Posts Tagged With: Delphic Oracle

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

For the other posts in this series click here

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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