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

1 comment September 30th, 2017 Headsman

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.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,History,Innocent Bystanders,Iran,Macedonia,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Persia,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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316 BCE: Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great

Add comment April 17th, 2016 Headsman

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.

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356 BCE: Herostratus burns the Temple of Artemis

3 comments July 21st, 2013 Headsman

By the ancient world’s tradition, it was on July 21, 356 — the night of Alexander the Great‘s birth* — that a theretofore forgettable man set fire to the wooden rafters of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.

Situated on the Hellenized coast of Asia Minor, near present-day Selcuk, Turkey, Ephesus was one of the great cities of the Mediterranean. It counted Artemis (Diana) its patron deity, and gloried in a jaw-dropping marble temple, bankrolled two centuries before by the Lydian king Croesus, that would have nearly covered a modern football pitch. Ephesians took their Artemis seriously: 400-plus years later, St. Paul would barely escape lynching at the hands of enraged Artemis devotees when he proselytized there.

What a horror it must have been for 4th century BCE Ephesians to awake this day to the destruction of their city’s own sacred pride.

Even more shockingly, the temple’s destroyer made no effort to conceal himself. He openly boasted of his act, and of the horrifying reason for it: merely to exalt his obscure name with the luster of infamy.

Ephesus not only put this man to death, but passed a damnatio memoriae upon him, forbidding any mention of his name, in order to deny him his victory.

But the the historian Theopompus, who was not Ephesian, cheated the city of its sentence by recording it: Herostratus. It’s a word that has become a metonym in many languages and an allegory in many books for any villain impelled to his wickedness by the allure of celebrity.

We have no specific date for Herostratus’s execution. But we do have his last tortured victory. We do have his name.

The Ephesians in time rebuilt the magnificent temple, bigger and more awe-inspiring than before. It stood some 600 years more until the Goths sacked it in 268 AD, long enough to secure its place among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

“I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus,” wrote Antipater of Sidon of the reconstructed, post-Herostratus temple. “But when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, ‘Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.'”


The Temple of Artemis today: a weedy rubble. (cc) image from LWY.

* Plutarch remarked that Artemis was too distracted delivering the conqueror into the world to protect her shrine.

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330 B.C.E.: Philotas, Alexander the Great Companion

1 comment October 25th, 2011 Headsman

Around this time — October, or at any rate autumn — of 330 B.C.E., Alexander the Great authored “one of the two greatest crimes of his life”* with the execution of his comrade-in-arms Philotas.

Philotas was one of Alexander’s “companions”, the elite cavalry who joined Alexander personally in battle. He had fought by Alexander’s side in the epic Battle of Gaugamela, which brought down the Achaemenid Empire and opened Persia to the legendary conqueror.

A year later, Alexander, and therefore also those companions, were winding down campaign season all the way on the other side of the late empire they had so stunningly dismantled. It’s the region of Drangiana on the present-day Iran-Afghanistan frontier. The Macedonians would name the city Prophthasia, Anticipation, in recognition of their chief’s narrow escape; we know it today as Farah, Afghanistan.

Unlike many of the “companions” who joined the young Macedonian king, Philotas wasn’t a bosom buddy of Alexander.

He was, instead, a bit of a political appointee who owed his position to the fact that his father Parmenion, a great Macedonian general, had backed the disputed succession of Alexander. Parmenion continued as one of Alexander’s generals; his kid — not particularly popular of himself but nevertheless a loyal and competent officer — got a plum gig in Alexander’s vanguard.

In this capacity so close to the royal person, Philotas was warned by a conscientious slave of an assassination plot going against Alexander. And rather incredibly, he didn’t bother to pass it on.

When the slave realized, a couple of days on, that the conspiracy hadn’t been busted, he proceeded to tell somebody else … and Philotas had some explaining to do.

For posterity, it’s as open a question as it was then: Philotas initially convinced Alexander that he had merely considered the whole thing so insubstantial as not to merit the king’s attention — but by the next day, Alexander had better inclined himself to the more damning reading, that Philotas was perfectly amenable to seeing Alexander eliminated.** If that were the truth, it would herald a conflict that would soon come to define the Macedonian’s coruscating and paradoxical career: the army’s rising discontent with its march so far from home, and its leader’s ever more visible habit of arraying himself in the alien habits of oriental despotism.

Philotas got a “proper” if farcically rigged trial before fellow-generals who were all too happy to be rid of him, and was tortured into confessing. He was executed either by stoning (actually the traditional Macedonian execution method, even for the likes of generals) or spearing.

(The scene is dramatized in the 2004 Oliver Stone film Alexander; the relevant bit can be viewed here.)

Parmenion, a greater character than his son, would also pay the forfeit of his son’s alleged misprision.

At the time of Philotas’s execution, Parmenion was commanding a large army several days’ ride from Alexander. Fearing that the torture and execution of his last remaining son (the other two had also died on campaign) might inspire the august general to do something rash, Alexander dispatched a few trusted officers to outrace the news: they murdered an uncomprehending Parmenion as soon as they reached him. Whatever one makes of the child, the father’s loyalty both to Alexander and his predecessor Philip II had never previously been impeached in a long and brilliant career. Alexander ought to have counted himself fortunate to have avoided any wider disturbance in the army from the rough handling of this beloved general.

The whole affair was sufficiently distasteful that it remained a sensitive matter of state security hundreds of years and hundreds of miles distant: An Elizabethan play about Philotas by Samuel Daniel earned its author some uncomfortable official scrutiny for its perceived commentary on the contemporaneous execution of the Earl of Essex … the fallen courtier whose prosecution of a Jewish doctor arguably informed Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

* The other — later and greater — crime was Alexander’s drunken murder of his friend and loyal commander Cleitus. (He’s the guy shown stabbing Parmenion to death in the clip from Alexander, a circumstance that plays better as drama than history.)

** It doesn’t help anyone’s fact-finding that the main alleged plotter committed suicide when they came to arrest him.

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317 B.C.E.: Philip III Arrhidaeus, who succeeded Alexander the Great

1 comment December 25th, 2010 Headsman

It was perhaps on this date in 317 that the half-brother and successor of Alexander the Great was put to death, just another casualty as the conqueror’s vast empire fragmented.

The half-witted Philip III Arrhidaeus (or Arridaeus) didn’t exactly seem like he was born to rule — or maybe he was and that was just the problem. Plutarch juicily speculated that the boy was muddled intentionally by the snake-worshiping wife of Macedonian conqueror Philip II, Olympias. Olympias was the mother of a kid named Alexander whom she was trying to advance to the throne ahead of his half-siblings; Angelina Jolie made an apt choice to depict her at her ruthless harem-politicking best.

Arrhidaeus was the son of Philip by a courtesan named Philinna, a woman of low birth. His deficiency in understanding was the consequence of a distemper, in which neither nature nor accident had any share. For it is said, there was something amiable and great in him, when a boy; which Olympias perceiving, gave him potions that disturbed his brain.

-Plutarch

Philip III Arrhidaeus is one of the main characters of this historical novel.

Whatever potions Olympias did or did not administer, she did in fact put her kid in line to follow Philip; that boy vindicated the succession by rolling his phalanxes over vulnerable potentates from Hellas to India. You might have heard of the guy.

The problem for Macedon as for Arrhidaeus came after Alexander the Great’s brilliant career closed with his unexpected, youthful death.

The stupendous empire had no obvious heir, and different factions of Alexander’s military backed different candidates. Long story short, the Arrhidaeus succeeded as the titular, but powerless, king, under a succession of regents who were prone to untimely deaths.

“Merely” titular kingship is a pretty powerful post in itself, though, and Arrhidaeus’s wife Eurydice began maneuvering to gain a wider sphere of action from her now-allied, now-enemy regents, who were themselves fighting one another. In 317, Eurydice backed the wrong horse, and she and the hubby were put to death after capture by his rival, who was at the time allied with Olympias.

Alexander’s empire was fracturing, and would soon come completely apart (one of Alexander’s generals founded the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, which ended with Cleopatra‘s asp). It was a dangerous environment for everyone within a pikestaff of power, which meant that at least Arrhidaeus and Eurydice could take solace from the next world when the very same fate befell Olympias herself.

(More posthumous consolation: the Rimae Ariadaeus lunar crater is named for this short-lived figurehead.)


The funerary tumulus at Vergina, one of Greece’s most spellbinding archaeological treasures, features an in situ tomb whose occupant — though grandly claimed to be the more impressive Philip II — might, in fact, be Philip III. The contents of this tomb have been the subjected of spirited academic, and even nationalist, disputation, on which topics this blog is blessedly destitute of authority.


Royal Macedonian Tomb, Vergina. (cc) image from Templar1307 (whose user ID alludes to another blog-worthy incident).

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401 B.C.E.: Clearchus of Sparta

2 comments December 15th, 2007 Headsman

Around this time in the late autumn or early winter some weeks following the Battle of Cunaxa, the general of a Greek mercenary army — along with most of its other commanders — was treacherously seized by a Persian satrap and summarily beheaded.

In the train of the Peloponnesian War‘s devastation, sturdy Greek hoplites with bills to pay found a lucrative gig backing a Persian prince‘s bid to seize the throne.

The prince marched the Hellenes deep into Persia before falling in battle at Cunaxa in Mesopotamia, a discomfiting scenario alike for the stranded but still-potent invading army and the somewhat outclassed Persians.

The seizure around this day of the veteran soldier and former tyrant of Byzantium Clearchus — lured under color of friendship — aimed to crush the Greeks’ morale, but instead feathered the laurels of “the Ten Thousand”. This “marching Republic” hastily self-organized and proceeded upon an astonishing escape, intrepidly fighting its way north over the ensuing year to the Black Sea, and thence to hearth and home.

The Greeks’ perseverance offers one of classical antiquity’s stock testimonies to the resilient polis — and at this stage, practically the last breath of that dying spirit. More to the immediate point, it illustrated strikingly the Persian army’s vulnerability to the phalanx, exploited to decisive effect in the century to come by Alexander the Great.

One of the replacement generals, Xenophon, immortalized the Greeks’ march in the Anabasis.

After the generals had been seized, and the captains and soldiers who formed their escort had been killed, the Hellenes lay in deep perplexity — a prey to painful reflections. Here were they at the king’s gates, and on every side environing them were many hostile cities and tribes of men. Who was there now to furnish them with a market? Separated from Hellas by more than a thousand miles, they had not even a guide to point the way. Impassable rivers lay athwart their homeward route, and hemmed them in. Betrayed even by the Asiatics, at whose side they had marched with Cyrus to the attack, they were left in isolation. Without a single mounted trooper to aid them in pursuit: was it not perfectly plain that if they won a battle, their enemies would escape to a man, but if they were beaten themselves, not one soul of them would survive?

Haunted by such thoughts, and with hearts full of despair, but few of them tasted food that evening; but few of them kindled even a fire, and many never came into camp at all that night, but took their rest where each chanced to be. They could not close their eyes for very pain and yearning after their fatherlands or their parents, the wife or child whom they never expected to look upon again. Such was the plight in which each and all tried to seek repose.

The tale’s motif was borrowed for a 1965 novel of a New York gang struck leaderless making its way out of hostile territory, later adapted for a cult 1970’s film:

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