Posts Tagged With: Medius

The Flawed Brilliance of Alexander

Justin’s Alexander
Book XII Chapters 11-16
Part Six
Other posts in this series

For this post I am using this translation of Justin’s Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus

Chapter Eleven
During Alexander’s expedition, his men, when not fighting, had somehow managed to get themselves deep in debt. Following the Susa weddings, Alexander paid that debt off in its entirety. It cost him twenty thousand talents to do so. One can only wonder how the men had managed to spend that much. Either way,

[Alexander’s] munificence was highly prized, not only for the sum given, but for the character of the gift, and was received not more thankfully by the debtors than by the creditors, exaction being as troublesome to the one as payment to the other.

Once the debts had been paid, Alexander proceeded to discharge his older veterans. Despite the kindness that their king had just showed them, the remaining men complained (during an assembly) that the discharge should be on the basis of service not age.

Justin describes the men as speaking to Alexander not only with ‘entreaties’ but also with ‘reproach’. Rather sulkily, they bid him to ‘“carry on his wars alone, with the aid of his father Ammon, since he looked with disdain on his soldiers.”’

In reply, Alexander oscillated between berating his men and speaking to them ‘in gentler terms’. When neither approach worked, he leapt down from his dais and personally arrested the ringleaders.

Chapter Twelve
His next action was to commend his Persian soldiers for their loyalty and enrol a thousand of them into his bodyguard as well as a number of auxiliaries into the regular army.

This cut the Macedonians to the quick, and they went to Alexander ‘beseeching him with tears “to content himself rather with punishing than ill-treating them.”’ Their pleas worked and Alexander released more veterans.

It is really striking, in this and the previous chapter, how fraught Alexander’s relationship with his men is. One minute they are friends, then enemies, then friends again. It’s as if their relationship has lost its foundations and has become a matter of shifting sands. And why? I think because of the army’s profound tiredness and Alexander’s perennial desire to get his way.

Justin notes that it was around of what we call the Opis Mutiny that Hephaestion died.

Alexander mourned for him longer than became his dignity as a king, built a monument for him that cost twelve thousand talents, and gave orders that he should be worshipped as a god.

Chapter Thirteen
Alexander returned to Babylon ‘from the distant shores of the ocean’. On the way, he was warned by the Magic’“not to enter the city,” for that the “place would be fatal to him.”’. As a result, the king took a diversion to an uninhabited city called Borsippa ‘on the other side of the Euphrates’.

There, however, the philosopher (and professional flatterer) Anaxarchus persuaded him to go to Babylon after all.  Anaxarchus argued that “if things were fixed by fate, they were unknown to mortals, and if they were dependent on the course of nature, were unchangeable.” Que sera, sera.

I am always rather suspicious when I read of about-turns like this. Alexander was not a puppet. He did what he wanted – even in matters of religion* – not what anyone else would have him do. Still, who knows what mental state he was in after Hephaestion’s death; perhaps this did make him more open to influence?

In Babylon, Alexander rested and resumed ‘the entertainments which had been for some time discontinued’ (no doubt as a result of Hephaestion’s death). One night, at a party given by an officer named Medius, the king collapsed in such extreme pain that he asked for someone to kill him.

His friends reported that the cause of his disease was excess in drinking, but in reality it was a conspiracy, the infamy of which the power of his successors threw into the shade.

* For example, when he took part in the attack of Tyre (Arrian 2:27) and crossed the Tanais (aka Jaxartes Arrian 4:4) despite Aristander’s warnings that the omens were against him

Chapter Fourteen
Justin blames Antipater for Alexander’s death. This chapter has a lot to say about Antipater but less about Alexander. I can’t move on, however, without recording what Justin tells us concerning the poison used to kill the king.

The strength of this poison was so great, that it could be contained neither in brass, nor iron, nor shell, nor could be conveyed in any other way than in the hoof of a horse.

Too strong for metal but able to be safely transported in a hoof. Perhaps Justin was tired when he wrote this.

Chapter Fifteen
Justin has been critical of Alexander. But he allow shim to die in a a noble fashion. Meeting his men for the last time, Alexander

… not only did not shed a tear, but showed not the least token of sorrow; so that he even comforted some who grieved immoderately, and gave others messages to their parents

Alexander, Justin says, was as prepared for death as he was for battle. Can any higher praise be given? Once the last soldier had left, the king asked his friends if they would find another like him. When they did not reply,

he said that, “although he did not know that, he knew, and could foretel, and almost saw with his eyes, how much blood Macedonia would shed in the disputes that would follow his death, and with what slaughters, and what quantities of gore, she would perform his obsequies.”

Finally, the royal friends did speak, and they asked Alexander who should succeed him.

He replied, “The most worthy.”

This response meets with Justin’s whole hearted approval. He says that,

Such was [Alexander’s] nobleness of spirit, that though he left a son named Hercules, a brother called Aridaeus, and his wife Roxane with child, yet, forgetting his relations, he named only “the most worthy” as his successor; as though it were unlawful for any but a brave man to succeed a brave man, or for the power of so great an empire to be left to any but approved governors.

Unfortunately, as Justin recognises, this nobleness opened the door for the wars that followed.


Six days after Medius’ party, Alexander gave his ring to Perdiccas. This act at guaranteed that there would at least be a transitional government while the identity of the next king was decided.

Chapter Sixteen
Justin sums up Alexander by paying him a number of compliments.

He was a man endowed with powers of mind far beyond ordinary human capacity.

[Olympias] certainly bore in her womb a conception superior to mortality… by no one’s influence was she rendered more illustrious than that of her son.

[As king, Alexander] inspired his soldiers with such confidence in him, that, when he was present, they feared the arms of no enemy, though they themselves were unarmed.

Justin also mentions the omens of Alexander’s ‘future greatness’ that were seen at his birth and acknowledges his unbeaten record as a general. Finally, he concludes, when Alexander died,

[h]e was overcome at last, not by the prowess of any enemy, but by a conspiracy of those whom he trusted, and the treachery of his own subjects.

Before starting this series of posts, I had a picture of Justin as being uniformly negative towards Alexander. That was the impression I got after reading From Tyrant to Philosopher-King.

However, while Justin does not hesitate to mention Alexander’s major fault – his medising – and his minor ones – his manipulativeness, for example – it is also true to say that he is very complimentary about the Macedonian king. No where is this more seen than in the last two chapters above.

It is possible, of course, that I have misread what Justin wrote, or that the translation I have used is not an accurate one, but assuming that neither is the case, I finish this series with a sense of Justin’s fairness and ability to recognise Alexander’s good whenever he sees it.

As for the mediaeval writers who used Justin to denigrate Alexander; well, I’m not going to criticise them., even though it seems to me (after reading the Epitome) that their reading must have been rather selective. The fact is, we know from other sources that Alexander did medise.

One last point – in case Justin has expressed any further opinion of Alexander in the other books of his Epitome and you are wondering why I haven’t mentioned it/them here, it’s because I have only read Books 11 and 12. If you know of any other statements of Justin, though, feel free to mention them in the comments below.


Categories: Justin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Death of Alexander

Daily Diodorus
Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 116-118 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here

The Headlines
Mystery in Palace as Prisoner Sits on Royal Throne
Alexander Lost in Swamps
King Found: Diadem Worn By Oarsman
* Inside: A round up of all recent omens
King Falls Ill Following Party
Alexander Dies

The Story
Chapter 116
Hephaestion’s funeral was now over. For relief, Alexander ‘turned to amusements and festivals’. To the world it looked like ‘he was at the peak of his power and good fortune’ but Fate had other ideas and immediately that the festivities began ‘heaven… began to foretell [Alexander’s] death’.

Diodorus gives the example of two omens that portended this. The first involved a native who was kept in chains. One day, as Alexander was receiving a massage, those chains suddenly fell off. The native – presumably a prisoner of some sort – ran away from his guards and entered throne room. There, he took Alexander’s clothes and diadem and put them on before sitting down on the throne itself.

Upon being told what had happened, Alexander ‘was terrified’. He went to the native and asked him what he was about. The man made no reply. Alexander turned to his seers and asked them to interpret what had happened.

Diodorus doesn’t give their response but it was clearly negative to Alexander as it made him order the native’s execution in the hope ‘that the trouble which was forecast by his act might light upon the man’s own head’.

Once the native had been taken away, Alexander retrieved his clothing ‘and sacrificed to the gods who avert evil’. This pious act, however, was not enough to remove his worry about what the incident portended.

We have seen once or twice before how Alexander could have his mind changed with absurd ease by those underneath him. Diodorus gives an example of this when he described how the king decided to stay outside Babylon (Chapter 112 here). Curtius gives another when he tells how Bagoas poisoned Alexander’s mind against Orsines (10:1:24-38).

It now happens again. Diodorus says that Alexander ‘recalled the predictions of the Chaldaeans’ and became angry ‘with the philosophers who had persuaded him to enter Babylon’. In consequence, he renewed his respect for the Chaldaeans and argued ‘railed’ at anyone ‘who used specious reasoning to argue away the power of Fate’.

Diodorus’ second omen came when Alexander was exploring the swamps around Babylon. His skiff became separated from the royal party. Upon a moment, it passed underneath some tall reeds, which caught Alexander’s diadem and threw it into the water. One of the oarsmen ‘swam after it’. Upon retrieving the ribbon, the oarsman placed it on his head for safe keeping.

Alexander was lost for three days and nights. Presently, he put his diadem on again. When he did so, the skiff came out of the swamp. What did it all mean? Alexander went straight to his soothsayers to find out.

Chapter 117
The seers told Alexander to ‘sacrifice to the gods on a grand scale’ and quickly. Before he could do so, however, the king was ‘called away by Medius… to take part in a comus’.

At the party, Alexander ‘drank much unmixed wine in commemoration of the death of Heracles’. He filled ‘a huge beaker’ and drank it in one go; suddenly, ‘he shrieked aloud as if smitten by a violent blow’. The king’s Friends came forward and took Alexander back to his quarters.

The royal physicians ‘were summoned’ but they could do nothing to take away the pain. Alexander ‘continued in great discomfort and acute suffering’.

After a while, he realised that he was dying. Alexander removed his ring of office and gave it to his chiliarch – Perdiccas. ‘His Friends asked: “To whom do you leave the kingdom?”‘ Alexander replied, simply, ‘”To the strongest.”‘ He then prophesied ‘that all of his leading Friends would stage a vast contest in honour of his funeral’.

At an unspecified point after speaking these words, Alexander died. He had reigned for ‘twelve years and seven months’ and ‘accomplished greater deeds than any… who had lived before him [or] who were to come later’.

Diodorus concludes the chapter with an acknowledgement that some historians believe that Alexander was poisoned. As this is so, ‘it seems necessary for us to mention their account also’.

Chapter 118
This chapter, therefore, is a coda of sorts to the main story, which is now finished.

Diodorus turns to Antipater. He served as Alexander’s ‘viceroy’ in Macedon while the king was abroad. During this time, he ‘was at variance with… Olympias’. That seems a very polite way of putting it.

To begin with, Antipater didn’t take Olympias seriously because Alexander ignored ‘her complaints against him’. Later, however, ‘as their enmity kept growing’ and Alexander ‘showed an anxiety to gratify [Olympias] in everything out of piety’ Antipater became worried.

When Alexander killed Parmenion and Philotas ‘terror’ entered Antipater’s heart. But not only his, also ‘all of Alexander’s Friends’. Antipater’s son, Iolaus, was Alexander’s wine-pourer. The viceroy gave him a poison to administer to the king.

If Alexander was poisoned, how come nobody wrote about it afterwards? Diodorus doesn’t ask this question out loud but clearly has it in mind. He that, following Alexander’s death, Antipater ‘held… supreme authority in Europe’ and after him, ‘his son Cassander’. Their power, therefore, was why ‘many historians did not dare write about the drug’.

Diodorus has no doubt, however, that Cassander is guilty; he cites the murder of of Olympias and rebuilding of Thebes as proof of his hostility to Alexander.

Finally, Diodorus turns to Sisygambis – whom he calls Sisyngambris. She mourned Alexander’s death deeply. In fact, her grief was so profound that she stopped eating. Five days later, she died ‘painfully but not ingloriously’.

Why did the native run to the throne and take Alexander’s clothing and diadem? In Chapter 66 (which I covered here) we saw how Alexander upset a eunuch when he used one of Darius’ tables as a footstool. In the Footnotes for this incident, we are told ‘that the throne was a symbol of divinity in the Orient, and that a king’s clothing, bed, and throne were affected with royal and divine mana’. Thus, in the Footnotes for Chapter 116, it is said that the man ‘may have regarded [the throne] as a sanctuary, or at least as a place of refuge’. Obviously, he saw the clothes and diadem as having similar protective powers.

By-the-bye the Footnotes also state that it is possible that the native may have simply held the clothes rather than put them on. Either way, the story echoes that of the woman with the haemorrhage who knew that if she could only touch Jesus’ clothing she would be healed (This story features in all three synoptic gospels – Lk 8:40-56, Mk 5:21-43, and Matt 9:18-26).

In regards the story of the diadem, I recall reading elsewhere that by placing it on his head, the man was, according to tradition (?), declaring himself king. Well, of course he wasn’t in reality – he was just trying to stop the ribbon from getting wet – but Alexander’s religious belief did not permit him to believe that interpretation alone. Not without divine confirmation, anyway.

I speak under correction, but I am sure that the man who went after the diadem is elsewhere identified as Seleucus – perhaps as a result of his own later assertion that he rescued it. His reason for doing so? It added legitimacy to his kingship.

In Chapter 116, Diodorus says that Alexander was ‘terrified’ by the implications of the native man’s actions. And that, even after sacrificing, he remained troubled. After escaping the swamp, the king returned to his seers for their interpretation of the diadem incident. We are clearly dealing with a very religiously motivated man, here. And yet, no sooner has Alexander been told what to do by the seers, he allows himself to be distracted by Medius. Is that really likely? Did Alexander’s religious beliefs weigh no more than an invitation to join a drinking party?

I would certainly like to believe that Alexander’s last words – including his answer to the question of to whom he left his empire – were really spoken by him. I question his response ‘to the strongest’, though, as in the circumstances it just seems a little too Homeric an answer – if that is possible – for him. I know that the Macedonians did not practice primogeniture but why would he not say ‘to my son’?

As for his prophecy, isn’t it too eerily accurate to be true? Perhaps Alexander was just thinking of the funeral games – as normally understood – that he knew would be held for him.

All this is moot, however, if he was unable to speak as Arrian states. But Alexander could have spoken before he lost his voice. Or, perhaps, afterwards if only in whispering rasps?

I don’t think I can say anything here that does justice to the question of whether or not Alexander was poisoned but here are my thoughts, anyway.

In case you are wondering how Antipater – in Macedon – was able to give Iolaus – in Babylon – the poison: As I understand it, Cassander travelled from Macedon to Babylon around this time. In this scenario, he just took the poison with him.

It is very interesting that Diodorus says that all of Alexander’s Friends were terrified by the demise of Parmenion and Philotas. This is not the impression I get from Curtius who has Craterus speaking out very harshly against Philotas. Neither does Curtius have Craterus being in a party of one – others supported him in his hostility. Were they speaking out of fright? Far more likely that it was out of the knowledge that they were doing away with a rival.

Having said that, I am sure some were worried by what had happened; I think, though, that Diodorus is simply exaggerating.

I would like to test Diodorus’ explanation of why historians did not write about Antipater and Cassander being responsible for Alexander’s death. For example, I can understand why Cleitarchus might suppress the information. He lived in Alexandria and Ptolemy, Egypt’s ruler, was Cassander’s ally during the Successor Wars.

I think Olympias is the source of the allegation that the Antipatrids killed her son? If so (or even if not) I wonder who was the first person to write it down after her.

I accept that Cassander was anti-Argead, but I wonder if we could equally say that his murder of Olympias and rebuilding of Thebes were less to do with his hatred of Alexander and more about carving out a place for an Antipatrid dynasty in the new world that Alexander’s death had created.

Finally, one would have to be a very heartless man not to be affected by Sisygambis’ end. She had every reason to hate Alexander but came to love him more dearly than life itself.

The king died. Clouds [were in the sky]image


  • The above photograph of the Babylon Astronomical Diary that refers to Alexander’s death comes from the British Museum
  • The translation of the text is from Livius
Categories: Diodorus Siculus | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: