All records of Alexander by his own contemporaries have disappeared. We have to depend, all of us, including historians, historical novelists, and teachers, on histories compiled three or four centuries later from the material that was not then lost. In them references appear, sometimes not. Arrian’s chief source was King Ptolemy, who, though a little older, was a companion of Alexander’s, and was there, close to him, from boyhood. Arrian’s work only begins at Alexander’s accession after the semi-mysterious death of his father King Phillip. Historian Curtius’ early chapters have all vanished. Diodorus, who covers the correct time and tells us a lot about Phillip as well, says little of Alexander. For these first two decades (nearly two thirds of Alexander’s life) we have to depend on Plutarch. But Plutarch does not cite Ptolemy during most of his History of Alexander. He was also a bit of a novelist and sensationalist.
The sexual mores of Alexander have been much discussed. Years ago it was his detractors who considered him homosexual, because it was then fashionable to be anti-gay. Now, however, it is anti-social and old fashioned NOT to be gay, or at least bi-sexual, and thus we have our Italian professor friend claiming throughout his three volumes on ‘the life’ of Alexander that he was NOT gay (just to be different) when absolutely all the evidence available to man indicates that he was bi-sexual, for what that matters. Alexander’s commitment to his boyhood companion and later General Hephaistion is among the most certain elements of his life.
No-one seems to have asked if Alexander himself would have considered his sexuality a dishonour. In a society which assumed fighting men would have a female wife and a male lover, his three state marriages qualify him at least for bixuality. The 21st century is not 300 BC. The best army in Thebes was called The Sacred Band. It was entirely composed of couples, with the idea that every soldier would defend his friend’s life with his own, and therefore fight harder and quicker.
Alexander was not over-sexed, indeed, his restraint was much noticed. For his contemporaries, his most striking eccentricity was his refusal to exploit or allow the exploitation of defenceless victims such as captive women or slaves.
“Severe alcoholism” is said by many to have hastened Alexander’s death; any of today’s doctors could explain what a severe alcoholic’s work capacity is, and what his chances of surviving fourteen serious arrow, javelin or sword wounds, lung perforation, unanaesthetized field surgery, and a number of desert marches. It seems unlikely that a drunkard could have conquered 90% of the known world. After the massed gesture of his troops at Alexander’s deathbed, an event unique in history, it is a bit surprising to be told by the revisionist historians of today that nobody mourned him. We all know however that there are fashions in both admiration and denigration; they are inevitable. They should not be followed at the expense of truth.
Many historians have pointed out the connection between a permanently tainted water supply and heavy wine drinking in the Macedonian army. Aristobolous, who was at court throughout Alexander’s reign, says his usual habit was to sit drinking wine talking with his close friends well into the night, but without ever getting drunk. According to Plutarch, he became euphoric towards the end of a session, especially after battle, a phenomenon that can be observed today in persons not given to excess.
Rumours rife for centuries after his death that he was deliberately poisoned do not tally with the detailed case history of his last illness. He lost his voice, which indicates a common fatal complication of those days before the discovery of antibiotics – pneumonia. Pleurisy would be certain after his near mortal wound in the Mallian campaign. Aristobolous says that when in high fever he drank unwatered wine and became delirious.
Curtius has preserved a story that Alexander’s body was found to be uncorrupted, in spite of the summer heat and of the long delay in collecting the embalmers, due to the chaos and military riots after his death at barely more than thirty-three years old. The period given, about six days, is absurd, but he may have been in a deep coma for some of these days, deceiving the watchers into seeing him as dead. When the embalmers did arrive, they did their work well. Augustus Caesar, visiting the tomb at Alexandria three hundred years later, admired the classical beauty of his features.
In fact, most of the best-known Roman emperors would have gladly been Alexander, if only it had been possible, including the rather terrible Caligula and the enigmatic Tiberius. Sisygambis, the Queen Mother of Persia, an empire Alexander conquered by force of arms, when told of Alexander’s death, said goodbye to her family, shut herself up without food, and died five days later.
Hephaistion, Alexander’s closest friend from their palace boyhood together, was himself a skilled soldier and general, entirely trusted with difficult campaigns by Alexander. When he died, a month before Alexander, the King ordered immense funeral celebrations and games. He hanged the doctor.
When Alexander’s faults (those his own period did not account as virtues) have been considered, we are left with the fact that no other human being has attracted in his lifetime, from so many men, so fervent a devotion. Their reasons for this devotion are worth examining.
Sources for fans (and enemies) of Alexander: Arrian, who drew on the now lost memoirs of both Ptolemy and Aristobolous, and who wrote with a high sense of responsibility. Plutarch is colourful, but not necessarily accurate. Quintus Curtius; L. Pearson: The lost histories of Alexander the Great; Demosthenes, Aeschines, Isocrates, and of course Aristotle: Politics and Ethics.
Probably the very best novelised version of the life of Alexander is in three volumes by Mary Renault, a doctor herself, as well as best-selling author. They are Fire from Heaven, which deals with the boyhood of Alexander and the political assassination of his father Phillip, as well as the complicated relationship with Alexander’s mother. The Persian Boy covers all the military campaigns and the relations between the King and Hephaistion, and his state marriages as well as an excellent covering of his death; and The Nature of Alexander, which could be said neatly to tie up the loose strands and straighten out the edges. All are available in paperback.