Tag Archives: alexander the great

324 B.C.E.: Glaucias, negligent physician

On an unknown date in the autumn of 324 BCE, the sudden death at Ecbatana of Alexander the Great‘s closest companion led the grief-stricken conqueror to execute a physician for negligence.

Hephaestion was the Macedonian prince’s intimate friend and presumed lover from childhood, described by their mutual tutor Aristotle as “one soul abiding in two bodies.”* They even looked alike.

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.


Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus, by Gavin Hamilton (c. 1760)

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.

316 BCE: Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great

On an unknown date about the spring of 316 BCE, Alexander the Great’s snake-worshipping mother Olympias surrendered to the siege of the former regent’s ambitious son — whereupon she was put to summary death.

The Epirote princess married Philip II of Macedon. Though Philip had put her aside for a younger queen, Olympias adroitly maneuvered her brilliant son* Alexander to the throne from which he conquered Babylonia and Persia, and history is not confident that she stopped short of regicide to secure Alexander’s precedence.

Olympias was famed for her snake-handling: Plutarch says that Philip’s interest in her waned when he beheld “a serpent … lying stretched out by the side of Olympias as she slept,” which led him to fear “that she was the partner of a superior being.” Sigmund Freud, eat your heart out.

Sired by the gods or no, Olympias’s son certainly outstripped his father — but once Alexander’s coruscating star burned itself out, Olympias had another kind of snakepit to contend with: the conqueror’s former generals jockeying for preeminence in their engorged empire.

The patina of dynastic legitimacy Olympias maintained as Alexander’s kin was not sufficient to prevent the situation collapsing into war; indeed, we have met this this civil strife previously in these pages, when Olympias had the upper hand in a battle in 317 BCE and ordered the execution of Alexander’s mentally disabled half-brother. Olympias gets her share of stick as old time Macedonia’s deadly ophiomormous femme fatale, but this was cruelty with a purpose: the addled king was the catspaw in whose name her foe Cassander (as his father Antipater before him) claimed power as “regent”.

Cassander, a mate of Alexander dating back to their Aristotle study group days, was not captured in this affair, nor was he driven from the field by it. Soon thereafter he turned the tables and trapped Olympias in Pydna, where she was obliged to surrender to his discretion. That same logic of murder in statecraft turned now against the queen. First century (BCE) Greek historian Diodorus Siculus:

Although Cassander had shut Olympias into Pydna in Macedonia, he was not able to assault the walls because of the winter storms, but by encamping about the city, throwing up a palisade from sea to sea, and blockading the port, he prevented any who might wish to aid the queen from doing so. And as supplies were rapidly exhausted, he created such famine among those within that they were completely incapacitated. In truth, they were brought to such extreme need that they gave each soldier five choenices of grain per month, sawed up wood and fed the sawdust to the imprisoned elephants, and slaughtered the pack animals and horses for food. While the situation of the city was so serious and while Olympias was still clinging to hopes of rescue from outside, the elephants died from lack of nourishment, the horsemen that were not in the ranks and did not receive any food whatever nearly all perished, and no small number of the soldiers also met the same fate. Some of the non-Greeks, their natural needs overcoming their scruples, found flesh to eat by collecting the bodies of the dead. Since the city was being quickly filled with corpses, those in charge of the queen’s company, though they buried some of the bodies, threw others over the city wall. The sight of these was horrible, and their stench was unbearable, not merely to ladies who were of the queen’s court and addicted to luxury, but also to those of the soldiers who were habituated to hardship.

As spring came on and their want increased from day to day, many of the soldiers gathered together and appealed to Olympias to let them go because of the lack of supplies. Since she could neither issue any food at all nor break the siege, she permitted them to withdraw. Cassander, after welcoming all the deserters and treating them in most friendly fashion, sent them to the various cities; for he hoped that when the Macedonians learned from them how weak Olympias was, they would despair of her cause. And he was not mistaken in his surmise about what would happen: those who had resolved to fight on the side of the besieged forces changed their minds and went over to Cassander; and the only men in Macedonia to preserve their loyalty were Aristonoüs and Monimus, of whom Aristonoüs was ruler of Amphipolis and Monimus of Pella. But Olympias, when she saw that most of her friends had gone over to Cassander and that those who remained were not strong enough to come to her aid, attempted to launch a quinquereme and by this means to save herself and her friends. When, however, a deserter brought news of this attempt to the enemy and Cassander sailed up and took the ship, Olympias, recognizing that her situation was beyond hope, sent envoys to treat of terms. When Cassander gave his opinion that she must put all her interests into his hands, she with difficulty persuaded him to grant the single exception that he guarantee her personal safety. As soon as he had gained possession of the city, he sent men to take over Pella and Amphipolis. Now Monimus, the ruler of Pella, on hearing the fate of Olympias, surrendered his city; but Aristonoüs at first was minded to cling to his position … [until] Olympias wrote to him demanding his loyalty and ordering him to surrender, he perceived that it was necessary to do as ordered and delivered the city to Cassander, receiving pledges for his own safety.

Cassander, seeing that Aristonoüs was respected because of the preferment he had received from Alexander, and being anxious to put out of the way any who were able to lead a revolt, caused his death through the agency of the kinsfolk of Cratevas. He also urged the relatives of those whom Olympias had slain to accuse the aforesaid woman in the general assembly of the Macedonians. They did as he had ordered; and, although Olympias was not present and had none to speak in her defence, the Macedonians condemned her to death. Cassander, however, sent some of his friends to Olympias advising her to escape secretly, promising to provide a ship for her and to carry her to Athens. He acted thus, not for the purpose of securing her safety, but in order that she, condemning herself to exile and meeting death on the voyage, might seem to have met a punishment that was deserved; for he was acting with caution both because of her rank and because of the fickleness of the Macedonians. As Olympias, however, refused to flee but on the contrary was ready to be judged before all the Macedonians, Cassander, fearing that the crowd might change its mind if it heard the queen defend herself and was reminded of all the benefits conferred on the entire nation by Alexander and Philip, sent to her two hundred soldiers who were best fitted for such a task, ordering them to slay her as soon as possible. They, accordingly, broke into the royal house, but when they beheld Olympias, overawed by her exalted rank, they withdrew with their task unfulfilled. But the relatives of her victims, wishing to curry favour with Cassander as well as to avenge their dead, murdered the queen, who uttered no ignoble or womanish plea.

Such was the end of Olympias, who had attained to the highest dignity of the women of her day, having been daughter of Neoptolemus, king of the Epirotes, sister of the Alexander who made a campaign into Italy, and also wife of Philip, who was the mightiest of all who down to this time had ruled in Europe, and mother of Alexander, whose deeds were the greatest and most glorious.

Cassander would emerge from all this mess in a sturdy enough position to declare himself king. His sons, however, were unable to sustain the family in power and this particular general proved merely the precursor of a different general‘s more successful post-Alexander dynasty.

A monumental tomb recently discovered in the Kasta burial mound at Amphipolis — said to beggar the gorgeous Vergina tomb in scale and grandeur — has been speculatively associated with Olympias and/or Alexander. (“Hopefully” might be the better word, since the bare hint of such a link would be a boon for the tourism sector.) The site is still being excavated, and is not yet open to the public.

* Legend holds that Olympias gave birth to Alexander on the same day Herostratus torched the Temple of Artemis.