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This month's Article

ALEXANDER THE GREAT - Intimate Companions

   

Throughout his life Alexander had a number of close relationships which were of tremendous importance to him. In his elevated and often highly dangerous position it was vital to have a small group of people on whom he could rely completely. His lovers were both female and male at a time when his bisexuality was not at all unusual in the ancient world.

Within Greek society bisexuality amongst men was standard behaviour, and with wives to produce children and prostitutes to provide recreational sex, their finer feelings were reserved for their male lovers. Xenophon had written that homosexuality was simply a part of education, and Aristotle held the conventional Greek view that men's most important relationships, platonic or otherwise, should be with other men. Homosexuality then had few of the connotations of weakness, and many of the great warriors Alexander so admired had lifelong male partners. The unmatched Theban Band was made up exclusively of male couples who would fight to the death for each other, and of course the love felt by Alexander's great role model, Achilles, for his companion Patroclus reflected the feelings Alexander had for his own lifelong companion Hephaistion.

Although there is no direct evidence that their relationship was sexual, the couple's visit to the Trojan graves of the two heroes served to underline the nature of their own relationship. Later gossip would also state that Alexander was only defeated once, and that was by Hephaistion's thighs.

 

Living and working alongside each other, they even read other other's correspondence, yet many were jealous of their relationship, including Alexander's mother Olympias. In a letter to her Hephaistion bluntly asks, "Why don't you stop quarrelling with me? Not that I care in any case. You know Alexander means more to me than anyone."

Alexander's trusted general Craterus likewise hated Hephaistion, but the two agreed to work together for the sake of their king, since "They were the two men he loved best in all the world" (Plutarch). It is said that Alexander "showed more affection for Hephaistion but more respect for Craterus, and often said that whilst Hephaistion was a friend of Alexander, Craterus was a friend of the king" (Plutarch).

Hephaistion on the Alexander Sarcophagus - Istanbul Archeological Museum

Despite his lifelong attachment to Hephaistion, Alexander was also smitten by the beautiful Persian eunuch Bagoas, who had once been the attendant of Darius. Although he had always completely refused the offer of slave boys before (writing to one purveyor and angrily telling him to go to the devil) Bagoas' grace and loyalty proved deeply attractive to Alexander. Further evidence of the king's growing fondness for all things Persian, the ever-present eunuch remained close to the king for the rest of his life.

Yet Alexander's two homosexual relationships are modest when compared with those of his father, as during his highly promiscuous life Philip had numerous loves of both sexes. Together with his polygamous marriages he fathered numerous children to his many wives and lovers which caused Alexander, as his heir, considerable anguish. He therefore seems to have determined at a young age that he would act more responsibly than his father, and showed little interest in sex. Indeed there were times when he positively hated this side of his nature, saying that it was only "sleep and sex which more than anything else reminded him that he was mortal" (Plutarch). So worried were his parents by their son's apparent indifference that they even hired a famous Thessalian courtesan to entertain their 18 year old son, but with little success. And yet Alexander was by no means prudish, and hearing that his sister Cleopatra was having an affair he simply remarked that there was no reason why she shouldn't enjoy herself, regardless of her royal status.

Alexander's attitude to women was unusual in the extreme, and no doubt influenced by his formidable mother, he treated them with great respect. He regarded rape as a particularly terrible crime which was punished severely. Stating that the perpetrators "should be put to death as wild beasts which prey upon mankind", he immediately freed the Theban woman Tomocleia after she had murdered the soldier who had raped her. He tried to impress his philosophy upon his troops, and told the Macedonian Euryochus "I will help you in your love affair, but since the lady in question is a free woman you must try and win her by presents or courtship, but use no other means". He also restored Cyrus' custom of awarding each of the women of Persia with a gold coin every time he entered their lands.

Alexander himself enjoyed extremely warm relationships with women, from his mother Olympias and childhood nurse Lanice to the queens Ada and Sisygambis (Darius' mother). As for Darius' wife Stateira (said to the "the most beautiful woman of her time", Alexander wrote that "not only have I never seen or wished to see Darius' wife, but I will not even allow her beauty to be mentioned in my presence" (letter to Parmenio). He kept Darius' womenfolk well away from his soldiers and, as Plutarch notes, "the most honourable and truly regal service which he rendered these chaste and noble women was to ensure that they should never have any cause to fear anything which may disgrace them". When he saw how beautiful the other female prisoners were, he is said "to have taken no more notice than to say jokingly, "These Persian women are a torment for our eyes", and was determined to make a show of chastity and self-control, and so "he passed them by as if they had been no many lifeless images cut out of stone" (Plutarch).

 

The Wedding of Alexander and RoxaneYet when Alexander saw the Sogdian Princess Roxane he fell in love with her "when he first saw her at the height of her youthful beauty dancing at a banquet" (Plutarch). Arrian remarked that all those who saw her "used to say she was the loveliest woman they had seen in Asia, with the single exception of Darius' wife". Arrian also adds that even though Roxane was a captive, "he refused despite his passion to force her to his will and decided to marry her", with Hephaistion acting as best man. As far as is possible to tell, the marriage was successful both diplomatically and personally and, although both posthumously, the couple had a son named after his father who succeeded him as Alexander IV.

Alexander also later married two Persian princesses, Darius' eldest daughter Barsine (renamed Stateira after the mother she closely resembled) together with Parysatis, younger daughter of Artaxerxes III. Yet these were marriages of policy, with Alexander anxious to demonstrate publicly his desire to strengthen ties between Greeks and Persians, which he took even further with a mass Persian-style wedding at which 92 companions took Persian brides before an invited audience of 9000 guests. In a single ceremony his colleagues became relatives not only of Persians but of each other, as Ptolemy married Artabazus' granddaughters and Seleucus one of Spitamenes' daughters. Hephaistion himself was married to Darius' second daughter Drypetis because, Arrian says, Alexander wanted Hephaistion's children to be his nephews and nieces.

The sources also refer to Alexander's other relationships with women who, like his wives, were all Persian except for his Greek mistress Campaspe, whom he actually relinquished to his painter Apelles after the artist fell in love with her whilst painting her for the king. Yet, according to Plutarch, Alexander "did not associate with any woman before his marriage (to Roxane) with the exception of Barsine. She had received a Greek education, was of a gentle disposition, and could claim royal descent since her father was Artabazus, who had married one of the Persian king's daughters. These qualities made Alexander the more willing to "form an attachment to a woman of such beauty and noble lineage". He had first met her when her father Artabazus was in exile at Philip's court in Pella, and although Alexander was only a child and Barsine some ten years his senior, the two met again almost twenty years later after her Greek husband Mamnon had been killed at Issus. She then became Alexander's lover until his marriage to Roxane, and is said to have had his child, a boy named Herakles.

According to legend, Alexander was also visited by the warrior Queen of the Amazons, who told him she wanted to bear his child, and "the passion of the woman being keener than the king's, made him spend thirteen days in satisfying her desires". The fictitious event is possibly an allusion to the occasion when the king of Scythia offered his daughter in marriage. Scythian women's freedom and considerable skills in horsemanship equated in Greek minds to their own fabled race of Amazons

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