Posts Tagged With: Parysatis

Alexander’s Sexuality

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.

Paragraph 1
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.

Paragraph 2
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’.

Paragraph 3
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.

Paragraph 4
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.

Paragraph 5
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.

Paragraph 6
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.

Paragraph 7
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 Life 15)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.

Paragraph 10
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?

Paragraph 11
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.

Paragraph 14
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.

Categories: Of The Moment, On Alexander | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Plutarch’s Women: The Susa Weddings, Olympias, Roxane & Philinna (Chapts. 70 and 77)

For the other posts in this series click here

The Susa Weddings
Chapter 70 of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander opens with Alexander hosting a drinking contest. Sadly for the winner he was only able to enjoy his prize – more wine – for three days before dying. Plutarch doesn’t give his cause of death but if he had said it was alcohol poisoning I would not have been surprised. It certainly seems to have been the cause-of-death of the other forty one (forty one!) people who are said to have died following the contest.

Immediately after his account of this deadly party, Plutarch gives a brief account of the famous Susa Weddings. On this occasion, we are told, Alexander married Stateira ‘the [eldest] daughter of Darius’ and assigned ‘the noblest of the Persian women to the bravest of his men’. Furthermore, he ‘also invited to a collective wedding-banquet the Macedonians who had already married Persian wives’. It was a very great feast with 9,000 in attendance.

Plutarch does not have anything else to say about the weddings but if you would like to know more, Arrian contains further details. He states that Alexander also married Parysatis, the daughter of Ochus, while Hephaestion married Stateira’s sister, Drypetis; Craterus married Amastrine, daughter of Oxyatres; Perdiccas married an unnamed daughter of Atropates; Ptolemy married Artacama, daughter of Artabazus, and Eumenes married Artacama’s sister, Artonis.

As a result of reading Arrian, what becomes clear to me is that Plutarch’s assertion that Alexander married the noblest women to the bravest men is not all of the story. Let’s take a quick look at the fathers of the brides mentioned above.

  • Darius – Darius III the former Great King.
  • Ochus – Artaxerxes III Ochus, who was Great King between 358 – 338 B.C. Diodorus says Bagoas the eunuch (not the Bagoas whom Alexander was fond of) poisoned him, but according to Wikipedia there is a cuneiform tablet at the British Museum which says Ochus died of natural causes.
  • Oxyatres – Darius III’s brother.
  • Atropates – Governor of Media so a nobleman who remained in Alexander’s service after (?) Darius’ death and performed good service for him.
  • Artabazus – grandson of Artaxerxes II (who reigned 405/4 – 359/8 B.C.). I presume, therefore, that he was a senior member of the Persian nobility?

While I have no doubt that Alexander’s officers were all brave men, Eumenes’ presence in Arrian’s list makes me think that politics was an important factor in Alexander’s decision making regarding which woman was given to which man. After all, as far as I am aware, Eumenes played no significant role in any of the great battles.

One final point – I am surprised that Arrian does not name Perdiccas’ wife. I presume her name was not known to him? Perhaps this is an example of Ptolemy’s alleged bias against Perdiccas?

Olympias
We now jump forward to the final chapter of Plutarch’s Life – Chapter 77. Alexander has just died following an illness that lasted ten days. Plutarch says that,

[n]obody had any suspicion at the time that Alexander had been poisoned, but it is said that five years afterwards some information was given, on the strength of which Olympias put many men to death…

Now, it’s perfectly possible that in 318 B.C., the truth about what happened to Alexander finally came out.

Or maybe…

In 319 B.C. Antipater died. Before his death, he appointed Polyperchon – rather than his son, Cassander – his successor as Alexander IV’s guardian. This was ‘… to avoid giving the impression that he was trying to set up an Antipatrid dynasty’ (Waterfield Dividing the Spoils p. 73).

This move led to war between Cassander and Polyperchon. For his part, Cassander soon won the support of Antigonus, and (though to a lesser extent) Ptolemy and Lysimachus. Polyperchon, however, was short of friends. He kept going, though, and by 317 B.C. had convinced Olympias to back him.

Could it be possible that this alliance was rooted in a message sent by Polyperchon to Olympias the previous year in which he intimated that Antipater had ordered his sons, Cassander and Iollas, to assassinate Alexander? It would certainly explain why Olympias very vindictively ordered Iollas’ ashes (he died on an unknown occasion between 323 – 317 B.C.) to be scattered.

If Polyperchon did make this allegation ‘five years afterwards’ we can be sure that Olympias would soon connect the dots and fear that just as he had killed her son Cassander would, if he had the chance, kill her grandson. Which is precisely what did, in the end, happen.

For his part, though, Plutarch is sceptical that Alexander was poisoned. He cites the lack of corruption in the king’s body in the day’s following his death as proof of this.

Roxane
Moving on, at the time of Alexander’s death,

… Roxane was expecting a child and she was therefore held in special honour by the Macedonians. But she was jealous of Alexander’s second wife, Stateira, whom she tricked into visiting her… [w]hen she… got her into her power, she had her murdered, together with her sister, threw the bodies into a well and filled it up with earth. In this crime her accomplice was Perdiccas…

Roxane’s actions are altogether horrible but before we condemn her out of hand we have to ask ourselves what would have happened had Stateira (and Drypetis) lived? Given half a chance, would they have let Roxane alone? Perhaps Stateira and Drypetis were in a weak position as they were Persian and – in the former’s case – had not had time to bear Alexander any children but given their family connections I can’t believe that had Roxane and Perdiccas not murdered them they would have been allowed to slip into obscurity like Bagoas.

Philinna and Olympias
The penultimate reference to a woman is Philinna who Plutarch describes as being ‘obscure and humbly born’. She is mentioned here because she was also Philip III Arrhidaeus’ mother. Plutarch has no more to say about Philinna but one more allegation to make against Olympias. He says that she,

… was believed to have given [Philip III Arrhidaeus] drugs which impaired the functions of his body and irreparably injured his brain.

And that is the end of the book. Plutarch has ended it on a bit of gossip. It should come, I suppose, as no surprise – he has not liked Olympias since the start. Perhaps she really was an unlikable person but I’m not sure she was worse than any of the men.

I have enjoyed reading Plutarch’s Life of Alexander. Thinking about what I have read, I shall always be a little disappointed that he did not deepen his narrative to allow us a little more insight into the character of the women he mentions. I understand that his focus is Alexander and not anyone else – male or female – but it is a shame that they both really just have walk on-walk off parts. I shall always appreciate the Life for reminding me of the existence of obscure people like Philinna, above, and Telesippus but the one thing that has really struck me about the narrative is Plutarch’s deficient treatment of Olympias in the early chapters. He could have treated her better.

Categories: Plutarch's Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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