer, Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Of Ghosts and Footprints

Happy New Year! I hope you have a happy and fruitful 2018. Have you made any resolutions? I have two Alexander related ones:-

  1. Read Diodorus’ account of Philip II’s life (Book XVI of his Library)
  2. Read The Iliad again

Philip II
I have never read a full account of Philip’s life. All that I know about him comes from books about Alexander. He deserves better than that so Diodorus XVI will, I hope, be a first step in doing justice to the man without whom Alexander would not, could not, have conquered most of the known world.

The Iliad
I am going to read the World’s Classic translation. I have owned this edition since my university days in the ’90s. The poem, of course, has been translated more recently but I am keen to read the World’s Classic version because I am looking for a particular quotation:

Men will know the difference now that I have come.

In my memory, these words are spoken by Achilles. When, though, I can’t remember. I presume it is after he leaves his tent following Patroclus’ death. I have to admit, though, it is only the quotation that I can remember (Though do I have it right…?). For all I know, I actually read it somewhere else and over time I have attached it to The Iliad because it is the kind of thing Achilles would say. Well, in 2018 I hope I can find out whether or not this is true.


Straight after finishing Partha Bose’s Alexander the Great’s Art of Strategy, I started Ghost on the Throne by James Romm. Ghost is his account of the Wars of the Successors.

The last book length treatment of these wars that I read was Robin Waterfield’s Dividing the Spoils, which I enjoyed tremendously. Ghost on the Throne has, therefore, big boots to fill.

So far, I have only read the six page introduction but it begins very excitingly with Manolis Andronikos’ discovery of the royal tombs at Vergina. The introduction includes photographs of four ivory heads found in the tomb. They are identified as ‘Alexander’s Companions’. Before opening this book, I had only heard of the Alexander and Philip busts so it was a revelation to discover that there was more.

… though having said that, doesn’t Michael Wood see these heads in his In the Footsteps of Alexander documentary?


This morning, I read Plutarch’s 23 page Life of Eumenes. I wasn’t expecting to read this but yesterday I received a message from ‘anonymous’ via my Alexander Tumblr page asking for my thoughts about Alexander’s war secretary who went on to become one of the most skilled generals in the Wars of the Successors so before replying I decided to take the opportunity to refresh my memory concerning him.

Eumenes does not appear in the major sources of Alexander’s life very often. Arrian mentions him all but four times, Curtius twice; Plutarch (in his Life of Alexander) and Diodorus do not mention him at all. The reason for this is no doubt because for most of Alexander’s expedition, Eumenes served ‘only’ as the king’s war secretary. His only recorded military action was in India. There, Alexander gave him 300 cavalrymen and orders to notify two rebellious towns that a third, Sangala, had been captured but that if they submitted then they would have nothing to fear from him. In the event, Eumenes was unable to deliver this news as the residents of both towns had already heard about Sangala’s fall and fled.

Having given Eumenes only 300 cavalrymen Alexander clearly did not intend him to do anything more than deliver his message. If the Indians had resisted, Eumenes would undoubtedly have backed off and called to Alexander for help. As it was, this is pretty much what happened, anyway. Eumenes sent word to Alexander that the towns were empty. Thereafter, the king chased after the Indians. They had got a head start, though, and so most escaped.

It is interesting that we don’t hear of Eumenes chasing the Indians, either before or after Alexander’s arrival. He could have done but it wouldn’t surprise me if Alexander had told him ‘stay where you are’ on account of his inexperience.

But could he have been so inexperienced? It is astonishing to see how he went from administrator to one of the most competent generals of the early Successor Wars (Eumenes died in 316 BC). Where, though, might that experience have come from?

Alexander could have used Eumenes in a military capacity at any time during the expedition. But if he had, is it very likely that he would have given him this really minor responsibility now? I can’t see it. Sangala was destroyed in the summer of 326 BC. I wonder if Alexander gave Eumenes further military responsibilities as the Macedonian army, first, made its way to the Hyphasis river, and then, as it marched and sailed to the Indian ocean. The army did not reach the Gedrosian desert until September 325 so Eumenes would have had nearly a year’s experience as a general (perhaps a little more if he took part in the Cossaean campaign) to take into the Successor period. That’s still not much time, but perhaps men of genius don’t really need it.

By the way, if you would like to read Arrian’s and Curtius’ account of Eumenes’ sole known military command under Alexander, you can do so at Arrian V.24.6-7 and Curtius IX.1.19.


Over the last few weeks, I have been reading Caesar’s Footprint’s: Journeys to Roman Gaul by Bijan Omrani. When I saw it in the bookshop, I had to buy it. I love travelogues, and especially ones where the writer walks in the footsteps of famous historical people.

Having said that Caesar’s Footprints is not quite Omrani’s In the Footsteps of Alexander; his scope is far broader. He begins with Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul but moves on to look at the impact that Rome had on the territory from the time of Caesar through to the end of the Roman age five hundred years later.

The book is a great read, being in turn informative, descriptive, and evocative. I’m always happy to spend time in Julius Caesar’s company but was especially happy to learn about Gallo-Roman citizens such as Ausonius, who wrote a beautiful love poem to his new wife; a Gallic goddess named Sequana, and early Christian bishops like St Martin of Tours who did 25 years in the army before becoming a priest. He did several tours before becoming of Tour (sorry).

Of course, I knew about St Martin already but not the details of his life. I was sad to read that he wanted to deal with paganism using the same violent methods that Rome did in respect of Christians. I suppose he and Rome regarded their enemies as an existential threat but I still wish that he could have employed something other than violence to do away with pagan temples (There’s no mention of St Martin authorising acts of violence against people but we know that other Christian leaders though time have done so).

Anyway, I would not have mentioned the book here except that there does appear to be an Alexander reference. Sidonius sent a book to his relative, Apollinaris; with it, he sent a poem, addressed to the book, in which he ‘describes the route it must take to reach its destination’ (B Omrani Caesar Footprints 2017 p.212). Upon its arrival, Sidonius says it will ‘probably encounter Apollinaris walking in his secluded gardens’ (Ibid),

And if he were not to be found among the flowers, he would be cooling himself in his imitation grotto on the slope of a neighbouring hill, a ‘cavern’ formed by the branches of trees arching together to create a natural portico – better even than the ancient orchards of the Indian King Porus, which he decorated with golden vines heavy with clusters of gems.

Is this Alexander’s Porus? I don’t recall the sources talking about his wealth but I don’t know of any other important kings of that name. Then again, I don’t know much ancient Indian history apart from Alexander. It would be great to get some background to this.

Categories: Arrian, Books, Diodorus Siculus, Philip II, Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I wrote this review in November 2013 whereupon it went into my drafts folder in anticipation of being edited before I pressed the ‘publish’ button. Fourteen months later and I think it’s fair to say the time for editing has long since passed. If I was going to do that I would need to read the book again, which I don’t have time to do. As the review is perfectly readable (and, I hope, understandable) I thought I would publish it “as-is”.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Book reviews on The Second Achilles are few and far between but I could hardly ignore this one.

We all know the story of how Achilles was dipped into the Styx by his mother so that he was invulnerable except at the heel; how he fought in the Trojan War, only to be dishonoured by Agamemnon; how he died after being shot by Paris in the one place that he was vulnerable.

Similarly, we all know of his friendship with Patroclus. The Iliad doesn’t say as much but the ancient Greeks generally believed that they were lovers. Miller takes that view as well, and so her book is Patroclus’ account of how they met and fell in love.

Oh yes, and died; we shall come back to that.

Madeline Miller is a good story teller. She can turn a phrase well and is at ease with her characters. She wears her learning lightly (according to the author’s biography in the book she has two degrees in Latin and Ancient Greek and teaches both subjects) and has made me want to read The Iliad again. I understand she is writing a book based on The Odyssey; on the strength of The Song of Achilles I shall certainly be keeping an eye out for it.

If you have the feeling that a ‘but’ is coming, I applaud you prescience, for here it is.


The Song of Achilles had – for me – a number of faults that stopped me from regarding it as a first class effort.

Most profoundly, I did not feel that it made clear why Achilles was attracted to Patroclus. One minute Patroclus is sitting by himself at the table, the next Achilles has noticed him, the third they are bosom buddies for the rest of their lives and beyond.

I felt that the book suffered from a number of disconnections.
i. Achilles is portrayed as an utterly carefree boy and then as a man obsessed by his honour. How and when did this change take place? We are given no indication (that I can recall, anyway) that justified his hardline stance after Agamemnon took Briseis.
ii. Achilles carries out no great deeds as a youngster. Except for at meal times, it seems, he lives apart from other people. Yet, when he returned to Phthia after a period of time in Scyros, the men are cheering him to the heavens. Why? Why are they so convinced by him? Is it just reputation alone? If it is, I wish it wasn’t. I wish Miller had given them a more solid reason to cheer him.
iii. Thetis’ appearances were very disjointed. I appreciate that this may have been deliberate to emphasis her apartness from the mortal world but it grated nonetheless, especially because her character remained static for the whole story.

There were three plot elements to The Song of Achilles that I thought were big mistakes to include. The first was the Scyros episode. Again, I appreciate that this is part of the myth of Achilles (although that does not mean Miller was obliged to use it) but it felt very out-of-place as far as the story was concerned. Are we really supposed to believe that Achilles would not have sought to return to Patroclus before the latter went to him? Perhaps Miller was telling us something either about his character or his regard for his mother. If only we had a better sense of his relationship with her beforehand.

Similarly, I was not convinced by Achilles’ dressing up as a woman. Was his appearance altered by magic? That’s what I thought at first but then it appeared not to be the case. Granted that Achilles is not big like Ajax or Sarpedon but really didn’t anyone notice who he was? I’m sure I’m missing out on what made his deception convincing but I don’t know what it is. The manner of his unmasking was rushed and felt farcical.

The second plot element that I thought a mistake to include was Neoptolemus. The line in child-tyrants has, in recent years, been dominated by Joffrey in Game of Thrones and he is one more one-dimensional, irritating, blood thirsty brat than fiction really needs. Neoptolemus is now another. He added nothing to the story for me. If anything, he took away from it with his needless arrogance and acts of cruelty. How he was not poisoned by the other captains I will never know. The only justification I can think of for his inclusion is that he was Thetis’ Revenger. If that was the case, though, he did not choose his targets very competently.

The final element was Patroclus’ narration after he died. I would much rather a second narrator had taken over at this point. Patroclus’ continued involvement diminished the value of his death, and therefore, the merit of Achilles’ mourning.

I would like to finish as I started – with some positives.

Although Patroclus came across as rather a bland person, I still liked him. At least he tried and loved. In regards the latter, I thought that his love for Achilles, and indeed their relationship in general, was very sweetly handled. I cannot say how much I liked Miller’s Odysseus – clever, witty, smart… but never arrogant or vain. I hope very much that her Odyssey book is focused on him. Similarly, Odysseus ‘double act’ with Diomedes was great to read.

Finally, I really liked the book’s fusion of myth and reality. To be sure, there was a way in which it didn’t work (the demythologised Achilles worked well as a man but less well as a warrior) but I enjoyed the appearance of Chiron very much, as well as references to heroes such as Herakles, and the first appearances of Thetis and Apollo, as well as the more oblique appearance of Zeus.

In conclusion, I think Madeline Miller has given us something that adds to our creative understanding of Achilles. For all its faults, it was a good first novel, and although it should not have won the Orange award, I saw enough in it to make me think that Miller will grow and continue to improve as an author. My copy came signed by her. I wish it had come without the praise of Bettany Hughes and Donna Tartt on the front cover as they raised unrealistic and unfair expectations.

I commend it to you.

Categories: Books, Fiction | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Hephaestion’s Remains – Update

Exactly one year ago I wrote a post for this blog in which I speculated about what might have happened to Hephaestion’s body after he died.

You can read the post here but in short, I said that I did not think that his magnificent funeral (Diodorus XVII.115) took place, and that after Alexander died, Hephaestion was probably quietly cremated and buried by the Successors in Babylon before being forgotten about.

When I wrote my post, I never imagined that a year on I would have reason to return to it. However, the discovery of a skeleton in the Lion Tomb at Amphipolis, and the suggestion that it could be Hephaestion’s, has drawn me back to the subject.

The person to whom I owe the idea that Hephaestion might be buried at Amphipolis is Dorothy King – see her post here.

As you’ll see, she theorises that the Lion Tomb was originally built for Alexander. If that is correct, the presence of Hephaestion’s body would presumably mean that Alexander intended to be buried with his friend.

Given how Alexander identified himself with Achilles, and treated Hephaestion as Patroclus*, together with the fact that Achilles and Patroclus were buried together at Troy**, this idea makes perfect sense.


But, do the bones belong to Hephaestion?

Tests are being carried out on them at the moment. It goes without saying that they won’t tell us the deceased’s name but hopefully they will give us information that will help in the identification process.

For example (and again, hopefully) they’ll tell us the person’s sex, their approximate age at time-of-death, and perhaps what injuries or illnesses they suffered from in their life.

If the sex of the person is female then that obviously rules out the deceased being Hephaestion.

If, however, it is male and the person died in their 30s that would make it possible for the bones to be his as he was about Alexander’s age and we know that in 324 B.C. Alexander was 32.

Further to this, if there is sign of injury in at least one of the arm bones, that would also make it possible for  the skeleton to be Hephaestion’s as Curtius says he ‘suffered a spear-wound in the arm’ at the Battle of Gaugamela (IV.16.32).

It has to be emphasised, though, that even if the tests point to the skeleton being Hephaestion’s we can gain no certainty in the matter from them. What we must really hope for is the discovery of an inscription that spells out clearly to whom the tomb belongs. Otherwise, there will always be an element of doubt.


But let’s backtrack a bit – how can we be talking about Hephaestion’s skeleton being in Amphipolis when the sources have his funeral – and cremation at that – taking place in Babylon?

That’s a good question. What could have happened is that after the funeral his remains were transported to Amphipolis and there deposited. This, however, doesn’t answer the question how it is we have a skeleton in the Lion Tomb when Hephaestion was cremated.

So, what about the bones? Dr King provides an answer. In a comment made on 13th November 2014 at 10:30am (I’m sorry – I can’t seem to link directly to it) underneath the above mentioned blog post she states that ancient cremations did not take place at the same temperatures as modern ones.

This means that Hephaestion could have been cremated to the point that his flesh burned off but that – due to the lower temperature of the pyre – his bones survived.

Perhaps the tests currently being done on the skeleton will be able to tell us if the bones were indeed subjected to fire?

If we agree to the survival of Hephaestion’s bones as a possibility we can move on to the question of how they got from Babylon to Amphipolis.

As it happens, though, we need to correct the starting point of his final journey.


Let’s look at what the five major Alexander historians say about Hephaestion’s death and what happened to his body afterwards.

Arrian (VII.14,15) states that Hephaestion fell ill and died in Ecbatana and that a funeral pyre was built for him in Babylon. There is no reference, however, to the funeral actually taking place once Alexander arrived there.

Curtius Unfortunately, a lacuna in the MS means we do not have his account of Hephaestion’s death and funeral.

Diodorus has Hephaestion die in Ecbatana and his body transported to Babylon (XVII.110) where his pyre built XVII.115). No mention is made of what happened to Hephaestion’s remains afterwards.

Justin does not say explicitly where Hephaestion died. In terms of the narrative, his death takes place in Chapter 12. The last city Alexander is identified as reaching prior to this is Babylon (in Chapter 10), but at the start of Chapter 13 Justin appears to suggest that Alexander went to Babylon after Hephaestion’s death.

Neither does Justin say what happened to Hephaestion’s body. He does mention, however (in Chapter 12), that a monument was built in his honour, and that it cost 12,000 talents.

Plutarch states that Hephaestion died in Ecbatana (Chapter 72) but doesn’t say that his body was taken to Babylon. He does state, however, that Alexander decided to spend 10,000 talents on his friend’s funeral and tomb.


In summary, Arrian, Diodorus and Plutarch all agree that Hephaestion died in Ecbatana. But while Arrian and Diodorus state explicitly that his body was taken to Babylon, Plutarch makes no such claim. By implication he has Hephaestion’s body remain in Ecbatana. This may be what Justin is getting at although his account is really too vague to be of much use.


So, we have a disagreement. Who, in that case, do we believe?

Up until this week, I would have accepted Arrian’s and Diodorus’ account. Diodorus is not the best historian but Arrian has a very good reputation, and based his history on people who were witnesses to what happened four hundred years earlier – including one who was at the very centre of Macedonian power.

However, my opinion changed after I read an article by Paul McKechnie called Diodorus Siculus and Hephaestion’s Pyre, which offered a compelling reason not to accept Arrian’s and Diodorus’ account at face value.

I came across McKechnie’s article thanks to a link on Dorothy King’s blog here.

If I have understood McKechnie correctly, he argues that the account of Hephaestion’s funeral in Diodorus is not an account of an historical event at all but a literary conceit, designed to foreshadow Alexander’s death***.

Seeing the funeral in this way allows us to make sense of a statement that Diodorus makes in XVIII.4 of his Library of History. There, he says that after Alexander’s death, Perdiccas found among the late king’s papers

… orders for the completion of the pyre of Hephaestion.

Now, obviously, if the funeral had taken place as per XVII.115 there would be no need for these orders to be in Alexander’s papers.

McKechnie further argues that Diodorus took the story of the pyre in Babylon from a writer named Ephippus of Olynthus, who lived around the time of Alexander.

The reason I mention Ephippus is because he connects Diodorus’ narrative to Arrian’s. McKechnie suggests that Ptolemy read Ephippus’ account and decided to use it in his own history.

And indeed, he had a good reason for doing so. Just as Ephippus placed Hephaestion’s funeral in Babylon for literary reasons, Ptolemy placed it there for political ones.

So, I took Alexander’s body from Babylon to Memphis, he could say to the political doubter, I had a precedent – Alexander, himself, who took Hephaestion’s body from Ecbatana to Babylon.

Paul McKechnie’s article is really interesting, and I thoroughly recommend it to you. If you don’t have access to JSTOR, you can read it here.


So, as matters now stand, we have Hephaestion dying in Ecbatana and his funeral taking place there. The presence of the Lion of Hamadan (which is modern day Ecbatana) would appear to indicate that Alexander buried his friend there as well†.

Having corrected the starting point of Hephaestion’s journey, therefore, we now need to get him from Ecbatana to Amphipolis.

This part is most difficult for none of the surviving sources state that Hephaestion’s body was taken back to Macedon. If we are to place him there, we must do so by other means.

Here are three reasons for placing Hephaestion in Amphipolis.

  1. Alexander would not have regarded burying Hephaestion in Ecbatana as fitting. In life, he had seen himself as Achilles and Hephaestion as his Patroclus. In light of that, it makes better sense that he would want that identification to be made permanent in death
  2. The Lion Tomb in Amphipolis is so great, so majestic, it could only have been built for a very few people. The other possibilities are: Olympias, Philip III Arrhidaeus and Roxane, and Alexander IV.
    As I understand it, there are inscriptions in existence which state (or indicate?) that Olympias was buried in Pydna, where she was killed.
    Philip III Arrhidaeus is a possibility as he was a king but maybe buried at Vergina.
    Would Cassander to have honoured Alexander IV (and through him, Roxane) with such a great tomb after killing them?
  3. It looks like the Lion Tomb could easily have met the cost of Hephaestion’s burial as described by Plutarch and Justin

These may or may not sound like good reasons but if you are still nervous about the lack of evidence in the sources, it is perhaps worth remembering that they are the surviving sources and that – as we have seen – they disagree with one another about what happened to Hephaestion after his death. We have no obligation, therefore, to take them at their word.


What do I think? I honestly don’t know. I like the idea of Hephaestion being buried at Amphipolis but I wish – really wish – we had stronger literary evidence.

At the moment, though, and although he is supposed to have been buried at Vergina, I am very tempted by the idea of Alexander IV being buried there.

After his murder on Cassander’s orders, several years passed before Alexander IV’s death became known. When it did, there was no civil war, no unrest, no rioting, nothing. Cassander, Ptolemy, Lysimachus, Seleucus and Antigonus all in due course proclaimed themselves king of their individual realms and that was that.

The reason for this is that time had passed and people had let the past go. I think perhaps Cassander realised this. And when he did, he decided that he could afford to be as generous to Alexander IV in death as he had been cruel in life, and deposited his remains in the Lion Tomb at Amphipolis.

That’s what I think, and as I am sure you have noticed, I have offered no actual evidence for Alexander IV being buried there. In fact, as I read back what I have written, I am beginning to think there is a stronger case for Hephaestion’s burial.


A last word. I have no more of an idea about who is buried in the Lion Tomb as anyone else, and I look forward to hearing more news from the archaeologists. In the meantime, what I would say, is that Amphipolis has been – and continues to be – a great learning experience for me and I am indebted to Dorothy King who has posted very insightful blog posts and linked to equally good articles about Alexander – McKechnie’s especially. I hope I never stop learning.

* I’m thinking here of how he had Hephaestion lay a wreath on Patroclus’ grave at Troy (Arrian I.12) and his Homeric response to Hephaestion’s death. Just as Achilles cut his hair in honour of Patroclus (Iliad XXIII.147-8)
** See Iliad XXIII.243-44 and Odyssey XXIV.73-5)
*** McKechnie notes how Diodorus emphasises Hephaestion’s status as Alexander’s second self, how Alexander attends to the funeral after setting his affairs in order, and orders the Sacred Flame in Asian cities to be extinguished in Hephaestion’s honour – something which is was only ever done upon the king’s die
It is McKechnie who uses the Lion of Hamadan as evidence for Hephaestion’s remains being in Ecbatana. He provides other reasons as well. For example, a reference to Aelian, who

… in his story of gold and silver being melted together with the corpse on Hephaestion’s pyre, speaks of Alexander’s having demolished the walls of the acropolis of Ecbatana-and gives no hint of the pyre’s being supposed to have been in Babylon

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

For the other posts in this series click here

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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Priam’s Supplication to Achilles

Priam begs Achilles to give him the body of his son, Hector (MFA)

Priam begs Achilles to give him the body of his son, Hector (MFA)

… Priam spoke to Achilles in supplication:
‘Remember your father, Achilles. He is an old man
like me, approaching the end of his life. Perhaps
he too is being worn down by enemy troops,
with no one there to protect him from chaos and ruin.
Yet he at least, since he knows that you are alive,
feels joy in his heart and, every day, can look forward
to seeing his child, whom he loves so dearly, come home.
My fate is less happy. I fathered the bravest men
in the land of Troy, yet not one remains alive.

Most of my sons have been killed in this wretched war.
The only one I could truly count on, the one
who guarded our city and all its people – you killed him
a few days ago as he fought to defend his country:
Hector. It is for his sake that I have come,
to beg you for his release. I have brought a large ransom.
Respect the gods now. Have pity on me; remember
your father. For I am more to be pitied than he is,
since I have endured what no mortal ever endured:
I have kissed the hands of the man who slaughtered my children.’
(Homer The Iliad Book XXIV L. 475-497 tr. by Stephen Mitchell)

The above picture comes from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, USA. Drawn by an unidentified French artist in the nineteenth century it is by no means the best representation of Priam’s supplication to Achilles.
I chose it, though, because unlike other images, it shows Hector’s body still tied to the cart that Achilles rode round Troy after killing his enemy, which brings to mind Alexander’s punishment of Betis after the siege of Gaza.

Betis was brought before the young king, who was elated with haughty satisfaction, although he generally admired courage even in an enemy. ‘You shall not have the death you wanted,’ he said. ‘Instead, you can expect to suffer whatever torment can be devised against a prisoner.’ Betis gave Alexander a look that was not just fearless, but downright defiant, and uttered not a word in reply to his threats. ‘Do you see his obstinate silence?’ said Alexander. ‘Has he knelt to me? Has he uttered one word of entreaty? But I shall overcome his silence: at the very least I shall punctuate it with groans.’ Alexander’s anger turned to fury, his recent successes already suggesting to his mind foreign modes of behaviour. Thongs were passed through Betis’ ankles while he still breathed, and he was tied to a chariot. Then Alexander’s horses dragged him around the city while the king gloated at having followed the example of his ancestor Achilles in punishing his enemy.
(Curtius The History of Alexander Book IV. 6. 26  – 29 tr. by John Yardley)

Achilles’ treatment of Hector’s body and Alexander of the still living Betis represent black moments in the men’s lives – the day when their desire for vengeance got the better of their reason and honour. The episodes end very differently. Achilles – albeit at the behest of the gods – eventually gives Hector’s body back to his father, Priam. Betis was duly executed and Alexander moved on to continue his conquest of the Persian empire. Except… in his notes to de Sélincourt’s translation of Arrian’s Campaigns of Alexander, J R Hamilton casts doubt on whether the incident actually happened. He does not, however, give a reason for this.

  • This post is a day late. Apologies!
  • The great actor Peter O’Toole, who died yesterday at the age of 81 played Priam in 2004 film TroyRequiem Aeternam dona ei, Domine. Et lux perpetua luceat ei: Requiescat in pace. Amen.

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Peleus Wrestles Thetis

Peleus wrestles Thetis (credit:

Peleus wrestles Thetis (credit:

He woke her with a kiss.
First she was astonished, then furious.
He applied all his cunning to seduce her.
He exhausted his resources. None of it worked.

As is the way of these things, it begins with a prophecy – Proteus tells Thetis that she will bear a son who will be the ‘wonder of the world’. Fearful that her son might challenge his rule, Zeus has Peleus seduce Thetis. Presumably he believes that this mere mortal could never sire a hero. Peleus’ first attempt fails as Thetis changes her shape from one animal form to another before striking him with her tiger’s paw. Determined to bring the prophecy about, Proteus tells Peleus to bind her arms and feet, and hold on until she submits. Peleus does and wins the day.

Peleus marries Thetis (credit:

Peleus’ and Thetis’ wedding (credit:

… he undid her bonds. As he massaged
The circulation into her hands and feet
His caresses included her whole body.
She was content to let them take possesion
Of her skin, her heart, and, at last, of her womb
Where now he planted Achilles.

The story of Peleus and Thetis is as disturbing as it is exciting, especially from Thetis’ point-of-view. One can only imagine (if one dares) what imagination or historical event lies behind it. The brevity of Ted Hughes’ translation foregrounds this lack of knowledge very well. It is a frustration but also a thrill for it gives us the space to imagine the story anew for ourselves, perhaps to make good the harm done in the earlier version. One more reason why story telling is so good.

Quotations from Peleus and Thetis in “Tales of Ovid” translated by Ted Hughes

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