Born in Pella, Macedon, in 356BC, Alexander was the first son of Philip II and his principle wife, Olympias. Almost from the moment he was conceived, Alexander became something of a legend.
His mother, a princess of Epirus in her own right, was a follower of an orgiastic, snake-worshiping cult of Dionysus, and was widely believed to be a sorceress. She mythologised her son, claiming visions of thunderbolts from the heavens and a great fire accompanied his conception, and Philip himself was recorded as saying he dreamed he sealed Olympias’ womb with the device of a lion. As Philip’s fourth of seven or eight wives, likely elevated to principle only because of Alexander’s birth, it served Olympias’ interests to secure her son as Philip’s heir, and herself as mother of the future king.
Certainly, she was a difficult woman, and the royal marriage was a volatile one. Jealous of Philip’s other wives, mistresses, and male lovers, she instilled in her son contempt for his father, telling him instead that he was truly the son of Zeus, king of the gods. Despite using Alexander as a pawn against his father, he usually took her side, although he is documented as complaining, after receiving one too many letters demanding his support, “It’s a high ransom she charges for nine months’ lodging.”
Hephaestion was approximately Alexander’s age, perhaps a little older, although they were likely at most only separated by a year or two. He was the son of a Macedonian nobleman, a general in Philip II’s army, and was raised in the Macedonian court from boyhood — not a unusual for a nobleman’s son, although his presence in Philip’s household could have been as much to keep his father loyal as to further Hephaestion’s position.
The two boys were raised together, and quickly became firm friends. When Alexander was removed from the tutelage of Leonidas, a relative of his mother’s, and placed under the care of Aristotle at Mieza, Hephaestion (along with a number of other noble sons of similar age) accompanied him. For three years from the time Alexander turned thirteen, the boys lived away from home (and Olympias’ influence — no doubt Philip’s intention), studying philosophy, morals, religion, logic, and art. That this short period had a profound effect on Alexander’s life can be seen in his appointment of almost all his boyhood friends to his personal cavalry, known as the Companions, with Hephaestion as their leader.
At sixteen, Alexander was recalled to Pella to rule as Regent while his father led an army against Byzantium. With Philip gone, the neighbouring Maedi revolted. Forced to react, Alexander led a small army against the rebellion, resoundingly defeated them and drove them from their lands. To mark his victory, he founded a city on the site and named it Alexandropolis. It was to be the first of many victories, and many such-named cities.
When Philip returned, he and Alexander led the army through the Greek city-states, culminating at Chaeronea, where they faced the combined forces of Athens and Thebes. While Philip took command of the troops facing the Athenians, Alexander, his Companions by his side, led the cavalry against the Thebans. As the Athenians fell, the Thebans were surrounded and defeated by Alexander’s troops. It is said he held the Sacred Band — the elite Theban force comprised of 150 pairs of male lovers — in high regard and begged them to surrender, but they all refused. With his hand forced, Alexander ordered his army to kill them all, although he refused to allow their bodies to be desecrated in the aftermath.
In the summer of 336BC, Philip II was publicly assassinated by the captain of his own bodyguards; a spurned ex-lover. Within days of his twentieth birthday, Alexander was declared king.
News of Philip’s death reached the Greek city-states he and Alexander had conquered, and they immediately rebelled. Alexander responded by mustering an army and quelled the rebellions. At Corinth, he took the title of Hegemon (“Supreme Commander”) like his father, and declared his intention to go to war with Persia.
Before taking on the Persian campaign, Alexander secured his borders by defeating the Thracians, the Triballi, the Getae, the Illyrians, the Taulanti, the Athenians, and the Thebans, razing Thebes to the ground and dividing the land between other city-states as punishment for their rebellion. Two years after Alexander ascended the throne, he crossed the Hellespont with an army almost 100,000 strong.
Alexander made one last detour, to Troy, setting of Homer’s Iliad, a text beloved of him since his days under Aristotle’s tutelage. Arrian recounts how Alexander ” laid a wreath on the tomb of Achilles and Hephaestion laid a wreath on the tomb of Patroclus and they ran a race, naked, to honour their dead heroes.” While in Homer the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is platonic, later interpretations, current in Alexander’s time, held that the pair were lovers. By aligning themselves with Homer’s iconic heroes, Alexander and Hephaestion were certainly inviting speculation about their own relationship, if not outright confirming it, despite Macedonian sentiment at the time being largely opposed to such affections.
After winning a succession of battles along the Persian coast, Alexander defeated the army of Darius III, king of Persia, at Issos, but Darius himself escaped, although he left his harem — including his mother, Sisygambis — behind in his haste to flee. Realising they were defeated, Sisygambis is said to have prostrated herself at Hephaestion’s feet, mistaking him for the conquering king. As she pleaded for the lives of the royal women, the Companions laughed at her mistake. Alexander reproached them for embarrassing her, and helped her to her feet, declaring: “You were not mistaken, Mother, for he is Alexander, too.” From that day on Sisygambis was devoted to Alexander, and he to her.
That Sisgambis made the mistake she did was not surprising, given what we know of the men’s appearance. Alexander was short and stocky, and his beard grew so sparsely he initiated a scandalous craze among young Macedonian men by going about clean-shaven. He had mis-matched eyes (one blue, one brown), a twisted neck, red hair, and a ruddy complexion. He looked neither Macedonian nor kingly according to any model of the time. Hephaestion, by contrast, was taller and more conventionally handsome — some even dared say pretty.
Alexander proceeded to conquer Syria and Egypt, where he was met as a liberator of the people and founded his most successful city, Alexandria. Alexander was declared the son of Amun, king of the Egyptian gods, by the Oracle of Siwa Oasis in Lybia, and frequently referred to his true father as Zeus-Ammon from that point on.
Alexander finally caught up with Darius in Mesopotamia, and defeated his remaining army at the battle of Gaugamela. Darius again fled, only to be murdered by his own men. When Alexander’s troops found his body, Alexander returned it to Sisygambis for burial. Called upon to mourn, she stated: “I have only one son [Alexander] and he is king of all Persia.” Nonetheless, Alexander afforded Darius a magnificent funeral and ordered he be buried in the royal tombs with his predecessors.
Despite ruling most of modern-day Greece, the Balkans, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran, Alexander wasn’t done. He set his sights on India, determined to reach the Ganges. By that point the army had been on the march for eight years, and the veterans wanted to go home. At the Hyphasis (now Beas) River in India, the troops revolted and refused to continue. Finally defeated, not by the enemy, but by his own men, Alexander turned south to Susa.
Upon arrival at the city, Alexander offered to clear his veterans’ debts and pay for their travel back to Macedon. The gesture was supposed to have been one of thanks, but the men saw it as a pay-off and mutinied, refused to be dismissed, and criticised Alexander for allowing Persians to serve in the army alongside them. After a three-day standoff, Alexander responded by stripping the Macedonians of their military titles and conferred them upon Persians instead. Appalled, the Macedonians backed down, and Alexander hosted a reconciliation feast for several thousand of his men, accompanied by a mass-marriage of his officers — including Hephaestion — to Persian noblewomen, in an effort to build bridges between the two sides of his empire.
Alexander himself took two wives in his lifetime: Roxana, the daughter of an insignificant Bactrian nobleman; and Stateira II, daughter of the defeated Darius III. The marriage to Roxana is generally presumed to have been a love-match (there being no major political advantage to it), and Stateira a manoeuvre designed to secure his position as ruler of Persia. However, the amount of time Alexander spent away from them with the army, and the lack of children conceived while they were together, speaks volumes (both women were in the early stages of pregnancy with their first children when Alexander died, prompting the interesting speculation that he knew he wasn’t long for the world in the months beforehand, and wanted to secure an heir). More significantly, Alexander inherited Darius’ extensive harem when he conquered Babylon, but was noted by all for how little he made use of it. The only slave he was ever recorded as favouring was a eunuch named Bagoas, whom Alexander allowed to accompany him on campaigns, and publicly kissed.
Alexander left for Ecbatana after the feast and it was there, in the autumn of 324BC, Hephaestion fell ill with fever. He was sick for seven days, tended by the best doctors Alexander could find. He appeared to improve and it was believed he would make a full recovery, prompting Alexander to leave his bedside to make an appearance at the games ongoing in the city. However, after eating a hearty meal Hephaestion took a sudden turn for the worse, and Alexander was summoned immediately. He rushed through the city but by the time he arrived, it was too late: Hephaestion had died.
The sudden reversal, so soon after Hephaestion had taken his first meal in a week, was suggestive to many of poisoning. There may, however, be a more innocent explanation. The fever Hephaestion suffered could have been typhoid. Solid food could have perforated the ulcerated intestine typhoid leaves, causing him to die from internal bleeding. Such a death, however, is usually slower than Hephaestion suffered, therefore the suggestion of foul play remains a tantalising possibility.
Certainly, there were men with motive. Hephaestion had been by Alexander’s side since boyhood, and was an obvious target for anyone who wanted to hurt the Great King. Moreover, Hephaestion was Alexander’s second-in-command, a great general and diplomat in his own right. As often as the two were together on the march, they were separated, with Hephaestion assuming command of split forces, or tasked with missions requiring tact rather than brute force. They made a formidable team.
Then there’s the matter of petty jealousy among the Companions. Always squabbling for favours, no man was ever going to be the true favourite in Alexander’s eyes as long as Hephaestion lived. Even as young men, their closeness had irritated the others. When one remarked upon Hephaestion being allowed to read Alexander’s private correspondence over his shoulder, Alexander responded by touching his royal seal (a ring) to Hephaestion’s lips. In Alexander’s youth, Quintus Curtius Rufus noted “he scorned [female] sensual pleasures to such an extent that his mother was anxious lest he be unable to beget offspring.” A worry she eased by providing her young son with a courtesan and demanding proof he had slept with her. In later life one correspondent, Diogenes, accused Alexander directly of being “ruled by Hephaestion’s thighs.” The Cynic philosophers quipped it was only by Hephaestion’s thighs Alexander had ever been defeated.
Whether or not Hephaestion was murdered, what is certain is that after Hephaestion’s death, Alexander went mad with grief.
Plutarcuh states that “Alexander’s grief was uncontrollable”, and Arrian described how “he flung himself on the body of his friend and lay there nearly all day long in tears, and refused to be parted from him until he was dragged away by force by his Companions…” and “for two whole days after Hephaestion’s death Alexander tasted no food and paid no attention in any way to his bodily needs but lay on his bed now crying lamentably, now in the silence of grief.”
As a sign of mourning, Alexander ordered the manes and tails of all horses be shorn, and music was banned. Hephaestion’s doctors were crucified for failing to save him, and Alexander cut off his own hair, reminiscent of Achilles, who lay locks of his hair in Patroclus’ hands on his funeral pyre.
Hephaestion’s body was cremated and his remains were taken to Babylon, where he was given divine honours. A period of mourning was ordered across Alexander’s empire, and the rank of Commander of the Companion was left unfilled: the position belonged to Hephaestion, and no other.
Alexander then took it upon himself to have Hephaestion declared a god — not a surprising move when we consider that Alexander himself was regarded as such by his people. According to Classical belief, gods and men went to different places in the afterlife. If Alexander was ever to see Hephaestion again, he couldn’t be allowed to rest as a mere mortal. The Oracle at Siwa bargained that Hephaestion was not a god, but a divine hero, an answer with which Alexander was satisfied. Temples were immediately erected in his memory, and there is evidence that a cult in his name did take hold.
With his position in the afterlife secured, Hephaestion’s funeral was held in Babylon. Although it’s difficult to give an equivalent of monetary values between that time and now, at a conservative estimate it cost somewhere in the region of £1.5 billion (about $2.4 billion). The pyre was of a scale and complexity to rival the Pyramids:
…sixty metres high, square in shape and built in stepped levels. The first level was decorated with two hundred and forty ships with golden prows, each of these adorned with armed figures with red banners filling the spaces between. On the second level were torches with snakes at the base, golden wreaths in the middle and at the top, flames surmounted by eagles. The third level showed a hunting scene, and the fourth a battle of centaurs, all done in gold. On the fifth level, also in gold, were lions and bulls, and on the sixth the arms of Macedon and Persia. The seventh and final level bore sculptures of sirens, hollowed out to conceal a choir who would sing a lament.
Alexander himself drove the funeral carriage, and extensive games were held in Hephaestion’s honour, with some 3,000 competitors taking part. On the day of the funeral, in perhaps the most poignant touch of the whole spectacle, Alexander ordered the sacred flame in the temple be put out. Such an act was usually reserved only for the death of the Great King himself.
A little over twelve months after Hephaestion’s death, Alexander too fell sick with a fever. He grew progressively worse over a period of twelve or fourteen days before he finally succumbed. The cause is unknown although, like Hephaestion, it could have been anything from malaria or typhoid to poison. He was thirty-three years old.
Born on this day: Daniele Capezzone (23, Italian), politician; Scott Cranham (61, Canadian), former Olympic diver; Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, CH, CBE (81, English), composer, conductor, and Master of the Queen’s Music 2004-2014; and Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), English poet and decorated soldier, best remembered for his First World War poetry.
Died on this day: Eyre de Lanux (1894-1996, American), artist and art deco designer.