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.

Privilege and Civilization

“…a person is by nature an animal that lives in a community [polis], and one who is by nature and not by fate without such a community [polis] is surely barely–or more than–human.”

[ὁ ἄνθρωπος φύσει πολιτικὸν ζῷον, καὶ ὁ ἄπολις διὰ φύσιν καὶ οὐ διὰ τύχην ἤτοι φαῦλός ἐστιν, ἤ κρείττων ἤ ἄνθρωπος, Politics, 1.1253a]

So Aristotle says early in his Politics, a phrase that is often repeated, but usually truncated to “man is a political animal.” This observation comes only at the end of a passage where Aristotle analyzes human relationships, concluding that the polis is the highest form of community. He, of course, prioritizes free citizens and regards the civilizations of Asia as inferior on the grounds that they were slaves to the Persian king. A similar sentiment emerges in other Greek sources, such as Homeric Hymn 20, to Hephaestus, which says:

“With gleaming-eyed Athena, he taught humans on the earth splendid crafts, men who formerly dwelt in caves in the mountains, like wild beasts. But now, through the famed-craftsmen Hephaestus, they have learned crafts and they live a peaceful life all year, easily and in their own homes.”

[ὃς μετ᾽ Ἀθηναίης φλαυκώπιδος ἀγλαὰ ἔργα ἀνθρώπους ἐδίδαξεν ἐπὶ χθονός, οἳ τὸ πάρος περ ἄντροις ναιετάασκον ἐν οὔρεσιν, ἠύτε θῆρες. νῦν δὲ δι’ ᾽Ἣφαιστον κλθτοτέχνην ἔργα δαέντες ῥηιδίως αἰῶνα τελεσφόρον εἰς ἐναυτὸν εὔκηλοι διάγουςιν ἐνὶ σφετέροισι δόμοισιν.]

Technically, this passage could apply to any group of people who live in man-made structures, but the progression from living like (and with) animals to a civilized, urban life appears is fairly common. In Arrian’s account of Alexander’s speech to his men at Opis says that Philip found the men “impoverished wanderers” (πλανήτας καὶ ἀπόρους), “dressed in animal hide” (ἐν διφθέραις) and “feeding a few sheep on the hills” (ἀνὰ τὰ ὄρη πρόβατα ὀλίγα) and made them civilized city-dwellers (πόλεων τε οἰκήτορας). It should not be a surprise that the common thread privileges what is considered a typically Greek way of life, nor that the Greek authors looked upon their own culture as the ideal arrangement of society. The people at the top have a tendency to think that way.

It is also notable how infrequently “non-civilized” people show up in ancient sources unless they a) pose a threat to more civilized people, b) are an object of curiosity, or c) is used as a contrast to civilized cultures as either c1) to demonstrate how far civilization had come or c2) to espouse the prelapsarian virtues of people uncorrupted by luxuries of civilization. Barring that they are invisible. For instance, Livy gives the briefest accounts of tribes of people living in the Alps only because they block Hannibal’s passage into Italy.

The phenomenon of privileging civilization is old, but it is not a relic of the past. In recent history, the Worlds Fairs put “exotic” humans, including eskimos, on display. Exhibits depicting “non-civilized” peoples tend to be relegated to Natural History museums, and they are studied in the context of anthropology museums–or, at least, in specialized history classes for, for example, Native Americans. Other peripheral communities of people are simply excluded from the narrative. That is a feature of narratives–there are those within the spotlight and those on the outside. Yet, there is also a privileging of those whose societies are in some sense structured like ours and those that are declared to be the ancestors in the truest sense, namely not just those that came before, but those that established cultures and civilizations that led to ours. Those on periphery are curiosities of secondary importance.

Homeric Warrior Ethos in the Histories of Alexander the Great

There are any number of things which have peaked my interest as side projects since the start of my thesis, some not at all related, others just tangents. One of the tangents that I have been unable to shake off and will likely return to at some point down the line in actual research is the connection between Homer, Alexander III of Macedon (the Great), and the historians of Alexander.

In nearly all of the sources (Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus, Arrian) are stories concerning Alexander compared to Achilles, Hephaestion to Patroclus, Philip to Peleus, and his tutor Lysimachus to Phoenix (the tutor of Achilles), and Alexander is reported to have taken a copy of the Iliad notated by Aristotle with him into Asia, sleeping with it and a dagger under his pillow. This obsession is generally qualified as Alexander seeking to be put on a level with Achilles, far above other mortal men, and in all likelihood he appeared as such to many of the rank and file soldiers–an invincible, ever victorious hero whose only comparison was with his ancestor Achilles (if I am remembering correctly, it was his mother Olympias whose family descended from Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, while his Philip’s family descended from Hercules).

Now I am not an expert on the Homeric warrior ethos and how they were supposed to behave militarily and whatnot, but Alexander would have been aware of it, but more importantly to me is how writers at least four hundred years later were still picking up on it and superimposing the values onto their histories. One of the most confounding elements in these histories is how Alexander was supposed to be demoting various officers by giving them critical administrative or organizational posts, often with large contingents of troops, yet this repeatedly crops up either in word or in tone. My current thought is that this is where the warrior ethos kicks in because these men were no longer in the best position to be out winning glory with their king and as such “must have considered this a slight” (my own broad generalization).

Conspiracy theories abound about Alexander and some of my other problems with the scholarly work is how readily they abound, but there is not much to do about it. On the other hand, I think using this methodology could potentially open up new possibilities in the histories, while the main study of the histories themselves currently rest in the portrayal of the officers based on the actual primary sources written by Ptolemy, looking at his biases.