Alexander, Ephesus, and Plutarch

One category of the legends about Alexander the Great were the omens surrounding his birth. The most calamitous of these was that on the very day the future conqueror was born, the temple of Artemis at Ephesus went up in flames, supposedly the victim of arson. Despite a mundane explanation, the connection to Alexander caused this story to take on a life of its own, and people soon began to say that the reason that the goddess was not home to protect her temple was that she was busy watching over Alexander’s birth.

(Despite Plutarch’s implication that Artemis was there to watch over the newborn, one of her duties was to protect women during childbirth. Our male correspondents say nothing about whether Olympias’ labor when birthing Alexander was particularly difficult, but one wonders.)

According to Plutarch, the magi (sic) in Ephesus rent their clothes, convinced that this was an omen of one destined to conquer Asia was born. More likely, the lamentations were caused by panic at seeing the temple go up in flames and I suspect Plutarch’s mention of “magi” here isn’t connected to actual Persians though there were indubitably those, but rather that he using the term to refer generally to the sacred staff at the sanctuary where at least one of the priests bore the Persian title Megabyxus. Framing the episode this way pushes the vision of Ephesus as Asian and has a way of further magnifying Alexander’s importance.

From Arrian we hear that Alexander exploited the story linking the conflagration with his birth by offering to pay for repairs. The offer was not spurious and would demonstrate his wealth, magnanimity, and piety while binding Ephesus to him. Why the Ephesians rejected the donation is a matter of some debate, but, needless to say, served as fodder for even more fanciful stories.

Here’s the catch: Plutarch, our main source for the story about Artemis and Alexander’s birth, never mentions Alexander’s offer to pay for the repairs at the temple. The absence of any given episode in Plutarch’s life of Alexander is not itself notable. Early on in the work, perhaps by way of preemptive explanation, Plutarch makes a point of saying that he will focus on small events and gestures that have moral value. Nor is it necessarily surprising when an ancient author doesn’t follow up on a topic, but it is somewhat curious for Plutarch to establish the connection between Alexander and Ephesus only to gloss over the period when Alexander was actually there.

I don’t want to speculate as to Plutarch’s purpose in leaving out any mention of Alexander in Ephesus, though there are certainly plausible rhetorical explanations. What interests me in this instance is that the only source among the surviving accounts to mention Ephesus in conjunction with the birth is Plutarch and the only one to mention what he did there is Arrian. Aside from giving me a historiographical headache at the moment, this ought to be a reminder just how constructed are our histories of Alexander’s reign, particularly when it comes to imputing his motivations.

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