I started writing this blog, I think, in 2011. Back then, I was still getting to know the main sources for Alexander the Great’s life: Arrian, Curtius, Diodorus, Justin, and Plutarch. I don’t know what the percentage is, but in my memory, I feel that a lot of the posts I wrote then were connected to my reading of them. That was great as the writing allowed me to soak up what I had read better than if I had just read and then put the book away.
However, there came a moment when I realised that I had now read the sources once or maybe twice in a row, all the time writing about them as I did so, and, as a result, it was now time to move on, to find other things to write about Alexander. But what? I never could quite figure it out.
Ever since I ‘discovered’ the great conqueror, I had been happy for my reading and writing to be at the level of a ‘private passion’. Looking back at the last four or five years, though, as the blog slowly ground to a halt because I didn’t know what to say, I wish that I had, after all, signed up to a course to study him in a more formal setting. That would surely have given me ideas. Well, there’s no use crying over spilt milk. I never did sign up to anything, and that’s that.
As a result of my indecision, the blog finally came to a proper halt last August. Perhaps I should have deleted it. Not that I knew last summer that it would be six months before I wrote another post. The problem, though, is that I remain passionate about Alexander. I know this because, even though my blogging, and, I must admit, my reading, had pretty much stopped, I remained very happy – in real life – to talk people’s socks off about him given half the chance.
I always felt a bit guilty, though, because I knew I was using old knowledge. I wasn’t keeping myself fresh through (re)reading books or watching videos on YouTube, listening to podcasts, etc.
That aside, passion is why I am writing this post now.
Passion is a funny thing. I wrote my last post in August ’22 but for most of the time since – even though I haven’t known what to write – I’ve wanted to write. I’ve thought of ideas but none have stuck long enough for me to set them down on the screen, and then press publish.
What has changed? ‘Passion’ aside, why am I writing this post now? Well, it isn’t because I have had a revelation and now am full of ideas. I think it really is just that passion driving me to write something/anything. Maybe it will lead to renewed posting, maybe not. We’ll see.
I say I’m not full of ideas. I did have one. I am writing this post on 19th March 2023. It is Mothering Sunday today in the UK. A very happy Mothers’ Day to you if you are a mother of any description. I heard Mass at my local parish church this morning, and while there, I got distracted – it usually happens – and it occurred to me that I could write something about Olympias, Alexander’s mother.
Ideally, I would have liked to have researched her a little first, but because the desire to write and, I guess, explain my blog absence, was stronger, here I am now. So, I will just say this: Olympias was a very driven person. She was probably not a tremendously likeable one. She undoubtedly (in my mind), though, gets a very bad rap from the sources. Maybe she was as vile as they make out, but I suspect they just didn’t like a strong woman who knew what needed to be done and got on with it, even if to the nth degree. Even today, we as a society still aren’t overly keen on women who speak up, who are strong: and we live in a supposedly more accepting world. No wonder Olympias gets both barrels from the far more mysoginistic world in which she lived, and which came after in the form of the Roman empire.
That aside, Olympias may still have been a nasty piece of work, but one anecdote about her speaks very loudly to me in this regard. It comes from Plutarch’s Life of Alexander (Chapter 3). There, he talks about how, according to an author named Eratosthenes, when Alexander set out,
… on his eastern campaign, Olympias accompanied him during the procession [and] told him in private the secret of his birth…
i.e. that he was not Philip’s son but the son of Zeus-Ammon. However, according to other sources, Olympias,
… repudiated the idea [that Alexander was Zeus-Ammon’s son] on religious grounds, and said, ‘I wish Alexander would stop getting me into trouble with Hera.’
Even if at the expense of Alexander’s ego, I hope that this anecdote is true. It would give us a glimpse of a woman who was devout and had a good sense of proportion, of someone who was not totally hell bent on her and her son’s success. Maybe I’m clutching at straws but it’s better than nothing.
Well, there we are. I’m back. I hope to write another post next Sunday when I get home from Mass. It would be wonderful if I could make late morning – early afternoons on Sundays my Alexander writing time. Before I finish, though, I will mention this: a few days ago I started reading again. I picked up my copy of Alexander the Great: Myth, Genesis and Sexuality by Daniel Ogden. I read the introduction and a couple of pages of Chapter One. Let’s challenge myself to make good progress in the week ahead so that, even if I have nothing else to say, I can talk about the book!
Credits Plutarch Hellenistic Lives including Alexander the Great (tr. Robin Waterfield) (OUP 2016) Olympias, Roman Medallion Wikipedia Angelina Jolie as Olympias – Reddit
Alexander the Great was born on, or around, 20th July 356 BC.
Of the five chief sources regarding his life, only one – Plutarch – covers his origins. He does so in the opening chapters of his Life of Alexander.
Chapter 2 Alexander’s Lineage Plutarch notes that he was: – descended from Heracles via Caranus on his father’s side – descended from Aeacus via Neoptolemus on his mother’s side
Olympias’ Dream – Just before her marriage to Philip II, Olympias dreamed that he womb was struck by a thunderbolt. It started a fire, which spread (a prefiguring, perhaps, of Aexander’s conquests)
Philip’s Dream – After his marriage to Olympias, Philip dreamed that he closed his wife’s womb with a lion embossed seal (indicating, I think, Alexander’s character) Ammon-Zeus – Plutarch states that one day, Philip glimpsed his wife in bed with a snake
Chapter 3 The Delphic Oracle – Olympias was a snake worshipper, but Philip still asked the Oracle what its presence meant. The Oracle ordered him to ‘offer more sacrifices and honour to Ammon than any other god’. The snake was Ammon. – The Oracle also told Philip that he would lose the eye with which he saw his wife and the god together
The issue of Alexander’s paternity is shrouded in mystery. Did he really believe he was the son of Ammon-Zeus? Plutarch records two traditions. One, that Olympias told her son ‘the secret of his birth’ (i.e. that Ammon-Zeus was his father) but also that she ‘repudiated the idea’.
Around the same time as Alexander’s birth, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus was destroyed by fire. According to Plutarch, Hegesias of Magnesia said that this was because Artemis was away: delivering the future conqueror! The Magi at Ephesus, however, had a different reason for the fire: it was an omen of the fall of Asia, that is, the Persian Empire.
Three significant events happened on or around the time of Alexander’s birth:
i. Philip captured the city of Potidaea ii. Parmenion defeated an Illyrian army in battle iii. One of Philip’s horses won at the Olympic Games
Philip’s soothsayers told the king that these events all pointed to his son’s invincibility.
As can be seen above, Plutarch’s account of Alexander’s conception and birth relies as much on myth and propaganda as it does history. This makes it of a piece with all the accounts of his life. Alexander was not only great on the battlefield, but also in the management of his image (to be sure, we may also say that this is true of his successors).
Alexander was born at Pella, capital of ancient Macedon. In his early years, he had one weakness: although he was Philip’s only credible heir, he was not a full Macedonian (Olympias was the daughter of Neoptolemus, king of Epirus). Had Philip lived longer and fathered a son with his last wife, Cleopatra Eurydice, who was a full Macedonian, that would have been a problem for Alexander, probably a fatal one.
However, Philip was assassinated not long after Cleopatra Eurydice gave birth to a daughter. In the blood letting that followed Philip’s murder – as Alexander eliminated anyone who could be a threat to his place on the throne – Olympias also killed Cleopatra Eurydice, and her daughter. This actually angered Alexander as she was no longer a threat.
As mentioned above, Alexander was born in 356 BC. In 336, he left Macedon for the last time and never looked back. In the next thirteen years, he conquered most of the known world and was planning his next expedition when he died in Babylon in June 323.
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.
You can find Dancing With The Lion: Becoming on Amazon in the U.K. here and U.S.A. here or from all good bookshops. Jeanne’s book website is here. With that said, let’s jump back into the interview.
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 MJM
all images used in this blog post belong to Jeanne Reames and are used with her permission
We don’t know which day exactly Alexander was born on but it usually taken to be 20th/21st July (though I have also seen 26th mentioned). With that in mind, I took the day off work yesterday to commemorate it by visiting a Greek restaurant in Primrose Hill called Lemonia. It is a lovely place and well worth a visit if you are in the neighbourhood. I ate zatziki for starters, keftedes for mains and finished off with a Greek coffee. Sadly for my future as a food blogger and instagrammer I didn’t take any photographs of either the food or drink – I washed the food down with half a bottle of Restina Kourtaki. Oh, and I bought a bottle of Greek Macedonian red wine. When I open that I will certainly take a photograph and upload it here.
While I waited for the courses to arrive, I read the opening chapters of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, our only (substantial) account of Alexander’s birth. The account is infused with legend as well as bald facts; one might also say it is laced with propaganda as well – particularly regarding Alexander’s divinity. Most interestingly, it also contains what is probably the only example of Olympias being humble. Plutarch records two traditions regarding her; in the first, she tells Alexander ‘the secret of his conception’ and urges him ‘to show himself worthy of his divine parentage’. In the other, Plutarch says that ‘that she repudiated this story and used to say, ‘Will Alexander never stop making Hera jealous of me.’
Who were the authors who maintained this latter tradition, and why did they do so? After Olympias died, in 316 BC, there was no motivation for anyone to defend her from whatever charge her erstwhile enemies cared to bring.
The mystery of the large, black coffin found in Alexandria has been solved – for now. It was opened and found to contain three skeletons and sewage water. Yuk. Read more here. Of course, we are disappointed that it didn’t contain Alexander’s body. On the other hand, though, isn’t it nice that the mystery over where his final resting place is, still remains?
Hornet, the gay news site, has a curate’s egg of an article on Alexander, here.
… letters of the time described Alexander yielding to Hephaestion’s thighs.
Robin Lane Fox mentions this anecdote and states that it comes from ‘the Cynic philosophers… long after [Alexander’s] death’.
“One soul abiding in two bodies” is how their tutor, Aristotle, described the two men.
Aristotle was respond to the question of ‘what is a friend’; he wasn’t referring to Alexander and Hephaestion (Diogenes Laertius Lives of Eminent Philosophers Book V.20 here)
“The friend I valued as my own life,” Alexander wrote of his partner.
I don’t think Alexander did say this – did he?
Scholars have suggested that he became careless with his health after losing his lover.
I think it would be fair to say that Alexander was always careless of his health! In respect of the statement, I don’t think he was. I don’t recall anything in the sources to indicate it.
… eventually [Alexander and Barsine] are said to have had a son named Heracles. Questions linger about the veracity of that particular account — it’s possible that Heracles was procured in an attempt to usurp the throne after Alexander’s death. Though there were some who supported Heracles’ claim to Alexander’s lineage, he vanished not long after his supposed father died.
This is the first time I have heard anyone doubt that Heracles lived. He is well attested in the sources – Curtius, Diodorus and Justin all mention him. Also, Heracles didn’t ‘vanish not long after his supposed father died’ – he lived until 310/09 BC when Polyperchon tried to use him to reclaim Macedon from Cassander only to be executed after Cassander made Polyperchon an offer suitable to his irrelevant status in the Wars of the Successors.
She was carrying a son at the time, whom she named Alexander IV; but doubt was cast over the identity of the father.
Again, this is the first time I have heard anyone doubt Alexander’s paternity of Alexander IV.
In general, Alexander’s focus was on uniting Persian and Greek culture, and so he arranged marriages that spanned the two groups. He went so far as to organize a mass wedding that lasted five days and included 90 couplings, usually tying highly regarded Macedonian women to Greek soldiers whom Alexander trusted.
If Alexander was intent on uniting ‘Persian and Greek culture’ I don’t know why he would hold a mass wedding involving Macedonian women to Greek soldiers. Of course, he didn’t; the reference here is to the mass weddings at Susa in which Macedonians were married to Persians – see Arrian VII.4-8).
So the article is a bit hit and miss. I did like the closing passage, though:
… it is impossible not to wonder what passions existed two and a half millennia ago, and how recognizable those feelings would be to us today.
Judging by the way people write about Alexander and Hephaestion today, their feelings are very recognisable today! As it happens, I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to consider my own. I was asked who my heroes were. Alexander was suggested but then someone said that perhaps he was someone I was just fascinated by rather than considered heroic.
I wouldn’t consider Alexander heroic in the modern sense – he was no Superman, selflessly acting for the good of others; he was, though, heroic in the ancient Greek manner: devoted to winning glory for himself, proving himself better than anyone else.
Alexander certainly fascinates me but for me it goes much deeper than that, and for that reason, I try to think about him as critically as I can so that I don’t descend into fanboyism – excusing or ignoring the bad things he did and complexities of his life just because he looked good and (probably) slept with Hephaestion. I can’t say how good I am at that, probably not as much as I want to be, but for me it is important to try. It has the added benefit as well of enabling me to learn more about the Alexander who lived rather than the one I hold in my heart.
Welcome to my midweek post. I hope this post finds you well. I am writing this with a slight cold and chest bug. I have drunk my Lemsip Max and have put on a nice, cozy jumper – bought today because I didn’t have one already and gosh I need it. Rather ironically, perhaps, I also have my fan on because I dislike still air.
What’s going on in Alexanderland, i.e. my Alexander reading and writing?
In the last few days, someone has found the blog by asking if Alexander was born of rape. The answer to this is ‘no’. For more information, read Chapter One and Two of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander. There is no suggestion there that Philip raped his wife. I suspect that whoever asked this question had Oliver Stone’s film in mind. If I recall correctly, Philip very nearly does rape Olympias but backs away after seeing her snakes. Alexander, at that point, is a young boy.
Earlier this week, a commenter on the Facebook challenged the fact that in my introduction post I referred to Alexander as ‘the greatest general ever to live’, and not king. You can find their comment and our subsequent conversation here.
My reference to Alexander as a great general rather than king was deliberate. For me – and I was speaking from my point of view – a great king is one who is not only successful in war but who rules wisely and justly as well. I wouldn’t say that Alexander was, on the whole, unwise or unjust, though he had his moments, but neither would I say that he was a Solomonic figure. In my view, to be a great king, he needed to move east much more slowly – only after consolidating his military gains and bringing peace to the affected region – and been much more of a diplomat (like his father). Further to this, a great king would have given more time and care to the administration of their kingdom than Alexander did. He didn’t neglect it, at least not wholly, but he was too bent on conquest to give his possessions the time they required.
I am still reading Partha Bose’s Alexander the Great’s Art of Strategy: The Timeless Lessons of History’s Greatest Empire Builder. I am now up to page 53 of the 88 I committed myself to on Sunday, and contrary to my expectations, am enjoying it. I like how Bose brings in the example of other military (and business) people to make his point.
One thing I am not sure I like so much is how many assumptions he seems to make about Alexander’s life. For example, we know next to nothing about Alexander’s time at Meiza, where he was tutored by Aristotle, but Bose doesn’t let that stop him from saying they probably did this or that or the other before going on to suggest that this is how Alexander became such a good warrior later.
To be fair, he does in one or two places acknowledge the limited amount of information that we have, but if he really believed in this limitation then surely he shouldn’t go on to try and draw lessons from assumptions that he must know may well not be true. This has happened so much I have started to wonder if he is using a source that I don’t know about.
Having said all that, I didn’t stop to note examples of where Bose writes in the manner I have suggested. I will try to do this between now and Sunday. Maybe I will find that it isn’t as bad as I think tonight.
For a long time now, I have had it in my mind that Alexander was in bad mental health at the end of his life. A while ago, I re-read Arrian and Curtius to see how they described Alexander’s last days. Yesterday and earlier today I re-read Diodorus and Plutarch.
If memory serves, Arrian says nothing that would indicate Alexander suffered from mental ill health. What Curtius says, we don’t know, due to gaps in the text. Both Diodorus and Plutarch do talk of Alexander being scared, deeply so, by ill omens but I have to admit, they are not convincing me of their validity. Partly, this is the rationalist in me speaking but I am also put out by the fact that Diodorus and Plutarch turn Alexander into a superstitious simpleton in order to make the point that the bad omens terrified him. It is reminiscent of Curtius’ account of the Orsines Affair and I don’t believe for a minute Alexander was ever like that. I think this is an issue I will come back to in the future as it troubles me.
Finally, I would like to end this post by acknowledging the 54th anniversary of the death of C. S. Lewis. Lewis is one of my intellectual and spiritual heroes; actually, the greatest. While I am not writing about Alexander directly because of him, I am sure that reading his books gave me the intellectual capacity to do so. More importantly than that, he was a wise, humble, and good man. Requiescat in Pace, Jack.
Yesterday was Mothering Sunday in the UK so let’s remember one of the most important mothers of antiquity. A descendent of Achilles, she was born Polyxena. Circa 357 BC she changed her name to Myrtale and then in 356 BC she took the name by which we know her: Olympias. In the same year, her son Alexander the Great was born. Following his death, she took the name Stratonice.
The historical record has not been kind to Olympias. Plutarch sums it up in his Life of Alexander (9) where he calls her ‘a woman of a jealous and vindictive temper’.
There is no doubt that Olympias was a tough lady but then, if she wanted to be a serious force in Macedonian politics and not just a pawn to be moved about by others, she needed to be.
On occasion, she may well have gone too far in her actions – we think of the murder of Cleopatra (and possibly her daughter) here (Plutarch 10) – but she lived for her son and must have loved him very, very deeply, indeed.
If we are unconvinced by this, it is only because that love was tainted by an inherently violent political system. In the unstable, Win or Die, world of Fourth Century BC Macedonian politics, however, Olympias had no choice but to fight for Alexander’s right to be king, and defend him once he became king. To step back from that would be to expose herself to attack.
If Olympias is anything, she is a tragic figure rather than an evil one. Most of all, though, she is proof of the intensity of a mother’s love.
This is a slightly revised version of a post I wrote for my Alexander Facebook page yesterday
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):
MondayAlexander and Hephaestion by Louis Gauffier – 65 Likes WednesdayAlexander Threatened by his Father Donato Creti – 99 Likes FridayOlympias, 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.
The Bay Area Reporter of San Francisco has published an article titled Alexander the Great & Greek Love on its website. You can read it here.
By the standards of most on-line articles concerning Alexander, the article is a really good one; the writer has clearly looked more deeply into the topic than plenty of other journalists. Occasionally, however, he lets himself down.
This is an excellent introduction to Alexander. It’s the kind of passage that I wish I had written. I would dispute that Alexander ‘in the West, [is] probably the best-known ancient ruler’. In my opinion that honour belongs to Julius Caesar.
Another good paragraph. Unfortunately, it does contain one mistake: contrary to what the writer asserts, Philip II did not ‘subjugate’ Sparta. He threatened the Spartans but never invaded their country. Ultimately, he had no need to do so. On the positive side, the writer makes a nice point about Olympias, one that is always worth remembering: ‘Olympias must have been remarkable, or else little would be known about her’.
Again, a good paragraph. The line ‘Philip was assassinated, perhaps by a former male lover’ (my emphasis) stood out for me. Diodorus (XVI.93) says that that a man named Pausanias was ‘beloved by [Philip] because of his beauty’. In English, to be beloved of someone is not necessarily to be their lover, which is perhaps the reason for the writer’s caution in describing Pausanias. However, Diodorus goes on to describe how he – Pausanias – bad mouthed another man of the same name when he – Pausanias the assassin – ‘saw that the king was becoming enamoured’ of them. Pausanias accused his namesake ‘of being a hermaphrodite and prompt to accept the amorous advances of any who wished’. If Pausanias the assassin was not Philip’s lover I don’t think he would have had any reason to speak to the second Pausanias in that way.
This paragraph opens with some excellent questions regarding Alexander’s empire that we will debate until the end of time. The writer then states that Alexander ‘married an Afghanistani chieftain’s daughter’. Roxane, of course, was not from Afghanistan. The country did not exist then. She was Bactrian.
It’s hard to judge this paragraph one way or the other as the writer dives into history too early and late for me. However, I like very much that he recognises that it is anachronistic to talk of Alexander being homosexual on the grounds that ‘”homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” as social constructs didn’t exist before the 19th century’. For the record, I have no idea when homo- and hetero- sexuality were invented so I take him at his word that it was indeed in the nineteenth century.
The writer points out that ‘many writers’ believe Alexander and Hephaestion could not have had a sexual relationship as they ‘were the same age’ (Curtius III.12.16 says they were the same age) and points to evidence in James Davidson’s The Greeks and Greek Love to show that peers could be lovers. He cites Davidson’s example of Harmodius and Aristogeiton. They lived in the sixth century B.C. It would, I suppose, have been more helpful to use an example from Alexander’s own time as times do change but given how slowly this seems to have happened in the past I doubt much changed between the late sixth century and the middle of the fourth.
The following two quotations contain the whole of this paragraph. The writers states,
Most ancient sources agree that Alexander was attracted to young men.
This is more than I know. I know that he was certainly attracted to one young man – Bagoas; I am not aware of any others with whom he had an affair. It would be interesting to know who the writer’s source was, or who his sources were, for this statement.
According to Plutarch, Hephaestion was the man whom “Alexander loved most of all.”
This quotation doesn’t appear in my Penguin Classics (2011) edition of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander but I think it comes from Chapter 47. In my edition, the text there reads ‘In general [Alexander] showed most affection for Hephaestion’.
Their relationship was all-encompassing. They drank, hunted, and campaigned together. Hephaestion acted as Alexander’s Chief of Staff. It was most likely sexual.
Really? It is equally likely that they were simply very close friends. In terms of how the writer sees Alexander’s and Hephaestion’s relationship, I am on his side, but here I think the last sentence is an example of his wish for the two to have been lovers rather than because the facts he mentions prove it to have been so.
Paragraphs 8 – 9
Here, the writer turns to the best ‘evidence’ to my mind for Alexander and Hephaestion being lovers: their imitation of Achilles and Patroclus (Arrian I.12 cf. Plutarch Life15)who in their day were believed to be lovers. As a side note, I like that the writer acknowledges that Homer doesn’t call Achilles and Patroclus lovers. It’s this attention to detail which really sets the article above any other I have read on Alexander.
The writer now turns to the famous moment when Sisygambis mistook Hephaestion for Alexander (Arrian II.13, Curtius III.12.16-17) only for the king to reply “This one, too, is Alexander.” in support of his case that they were lovers. When considering this passage, I feel that I am at the limit of my understanding of what Alexander meant with those words. Was he implying that the two were one as lovers are or was he referring to a very deep and platonic friendship?
The writer refers to Bagoas as Darius III’s ‘boyfriend’ which is a wholly inaccurate and misleading way to describe him. Bagoas was a eunuch, a slave. There was no equality between Darius and Bagoas, such as exists between lovers of the same or opposite sex. The writer goes on to say that Bagoas ‘soon found his way into Alexander’s bed’ as if he managed to inveigle his way there. Far more likely that Alexander told or asked him to come to him. Finally, he writes ‘Bagoas’ presence doesn’t rule out physical intimacy between Alexander and Hephaestion. In any case, they remained inseparable.’ Both these statements are surely and certainly true.
Paragraph 12 – 13
This paragraph begins ‘Nothing demonstrates Alexander’s passion for Hephaestion more than his reaction to his death.’ I could not agree more. The writer goes on to give an account of Alexander’s response to Hephaestion’s death, to which I can only say that even if they did not share a bed, if there is an ounce of truth in account, it is proof positive that Alexander loved Hephaestion very deeply indeed.
This paragraph begins with the admission that ‘Unless new evidence is uncovered, the exact nature of Alexander’s sexual orientation (to use an anachronistic term) will never be known.’ It concludes,
Nonetheless, a reasonable interpretation of extant sources, studied within the context of the sexual mores of Classical and Hellenistic Greek societies, leads to the conclusion that his erotic feelings were primarily directed at males.
This I disagree with. Alexander had three wives – Roxane, Stateira II and Parysatis. But these were dynastic marriages, one may say; this is true, but what of his mistresses: Barsine, Pancaste/Callixeina, Thalestris, Cleophis and perhaps Thais, later Ptolemy I’s lover? Some of these relationships may be legendary (e.g. Thalestris) but all? I doubt it. My conclusion to all that I have read is that Alexander was sexually attracted to both men and women, and of them both he liked Hephaestion most.
Alexander committed some terrible actions over the course of his reign as king. The mass crucifixions after the siege of Tyre (Diodorus XVII.46, Curtius IV.4.17), the manner of Betis’ execution (C. IV.6.29) and Black Cleitus’ murder (Arrian IV.8-9, C. VIII.1.22-52, Plutarch Life of Alexander50-1) spring quickly to mind.
However, we forgive him these because – as Plutarch records – he was also an ‘exceptionally generous’ (P. 39) man just with gifts but in the mercy he showed to others. For two diverse examples of this, see how he treated Timoclea (P. 12) and Porus (A. V.19, C. VIII.44-46. D. XVII.89, P. 60).
Someone for whom forgiveness has surely come less easy over the years is Alexander’s mother, Olympias. Unfortunately for her, she was not a brilliant general, did not spread Hellenism or give riches to her friends and former enemies alike. I used to think that this was because she was simply not a very nice person, that things like her religious zealotry (P. 2) and political ruthlessness (P.10) were all that there was about her.
I should have known better of course, because this is the kind of one-sided approach that tabloid newspapers take when they want to demonise persons or sections of society whom they do not like and we know well enough that they are wrong. But what proof was there that Olympias was more than the sum of the criticisms made of her? Reading Plutarch the other day, I wonder if I found it.
According to Eratosthenes, Olympias, when she sent Alexander on his way to lead his great expedition to the East, confided to him and to him alone the secret of his conception and urged him to show himself worthy of his divine parentage. But other authors maintain that she repudiated this story and used to say, ‘Will Alexander never stop making Hera jealous of me?’ (Plutarch Life 3)
But other authors maintain that she repudiated this story
I can’t discount the possibility that I am misreading the above line (if you think I am, leave a comment) but it appears to suggest that Olympias was – or rather, could be – a humble person, one who knew her place in relation to the gods. If so then she was surely capable of humility in other areas of her life.
It is a matter of great frustration that we neither know who the authors to whom Plutarch refers are or what else they said about Alexander’s mother because they seem to me to be evidence of a pro-Olympias tradition in Greek letters. If so, history has sadly extinguished it.
I wonder: would it be possible to read the surviving references to Olympias in the main sources in a positive light? Could her zealotry be seen as devoutness? Her ruthlessness as a fight to survive in a world that was against her both as a woman and queen?
For this post I am usingthis translation of Justin’s Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.