Posts Tagged With: Patroclus

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I wrote this review in November 2013 whereupon it went into my drafts folder in anticipation of being edited before I pressed the ‘publish’ button. Fourteen months later and I think it’s fair to say the time for editing has long since passed. If I was going to do that I would need to read the book again, which I don’t have time to do. As the review is perfectly readable (and, I hope, understandable) I thought I would publish it “as-is”.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Book reviews on The Second Achilles are few and far between but I could hardly ignore this one.

We all know the story of how Achilles was dipped into the Styx by his mother so that he was invulnerable except at the heel; how he fought in the Trojan War, only to be dishonoured by Agamemnon; how he died after being shot by Paris in the one place that he was vulnerable.

Similarly, we all know of his friendship with Patroclus. The Iliad doesn’t say as much but the ancient Greeks generally believed that they were lovers. Miller takes that view as well, and so her book is Patroclus’ account of how they met and fell in love.

Oh yes, and died; we shall come back to that.

Madeline Miller is a good story teller. She can turn a phrase well and is at ease with her characters. She wears her learning lightly (according to the author’s biography in the book she has two degrees in Latin and Ancient Greek and teaches both subjects) and has made me want to read The Iliad again. I understand she is writing a book based on The Odyssey; on the strength of The Song of Achilles I shall certainly be keeping an eye out for it.

If you have the feeling that a ‘but’ is coming, I applaud you prescience, for here it is.

But…

The Song of Achilles had – for me – a number of faults that stopped me from regarding it as a first class effort.

Most profoundly, I did not feel that it made clear why Achilles was attracted to Patroclus. One minute Patroclus is sitting by himself at the table, the next Achilles has noticed him, the third they are bosom buddies for the rest of their lives and beyond.

I felt that the book suffered from a number of disconnections.
i. Achilles is portrayed as an utterly carefree boy and then as a man obsessed by his honour. How and when did this change take place? We are given no indication (that I can recall, anyway) that justified his hardline stance after Agamemnon took Briseis.
ii. Achilles carries out no great deeds as a youngster. Except for at meal times, it seems, he lives apart from other people. Yet, when he returned to Phthia after a period of time in Scyros, the men are cheering him to the heavens. Why? Why are they so convinced by him? Is it just reputation alone? If it is, I wish it wasn’t. I wish Miller had given them a more solid reason to cheer him.
iii. Thetis’ appearances were very disjointed. I appreciate that this may have been deliberate to emphasis her apartness from the mortal world but it grated nonetheless, especially because her character remained static for the whole story.

There were three plot elements to The Song of Achilles that I thought were big mistakes to include. The first was the Scyros episode. Again, I appreciate that this is part of the myth of Achilles (although that does not mean Miller was obliged to use it) but it felt very out-of-place as far as the story was concerned. Are we really supposed to believe that Achilles would not have sought to return to Patroclus before the latter went to him? Perhaps Miller was telling us something either about his character or his regard for his mother. If only we had a better sense of his relationship with her beforehand.

Similarly, I was not convinced by Achilles’ dressing up as a woman. Was his appearance altered by magic? That’s what I thought at first but then it appeared not to be the case. Granted that Achilles is not big like Ajax or Sarpedon but really didn’t anyone notice who he was? I’m sure I’m missing out on what made his deception convincing but I don’t know what it is. The manner of his unmasking was rushed and felt farcical.

The second plot element that I thought a mistake to include was Neoptolemus. The line in child-tyrants has, in recent years, been dominated by Joffrey in Game of Thrones and he is one more one-dimensional, irritating, blood thirsty brat than fiction really needs. Neoptolemus is now another. He added nothing to the story for me. If anything, he took away from it with his needless arrogance and acts of cruelty. How he was not poisoned by the other captains I will never know. The only justification I can think of for his inclusion is that he was Thetis’ Revenger. If that was the case, though, he did not choose his targets very competently.

The final element was Patroclus’ narration after he died. I would much rather a second narrator had taken over at this point. Patroclus’ continued involvement diminished the value of his death, and therefore, the merit of Achilles’ mourning.

I would like to finish as I started – with some positives.

Although Patroclus came across as rather a bland person, I still liked him. At least he tried and loved. In regards the latter, I thought that his love for Achilles, and indeed their relationship in general, was very sweetly handled. I cannot say how much I liked Miller’s Odysseus – clever, witty, smart… but never arrogant or vain. I hope very much that her Odyssey book is focused on him. Similarly, Odysseus ‘double act’ with Diomedes was great to read.

Finally, I really liked the book’s fusion of myth and reality. To be sure, there was a way in which it didn’t work (the demythologised Achilles worked well as a man but less well as a warrior) but I enjoyed the appearance of Chiron very much, as well as references to heroes such as Herakles, and the first appearances of Thetis and Apollo, as well as the more oblique appearance of Zeus.

In conclusion, I think Madeline Miller has given us something that adds to our creative understanding of Achilles. For all its faults, it was a good first novel, and although it should not have won the Orange award, I saw enough in it to make me think that Miller will grow and continue to improve as an author. My copy came signed by her. I wish it had come without the praise of Bettany Hughes and Donna Tartt on the front cover as they raised unrealistic and unfair expectations.

I commend it to you.

Categories: Books, Fiction | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Hephaestion’s Remains – Update

Exactly one year ago I wrote a post for this blog in which I speculated about what might have happened to Hephaestion’s body after he died.

You can read the post here but in short, I said that I did not think that his magnificent funeral (Diodorus XVII.115) took place, and that after Alexander died, Hephaestion was probably quietly cremated and buried by the Successors in Babylon before being forgotten about.

When I wrote my post, I never imagined that a year on I would have reason to return to it. However, the discovery of a skeleton in the Lion Tomb at Amphipolis, and the suggestion that it could be Hephaestion’s, has drawn me back to the subject.

The person to whom I owe the idea that Hephaestion might be buried at Amphipolis is Dorothy King – see her post here.

As you’ll see, she theorises that the Lion Tomb was originally built for Alexander. If that is correct, the presence of Hephaestion’s body would presumably mean that Alexander intended to be buried with his friend.

Given how Alexander identified himself with Achilles, and treated Hephaestion as Patroclus*, together with the fact that Achilles and Patroclus were buried together at Troy**, this idea makes perfect sense.

***

But, do the bones belong to Hephaestion?

Tests are being carried out on them at the moment. It goes without saying that they won’t tell us the deceased’s name but hopefully they will give us information that will help in the identification process.

For example (and again, hopefully) they’ll tell us the person’s sex, their approximate age at time-of-death, and perhaps what injuries or illnesses they suffered from in their life.

If the sex of the person is female then that obviously rules out the deceased being Hephaestion.

If, however, it is male and the person died in their 30s that would make it possible for the bones to be his as he was about Alexander’s age and we know that in 324 B.C. Alexander was 32.

Further to this, if there is sign of injury in at least one of the arm bones, that would also make it possible for  the skeleton to be Hephaestion’s as Curtius says he ‘suffered a spear-wound in the arm’ at the Battle of Gaugamela (IV.16.32).

It has to be emphasised, though, that even if the tests point to the skeleton being Hephaestion’s we can gain no certainty in the matter from them. What we must really hope for is the discovery of an inscription that spells out clearly to whom the tomb belongs. Otherwise, there will always be an element of doubt.

 ***

But let’s backtrack a bit – how can we be talking about Hephaestion’s skeleton being in Amphipolis when the sources have his funeral – and cremation at that – taking place in Babylon?

That’s a good question. What could have happened is that after the funeral his remains were transported to Amphipolis and there deposited. This, however, doesn’t answer the question how it is we have a skeleton in the Lion Tomb when Hephaestion was cremated.

So, what about the bones? Dr King provides an answer. In a comment made on 13th November 2014 at 10:30am (I’m sorry – I can’t seem to link directly to it) underneath the above mentioned blog post she states that ancient cremations did not take place at the same temperatures as modern ones.

This means that Hephaestion could have been cremated to the point that his flesh burned off but that – due to the lower temperature of the pyre – his bones survived.

Perhaps the tests currently being done on the skeleton will be able to tell us if the bones were indeed subjected to fire?

If we agree to the survival of Hephaestion’s bones as a possibility we can move on to the question of how they got from Babylon to Amphipolis.

As it happens, though, we need to correct the starting point of his final journey.

***

Let’s look at what the five major Alexander historians say about Hephaestion’s death and what happened to his body afterwards.

Arrian (VII.14,15) states that Hephaestion fell ill and died in Ecbatana and that a funeral pyre was built for him in Babylon. There is no reference, however, to the funeral actually taking place once Alexander arrived there.

Curtius Unfortunately, a lacuna in the MS means we do not have his account of Hephaestion’s death and funeral.

Diodorus has Hephaestion die in Ecbatana and his body transported to Babylon (XVII.110) where his pyre built XVII.115). No mention is made of what happened to Hephaestion’s remains afterwards.

Justin does not say explicitly where Hephaestion died. In terms of the narrative, his death takes place in Chapter 12. The last city Alexander is identified as reaching prior to this is Babylon (in Chapter 10), but at the start of Chapter 13 Justin appears to suggest that Alexander went to Babylon after Hephaestion’s death.

Neither does Justin say what happened to Hephaestion’s body. He does mention, however (in Chapter 12), that a monument was built in his honour, and that it cost 12,000 talents.

Plutarch states that Hephaestion died in Ecbatana (Chapter 72) but doesn’t say that his body was taken to Babylon. He does state, however, that Alexander decided to spend 10,000 talents on his friend’s funeral and tomb.

***

In summary, Arrian, Diodorus and Plutarch all agree that Hephaestion died in Ecbatana. But while Arrian and Diodorus state explicitly that his body was taken to Babylon, Plutarch makes no such claim. By implication he has Hephaestion’s body remain in Ecbatana. This may be what Justin is getting at although his account is really too vague to be of much use.

***

So, we have a disagreement. Who, in that case, do we believe?

Up until this week, I would have accepted Arrian’s and Diodorus’ account. Diodorus is not the best historian but Arrian has a very good reputation, and based his history on people who were witnesses to what happened four hundred years earlier – including one who was at the very centre of Macedonian power.

However, my opinion changed after I read an article by Paul McKechnie called Diodorus Siculus and Hephaestion’s Pyre, which offered a compelling reason not to accept Arrian’s and Diodorus’ account at face value.

I came across McKechnie’s article thanks to a link on Dorothy King’s blog here.

If I have understood McKechnie correctly, he argues that the account of Hephaestion’s funeral in Diodorus is not an account of an historical event at all but a literary conceit, designed to foreshadow Alexander’s death***.

Seeing the funeral in this way allows us to make sense of a statement that Diodorus makes in XVIII.4 of his Library of History. There, he says that after Alexander’s death, Perdiccas found among the late king’s papers

… orders for the completion of the pyre of Hephaestion.

Now, obviously, if the funeral had taken place as per XVII.115 there would be no need for these orders to be in Alexander’s papers.

McKechnie further argues that Diodorus took the story of the pyre in Babylon from a writer named Ephippus of Olynthus, who lived around the time of Alexander.

The reason I mention Ephippus is because he connects Diodorus’ narrative to Arrian’s. McKechnie suggests that Ptolemy read Ephippus’ account and decided to use it in his own history.

And indeed, he had a good reason for doing so. Just as Ephippus placed Hephaestion’s funeral in Babylon for literary reasons, Ptolemy placed it there for political ones.

So, I took Alexander’s body from Babylon to Memphis, he could say to the political doubter, I had a precedent – Alexander, himself, who took Hephaestion’s body from Ecbatana to Babylon.

Paul McKechnie’s article is really interesting, and I thoroughly recommend it to you. If you don’t have access to JSTOR, you can read it here.

***

So, as matters now stand, we have Hephaestion dying in Ecbatana and his funeral taking place there. The presence of the Lion of Hamadan (which is modern day Ecbatana) would appear to indicate that Alexander buried his friend there as well†.

Having corrected the starting point of Hephaestion’s journey, therefore, we now need to get him from Ecbatana to Amphipolis.

This part is most difficult for none of the surviving sources state that Hephaestion’s body was taken back to Macedon. If we are to place him there, we must do so by other means.

Here are three reasons for placing Hephaestion in Amphipolis.

  1. Alexander would not have regarded burying Hephaestion in Ecbatana as fitting. In life, he had seen himself as Achilles and Hephaestion as his Patroclus. In light of that, it makes better sense that he would want that identification to be made permanent in death
  2. The Lion Tomb in Amphipolis is so great, so majestic, it could only have been built for a very few people. The other possibilities are: Olympias, Philip III Arrhidaeus and Roxane, and Alexander IV.
    As I understand it, there are inscriptions in existence which state (or indicate?) that Olympias was buried in Pydna, where she was killed.
    Philip III Arrhidaeus is a possibility as he was a king but maybe buried at Vergina.
    Would Cassander to have honoured Alexander IV (and through him, Roxane) with such a great tomb after killing them?
  3. It looks like the Lion Tomb could easily have met the cost of Hephaestion’s burial as described by Plutarch and Justin

These may or may not sound like good reasons but if you are still nervous about the lack of evidence in the sources, it is perhaps worth remembering that they are the surviving sources and that – as we have seen – they disagree with one another about what happened to Hephaestion after his death. We have no obligation, therefore, to take them at their word.

***

What do I think? I honestly don’t know. I like the idea of Hephaestion being buried at Amphipolis but I wish – really wish – we had stronger literary evidence.

At the moment, though, and although he is supposed to have been buried at Vergina, I am very tempted by the idea of Alexander IV being buried there.

After his murder on Cassander’s orders, several years passed before Alexander IV’s death became known. When it did, there was no civil war, no unrest, no rioting, nothing. Cassander, Ptolemy, Lysimachus, Seleucus and Antigonus all in due course proclaimed themselves king of their individual realms and that was that.

The reason for this is that time had passed and people had let the past go. I think perhaps Cassander realised this. And when he did, he decided that he could afford to be as generous to Alexander IV in death as he had been cruel in life, and deposited his remains in the Lion Tomb at Amphipolis.

That’s what I think, and as I am sure you have noticed, I have offered no actual evidence for Alexander IV being buried there. In fact, as I read back what I have written, I am beginning to think there is a stronger case for Hephaestion’s burial.

***

A last word. I have no more of an idea about who is buried in the Lion Tomb as anyone else, and I look forward to hearing more news from the archaeologists. In the meantime, what I would say, is that Amphipolis has been – and continues to be – a great learning experience for me and I am indebted to Dorothy King who has posted very insightful blog posts and linked to equally good articles about Alexander – McKechnie’s especially. I hope I never stop learning.

* I’m thinking here of how he had Hephaestion lay a wreath on Patroclus’ grave at Troy (Arrian I.12) and his Homeric response to Hephaestion’s death. Just as Achilles cut his hair in honour of Patroclus (Iliad XXIII.147-8)
** See Iliad XXIII.243-44 and Odyssey XXIV.73-5)
*** McKechnie notes how Diodorus emphasises Hephaestion’s status as Alexander’s second self, how Alexander attends to the funeral after setting his affairs in order, and orders the Sacred Flame in Asian cities to be extinguished in Hephaestion’s honour – something which is was only ever done upon the king’s die
It is McKechnie who uses the Lion of Hamadan as evidence for Hephaestion’s remains being in Ecbatana. He provides other reasons as well. For example, a reference to Aelian, who

… in his story of gold and silver being melted together with the corpse on Hephaestion’s pyre, speaks of Alexander’s having demolished the walls of the acropolis of Ecbatana-and gives no hint of the pyre’s being supposed to have been in Babylon

Categories: Hephaestion Amyntoros | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Among the Wounded

III. The Battle of Gaugamela
(III.15)
Read the other posts in this series

About sixty of Alexander’s Companions were killed; among the wounded were Coenus, Menidas, and Hephaestion himself.

I am intrigued by the translation ‘and Hephaestion himself‘ (my emphasis). If it reflects what Arrian wrote, the ‘himself’ cuts Hephaestion off from Coenus and Menidas. It is as if Arrian mentions them for one reason – I believe their rank, unless they had another connexion to Alexander that I am not aware of – and Hephaestion for another – undoubtedly his friendship with the king, which Arrian has already firmly established.

***

Arrian doesn’t mention any particular source for the information he provides. This is in contrast to i. his account of Alexander at Troy where he writes that ‘[o]ne account says that Hephaestion laid a wreath on the tomb of Patroclus’. Of course, Ptolemy or Aristobulos could be that ‘one account’ but if they are it does seem strange that Arrian doesn’t name them, and ii. the anecdote of Sisygambis’ mistake, which Arrian specifically says doesn’t come from Ptolemy or Aristobulos. Can we, then, make any deductions regarding who the source of the Gaugamela quote might be?

I think Arrian got his information from Ptolemy but that Ptolemy used a source common to himself and Diodorus and Curtius, the other two Alexander historians who mention Hephaestion in this context. My reason for saying this is because all three accounts are very similar. Here is Diodorus’ version.

Of the most prominent group of commanders, Hephaestion was wounded with a spear thrust in the arm; he had commanded the bodyguards. Perdiccas and Coenus, of the general’s group, were also wounded, so also Menidas and others of the higher commanders.
(XVII.61)

And here Curtius’,

Hephaestion suffered a spear-wound in the arm; Perdiccas, Coenus and Menidas were almost killed by arrows.
(IV.16.32)

So, all three accounts state that Hephaestion was injured. Diodorus and Curtius add the detail that he was stabbed in the arm with a spear. All three accounts also state that Coenus and Menidas were injured. Diodorus and Curtius, however, tell us that Perdiccas was among the wounded.

This is why I think Arrian’s source is Ptolemy. In the first years of the Wars of the Successors, Perdiccas was Ptolemy’s mortal enemy. I think Ptolemy excluded him from his memoir as a form of payback. If he wrote his memoir after 310 B.C., over ten years after Perdiccas died, it was a very petty form of payback but that’s beside the point.

On the issue of Ptolemy’s pettiness, could that be why he doesn’t give Hephaestion’s injury – he’ll mention him if he has to, but he’ll go no further than that.

I’m against this idea. If we are going to have a go at Ptolemy, we might also ask ‘if he didn’t want too much attention given to Hephaestion, why did he bother to mention him at all?’ Could it be that actually, Ptolemy simply wasn’t interested – as a matter of course – in dwelling on people’s injuries*? He was a soldier, after all.

***

One final point. If Ptolemy, Diodorus and Curtius all used the same source, who could it be? Cleitarchus is the obvious name to mention here but I wonder. I doubt Cleitarchus could have got his information from the Macedonian veterans living in Alexandria at the close of the fourth century B.C. If any of them had fought at Gaugamela near Hephaestion et al I doubt they would have had time to observe them.

Rather, I imagine that Ptolemy took his information directly from Callisthenes’ war reports and/or the royal diaries, which he obtained after stealing Alexander’s body. These would have have confirmed to him what he already remembered learning after the conclusion of the battle in 331 B.C.

* Excluding Alexander. If what I say is correct, Arrian will only mention specific injuries when the narrative demands it or when his source is someone other than Ptolemy

Categories: Hephaestion Amyntoros | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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