Literary sources Plutarch, Life of Alexander

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Alexander the Great, 356–323 BC

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Prescribed Sources for Alexander the Great, 356–323 BC

Literary sources
Plutarch, Life of Alexander 2–3

On his father’s side, Alexander was descended from Heracles through Caranus. On his mother’s, he was a descendent of Aeacus through Neoptolemus. This is beyond doubt. Philip is said to have been initiated into the mysteries at Samothrace with Olympias, when he was still a young man. He fell in love with her when she was an orphan and proposed marriage to her, after persuading her brother, Arymbas, to consent. The bride, on the night before they slept together in their bedroom, thought that there was a peal of thunder and that a thunderbolt fell on her womb. From the blow much fire sprung up, and then it broke into flames that went everywhere, before being extinguished. Philip, at a later time, after his marriage, dreamt that he was putting a seal on his wife’s womb. In his opinion, the carving on the seal had the image of a lion. When the other seers considered the vision, they thought that Philip needed to keep as close an eye as possible on his marriage relations. Aristander of Telmessus said that the woman was pregnant, because a seal is not used on empty things, and that she was carrying a child who was bold in spirit and had a lion-like nature. In addition, a snake was seen stretched out next to Olympias’ body as she slept. And they say that this, more than anything else, reduced Philip’s love and friendliness towards his wife, and that he no longer slept with his wife, either because he feared some spells and enchantments might be used against him by his wife or because he was avoiding association with her, as she was the partner of a superior being. ...


After this vision, Philip sent Chaeron of Megalopolis to Delphi. They say that he brought back an oracle from the god which told him to sacrifice to Ammon and honour this god very highly. He would, however, lose the eye which he had put to the chink in the door when he had seen the god in the form of a snake sharing the bed with his wife. Olympias, as Eratosthenes says, sent Alexander on his expedition, and told him about the secret surrounding his conception, and told him to be proud of his birth. Others say that she rejected the idea and said “Alexander must stop slandering me to Hera.”

And so, Alexander was born early in the month of Hecatombaeon, which the Macedonians call Loüs, on the sixth day. This was the day when the temple of Ephesian Artemis was burnt. Hegesias the Magneian made a statement about this which would have been able to extinguish the fire with its coldness. For he said that it was not surprising that the temple of Artemis was burned down as the goddess was at work delivering Alexander. All the Magi who were at Ephesus at that time thought that the disaster of the temple was a symptom of another disaster. They ran about, beating their faces and shouting out that on that day a curse and a great disaster for Asia had been born. Philip, on the other hand, had just taken Potidaea. Three messages came to him at the same time. The first, that the Illyrians had been conquered in a great battle by Parmenio; the second that his race-horse had won a victory at the Olympic Games, and the third was about the birth of Alexander. He was delighted by these things, as you would expect. The seers raised his spirits even higher still when they said that a son born at the time of three victories would be unconquerable.
Plutarch, Life of Alexander 6–9

Philoneicus the Thessalian brought Boucephalas to sell to Philip for 13 talents. They all went down to the plain to inspect the horse, and he appeared to be difficult and completely unmanageable, not allowing anyone to ride him or responding to the voice of any of Philip’s men, but rearing at all of them. Philip was annoyed and ordered them to take the horse away as it was completely wild and untrained. Alexander was there and said, “What a horse they are losing when they cannot handle him through lack of skill and patience.” At first Philip kept quiet, but where Alexander said the same thing many times and was in great distress, he said, “Do you find fault with your elders because you know more than they do or are better able to handle a horse?” Alexander replied, “I could certainly manage this horse better than anyone else.” “And if you don’t, what penalty should you pay for your recklessness?” Straightaway Alexander said, “By Zeus, I will pay the price of the horse.” This made everybody laugh, and then father and son made an agreement about the penalty. At once Alexander ran up to the horse and, taking the reins, turned him towards the sun, as he had noticed that the horse was disturbed by seeing his own shadow falling in front of him and dancing around. Then he calmed the horse a little by doing this and stroked it, and when he saw that it was full of spirit and energy he took off his cloak quietly, leapt up and seated himself safely. Then gently directing the bit with the reins without striking the horse or tearing his mouth, Alexander held the horse back. When he saw that the horse had stopped misbehaving and was eager for a run, he spoke more boldly, kicked with his heels and gave the horse his head. At first those with Philip were terrified and kept quiet. But when Alexander came back proud and overjoyed, everyone there cried out and his father is said to have cried with joy; when the boy had dismounted he kissed him on his head and said, “My child, you must seek a kingdom equal to yourself; Macedonia is not big enough for you.”


Seeing that his son’s nature was resolute and that he did not like to be forced to do things but was easily convinced by argument to do the right thing, Philip tried rather to persuade him to order him. Because he did not entirely trust the direction and education of the boy to the teachers of music and other studies, as this was a matter of greater importance and as Sophocles says, “a task requiring many bits and rudders”, he sent for the most well-known philosopher, Aristotle, and paid him a fee which was noble and appropriate. Sometime before, Philip had destroyed the city of Stageira, of which Aristotle was a citizen; he now repopulated it again and brought back those of the citizens who were in exile or who had been enslaved.

He gave them the sanctuary of the nymphs at Mieza as a school, where to this day the locals point out the stone seats and shady walks of Aristotle. Alexander appears to have studied not only Aristotle’s ethical and political philosophy but also his secret and deeper doctrines, which philosophers do not share with many people. For when Alexander had just crossed into Asia and learnt that Aristotle had published an account of these matters in a book, he boldly wrote a letter to him on behalf of philosophy, of which this is a copy: “Alexander sends greetings to Aristotle. In publishing an account of your private doctrines you have not acted properly; what will distinguish me from other men if the private doctrines in which you trained me will be available to everybody? I would prefer to be distinguished from other people through my understanding of what is best than through my power. Farewell.” ...


In my opinion Aristotle was more responsible than anyone else for Alexander’s interest in healing. Not only was Alexander interested in theory but he also offered help to friends when they were ill and he suggested remedies and changes to the way they looked, as can be seen in his letters. He was naturally interested in learning and was a keen reader. He considered and called the Iliad a manual of military skill, and he took with him a copy corrected by Aristotle which was called the Iliad of the casket; he always kept it by him under his pillow together with a dagger, as Onesicritus relates. When he could not get hold of other books on his campaign into Persia, he ordered Harpalus to send some. He received from him the books of Philistus together with many tragedies by Euripides and Sophocles and Aeschylus, and also the dithyrambs of Telestus and Philoxenus. He admired Aristotle from the beginning and loved him not less, as he himself said, than his father, as he gained the gift of life from his father, but from Aristotle he had learnt how to live nobly. In later years he was more suspicious of Aristotle, not that he did him any harm but his friendliness towards him was less warm, which was proof of an estrangement between them. However his natural interest and enthusiasm for philosophy, which he demonstrated since childhood, did not leave him as he grew older as can be shown by his respect for Anaxarchus and the 50 talents he gave Xenocrates and his close association with Dandamis and Calanus.


When Philip was making an expedition against the people of Byzantium, Alexander, aged 16, was left in charge of affairs in Macedonia and was keeper of the king’s seal. When the Maedi revolted, he overcame them. After capturing their city he drove out the barbarians and settled a mixed population there and renamed the city Alexandropolis. He was present at and took part in the battle against the Greeks at Chaeroneia, and it is said that he led the charge against the Sacred Band of the Thebans. Still even in my time an ancient oak tree is pointed out as Alexander’s tree next to the River Cephisus where he pitched his tent at the time of the battle; the general burying place of the Macedonians is close by.

Because of this, as one might expect, Philip was very fond indeed of his son and was even delighted when he heard the Macedonians calling Alexander their king, and Philip their general. But the disturbances in the royal household, brought about by his marriages and his love affairs, caused problems in his kingdom very similar to those in the women’s quarters of the palace and resulted in great quarrels between Alexander and his father, which the bad temper of Olympias, an envious and sullen woman, made still worse, as she encouraged the young man. The most obvious quarrel was brought about by Attalus at the time of Philip’s marriage to Cleopatra; Philip fell in love with a young girl, even though he was too old for her. Attalus was her uncle and when he was drunk at a banquet he called on the Macedonians to ask the gods for a legitimate inheritor of the kingdom from Philip and Cleopatra. Stung by this remark Alexander said, “Do I appear to you to be a bastard, you fool?” And he threw a cup at him. Philip drew his sword and stood up to face Alexander, but fortunately for both of them because of his anger and the wine he tripped and fell over. Alexander insulted him and said, “Look at this man, my friends, who is preparing to cross to Asia from Europe, who comes a cropper crossing from one couch to another.” After this drunken brawl he took Olympias and put her in Epirus, while he spent time amongst the Illyrians.

Meanwhile Demaratus the Corinthian, who was a friend of the family and prepared to speak his mind, went to Philip. After they greeted each other, when Philip asked how the Greeks were agreeing with each other, Demaratus replied, “It is certainly very appropriate, Philip, to be worried about Greece, when you have filled your own house with such strife and difficulties.” Philip realised he was right, and sent for Alexander and brought him home with Demaratus’ help.

Plutarch, Life of Alexander 31–33

When Alexander had brought all the territory from the Greek coast to the Euphrates under his control, he began to march against Darius, who was coming to face him with a million men. One of his companions told him (as something very amusing) that the camp followers for fun had divided themselves into two groups and had appointed a leader and general for each side, calling one Alexander and the other Darius; at first they hurled lumps of earth at each other, then fought with their fists, and finally, overexcited by the contest, they went as far as stones and clubs, as there were many men on either side and they did not want to stop. When Alexander heard this, he told the leaders to fight in single combat, and he provided the armour for the leader dubbed ‘Alexander’, while Philotas did the same for ‘Darius’. The whole army watched the spectacle, as they considered that the result would give an indication of what would happen in the future. The battle was a tough one and in the end the one called Alexander was victorious and received as a prize 12 villages and the right to wear Persian dress. This is the story told by Eratosthenes.

The great battle against Darius did not take place at Arbela, as many writers say, but at Gaugamela. Men say that this name means ‘camel’s home’ in the local language, since one of the ancient kings escaped his enemies on a swift camel and gave the beast a home there, with villages and tax revenue to pay for its upkeep. There was an eclipse of the moon during September about the time of the beginning of the Mysteries at Athens, and on the 11th night after the eclipse, when the armies were in sight of each other, Darius kept his forces at arms and went through the ranks by torchlight, but Alexander, while his Macedonian forces were resting, stayed in front of his tent with the seer Aristander, performing secret rites and offering sacrifices to the god Fear. The older of his companions, amongst them Parmenio, when they saw the whole plain between the River Niphates and the Gordyaean Mountains bright with the fires lit by the barbarians and heard a confused din of voices like the roar of the open sea, were amazed at the number of the enemy, and told each other that it would be a great and difficult task to win so great a battle in the light of day. They went up to the king when he completed his sacred rites and tried to persuade him to attack the enemy by night and in this way the cover up the most terrifying aspect of the coming contest with darkness. Alexander gave a memorable reply, “I do not steal my victory”. Some thought this a childish and empty-headed reply, as if he were making light of so great a danger. However, there were others who felt that Alexander showed confidence at a critical moment and that he had weighed up what would happen correctly, as he didn’t want to give Darius any reason for confidence in another battle if he were defeated, blaming the night and the darkness as before he blamed mountains and narrow passages and the sea. Alexander knew that Darius would not stop fighting through lack of weapons or men since he had so great an army and so vast an empire, but only when he gave up any hope of success and was convinced by clear-cut and utter defeat.


When his companions had left, Alexander is said to have slept in his tent for the remaining part of the night, much more deeply than he usually did; when his commanders came to his tent in the morning they were amazed and gave the order themselves for the soldiers to have breakfast. Then, as the right moment for battle was approaching, Parmenio went into his tent and standing beside the bed called his name two or three times. When he had woken him he asked Alexander how he could sleep as if he had just won a victory, when he was about to fight the greatest battle all those he had fought. Alexander replied with a smile, “Why do you say that? Don’t you think we have already won a great victory as we are freed from chasing through this vast expanse of desolate land after Darius as he flees from battle?” Not only before the battle, but also in the very midst of dangers he showed himself great and confident in the calculations he had made. In the battle on the left wing Parmenio was pushed back and was in difficulty, when the Bactrian cavalry fell on the Macedonians violently and with great force; Mazaeus sent some cavalrymen around the edge of the battle to attack those who were protecting the Macedonian baggage. Then Parmenio, concerned by both these events, sent messengers to Alexander to tell him that the camp and the baggage were lost, unless he sent very quickly some strong assistance from the front line to those at the rear. At that point, Alexander happened to be giving the signal to advance to those with him; when he heard the message from Parmenio, he said that Parmenio was not thinking straight but had forgotten in his confusion that those who were victorious gained whatever the enemy had in addition to their own, while those who were being defeated must not think about money or about slaves but how best they might fight bravely and die a noble death. Alexander sent this message to Parmenio and then put on his helmet – he had been wearing the rest of his armour since he left his tent; he wore a belted Sicilian tunic, with a double breastplate over it which was part of the spoils captured at the Battle of Issus. His helmet was made of iron, though it gleamed like pure silver, made by Theophilus; there was a neck piece fitted to it, also made of iron, set with precious stones; he had a sword marvellous for its lightness and tempering, a gift from the King of Citium, and he used a sword for the most part in his battles. He wore a cloak more elaborate in its craftsmanship than the rest of his armour; it had been made by Helicon the ancient, and was a mark of respect from the city of Rhodes, which had presented it to him; he also usually wore this in battle. As long as he was riding through his troops, issuing orders or encouraging them, giving instructions or reviewing his men, he used another horse, sparing Boucephalas as he was past his prime; but when he set out for battle, Boucephalas was brought to him, and he mounted him and at once led the attack.


On this occasion he said a great deal to the Thessalians and the other Greeks; when they urged him to lead them against the barbarians, he took his spear in his left hand and with his right, as Callisthenes says, he appealed to the gods in prayer that if he truly was the son of Zeus they should protect and strengthen the Greeks. Aristander the seer, in a white cloak with a golden garland on his head, rode along pointing to an eagle which hovered above the head of Alexander and then made a straight flight towards the enemy, which brought great encouragement to those who saw it; after encouraging each other, the cavalry raced at full speed towards the enemy, and the infantry phalanx rolled forward like a wave. Before those at the front could engage with the enemy, the barbarians gave ground, and the Greeks came after them, as Alexander drove those who were conquered into the middle of the battlefield where Darius was. He saw him from a distance through the dense ranks of the Royal Squadron, a tall, noble-looking man, travelling in a high chariot, protected by many splendid cavalrymen, drawn up in close order around his chariot and ready to face the enemy. But when they saw Alexander close by, terrible in appearance and driving those who were fleeing towards those who stood their ground, they were terrified and the majority scattered. The best and most noble of them were slaughtered in front of the king and falling on top of one another hindered the pursuit, entangling both riders and horses.

But Darius, as all the terrors of the battlefield were before him and he could see the forces assigned to his protection driven back towards him, left his chariot and his weapons, and, they say, mounted a mare which was newly foaled and escaped from the battlefield. For it was not easy to turn his chariot and ride away on it, as the wheels were blocked, entangled with so many dead bodies, and the horses were trapped and hidden by the great number of those who had fallen, and were rearing up and terrifying the charioteer. It is believed that he would not have escaped if some of the cavalrymen of Parmenio had not come to Alexander, asking him to bring help, as there was still a considerable force of the enemy in the field where they were, and they were not yet surrendering. Many have blamed Parmenio for being sluggish and ineffectual in this battle, either because old age had already undermined his bravery or, as Callisthenes says, he was depressed and envious of the authority and self-importance of Alexander’s power. At this point, the king, although he was annoyed by the summons, did not tell his soldiers the truth, but recalled his forces, on the grounds that it was dark and he wanted to stop the slaughtering. As he rode towards the part of his forces that was in danger, he heard as he was travelling that the enemy had been completely vanquished and was in flight.
Plutarch, Life of Alexander 38
After that, as he was about to march against Darius, Alexander happened to be taking part in a merry drinking party with his companions; women also came to meet their lovers and shared the wine and partying. The most famous of the women was an Athenian called Thaïs who was the mistress of Ptolemy, who became King of Egypt afterwards. Partly to praise Alexander gracefully and partly to amuse him, as the drinking went on, she began to speak in a way that suited the nature of the country she came from, but was not a suitable thing for her to be saying. She said that she was being paid back that day, for all the hardship caused to her by wandering about Asia following his army, by relaxing luxuriously in this way in the splendid Persian palace. But she said that it would be an even greater pleasure to go for fun to set fire to the house of the Xerxes who had burned Athens. She wanted to light the fire herself with Alexander watching, so that it would be said that the women following Alexander’s army had given a greater punishment to the Persians on behalf of Greece than all the famous commanders on sea and land. As soon as she had said this, there was loud clapping, and the people with the king eagerly encouraged him, so that he gave in to their wishes, and jumping to his feet, with a garland on his head and a torch in his hand, he led the way. The party followed and surrounded the palace with shouts and dancing. The rest of the Macedonians who heard about it ran there joyfully with torches because they hoped that burning and destroying the palace was a sign that Alexander wanted to go home and did not plan to live among the barbarians. Some writers say that this is the way the deed was done, but others say it was planned beforehand. However, it is agreed that Alexander quickly thought better of it and ordered the fire to be put out.
Plutarch, Life of Alexander 50–51

Not much later occurred the events which led to the death of Cleitus, which at first glance seems much more savage than the incident involving Philotas; yet if we consider both the reason and the moment when it occurred, we see that it was not done deliberately but through some misfortune of the king, whose anger and drunkenness provided a pretext for the evil genius of Cleitus. This is how it came about. There came some men bringing Greek fruit from the coast. Alexander admired the ripeness and the beauty of this fruit and sent for Cleitus, as he wished to show him what he had been given and to share it with him. Cleitus happened to be offering sacrifice, but he stopped the rite and came: three of the sheep which had been prepared to sacrifice followed him. When the king learnt this, he spoke with the seers Aristander and Cleomantis the Spartan; when they said that this was a bad sign, he ordered a sacrifice to be made as quickly as possible on Cleitus’s behalf. For Alexander himself had seen something strange in his sleep two days before: he dreamt he saw Cleitus sitting with the sons of Parmenio who were dressed in black, and they were all dead. Cleitus didn’t complete his sacrifice, but came immediately to dinner, although the king had offered a sacrifice to the Dioscuri. Heavy drinking had already started when some songs were sung, composed by a certain Pranichus (or, as some say, Pierio), intended to shame and ridicule some generals who had recently been defeated by the barbarians. The older men there were annoyed and abused the poet and the singer, but Alexander and those sitting with him enjoyed listening to them and told him to carry on. By this time Cleitus was drunk, and being by nature rough in temper and stubborn he became very angry, saying that it was not right that the Macedonians should be insulted in the presence of barbarians and enemies, when they were better than those who were laughing, even though they had had some bad luck. When Alexander claimed that Cleitus was making excuses for himself when he called cowardice misfortune, Cleitus stood up and said, “Yet this cowardice of mine has already saved you, son of a God though you are, when you turned your back on the sword of Spithridates, and you have become so powerful through the blood and wounds of Macedonians that you deny Philip was your father and make yourself the son of Ammon.”


Annoyed by this, Alexander said, “You wretch, do you think you can get away with saying that sort of thing about me all the time and splitting the Macedonians into factions?” “Even now, Alexander, we don’t get away with it,” he said, “since we pay such a high cost for our suffering, and we call happy those who already have died before they saw Macedonians beaten with Persian sticks or having to ask Persians before we approach our king.” Cleitus spoke out boldly like this, and those with Alexander were on their feet and abusing him; the older men tried to quiet things down. Alexander turned to Xenodochus of Cardia and Artemius of Colophon, and said, “Don’t the Greeks seem to you to walk amongst the Macedonians like demigods amongst wild beasts?” Cleitus would not give up, and told Alexander to say whatever he wanted openly, or not to invite to dinner men who were free and who exercised free speech; he should live with barbarians and slaves who would offer obeisance before his Persian belt and his white tunic. Alexander could no longer control his anger, but picked up one of the apples on the table and threw it at Cleitus and began to look for his sword; one of his bodyguards, Aristophanes, took it away before he could find it. The rest of them still around him asked him to stop, but he leapt up and shouted out in Macedonian, calling for his armour bearers (this was a sign of great tumult), and he ordered his trumpeter to send a signal and then struck him with his fists when he did not do so straight away. This man was later given much credit as he was responsible for not disturbing the whole camp. When Cleitus would not give up the quarrel, his friends with difficulty thrust him out of the hall. Cleitus tried to enter again through a different door, declaiming very contemptuously and boldly this line of Euripides from his play Andromache: “Alas, how badly things are controlled in Greece!” Then Alexander, taking a spear from one of his guards, came face-to-face with Cleitus as he drew back the curtain in front of the door, and ran him through. He fell with a groan and a bellow, and at once Alexander’s anger vanished. When he returned to his senses and seeing his friends standing around him speechless, he dragged the spear out of the dead body and tried to impale himself in the neck, but was prevented by his bodyguards, who restrained him and carried him by force into his bedroom.

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