Some 50 years ago, the late Ernst Badian, Professor of History at Harvard University, published a classic essay entitled ‘Alexander the Great and the Loneliness of Power’. It portrayed a calculating and paranoid king who was not only ruthlessly efficient at putting down conspiracies, but also capable of manufacturing them in order to remove those whom he considered a threat.
Such political intrigue meant there was no one whom Alexander could completely trust. So for Badian’s Alexander, supreme power also ultimately meant psychological isolation and solitude.
Yet, while Alexander undoubtedly did survive – and exploit – assassination attempts, it would be going too far to say that he was the proverbial island. If anything, sexual or emotional intimacy with others offered both liability and protection.
There is a wealth of evidence about people who, at one time or other, were very close to the king and who were probably privy to sensitive information and confidences: his mother, Olympias; possibly some of his tutors, like the great Aristotle; generals like Craterus and Ptolemy, and staffers like his secretary, Eumenes. We could also highlight the king’s boyhood friends and lovers.
Throughout his reign, like any Macedonian king, Alexander entrusted his life to a complex, tiered structure of guards. There were the elite somatophylaikes (personal bodyguards) but also crack troops known as hypaspists (Shield Bearers), and a group of teenagers called the Paides Basilikoi, or ‘Royal Youths’, who were aristocratic boys attending the king. Their duties included menial tasks like cleaning the king’s boots, but they also guarded the king’s bedroom of a night, and probably often shared his bed.
In such an environment, rejected jealous lovers could nurse resentment into murderous anger. Our evidence suggests that at least two Macedonian kings, Archelaus and Alexander’s own father, Philip II, were assassinated as a result of a former lover’s rage. It is not surprising then that one of the most dangerous assassination attempts on Alexander’s life originated from this group of Royal Youths. The conspiracy would have succeeded – the boys had carefully worked their shifts so that they were all on guard duty on the same night.
But, either through prior knowledge or sheer good fortune (indeed, the type of luck that made Alexander’s contemporaries think he had divine protection), Alexander stayed at a party to drink until dawn, rather than retiring to his bed chamber where his young would-be assassins were waiting. His prolonged celebration left the boys with an appalling sense of anti-climax and the belief that the gods were against them, so it was only a matter of time before one betrayed the rest.
Alexander’s attitude to women was complex. The historian William Tarn famously said that Alexander never loved any woman apart from ‘his terrible mother’, yet it is also true that after 334 BC, when Alexander was 21, he never saw his mother again. Alexander seems to have had a sexual relationship with Barsine, a Persian woman from a powerful family, and he enjoyed the friendship of several mature royal women: Ada of Caria, who adopted Alexander as her son; Sisygambis, the mother of Darius, the Persian great king; and Cleophis, the mother of one of the Indian rulers.
Although political objectives were very much to the fore in each of these relationships, our sources also speak of mutual respect and admiration, and there is no reason to doubt this. Alexander married three wives: Roxane, the daughter of a powerful Bactrian chieftain; Statiera, the daughter of Darius; and Parysatis, the daughter of a previous great king. It is hard to know to what extent these women shared Alexander’s intimacy, even though his marriage to Roxane is explicitly described as a ‘love match’, but Alexander’s marriage policy was like his father’s: to consolidate alliances and frontiers.
However Alexander’s marriages to the Persian princesses had a deeper purpose. Alexander did not marry his royal brides in isolation; he took part in a mass marriage ceremony with his nobility and 10,000 Macedonian solders in which his close friend Hephaestion was chosen to marry Stateira’s full sister, Drypetis.
This ensured not only that Alexander and Hephaestion would have formal family ties, but also that their children would be blood relations. Alexander’s love for his friend would extend beyond the grave. When Hephaestion died suddenly in 324 BC the king did everything he could to ensure that Hephaestion would share in godhead and a divine existence for eternity.
Dr Elizabeth Baynham is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Newcastle