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On the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, an adventure that Alexander would surely have approved of, I continue my conversation with Jeanne Reames.
Jeanne has written Dancing With The Lion, a two part novel about the early years of Alexander, or, how he became the man we know as ‘the Great’. The first part Becoming just just been published. Part Two, Rise, will be published this October.
Alexander’s mother, Olympias, is represented very negatively by the Alexander historians; what is your assessment of her character, and how does it inform the way you look at her in Dancing with the Lion?
I stand with Beth’s picture: her reputation got a hatchet-job. This doesn’t mean she was nice, but she absolutely must be viewed in the full context of a polygamous court, her obvious intelligence, her Epirote ancestry, and the need simply to survive. This is why I use Myrtalē instead of Olympias, to detach her from all that baggage, much as I use Alexandros to detach him from “Alexander the Great” baggage.
Misogyny is THICK in a lot of Alexander fiction, perhaps unconsciously imbibed from the primary sources. It’s not only in how Olympias is portrayed, but in how Alexander’s sisters are overlooked. In Dancing with the Lion, not only did I try to write a powerful Olympias, but his full-sister Kleopatra is a POV character and even has her own coming-of-age arc, especially in book 2, Rise. Thessalonikē and Audata also play roles. (There’s another female voice that will appear in Rise, but I can’t say who, or it’s a spoiler.)
One might argue that negatively portraying Olympias doesn’t equal misogyny, which is true. And yes, she committed a number of murders (although she got blamed for some I’m pretty sure she didn’t commit, too). Yet as Beth points out in her articles, she didn’t do anything her husband and son didn’t also do. The horror was that she was a woman doing it. Greek women were supposed to stay out of politics, but Epirote Olympias didn’t get that memo! While the Macedonian court doesn’t appear to have been as repressive as, say, Athens, it also wasn’t as open as Epiros. Arriving in Pella, the 14/15/16-year-old Olympias must have found it all very flat, very hot, and very hobbling, compared to what she was used to at home. I expect Eurydike, Philip’s mother, had experienced something similar, decades earlier, and she, too, was roasted in the ancient sources. These powerful, northern women were not understood.
We must also recall the Macedonian court was polygamous (that’s why I never use “queen” for any of Philip’s wives in the novels). If royal polygamy had predated Philip, he employed it with gusto, marrying 5 women in his first 5 years on the throne. Olympias was either number 4 or 5, so even if her birth made her royal, she came into a situation with 3-4 other wives already there, plus the queen mother likely still alive. Imagine that.
At a polygamous court, the most important male in a woman’s life isn’t her husband, but her son. The more (healthy) sons she can produce, the higher her status, although it seems birth status also played a role, especially if there’s more than one son. As mother to the only viable heir, Olympias eventually became chief wife, but that took time to establish. And her continued position hung on ALEXANDER’S status, and survival. That’s what motivated her.
I’ve tried to make that very clear in the book. I’ve also tried to make her as savvy and competent as I think she was. Ergo, she acts as chatelaine for the entire palace, and is also trained as a healer and midwife, which comes into play in the first novel. The tale of her poisoning of Arrhidaios via “pharmakos” (herbs) may conceal an historical ability with herbal remedies. The Greeks were highly suspicious of “what those healer women did” and midwives, while necessary, were also viewed with mistrust. In myth, witches like Circe employed a knowledge of pharmakos. So Olympias gets called a witch by the men in the novel (including Philip), and poor Alexander is constantly defending her. To them, midwife-herbalist-priestess-witch…it would have been a fuzzy distinction.
How did you approach writing people about whom we know very little (e.g. Alexander’s sister, Cleopatra) or nothing (e.g. Hephaestion’s father, Amyntor)? Did you have any models for them or did you give your imagination free reign?
Sometimes I do use real people as models; for instance, parts of Amyntor’s personality are based on my own father, but also on my mother. Yet no character is ever a complete match for a living person. They’re composites. I also use things like the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator to conceptualize them. So Alexander is an ENTP and Hephaistion an INTP. Amyntor is an ISFJ, and Philip an ENTJ. Thinking in these terms helps flesh them out, so that the details emerge organically from who they are. Fictional characters must be more consistent than real people, in part because they are fictional.
I’m not sure how well that answers your question, but it’s how I think about characterization generally. Ultimately, all these people are characters, even those about whom we may know more: Alexander, Philip, Ptolemy, Aristotle. There’s still a boatload we don’t know. So, for instance, Alexander’s favorite fruit was, supposedly, apples. But we don’t know what his favorite color was. His voice is described as deep and harsh, but we don’t know what hand he favored. I made him a lefty for the hell of it. My point is chiefly that, even for the better-known characters, I’m still filling in a lot of blanks.
Your scholarship no doubt helped you write Dancing with the Lion– do you think your novels will help you as a scholar, and if so, how?
Absolutely writing fiction makes me a better historian because it forces me to be more aware of the various levels of probability in the historical record. One has the factual (and even what’s “fact” can be disputed), then the probable, the possible, and finally, educated speculation. Pure fiction is the next step.
In addition, writing fiction can force the historian to think about old problems in new ways, ask questions we might not think to ask. So, for instance, the novelist wonders what happened in those first few minutes, and hours, after Philip’s murder. It must have been a madhouse in Aigai. Diodorus tells us nothing—yet it’s still important to consider. So that’s the sort of thing fiction can bring to light.
Was there anything in particular that you enjoyed about writing Becoming and Rise? A character, perhaps, or a scene?
Kleopatra and Hephaistion were my favorite characters to write.
Kleopatra, because she’s a “type” I favor in storytelling. If the Dionysos novel ever gets published, Ari(adne) there is similar. Both are the antithesis of the drama queen or “spunky heroine.” Kleopatra just quietly gets shit done without flailing, and unlike her brother, she isn’t given to romanticizing things. If/when I get back to the series, readers will see more of her.
I also really enjoyed writing Hephaistion because he’s that rare personality type who just doesn’t give two figs what most people think of him, with a few exceptions such as Alexander or his family. He’s therefore always authentically himself. That doesn’t mean he has no filter; he keeps his mouth shut a lot of the time, but when he does express an opinion, he says exactly what he thinks. He’s also a bit (maybe more than a bit) of a smart-ass, which in turn means he gets to star in some of the funnier moments in the novel. In several, he takes down Kassandros a peg, but my favorite with him is when he and Erigyios throw another student in a cold river, because the boy was being insufferable. Later, Alexander tells the boy, “Hephaistion doesn’t start things, he ends them,” which is a fair summary.
That said, my overall favorite scene, at least in Becoming, is “Drunk Aristotle.” I won’t say more or it’s too much of a spoiler. Just…drunk Aristotle and a tutorial. I’ll leave you with that.
Do you have any advice for anyone who would like to write their own work of (historical) fiction, especially if it’s about Alexander (and Hephaestion)?
First, practice the art of getting it right.
That means do your homework, and not all on the internet. Read books and articles, read more than one or two, and not just biographies on Alexander. It’s vitally important to understand Macedonia. Also, if writing about his conquest of Persia, then one MUST understand Persian culture and the court, as well as other Ancient Near Eastern cultures from Phoenicia and Egypt to Baktria and India. Plus knowing Greek culture would help, too. Ha. It’s not a small undertaking.
Make sure you understand the world you’re writing about, so the characters act and react in ways authentic to their era. Otherwise, it’s just a costume drama with modern characters in ancient dress. While yes, one can’t make them too alien, or modern readers won’t connect/care, ancient Greek attitudes can be surprising not just in predictable ways (misogyny, acceptance of slavery), but unexpected ones, at times.
Do look up details. Not long ago, I read an ATG novel that had the Persian female characters talking about limes (didn’t exist yet, just the citron) and referencing Zoroastrian religious beliefs that developed in the Sassanid era—hundreds of years later. One is bound to make a mistake or three; it’s almost inevitable. But a lot can be avoided by double- and triple-checking. Even a throw-away line can be wrong. In an earlier draft, I had Hephaistion tell Alexander to wash out his mouth with clove water. Whoops. Cloves weren’t known in Greece yet. Had to look up ancient Greek dental hygiene. 😊All for a single line.
Additionally, a mistake is different from making a choice about a controversial matter; so, for instance, I come down on the side that Argead Macedonia was not a constitutional monarchy. That means a potential author needs to realize there is a debate about whether ancient Macedonia was a constitutional monarchy. Back to doing one’s research.
Second, have a story you want to tell.
I think the two biggest problems I’ve seen in novels about Alexander (or any historical figure) are those that do a half-assed research job because “it’s just fiction.” If you don’t want to do your homework, please, write something else where you can make it all up. But the other side of the coin is forgetting one is writing a story in the effort to make it accurate. That confuses historical fiction with creative non-fiction, which is a thing and has a place. But it’s not a novel.
What is the STORY you’re telling? It might be an adventure story (e.g., the point is action), or it might be a character story (e.g., the point is character development), but there needs to be some sort of story-arc. The plot/characters must go somewhere, be different at the end than at the beginning. When somebody asks me, “What’s your novel about?” I say, “It’s about Alexander becoming Alexander-the-Great,” or “It’s a coming-of-age story about a prince who doesn’t know if he’ll live to become king.” That’s a story-arc. Then you build on it.
If it’s a coming-of-age novel, who should be included? Parents, check; siblings, check; teacher, check; first love, check; even nemesis, check. Next, you can select what historical events allow you best to tell that story, which may mean tweaking some, eliminating others, or adding a few. But you don’t begin with events then try to construct a story around them, or it’ll be disjointed. So for instance, in Becoming, I don’t do a lot with the politics following the Third Sacred War and Philip’s Scythian/northern Thracian campaign because the story isn’t about Philip, it’s about Alexander, and he’s off at Mieza. If he would certainly have been aware of these things, it would have been peripheral. It’s only in Rise that I start to insert more about wider-world politics, because by then, it matters to his story.
An author has to keep her eyes on the ball, not go down random rabbit holes, no matter how interesting!
And on that note, I would like to thank Jeanne for her time. It has been a pleasure having her here. Go buy the book! And if you do, feel free to let me know what you think of it, either in the comments below or via e-mail – thesecondachilles @ gmail.com
all images used in this blog post belong to Jeanne Reames and are used with her permission
Today, on the 2,375th anniversary of Alexander’s birth, I am delighted to welcome Jeanne Reames to The Second Achilles for the first of a two part ‘interview’ to discuss her part one of her new novel Dancing With The Lion: Becoming, in which she tells the story of how Alexander became the Great.
To celebrate Dancing With The Lion: Becoming hitting the bookshelves, I caught up with Jeanne in the most twenty-first way possible, via e-mail, to discuss the novel and its characters.
What was your inspiration for writing Dancing with the Lion?
When I was in grad school for the first time at Emory, this guy, “Alexander the Great,” kept popping up in my Early Church history classes, yet I knew nothing about him. Deciding I might learn something, I trekked off to the library and grabbed two biographies off the shelf, somewhat at random. They happened to be Peter Green’s Alexander of Macedon (the original 1974 Thames-on-Hudson edition with images), and N.G.L. Hammond’s 1980 Alexander the Great: King, Commander, and Statesman (his more measured bio). I couldn’t have picked more divergent visions of Alexander if I’d tried.
So I became fascinated by this young man who literally changed the face of his world, then died before 33, leaving behind such varying analyses from heroically positive to viciously negative. The novelist in me took note, as we love a complicated character. I kept reading, and fell in love with Macedonia itself, as well.
What was it like writing about Alexander himself? Did he come with a lot of baggage – given to you by other authors and historians – or does he travel lightly, so’s to speak?
Oh, he comes with a freight-load of baggage, which is why I chose to use his real (Greek) name—Alexandros—to cut off some of it. In addition, I wanted to write him from a Macedonian perspective, as best I could. He’s too often viewed through a Greek (and later Roman) lens.
Much of that owes to our surviving sources, none of which were written during his own lifetime; Diodorus (arguably the earliest we still have) dates to the first century BCE. That would be like trying to write on John F. Kennedy with nothing more recent than bios 200 years in the future. Lord knows what they’d actually understand about the 1960s.
Fortunately, modern archaeology is producing amazing new insights, especially about early Iron-age, Archaic, and Classical Macedonia, rewriting our understanding of the Argead Macedonian kingdom. Never mind the royal cemetery at Aigai, what’s coming out of Aiani (ancient Elimeia), Archontiko (Pella), and Methone is stunning. But unfortunately, most of these reports are in modern Greek. I’ve tried to include at least references to our new discoveries in the novel, although the bulk of the text was written well before 2000. Again, all this contributes to my goal to show a non-Athenocentric, Macedonian Alexander.
Did Alexander surprise you by his actions in the course of writing this book or did you feel you always had him under control?
If your characters are real, they always have a life of their own. Non-writers can be baffled when novelists talk about characters as if they were real people with whom the author has regular conversations. But if the author can’t do that, her characters aren’t 3D.
That said, Alexander was a bit harder to write my way into than Hephaistion. Hephaistion winked into existence when I (re-)read Peter Green’s bio and hit the line that describes him as, “Tall, handsome, spoilt, spiteful, overbearing, and fundamentally stupid” (p. 465, U. Cal ed., 1991 reprint). And in my head, this little Hephaistion sat up and said, “No, I wasn’t like that at all.” That gave me both a character and a dissertation, so I thank Peter for it.*
I’m sure some of my reaction was a gelling of what I’d read, leading me to a different opinion about Hephaistion. Yet from that moment, Hephaistion’s book character has been firmly formed and hasn’t changed much. Also, I’d like to note that I do see a distinction between my character and the historical person. If the former is certainly based on my research into the latter, I’m not confused about where the lines are.
The character who morphed the most during the writing was Myrtalē-Olympias. When I began, I had a fairly traditional, negative view. Then I read Beth Carney’s work, which fundamentally altered how I understood her and her motives, creating (I hope) a more nuanced character.
The historical Hephaestion did not live to write his memoirs and appears only episodically in the works of the Alexander historians. This makes him a rather elusive personality. Was that a blessing or curse for you in writing about him?
I consider it a blessing, as it left me a lot of freedom. Yet I’ve spent so much time with this fellow, I do feel as if I have some sense of what the historical person must have been like.
With Hephaistion, we must avoid too simplistic a reading. It can be easy to slam him into certain pre-made categories. The first is a yes-man without genuine ambition or much of a mind of his own, just beauty and a steadfast loyalty to Alexander. A second is more sinister: an ambitious man of limited ability, using Alexander’s affection for him to climb the socio-political ladder at the Macedonian court, and targeting his enemies along the way. He may (or may not) have felt genuine affection for Alexander.
To me, the evidence from the ancient sources doesn’t support either of those. First, he actually was capable (both Sabine Müller and I have written academic material about this). Second, all his clashes are late in his career, once he’d risen to very high rank, and in at least the case of Krateros, he may have been the target rather than the targeted. Earlier, he had no obvious enemies (aside from, perhaps, Olympias). In the novel, in fact, I’ve made him a bit more testy than I think he actually was. If Curtius (who was no fan of Alexander) paints a mostly positive picture of Hephaistion, perhaps we should pay attention.
He appears to have been deeply—and genuinely—attached to Alexander, and Curtius observed that he was diplomatic enough to avoid pushing his place. Yet he may also not have cared for personal advancement to the same degree as his fellows. That said, we must be careful not to make him passive; the evidence suggests that if insulted, he’d strike back. Remember, a virtuous Greek didn’t turn the other cheek; one was expected to help friends and hurt enemies, not ignore them, an important difference between now and then. In fact, showing clemency could be a backhanded insult, one Julius Caesar later used to great political effect. One could show clemency only to one’s social inferiors, after all.
I’ve come to think of Hephaistion as a “gamma male”; in pop culture, there’s little agreement as to what these men are like, but originally the term was coined to define those who disengage from the whole alpha-beta dynamic. They neither attempt to lead (although may be capable of doing so), nor do they willingly follow, unless they agree on the direction. While it might seem that alpha and gamma males should naturally clash, gamma males may also be the only true friend a strong alpha can have (and trust).
I find three aspects of Hephaistion’s personality mostly consistent according to our sources: he was honest with Alexander but diplomatic about his status in public, he seems to have agreed with Alexander’s policies in general and supported them, and last—and most importantly—Alexander wasn’t the least threatened by him. Add to that a friendship that quite probably spanned two decades and it suggests he was more complex than some would allow.
In writing Hephaestion did you ever find yourself in dialogue with previous interpretations of him? For example, in authors such as Mary Renault and film makers like Oliver Stone?
Very little, actually. First, this novel is now 30 years from its inception, and Hephaistion was among the earliest solid characters I had. I wrote the first line in December of 1988. I hadn’t even read Renault yet, and all of that was long before Stone came on the scene. Not to mention Stone’s Hephaistion is really Renault’s Hephaistion.
So while some of my characters owe to the influence of others (say, Beth Carney’s impact on my view of Olympias), Hephaistion is solely mine, unless you count Curtius and the other original sources.
*(Important note: scholars can like each other very much while still disagreeing on evaluations of the evidence, and Peter gave me one of the best edit jobs I’ve ever had for “The Mourning of Alexander the Great” [Ed’s Note: Which you can read here] which I also think is probably the best article I’ve published to date. So be aware that our scholarly disagreements in no way reflect our personal opinions about our colleagues. Also, we may disagree vehemently with one point, but agree substantially on others.)
Check back tomorrow for Part Two of the interview in which, among other things, we discuss Alexander’s mother, Olympias and his sister, Cleopatra and I get some advice on how to write (historical) fiction.
For more information about Dancing With The Lion, visit Jeanne Reames’s website here.
All the images used in this blog post belong to Jeanne Reames and are used with her permission
An article on the Ekathimerini website looks to the past in order to make sense of the present. If you would like to know about Alexander, fake news, and the end of ancient Athenian democracy then click here.
I have no comment to make about the current situation vis-a-vis North Macedonia, Greece, Russia et al but I will say that I did not like the description of Philip II as a ‘a Trump-level warlord’. Donald Trump is not a warlord, and you can be sure that if he was, he would not be one of the same level as Philip.
Philip II was as skilled a diplomat as he was a general. He deserves better than to be compared to Trump.
Also, I am still trying to work out how the writer can blame Alexander for an example of fake news that happened after he died and as a result of the actions of another person. Stratocles used Alexander to achieve his aim.
So Alexander is an eerie symbol in the name conflict. Hopefully, the Macedonian kings’ disdain for democracy will not prevail in the region.
As above, it’s Stratocles’ name that should appear here but it has to be said, Alexander did engage in fakery when it suited his interests – think of how he forged one of Darius’ letters to him.
Alexander and Hephaestion make a list of National Geographic‘s Top 10, Red-Hot (no less), Power Couples here. Our lack of knowledge regarding what we know of their relationship means that you can take Alexander’s and Hephaestion’s inclusion in this list as seriously or not according to your preference. That aside, the caption provided with the image of the two contains a couple of interesting statements:
- ‘Many historians believe the two were lovers but ended the amorous side of their relationship when it was time to marry and start a family.’ I have never read a historian who believed that this was the case. If it is true, though, why did no one tell Bagoas?
- Hephaestion and Alexander ‘were said to look so much alike, that some couldn’t tell them apart.’ Some needed to open their eyes – just like Sisygambis did when she mistook Hephaestion for Alexander because he was the taller of the two and better looking.
Read a very short history of the Vergina Star at Neos Kosmos here.
Who is to blame for the conflict between North Macedonia (formerly the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) and Greece? Philip II and Alexander III, apparently:
The ultimate source of the problem – or at least the justification for the problem from the Greek perspective – has to be laid at the feet of Philip II of Macedon and, even more squarely, at those of his son Alexander the Great. If father and son hadn’t literally put Macedon on the map, modern day Greeks wouldn’t have been able to claim copyright over the place name. (my emphasis)
If I read this correctly, the writer is saying that Macedon did not exist before Philip and Alexander’s time, that they created it. Well, he said with a sigh, it’s an argument. At first glance, it also looks like a lunatic assertion but let’s not assume that the writer has lost his senses. What is he really saying? For me, the rest of the article does not shed any further light on the matter so it’ll have to remain an open question for now. If you would like to read the full article (at the History News Network website) you can do so here.
Greek Reporter‘s list of the Top 10 archaeological finds in Greece over the last decade puts the Amphipolis tomb at Number One. You can read the complete list here. One quibble: Alexander died in Babylon, not Baghdad; the two are separate places.
Hello to anyone visiting this blog from my Alexander Facebook page. If you have any comments regarding the North Macedonia links, please leave them here, not on Fb. Because the Greece-North Macedonia dispute can inflame tempers and lead to unpleasant ‘discussions’, I delete any comments relating to it there.
One battle after another, one Greek or Trojan after another being killed in the most gruesome way. Homer does not spare you in his descriptions but – and this is surely his genius as a poet – he never descends into any kind of slaughter-porn; the deaths are treated with an amazing, and very mature, matter-of-factness.
As a result, the story never gets too much to bear. With that said, I can only listen to it for an hour or two every day before I need to take a break.
A few days ago, perhaps last week, I read an author who suggested that Perdiccas might have been a few years older than Alexander. This got me thinking about how Alexander sent Perdiccas with Hephaestion into Gandhara. It was 327 BC, and their
… instructions were to take by force or negotiate the surrender of all the towns on their route, and, once arrived at the Indus [River], to make all necessary preparations for the crossing of the river.
Why did Alexander send two of his three most senior officers* away together? My Oxford World’s Classics edition of Arrian says that ‘Alexander needed a macho officer to balance the less bellicose Hephaestion’.
This seems to me to be a rather extraordinary statement. It can only come from the view that Hephaestion was not first-and-foremost a military man. Therefore, he must have been a bit soft.
However, the Hephaestion who, it is true, is most often seen carrying out non-military operations is also the Hephaestion fought with such vigour at the Battle of Gaugamela that he was wounded (Ar. III.15.2). And is also the same Hephaestion who took a ruthless and leading role in the downfall of Philotas (see C.VI.11.10 ff). And, yes, he is the same Hephaestion who was not afraid to square off against Craterus (Plutarch Life of Alexander 47) and even face down Olympias herself despite her ‘sharp criticisms and threats against him’ (Diodorus XVII.114).
So much for Hephaestion not being a ‘bellicose’ man. But if we rule the Oxford World’s Classics’s explanation out, why did Perdiccas travel with him? Well, I’m not going to pretend I know; I don’t, but a thought that came to me is that perhaps, if Perdiccas was appreciably older than Alexander (with whom Hephaestion was coeval), just perhaps, he was not there to cover the military side of the mission while Hephaestion handled the non-military but was assigned to Hephaestion to act as a mentor – to help him grow as a military commander rather than replace him as one. It’s just a thought.
* The third being Craterus
I am on Twitter – @secondachilles if you would like to follow me – and yesterday I had a conversation with someone that led me to this passage,
… Alexander never used to greet the news that Philip had captured an important city or won a famous victory with particular delight; instead, he used to say to his friends, ‘Lads, my father’s going to pre-empt me in everything. By the time he’s finished, there’ll be nothing important left for me to present to the world, no splendid victories to be won with your help.’
(Plutarch Life 5)
Isn’t it amazing that Alexander worried about this? In his youth, he must have either had a very limited conception of the size of the world or else regarded most of it as being simply beyond reach. More likely, though, he never said any such thing and that the anecdote is based not on a specific conversation but on Alexander’s attitude and his tendency to be jealous of other people’s achievements – see how he called the Battle of Megalopolis in 331 BC ‘a battle of mice’ (Plutarch Life of Agesilaus 15) and his fatal quarrel with Black Cleitus (Curtius VIII.1.22-52).
The Iliad cover – The Telegraph
I hate realising after the event that something doesn’t work. Case in point, the title of last Wednesday’s post, The War That Couldn’t Be Won On The Hydaspes. The title is much too long. I should have deleted the last three words.
Well, no use crying over spilt milk; let’s look at what I have been doing in Alexanderland since then.
As it happens, I have managed to read a little more of both Alexander the Great’s Art of Strategy and The Marshals of Alexander’s Empire.
Partha Bose continues to create his own history. On p.142, he refers to Xenophon who ‘defeated the King of Persia’. But the reason why the 10,000 had to make their heroic journey back towards Greece is precisely because they lost the war against the Great King. Their paymaster, Cyrus the Younger, who was trying to overthrow Artaxerxes II, was killed in battle against him and so the Greeks had no choice but to flee.
In a section titled ‘Connective Style’, Bose refers to the fact that Alexander gave his generals the space to carry out their orders. He never,
… intervened or second-guessed the generals once battle had commenced. They came to each other’s aid, but they had gone over the battle plans and strategies so many times that implementing them would come naturally to them.
This is a really good point. Alexander was blessed to have some extremely talented men serving under him. Of course, there were failures along the way (see the breakdown in command that lead to the deaths of Andromachus, Caranus, Menedemus, and Pharnuches et al – Arrian IV.5.3-6.2) but they are very much the exceptions that prove the rule. Philip II said that in all his life he had found only one general – Parmenion. He was exaggerating, of course, but had he lived longer, he would have found many more in men like Perdiccas, Craterus, Coenus, Lysimachus and Nearchus.
In the next section, ‘Getting Himself Over’ Bose talks about Alexander’s ability to connect with his troops.
Alexander had that admirable quality of being able to ‘get himself over’ to his troops, what British field marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein referred to as a pivotal skill in military leadership.
Alexander was not only good at this but a genius. How did he do it? Undoubtedly he would have learnt how to inspire his men but for the most part he was surely using his natural magnetism and charisma. I don’t think you can learn your way to inspiring your men to do the impossible. For some modern examples of intensely charismatic men, see Barack Obama, Tony Blair and – perhaps most of all of recent American Presidents? – Ronald Reagan. I would be willing to bet that they learnt to fine hone their powers of persuasion but that none of them started off being dull.
Apropos of nothing, I like the phrase ‘getting himself over’. I have heard it once before – in the context of American (WWE) wrestling. There, a wrestler behaves in a particular way to get over – become accepted – as either a goodie (babyface) or baddie (heel). It has been a while since I watched the WWE so feel free to correct me on this but if I am right, Alexander was behaving in basically the same fashion. The stakes were rather higher for him, though, so he didn’t want to get over simply as a goodie but as a figure of authority and power and munificence. If he could do it, he knew his men would follow him to the ends of the earth, which is nearly what happened.
In Waldemar Heckel’s The Marshals of Alexander’s Empire, I have moved on to The New Man and have now read about Koinos (Coenus) and Hephaistion. The New Men were the generals of Alexander’s generation and Hephaestion was, of course, pre-eminent among them.
As I found out when I bought Who’s Who in the Age of Alexander the Great, Heckel does not have much time for the son of Amyntor. He regards him as a man of limited military ability and ‘an unpleasant, jealous individual’ (p.83).
Limited Military Ability?
Heckel states that,
What we learn of Hephaistion’s later career as a cavalry-officer confirms our suspicions that his promotion to hipparch was owed to his friendship with Alexander rather than to military genius.
and in his dispute with Craterus, the latter ‘was equally ambitious but more capable’ (p.83).
On the one hand, I am sure that Hephaestion’s friendship with Alexander did him no harm whatsoever. And maybe it did help him to rise through the ranks. However, I am also sure that Craterus also benefitted from the loyalty he had to Alexander the king as well.
On the other, what does it mean that Craterus was the more capable man? There are no recorded incidents in the sources of Hephaestion failing Alexander in any commission that he was given. Whether it was to build a bridge or a city, choose a king or transfer equipment or food, he got the job done. But perhaps Heckel is talking about on the battlefield. Granted, Hephaestion could not be considered to be in the first division of generals, but neither could Craterus be considered to be in the first division of logistical experts. In their respective spheres of influence, both Hephaestion and Craterus were extremely capable. I might add that when they entered into each other’s sphere – when Hephaestion fought in a set piece battle or when Craterus was asked to forage – neither failed in their orders.
An ‘unpleasant, jealous individual’?
Heckel reaches this conclusion in the context of the Philotas Affair. The affair in which Craterus took a leading part as well, by the way. For it wasn’t only Hephaestion who called for Philotas to be tortured (Curtius VI.11.10). He also blames Hephaestion for his dispute with Eumenes (p.85) citing Plutarch’s Life of Eumenes 2. Plutarch, though, does not tell us who started that dispute. For all we know, Eumenes started it and Hephaestion, knowing full well that he could not afford to let the Carian be seen to put one over him, retaliated so that matters went downhill to the discredit of both from there.
I agree with Heckel that Hephaestion had a dark side but so did Craterus, so did Eumenes and, I would wager, so did every other Macedonian general. We all have failings. Hephaestion was just unlucky to have his remembered and recorded because he was so close to the king.
I have been watching more of Shiralyn Mayon’s videos from my Alexander Facebook page. The first is this one on the Battle of Issus,
This video is fairly straight forward and not particularly spectacular. Unfortunately, the graphical quality isn’t great but it does have an actor playing Alexander whose lips reminded me very much of the British Museum Alexander bust. Also, Peter Green – author of Alexander of Macedon 356 – 323 B.C. A Historical Biography – appears in it, and he has a lovely accent.
The second video that I have been able to watch is this one,
If you have time for only one of the above, I would say watch Macedonian Battle Tactics. The visual quality is better and it gives a good overview of what made Alexander’s army so successful. It also includes a reference to the Hammer and Anvil strategy, which I found very useful.
Google Alerts was quiet this week so rather than do nothing with my Facebook Alexander page (something I do too often) I decided to post three pictures from Pinterest. They appeared on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and judging by the number of ‘Likes’ that they received, they were all quite popular. Here are the ‘final’ scores (i.e. the scores as of 11:43am today when I am writing these words):
Monday Alexander and Hephaestion by Louis Gauffier – 65 Likes
Wednesday Alexander Threatened by his Father Donato Creti – 99 Likes
Friday Olympias, Queen of the Macedonians (Anon) – 35 Likes
The ‘final’ tally surprises me a little in that Alexander Threatened by his Father proved to be more popular than Alexander and Hephaestion. Hephaestion is a very popular figure with fans of Alexander so to see what is also a very touching scene between him and Alexander outstripped by the rather more violent and disturbing confrontation between Alexander and Philip II is unexpected. If you have a preference between the two why not leave a comment below to say why.
When I posted the pictures on Facebook, I did so without any text to explain them or the scenes that they are depicting. Rather than let them be, I shall do that now.
Alexander and Hephaestion by Louis Gauffier
This painting draws its inspiration from Chapter 39 of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander. In it Plutarch describes how Alexander’s mother, Olympias, often wrote to her son telling him to not reward his ‘friends and bodyguards’ so well as it made them ‘the equals of kings’.
Alexander kept [Olympias’] letters to himself, with one exception, Hephaestion was in the habit of reading the king’s letters with him, and on this occasion his eyes fell on a letter which had been opened. The king did not prevent him from reading it, but took the ring from his own finger and pressed the seal to his lips, so much as to tell him to keep silence.
What we see in Plutarch and Gauffier’s painting is an intensely personal and political moment. It is personal for the obvious reason that Hephaestion is reading a letter written by Alexander’s mother and is political because of Olympias’ role as Queen Mother. It is intense because if Hephaestion had had a mind to he could easily have used the knowledge gained from reading Alexander’s letters against the king. Alexander would have known this. The fact that he still let Hephaestion read the letters, therefore, is indicative of the trust he had in him. Having said that, Alexander still makes Hephaestion kiss his ring. There was no need for him to do this but as close a friend as Hephaestion was, Alexander was still his king as well as friend, and it seems never forgot this.
We stay with Plutarch for Alexander Threatened by his Father by Donato Creti. In 337 BC, Philip married his seventh and last wife, Cleopatra. At the post-wedding party…
Cleopatra’s uncle Attalus, who had drunk too much at the banquet, called upon the Macedonians to pray to the gods that the union of Philip and Cleopatra might bring forth a legitimate heir to the throne. Alexander flew into a rage at these words, shouted at him, ‘Villain, do you take me for a bastard, then?’ and hurled a drinking cup at his head. At this Philip lurched to his feet, and drew his sword against his son, but unfortunately for them both he was so overcome with drink and with rage that he tripped and fell headlong. Alexander jeered at him and cried out, ‘Here is the man who was making ready to cross from Europe to Asia, and who cannot even cross from one couch to another without losing his balance.’
This incident takes place in Chapter 9. As for the painting, I really like Alexander’s red cloak. No doubt it represents the danger of the moment. But for Philip falling over, it might have represented blood shed as well. Speaking of blood shed, I wonder if that is Attalus lying on the floor in the foreground of the painting. If it is, his red cloak could represent the injury he sustained from Alexander’s cup striking him. In regards the event that the painting portrays, it was probably the most dangerous moment of Alexander’s youth. It tells us a lot about Alexander’s pride and fear and how quickly Macedonian parties could turn nasty.
Of course, this carved image of Olympias does not depict any scene from her known life. I am do not know much about sculptural conventions so I will quote the following from the Galerie Sismann website from where I took the picture,
This portrait of this woman outstands for its strong graphic character, the sophistication of the tinae and the ribbons in her hair, and the sensuality of the naked breasts.
To read the full text, click here. I have long thought that Olympias is a woman in need of rehabilitation as the image that the sources present of her is of a wholly ruthless, vindictive and wicked person. Well, she was certainly a fighter. In order to survive, she had to be. Evil, though? In his time, Alexander behaved worse than she ever did yet we still hold him in high regard. Why? Why not her? That’s a question for another day; going back to this sculpture, I appreciate it because in the dignity, sensuality and regal bearing that it gives Olympias, it cuts her a break far more than the sources (especially Plutarch who, in Chapter 9 of his Life of Alexander blames her for inciting her son against his father and therefore causing indirectly the near-fatal confrontation at the wedding party) ever do. Going back to the point about sensuality, I do like the way that Olympias’ left breast breaks through the frame barrier. It gives the image an extra dynamism.
This post is me unpacking my thoughts regarding the Pella Lion Hunt mosaic. Please forgive its length and, probably obvious, conclusion. The identity of the people in the mosaic is not something I had seriously considered before so was starting first base here
I have just started reading By the Spear, Ian Worthington’s account of the lives and deeds of Philip II and his son Alexander.
At the start of the book, Worthington talks about how Macedonian boys were taught to hunt from an early age. It was a way of teaching them how to fight against men when they grew up.
Hunting, however, was more than just a utilitarian exercise.
… it allowed time for the king and his nobles to interact socially, which affected their relations politically. These hunts were clearly dangerous, as a mosaic depicting a lion hunt from Pella attests.
The mosaic that Worthington is referring to here is, of course, the one you can see at the top of this post. He goes on,
Although the figures on the mosaic have been disputed, most likely we have Alexander to the animal’s left, trapped by its paw, and Craterus (who became one of Alexander’s generals) to its right, coming to his rescue… Both are wearing next to no protective clothing and are armed only with short swords – they thus had to get up close and personal with their deadly prey and rely on split-second instincts.
When I read the above passage, I was very taken by Worthington’s statement that Alexander was trapped by the lion. I had never noticed that detail before. And certainly, if you look at his expression, he does seem very alarmed. So, thank you to Ian Worthington for showing me something new in an image I thought had nothing new to say.
It was very unwise of me to think that the Pella Lion Hunt Mosaic had nothing new to say when it is such a mysterious image. Worthington identifies the man on the left with Alexander, and the man on the right with Craterus. The mosaic, however, makes no such identification on either account.
The man on the left wears a kausia (‘wide-brimmed felt hat’ as Worthington calls it) but while this was worn by Macedonian kings, it was not worn exclusively by them. In fact, up until Alexander became influenced by Persian customs and dress, his royal predecessors seem to have gone out of their way to be as much like their men as possible, including in what they wore.
Perhaps there is something in the cloak, spear or scabbard that the man on the left is holding that suggests Alexander, but if there is, I’m afraid I can’t see it. The same applies to the man on the right in respect of Craterus.
The Lion Hunt Mosaic was found in a Pella residence known as The House of Dionysos, named after another mosaic found there (see below). The house was a big one. It obviously belonged to an extremely wealthy individual. This video shows what kind of a place it was.
If you watch the video, you’ll see that it places the Lion Hunt Mosaic in the very centre of the building. Whoever lived here, the mosaic meant a lot to them, and they would have wanted as many people as possible to see the work.
So who did live in this residence? Well, I’m afraid I don’t know. But whether it was a royal property or belonged to a nobleman, here are some thoughts I have regarding the Lion Hunt Mosaic.
Firstly, whoever the two figures are, I think that the one on the right stands for the owner of the house, or at least the one who paid for the mosaic and probably had a residence there. He is the one coming to the rescue of the other man, after all; it would make sense for him to place himself in the starring role, so’s to speak.
Secondly, I have seen the creation of the mosaic dated to between 325-300 B.C. If the two men are not Alexander and whoever but are simply two hunters, whether real of fictional, then there is nothing more to say about it; it simply records a hunting trip of some description and was made in the late fourth century B.C.
If, however, the man on the left is Alexander then the identity of the man on the right becomes very intriguing.
Imagine walking into the House of Dionysos. Come, the owner says, Come and look at my new mosaic. You walk into the central room and there you see that he has had a mosaic installed in which ‘he’ is rescuing King Alexander. It is between 325 and 300 B.C. You know about the king’s amazing exploits in the east. If this man had no connection to Alexander then this mosaic would surely come across as a bit presumptuous. Actually, the mere fact that the man placed himself in a mosaic with Alexander would be laughable. And the fact that he showed himself rescuing the king would be ridiculous.
So, if the man on the left is Alexander, I think the man who paid for the mosaic knew him, and probably fought alongside him; not just as a junior officer much less a rank and file soldier but as a general, and maybe even directly helped the king if not saved his life on one or more occasions. This would have definitely entitled the man to put himself next to Alexander on the mosaic, and even to come to his rescue.
Ian Worthington identifies the man on the right with Craterus. As he says, though, the identification is disputed. I have also seen Hephaestion mentioned as the right hand figure. A couple of other names occur to me – Black Cleitus and Peucestas.
Black Cleitus and Peucestas were both high up in Alexander’s army and both saved his life (Cleitus at the Granicus in 334 and Peucestas at the Mallian town in 325). Cleitus died in 328. There is no reason he could not have ordered the making of the mosaic before then but I would question whether he would have wanted to, given how estranged he had become from Alexander due to the latter’s orientising ways. As for Peucestas, I think his focus was on the future, not the past. He could have ordered the mosaic to be made after 325 but I suspect he was too busy getting used to his Persian trousers.
In truth, there are probably any number of people who could have ordered the mosaic but let’s go back to Craterus and Hephaestion. Hephaestion was Alexander’s best friend and fought alongside him. He was a nobleman, to boot. He surely had the money and motive to have the mosaic made. But did he have the ego to show himself saving Alexander’s life? We know from Diodorus (XVIII.114) that Hephaestion was perfectly comfortable in his friendship with Alexander. I don’t think he would have felt the need to show how important he was to the king, even to the point of saving his life.
Craterus, however, is another matter. He loved Alexander more than any other man. But, as Alexander himself pointed out (D. XVIII.114; Plutarch Life of Alexander 46), Craterus loved Alexander the king whereas Hephaestion loved Alexander the man. This could only have angered and distressed Craterus as he would have known that to love the man rather than the office placed Hephaestion closer to Alexander’s heart than himself – a very painful position for a lover of any kind to be in. No wonder he and Hephaestion feuded. Therefore, I think Craterus commissioned the mosaic not just to show how close he was to Alexander but as a slight against Hephaestion and act of self-affirmation: I was important to Alexander, I WAS (and more than him, too)*.
Another reason I am going with Craterus as the man on the right is that according to Robin Waterfield in Dividing the Spoils,
Craterus marked the end of the Lamian War with a large monument at Delphi, sculpted by the best artists of the day, that showed him saving Alexander’s life during a hunt…
He did it at Delphi, I think he did it at Pella, too. It would not surprise me to learn one day that the building we call the House of Dionysos was Craterus’ family residence.
* On this point, Hephaestion may have been comfortable in his friendship with Alexander but he could be a very proud man, and there is space within this to see him ordering the mosaic’s creation for similar reasons to Craterus. When I think about that, though, I go back to his letter to Olympias and it seems to me that however proud he was, he was not self-doubting
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