THE SECRET DIARY OF ALEXANDER THE GREAT
Professor Sebastian Burke
‘He drew them as a comet draws its tail, by his light and fire.’
The Persian Boy by Mary Renault.
Let us begin by imagining how it might have been in the last days of the ancient Greek colony of Alexandria On The Oxus, centuries old, deep in the heart of Asia:
The watch fires flare up in the distant night and then burn out, the light of each fire carrying the word across the peaks of the mountains of the Eagle, the mountains of Paropamisidae, from deep inside the vastness of the sea of land that lies in front of us. Those signal flares are bringing the terrible news from the East, that the Yue Zhi are coming. An army greater than all our kings standing together can assemble is marching on us, destroying as they advance.
I stand guard with the other men on the ramparts on the acropolis above the city every night holding my javelin and shield, my sword at my belt. It is growing bitter as the winter comes upon us, and the bronze of my helmet is cold and hard against my scalp, but that is of little matter now. These are the end of days. We have sent word back to Greece, but we have heard nothing, and I do not believe that any help will come. Europe is thousands of miles to the West behind us. Even if they began marching to our aid months ago, they could scarcely reach here in time, the Yue Zhi are advancing so swiftly upon us. Anyway, it is years since our alliances with the cities of Greece has lapsed, so why would they come now? They have their own problems. Athens, Sparta, Thebes and, of course, Alexander’s home, Macedonia – we are their kith and kin, we still speak Greek, and revere the Gods, but they and we have grown apart. Here, in our tiny kingdoms in the heart of Asia, over the centuries that we have lived here as Greeks since the conquests of Alexander, we have become different. We have become Asian and found new Gods to serve our hearts. We have not forgotten the old Gods, but I think that after all these years, they have forgotten us.
Each night, as we stand on the ramparts, another light ceases to flare on the horizon, another Greek settlement overwhelmed by the Yue Zhi - a world burning out, destroyed forever, bringing the Yue Zhi closer to our walls.
The memories swirl around me. What will exist of them after the barbarians have sacked our city? We will be gone, wiped out as a people, slaughtered or turned into slaves. What will they do to all our homes, temples and palaces? Will they appreciate the meaning of our art? Will they understand our writings? Surely not. Will they regret the loss of beauty, of all the things that show the truth of our souls?
I cannot help thinking of my home in the city down below. Of how happy Phoebe and I were there. Of how we bathed together often in our bathroom, the floor done out in a mosaic of pebbles that showed a sea of creatures: dolphins, crabs and even, at Phoebe’s special request, a hippocampus with the head and forelegs of a horse and the tail of a fish pulling the chariot of Poseidon. Our bedroom done out in pure white linen and colourful rugs from the local Bactrian people – a wedding present from her family. I remember over and over, how, when the children were asleep she would stand before me, her dark naked body gleaming in the flickering light of the bronze oil lamps, jeweled necklaces hanging from her neck and the gold snake bracelet I had given her as a wedding present around her wrist. Her eyes would gleam, the lashes darkened with a touch of native kohl. I could never resist. I would kiss her breasts and then kneel before her on the smooth beaten earth floor, feeling the warm summer breeze tingling over my skin and begin to run my tongue between her toes, the inside of her knees, her thighs. Finally, she would kneel down beside me, her hair falling over my face as she kissed me in return, her tongue flickering over my body like the soft darkness between the flames of an enchanted fire . . .
I counted myself lucky and never forgot it, but two weeks ago I sent her and the children to her father’s hilltop village. She is a native Bactrian, so perhaps they will be safe, perhaps the Yue Zhi will not find them there. But they could no longer stay here in the city, here they were doomed and so I sent them off with one of her father’s servants and a train of camels. I watched them plod away slowly in the salmon dawn for almost certainly the last time in my life. Before she left, she insisted that I keep the snake bracelet I had given her. ‘If you survive,’ she said in the darkness of our last night together, ‘you will bring it back to me. If you don’t, I want you to know that I was always with you, right to the very end.’
Tonight surely must be our final one in this city, our beloved Alexandria-On-The-Oxus. It was founded by Hephaestion, Alexander’s own beloved. Some say that Alexander himself visited here once and blessed the beginnings of our city. One thing is certain, since the days of King Stasanor, who was one of Alexander’s generals, our Temple of Ares has secretly held an immense treasure. Something that not even the greatness of the cities of Greece with all their gold, their architecture and their learning can replace. It is the only true surviving copy of the Royal Diary of Alexander. We know in the very depths of our hearts its value. In its pages we read who we are. We exist because of it, and with it no one can deny the truth of our existence. We will fight to the death to defend our city and its treasure. We have no other choice now.
We revered our past, and our glory handed down to us from the Conqueror himself, but now we face only the horror of our present. It lies on the plain below, seething, writhing like a beast on the face of the earth. A vast army of barbarians waiting for the dawn to come when they will overwhelm us. They are so close now we can smell them. The smoke from the cookfires and the offal they sear over the flames; the camels, the mules, the horses, the goats, the oxen, the chickens and ducks that march with them, the stench of dung rises like a miasma to hang over our city walls, not to mention the shit from tens of thousands of men, women and children . . .
We can see them in the flickering light of the cookfires, leering at us, laughing over their scimitars and spears. We can hear the awful grinding as they sharpen them one last time on the stones they have brought with them. Over the last days, they slaughtered all the native Bactrian peasants in the valleys below, those who were too stubborn to shelter with us in the city, believing that the Yue Zhi had no quarrel with them, only with us, the descendants of colonizers. They were wrong. We watched in horror from the walls as they went from house to house, dragging out the men, then raping the women and girls, forcing the men to watch, holding their heads so they could not turn away from the sight. They hacked the men to death afterwards and killed the older women, dragging the younger ones away to slavery along with the children.
They threw the bodies into the canals we had so carefully constructed to water our crops, now they are putrid with corpses and blood. We know we will die, of that I am certain now. I no longer care about myself, but I fear for Phoebe and the children, in a way I never imagined possible, in a way that freezes my legs and arms and empties the air from my lungs.
I am scribbling this in hiding in the place where our treasure is hidden. I am wounded, hacked by so many brutal weapons I cannot remember when each blow fell. The blood is pouring out of me. Soon I will die, but I must write of our final moments. Most of the men are dead already, and around me I can hear the agonized screams of the torture and killing that is going on. They are raping the women. I saw a child with her head sliced open and her tunic torn around her bloodied waist. A baby swung by the ankles against the wall of a house . . . I cannot write any more of that . . . They are beginning to burn the city, the flames leaping out of the houses, screams of people, mostly children, trapped in the burning houses.
They came, as we knew they would, as dawn broke pale and then a fiery orange on the horizon. A beating of drums, growing wilder and wilder, then the ominous pounding of spears against shields, rhythmic, filling the air as they worked themselves up into the killing frenzy. The screams, the ululating of their women behind them, and then the advance. Vast, unstoppable, terrifying. Our archers did their best, shooting arrow after arrow into their masses. A few fell, but they kept coming, on and on. Ladders against the walls, the wildest of them coming first. We struck back, hacking at them with our swords, slicing into skulls, shoulders, cutting off hands, but they kept coming. Soon we were overwhelmed. They, in turn, sliced and hacked at us, throwing our men from the walls, crushing us with their numbers.
There was no way to resist. In a chaotic mess of men and weapons, they forced us off the walls and into the streets of the city. Like hyenas they came, snarling, yelling with hate and the joy of victory, chopping and slashing with their swords, axes and clubs at anything that moved. The rage that moves within me at their mob is helpless now. I am dying, filled with hate – and love – the last flickers of my soul as the blood of my life drains out of my veins forever . . . Phoebe . . .
Almost everything we know about Alexander refers to the successes and the tragedies of his outer life. Legends and stories across the world, from Greece to Persia, Egypt, Turkey, India, and far beyond, as far distant as Russia, Ethiopia and Sri Lanka celebrate the achievements of Alexander the Great, the mighty god-king, son of Zeus, Megos Alexandros in Greek, Iskander in Persian and Arabic, the descendant of the great warrior Achilles, who defeated Hector and conquered the holy city of Troy. Unlike his mythical ancestor, Alexander was real. He is known today in almost every culture in the world as the impossibly young military genius who marched 20 000 miles on foot with his army across vast deserts and towering mountains into the deepest recesses of the known world – and conquered it all.
The Book of Daniel mentions Alexander in its swirling, apocalyptic visions of cruelty and chaos. Some prophetic Christians see him as the Third Beast, the swift cruel Leopard with wings and four devouring heads; while others say that he is the Fourth Beast with iron teeth and the horns of a giant ram who charged ‘westward and northward and southward; no living thing could stand before him.’
The Koran talks of Zul-qarnain, ‘The Two-Horned One’, a mighty king who ruled over East and West, whose wisdom and righteousness came from Allah. He built a great wall of blocks of iron welded together with molten lead to protect his people from the invading hordes, the wild and terrifying tribes of Yajuj and Majuj, or Gog and Magog, until the end of days.
In the weird, almost surrealistic, early Mediaeval Alexander Romance, the King descends into the ocean depths in a glass diving bell and then is carried into the sky in an ox-skin bag by two white carrion birds. He looks down beneath him to see a giant snake curled up around a circle. The snake is Oceanus, the vast sea that surrounds the tiny disc of earth. It is only here, shivering with cold and fear in the freezing heavens, that the conqueror reaches his limits. A flying creature in the shape of a man comes to him and says: ‘O Alexander, you have not yet secured the whole earth, and are you now exploring the heavens? Return to earth as fast as possible, or you will become food for these birds!’
Modern scholarship has revealed a general and a king who was both cruel and generous. We know him today as a man responsible for war crimes like the terrible slaughter at the city of Tyre or the genocide committed against the Branchidae in modern Afghanistan. Contemporary historians wrote of him as a drunken, vengeful buffoon who, in an alcohol-fuelled rage, murdered Cleitus, one of his closest friends and allies.
But the records, such as they are, also reveal a brave soldier who risked his life freely alongside the lowliest of his foot-soldiers. We discover, too, a tolerant, wise leader and deeply humane man who showed mercy to the wives and children of his greatest enemy, the Persian emperor Darius. We see a leader who was adored and followed by men, women and children across the expanses of Asia in their hundreds of thousands, by Macedonians, Greeks and Asians alike. We know for certain through archaeological and other evidence that the boundaries of his vast empire extended from the borders of Macedonia in the west, to the Indus river in the east. It included Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and much of modern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. He died, exhausted, burned-out and desperately ill in Babylon at the age of 32, but his legacy has survived for over two millenia. This is the Alexander who is so widely-known and celebrated, but the truth of the secret heart of the conqueror of the world remains shrouded in uncertainty. Who, really, was this man? Who did he love? What drove these unrelenting dreams of empire?
Of all the enigmas that surround Alexander The Great’s life, there is no greater mystery than what he truly felt in the arms of his first wife, Roxane, or, as she was known in her native Sogdian language, Roshanak, or ‘little star.’ The story of their love is a fascinating tale. It lies in the shifting, uncertain layers that are revealed by flashes of written history, by whispers of oral history and legends handed down the millennia.
The story begins, like the truth of so many children’s inner lives, with the war between his mother, Olympias, and his father, Philip II of Macedon. The sources on Alexander’s early life are frustratingly few. All the main narratives of the Alexander story: Plutarch, Arrian, Quintus Curtius, the Roman historian, Justin, Diodorus of Sicily are based on other, much older, books written by men who were on campaign with Alexander. Crucial gaps exist in every one of them. There are only the tiniest fragments surviving of the manuscripts of the original sources, written at the time of Alexander, or shortly after his death. The works of men like Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s generals; and his admiral, Nearchus, all but disappeared hundreds of years ago. Of Callisthenes, who was Alexander’s official historian and a nephew of Aristotle, who wrote Praxeis Alexandrou, or Exploits of Alexander, not a single word has survived. All that we have now are disconnected quotes from other writers which we have to try and piece together as best we can.
What emerges as we carefully peel back these distant layers of the past is that the conflict between Alexander’s parents began even before he was born. Philip fell in love with Olympias when they were both initiated into the Mysteries on Samothrace when he was a young prince, aged somewhere between seventeen and twenty-one, during the turbulent, violent years that preceded his own his rule.
The gods on Samothrace were much older than Zeus and the Hellenic pantheon of gods who lived on the faraway heights of Mount Olympus. They were called the Kaberoi, tiny earth-gods whose powers were to grant fertility and protection to those who travelled on the seas. In the Iliad, Poseidon, the King of Sea, is said to have positioned himself on the top of the summit of Samothrace from where he could watch the desperate struggle for faraway Troy. This linking of fertility and land and sea is perhaps more ancient than we know. The earliest legends of Greece talk of the Pelasgi, an early Bronze Age or even late Stone Age people who inhabited the southern Mediterranean before the Indo-European Greek invasions began around 1500BC. Pelasgi variously means ‘from the sea’, ‘hairy’, or as in Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths, quoting Pausanias, the first man was Pelasgos who ‘sprang from the soil of Arcadia’ who was the inventor of huts and sheep-skin clothes and who stopped the people eating leaves and roots that were poisonous and discovered that the fruit of oak trees was food. We are looking here at gods whose origins are with humans’ emergence from caves and the beginning of agriculture and settled existence.
The marble and stone ruins of the sanctuary can still be visited. They are situated within sight of the blue Aegean Sea beyond. Worship there can be traced back to least at the time of Homer, somewhere around 700 BC or even earlier, but the permanent structures like The Sacred Circle, the Tholos and the Hieron that have been identified were only erected at the beginning of the 4th century BC – at just about the time Philip and Olympias would have met there. The magnificent headless statue of the Winged Victory of Samothrace that stands in the middle of a layered staircase at the end of a long gallery in the Louvre is the most famous remnant of the sanctuary, but we must remember that it is dated to a couple of centuries after Philip and Olympias.
As to the ceremonies themselves and what took place there, we know little of them now other than that they were very old and very mysterious. They were ancient and their origins shrouded in mystery already by Herodotus’ time. They took place at the dead of night and were made up of dancing and music similar in their intensity and wild abandon to the Dionysiac rites. The offerings to the gods were thrown into a deep, narrow cavern.
It was high summer when Philip and Olympias met. One can imagine the warm sea breeze making the torchlight flicker on the marble columns, the rhythmic, trance-like beat of the drums and pipes, the wild, abandoned joy of the young men and women wearing ivy wreaths dancing under clear, starlit skies, all of them a little drunk on wine to loosen their inhibitions, their sinuous, half-naked bodies gleaming with exertion and scented oils writhing in the shadows of the Sacred Circle. The erotic charge of such an experience must have been overpowering, and for those ancient youths the connection with their own existence in the world around them would have gone far, far deeper than we can ever imagine. For them, the music, the earth and sea and sky surrounding them were actual gods, as was Eros who had brought together Heaven and Earth to form Creation itself. He was present among them that night, filling their minds with wonder, erasing all separation between themselves and the mythical gods and demi-gods who lived all around them and who governed their fears, their hopes and their dreams.
It must have been a transformative, almost miraculous experience for them, and it is little wonder that Philip fell in love with the striking Olympias. She was a young teenager, she was beautiful, and of all the initiates, she was the most devoted to the orgiastic rites. She abandoned herself to the inspiration of the gods with more wild, unrestrained fervour than any of the others. Olympias was famous for her love of large snakes which she tamed with her own hands. She slipped these snakes into the processions of dancers during the ceremonies and they terrified the male spectators. The wild pagan beauty of such a night, with its mingling of female power, subconscious male fears, barely restrained physical lust and mystic abandon must have captivated Philip, even if he had pretended otherwise.
Olympias was an orphan and Philip a king. He sought her brother’s permission and, after having gained it – readily, one assumes - he betrothed himself to her. Quite how many years passed between this betrothal and their actual marriage is unclear. It is not even certain that they were engaged. What we do know is that by 357 BC the young Philip had somehow found himself in possession of a kingdom but had no wife and no heir. He had already been married twice by this stage, so, for a man of his time, and his beliefs in the double workings of the gods and of Fate, the death of two wives and the lack of a male heir must have seemed like a curse that would have left him feeling humiliated and perhaps secretly doubtful of his masculinity. Certainly, without a male heir, he would have had cause to fear for his future and the legacy of his kingdom. At some point, he must have recalled the bewitching Olympias from Samothrace. She was still not yet eighteen and was a promising young woman to provide an heir to his throne.
Crucially, we have no word on whether Olympias was in love with Philip. But on the night before their marriage was consummated, Olympia had a terrible dream of a crash of thunder and of lightning striking her womb. A blinding flash of light sprung up and a vast sheet of flame spread across the horizon before it finally burned itself out.
In ancient times this dream would have been interpreted as a message from the gods. As Olympias was to marry a king, such a dream would have been construed as an omen that she would bear a son who would himself become a powerful, conquering king.
We can imagine her waking suddenly in the darkness of night, frightened and disorientated, her heart beating loudly, realizing as she lay in that curious, eddying netherworld between sleep and wakefulness that she feared the marriage that lay ahead and the havoc it would wreak on her life. She would have also known, though, that it was too late. She was betrothed to a king; that was her fate and she had no choice but to live it, whatever the consequences. One can never forget, too, that she was an orphaned princess, the daughter of King Neoptolemus of Epirus, and it was through him that she traced her descent from Achilles. This certainty of mythic and royal greatness coupled with one of the deep and lonely childhood wound of abandonment must have been a paradoxical burden for her to carry. One can only imagine the effect of this on her sense of self, and how she might have communicated that to her beloved infant son.
But hers was an age where women, even princesses, were regarded as half-persons; her father and her future husband would decide the path of her life for her. She may well have been chosen as a convenience. Her role was simply to cement an alliance between Macedon and Epirus. One can easily today imagine the suppressed bitterness and hidden fears such a vibrant, spiritually adventurous, but clearly neurotic and lonely, young girl was taking into her marriage – a marriage that she would never be allowed to leave.
Her magnificent, dreamed-of son, then, would be the compensation she would find for being trapped in an emotionally sterile existence. The as-yet unborn Alexander would be the vessel for all her unmet needs, all her hidden rage, and for all her futile hopes. Before he was even conceived, Alexander was fated to carry with him the unlived life of his mother.
Philip, too, was deeply troubled by his marriage. He also had confusing, frightening dreams. He dreamed of sealing up his wife’s vagina and finding a lion engraved on the seal. Most of the priests he consulted told him that it meant he needed to keep a closer eye on his wife! Only one soothsayer told him that she must be pregnant and that she would bear him a son who would be as great as a lion.
There is a strange story that Philip spied on his wife in her bedroom through a half-open door and saw her in bed with a snake. Plutarch goes so far as to suggest that it was the god Zeus sleeping with her in the form of a snake. Whatever either the divine or the herpetological truth of the matter, it is likely that she did keep pet snakes around her, and always had done. To share his bed with snakes was clearly a step too far for Philip.
The erotic charge that Olympias projected onto the men around her was obvious. It seems that Philip did love her once. Perhaps she betrayed him first, although none of the sources mention any lover. Certainly he betrayed her consistently, with both men and women, but neither party can have been entirely innocent in the disintegration of their marriage. They began to hate one another very soon after their wedding. Indeed, it is perhaps a miracle that Alexander was conceived at all.
The state of affairs between them troubled Philip so much that he sent a messenger to consult the Oracle at Delphi. The word that came back was equally disconcerting. Philip was told that he must revere Zeus Ammon in Egypt above all other gods and that he would lose the eye with which he had spied upon his wife with. The oracle was famous for its mysterious declarations. In the event, however, Philip did lose his eye from an arrow loosed in battle two years later. The ambiguous utterance about Zeus Ammon must have tormented Philip. What might it have meant? he must have asked himself. Was he, the king, truly the father of his wife’s child, of his first male heir? Was his wife visited by the god in some awful snake-like guise, or had she taken another lover – he would never know for sure. What rage and private humiliation he must have suffered, especially after he lost his eye, confirming at least part of the oracle’s prediction. Olympias may well have played cruelly with this uncertainty to her increasingly estranged husband. Certainly Alexander came to believe in the story of his divine rather than human origins and, years later, on campaign in Egypt he marched across the Western desert to the oracle of Zeus Ammon at the oasis of Siwa. He wrote back in a now-vanished letter to his mother that he had been greeted by the High Priest as ‘O Pai Dios’, ‘(Son of God), a slip of the tongue, perhaps, from the Egyptian priest with his poor Greek, anxious at meeting the young warrior. He had meant to say ‘O, paidon,’ (O, my son), but it was a slip which Alexander – at least publicly – took to mean that he was indeed fathered by Zeus.
Alexander was born in August 356 BC – a Leo. His father received the news in Thrace where he was away on a military campaign, and legend has it that the temple of Artemis in Ephesus burned down and some of the priests there interpreted it as heralding a calamity for Asia. They ran hysterically through the city warning the population of the apocalypse that was to come down upon them.
The young prince was marked for greatness from the beginning, but his childhood is something of a mystery to us. It is clear, though, that despite, or perhaps because of, the animosity between his parents, he was a confident child who developed early in life. We read of him at seven years old greeting a group of Persian ambassadors while Philip was away on yet another campaign. The child-prince questioned the Persians not on the splendours of their court, but on military and logistical matters like the morale of the Persian army, the quality of the roads in the empire and so on. There is, of course, the unforgettable tale of the stallion Bucephalus. He was a fine specimen of a horse with a shiny black coat and a white star on his forehead who had been brought to Philip’s court by a horse trader. Bucephalus was shown off in front of the king and his friends, but he was so unmanageable that Philip was insulted at being offered such an unbroken horse. He ordered it to be taken away, but the young Alexander, aged somewhere between 9 and 12 years old, asked to be able to try and handle him.
Philip was angered by his son’s challenge, especially in front of his entire court. ‘Do you think you can manage a horse better than your elders?’ he shot out.
‘At least I can manage this one better,’ Alexander retorted. He bet the price of the horse with his father that he would succeed. The boy went up to Bucephalus and took his bridle. He spoke gently to the horse and turned it towards the sun because he had noticed that the horse was shying at its own shadow. He then mounted the horse and rode it at a gallop in front of the assembled company who broke into loud applause. Philip wept for joy and said to his son. ‘My boy, you must find a kingdom big enough for your ambitions. Macedonia is too small for you.’
Here is the clearest glimpse we have of the contradictory nature of their relationship. Clearly there was filial affection – at least from Philip’s side, but it was fatally corroded by pride and a jealous fear that his son would one day come to challenge him. Nonetheless, Olympias did not have complete sway over her son’s affections, and certainly not over his day-to-day upbringing, and she probably wanted it that way. She was an ambitious, scheming woman and would have certainly required her son and heir to the throne to become a man who could triumph in the rough, unforgiving, male world of the time. However much she might have hated Philip, she wanted no milquetoast as her future champion. The growing military power of the Macedonian empire needed a powerful, ruthless heir, willing, as Philip had done, to take any measures, including assassination and murder, in order to keep the reins of power. It suited both Olympias and Philip that Alexander should become such a man.
Still, the story of Bucephalus shows us a child with profound moral and personal courage, gentleness, intelligence, and compassion. It is the first evidence we have in his life of a real capacity for love. That Alexander loved Bucephalus is indisputable. No one else but Alexander’s personal groom ever rode him, and he carried Alexander into battle all through his campaigns into Asia. He died at nearly thirty, which is old for a horse, shortly after the battle on the Jhelum River in India when his master had conquered most of Asia, and defeated the great king Porus.
In this capacity for love lies the core both of his greatness and of his tragedies. That Alexander inspired people to offer him loyalty until death, to follow him for years into battle and through the perilous heart of unknown lands is the most striking thing about him. Loyalty is the single greatest aspect of his immense legacy – the flipside, of course, is the devastating cruelty of his betrayals, and the corrosive guilt and remorse they left inside him.
This was Alexander, the child of Philip and Olympias, a man balanced – and constantly torn - by the power of both his mother’s and his father’s worlds. He was the mighty conqueror, supremely successful in the outer realm of action and conquest, but deeply committed to and ruled by the inner world of passion, love and intimacy. We have no record of what he thought of his mother’s snakes, but it is clear that he adored her, and that they formed an unusually close bond that lasted throughout both of their lives.
The first person he ever loved besides his mother was his friend Hephaestion. He was born in the same year as Alexander (356 BC), or was perhaps a year older. Hephaestion’s origins are uncertain. He may have been a native Macedonian, although some evidence points to his having been the son of Athenian immigrants. The two boys met at about the age of sixteen when Alexander was sent by Philip to study under the famous philosopher Aristotle. There can be no doubt that Alexander loved Hephaestion; the eternal question is whether or not they were physical lovers as well. To answer this, we have to peel away our modern preconceptions about sexuality and try to see into the world of Alexander. It seems reasonable to assume that they did have a sexual relationship. In Macedonian society young men of similar ages often became deeply attached to one another and also sexually involved. We also know that Alexander’s heavy-drinking, sexually voracious father, Philip, had at least seven wives, numerous courtesans and a number of male lovers, too. In a surviving fragment of a manuscript by the historian Theopompus of Chios who actually stayed at Philip’s court, we get a picture of a violent and threatening male physical world that included frequent sex with both men and women partners. He describes the court as ‘the gathering place of all the most debauched and brazen-faced characters in Greece or abroad . . . some of them used to shave their bodies and make them smooth although they were men, and others actually practiced lewdness with each other although bearded . . . nearly every man in the Greek or barbarian world of a lecherous, loathsome or ruffianly character flocked to Macedonia.’
And yet, within this chaotic, volatile environment, male relationships of a depth and character quite unfamiliar to a modern reader sprung up. The passions and secret connections between men in those times are hard to grasp today. Violence was a fact of life. No man was immune from the need to be able to defend himself and his friends or family with spear, sword and shield. What the meaning of having survived, or even triumphed, in battle brings to the emotional make-up of men is something that is given little credence or importance in our society today. Having fought in a war is quite unimaginable for most Western middle-class people. But in ancient Greece the deep psychological links between fear and the sense of achievement in overcoming it that the experience of battle brought were celebrated. The companionship and the shared moments of courage, the mingled grief and horror of seeing your comrades cut down brutally alongside you, coupled with the much-needed inner release of rage at the moment of counter-attack, and the sense of extreme joy at having been victorious – all of these feelings were an integral, and deeply-honoured part of men’s lives.
Patroclus and Achilles in Homer’s Iliad are the archetype of this male love that flourished amidst the glories and terrors of war. Patroclus, Achilles’ dearest friend and lover, was killed by the Trojan champion, Hector. Achilles grieved bitterly over the death of his lover and then strode alone in fury to the walls of Troy where he summoned Hector to face him in single combat. He slew Hector and then dragged his body in the dust behind his chariot around the walls of the city to celebrate his triumph. At the death of Achilles, some writers after The Iliad tell us that his body was cremated and his bones mingled with those of Patroclus so that they might be companions in the afterlife.
Homer’s own writings are inconclusive as to whether this was a relationship blessed by Eros, but Classical Greek writers such as Plato took it for granted that Patroclus and Achilles were lovers. Such writers would have been read eagerly by the young Alexander and Hephaestion under the tutelage of Aristotle, himself a pupil of Plato.
Alexander was obsessed by The Iliad. He took a special copy of it on his campaign with him and it was his constant bedside companion. He saw his relationship with Hephaestion in the same light as that of the mythic Achilles and Patroclus. The love of Alexander and Hephaestion, like that of Patroclus and Achilles, was a sacred love, one born in the gentleness of childhood or youth, but tempered in the rage and passions of manhood and war. Their love was, quite literally in the Greek mind, a Gift from the Gods. It had a form of male spiritual power that has been utterly lost to us today. As men, and warriors, they shared the fragments of divinity that even today we sense dimly in our most alive moments when we rise to our own challenges that life throws up at us. Their rage, their courage, and, finally, their love, were what they left behind on this earth for us to wonder at over 2000 years later. Through passion and courage in life, they achieved fame and through fame, they found their ultimate goal, immortality.
The first time we hear of the adult Hephaestion is early on the march eastwards, after they had left Macedonia, when they came to the ancient site of Troy on the Turkish mainland. The two of them stripped naked, exchanged locks of hair and ran around the grave of Achilles. Alexander called Hephaestion philalexandros, ‘beloved of Alexander’ - the very sound of it murmurs with affection and tenderness.
Emotional closeness between men has always intrigued women. Often, they don’t quite know what to make of it, and certainly Olympias was not pleased with Hephaestion’s relationship with her son. But even she, as powerful an influence as she was in Alexander’s life, could not come between the two young men. Alexander and Hephaestion spent three years studying under Aristotle. They shared the wonderment of the physical and intuitive opening of the world that happens in late adolescence. From their tutor they learned the theory that women were an inferior form of man and that relations between men were the highest form of virtue. With this assumption as the basis for their education, they learned biology, science, medicine, ethics and politics, lessons they would carry with them throughout the length and breadth of their campaigns. Alexander took botanists, zoologists and philosophers with him and sent back hundreds of animals and plants for Aristotle to study and which were the basis for his Historia Animalium or History of Animals. More ominously, Aristotle also taught that slavery was a natural institution and that Greeks were racially superior to Persians and other barbarians, destined to rule over them. He told Alexander to look after Greeks as ‘friends and relatives’ and to deal with barbarians as he would do with ‘beasts or plants’. In Asia, Alexander came to rise above these attitudes, but Aristotle, who stayed back in Greece never did, and to Alexander’s credit, it created an unhealable rift between them.
Hephaestion was Alexander’s first love, so much so that he seemed to many (including his parents) to have no interest in women. We learn this from Athenaeus of Naucratis, a Roman Egyptian historian, who in about 200 AD put together the Deipnosophistae, or The Banquet of the Learned, a rambling dinnertime dialogue that becomes a vast encyclopaedia of remarks about food, dining etiquette, music, dancing, women, courtesans and sexual behaviour in the ancient world. It is cumbersome but also witty, often utterly refreshing and, at its best, unashamedly scandalous. In it he tells us that Alexander used to get so drunk that he would celebrate his banquets in a chariot drawn by asses. Athenaeus wonders whether his love for drink made him impotent. That Alexander was certainly not, but his notable early lack of curiosity in women made his parents so worried that they both decided, uncharacteristically, to cooperate on this matter. Their joint efforts succeeded in so far as procuring for him, Callixena, a beautiful young prostitute, whom they hoped would stir his interest. The unfortunate girl seemed to have little effect on Alexander. According to Athenaeus, Olympia was ‘constantly obliged to ask him herself to do his duty by her.’ No record survives as to whether or not he acquiesced to his mother’s frequent promptings.
The earliest truly significant woman in Alexander’s life is the courtesan Campaspe, who is also known as Pancaste. She was a gorgeous, sensual young concubine who was the first woman, other than his mother Olympias, that Alexander was passionate about.
The English dramatist, John Lyly, an early contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote a play called Campaspe that was first performed in 1581. He describes her angelic loveliness in flowery but indisputably charming Elizabethan verse:
‘How at heaven’s gates she claps her wings,
The morne not waking til she sings.’
No real description of Campaspe has survived down the ages, but she was clearly quite something. Alexander was so enamoured of her – of her looks, anyway – that he commissioned his exclusive royal artist, Apelles, to paint a picture of her in the nude. Apelles is regarded by many experts as the greatest painter in the ancient world, and, as such, he was naturally attracted to the court of Philip of Macedon, the most powerful ruler in Greece. Apelles was known for his exquisite use of colour, and the graceful, natural proportions of his portraits. He was a man at the peak of his career and reputation when Alexander commissioned him to paint Campaspe. Over time the work was delayed, and Alexander began to wonder why it was taking so long. He duly discovered that Apelles was having an affair with Campaspe. One can only imagine the emotions involved. Both Campaspe and Apelles must have run a terrible risk to have betrayed the volatile young Alexander like this. He might easily have had them both executed or exiled, which was often regarded in ancient Greece as a worse punishment than death. Instead, we are told, Alexander gave Campaspe to Apelles.
Pliny, our main source on this, writes nothing at all about her feelings towards either Alexander or Apelles, but he does tell us in a later passage that she was the model for Apelles’ most famous and beautiful work, Venus Rising From the Sea, which showed the sensuous goddess wringing the water from her long hair and the misty drops falling in the air to form a light veil around her body. We cannot be sure about her feelings, but there is something romantic and touching in this anecdote which leads us to suspect that she was much more than a mere sexual possession to Apelles.
And what of Alexander’s feelings? We know that Alexander was capable of enormous compassion and generosity of spirit. To see him here, early in life, discovering that his favourite lover had deceived him with a man who might have been a lowly painter, but a man whom Alexander clearly respected, and who was his friend, must have been deeply humiliating and internally wounding for the young prince. And, as Pliny says, it was a fall from grace for her, as she had ‘been recently the mistress of a monarch and now belonged to a painter’.
We know, too, that Alexander was capable of unmanageable, homicidal rage, so to have controlled his darker impulses and recognized that Campaspe almost certainly was in love with Apelles, certainly more than she was with him, and to have the `humanity, as a jilted prince with the power of life and death over both of them, to allow her to go with a mere painter, is to see Alexander at his finest and most generous. It is to see the Alexander who inspired such dedicated loyalty among men and women.
Throughout Alexander’s life we find such sublime moments where he found the grace and the empathy to honour the suffering of his either his subjects or of his individual soldiers. He was a king who gave up his throne to a soldier nearly dead of exposure in a terrible march through the mountains, who refused to drink water in the desert when his troops had none and, above all, he was a general who was frequently badly wounded alongside his troops in battle – he was never too arrogant or afraid to share their fear and suffering.
In a cool, muted room of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, away from the chaos of the streets of Naples, one can stare in contemplative leisure at perhaps the best known picture of Alexander the Great. It is a massive mosaic that was uncovered in the House of the Faun in Pompeii in 1831. A second century AD Roman copy of a Greek painting of the battle of Issus, it was created in about 300BC. Although it is now badly damaged, and much of the work is missing, the finely-worked and brightly-coloured tesserae that have survived the damage of a volcanic eruption and the centuries buried under the lava show a triumphant Alexander. His spear is raised above his head and he is charging through the Persian ranks on his steed Bucephalus towards a clearly terrified Darius whose magnificent chariot is turning to flee and cede the battle to the Greeks.
Before the battle Alexander had suffered a deep crisis of confidence. The night before the battle Curtius tells us that ‘his confidence gave way to worry. Fortune itself, whose favour had granted him so much success, he now began to fear.’ That night, on a high ridge, in the wavering, eerie light cast by flaming torches, he had sacrificed to the gods and hoped for the best. His faith in the gods and in himself had been rewarded magnificently. The famous mosaic from Pompeii is the quintessential image of Alexander that has come down to us over the years, an artistic celebration of the triumphant young king at the moment of victory after his dark night of fear and doubt. There were many hard battles to follow, but after Issus the Persians never regained the initiative. From that day on, the largest Imperial army on earth was cowed. Darius and his generals were always on the defensive, forced to react to avoid defeat rather than to plan ahead for victory as Alexander advanced step by implacable step deeper into the heart of their Asian empire. Finally, he crushed them completely two years later at the battle of Gaugamela.
Darius’ defeat and ignominious flight at Issus was a decisive moment in Alexander’s life. He was not yet the Lord of Persia, but he was master of himself and of the field of battle. That evening after the battle, he was shown to the luxurious tent that Darius had left behind. He was exhausted and was suffering from a sword wound in the thigh. The bathroom was filled with golden bowls, basins and elaborately carved chests. The vast, luxurious interior was redolent with perfume and spices while a magnificent banquet had been set out on the tables in front of the dining couches. For a hardened young hill chieftain from Macedonia, such luxury was almost overwhelming. Plutarch quotes him as saying in a mixture of wonderment and irony. ‘So this, it seems, it what it means to be a king.’
As he was about to sit down to dinner, he heard the sound of women sobbing close by. He was told that it was Darius’ mother, Sisygambis, his wife, Stateira, and his two young unmarried daughters, another Stateira and Drypetis. They had seen the captured chariot and bow of Darius and assumed that he was now dead and that they – especially Stateira and her daughters - would suffer the horrifying rape and enslavement that was the usual fate of women captured in war.
Here again we see the compassionate Alexander. He was moved by their grief and by their fear. Protocol and decorum required that he not visit them at night, but he sent one of his trusted aides, Leonnatus, to reassure them that Darius was still alive. Alexander’s quarrel, he told the women, was with Darius, not with his family. They were not to be treated as captives of war but as royal women with all the honour and dignity they deserved. Sisygambis and Alexander became particularly close over the years. He honoured her as a second mother (one wonders how much Olympias knew of this relationship) while she came to revere him and the chivalry he had shown her and her family.
Darius’ wife, Stateira, was famously the most beautiful woman in Asia. We know very little about her, and her relationship with Alexander is shrouded in mystery. It would have suited him politically to have married her and made a strong claim to the Persian dynasty. While, certainly, she would have had reason to want to seduce him; whatever her real feelings about Alexander might have been, Stateira could have found no better match to replace Darius than his Macedonian conqueror.
On the other hand, it would have also suited him to use Stateira, her mother and her daughters, as political pawns. After Issus, Darius demanded that Alexander accept as much money as Macedonia could hold in return for the release of his family. Alexander replied that Darius could have his family back freely and without ransom if he came to Alexander as his subject. Stateira was clearly an extremely desirable woman and, at the same time, a political pawn who had little influence or control over her own life. Some writers have suggested that it would be odd if Alexander had not slept with her, especially as he was now clearly seeing himself as the successor to Darius. What we do know is that she, along with her mother-in-law and daughters, accompanied Alexander’s baggage train for eighteen months after Issus. She was with him all through the long campaign that took him through the sieges of Tyre and Gaza, through Judea into Egypt and then back into the dusty plains of northern Iraq where she died in 331 BC just before the decisive battle of Gaugamela.
There is more than a hint of heartbreak, even of cruelty, in Stateira’s fate. Curtius tells us that she was ‘exhausted by the unremitting hardships of the journey and her dejected state of mind, she had collapsed in the arms of her mother-in-law and unmarried daughters, and later she died.’ Plutarch tells us she died in childbirth.
Her death under Alexander’s care presents a terrible contrast to their first meeting in the tent after Issus. Neither of these versions of her death redound to Alexander’s credit. If she had been pregnant, then he was almost certainly the father of her baby, as he would never have allowed anyone else access to her. Even if not, he bore much responsibility for her depression and emotional trauma. Curtius paints a macabre and tragic picture of her death. ‘With many groans, and tears such as Darius might have shed welling up in his eyes, he [Alexander] entered the tent in which Darius’ mother was now sitting beside the corpse. The sight of her prostrate on the ground brought him fresh sorrow.’
Alexander felt terrible remorse at her death. He wept openly, fasted and gave her a funeral worthy of Persian royalty. When he was told of his wife’s death, Darius’ was grief-stricken and outraged, certain that she had been executed for refusing Alexander’s advances. Then, on hearing of her funeral honours and of Alexander’s sorrow at her death, he became understandably suspicious of their relationship. ‘For how can a young man’s treatment of his enemy’s wife be virtuous, if it expresses itself in such tributes?’
It is an obvious question and one that the long passage of time has not resolved. It is, of course, possible that Alexander was not involved with Stateira, and, as Mary Renault points out, Sisygambis’ continued affection for him throughout his life points to the possibility that whatever might have happened between him and Stateira was mutual. It seems we will never know the truth.
In addition to grief, both men seemed to have felt deep guilt at her death, Darius for abandoning her in such a cowardly fashion, and Alexander, well, who knows? The evidence we have is limited, but whatever the ultimate truth, in the story of Stateira and her untimely death we can perceive deeply hidden layers of shame in Alexander’s life that no one has entirely been able either to hide or to uncover.
Alexander’s relationship with Stateira becomes even more complex when we consider that we know for certain that in the time Stateira accompanied him on campaign, he had another lover. (We should not forget, of course, his ongoing closeness to Hephaestion, whether explicitly sexual or not, which in Alexander’s life was a given, no matter who else he was sleeping with.)
This other woman also appears in the sources in confusing, enigmatic glimpses that make it hard to discern the reality of what really happened between them. Her name was Barsine, and Plutarch claims she was the only woman Alexander had sex with before he met Roxane. As we have seen, that is almost certainly not true, but Plutarch’s claim only serves to emphasize the fact that she was a very significant ‘other’; one of the most influential women in Alexander’s life.
She was captured in the winter of 333 BC, shortly after the battle of Issus and the surrender of Sisygambis and Stateira. Parmenio, one of Alexander’s generals, had been ordered to march on Damascus to intercept the main baggage train of Darius. The terrified governor of the city ordered an evacuation and Parmenio fell on a column of fugitives struggling through the snow outside the city walls. Amongst the sumptuous treasure carried from Darius’ palace taken by Parmenio’s soldiers was Barsine, the widow of Memnon, a Greek mercenary commander in service to the Persians who had fought against Alexander. She was a woman of ‘beauty and noble lineage’ and Alexander took her as his lover.
Her father was a Persian satrap called Artabazus who had taken refuge at Philip’s court in Macedonia in the years 352-342 BC, so it is possible, perhaps even likely, that they were much the same age (although she was the older by a few years older) and that they had known each other in the chaotic, unhappy days of his childhood. If so, when he met her again taken captive in his triumphant, avenging march into Asia, and as the widow of a military opponent of his, it must have rekindled a complex but potentially explosive emotional attachment for both of them.
Barsine’s age is uncertain, some sources have her in her late thirties or early forties and the mother of four children by the time she was captured outside Damascus in 333BC. Others say that she was only thirty. She was – one of - Alexander’s lovers for the next five years, and certainly the most important woman in his life as he began the real conquest of Persia. We can only speculate as to what might have passed between her and Stateira in the confines of the king’s quarters.
She was also a politically astute connection. Artabazus, her father, was an old friend of the Macedonian royal family, and he quickly became Alexander’s first loyal Persian ally. Barsine was bilingual and familiar with both Persian and Greek customs, and must have been an invaluable advisor to him in the early years as he pondered over how to rule his growing Persian empire.
But Alexander never married her. It would have been politically impossible. She had been married twice before to Greek mercenary commanders (Memnon’s brother and then Memnon himself) who had fought alongside the Persians against the Macedonians. She had children from both of these marriages who would have been potential rivals for the throne to any children that Alexander might have had. Again, we have no record of what she thought as she followed Alexander all through his campaigns. It is, of course, a mistake to apply contemporary standards and ways of thinking to the fourth century BC. Barsine, like every woman caught up in war in her time, was lucky not to have become a slave. Still, one cannot help imagining that in those five years that she was Alexander’s lover she might have allowed herself to wish for something more - something that no woman, including herself, had ever persuaded Alexander to consider.
After the death of his wife Stateira, Darius made one final attempt to confront Alexander and save his empire. Almost two years after his humiliating defeat at the Battle of Issus, Darius drew up his troops, his war elephants and two hundred scythe-wheeled chariots on the level ground of the plains of Gaugamela near Arbela, modern-day Irbil in northern Iraq. Alexander had some 40 000 infantry and 7000 cavalry. Darius had 34 000 mounted soldiers and 200 000 infantry. Some Greek sources claim there were a million Persians, although this is very unlikely. Despite his vastly superior numbers, the battle was an unmitigated disaster for the Persian king. The Greeks were heavily out-numbered and outflanked by the Persian cavalry, but Alexander bore down into the centre of the Persian ranks. Like at Issus, Darius found himself unexpectedly confronted in the midst of battle by Alexander and his elite troops. He was unable to communicate with his officers and Bessus, his kinsman and senior general, sounded the retreat. Just as he had done at Issus, Darius turned and fled with Alexander in hot pursuit. Darkness fell before he could catch up with his enemy and, for a second time, Alexander was forced to let him go.
It would take him nearly a year and a very long road to catch up with Darius again. In the months that intervened, Alexander marched unopposed into Babylon and the royal city of Susa where he captured the vast imperial treasury. He crossed the Zagros mountains through a narrow pass and fell on the rearguard of the remains of the Persian army, utterly destroying any meaningful resistance. Then he came to the great palace at Persepolis, the symbolic heart of the Persian empire. There was even more treasure here, so much so that it took 2000 fully-laden mules and 500 camels to carry it away. The Greek soldiers were given license to sack what remained of the city. Alexander lingered there for six months, sitting out the winter, planning the road ahead and enjoying the luxury of Persepolis. One evening, after a series of Games held to celebrate his triumphs, there was a sprawling banquet. Thais, a beautiful Athenian prostitute, who was the lover of Ptolemy, stood up and made a drunken speech about how she was enjoying the luxury of Persia after her hardships in the field. She taunted Alexander saying that if he gave the order to burn the palace he would earn the ‘deepest gratitude among all Greeks’.
A wine-flushed Alexander rose to his feet and cried out loudly: ‘Why do we not avenge Greece, then, and put the city to the torch?’ A wild, intoxicated Dionysiac debauch began, led by Thais and Alexander. To the sound of singing, pipes and flutes, first Alexander, and then Thais, flung blazing torches into midst of the Hundred-Columned Hall. The rest of the party followed suit and soon the glory of the ancient seat of the Persian emperors was reduced to ashes with the drunken Greeks standing outside revelling in the spectacle. The next morning Alexander regretted his actions, but it was too late. This time the impulsive side of Alexander’s nature, which had provided him so many military victories, had led to lasting disgrace.
Having burnt Persepolis, he set off in earnest pursuit of Darius. The hunt led through the mountains of the Caspian Gate into the foothills of the Caucasus and onto the edges of the Great Salt Desert. Finally, at small oasis on the road to the interior of Asia, Darius was betrayed and murdered by his once loyal Bessus who promptly declared himself Emperor Ataxerxes V. Bessus and his cohorts fled deep into Bactria in what is now Afghanistan.
The mediaeval Persian epic the Shahnama, ‘The Book of Kings’, written by Firdowsi around 1000AD has preserved the tradition from the European Alexander Romance that Alexander came across Darius as he was dying and the two of them exchanged noble and courteous sentiments before the Great King passed away. Other accounts claim the reality was more sordid. A Macedonian officer looking for water found a dirty, bloodied corpse shackled in golden chains, lying on the floor of a wagon, the murderers’ javelins sticking out of its chest. Alexander was, however, shocked to find his adversary brought to such a terrifying and degrading end. He wrapped the body in his own cloak and let Darius’ remains be taken to Persepolis for a royal funeral. He declared war on Bessus and he began to chase him and his followers remorselessly. Bessus was now not only Alexander’s enemy as he had declared himself Emperor; he was also guilty of regicide – a terrible crime in the ancient world, and only his death would satisfy Alexander.
A few days after the murder of Darius, Alexander’s pursuit caught up with Nabarzanes, one of the Great King’s senior officials who had been with Bessus when Darius was betrayed. Alexander wanted to execute him, but the pleas of Darius’ favourite eunuch, Bagoas, persuaded him to pardon Nabarzanes. Bagoas was, by all accounts, a beautiful, intelligent boy whom Darius had favoured sleeping with, and he and Alexander began an affair that was to continue for life. Curtius describes Bagoas as Alexander’s eromenos, or younger male beloved. Not even Hephaestion was ever described as such.
We can only imagine what Hephaestion and Barsine and later, Roxane, must have thought of this boy. His story has been made into a novel The Persian Boy by Mary Renault. There are very few mentions of Bagoas in the sources but those we do have illustrate a dangerous and seductive favourite of the king. Plutarch tells us that deep into the campaign into Asia, Bagoas was still very much part of Alexander’s intimate life. He put his arms around the eunuch kissed him openly in front of his entire army after a festival where Bagoas won the contests in singing and dancing.
We know little of the mysterious Bagoas. He certainly was with Alexander frequently, and shared his bed often. He was one of those off-stage actors in history whose power to manipulate events is far greater than their public profile would suggest. He must have been feared by many, perhaps even by Hephaestion and Roxane. Later in the campaign we hear of an incident that reveals Bagoas’ deep and insidious influence over Alexander.
After the victory at Gaugamela and the death of Darius, and as the years and the long march of military successes went by and his empire grew, Alexander became increasingly depraved by power, by an insatiable lust for conquest and by the sometimes uncompromising cruelty needed to hold it all together. As the triumphant, conquering march across Asia progressed and more and more territory came under his rule, we see him slowly losing control of himself, succumbing both to hubris and mistrust.
Throughout the campaign there were times when Alexander behaved in a way that he later came to regret. We read of so many varied nights of wild drinking; of the horrifying persecution of the Persian leader Bessus, who, when he was finally captured, was either impaled through the anus or torn apart by two bent trees; and of the paranoiac murder of Alexander’s trusted number two, Parmenio and his son Philotas.
The incident Alexander came to regret most, however, was the murder by his own hand of one of his most trusted officers, Cleitus. He stabbed him with a guard’s spear in a drunken, murderous rage, after Cleitus, drunk as well, had dared to suggest that Alexander’s achievements were not as great as his father Philip’s. The shame that Alexander felt after he had killed Cleitus sent him immediately into a downward spiral. He was so shocked by what he had done that he would have stabbed himself in the throat with the same spear if he had not been restrained and carried into his chambers by his guards. ‘There,’ Plutarch writes, ‘he spent the rest of the night and the whole of the following day sobbing in an agony of remorse.’
Alexander was a man both obsessed and corrupted by the triumphs of power – his uniqueness as a leader, and his tragedy as a human being, was that he knew it. By the time he had reached the geographical midway point of his conquest of Asia, somewhere in the mountains and steppes of what is now modern-day Afghanistan, Alexander had crossed some sort of terrible inner boundary within himself.
‘A silence born of fear held fast all who were in his presence,’ writes Athenaeus about Alexander, quoting the long-lost history of Ephippus who was a contemporary of the king. ‘For he was intolerable, and murderous, reputed in fact to be melancholy mad.’
Alexander, however, was too intelligent and too self-aware to become an unfeeling tyrannical monster. He was determined to conquer the world, but he was not an Adolf Hitler. Still, the ironies of his character, and the growing, increasingly catastrophic, inconsistencies of his behaviour are enigmas that lead us deeper into the world of his inner life.
Pothos is a Greek word that has often been used to describe Alexander’s extraordinary personal motivation. Arrian is the first to use the word about him. He tells us that Alexander was ‘irresistibly impelled’ to visit the palace of Gordius where the gardens sheltered the simple ox-cart where the yoke was fastened to the towing shaft by the famously complex Gordian knot. The legend was that he who could undo the knot was ‘destined to be the lord of Asia’. Most of us know the story that Alexander simply took out his sword and sliced the knot in two, so fulfilling the prophecy.
What was this irresistible impulse that drove Alexander to take on the mythic Gordian knot with such boldness and then travel far, far beyond it? What was this madness that made him lead tens of thousands of men deep into the heart of enemy territory, conquering as he went? Some translate the word pothos as an unquenchable desire to achieve what had never been achieved before. Its true meaning, like so many ancient concepts, is obscured by time, but there are deeper, more elusive meanings to pothos than only this megalomaniac obsession with achievement can express. Pothos can also be translated as a ‘desire for what is absent or lost’, ‘regret’, and, yes, as ‘love’.
A desire for what is absent or lost. Regret. Love. We know from Alexander’s childhood that so much inside him was torn apart by his parents’ hatred of one another. Somewhere in that primal confusion and wounding, he discovered the seeds of what Nietzsche would call his ‘will to power’. It gave him his extraordinary determination and the strength to conquer the world, but we can only imagine just how much of his soul was lost in the dark, incomprehensible vortex of shame and fear that all children experience when their parents go to war with one another.
Tennyson almost perfectly captures these complex layers of feeling in his poem Ulysses, or Odysseus in Greek, a figure whom Alexander himself would have read about in both the Iliad and the Odyssey and whom he would have revered as a real historical person.
‘I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;’
These lines are filled with the mingled sorrow and unquenchable energy of Alexander, they speak to the loneliness in us all as we struggle through our own journeys, painfully discovering the best and the worst in ourselves, trying as best we can to hold onto hope and to become the heroes of our own lives. They help us to understand the paradox that was Alexander.
It was a mix of grief and desire that drove him. He travelled deep into the heart of Asia, driven to conquer not only the world, but his own past; and, in doing so, somewhere between Persia and India, in the midst of a shattering sense of personal crisis, nearly incapacitated with remorse over having murdered Cleitus, Alexander met his barbarian princess, Roxane.
The story of their love began, as always with Alexander, in the midst of war. In the summer of 328 BC he had established his main base in Maracanda, modern Samarkand, in Uzbekistan. He and his army had fought their way up from south-western Afghanistan, through Kandahar, Kabul and Balkh, near modern-day Mazar-e-Sharif. It had taken his armies nearly two years of constant guerrilla fighting against the Sogdian leader Spitamenes to get through to Maracanda. He split his forces somewhere near Ay Khanoum in northern Afghanistan. The different sections of his army moved northwards through Tajikistan, some of them following the road that goes from Dushanbe through the Anzob Pass, slowly but methodically, seizing control of the territory through which they marched. The fighting was brutal and unrelenting, no side was innocent of horror, and cruelty after cruelty was committed both by the Greeks and by their Sogdian opponents. Both sides understood all too well the crucial historical and strategic imperative. Control of the heart of Asia was at stake, and tens of thousands of men, woman and children were killed in the fighting. If Alexander and his Macedonians failed here, his dream would die; while the Sogdians realized all too well that if they lost their guerrilla campaign, they would become subjects of a foreign empire.
This campaign of 329 - 328 BC is an eerie forerunner of so many Western incursions into Afghanistan. One thinks of the British nineteenth century colonial wars beginning with the disastrous retreat from Kabul in the winter of 1842 where some 16 000 British and Indian soldiers and the women and children who accompanied them were slaughtered or died of cold in the mountain passes. Out of the entire column, only one man, a Dr. Brydon, managed to ride half-alive into Jalalabad.
Even Rudyard Kipling, that arch-supporter of Britain’s later nineteenth century colonial adventures, was despairing about his country’s military ambitions in Afghanistan:
‘When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.’
In more recent history we are depressingly familiar with the disastrous Russian invasion to defeat the mujahideen and, of course, after 9/11, the ongoing American and Nato-led efforts to eradicate the Taliban.
Alexander’s army faced similarly fierce and terrifying opposition on the plains and in the mountain passes of southern Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan and must have felt the need for a hard-earned rest and regroup in Maracanda. He himself was exhausted, both physically and mentally. He had been wounded seriously in the long months of fighting. An arrow had split open his shin bone, leaving him unable to ride a horse for weeks and having to be carried in a litter. Then he was struck in the larynx and head and knocked unconscious by a large stone which left him with blurred vision and hardly able to speak or to think clearly for days.
This state of wounded depression and the heavy drinking parties held by Alexander led to the tragedy that he came so bitterly to regret. It was in Maracanda either in the late summer or autumn of 328 that Alexander killed Cleitus in a drunken rage and retreated into self-recrimination. Still, he never lost sight of his military goals, and by the time winter came, he had moved his base a little south to Nautaca, which is now Uzunkir in Uzbekistan. He rested most of his troops for the cold early months of 327, although there was still much brutal guerrilla fighting against Spitamenes, who finally was trapped by one of Alexander’s generals. In this terrible winter campaign some 120 000 local Sogdian people were killed. Spitamenes was finally betrayed by his Afghan allies who brought his severed head to Alexander as a peace offering.
By the end of that winter, there were only four pockets of resistance left in the region that was known as Paraetecene – the mountainous region that lies between modern Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan. One of these hill barons who still held out against Alexander was Oxyartes, the ruler of the territory that included the famously impregnable Sogdian Rock, and the father of Roxane.
Starting in early 327 from his winter base at Nautaca, Alexander set out to destroy the hill barons of Paraetecene. The weather was appalling. Snow and ice blocked the mountain passes, freezing rain turned to hail which pelted the Macedonians as they struggled eastwards through the mountain passes.
As they had marched through the peaks, thunder and lightning crashed out of the sky. Rain and hail fell on the men struggling up the steep slopes. The storm continued for hours, pelting the men who held up their shields to protect themselves against the downpour. The weather grew colder and colder, the rain and hail turned to sleet; soon the soldiers were exhausted and freezing. As discipline faltered, fear took over, and the columns began breaking up, men collapsed and died from hypothermia. Some died where they fell, others hid beneath whatever trees they could find.
Here we see the Alexander who commanded such admiration and loyalty among people. He rushed here and there through the masses of dying, frightened men, offering support and encouragement. At one point he commanded that all the surrounding trees be felled and huge fires be lit at the side of the road to warm the troops. Nonetheless, it was a calamity that took the lives of some 2000 soldiers and retainers. Curtius says that many of the bodies were found frozen to tree trunks, looking eerily alive, trapped forever in the instant of death.
Alexander gave his own seat by one of the fires to an exhausted, barely-conscious soldier. When the man had recovered sufficiently and had realized whose seat he was sitting in, he sprang up in terror. But Alexander calmed him down. ‘Do you see how much better it is for you under a king than for the Persians? For them sitting on the king’s throne would have meant certain death – but for you it meant life.’
It was under such difficult conditions that he finally brought his army to the Sogdian Rock. Arrian tells us that it was a vast boulder, steep and sheer on every side. One of the greatest mysteries in our knowledge of Alexander is the location of this famous rock. There were so many steep, impassable peaks in the Pamirs that the exact location of Oxyartes’ stronghold has been lost and no one has yet been able to trace it.
The Sogdian Rock in Alexander’s day was well provisioned for a long siege with deep snow on its summit that made it difficult for the Macedonians to ascend and also provided the defenders with more than enough water for their needs. It was, Arrian says, ‘the last stronghold of Sogdiana: should it fall, there would be nothing left for those who still hoped to offer resistance.’
The defenders overconfidence was their undoing. Alexander initially offered a parley. They could abandon the Rock and return unmolested to their homes and farms. They laughed at him and told him that if he wanted to capture their stronghold then he should find men with wings.
Alexander called for volunteers among his army. He offered vast sums of money to men who would scale the cliffs for him, and some 300 men came forward. Using ropes and iron tent pegs, they scaled the cliffs under cover of night. Thirty or so of them fell to their deaths during the hazardous operation and their bodies were never recovered, but, as dawn was breaking, the war party reached the top. They signalled to Alexander below. He sent a herald to tell the inhabitants to surrender as men with wings had been found. The Sogdians were so shocked to find Alexander’s soldiers behind them on the pinnacle of their stronghold that, even though they outnumbered the tiny Macedonian force, they surrendered immediately.
Alexander ordered a gruesome fate for the commander of the Rock, Arimazes. He was scourged and then crucified at the foot of the mountain, along with all of his senior noblemen. The rest of the population were taken prisoner. Many women and children were among the captives, and among them were the wife and daughters of Oxyartes, including, of course, Roxane. ‘Men who took part in the campaign,’ Arrian tells us, ‘used to say she was the loveliest woman they had seen in Asia, with the one exception of Darius’ wife [Stateira]. Alexander fell in love with her at sight.’
One should never forget that she was a captive of war – technically a slave – and by our best estimates, she was some 16 years younger than Alexander which would have made her a teenager to his 29. Like all the women in Alexander’s life, Roxane would have had little or no choice in her future, and she could have had no idea of the suffering that lay ahead of her. Still, no matter how many fears and doubts she might have had about the future, to have been chosen as Alexander first bride and hence to have been plucked out of a life of concubinage or slavery must have also been a heaven-sent opportunity for her. We don’t know whether she fell in love with him immediately, but we can be sure that she made every effort to catch his attention. At the very least, she stood to benefit enormously. Her world as a hill princess had been shattered; she was now a Macedonian slave who had been given a chance to marry the king. It would be absurd to assume that she – almost certainly with the enthusiastic cooperation of her father Oxyartes - did not actively seek to impress Alexander.
Of course, for him, marriage to a young Persian bride was politically expedient and strategically brilliant, and some writers have seen only this in Alexander’s choice of Roxane as his first wife, but this is too simplistic. All the main sources agree he was smitten. Even the somewhat stuffy, moralistic Plutarch describes it as a ‘love-match’. There is a haunting echo of Olympias and Philip’s first encounter in their meeting. Roxane danced for him at a banquet provided by her father. Curtius tells us that it was ‘a banquet of typical barbaric extravagance. . . Oxyartes had thirty young noblewomen brought in, one of whom was his own daughter Roxane, a woman of remarkable physical beauty with a dignified bearing rarely found in barbarians . . . so it was that the man who had looked with what were merely paternal feelings on the wife and two unmarried daughters of Darius – and with these none but Roxane could be compared in looks - now fell in love with a young girl, of humble pedigree in comparison with royalty.’
Who can truly say what ‘falling in love is’? Is it, as modern psychology will often have us believe, merely a ‘projection’ of our own unmet needs onto another? Is it a merging of two souls, mysteriously destined for one another? Or is it, as Socrates, who was the mentor of Aristotle, taught, a divine madness that is also the gift of the goddess Aphrodite? A gift that drives away our reason, but also brings us the best that life on this earth can offer.
There had been many other relationships since Campaspe, and by this stage of his life Alexander had had a string of lovers. We don’t, for example, know where Barsine was, and there might have been some overlap between her and Roxane. We do know that Barsine was pregnant when Roxane and Alexander got married.
We can never entirely untangle the complex, and often bitter, web of emotional connections that filled Alexander’s life. We know nothing, as we have seen, of what Hephaestion and Bagoas felt about each other, but we do know that they both loved Alexander and that he loved each of them in return. It does not make much sense to the morals of our age, but like his Homeric hero Achilles, who loved both Patroclus and his captive queen, Briseis, Alexander’s love for Hephaestion, or for Bagoas, did not exclude the possibility of loving Roxane. And she of loving him.
Roxane was only a teenager when she married Alexander, but she was clearly a sexually precocious, determined and calculating one. Her seducing of him shows an intuitive courage and foresight that marked her out above all the other women he had met. There can be no doubt that when Alexander first cast eyes on Roxane he knew that his life had changed forever. He had come all this way to central Asia as the conqueror of the world, but somewhere in the swirling, alluring dance of a teenage Persian princess, he lost absolute mastery over his heart.
From the instant he met Roxane, the centre of Alexander’s empire began to shift, from Macedonian to Persian. It was the moment at which East and West began a complex, tortured merging that continues to this day. Never again would either civilization be able to remain uninfluenced by the other. Our own world, with all its conflict and mutual fascination between East and West, was begun with the love of Alexander and Roxane.
Curtius was deeply aware of the significance of their meeting and of Alexander’s subsequent offer not merely to possess her as a captive concubine, but to marry her. He writes that Alexander was making ‘a statement that intermarriage of Persians and Macedonians would serve to consolidate his empire, that only thus could the conquered lose their shame and the conquerors their pride.’ The marriage of Alexander and Roxane was the ultimate repudiation of Aristotle’s racist teachings about barbarians. Many Greeks, including Aristotle, never forgave Alexander for it.
‘The barbarians were encouraged,’ writes Plutarch, ‘by the feeling of partnership which their alliance created, and they were completely won over by Alexander’s moderation and courtesy and by the fact that without the sanction of marriage he would not approach the only woman who had ever conquered his heart.’
The wedding has been much mythologized, but we can have no doubt it was a splendid affair. Alexander chose to follow Sogdian rituals. A loaf of freshly-baked bread was produced and Alexander cut it with his sword. Some say he shared it with Roxane; others with her father Oxyartes. Perhaps he shared it with both of them, after all, he was building an empire in his own image, and such innovative blending of ancient tradition and the towering strength of his own presence was something he had done before at the Oracle of Zeus-Ammon in Siwa and in the cutting of the Gordian knot.
The splendour of the ceremony is layered beneath of a palimpsest of memory and imagination. It was first painted by the ancient Greek artist, Aetion, but none of his works survive. In 1511 the famous Renaissance painter Il Sodoma used a description of Aetion’s work by Lucian of Samosata to create his masterpiece the ‘Marriage of Alexander and Roxane’. Il Sodoma was influenced by both Leonardo and Raphael and the work is a beautiful, wistful fantasy typical of the High Renaissance period. The wedding takes place in a marbled hall of a palace. Cupids dance and flutter along the ceiling; ornate columns frame a glorious Imperial vista of hills and trees and a distant city. Roxane is sitting demurely on the nuptial bed that is hung with crimson velvet curtains while a cupid pulls a veil from her face and another removes her shoe. Alexander is being dragged across the floor by yet another cupid while he holds a garland out to Roxane. Hephaestion and a near-naked youth, probably the god of weddings Hymenaeus, stand to one side, while Hephaestion holds a blazing torch. We can only guess at what Hephaestion was thinking, but we do know he was the best man at the ceremony.
A more realistic imagining of it comes from Mary Renault in her superbly-researched novel, The Persian Boy, where she has a jealous and unhappy Bagoas describe a barbarian celebration of Dionysiac music, blazing fires and piles of jewellery and other wedding gifts with drunken Macedonian soldiers and Sogdian tribesmen sharing the revels by downing draughts of wine and tearing at hunks of roasted meat in the flickering light of the flames. Alexander and a Roxane sit on high thrones, talking to one another through an interpreter, while she wears colourful robes and gazes at him and at the celebrations all around her with bright, girlish eyes.
‘Thus,’ writes Curtius in a cynical, even cruel, aside, ‘the ruler of Asia and Europe married a woman who had been introduced to him as part of the entertainment at dinner – to produce from a captive a son to rule over her conquerors!’
The marriage marked the point at which Persians started to become the equals of Macedonians in Alexander’s empire. Oxyartes and then another Sogdian chieftain, Chorienes, became trusted allies of Alexander – after Oxyartes had persuaded Chorienes to surrender. Alexander recruited 30 000 young Persian men to his army, who were taught Greek and trained in the Macedonian way of fighting. He then began to adopt some of the court ceremonies of the Persian nobility; at the same time, he started wearing the ornate silken costumes of the East. (Surely Roxane had something to do with this? Any man who has started a new relationship with a woman will know that one of the first things she does is immediately disapprove of his old way of dressing, and charmingly, but determinedly, ensure that he changes his satorial style to suit her tastes . . .)
These developments soon caused resentment among the Macedonian officers and among the old guard of his retainers. Curtius’ remark perfectly captures what must have been their growing outrage and bitterness over the increasing influence that Asians had in Alexander’s expanding realm. Acceptance of this ‘Persianization’ of his realm quickly became a test of loyalty to the king himself. Plutarch tells us that ‘among his closest friends it was Hephaestion who approved of these plans and joined him in changing his habits.’
Callisthenes, though, was enraged by this new, and increasingly enthusiastic, tolerance of barbarians and their ‘corrupt’ ways and relations between him and Alexander, which were already poor as a result of Callisthenes’ sometimes sharp and critical tongue, soured rapidly. Up until this point he had been the official historian of the entire campaign, often acting as little more than an enthusiastic propagandist for the conquering march of the Greek army. But Alexander’s marriage to Roxane and the subsequent increase of Persian influence in his army and administration was a step too far for him. As a loyal pupil and blood relation of Aristotle, he could not stomach the fact that Alexander had changed; that, while, outwardly, the king remained unquestionably the conquering Greek hero in the mold of Heracles or Achilles, his heart had been lost to one of his own captives, a despised barbarian slave.
An inevitable result of this increasing Persian authority in his administration was the issue of ‘proskynesis’, the act of bowing down to Alexander in the Persian way of obeisance to the shahanshah, ‘King of kings’. (A title used in Iran for over 2000 years, until 1979 and the deposing of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in a revolution led by the Ayatollah Khomeini that led to a 15-month siege of the US Embassy in Teheran.) For the Greeks, however, proskynesis was a humiliating, unacceptable ritual; they bowed only to the gods, never to men, not even to the most powerful of monarchs. For the Persians it had no religious significance, and was an ancient custom used to show reverence. In a further step towards consolidating his increasingly multi-cultural empire, and treat Persian culture as equal to the Hellenic norms the invaders had brought with them, Alexander tried to demand that his Greek subjects also bow down before him.
It was too much. Callisthenes was no doubt speaking for the vast majority of Alexander’s Greek followers, who believed he was abandoning the old traditions of Macedonian egalitarianism and becoming an Oriental ‘god-king’, when he refused to adopt this custom.
But he made the fatal mistake of challenging Alexander publicly over the issue. That Alexander could not tolerate. The sources are silent on the relationship between Roxane and Callisthenes, but we can be sure that he, and many other Greeks, would have seen her as the origin of what they would have regarded as this ‘Orientalizing’ force that was corrupting their pure Greek culture. They must have hated and despised her. They would have bitterly resented their own relative powerlessness in comparison to this barbarian teenage girl. She was, after all, the king’s wife. They, and we, can never know for certain what she asked of him, or persuaded him to do in the intimacy of the royal chambers, but in the growing ‘Persianization’ of Alexander’s court and of his administration, they would have discerned her influence. Some of them, and surely Callisthenes would have been among them, would have spoken out against her in the increasingly regular and drunken symposia that Alexander indulged in.
She, in turn, must have hated them, and she must have loathed the outspoken, increasingly arrogant Callisthenes. He was popular among the Greeks, but he had become almost delusional in his perception of his own power. Because he had been chosen to tell Alexander’s story, he began to believe that he, like so many writers, had the power to create Alexander’s legacy.
One thinks here of Shakespeare’s Cassius who had grown up with Julius Caesar, like Callisthenes had done with Alexander. Both men watch in a mix of horror and resentment as their childhood friends become Emperors. We know that Shakespeare read his Plutarch closely and there is a surely deliberate parallel in what he has the assassin Cassius say about Caesar:
‘And this man
Is now become a god, and Cassius is
A wretched creature and must bend his body
If Caesar carelessly but nod on him.’
In these lines one can hear the helpless anger, the sense of bitterness mingled with moral outrage against the cruel injustices of power and the fate that makes one man an Emperor and another his subject.
We do not know exactly why Callisthenes decided at this point to switch from being a sycophantic praise singer of Alexander’s deeds to becoming the hostile voice of Greek discontent in the army, but it is likely Alexander’s marriage to Roxane was the catalyst for this transformation. Alexander would have been caught in the middle. It is easy to imagine the explosive mix of rage and jealousy that filled his court with Roxane and the new Persians on one side and Callisthenes and the Hellenic old guard on the other. Such tensions must have brought out old, hidden memories of his childhood, painful reminders of the scheming and hatred between his mother and his father. Now, he was no longer a child, confused and dependant on his parents; he was the most powerful king in the world who had a vast multi-cultural empire of seething resentments and political conflicts to hold onto. Something, or someone, had to give, and it was not to be Roxane.
The long-awaited reckoning commenced with a bungled attempt by one of the royal pages who harboured a grudge against Alexander to assassinate the king. Callisthenes was swept up in the arrests that followed. Because he had been known to have listened sympathetically to the pages’ complaints about Alexander’s behaviour, that was deemed sufficient reason to detain him. In an irony that echoes our own era of Guantanamo Bay, Callisthenes was held in chains in prison along with the guilty, simply for being under suspicion.
There was no evidence against him. Even under torture none of the conspirators implicated Callisthenes in the plot. According to Curtius, Hermolaus, the leader of the scheme, spoke bitterly against the king when he was brought before an assembly of the Macedonians. ‘ . . . the blood which you squander as if it were overabundant and cheap. For you, 30 000 mules are transporting captured gold – yet your soldiers will take home nothing but scars . . .’
In his rage he scathingly denounced Alexander’s sham court of justice: ‘How kind of you to give the floor to boys inexperienced in speaking! But Callisthenes’ voice is shut away in a prison – because he alone is able to speak . . . you are frightened to hear an innocent man speak freely; you cannot even look him in the face.’
There was no chance of a fair trial for Callisthenes. In spite of the evidence of his innocence, Alexander had made up his mind that the writer and philosopher was guilty. Plutarch tells of a chilling letter he wrote to one of his generals ‘. . . as for the sophist I shall punish him myself, and I shall not forget those who sent him to me . . .’ ie: Aristotle.
Alexander showed Callisthenes no mercy. Plutarch has the least dramatic version of his death: ‘according to some accounts Alexander ordered him to be hanged, but others have it that he was thrown into chains and died of disease.’ Curtius gives a glimpse of a crueler death: ‘he died under torture.’ Ptolemy adds that Callisthenes was crucified. Arrian mentions both fates. The fifth and most troubling account is given by the Roman writer, Justin. In his version, Alexander ordered that Callisthenes should have his arms and legs crushed and then his ears, nose and lips cut off. He was thrown into a cage with a dog and hauled along wherever the invading army marched as gruesome warning to other would-be traitors.
There is a ghastly parable about the excesses of power contained in the torture meted out to Callisthenes, a writer, a historian, a propagandist for Alexander who finally found the integrity to tell the truth to his king, the man who was now the leader of greatest military power in the history of the world, but who no longer had the courage to hear the voices of those who were brave enough to tell him the reality of his peoples’ feelings that existed beyond his hubris and his delusions.
Callisthenes’ body was destroyed but his eyes were untouched. He was able to see what was happening from inside his cage, but he was condemned by mutilation never again to be able to bear witness, never again to speak truth to those in power. In the end, in an act of mercy, Lysimachus, one of Alexander’s generals and a future king of Thrace, gave Callisthenes poison to put him out of his misery.
Roxane might well have played a role in Callisthenes’ fate. The irony of seeing the man who despised her and her conquered race being literally crushed by such a cruel fate could not have escaped her. She had born to desperate times; she was little more than a girl herself when she had been dragged into a vortex of blood, war and torture in which she had seen her home and everything she knew destroyed and brought under the heel of a foreign invader. But she, through a combination of boldness, sexual allure and luck, had found a way to survive. In her private moments, she could not have forgotten the horror she must have felt at seeing her fellow Sogdian Arimazes and his crucified nobles twisting and groaning in blood-soaked agony on their crosses at the foot of the Sogdian Rock. That might have been her father’s and brothers’ fate and hers to be a serving woman or sex slave. In other circumstances, Callisthenes, if he had not blundered so badly, might easily have engineered things that way for her.
How very far she had come since that night she had nervously but calculatingly danced for the king. In the eyes of Plutarch and Arrian and Curtius, (and to many male historians since then), she was nothing but a woman, a helpless victim of war, a teenage bride for the king to take his pleasure with, to beget him an heir and to cement a political alliance with her father. Clearly, she was that, but also much more to Alexander. She, her father Oxyartes, and her brother, Histanes, were his closest allies. Roxane had no choice, perhaps, to be unfailingly devoted to Alexander, but that loyalty served her own purposes well. This young, sexually captivating princess had redefined the very identity of his empire, and Callisthenes was the first victim of this new world.
One of the first things Alexander did at the time he married Roxane was to put Hephaestion in charge of consolidating and settling the territories they had so recently conquered. Amongst the cities founded by Hephaestion was one built on an earlier outpost of the Persian empire. It was a highly strategic citadel set up at the confluence of what are known today as the Amu Darya and the Kokcha rivers on the border between northern Afghanistan and Tajikistan. In ancient times the Amu Darya was called the Oxus and the city Hephaestion established was known as ‘Alexandria-On-The-Oxus.’
The new city was strongly fortified and situated so that the Greek garrison could keep a watch out from the acropolis above the town over the plains below. There was another crucial reason for the existence of a city here, from time immemorial it had controlled the access to the steep mountains of Badakshan beyond. The poet, classicist and traveller Peter Levi, tells us that these were the only source of lapis lazuli known to the ancient world. They were also mined for rock crystal and balas rubies.
The most famous of these is the Black Prince’s Ruby which passed from Afghanistan through the mediaeval trade routes of Islam to Moorish-ruled Granada. From there it finally found its way into the hands of Don Pedro the Cruel of Seville. He was deposed by his brother and fled to English-ruled France where Edward III, better known as the Black Prince, held court. In 1367, Edward promised to help Don Pedro regain his throne in return for a vast heap of treasure, in which this egg-sized ruby was included. It appeared again in 1415 on the crown of Henry V at Agincourt. On that momentous, terrifying day a mere 6 000 exhausted English, whom Shakespeare called ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers’, faced a throng of some 30 000 French. The English were terrified that they would be annihilated, but the French, eager to crush them with their superior numbers, rejected a call for a truce. The English were left with no choice but to fight. King ‘Harry’ stood before his army dressed in golden armour and a crown sparkling with pearls, sapphires and set with the great ruby of the Black Prince. In the chaos of battle, Henry was attacked by a group of French knights led by the Duc d’Alençon who struck him a heavy blow on his helmet. His followers waded in and Henry was nearly overwhelmed and forced into the mud; one of the French soldiers even managed to break off part of his crown before Henry and his household guard managed to drive the French back. He then went on to cut his way through the enemy ranks to save his younger brother, Humphrey, the Earl of Gloucester who had been wounded in the stomach. He stood over his brother fighting off the French until further help came. The English won an extraordinary victory. They lost between 200 – 450 men while some 5000 foot soldiers and 500 members of the French nobility were killed. Henry survived the battle and went on later to become king of both France and England. The great Afghan ruby that he wore so magnificently at Agincourt remains set in the English crown to this day.
‘Ay Khanoum’ is the traditional name for the site among the local people, but it is clearly the site of Alexandria-on-the-Oxus, which was founded by Alexander and his armies sometime around 327BC. It was the most remote city of his empire, the farthest boundary of the ancient Greek world.
The Greek settlers reinforced the natural defences of rivers and mountains with thick mud-brick walls, ramparts and ditches that enclosed the city. It was a colonial outpost complete with palaces, villas, a gymnasium and a stone amphitheatre. The inhabitants prided themselves on the purity of their language, and on their connections with faraway Greece. According to the French archaeologist, Paul Bernard, who excavated the site until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the luxurious residential quarters were mostly on the flat plain between the two rivers. The houses here were typically Greek and were centered around the palace. The entrance to this area was guarded by a large gatehouse that seems to have been placed there to control people’s movements in and out of the privileged streets. These Greek-style houses were, according to Bernard, substantially more luxurious than ‘a number of modest one-room houses on the acropolis [which] could have been those of local people who were not allowed to settle in the lower town.’ This sounds eerily like a description of a medium-sized country town in apartheid South Africa, colonial-era Kenya, or the American South where whites occupied the grand houses in the centre of town and blacks were relegated to very similar one or two-roomed houses in segregated areas on the periphery.
It seems that there was a long struggle for the identity of Ay Khanoum in the two centuries that it was ruled by Greek settlers and their descendants. The thick walls and isolated neighbourhoods bear testimony to the settlers’ fear-filled and hostile relations with the people whom they had conquered, and mostly regarded as inferior.
However, despite this evidence of segregation between natives and Greek and Greek-descended settlers, or Hellenistai, the religious life of Ay Khanoum seems to have been an amalgam of Persian and Greek symbolism. The architecture of the three temples that have been excavated is decidedly Persian-influenced with their high stepped podiums and closed off walls as opposed to the Greek model of empty space held up by vast marble or stone columns. On the other hand, the fragments of the statues that were discovered were Greek in origin. A vast marble sandalled foot decorated with a winged thunderbolt indicates a connection with Zeus, but it is likely that there was also some association with the Zoroastrian god Ahura-Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom. The most valuable religious object dug up was a silver plaque ornamented with gold which shows the goddess Cybele in her chariot drawn by a pair of lions. The style is Hellenic, but we should never forget that Cybele, the Great Mother, was originally an Asian goddess from what is now Turkey and her cult spread both westwards and eastwards. In addition, at the foot of the temple podium, scores of clay vessels were found turned upside down with their libation offerings spilled, an ancient Asian fertility ritual uncovered in digs throughout Afghanistan.
What was going on in the soul of the inhabitants is not clear. Their spiritual life must have shifted constantly between the imported religion of faraway Greece, and the day-to-day reality of the gods and spirits that inhabited the mountains and the hearts of the Scythian, Afghan, Persian and Indian people who they lived among. Perhaps, despite the evidence of social segregation, the two groups worshipped together? Perhaps, over the years the descendants of the original settlers became more and more comfortable with their status as ‘Asians’? Perhaps the local Afghans, too, like the millions of African and Asian Christians today, were equally at home with the Greek gods who had come to dwell among them in the temples built by the settlers? Over the years, the differences between the two groups diminished, and slowly created a new syncretic culture that was partly Greek, partly Asian. Certainly, it is clear that, for example, much Buddhist sculpture found even as far east as China owes its origins to Greek artistic models.
We can do little more than guess as to the answers to these questions. Bernard and his team were forced to stop digging in 1978 as the Soviet invasion grew imminent. What we do know is that the founding fathers of the city intended it to be Greek.
One of the most intriguing finds was the funerary monument to one of the founders of the city, Kineas. Just legible on one of the surviving stone blocks of the monument is this fragmentary inscription:
‘Klearchos having copied them faithfully, set them up, shining from afar, in the sanctuary of Kineas.’
This Klearchos was almost certainly Klearchus of Soli, who like Alexander and Callisthenes, had studied under Aristotle, and who walked 3000 miles from Delphi to the Oxus, travelling from one Alexandria to the next, passing on Greek wisdom and, at the same time, studying Oriental philosophers. What remains carved in stone and dug out of the mud of Ay Khanoum are five maxims from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.
‘In childhood learn good manners
In youth learn to control your passions
In middle age learn to be just
In old age learn to be of wise counsel
Then die, without regret.’
We can assume that the missing parts of the monument contained the other 150 sayings that were engraved in the stone of the mysterious Temple of Apollo where the Pythian priestesses would linger in the darkness before the hidden cavern where the Oracle dwelled. They would utter the famous, confusing precepts and prophesies that were open to so many interpretations, but which always within their hidden depths contained an inescapable truth for the hearer. ‘Know Thyself’ was the greatest of all these maxims, inscribed above the vast columned entrance to the oracle.
Whether the inhabitants of Ay Khanoum could say this about themselves, we are not sure. Almost all the surviving evidence about the lives of the people of the city has been destroyed or looted in the decades of war. Recently there has been some news of new finds taking place under the local commander, General Hakim, but until a proper physical inspection of the site can be made, these finds will remain little more than unsubstantiated rumours.
Alexandria on The Oxus stood for about 200 years until, at the height of its glory, its last king, Eucratides the Great, was assassinated by his son. In the chaos that followed, the city was captured and destroyed by a nomad raid in about 130 BC. First Scythian tribes on horseback swept through and laid siege to its walls. Then the Yue Zhi, a probably Caucasian people, who had been settled in northwest China and were driven out by the Han dynasty, moved west across Asia into Greco-Bactria and finally destroyed the city. We know very little about the suffering of the last Greek inhabitants or about the triumph of their conquerors, but the archaeological evidence shows that almost every major building was engulfed in fire.
The Yue Zhi, however, were not mere barbarians. They divided Bactria into five kingdoms, one of which was the Kuei Shang, or Kushan, who extended their empire into India and Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Under their tolerant rule, the Silk Road between China and Rome blossomed. Buddhism, which had been growing in India and in Greco-Bactria spread to China and from there to Japan and South East Asia. Nestorian and Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism and the ancient nomad religions of the steppes all thrived under the Kushans. Gandhara in north-west India became the centre of the Kushan empire. Under their greatest Emperor, Kanshika, Gandharan art blended all of these into a unique form of art that depicted Shiva, Buddha and Heracles. The Kushans, in their turn, were finally overthrown by the White Huns in the 5th century AD, although isolated hints of their magnificent culture lingered in forgotten corners of Afghanistan until the devastating rule of the Taliban.
The fate of Ay Khanoum during these tumultuous centuries is mysterious. After the sacking and burning of the city by the Yue Zhi, it ceased to be a Greek city forever. Its buildings and monuments were destroyed; its name utterly forgotten for nearly 2000 years. The palace of Eucratides was sacked; the temples and mansions of the rich were burned and looted. We can imagine that the native Bactrians and their Scythian or Yue Zhi nomad allies swarmed into the privileged, protected Greek heart of the city, killing and destroying as they came. Ash and rubble filled the gardens and the once straight, unwavering street that had led through the heart of the city. The new inhabitants built mud and wooden huts on top of the ancient temple and palace mounds, they hacked at the classical Doric and ornate Corinthian stone columns to tear out the metal clamps inside which they used for arrowheads and tools. Goats, hobbled camels and dogs foraged in the ruins. The amphitheatre, the largest Greek theatre in Asia, bigger even than the theatre at Babylon, where the great tragedies and comedies had been performed, was turned into a dumping ground for the dead. Archaeologists digging there in the 1970s found the marble seats piled high with the remains of unburied corpses that dogs used to feed on.
Finally, the Bactrians and the Scythians abandoned the city too, leaving even less evidence of their existence behind than the Greeks. Alexandria-On-The-Oxus, and whatever it was called after that, faded out of human memory. Like Angkor Wat swallowed up by the jungle in Cambodia, Alexandria-On-The-Oxus was drowned in time and dust, an utterly lost city until 1838, when a British explorer, Captain John Wood, believed he had seen the faint patterns of ancient ruins in the dust, but none of the local Tajiks and Uzbeks could tell him anything about them. It was only in 1961 that the city was rediscovered. The king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, was hunting in the remote northern border region of his country when he too saw what he recognized as the outlines of an ancient city on the river banks far below. He called in a French archaeological team and they began systematically excavating the site until the Soviet invasion.
For most archaeologists the rediscovery of Ay Khanoum is important in that it was the first Greco-Bactrian settlement to confirm the existence of Greek kingdoms in Central Asia. But many have missed the fact that it also opens up a curious and tantalizing chapter in the mystery of the life of Roxane and Alexander.
It begins, interestingly enough, with Marco Polo. He visited this region heading towards China at about the time the great ruby was making its way westwards towards Europe. This was well over a thousand years after the time of Alexander but he tells us that the legacy of the ancient past lived on in Badakshan and the surrounding region. The local kings, he says, were still of ‘a lineage descended from King Alexander and the daughter of Darius, the Great King of Persia. In honour of Alexander the Great, all its kings still bear the title Zulkarnein, the Saracen equivalent of our Alexander.’
Here, over a millenium later, buried in the writings of Marco Polo we find a half-forgotten, but flawed glimpse of the relationship between Alexander and Roxane. Alexander did, in fact, marry the elder daughter of Darius. He took her as a second wife after he had married Roxane. In a complicated twist, he made the girl change her name to that of her mother, Stateira. After Alexander’s death, Roxane had Stateira poisoned. We know little else about the girl, but she was certainly not from the mountains of Afghanistan. The layers of evidence about the story of Alexander and Roxane constantly shift, even as we try to pin them down.
In making sense of Marco Polo’s anecdote I am deeply indebted to a recently-published paper entitled: Fragments and Memes: Evidence of Alexander The Great in Central Asian Folklore and Culture by Professor Rustam Abdulov of Tashkent University. ‘We know what Marco Polo dictated, but we don’t know what he heard, whether it was translated properly for him, and we don’t know exactly what he still remembered and, perhaps more importantly, what he had forgotten when he dictated his book to Rusticello in a Genoese prison.
Clearly, however, the kings of Badakshan whom Marco Polo wrote about cannot be physically descended from either Roxane or Stateira. We know for certain that the younger Stateira bore him no children. In addition, Roxane and her son, also called Alexander, were killed in 313BC by feuding Greek generals fighting over Alexander’s empire. Neither woman left any grandchildren.
But all the evidence as to the location of the Sogdian Rock, Roxane’s home, puts it somewhere in the mountains of Tajikistan not too far north of the ancient city of Ay Khanoum in northern Afghanistan. It is likely that these mountain chieftains were related by clan or blood to the clan of Oxyartes and Roxane. Those ancient kinship ties may well have still been celebrated in the local folklore a millenium later when Marco Polo arrived.’
With the death of Callisthenes, his marriage to Roxane and the creation of Greek colonies in older, established, Persian cities like Ay Khanoum, the growing power of Asians in the empire became an incontestable reality. The letters back and forth seeking advice from Aristotle in Greece came to an end. After what he saw as his betrayal by Callisthenes, Alexander became more determined than ever to forge his own path, and that direction lay deeper into Asia. From this point on Roxane travelled with him. We know he did not sleep every night in her quarters, but he regularly spent the afternoons in her quarters with her. However, as the months went by, she did not become pregnant. The Persians were worried; many of the Macedonians silently delighted.
He stayed in constant touch on this campaign with his mother Olympias through letters. She wrote him endlessly, complaining about matters at court in Macedonia and the behaviour of his regent, Antipater, whom she hated, and who, in turn, hated her. Olympias was far away, alone in a hostile royal court, that was little more than a gilded prison without the protection of her adored son. What she said about his new wife and what Roxane thought of her, we can only guess at, but much must have passed between them. A number of modern writers have speculated that Alexander suffered from a repressed Oedipus complex. Certainly, it is impossible that such a passionate, deeply possessive woman as Olympias would not have told her son what she felt about his new wife. Ironically, too, it is likely that Roxane would have reminded him of his mother.
Alexander kept his mother’s letters secret, with one important exception that Plutarch mentions. ‘Hephaestion was in the habit of reading the king’s letters with him, and on this occasion his eye 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.’
We will never know what was in that letter from his mother, but this anecdote gives us a tantalizing glimpse of the intimacy in Alexander’s inner circle. Constant impassioned letters passing back and forth between him and his famously difficult mother (he was said to have remarked that she was charging him a high rent for his nine months lodging in her womb), Hephaestion sworn to secrecy about his mother by kissing the royal ring, the cold mountain nights spent wandering between Roxane’s quarters, the greater harem and the beds of Hephaestion and Bagoas, the jealousy and resentment of the Macedonian old guard at Alexander’s increasing acceptance of Persian dress, customs and people - it adds up to a deeply convoluted emotional life filled with conflicting tensions of love, sex and divided loyalties. And the teenaged Roxane had found, or quite deliberately positioned, herself at the epicentre of it all.
As Roxane followed him deeper into Asia on his campaigns, even though he didn’t spend every night with her, her tent was always pitched near his. Life cannot have been easy for her. We must stop for a moment and imagine the volatile patterns of feeling that must have swirled through her life. For months, as the military campaign eastwards gathered momentum, Roxane almost falls out of the records. The sources concentrate on battles and victories and the advance towards India. She almost disappears from the story on the long, difficult sometimes brutal march through Afghanistan to the Punjab and the final voyage down the Indus. Some Persian tales claim that Alexander gave her a castle for a wedding present where she was sent far away for her safety, but, as Professor Rustam Abdulov of Tashkent University points out in his monumental work, this is no more than legend. What we know of Roxane and Alexander’s relationship on this journey we must deduce as best we can, searching the lacunae in the records for hidden, but sometimes obvious, truths.
One jarring truth is that Barsine bore a son, called Heracles, just weeks before the invasion of India began. The child, however, was never officially recognized by Alexander. Roxane would have wanted to be sure that her rival’s child was born, and remained, a bastard. Here again, we see Alexander, king of all the world, and lover of so many, complying with his teenaged wife’s wishes.
As he headed east towards India, Alexander believed he was heading for his ultimate goal – the river Oceanus that encircled the End of the Earth. He gathered together the largest force he had yet assembled, some 120 000 men. Hephaestion led half the army down the plains of Peshawar through the famous Khyber Pass. Alexander took the other half north into the Swat Highlands, following, he believed, in the footsteps of both Dionysus and Heracles. In the valleys of the highlands, Alexander met stiff resistance and he had to fight hard through the winter of 326.
According to Mary Renault, Roxane would not have gone to India with Alexander but would have followed Hephaestion along with the rest of the civilians. She believes that he would not have taken her through the bitter cold and the fierce fighting that was to come. If so, the separation must have been hard for her, being left in the care of Hephaestion, who, while unquestionably loyal to Alexander, and who would have defended his king and lover’s wife to the death, was also paradoxically one of her main competitors for Alexander’s heart.
But she must have understood, too, how her husband was driven. This campaign he conducted with his usual vigour. A few weeks after it had begun, he attacked a small walled city on the Katgala pass, called Mazagae ruled by a Queen Cleophis. Almost as soon as the siege had begun, Alexander was hit by an arrow in the ankle. Despite the wound, he commanded huge siege towers to be built and drawn up on earth ramparts around the city wall. The Indian defenders had never seen such massive warcraft and as Curtius tells us, ‘they abandoned all hope of defending the city.’ Then followed a strange incident that, like so much of Alexander’s life, is shrouded in almost mythical ambiguity. ‘The queen came with a group of ladies of noble birth who made libations from golden bowls. The queen herself placed her little son at Alexander’s knees, and from him gained not only a pardon but also the restitution of her former status, for she retained the title of queen. Some have held the belief that it was the queen’s beauty rather than Alexander’s compassionate nature that won her this, and it is a fact that she subsequently bore a son who was named Alexander, whoever his father was.’
Some writers have claimed that this story was not to be found in the Greek originals, but was inserted later in Roman times, perhaps as a confused reference to Cleopatra of Egypt. It is exactly this kind of uncertain gap that plagues our understanding of Roxane and Alexander at this point in the campaign. The histories that we have focus almost entirely on his military exploits, leaving us guessing as to what happened between the two of them. The evidence we have points us to the conclusion that he largely ignored her at this stage in favour of his military conquests. No doubt, she would have had to accept that as a given. Still we cannot help wondering what she must have felt on this lonely winter journey so far away from Alexander, her husband; and so far away from her home and everything that she knew.
The two armies finally rejoined one another in the spring of 326 at Taxila, near Rawalpindi in northern Pakistan, a city ruled by the rajah Ambi or, Omphis, as he is known in some sources. Here Alexander was able to spend some time with Roxane, even though it wasn’t for long. Ambi was friendly to Alexander and greeted his arrival with a large parade and celebration, and the two armies gathered their strength as the weather warmed up. It was at Taxila that the legendary meeting of Greek philosophers and the Gymnosophists or Naked Philosophers of India took place. The Mediaeval Alexander Romance has Alexander coming across the Gymnosophists in a beautiful forest filled with trees bearing rich fruit and a river with ‘clear water bright as milk’. ‘Your business is war; ours is wisdom,’ they were said to have told him.
Certainly Taxila was a welcome respite from the cruel rigours of the previous winter’s campaign, and it is hard to imagine that Alexander did not find himself frequently taking his ease in Roxane’s luxurious quarters, but Roxane was still not pregnant by the time Alexander set off on campaign against Ambi’s enemy, the powerful king Porus, who ruled the lands of the Punjab, the gateway to India.
The campaign that followed was the beginning of the end for Alexander. The battle on the banks of the Jhelum river against the Rajah Porus was the last great battle of his career. On the eastern bank of the river, Porus lay in wait for Alexander with an army that was only some 30 000 men as opposed to Alexander’s 120 000, but he had some 5000 cavalry and his trump card were his 300 war elephants. Alexander only had 25 elephants. Porus controlled the river, and his elephants frightened the Macedonians and their Indian allies, who could not manoeuvre their own small force of elephants to oppose Porus’ on the opposite bank. The Rajah’s main aim was to prevent the Greeks from crossing until the monsoons had raised the waters and made it impossible to get over. By so doing, he hoped to delay or even stop their invasion of India.
But he had not understood just how ruthless and determined Alexander was. The monsoons had begun, and despite the heavy downpour, the Macedonians advanced across the river in vast numbers, using whatever boats they could find or rafts they could construct. Porus and his troops put up a fierce fight and their herd of war elephants inflicted terrible damage. They trampled the Greeks underfoot and, says Curtius, ‘a particularly terrifying sight was when elephants would snatch up men in armour in their trunks and pass them over their heads to the drivers.’
In the end, though, the Greeks destroyed the elephants with flights of arrows and brave skirmishing where men hacked at their trunks and feet with swords and axes. Maddened by pain, the elephants either collapsed, or turned and charged on their own troops. The tide of battle shifted and the Greeks slaughtered tens of thousands of Indians. Porus himself had fought bravely and in defeat all he asked of Alexander was to be treated ‘like a king’. In a masterstroke of compassion and diplomacy, he restored Porus’ kingdom and gained an ally. But there was sadness for Alexander amidst his triumph, at nearly thirty years old, the rigours of combat had been too much for Bucephalus. The old horse had collapsed in the opening moments of the battle and died. Alexander founded a city here, Bucephela, in memory of his faithful companion.
The humid monsoon rains poured down every day as Alexander continued his campaign southwards down the Indus river into the heart of India, and his troops soon became dispirited as their clothes, boots and harnesses began to disintegrate in the constant damp that surrounded them. They won victories, but they succumbed to malaria and cholera and a host of other tropical diseases as they marched.
Roxane was with him as this campaigned progressed, the anguish and disease growing greater and greater the deeper they travelled into India. Their dreams of silks and jewels and exotic temples were being washed away by extreme hardship. But somewhere amidst all this suffering, she managed to fall pregnant. We can only imagine what she thought, the depression and fear she must have felt as the life of her first, precious child was put at constant risk by Alexander’s stubbornness and ruthless determination to press on to the ends of the earth.
Finally it was Alexander’s most loyal soldiers, his Macedonians, who brought him face to face with the reality of his character. On the banks of the river Beas, the veteran Coenus, who had served both his father Philip and Alexander for twenty years, stood up amidst the mass of men and told Alexander that they would go no further. For two days he retreated into his tent in a rage and refused to come out. Roxane must have surely been at his side and one wonders what she might have said to him, especially now that their first child was growing in her womb.
Finally he emerged from his tent, and called on the priests to sacrifice offerings to see whether he should cross the Beas. It was a face-saving gesture. Predictably, the omens did not appear in his favour. A great cheer went up from the troops when Alexander announced his decision to turn back.
It was his first, and most crucial defeat. Like the mythical gods of old, he had been brought low by his own hubris. He had not reached the ends of the earth, and the great river Oceanus that encircled the earth, the giant snake of his dreams, had eluded his grasp. He had now to return, undefeated in war, but no longer able to believe that he could bend fate to his will. The son of Zeus-Ammon was human after all. By all accounts, Alexander hid the disgrace well, but the bitterness of it must have burned deep inside him. He might have still clung to the belief that he was the son of a god, but he could not escape the truth that he was an exhausted, many-times wounded man who had reached the summit of his life’s achievement.
Soon, on the homeward passage, he reached the banks of the river Jhelum, the scene of his triumph over Porus. Bucephela had been washed away by the monsoon rains, the first sign that his legacy as conqueror was already being eroded. Worse was to follow, Roxane miscarried here. It must have been an agonizing reminder of his, and her, frailties as human beings. He must have known, too, that it was his determination to invade India that had led to Roxane losing their child. What must she have felt? We have seen already that, young as she was, she was a powerful character in her own right. What fury and resentment must she have unleashed upon him in the privacy of their own quarters? He too was capable of great, even homicidal rage, followed by suicidal regret. He was drinking heavily at this point too, so how must he have responded to her? We don’t know. Even in defeat, though, Alexander was Alexander, he set off on the return to Babylon with as much outward control and determination as he had displayed as conqueror. But Roxane, it seems, was equally resolute. She was the king’s wife, and there would be times to come when she would have to accept that role with all its limitations, but she would never consent to being merely being a trophy wife, valued only for her political connections. She must have felt terrible shame at not having provided an heir, but she was determined to live as both queen and lover of Alexander. He may have failed to reach the ends of the earth, but he was still ruler over most of the known world.
He sailed down the Indus river with Roxane at his side, still fighting and conquering as he went. The Greeks were harried constantly on this long river voyage and, like Conrad’s Kurtz, they responded viciously, burning cities and towns, crucifying on the river banks the Brahmins who led the revolts against their rule. Tens of thousands of Indians died as Alexander made his way down the river. In one battle Alexander was shot through the chest by an arrow which punctured his lung. It was the most serious wound he had ever received, and the rumour soon spread that he was dead. Once he had recovered sufficiently, Alexander was carried down to the river and put in the stern of a ship. To cheers from his troops on the banks, he waved to show them he was still alive and that it was not his corpse they were seeing.
Roxane travelled with him all this way, but with his near-fatal wound and her own weakness from the miscarriage, she again did not fall pregnant. They had been married for nearly two years, but still no heir had been produced; it was cause for deep concern. While he was recovering from his arrow wound, he was visited by Roxane’s father Oxyartes. Mary Renault, interestingly, and almost certainly, correctly, speculates that one of his major motives was to try and discover why Roxane was still not pregnant.
Finally, after nine months, the gruelling voyage down the Indus came to an end. Alexander built great altars at the river mouth and sacrificed to the gods. He was giving thanks for their having survived their ordeal down the Indus and reaching the ocean; but he was also sacrificing to gain the blessing of the gods for yet another grand scheme. He split his forces into three. A small section of the army, including Roxane, 10 000 older soldiers and 200 elephants took a safe route north under the leadership of Craterus through Afghanistan. They were all to rendezvous at the Straits of Hormuz.
Alexander planned for the main army to head for Babylon by marching west along the coast through the Gedrosian Desert, while the fleet sailed from present-day Karachi through the Arabian Sea into the Persian Gulf landing in, or near, what is today Kuwait. Both routes were extremely perilous. He decided to lead the army across the desert, while he chose Nearchus, his admiral, to lead the fleet. It is difficult to understand Alexander’s decision to march his main army through the Gedrosian desert. He even allowed the camp followers to accompany them.
It was an appalling blunder. As they marched further west into the desert, there was no water. They became bogged down in soft sand that burned under the brutal sun. The pack animals sank deeper than the men, and died in their hundreds. This meant that the sick and those weak from heat exhaustion and thirst could not be transported. Then rains came, and a huge flash flood swept through the camp, drowning many of the women and children and carrying away much of the baggage train with its precious stocks of food. Alexander’s own tent was swept away and he too nearly drowned. As they marched closer to the coast, they found people who eked out a living from the sea by eating raw fish and flesh from stranded whales. They had nothing to offer the army in the way of sustenance. So they struggled on, leaving the sick and dying behind. Poisonous snakes attacked them whenever they pitched a desperate camp, and whoever was bitten died.
Finally after nearly three months of these appalling hardships they struggled through to the land of Carmania where they were met by loyal Persian satraps who had plenty of supplies. The troops who had survived were rested and replenished. They then proceeded towards the capital in a state of Bacchanalian revelry, drinking wine and following the sound of pipes and singing the praises of Dionysus. Yet again, Alexander had found a way to turn catastrophe into triumph.
At Kirman, near what is today the Straits of Hormuz, he finally met up with an exhausted Nearchus. The fleet had not had an easy time of it either, but it had arrived largely unscathed. Craterus arrived soon after, with Roxane and the rest of the army.
Roxane is, again, hardly mentioned in this part of Alexander’s odyssey. It is the strange Bagoas who reappears here. At the celebrations in Kirman, Alexander put his arms around the eunuch and kissed him openly in front of his entire army after a festival where Bagoas won the contests in singing and dancing. We can only imagine what Roxane and Hephaestion must have thought of this boy.
Humiliation after humiliation were to be heaped on Roxane in the months to come. Once the festivals were over, Alexander set out north for Pasargadae. Bagoas was the centre of Alexander’s emotional life at this point, with Roxane being relegated to the sidelines. She must have feared the eunuch, for it is clear that he had immense sway over the king. Curtius relates the ominous story of the Persian nobleman, Orsines, who met Alexander outside Pasargadae. He greeted the king with many fine gifts including horses, chariots, furniture and 3000 talents of cash. The reason for this generosity is uncertain, other than that he was clearly trying to curry favour with the king. Curtius tells us that he ‘paid no court to the eunuch Bagoas.’ In fact, he went one step further and told associates that he would pay no respect to the king’s ‘whore.’
Curtius was self-evidently a homophobe who did not approve of Bagoas, but something sinister took place. Bagoas was deeply offended by Orsines and plotted cruel revenge. He started a whispering campaign among both Persians and Greeks that Orsines had stripped the old Persian Emperor Cyrus’ tomb of its riches and that was why he had been able to pay such magnificent homage to Alexander. Bagoas started saying the same thing to Alexander himself in the privacy of the bedchamber. To have stripped the tomb of an Emperor was both a crime and a sacrilege and was something that Alexander could never have allowed to go unpunished, especially as he was consolidating his power over his new Persian subjects. It is, of course, not impossible that Orsines might have stripped the tomb, believing that Alexander would never return from his Asian campaign. Whatever the truth, Bagoas’ carefully-placed calumnies or accusations worked. Orsines was arrested and sentenced to death. Curtius has the story that Bagoas grabbed the condemned man as he was being led away to his execution. Orsines looked back and snarled his last contemptuous words. ‘This is really something new – a eunuch as king!’ A brave gesture, but too late. He died all the same and Bagoas’ power was plain for all to see.
Roxane would have to bide her time. Alexander seems to have been in a manic, self-obsessed phase, where he was drinking steadily, sleeping with Bagoas and trying, for the first time, not to conquer an empire, but to rule it. As he progressed towards Babylon, those Persian satraps who had remained loyal he rewarded, while he tortured and executed those who had attempted to rebel in his absence on the long campaign through Afghanistan and India. Roxane’s father-in-law was one of four high-ranking Persian officials who still remained in office after the purges, so despite his ignoring of his wife, he obviously knew he could count on her and her family’s loyalty.
His arrival in the old Persian administrative capital, Susa, brought even more suffering on Roxane. Alexander’s focus now was on holding together his disjointed, even fragile, empire. Many of his loyal Greeks were openly complaining about the way Persians were favoured in the new order of things. He hardly cared any longer. He was surrounded by dangerous sycophants like Bagoas who told him what he wanted to hear. And what he increasingly wanted to hear was that he was shahanshah, king of kings. He ruled like a Persian emperor, no longer like an egalitarian Greek king. His first act in Susa was to execute four more disloyal Persian satraps. Then, in a ceremony which was hugely symbolic, he decided to inaugurate a mass wedding between Greek men and Persian women in order to cement his Macedonian and Persian nobility. He himself was to marry the daughters of Darius, and the youngest daughter of his predecessor Artaxerxes III. Darius’ daughter was forced to change her name to Stateira. Hephaestion was to marry Darius’ other daughter, so that his children would be Alexander’s nephews and nieces; while other loyal generals such as Eumenes and Ptolemy were also given high-ranking Persian wives. Altogether some 10 000 marriages were solemnized between Greek men and Persian women.
It was to be one of Alexander’s most splendid ceremonies, some 92 bridal suites were prepared. A giant hall containing 100 bedrooms was built, each one of the bedrooms decorated with silver and gold and fine silks. The reception tent was hung with purple and gold embroidered rugs; giant pillars of silver covered in precious stones held up the tent. Songs, dances and plays enlivened the celebrations. It was a magnificent affair that cost him more than any other of his extravagances.
It dwarfed his marriage to Roxane. She must have raged and been terribly wounded at this dishonour. And yet, some inconsistencies hint that perhaps it was not quite the betrayal that it appears. Firstly, we must consider the overtly political nature of the weddings. It must have been obvious to anyone that these were not in any way marriages based on love. The marriages were a clear attempt to strengthen Alexander’s position as shahanshah by marrying himself into the two Persian imperial dynasties. Most tellingly, after the weddings, Stateira stayed behind in Susa when Alexander went to live in Babylon with Roxane. The records are silent on the other young wife, but we may assume that she, too, stayed behind. Importantly, too, neither of them had a child with him. There was one other important development. At Susa, Alexander seems to have relinquished his obsession with the dangerous Bagoas. Perhaps Roxane had a hand in that? We can only guess.
Paradoxically, it is after the humiliation of the vast weddings in Susa, that we come to the most fascinating and mysterious chapter in the relationship between Roxane and Alexander. The king’s strength and determination were at last beginning to ebb. He was only thirty two, but he had been through so much, and had pushed himself to his utter limits in his journey of conquest. He had been wounded and seriously ill so many times by now that his body must have been in a state of exhaustion. He was also drinking in a reckless, maniacal fashion.
We have two important records of these last days. The first document to consider is a mysterious number of pamphlets mostly entitled something like the Liber de Morte Testamentumque Alexandri Magni or The Book of the Death and the Testament of Alexander the Great that emerged around the time of the early Middle Ages. The story they tell is the basis for the story in the Alexander Romance, which is largely fiction, but at least three separate versions of the Testament exist, so the account of Alexander’s final days in the Alexander Romance should be looked at carefully as a potential source. The other text is the Royal Diaries kept by Alexander’s loyal secretary and general, Eumenes.
Of these Royal Diaries only three definite fragmentary quotations remain. One of them describes him drinking to vast excess every night. Some commentators have questioned the motives of Eumenes for so carefully recording his king’s debauches, but there can be no doubt that Alexander was a prodigious drinker – all the sources agree on this. Eumenes’ motives were probably not unclouded. There had been at least one incident of serious conflict between him and Alexander. After the march out of the Gedrosian Desert and the voyage of the fleet, Alexander’s finances were seriously depleted. He called on his friends to supply the money he needed. Eumenes was one of those who tried to avoid doing so, and offered only a third of what he was asked. In a rage, Alexander ordered his tent set on fire, so that when the valuables were rescued he could find out the true value of Eumenes’ wealth.
Still, after Alexander’s death, Eumenes remained loyal to Roxane and to her son by Alexander. We don’t know his reasons for this either, but, because of it, we cannot dismiss what remains of the Royal Diaries as mere vengeful propaganda. It is also likely that the Royal Diaries were altered by Ptolemy after Alexander’s death. He was once one of Alexander’s most loyal generals, but he turned against Roxane and her son and Alexander’s only legitimate heir, Alexander IV, in the wars of the Diadochi. He, and the generals who supported him, would have tried to have Roxane written out of Alexander’s life as much as possible.
I must mention here that the enigma of the Royal Diaries has, in an almost fateful way, been a part of my life ever since I began my career in the study of Classics in the 1980s in Johannesburg. A single ancient letter regarding these Diaries was discovered accidentally in the cupboard of a Greek family living in South Africa and given to my tutor, Andre Wilson, at the University of the Witwatersrand. It was his task to verify the authenticity of the document, and he asked me, as a very young student, to help him. It was a tremendous compliment, and under his guidance, the two of us took to our task with as much skill and enthusiasm as we could muster. Those were, however, the darkest days of apartheid. The country was in flames and neither South Africa, nor the world, then was much interested in an obscure mediaeval Byzantine document that had mysteriously turned up in white-ruled Johannesburg.
The letter eventually found its way to the British Museum, where it is stored. Professor Wilson is in retirement now living in a little house in the town of Vathy on the island of Ithaca in the Ionian Sea. In between searching for the true origins of Odysseus’ castle on the island and, as he says, catching up on all the modern novels he missed while he was so engrossed in the ancient world, he and I correspond occasionally by email. We both remain convinced that the letter that came into our possession so long ago is genuine. The gist of the letter is that a second, unaltered, copy of the Royal Diaries was sent by Eumenes to Alexandria On The Oxus or, as it is known today, Ay Khanoum. To many experts this must appear somewhat unlikely. However, as Professor Wilson originally argued, it is a distinct possibility. I have extended his thesis over the years and maintain that the key to the riddle is Stasanor, an officer who, like the other Diadochi, served Alexander with distinction throughout his career. In the bloody chaos that followed Alexander’s death, there were two distinct attempts to create a lasting peace that would hold something of his empire together. At the second meeting, the Partition of Triparadisus, Stasanor was given the distant satrapies of Bactria and Sogdiana. He disappeared there and remained well out of the conflicts that raged between the other Diadochi, especially that between Eumenes and Antigonus. The evidence is that he favoured Eumenes, so it is quite possible that Eumenes would have sent such an important document as an original copy of the Royal Diaries to him for safekeeping before he was defeated by Antigonus at the battle of Gabiene in 316 BC in what is today central Iran. There are scant historical records of Stasanor’s rule, so while we cannot be certain where his capital was, we do know that Ay Khanoum was one of the most important cities in Bactrian Greece. The magnificent ruined city that Bernard unearthed in the 1960s and 1970s makes it likely that if such a document had been sent to Stasanor, he would have stored it there for safekeeping.
Again, this somewhat obscure possibility received little attention from scholars at the time. The disastrous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had just begun, and that country, too, was beginning its spiral into the chaos that has hardly abated even today. Until recently, it was impossible to undertake any form of archaeological research in Afghanistan. Even now, only very limited work can be done, under extremely dangerous conditions. The present writer, in conjunction with Professor Abdulov and documentary director Claire Finch, is currently setting up a filming trip to Ay Khanoum in northern Afghanistan in order to record and to investigate, firstly, what remains of the city of Alexandria On The Oxus after nearly three decades of continuous warfare. We wish particularly to investigate some recent claims that a temple dedicated to Ares has been uncovered; secondly, we wish to look for whatever evidence exists of Eumenes’ second copy of the Royal Diaries.
However, to continue with the story of Alexander, both the pamphlets and the surviving fragments of the Royal Diaries paint a picture of a man rapidly nearing the end of his strength. His pothos had turned inwards. The relentless determination to succeed became an alcohol-fuelled impulse towards self-destruction. But as he grew progressively more unstable, he also became more vulnerable.
At Hamadan in the winter of 324 BC Alexander held a large festival, including athletic games. During one of the massive drinking bouts at the festival, Hephaestion fell ill and went to bed. The doctor thought it not too grave and, after a brief visit to the sickbed, went to the theatre. Hephaestion himself did not take his illness too seriously. He sat down to a meal of boiled chicken washed down with even more wine. It was a calamitous error. Within a short time, his fever had escalated, and he was dead.
Plutarch gives us Alexander’s state of mind at the loss of Hephaestion: ‘Alexander’s grief was uncontrollable. As a sign of mourning he gave orders that the manes and tails of all horses should be shorn, demolished the battlements of all the neighbouring cities, crucified the unlucky physician and forebade the playing of flutes or any other kind of music for a long time . . . to lighten his sorrow he set off on a campaign as if the tracking down and hunting of men might console him and he subdued the tribe of the Cossaeans, massacring the whole male population from the youths upwards: this was termed a sacrifice to the spirit of Hephaestion.’
It is impossible as a modern human being to read this without seeing it as horrific. Even Plutarch is disgusted. There is something deeply unhinged in these acts, as Alexander lurches from being a tragic Lear, alone with the fury of his grief, to the point where he becomes a blood-spattered parody of himself as victorious conqueror, turning into a vengeful, uncontrollable killer.
It was the beginning of the end. In a grim downward spiral of alcohol, grief and madness, he began to unravel. And yet, it was now, at last, that he and Roxane drew closer. It is hard to imagine the strange dance of emotion they must have indulged in. Who can tell now what promises were made, what old scores settled, what regrets or insults brought out into the open between them. At last, without his beloved Hephaestion, he must have needed her alone, and she made sure she was there with him until the very end.
Alexander went on a mad spending spree, declaring festival after festival as he travelled towards Babylon. Nightly there was wild abandoned drinking; he would sleep until noon the next day and begin drinking again. Three thousand performers were finally gathered at Babylon to celebrate Hephaestion’s funeral games and theatre. Money was no object and a vast layered funeral pyre was built in Hephaestion’s honour. It was over 200 feet high. The golden prows of 240 ships graced its sides, and it was covered in wreaths of gold and scarlet felt. At its highest level it was so large a choir could be concealed to sing laments.
He was now the richest man in the world and he could afford virtually anything he wanted. Still amidst the luxury and celebrations, ominous signs and portents swirled. Alexander had always been good at turning such things to his advantage, like he had done with the Gordian Knot or at the oracle of Zeus-Ammon in Siwa, but now he found himself overwhelmed by them. Ravens were seen fighting over the walls of Babylon as he entered the city; an animal sacrificed for his health was found to have no lobe on the liver which was another fear-filled sign.
Still stranger things happened. A tame ass kicked a lion to death in Alexander’s menagerie. Then one day after the king had finished playing a ball game, he came into his quarters to dress and found a young man sitting in his throne dressed in his clothes and royal diadem. He claimed the god Serapis had told him to do so. Alexander had the man executed, but the climate of fear was now palpable. As Plutarch says, ‘he began to believe that he had lost the favour of the gods, and he became increasingly suspicious of his friends.’ Alexander lost control with one of his friends, a Greek called Cassander who could not believe that men prostrated themselves before Alexander like a god. He laughed out loud at the spectacle. Alexander, enraged, smashed his head against the wall. Cassander survived but he never got over his fear of his king’s violence.
Alexander began to wear bizarre costumes that suggested he was a god. He dressed like Ammon and wore the lion skin of Heracles. He wore the costume of Hermes and, even more oddly, that of Artemis – a goddess. Plans were made for invading Arabia and Carthage. Before they could take place, he sailed down the Euphrates into the marshlands of southern Iraq to attend to the complex series of canals and waterways that had become silted up over the centuries. His royal diadem blew off and landed in the water. It was rescued by a seamen, who tied it to his own head as he swam back. Some sources say the man was beaten; others that he was killed. Whatever the case, it was yet another terrible omen that Alexander would lose his crown.
Amidst all of this, Roxane was ostensibly in the background. But a month after Hephaestion’s death, she became pregnant.
What we know of Alexander’s last days is uncertain. The Testament and the Royal Diaries do not agree with one another on the details of his death or on the events leading up to it. Plutarch and Arrian both claim to rely heavily on the Royal Diaries for their accounts. But we must remember that the version they used was likely doctored by Ptolemy to suit his need to write Roxane and her son Alexander IV out of history. My hypothesis is, however, that the version of events in the Testament, which gives Roxane a central role in Alexander’s last days, is based on the original, untouched version of the Royal Diaries written by Eumenes and kept in safety at Ay Khanoum.
The origins of the Testament are uncertain, but I am indebted here again to Professor Abdulov’s groundbreaking work in which he describes in great detail the cultural sharing that took place between Central Asia and Europe. We know from the travels of men like Klearchos of Soli that there was constant movement back forth between Bactrian Greece and Europe. In the death of Darius, we have already seen the reciprocal influence between the Alexander Romance and the Persian epic poem the Shahnama or ‘Book of Kings’. Marco Polo, who visited northern Afghanistan well over a thousand years after the time of Alexander, told us in his Travels that the local kings were still of ‘a lineage descended from King Alexander and the daughter of Darius, the Great King of Persia. In honour of Alexander the Great, all its kings still bear the title Zulkarnein, the Saracen equivalent of our Alexander.’ Of course, as Professor Abdulov points out, this is a confused reference to Roxane, not to Stateira, but it is another example of the cross-pollination that occurred between East and West over millennia.
There are also some similarities between the Testament and the story as told by both Plutarch and Arrian. They agree that after a banquet Alexander accepted an invitation to go drinking with a certain Medius. Plutarch says it was a dinner to honour Nearchus. Arrian claims it was a ceremony to protect himself against further bad omens. Medius seems to have been a sea captain under Nearchus, but we know nothing else about him. Plutarch tells us that Alexander drank all through the night and the next day. Not surprisingly, he developed a mild fever from his escapade. The fever increased, but it was clearly not yet serious. He spent the next day chatting to Medius (and, no doubt, drinking with him). ‘He took a bath late in the evening, offered sacrifice to the gods, dined and remained feverish throughout the night.’ He spent the next day with Nearchus, but that night his fever grew worse and he began to weaken. Ten days after he had been taken ill after drinking with Medius, he ordered his trusted Companions to gather around his bedside, while the junior officers and other ranks had to wait outside. Alexander was now so sick he lay virtually immobile on his bed, unable to speak.
As at his wounding on the long retreat down the Indus, rumours began to circulate among the army that Alexander was dead and that the truth was being hidden from the common soldiers. They threatened to storm the palace to see for themselves. Finally the Companions ordered the gates opened and the soldiers ‘all filed slowly past his bedside one by one, wearing neither cloak nor armour.’ Arrian adds a further, touching detail: ‘he greeted each of them by raising his head slightly and acknowledging them with a glance.’
Some time shortly before the end, the story goes that his trusted Companions plucked up the courage to ask him the question closest to each one of their hearts. To whom, they asked, was he leaving his empire. His reply was Delphic in its obscurity. ‘To the best man,’ he is alleged to have said. It was a tragic reply, one that had the Companions at war with one another within days of his death. Alexander passed away late that afternoon, leaving no heir to his empire other than Roxane’s unborn child.
Plutarch mentions little of Roxane, other than to tell us she was pregnant at this time. Arrian, however, mentions ‘a certain writer’ who relates a story that when a weakened and deadly ill Alexander realized that he was going to die, he tried to throw himself into the Euphrates. Arrian says he was intending to do this so that his death would appear mysterious, that it would confirm the belief that he had been a god all along.
‘However,’ Arrian goes on, ‘his wife Roxane saw that he was about to leave and held him back, at which he cried out at her that she begrudged him the immortal fame of having been born from a god.’
From Olympias to Roxane, Alexander’s deepest sense of self and his most grandiose illusions, were governed by these two women, his mother and his wife. He might have come to believe that he was a god, but from the beginning and, in the end, above everything else, he needed the love and approval of the women in his life - like any other mortal man. Arrian tells us that he doesn’t believe these tales, but this story of Roxane and Alexander’s last interaction has a curious resonance with the Testament, and the ‘certain writer’ to which he refers could well be Eumenes and his original version of the Diaries.
The story of Alexander’s death given by the Testament is much more dramatic. Significantly, perhaps, it has at its origin, Olympias’ unhappiness. In the Alexander Romance, where the Testament has survived, we learn that Antipater, the Regent left behind in faraway Macedonia, was treating her ‘just as he liked.’ Olympias, as usual, wrote long and angry letters to Alexander complaining of her situation. Finally, in exasperation, he sent Craterus with an army to Macedonia to relieve Antipater of his post as Regent. Antipater was afraid that he would be imprisoned because of the way he had treated Olympias, and so he decided to poison Alexander.
He sent his son, Cassander, to Babylon with a vial of poison so strong that it had to be encased in a lead container surrounded by an iron box, some even more colourful versions say it was water from the river Styx contained in the hoof of an ass. Cassander gave the poison to Alexander’s cupbearer, Iolaus, who was ‘nursing a grudge against Alexander because some days earlier he had made a mistake and Alexander had hit him over the head with a stick, injuring him severely.’ From what we know of Alexander’s behaviour, this is not at all an unlikely event. In this version, Medius had also been assaulted by Alexander and, like Iolaus, resented him deeply. Again, this is not a far-fetched notion.
The Testament and the Diaries agree here that Alexander dined with Medius. In the Alexander Romance, though, many of the dinner guests have reason to hate Alexander and are in on the plot to murder him, Eumenes and Ptolemy being two notably innocent guests. Midway through the dinner – no doubt when Alexander was suitably drunk – Iolaus brought him the poisoned cup. ‘At once he gave a loud yell as if he had been pierced by an arrow through the liver.’ Back at his palace, he assumed he had simply been overindulging. He asked for a feather to make himself vomit and Iolaus gave him one smeared with more poison. He spent the night in agony, and the next day he sent most of his retinue out of the palace so that he might rest and speak privately about the future.
By evening, he knew he was going to die. In an uncanny echo of the account given in Arrian, the story in the Alexander Romance goes as follows: ‘There was a door leading out of the house towards the river Euphrates, which runs through the middle of Babylon. He ordered this to be opened, and that no one was to stand guard by it, as was usual. When they had all left, and it was the middle of the night, Alexander rose from his bed, extinguished the lamp, and left the house on all fours, heading for the river.’
It is at this point that the story takes an extraordinary turn. ‘As he approached,’ the Alexander Romance goes on, ‘he looked around and saw his wife Roxane running towards him. She had guessed, when he sent everyone away, that he was going to attempt some deed worthy of his great audacity, and had followed him out by a secret door into the darkness, guided by the sound of his groans, faint though they were. He stopped, she embraced him and said ‘Alexander are you leaving me to kill yourself?’ He replied: ‘Roxane it is small benefit to you to take away my glory. Let no one else hear about this.’ Then, with her support, he made his way back secretly to the house.’
They had come a long way to this passionate, even tender, moment. We can imagine the two of them making their way along the darkened stone corridors of the palace: Alexander, exhausted, near death, leaning on Roxane’s heavily-pregnant body, as they stumbled through secret passages, desperate not to be discovered, lest, for either of them, the truth of Alexander’s fragile mortality be revealed. She must have been terrified at the thought of losing him, and of what faced her and her unborn child without his protection, while he knew that he could no longer go on in this life. All the others who had loved him: Hephaestion, Barsine, Stateira, even Bagoas, had all died or were far away. How much was his choice or her determination, we do not know, but we can be sure that, at the end, it was only Roxane who was with him.
Whether it was either poison or illness which caused his death, the next day the story in the Testament continues and echoes the Royal Diaries as recorded in both Plutarch and Arrian with the grieving Macedonians outside the palace demanding to be let in to see their king, and then filing past, one by one. Then Alexander wrote his will, and, as in the Diaries, he lived on for another nine days before finally expiring. But it was Roxane who was to share his final moments.
Only a few years ago a very old version of the Liber de Morte Testamentumque Alexandri Magni or The Book of the Death and the Testament of Alexander the Great was discovered in a monastery in the hills above Asmara in Eritrea. It was written in Ge’ez the ancient written and liturgical language of both Eritrea and Ethiopia. Unlike other Ethiopic versions of the Alexander legend, where the authors have turned pagan gods into Christian saints, and, in some cases, completely rewritten the legend turning it into a fable on Christian behaviour, this manuscript is a pure translation of the Testament. And it tells us this about Alexander’s last moments on earth:
‘He ordered his trusted Companions to gather around his bedside while the junior officers and other ranks waited outside. The word began to flow among the army that Alexander was dead and that the truth was being hidden from the common soldiers. They threatened to storm the palace to see for themselves. Finally, the Companions ordered the gates opened and, one by one, the soldiers filed slowly past his bedside, wearing neither cloak nor armour.
Alexander was so near death that he had lost the ability to speak, but still he greeted each of them by raising his head slightly and acknowledging them with a glance.
As he lay dying, his life slipping away, Roxane leaned over him and closed his eyes with a touch of her lips. Then, as his strength failed, she gently touched her lips to his to catch his fleeing soul.’
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