About Alexander the Great

Published March 29, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

So, this week (or rather these two weeks, since this is Spring Break) I’m reading Nietzsche for class, and I came across this bit that I flagged with the intention of using it for Words Crush Wednesday:

“You shall always be the first and excel all others:  your jealous soul shall love no one, unless it be the friend” — that made the soul of the Greek quiver:  thus he walked the path of his greatness.  (Also Sprach Zarathustra, Walter Kaufmann translation)

Obviously, that one grabbed my attention ’cause it seemed to me that he was talking about one very specific, if mythical, Greek.

But this morning, a sudden thought struck me:  what if he was actually talking about Alexander the Great?  The histories of Alexander’s life as they’ve come down to us (which have not changed significantly from Nietzsche’s day) would certainly fit this, and given Alexander’s (alleged) obsession with Achilles, it would certainly be believable that he, like his hero/alleged ancestor, would want to “excel all others” even if he was never specifically given that paternal command the way Achilles was.

Then, of course, I kept thinking about this duo, mythic ancestor and historic descendant, and — as always — the oddity of Alexander’s name in one who would revere Achilles continued to haunt me.

But then I had what felt like a mini revelation.

Alexander’s claim to descent from Achilles primarily came from his mother, yes?  And it’s a famous historical myth that his parents really didn’t get along with each other.  (I don’t have enough background in Alexander studies to know if there’s any hope of discerning whether there’s truth to the myth, so I won’t try to claim any knowledge of its potential factuality.  (Is that a word?))

So, if Philip was already not getting on with his wife by the time their son was born, and he knew that her family more than anything else prized their descent from Achilles, might he not have purposefully named his son after the killer of Achilles, as a vengeance on his wife?

Now, yes, I know Alexander was a family name among the kings of Macedon.  (Philip was the second, but Alexander was the…fourth?  Sixth?  Well, he wasn’t the first.  I know that much for sure.)  But was it really necessary for him to bear that name, or could it have been either an attack on an unloved wife, or at least an attack on her claim to descent from Achilles?

Obviously, I’m posing these questions knowing there’s no way of answering them, but I do find the idea an appealing one.  It would be very believable in fiction, even if it can never feel like fact in reality.

There were certainly a plethora of other names to choose from (there always are), and if another branch of the Epiran royalty is anything to go by, there were many family names Alexander could have received from his mother’s side.  In the opening of his “Life of Pyrrhus,” Plutarch says

To Æacides were born of Phthia, Deidamia and Troas, daughters, and Pyrrhus a son.

The Molossians, afterwards falling into factions and expelling Æacides, brought in the sons of Neoptolemus, and such friends of Æacides as they could take were all cut off. (Dryden translation)

Æacides, while not usually spelled that way these days (I prefer Aiakides), means “(grand)son of Aiakos,” and is one of the epithets of Achilles in ancient literature.  (I’d say “in Homer” except that it continued in common use all that way up to late Roman times.)  Phthia is Achilles’ homeland (and yes, that was the name of Æacides’ wife, so she was obviously also of the apparently very large group of Epiran nobles who considered themselves descended from Achilles), Deidamia is the mother of Achilles’ son, Troas actually kind of doesn’t fit because it’s a Trojan name, and Pyrrhus was the other name of Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles.  (Of course, I prefer to spell those names with an “o” instead of a “u” but…different spelling, same name.  In the sentences that follow, names ending in an “os” are mythical characters, and ones in a “us” are historical people.)  Also, Pyrrhus named his son Helenus, after Helenos, the one son of Priam who survived the Trojan War, who was enslaved to Neoptolemos and used his prophetic powers to aid Neoptolemos in his return to Greece, and proved so useful that Neoptolemos freed him and gave him all sorts of gifts, including reign over Molossia, though Helenos left the kingdom not to his own son (fathered on Andromache, Hector’s widow) but to Molossos, Neoptolemos’ son (also fathered on Andromache), who Helenos had raised following Neoptolemos’ death.  Clearly, Molossos’ descendants (or rather those who considered themselves his descendants) were grateful for Helenos’ kindness.  (Though Plutarch says Pyrrhus is descended from a legitimate son of Neoptolemos fathered on a daughter of Hyllos.  This is chronologically impossible, especially since Neoptolemos — like his father — died very young.  I think Plutarch either condensed two generations, meaning that Molossos was actually the one married to the daughter of Hyllos, or the Epirans were a little confused about the chronology in the rest of Greece.  I’d say they just didn’t want to be descended from a Trojan, but if that was the case, why would they use names like Troas and Helenos?)

If you’re wondering about the timing of Pyrrhus’ life, his sister Deidamia had been engaged/married in infancy to Alexander the Great’s infant son by Roxana.  (Unlike Alexander’s son, however, Deidamia actually lived to adulthood.)  Pyrrhus himself married one of the daughters of Ptolemy I, Alexander’s general who ended up in control of Egypt.  (Pyrrhus, btw, is the source of our saying “a Pyrrhic victory,” because he lost so many of his own men in fighting the Romans.  He still won, though, so the Romans considered him one of their worst enemies of all time, right up there with Hannibal.  (In part, no doubt, because they never managed to beat Pyrrhus.))

Anyway, lengthy digression aside, point is that there were lots of names Philip could have given his son that would have embraced rather than conflicted with his wife’s alleged descent from Achilles.  The fact that he didn’t might not mean anything more than that he didn’t believe the stories that the Epiran royal families were all descended from Neoptolemos.  (And it’s hard to blame his skepticism if such skepticism was there.)  Or it might have meant something less friendly.  Impossible to say from here.

While I’m on the subject, you may have noticed a certain amount of skepticism on my part in the early paragraphs of this post, when discussing Alexander’s life.  There’s a good reason for that:  we know so little about it.  Sure, there’s all sorts of things we think we know, but all the histories that survived were written centuries after the fact.  Ptolemy famously wrote a history of Alexander’s life, but it — like all other contemporary accounts — has been lost.  Our earliest account is Plutarch, and our fullest is Arrian.  And, as Mary Beard pointed out, Arrian wrote in the time of Hadrian, who famously and scandalously (yes, it was a scandal even in his own time) went to extravagant lengths in mourning his beloved Antinoos.  Arrian couldn’t write about that without risking himself, but he could write about Alexander going to great lengths to mourn Hephaistion, making sure to draw plenty of parallels between Alexander and his hero Achilles and Hephaistion and Patroclos so it wouldn’t seem suspicious to the emperor whose favor he no longer had.  Plutarch doesn’t actually draw that much attention to any particular fondness Alexander may have had for his alleged ancestor Achilles:  his main mention is the famous bit about the visit to Achilles’ (alleged) tomb, but that was traditional, and most Greeks likely would have done the same (except, perhaps, for the naked footrace) if they found themselves in the region of Troy.  Certainly, anyone claiming descent from the hero would have felt obligated to thus anoint his tomb, as there was definitely an aspect of ancestor worship in the hero worship of the ancient Greeks.  (That wasn’t the only factor, by any means, but there were definite overtones.)  Thus my skepticism that Alexander did, in fact, revere Achilles the way Arrian tells us he did.  (He did go to great lengths in mourning Hephaistion, if we can trust Plutarch, but they weren’t quite as extravagant as Arrian claims.)

Obviously, I think it’s much more interesting if Arrian was right, but the historian in me says “nope, must reserve judgement.”  (The novelist in me, of course, insists that Alexander was, naturally, quite obsessed with Achilles, and that he and Hephaistion liked to roleplay as Achilles and Patroclos.  Because that’s more interesting.)

In retrospect, I probably should have named this post differently, as I didn’t really spend that much time talking about Alexander himself…

…but I’m too lazy to go back and change it.  Besides, I have to go get my laundry out of the washing machine and put it in the drier.

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