If Alexander was Achilles then Hephaestion was his inseparable Patroclus — a parallel that seems to have been on the minds of the Macedonians themselves while, as king and general, their host tore through the near and not-so-near East. As a loyal and energetic commander, Hephaestion was entrusted over and over again by Alexander with critical military positions; as confidante, Hephaestion gave Alexander counsel on the dangerous political decisions demanded by his civilization-straddling empire.
By the end, Hephaestion was not only Alexander’s clear number two but his brother-in-law — both men having taken brides from the conquered Persian royal family in the summer of 324, perhaps with a romantic eye toward the future dynastic union of their own descendants.
Such was never to be for Alexander, and not for Hephaestion either. Like Patroclus, he predeceased his companion but the spear of Hector in this case seems merely to have been a disease like typhus and the young warrior’s indiscipline at following a doctor’s strictures. Perhaps there lurked behind a draught more purposeful and sinister than overgorging on wine — who can tell at this distance? — but Hephaestion shockingly went from the acme of health to his sickbed to sudden death in a matter of days. A distraught Alexander wanted honors and grief but he also wanted someone to blame.
As to the physician’s execution, we are unsure of the fact as well as the date, but it seems like the sort of larger-than-life gesture of sorrow that an Alexander ought to make. We’re thinly sourced 2400 years into the past; Plutarch, writing some 400 years later, has one version of a story that had clearly become common coinage in the ancient world:
[I]t chanced that Hephaestion had a fever; and since, young man and soldier that he was, he could not submit to a strict regimen, as soon as Glaucus, his physician, had gone off to the theatre, he sat down to breakfast, ate a boiled fowl, drank a huge cooler of wine, fell sick, and in a little while died. Alexander’s grief at this loss knew no bounds. He immediately ordered that the manes and tails of all horses and mules should be shorn in token of mourning, and took away the battlements of the cities round about; he also crucified the wretched physician, and put a stop to the sound of flutes and every kind of music in the camp for a long time, until an oracular response from Ammon came bidding him honour Hephaestion as a hero and sacrifice to him.
The Greek historian Arrian makes a similar (albeit more circumspect) claim to that of his Roman near-contemporary.
In Ecbatana Alexander offered sacrifice according to his custom, for his good fortune; and he celebrated a gymnastic and musical contest. He also held drinking parties with his Companions.
At this time Hephaestion fell sick; and they say that the stadium was full of people on the seventh day of his fever, for on that day there was a gymnastic contest for boys. When Alexander was informed that Hephaestion was in a critical state, he went to him without delay, but found him no longer alive.
Different authors have given different accounts of Alexander’s grief on this occasion; but they all agree in this, that his grief was great. As to what was done in honour of Hephaestion, they make diverse statements, just as each writer was actuated by good-will or envy towards him, or even towards Alexander himself. Of the authors who have made these reckless statements, some seem to me to have thought that whatever Alexander said or did to show his excessive grief for the man who was the dearest to him in the world, redounds to his honour; whereas others seem to have thought that it rather tended to his disgrace, as being conduct unbecoming to any king and especially to Alexander. Some say that he threw himself on his companion’s body and lay there for the greater part of that day, bewailing him and refusing to depart from him, until he was forcibly carried away by his Companions. Others that he lay upon the body the whole day and night. Others again say that he hanged the physician Glaucias, for having indiscreetly given the medicine; while others affirm that he, being a spectator of the games, neglected Hephaestion, who was filled with wine.
Whatever we make of the Glaucias subplot, it’s a certainty that mighty Alexander then proceeded upon a protracted performance of conspicuous languishing that was aborted only by his own death about eight months later: two men who had stood hand in hand upon the summit of the world, stricken dead in such rapid and inexplicable succession that their bereavements ran upon one another.** As Arrian notes, the Macedon Achilles determined in honor of his Patroclus “to celebrate a gymnastic and musical contest, much more magnificent than any of the preceding, both in the multitude of competitors and in the amount of money expended upon it” — and that many of its reputed 3,000 participants “a short time after also competed in the games held at Alexander’s own funeral.”
* Yet another one of Macedonia’s greatest generation under Aristotle’s tutelage was destined in time to execute Alexander’s mother.
** It’s merely speculative, but one could readily imagine that Alexander’s own downward health spiral had a little something to do with despondency at the loss of his friend.