Alexander The Great and Campaspe in the Studio of Apelles by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Alexander the Great’s lifelong companion was Hephaestion, the son of a Macedonian noble man Hephaestion was Alexander’s closest friend, and held the position of second-in-command of Alexander’s forces until his death, which devastated Alexander. Alexander married at least two women, Roxane, daughter of a minor noble and the Persian princess Stateira, daughter of Darius III of Persia. His son by Roxane, Alexander IV, was born after Alexander the Great’s death and was killed before the boy reached adulthood.
Alexander was admired during his lifetime for treating all his lovers humanely. Plutarch has argued that Alexander’s love of males took an ethical approach, inspired by the teachings of his mentor, Aristotle. He gives several examples of Alexander’s morality in this domain:
When Philoxenus, the leader of the seashore, wrote to Alexander that there was a youth in Ionia whose beauty has yet to be seen and asked him in a letter if he (Alexander) would like him (the boy) to be sent over, he (Alexander) responded in a strict and disgusted manner: “You are the most hideous and malign of all men, have you ever seen me involved in such dirty(sexual) work that you found the urge to flatter me with such hedonistic business?
Plutarch also wrote:
When Philoxenus, the commander of his forces on the sea-board, wrote that there was with him a certain Theodorus of Tarentum, who had two youths of surpassing beauty to sell, and inquired whether Alexander would buy them, Alexander was incensed, and cried out many times to his friends, asking them what shameful thing Philoxenus had ever seen in him that he should spend his time in making such disgraceful proposals.
His moral approach towards sexual relations also extended to relations with prisoners of war: But as for the other captive women, seeing that they were surpassingly stately and beautiful, he merely said jestingly that Persian women were torments to the eyes. And displaying in rivalry with their fair looks the beauty of his own sobriety and self-control, he passed them by as though they were lifeless images for display.
The above quotations would be in line with the thoughts laid about before him by Aristotle, who regarded relationships based purely on carnal relations to be shameful.
Diodorus Siculus writes, “Then he put on the Persian diadem and dressed himself in the white robe and the Persian sash and everything else except the trousers and the long-sleeved upper garment. He distributed to his companions cloaks with purple borders and dressed the horses in Persian harness. In addition to all this, he added concubines to his retinue in the manner of Darius, in number not less than the days of the year and outstanding in beauty as selected from all the women of Asia. Each night these paraded about the couch of the king so that he might select the one with whom he would lie that night. Alexander, as a matter of fact, employed these customs rather sparingly and kept for the most part to his accustomed routine, not wishing to offend the Macedonians “
Curtius reports, “He scorned sensual pleasures to such an extent that his mother was anxious lest he be unable to beget offspring.” To encourage a relationship with a woman, King Philip and Olympias were said to have brought in a high-priced Thessalian courtesan named Callixena.
There is no evidence that Alexander sought intimacy with women outside of marriage, however he did marry three times: to Roxane of Bactria, Stateira and Parysatis, daughter of Ochus. He fathered at least one child, Alexander IV of Macedon, born by Roxane shortly after his death in 323 BC. There is speculation that Stateira could have been pregnant when he died; if so, she and her child played no part in the succession battles which ensued after his death. There is speculation that he may have fathered another child, (Heracles), of a woman said to be his concubine Barsine (the daughter of satrap Artabazus of Phrygia) in 327 BC. Mary Renault’s rebuttal of this theory is worth quoting: “ No record at all exists of such a woman accompanying his march; nor of any claim by her, or her powerful kin, that she had born him offspring. Yet twelve years after his death a boy was produced, seventeen years old…a claimant and shortlived pawn in the succession wars…no source reports any notice whatever taken by him of a child who, Roxane’s being posthumous, would have been during his lifetime his only son, by a near-royal mother. In a man who named cities after his horse and dog, this strains credulity.
Alexander had a close emotional attachment to his companion, cavalry commander (hipparchos) and childhood friend, Hephaestion. He studied with Alexander, as did a handful of other children of Macedonian aristocracy, under the tutelage of Aristotle. Hephaestion makes his appearance in history at the point when Alexander reaches Troy. There the two friends made sacrifices at the shrines of the two heroes Achilles and Patroclus; Alexander honouring Achilles, and Hephaestion honouring Patroclus. Aelian in his Varia Historia recounts that Hephaestion “thus intimated that he was the eromenos “beloved” of Alexander, as Patroclus was of Achilles.”
No contemporary source states that Alexander and Hephaestion were lovers; historian Paul Cartledge writes that: “Whether Alexander’s relationship with the slightly older Hephaestion was ever of the sort that once dared not speak its name is not certain.” Alexander and Hephaestion were, in Fox’s words, “exceptionally deep and close friends” until Hephaestion’s death, after which Alexander mourned him greatly and did not eat for days. Alexander held an elaborate funeral for Hephaestion at Babylon, and sent a note to the shrine of Ammon, which had previously acknowledged Alexander as a god, asking them to grant Hephaestion divine honours. The priests declined, but did offer him the status of divine hero. Alexander died soon after the receipt of this letter; Mary Renault suggests that his grief over Hephaestion’s death had led him to be careless with his health.
Campaspe, also known as Pancaste, may have been the mistress of Alexander, if so one of the first women with whom Alexander was intimate. She was thought to be a prominent citizen of Larisa in Thessaly; Aelian surmised that she initiated the young Alexander in love.
One story tells that Campaspe was painted by Apelles, who enjoyed the reputation in Antiquity for being the greatest of painters. The episode occasioned an apocryphal exchange that was reported in Pliny’s Naturalis Historia: seeing the beauty of the nude portrait, Alexander saw that the artist appreciated Campaspe (and loved her) more than he. And so Alexander kept the portrait but presented Campaspe to Apelles. Modern historian Robin Lane Fox says “so Alexander gave him Campaspe as a present, the most generous gift of any patron and one which would remain a model for patronage and painters on through the Renaissance”.
The story is memorable, but may have been invented: Campaspe does not appear in the five major sources for the life of Alexander. Robin Lane Fox traces her legend back to the Roman authors Pliny the Elder, Lucian of Samosata and Aelian’s Varia Historia.
Campaspe became a generic poetical pseudonym for a man’s mistress.
Barsine was a noble Persian, daughter of Artabazus, and wife of Memnon. After Memnon’s death, several ancient historians have written of a love affair between her and Alexander. Plutarch writes, “At any rate Alexander, so it seems, thought it more worthy of a king to subdue his own passions than to conquer his enemies, and so he never came near these women, nor did he associate with any other before his marriage, with the exception only of Barsine. This woman, the widow of Memnon, the Greek mercenary commander, was captured at Damascus. She had received a Greek education, was of a gentle disposition, and could claim royal descent, since her father was Artabazus who had married one of the Persian kings daughters. These qualities made Alexander the more willing he was encouraged by Parmenio, so Aristobulus tells us to form an attachment to a woman of such beauty and noble lineage.” In addition Justin writes, “As he afterwards contemplated the wealth and display of Darius, he was seized with admiration of such magnificence. Hence it was that he first began to indulge in luxurious and splendid banquets, and fell in love with his captive Barsine for her beauty, by whom he had afterwards a son that he called Heracles.”
The story may be true, but if so, it raises some difficult questions. The boy would have been Alexander’s only child born during his lifetime (Roxane’s son was born posthumously). Even if Alexander had ignored him, which seems highly unlikely, the Macedonian Army and the successors would certainly have known of him, and would almost certainly have drawn him into the succession struggles which ensued upon Alexander’s death. Yet we first hear of the boy twelve years after Alexander’s death, when a boy was produced as a claimant to the throne. Especially since Alexander’s own half brother Philip III Arrhidaeus (Philip II’s illegitimate and physically and mentally disabled son) was Alexander’s original successor. Alexander’s illegitimate son would have had more rights to the throne than his illegitimate half-brother. Heracles played a brief part in the succession battles, and then disappeared. It seems more likely that the romance with Barsine was invented by the boy’s backers to validate his parentage.
Ancient historians, as well as modern ones, have also written on Alexander’s marriage to Roxana. Robin Lane Fox writes, “Roxane was said by contemporaries to be the most beautiful lady in all Asia. She deserved her Afghan name of Roshanak, meaning ‘little star’, (probably rokhshana or roshna which means light and illuminating). Marriage to a local noble’s family made sound political sense. But contemporaries implied that Alexander, aged 28, also lost his heart. A wedding-feast for the two of them was arranged high on one of the Sogdian rocks. Alexander and his bride shared a loaf of bread, a custom still observed in Turkestan. Characteristically, Alexander sliced it with his sword.” Ulrich Wilcken writes, “The fairest prize that fell to him was Roxane, the daughter of Oxyartes, in the first bloom of youth, and in the judgment of Alexander’s companions, next to Stateira the wife of Darius, the most beautiful woman that they had seen in Asia. Alexander fell passionately in love with her and determined to raise her to the position of his consort.”
Roxane accompanied Alexander all the way to India, and bore him a child also named Alexander (Alexander IV), 6 months after Alexander the Great died.
Ancient sources tell of another favorite, Bagoas; an eunuch “exceptional in beauty and in the very flower of boyhood, with whom Darius was intimate and with whom Alexander would later be intimate.” Plutarch recounts an episode (also mentioned by Dicaearchus) during some festivities on the way back from India) in which his men clamor for him to kiss the young man: “We are told, too, that he was once viewing some contests in singing and dancing, being well heated with wine, and that his favourite, Bagoas, won the prize for song and dance, and then, all in his festal array, passed through the theatre and took his seat by Alexander’s side; at sight of which the Macedonians clapped their hands and loudly bade the king kiss the victor, until at last he threw his arms about him and kissed him tenderly.” A novel by Mary Renault, “the Persian Boy”, chronicles that story with Bagoas as narrator.
The modern historian Robin Lane Fox, claims that both direct and indirect evidence suggest a “sexual element, this time of pure physical desire” between the two, but as for the consummation of that passion he comments that later gossip presumed that Bagoas was Alexander’s lover. This is uncertain.”. Whatever Alexander’s relationship with Bagoas, it was no impediment to relations with his queen: 6 months after Alexander’s death Roxane gave birth to his son and heir, Alexander IV.