Ain’t no party like a Dium party
It’s Christmas week and The Second Achilles is in a hard place. How can the blog mark the occasion when the Birth of the Saviour (sorry, Ptolemy) will not happen for another three hundred years?
It’s time to be creative. If the reason for Christmas is beyond our scope to discuss, perhaps there is a connection to be found with Alexander in her associated practices.
As luck would have it, there is, and it comes in the idea of celebration. Christians celebrate the Birth of Jesus. Macedonians were also fond of celebrating. Yes, I know that the Tenuous Links Society would be very interested in the connection I have just made but it’s Christmas week so you’ll have to forgive me!
On that basis, in the next four posts I will look at four celebrations mentioned by the Alexander historians (starting off with Diodorus each time). In this post, I’ll begin with Dium; tomorrow, Babylon; Christmas Eve, Persepolis and on Christmas Day, Carmania.
In the Autumn of 335 B.C. Alexander returned to Macedon after a successful campaigning season during which he had secured his northern borders and successfully brought the Greek city-states to heel.
Once home, he began preparations for the projected invasion of Asia Minor. Two important questions that needed answering were ‘[w]hen should the campaign be started and how should he conduct the war?’ (D. XVII.16).
Parmenion and Antipater tried to persuade Alexander to delay any action until he had produced an heir only for the king to retort that it would be a disgrace to ‘sit at home celebrating a marriage and awaiting the birth of children’ (Ibid). Alexander won the argument and preparations for the invasion continued.
That October, Alexander went to Dium to celebrate the Olympian Games. These are not to be confused with the Olympic Games. The Olympian version were instituted by Alexander’s predecessor, Archelaus (r.413-399 B.C.)*.
Held ‘in honour of Zeus and the Muses’, the Olympian Games involved ‘lavish sacrifices’, ‘dramatic contests’ and, of course, a lot of eating and drinking.
Best of all, from the point of view of the party goer, if not the catering staff (i.e. servants and slaves), the festival lasted nine days.
To re-enforce the fact that not only were they engaged in a sacred activity but that time itself had, in a sense, become sacred, Alexander named ‘each day after one of the Muses’ (Ibid). Call me cynical, but I somehow doubt that the average Macedonian cared very much about the sacrality of the time and place in which he stood at that moment. Not when there was more wine to be had.
* I took the term ‘Olympian Games’ from Peter Green Alexander of Macedon 356-323 B.C. University of California Press 1992. Arrian also uses it – see below.
In our own day, America has a reputation for doing things bigger than anyone else. Well, I suppose Americans do live in a vast country so have to fill the space somehow, but, of course, the USA was not the first nation to go large. Egypt did with her monumental statues, and in Dium, in his own way, so did Alexander.
Before the Games started, he ordered a huge tent to be built, one that could hold a hundred couches. The notes to my copy of Diodorus* state that ‘Agathocles’s Hall of the Sixty Couches was one of the wonders of Sicily (Book 16.83.2)’ so you can see that Alexander was not only going large but determined to smash records to smithereens. Start as you mean to go on.
My favourite pubs are those that look homely and comfortable. Macedonians liked anything that reminded them of how great they were. How the tent must have done that! No wonder Alexander took it with him when he left for Asia Minor. It was a brilliant propaganda tool as well as a place to get sozzled.
* Loeb Classical Library 1963
Among the guests at the banquet in the great tent were ambassadors from the Greek cities. Imagine what they thought of the tent. We may be sure that Alexander’s invitation to them to attend was not simply, or even an, act of kindness but a way of intimidating them – and through them, their cities.
If Diodorus has got all his facts right, Alexander was the perfect host. He circulated among his guests, distributed ‘to his entire force sacrificial animals’ as well as anything else they needed. I am happy when my friend buys me a pint. I think I would probably have fainted for joy in Dium.
Arrian (I.11) offers a more sober account of what happened that Autumn. While he confirms that Alexander did indeed offer
… to Olympian Zeus the form of ceremonial thanksgiving which had been in use since the time of Archelaus.
and also celebrated ‘the Olympian Games’, he states that the games took place at Aegae. Now, it’s true that he doesn’t say where the thanksgiving to Zeus took place, so maybe it was at Aegae at the same time as the Games but that isn’t the impression I get.
He also states that Alexander ‘according to some accounts, held games in honour of the Muses’ (Ibid). I take this to mean that Ptolemy and Aristobulos don’t mention the fact. Why would they not? Well, we don’t know. It might be the Games never happened; it might also be that neither Ptolemy nor Aristobulos regarded the Games as relevant to their narrative.
Arrian’s account is perfunctory. I feel he is only mentioning what happened because he has to. Once the words are down, he immediately moves forward to the next subject. Rather miserably, that is
… a report… that the statue of Orpheus son of Oegrus of Thrace, had been constantly sweating.
Happily, however, Aristander was able to give the omen a favourable interpretation.
There are a number of possible reasons for Arrian’s desultory account of the events at Dium. The worst is that his main sources were misery guts who didn’t like fun. In Christmas week, however, we are not having that. I am choosing to believe that Ptolemy would have very much liked to have waxed lyrical about the partying that went on but thought for the sake of decency and professionalism that he better not.
Plutarch is even worse than Arrian. He neither mentions acts of thanksgiving to Zeus nor the Olympian Games. In Chapter 14 of his Life of Alexander, he says simply that when the Macedonians ‘set out’ for Asia Minor, ‘… the statue of Orpheus at Libethra… was observed to be covered in sweat’. He confirms Aristander’s positive interpretation of the omen.
Dium In Short
Reason Thanksgiving/Honour of Zeus and the Muses
Duration Nine Days
Outstanding Features A ten almost big enough to cover Alexander’s ego
Result Lots, and lots, of headaches (+ a happy and grateful army)