Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 114, 115 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here
Hephaestion’s Funeral Pyre Built
Cost Borne By Cities and Officials Alike
Ammon: Hephaestion Should Be Worshipped
Alexander waited until he had finished dealing with the embassies before beginning the preparations for Hephaestion’s funeral. When he did, he ‘threw himself’ into the work with ‘such zeal’ that the funeral ‘not only surpassed all those previously celebrated on earth but also left no possibility for anything greater in later ages’.
The reason for Alexander’s effort was that he ‘had loved Hephaestion most’ of all his Friends. Diodorus notes that Craterus ‘had a rival claim’ to Alexander’s love and recounts how a companion had once said to the king that he loved Craterus no less than he did Hephaestion. To which, Alexander replied ‘that Craterus was king-loving, but Hephaestion was Alexander-loving’.
Diodorus also recalls how, upon their first meeting after the Battle of Issus, Sisygambis, Darius III’s mother, mistook Hephaestion for Alexander and was ‘distressed’ after being told her mistake. The king, however, put her at ease, “Never mind, mother.” he said, “For actually he too is Alexander.”
‘Hephaestion enjoyed so much power and freedom of speech’ as a result of his friendship with Alexander that he was not only able to weather Olympias’ biting tongue but put her in her place when writing back to her. “Stop quarrelling with us and do not be angry or menacing. If you persist, we shall not be much disturbed. You know that Alexander means more to us than anything.”
Hephaestion’s funeral had to be paid for. To ensure that it was, Alexander ordered every city in the region (Babylonia?) to contribute a sum according to their ability. He also proclaimed that the sacred fire in every Asian city should be quenched until the funeral was over.
According to Persian custom, the sacred flame was only ever put out when the king himself died. Alexander’s order, therefore, was treated by Persians as a bad omen – a foretelling of his death. Diodorus notes that there were other signs that Alexander was near his end, which we will come to in chapter 116.
Diodorus tells how each of Alexander’s ‘generals and Friends [sought] to meet the king’s desires’ and make images of Hephaestion ‘in ivory and gold’ and other valuable materials. The Footnotes say that these ‘were probably medallions or small images to be worn in wreaths’.
In order to make Hephaestion’s funeral pyre, Alexander tore down one of Babylon’s walls ‘to a distance of ten furlongs’. He then levelled the space created using baked tiles. The pyre was ‘square in shape’, and ‘a furlong in length’ on every side.
Alexander ‘divided up the area [of the pyre] into thirty compartments’. I assume this means the pyre comprised of thirty sections otherwise am not sure what he means. The roof of each section of the pyre was held up by palm tree trunks.
Once the pyre had been built, Alexander ‘decorated all the exterior walls’. Here is Diodorus’ description of them.
Ground (First) Level
‘[G]olden prows of quinqueremes… two hundred and forty in all’ were placed here. Statues of ‘kneeling archers, four cubits in height’ were placed on the ships’ catheads, while ‘[a]rmed male figures five cubits high’ were positioned on the deck. Red felt banners filled the space between them.
Torches, fifteen cubits tall ‘with golden wreaths about their handles’ were placed here. On top of the torches were ‘eagles with outstretched wings looking downward’ – presumably at the snakes at the base of the torch, which were looking up.
A carving of a ‘multitude of wild animals being pursued by hunters’.
A centauromachy, ‘rendered in gold’.
Statues of lions and bulls ‘alternating [and] also in gold’.
This ‘was covered with Macedonian and Persian arms, testifying to the prowess of the one people and to the defeats of the other’.
Diodorus states that on ‘top of all stood sirens, hollowed out and able to conceal within them persons who sang a lament in mourning for the dead’. I assume – hope – that these people were not on the pyre!
The pyre must have been huge. Diodorus says it was over 130 cubits in height – 191 feet according to this calculator. And what about the cost? Again, huge – in excess of 12,000 talents. Alexander had no trouble in paying for it, though, for as well as the special tax on the cities, ‘[a]ll of the generals… soldiers… envoys and even the natives rivalled one another in contributing to the magnificence of the funeral’.
When all was done, Alexander issued a decree that Hephaestion should be sacrificed to ‘as god coadjutor’. Around the time he made this decree one of his Friends, a man named Philip, returned (from Siwah?) with a message – ‘a response’ – from Ammon: ‘Hephaestion should be worshipped as a god’. Pleased with this news, Alexander made the first sacrifice. Afterwards, he ‘entertained everybody handsomely’. The good times were here again, though they would not last.
Is it significant that Alexander concluded his diplomatic work before beginning the preparations for Hephaestion’s funeral? I can’t decide if it was a form of displacement activity or an example of Alexander being a good ruler. Actually, now that I think about it, I expect he had no choice – he had to wait for the ships and statues to be built.
Alexander’s response to Sisygambis recalls the quotation attributed to Aristotle (by, according to Wikipedia, Diogenes Laëtius) that “A single soul dwelling in two bodies”.
NB: Diodorus covers Alexander’s meeting with Sisygambis in Chapter 37. If you would like to read my post on it, you can do so here.
Hephaestion’s use of the royal ‘we’ in his letter to Olympias is fascinating, but what does it mean? For all I know, that was how Macedonians in the fourth century B.C. wrote. If so, it would mean nothing. But if they didn’t, Hephaestion’s choice of words would say an awful lot about his character.
A negative reading would be that his friendship with Alexander had made him proud and arrogant. A positive one would say it shows how intimate Hephaestion was with Alexander. They were not only one body but one voice, too.
According to the CLIO History Journal, catheads are ‘large timbers projecting on either side of the prow, which also served as guards for the leading oars’.
According to Ancient History,'”Centauromachy” refers to the battle between the Centaurs and Lapiths of the Peneus Valley, in Thessaly.’ Wikipedia adds that this tale typifies ‘the struggle between civilization and barbarism’.
Diodorus makes no reference to Alexander actually asking Ammon whether or not he may worship Hephaestion as a god, though we know – from Arrian – that that is what happened.
Ammon’s message is recorded differently by Plutarch and Arrian. According to the Footnotes, they confirmed that the god recommended that Hephaestion be ‘honoured as a hero’. Arrian adds that this was after Ammon refused ‘to allow [Hephaestion] divine worship’.
It’s interesting that Diodorus (main source: Cleitarchus who spoke to Macedonian soldiers) confirms that Ammon gave permission for Hephaestion to be ‘worshipped as a god’ (Possibly silly question: is this the same as him actually being deified?) while Arrian (main source: Ptolemy, Hephaestion’s fellow officer, and Aristobulos: a junior officer in Alexander’s army) says that Ammon refused to let this happen.
Why the discrepancy? I’m tempted to say that Ptolemy and/or Aristobulos, for whatever reason, did not want people to get too big a view of Hephaestion.
Unfortunately, we are missing the portion of Curtius’ History of Alexander which covers the period of Hephaestion’s funeral. So, what does Plutarch say? First of all, he used Ptolemy, Aristobulos and Cleitarchus. Plutarch would have been aware, therefore, of the divergent traditions. In his Life of Alexander, he states that Ammon commanded Alexander ‘to honour Hephaestion and sacrifice to him as a hero’ (Penguin Classics 2011 para 72). No mention of god-worship. Should we privilege Plutarch’s account as he would have had no/less reason to suppress the truth in the way that Ptolemy and Aristobulos might have done?
Speaking of the truth, who’s to say that the Macedonian soldiers that Cleitarchus spoke to were speaking it?
This picture comes from and is the (C) of Andrew Chugg at alexanderstomb.com
Alexander’s Agony Column
i. O My King
I am having difficulty accepting Hephaestion as a god, what should I do?
ii. O My King
I was hoping you would help me. This is an agony column after all.
If I ever find out who you are I will cause you a great deal of agony.
iii. O My King
Understood. Am worshipping now.