Two young plotters confessing before Alexander the Great

Arrian wrote: “While the king was still near Phaselis he received information that Alexander, son of Aëropus, who was not only one of the Companions, but also at that time commander of the Thessalian horse, was conspiring against him. This Alexander was brother of Heromenes and Arrhabaeus, who had taken part in the murder of Philip. At that time King Alexander pardoned him, though he was accused of complicity with them, because after Philip’s death he was among the first of his friends to come to him, and, helping him on with his breastplate, accompanied him to the palace. The king afterwards showed him honour at his court, sent him as general into Thrace; and when Calas the commander of the Thessalian horse was sent away to a viceroyalty he was appointed to succeed that general. The details of the conspiracy were reported as follows: When Amyntas deserted to Darius, he conveyed to him certain messages and a letter from this Alexander. Darius then sent Sisines, one of his own faithful Persian courtiers, down to the sea-coast, under pretence of going to Atizyes, viceroy of Phrygia, but really to communicate with this Alexander, and to give him pledges, that if he would kill king Alexander, Darius would appoint him king of Macedonia, and would give him , talents of gold in addition to the kingdom. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

“But Sisines, being captured by Parmenio, told him the real object of his mission. Parmenio sent him immediately under guard to the king, who obtained the same intelligence from him. The king then, having collected his friends, proposed to them as a subject for deliberation what decision he ought to make in regard to this Alexander. The Companions thought that formerly he had not resolved wisely in confiding the best part of his cavalry to a faithless man, and that now it was advisable to put him out of the way as speedily as possible, before he became even more popular among the Thessalians and should try to effect some revolutionary plan with their aid. Moreover they were terrified by a certain divine portent. For, while Alexander the king was still besieging Halicarnassus, it is said that he was once taking rest at midday, when a swallow flew about over his head loudly twittering, and perched now on this side of his couch and now on that, chirping more noisily than usual.

“On account of his fatigue he could not be roused from sleep, but being disquieted by the sound he brushed her away gently with his hand. But though struck she was so far from trying to escape, that she perched upon the very head of the king, and did not desist until he was wide awake. Thinking the affair of the swallow of no trivial import, he communicated it to a soothsayer, Aristander the Telmissian, who told him that it signified a plot formed by one of his friends. He said it also signified that the plot would be discovered, because the swallow was a bird fond of man’s society and well disposed to him as well as more loquacious than any other bird. Therefore, comparing this with the depositions of the Persian, the king sent Amphoterus, son of Alexander and brother of Craterus to Parmenio; and with him he sent some Pergaeans to show him the way. Amphoterus, putting on a native dress, so that he should not be recognised on the road, reached Parmenio by stealth. He did not carry a letter from Alexander, because it did not appear to the king advisable to write openly about such a matter; but he reported the message entrusted to him by word of mouth. Consequently this Alexander was arrested and kept under guard.”

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Things Go Badly for Alexander in Central Asia

Not everything went smoothly for Alexander the Great in Central Asia. Alexander's forces were harassed by nomadic horsemen called the Spitamneses. They made lighting strikes and then retreated before the Greeks could do anything about it. This and road weariness made Alexander's men increasingly restless and anxious to return home.

By this time Alexander was drinking heavily and had adopted modified Persian dress and customs, something that did not endear him to his loyal Macedon troops. He became increasingly paranoid and displayed wild fits of temper at perceived disloyalty.During one drunken party, when Alexander was boasting about his victories, Cleitus, a friend that once saved his life, said that Alexander owed thanks to his father and the Macedonian veterans that had stood by side all for so many years. Alexander was incensed by this remark. He accused Cleitus of being coward to which Cleitus accused him of pandering to the Persians. Enraged all the more, Alexander grabbed a spear and thrust it through his friend's chest, killing him instantly. Alexander was instantly filled with remorse and pulled the spear from Cleitus's body and tried to impale himself. Some officers managed to wrestle the spear from him. Alexander shut himself in his tent for days, grieving.

In Hyrcania on the Caspian Sea, Alexander was given a beautiful eunuch named Bagoas, who became Alexander's lover. This move was not popular either, nor was Alexander's desire to be treated like a god and requiring his troops to prostrate themselves in front of him and kiss him. Ephippus, a contemporary of Alexander, wrote: "In his honor myrrh and other kinds of incense were consumed in smoke; a religious stillness and silence born of fear held fast all whom were in his presence. For he was intolerable, and murderous, reputed to be melancholy mad."

Plot Against Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great as a judge

After Alexander defeated the Persians and advancing into Parthia, northeast of Persia, Plutarch wrote: “Limnus, a Macedonian of Chalastra, conspired against Alexander’s life, and communicated his design to a youth whom he was fond of, named Nicomachus, inviting him to be of the party. But he not relishing the thing, revealed it to his brother Balinus, who immediately addressed himself to Philotas, requiring him to introduce them both to Alexander, to whom they had something of great moment to impart which very nearly concerned him. But he, for what reason is uncertain, went not with them, professing that the king was engaged with affairs of more importance. And when they had urged him a second time, and were still slighted by him, they applied themselves to another, by whose means being admitted into Alexander’s presence, they first told about Limnus’s conspiracy, and by the way let Philotas’s negligence appear, who had twice disregarded their application to him. [Source: Plutarch (A.D. 45-127), “Life of Alexander”, A.D. 75 translated by John Dryden, 1906, MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ]

“Alexander was greatly incensed, and on finding that Limnus had defended himself, and had been killed by the soldier who was sent to seize him, he was still more discomposed, thinking he had thus lost the means of detecting the plot. As soon as his displeasure against Philotas began to appear, presently all his old enemies showed themselves, and said openly, the king was too easily imposed on, to imagine that one so inconsiderable as Limnus, a Chalastrian, should of his own head undertake such an enterprise; that in all likelihood he was but subservient to the design, an instrument that was moved by some greater spring; that those ought to be more strictly examined about the matter whose interest it was so much to conceal it. When they had once gained the king’s ear for insinuations of this sort, they went on to show a thousand grounds of suspicion against Philotas, till at last they prevailed to have him seized and put to the torture, which was done in the presence of the principal officers.

“Alexander himself being placed behind some tapestry to understand what passed. Where, when he heard in what a miserable tone, and with what abject submissions Philotas applied himself to Hephæstion, he broke out, it is said, in this manner: “Are you so meanspirited and effeminate, Philotas, and yet can engage in so desperate a design?” After his death, he presently sent into Media, and put also Parmenio, his father, to death, who had done brave service under Philip, and was the only man, of his older friends and counsellors, who had encouraged Alexander to invade Asia. Of three sons whom he had had in the army, he had already lost two, and now was himself put to death with the third. These actions rendered Alexander an object of terror to many of his friends, and chiefly to Antipater, who, to strengthen himself, sent messengers privately to treat for an alliance with the Ætolians, who stood in fear of Alexander, because they had destroyed the town of the Œniadæ; on being informed of which, Alexander had said the children of the Œniadæ need not revenge their fathers’ quarrel, for he would himself take care to punish the Ætolians.”

Philotas and Parmenio Executed

Philotas and Parmeini condemned to death

During the march to Bactra in present-day Afghanistan, Arrian wrote: “Alexander discovered the conspiracy of Philōtas, son of Parmenio. Ptolemy and Aristobūlus say that it had already been reported to him before in Egypt; but that it did not appear to him credible, both on account of the long-existing friendship between them, the honour which he publicly conferred upon his father Parmenio, and the confidence he reposed in Philotas himself. Ptolemy, son of Lagus, says that Philotas was brought before the Macedonians, that Alexander vehemently accused him, and that he defended himself from the charges. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

“He says also that the divulgers of the plot came forward and convicted him and his accomplices both by other clear proofs and especially because Philotas himself confessed that he had heard of a certain conspiracy which was being formed against Alexander. He was convicted of having said nothing to the king about this plot, though he visited the royal tent twice a day. He and all the others who had taken part with him in the conspiracy were killed by the Macedonians with their javelins; and Polydamas, one of the Companions, was despatched to Parmenio, carrying letters from Alexander to the generals in Media, Cleander, Sitalces, and Menidas, who had been placed over the army commanded by Parmenio.

“By these men Parmenio was put to death, perhaps because Alexander deemed it incredible that Philotas should conspire against him and Parmenio not participate in his son’s plan; or perhaps, he thought that even if he had no share in it, he would now be a dangerous man if he survived, after the king had violently made away with his son. Moreover he was held in very great respect both by Alexander himself and by all the army, having great influence not only among the Macedonian troops but also among the Grecian auxiliaries, whom he often used to command according to Alexander’s order, both in his own turn and out of his turn, with his sovereign’s approbation and satisfaction.

“They also say that about the same time Amyntas, son of Andromenes, was brought to trial, together with his brothers Polemo, Attalus, and Simmias, on the charge of being accessory to the conspiracy against Alexander, on account of their trust in Philotas and their intimate friendship with him. The belief in their participation in the plot was strengthened among the mass of men by the fact that when Philotas was arrested, Polemo, one of the brothers of Amyntas, fled to the enemy. But Amyntas with his other two brothers stayed to await the trial, and defended himself so vigorously among the Macedonians that he was declared innocent of the charge. As soon as he was acquitted in the assembly, he demanded that permission should be given him to go to his brother and bring him back to Alexander. To this the Macedonians acceded; so he went away and on the same day brought Polemo back. On this account he now seemed free from guilt much more than before. But soon after, as he was besieging a certain village, he was shot with an arrow and died of the wound; so that he derived no other advantage from his acquittal except that of dying with an unsullied reputation.”

Deplorable End of Cleitus

Cleitus saves Alexander at Granicus

During one drunken party, when Alexander was boasting about his victories, Cleitus, a friend that once saved his life, said that Alexander owed thanks to his father and the Macedonian veterans that had stood by side all for so many years. Alexander was incensed by this remark. He accused Cleitus of being coward to which Cleitus accused him of pandering to the Persians. Enraged all the more, Alexander grabbed a spear and thrust it through his friend's chest, killing him instantly. Alexander was instantly filled with remorse and pulled the spear from Cleitus's body and tried to impale himself. Some officers managed to wrestle the spear from him. Alexander shut himself in his tent for days, grieving.

Plutarch wrote: Not long after Philotas and Parmenio were executed “the deplorable end of Cleitus, which to those who barely hear the matter-of-fact, may seem more inhuman than that of Philotas; but if we consider the story with its circumstance of time, and weigh the cause, we shall find it to have occurred rather through a sort of mischance of the king’s, whose anger and over-drinking offered an occasion to the evil genius of Cleitus. The king had a present of Grecian fruit brought him from the sea-coast, which was so fresh and beautiful, that he was surprised at it, and called Cleitus to him to see it, and to give him a share of it. Cleitus was then sacrificing, but he immediately left off and came, followed by three sheep, on whom the drink-offering had been already poured preparatory to sacrificing them. Alexander, being informed of this, told his diviners, Aristander and Cleomantis the Lacedæmonian, and asked them what it meant; on whose assuring him, it was an ill omen, he commanded them in all haste to offer sacrifices for Cleitus’s safety, forasmuch as three days before he himself [224] had seen a strange vision in his sleep, of Cleitus all in mourning, sitting by Parmenio’s sons who were dead. [Source: Plutarch (A.D. 45-127), “Life of Alexander”, A.D. 75 translated by John Dryden, 1906, MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ]

“Cleitus, however, stayed not to finish his devotions, but came straight to supper with the king, who had sacrificed to Castor and Pollux. And when they had drunk pretty hard, some of the company fell a singing the verses of one Pranichus, or as others say of Pierion, which were made upon those captains who had been lately worsted by the barbarians, on purpose to disgrace and turn them to ridicule. This gave offence to the older men who were there, and they upbraided both the author and the singer of the verses, though Alexander and the younger men about him were much amused to hear them, and encouraged them to go on, till at last Cleitus, who had drunk too much, and was besides of a froward and wilful temper, was so nettled that he could hold no longer, saying, it was not well done to expose the Macedonians so before the barbarians and their enemies, since though it was their unhappiness to be overcome, yet they were much better men than those who laughed at them.

“And when Alexander remarked, that Cleitus was pleading his own cause, giving cowardice the name of misfortune, Cleitus started up; “This cowardice, as you are pleased to term it,” said he to him, “saved the life of a son of the gods, when in flight from Spithridates’s sword; and it is by the expense of Macedonian blood, and by these wounds, that you are now raised to such a height, as to be able to disown your father Philip, and call yourself the son of Ammon.” “Thou base fellow,” said Alexander, who was now thoroughly exasperated, “dost thou think to utter these things everywhere of me, and stir up the Macedonians to sedition, and not be punished for it?” “We are sufficiently punished already,” answered Cleitus, “if this be the recompense of our toils, and we must [225] esteem theirs a happy lot, who have not lived to see their countrymen scourged with Median rods, and forced to sue to the Persians to have access to their king.” While he talked thus at random, and those near Alexander got up from their seats and began to revile him in turn, the elder men did what they could to compose the disorder.

Alexander quarrels with Cleitus

“Alexander, in the mean time turning about to Xenodochus, the Cardian, and Artemius, the Colophonian, asked them if they were not of opinion that the Greeks, in comparison with the Macedonians, behaved themselves like so many demi-gods among wild beasts. But Cleitus for all this would not give over, desiring Alexander to speak out if he had any thing more to say, or else why did he invite men who were freeborn and accustomed to speak their minds openly without restraint, to sup with him. He had better live and converse with barbarians and slaves who would not scruple to bow the knee to his Persian girdle and his white tunic. Which words so provoked Alexander, that not able to suppress his anger any longer, he threw one of the apples that lay upon the table at him, and hit him, and then looked about for his sword. But Aristophanes, one of his life-guard, had hid that out of the way, and others came about him and besought him, but in vain. For breaking from them, he called out aloud to his guards in the Macedonian language, which was a certain sign of some great disturbance in him, and commanded a trumpeter to sound, giving him a blow with his clenched fist for not instantly obeying him; though afterwards the same man was commended for disobeying an order which would have put the whole army into tumult and confusion. Cleitus still refusing to yield, was with much trouble forced by his friends out of the room. But he came in again immediately at another door, very irreverently and confidently singing the verses out of Euripides’s Andromache, “In Greece, alas! how ill things ordered are!*

“Upon this, at last, Alexander, snatching a spear from one of the soldiers, met Cleitus as he was coming forward and was putting by the curtain that hung before the door, and ran him through the body. He fell at once with a cry and a groan. Upon which the king’s anger immediately vanishing, he came perfectly to himself, and when he saw his friends about him all in a profound silence, he pulled the spear out of the dead body, and would have thrust it into his own throat, if the guards had not held his hands, and by main force carried him away into his chamber, where all that night and the next day he wept bitterly, till being quite spent with lamenting and exclaiming, he lay as it were speechless, only fetching deep sighs. His friends apprehending some harm from his silence, broke into the room, but he took no notice of what any of them said, till Aristander putting him in mind of the vision he had seen concerning Cleitus, and the prodigy that followed, as if all had come to pass by an unavoidable fatality, he then seemed to moderate his grief.”

Arrian on Murder of Cleitus

Arrian wrote: “Here also I shall give an account of the tragic fate of Cleitus, son of Dropidas, and of Alexander’s mishap in regard to it. Though it occurred a little while after this, it will not be out place here. The Macedonians kept a day sacred to Dionysus, and on that day Alexander used to offer sacrifice to him every year. But they say that on this occasion he was neglectful of Dionysus, and sacrificed to the Dioscūri instead; for he had resolved to offer sacrifice to those deities for some reason or other. When the drinking-party on this occasion had already gone on too long (for Alexander had now made innovations even in regard to drinking, by imitating the custom of foreigners), and in the midst of the carouse a discussion had arisen about the Dioscuri, how their procreation had been taken away from Tyndareus and ascribed to Zeus, some of those present, in order to flatter Alexander, maintained that Polydeuces and Castor were in no way worthy to compare with him who had performed so many exploits. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

Alexander spears Cleitus

“Such men have always corrupted the character of kings and will never cease to ruin the interests of those who happen to be reigning. In their carousal they did not even abstain from (comparing him with) Heracles; saying that envy prevented the living from receiving the honours due to them from their associates. It was well known that Cleitus had long been vexed at Alexander for the change in his style of living in imitation of foreign kings, and at those who flattered him with their speech. At that time also, being heated with wine, he would not permit them either to insult the deity or, by depreciating the deeds of the ancient heroes, to confer upon Alexander a gratification which deserved no thanks. He affirmed Alexander’s deeds were neither in fact so great or marvellous as they represented in their laudation; nor had he achieved them by himself, but for the most part they were the deeds of the Macedonians. The delivery of this speech annoyed Alexander; and I do not commend it, for I think, in such a drunken bout, it would have been sufficient if, so far as he was personally concerned, he had kept silence, and not committed the error of indulging in the same flattery as the others. But when some even mentioned Philip’s actions without exercising a just judgment, declaring that he had performed nothing great or marvellous, they gratified Alexander.

“But Cleitus being then no longer able to contain himself, began to put Philip’s achievements in the first rank, and to depreciate Alexander and his performances. Cleitus being now quite intoxicated, made other insolent remarks and even greatly reviled him, because forsooth he had saved his life, when the cavalry battle had been fought with the Persians at the Granicus. Then indeed, arrogantly stretching out his right hand, he said:—“This hand, O Alexander, preserved thee on that occasion.” Alexander could now no longer endure the drunken insolence of Cleitus; but jumped up against him in a great rage. He was however restrained by his boon-companions. As Cleitus did not desist from his insulting remarks, Alexander shouted out a summons for his shield-bearing guards to attend him; but when no one obeyed him, he said that he was reduced to the same position as Darius, when he was led about under arrest by Bessus and his adherents, and that he now possessed the mere name of king. Then his companions were no longer able to restrain him; for according to some he leaped up and snatched a javelin from one of his confidential body-guards; according to others, a long pike from one of his ordinary guards, with which he struck Cleitus and killed him. Aristobulus does not say whence the drunken quarrel originated, but asserts that the fault was entirely on the side of Cleitus, who, when Alexander had got so enraged with him as to jump up against him with the intention of making an end of him, was led away by Ptolemy, son of Lagus, the confidential body-guard, through the gateway, beyond the wall and ditch of the citadel where the quarrel occurred. He adds that Cleitus could not control himself, but went back again, and falling in with Alexander who was calling out for Cleitus, he exclaimed:—“Alexander, here is Cleitus!” Thereupon he was struck with a long pike and killed.”

Alexander’s Grief for Cleitus

Arrian wrote: “I think Cleitus deserving of severe censure for his insolent behaviour to his king, while at the same time I pity Alexander for his mishap, because on that occasion he showed himself the slave of two vices, anger and drunkenness, by neither of which is it seemly for a prudent man to be enslaved. But then on the other hand I think his subsequent behaviour worthy of praise, because directly after he had done the deed he recognised that it was a horrible one. Some of his biographers even say that he propped the pike against the wall with the intention of falling upon it himself, thinking that it was not proper for him to live who had killed his friend when under the influence of wine. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

“Most historians do not mention this, but say that he went off to bed and lay there lamenting, calling Cleitus himself by name, and his sister Lanice, daughter of Dropidas, who had been his nurse. He exclaimed that having reached man’s estate he had forsooth bestowed on her a noble reward for her care in rearing him, as she lived to see her own sons die fighting on his behalf, and the king slaying her brother with his own hand. He did not cease calling himself the murderer of his friends; and for three days rigidly abstained from food and drink, and paid no attention whatever to his personal appearance. Some of the soothsayers revealed that the avenging wrath of Dionysus had been the cause of his conduct, because he had omitted the sacrifice to that deity. At last with great difficulty he was induced by his companions to touch food and to pay proper attention to His person. He then paid to Dionysus the sacrifice due to him, since he was not at all unwilling to attribute the fatality rather to the avenging wrath of the deity than to his own depravity. I think Alexander deserves great praise for this, that he did not obstinately persevere in evil, or still worse become a defender and advocate of the wrong which had been done, but confessed that he had committed a crime, being a man and not a god.

“There are some who say that Anaxarchus the Sophist was summoned into Alexander’s presence to give him consolation. Finding him lying down and groaning, he laughed at him, and said that he did not know that the wise men of old for this reason made Justice an assessor of Zeus, because whatever was done by him was justly done; and therefore also that which was done by the Great King ought to be deemed just, in the first place by the king himself, and then by the rest of men. They say that Alexander was then greatly consoled by these remarks. But I assert that Anaxarchus did Alexander a great injury and one still greater than that by which he was then oppressed, if he really thought this to be the opinion of a wise man, that forsooth it is proper for a king to come to hasty conclusions and act unjustly, and that whatever is done by a king must be deemed just, no matter how it is done. There is also a current report that Alexander wished men to prostrate themselves before him as to a god, entertaining the notion that Ammon was his father, rather than Philip; and that he now showed his admiration of the customs of the Persians and Medes by changing the style of his dress, and by the alteration he made in the general etiquette of his court. There were not wanting those who in regard to these matters gave way to his wishes with the design of flattering him; among others being Anaxarchus, one of the philosophers attending his court, and Agis, an Argive who was an epic poet.”

Callisthenes, the Philosopher, Tries to Reason with Alexander

Plutarch wrote: “They now brought Callisthenes, the philosopher, who was the near friend of Aristotle, and Anaxarchus of Abdera, to him. Callisthenes used moral language, and gentle and soothing means, hoping to find access for words of reason, and get a hold upon the passion. But Anaxarchus, who had always taken a course of his own in philosophy, and had a name for despising and slighting his contemporaries, as [227] soon as he came in, cried out aloud, “Is this the Alexander whom the whole world looks to, lying here weeping like a slave, for fear of the censure and reproach of men, to whom he himself ought to be a law and measure of equity, if he would use the right his conquests have given him as supreme lord and governor of all, and not be the victim of a vain and idle opinion? Do not you know,” said he, “that Jupiter is represented to have Justice and Law on each hand of him, to signify that all the actions of a conqueror are lawful and just?” With these and the like speeches, Anaxarchus indeed allayed the king’s grief, but withal corrupted his character, rendering him more audacious and lawless than he had been. Nor did he fail by these means to insinuate himself into his favor, and to make Callisthenes’s company, which at all times, because of his austerity, was not very acceptable, more uneasy and disagreeable to him. [Source: Plutarch (A.D. 45-127), “Life of Alexander”, A.D. 75 translated by John Dryden, 1906, MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ]

“It happened that these two philosophers meeting at an entertainment, where conversation turned on the subject of climate and the temperature of the air, Callisthenes joined with their opinion, who held that those countries were colder, and the winter sharper there than in Greece. Anaxarchus would by no means allow this, but argued against it with some heat. “Surely,” said Callisthenes, “you cannot but admit this country to be colder than Greece, for there you used to have but one threadbare cloak to keep out the coldest winter, and here you have three good warm mantles one over another.” This piece of raillery irritated Anaxarchus and the other pretenders to learning, and the crowd of flatterers in general could not endure to see Callisthenes so much admired and followed by the youth, and no less esteemed by the older men for his orderly life, and his gravity, and for being contented with his condition; all confirming what he had professed about the object he had in his journey to Alexander, that it was only to get his countrymen recalled from banishment, and to rebuild and repeople his native town.* Besides the envy which his great reputation raised, he also, by his own deportment, gave those who wished him ill, opportunity to do him mischief. For when he was invited to public entertainments, he would most times refuse to come, or if he were present at any, he put a constraint upon the company by his austerity and silence, which seemed to intimate his disapproval of what he saw. So that Alexander himself said in application to him, “That vain pretence to wisdom I detest, / Where a man’s blind to his own interest.

“Being with many more invited to sup with the king, he was called upon when the cup came to him, to make an oration extempore in praise of the Macedonians; and he did it with such a flow of eloquence, that all who heard it rose from their seats to clap and applaud him, and threw their garland upon him; only Alexander told him out of Euripides, “I wonder not that you have spoke so well, ’Tis easy on good subjects to excel. “Therefore,” said he, “if you will show the force of your eloquence, tell my Macedonians their faults, and dispraise them, that by hearing their errors they may learn to be better for the future.” Callisthenes presently obeyed him, retracting all he had said before, and, inveighing against the Macedonians with great freedom, added, that Philip thrived and grew powerful, chiefly by the discord of the Grecians, applying this verse to him:“In civil strife e’en villains rise to fame;” which so offended the Macedonians, that he was odious to them ever after. And Alexander said, that instead of his eloquence, he had only made his ill-will appear in what he had spoken. Hermippus assures us, that one Strœbus, a servant whom Callisthenes kept to read to him, gave this account of these passages afterwards to Aristotle; and that when he perceived the king grow more and more averse to him, two or three times, as he was going away, he repeated the verses, “Death seiz’d at last on great Patroclus too, Though he in virtue far exceeded you.”

Callisthenes like Alexander was a student of Aristotle, pictured here

“Not without reason, therefore, did Aristotle give this character of Callisthenes, that he was, indeed, a powerful speaker, but had no judgment. He acted certainly a true philosopher’s part in positively refusing, as he did, to pay adoration; and by speaking out openly against that which the best and gravest of the Macedonians only repined at in secret, he delivered the Grecians and Alexander himself from a great disgrace, when the practice was given up. But he ruined himself by it, because he went too roughly to work, as if he would have forced the king to that which he should have effected by reason and persuasion. Chares of Mitylene writes, that at a banquet, [230] Alexander, after he had drunk, reached the cup to one of his friends, who, on receiving it, rose up towards the domestic altar, and when he had drunk, first adored, and then kissed Alexander, and afterwards laid himself down at the table with the rest. Which they all did one after another, till it came to Callisthenes’s turn, who took the cup and drank, while the king who was engaged in conversation with Hephæstion was not observing, and then came and offered to kiss him.

“But Demetrius, surnamed Phidon, interposed, saying, “Sir, by no means let him kiss you, for he only of us all has refused to adore you;” upon which the king declined it, and all the concern Callisthenes showed was, that he said aloud, “Then I go away with a kiss less than the rest.” The displeasure he incurred by this action procured credit for Hephæstion’s declaration that he had broken his word to him in not paying the king the same veneration that others did, as he had faithfully promised to do. And to finish his disgrace, a number of such men as Lysimachus and Hagnon now came in with their asseverations that the sophist went about everywhere boasting of his resistance to arbitrary power, and that the young men all ran after him, and honored him as the only man among so many thousands who had the courage to preserve his liberty.

“Therefore when Hermolaus’s conspiracy came to be discovered, the charges which his enemies brought against him were the more easily believed, particularly that when the young man asked him what he should do to be the most illustrious person on earth, he told him the readiest way was to kill him who was already so; and that to incite him to commit the deed, he bade him not be awed by the golden couch, but remember Alexander was a man equally infirm and vulnerable as another. However, none of Hermolaus’s accomplices, in the utmost extremity, made any mention of Callisthenes’s being engaged in the design.

“Nay, Alexander himself, in the letters which he wrote soon after to Craterus, Attalus, and Alcetas, tells them that the young men who were put to the torture declared they had entered into the conspiracy of themselves, without any others being privy to, or guilty of it. But yet afterwards, in a letter to Antipater, he accuses Callisthenes. “The young men,” he says, “were stoned to death by the Macedonians, but for the sophist,” (meaning Callisthenes,) “I will take care to punish him with them too who sent him to me, and who harbor those in their cities who conspire against my life,” an unequivocal declaration against Aristotle, in whose house Callisthenes, for his relationship’s sake, being his niece Hero’s son, had been educated. His death is variously related. Some say he was hanged by Alexander’s orders; others, that he died of sickness in prison; but Chares writes he was kept in chains seven months after he was apprehended, on purpose that he might be proceeded against in full council, when Aristotle should be present; and that growing very fat, and contracting a disease of vermin, he there died, about the time that Alexander was wounded in India, in the country of the Malli Oxydracæ,* all which came to pass afterwards.

“For to go on in order, Demaratus of Corinth, now quite an old man, had made a great effort, about this time, to pay Alexander a visit; and when he had seen him, said he pitied the misfortune of those Grecians, who were so unhappy as to die before they had beheld Alexander seated on the throne of Darius. But he did not long enjoy the benefit of the king’s kindness for him, any otherwise than that soon after falling sick and dying, he had a magnificent [232] funeral, and the army raised him a monument of earth, fourscore cubits high, and of a vast circumference. His ashes were conveyed in a very rich chariot, drawn by four horses, to the seaside.”

Dispute between Callisthenes and Anaxarchus

Arrian wrote: “But it is said that Callisthenes the Olynthian, who had studied philosophy under Aristotle, and was somewhat brusque in his manner, did not approve of this conduct; and so far as this is concerned I quite agree with him. But the following remark of his, if indeed it has been correctly recorded, I do not think at all proper, when he declared that Alexander and his exploits were dependent upon him and his history, and that he had not come to him to acquire reputation from him, but to make him renowned in the eyes of men; consequently that Alexander’s participation in divinity did not depend on the false assertion of Olympias in regard to the author of his birth, but on what he might report to mankind in his history of the king. There are some writers also who have said that on one occasion Philotas forsooth asked him, what man he thought to be held in especial honour by the people of Athens; and that he replied:—“Harmodius and Aristogeiton; because they slew one of the two despots, and put an end to the despotism.” [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

“Philotas again asked:—“If it happened now that a man should kill a despot, to which of the Grecian States would you wish him to flee for preservation?” Callisthenes again replied:—“If not among others, at any rate among the Athenians an exile would find preservation; for they waged war on behalf of the sons of Heracles against Eurystheus, who at that time was ruling as a despot over Greece.” How he resisted Alexander in regard to the ceremony of prostration, the following is the most received account. An arrangement was made between Alexander and the Sophists in conjunction with the most illustrious of the Persians and Medes who were in attendance upon him, that this topic should be mentioned at a wine-party. Anaxarchus commenced the discussion by saying that he considered Alexander much more worthy of being deemed a god than either Dionysus or Heracles, not only on account of the very numerous and mighty exploits which he had performed, but also because Dionysus was only a Theban, in no way related to Macedonians; and Heracles was an Argive, not at all related to them, except that Alexander deduced his descent from him. He added that the Macedonians might with greater justice gratify their king with divine honours, for there was no doubt about this, that when he departed from men they would honour him as a god. How much more just then would it be to worship him while alive, than after his death, when it would be no advantage to him to be honoured.”

Callisthenes Opposes the Proposal to Honour Alexander by Prostration

Arrian wrote: “When Anaxarchus had uttered these remarks and others of a similar kind, those who were privy to the plan applauded his speech, and wished at once to begin the ceremony of prostration. Most of the Macedonians, however, were vexed at the speech and kept silence. But Callisthenes interposed and said:—“O Anaxarchus, I openly declare that there is no honour which Alexander is unworthy to receive, provided that it is consistent with his being human; but men have made distinctions between those honours which are due to men, and those due to gods, in many different ways, as for instance by the building of temples and by the erection of statues. Moreover for the gods sacred enclosures are selected, to them sacrifice is offered, and to them libations are made. Hymns also are composed in honour of the gods, and eulogies for men. But the greatest distinction is made by the custom of prostration. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

“For it is the practice that men should be kissed by those who salute them; but because the deity is located somewhere above, it is not lawful even to touch him, and this is the reason no doubt why he is honoured by prostration. Bands of choral dancers are also appointed for the gods, and paeans are sung in their honour. And this is not at all wonderful, seeing that certain honours are specially assigned to some of the gods and certain others to other gods, and, by Zeus, quite different ones again are assigned to heroes, which are very distinct from those paid to the deities. It is not therefore reasonable to confound all these distinctions without discrimination, exalting men to a rank above their condition by extravagant accumulation of honours, and debasing the gods, as far as lies in human power, to an unseemly level, by paying them honours only equal to those paid to men.” He said that Alexander would not endure the affront, if some private individual were to be thrust into his royal honours by an unjust vote, either by show of hand or by ballot. Much more justly then would the gods be indignant at those mortals who usurp divine honours or suffer themselves to be thrust into them by others. “Alexander not only seems to be, but is in reality beyond any competition the bravest of brave men, of kings the most kingly, and of generals the most worthy to command an army. O Anaxarchus, it was thy duty, rather than any other man’s, to become the special advocate of these arguments now adduced by me, and the opponent of those contrary to them, seeing that thou associatest with him for the purpose of imparting philosophy and instruction. Therefore it was unseemly to begin this discussion, when thou oughtest to have remembered that thou art not associating with and giving advice to Cambyses or Xerxes, but to the son of Philip, who derives his origin from Heracles and Aeacus, whose ancestors came into Macedonia from Argos, and have continued to rule the Macedonians, not by force, but by law. Not even to Heracles himself while still alive were divine honours paid by the Greeks; and even after his death they were withheld until a decree had been published by the oracle of the god at Delphi that men should honour Heracles as a god. But if, because the discussion is held in the land of foreigners, we ought to adopt the sentiments of foreigners, I demand, O Alexander, that thou shouldst bethink thyself of Greece, for whose sake the whole of this expedition was undertaken by thee, that thou mightest join Asia to Greece. Therefore make up thy mind whether thou wilt return thither and compel the Greeks, who are men most devoted to freedom, to pay thee the honour of prostration, or whether thou wilt keep aloof from Greece, and inflict this honour on the Macedonians alone, or thirdly whether thou wilt thyself make a difference in every respect as to the honours to be paid thee, so as to be honoured by the Greeks and Macedonians as a human being and after the manner of the Greeks, and by foreigners alone after the foreign fashion of prostration. But if it is said that Cyrus, son of Cambyses, was the first man to whom the honour of prostration was paid, and that afterwards this degrading ceremony continued in vogue among the Persians and Medes, we ought to bear in mind that the Scythians, men poor but independent, chastised that Cyrus; that other Scythians again chastised Darius, as the Athenians and Lacedaemonians did Xerxes, as Clearchus and Xenophon with their , followers did Artaxerxes; and finally, that Alexander, though not honoured with prostration, has conquered this Darius.”

Callisthenes Refuses to Prostrate Himself

Arrian wrote: “By making these and other remarks of a similar kind, Callisthenes greatly annoyed Alexander, but spoke the exact sentiments of the Macedonians. When the king perceived this, he sent to prevent the Macedonians from making any farther mention of the ceremony of prostration. But after the discussion silence ensued; and then the most honourable of the Persians arose in due order and prostrated their bodies before him. But when one of the Persians seemed to have performed the ceremony in an awkward way, Leonnatus, one of the Companions, laughed at his posture as mean. Alexander at the time was angry with him for this, but was afterwards reconciled to him. The following account has also been given:—Alexander drank from a golden goblet the health of the circle of guests, and handed it first to those with whom he had concerted the ceremony of prostration. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

“The first who drank from the goblet rose up and performed the act of prostration, and received a kiss from him. This ceremony proceeded from one to another in due order. But when the pledging of health came to the turn of Callisthenes, he rose up and drank from the goblet, and drew near, wishing to kiss the king without performing the act of prostration. Alexander happened then to be conversing with Hephaestion, and consequently did not observe whether Callisthenes performed the ceremony properly or not. But when Callisthenes was approaching to kiss him, Demetrius, son of Pythonax, one of the Companions, said that he was doing so without having prostrated himself. So the king would not permit him to kiss him; whereupon the philosopher said:—“I am going away only with the loss of a kiss.” I by no means approve any of these proceedings, which manifested both the insolence of Alexander on the present occasion and the churlish nature of Callisthenes. But I think that, so far as regards himself, it would have been quite sufficient if he had given his opinion discreetly, magnifying as much as possible the exploits of the king, with whom no one thought it a dishonour to associate. Therefore I consider that not without reason Callisthenes became odious to Alexander on account of the unseasonable freedom of speech in which he indulged, as well as from the egregious fatuity of his conduct. I surmise that this was the reason why such easy credit was given to those who accused him of participating in the conspiracy formed against Alexander by his pages, and to those also who affirmed that they had been incited to engage in the conspiracy by him alone. The facts of this conspiracy were as follows:

Conspiracy of the Pages

Murderers executed bu Alexander

Arrian wrote: “It was a custom introduced by Philip, that the sons of those Macedonians who had enjoyed high office, should, as soon as they reached the age of puberty, be selected to attend the king’s court. These youths were entrusted with the general attendance on the king’s person and the protection of his body while he was asleep. Whenever the king rode out, some of them received the horses from the grooms, and brought them to him, and others assisted him to mount in the Persian fashion. They were also companions of the king in the emulation of the chase. Among these youths was Hermolaüs, son of Sopolis, who seemed to be applying his mind to the study of philosophy, and to be cultivating the society of Callisthenes for this purpose. There is current a tale about this youth to the effect that in the chase, a boar rushed at Alexander, and that Hermolaüs anticipated him by casting a javelin at the beast, by which it was smitten and killed. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

“But Alexander, having lost the opportunity of distinguishing himself by being too late in the assault, was indignant with Hermolaüs, and in his wrath ordered him to receive a scourging in sight of the other pages; and also deprived him of his horse. This Hermolaüs, being chagrined at the disgrace he had incurred, told Sostratus, son of Amyntas, who was his equal in age and intimate confidential friend, that life would be insupportable to him unless he could take vengeance upon Alexander for the affront. He easily persuaded Sostratus to join in the enterprise, since he was fondly attached to him. They gained over to their plans Antipater, son of Asclepiodorus, viceroy of Syria, Epimenes son of Arseas, Anticles son of Theocritus, and Philotas son of Carsis the Thracian. They therefore agreed to kill the king by attacking him in his sleep, on the night when the nocturnal watch came round to Antipater’s turn. Some say that Alexander accidentally happened to be drinking until daybreak; but Aristobulus has given the following account: A Syrian woman, who was under the inspiration of the deity, used to follow Alexander about. At first she was a subject of mirth to Alexander and his courtiers; but when all that she said in her inspiration was seen to be true, he no longer treated her with neglect, but she was allowed to have free access to him both by night and day, and she often took her stand near him even when he was asleep. And indeed on that occasion, when he was withdrawing from the drinking-party she met him, being under the inspiration of the deity at the time, and besought him to return and drink all night. Alexander, thinking that there was something divine in the warning, returned and went on drinking; and thus the enterprise of the pages fell through. The next day, Epimenes son of Arseas, one of those who took part in the conspiracy, spoke of the undertaking to Charicles son of Menander, who had become his confidential friend; and Charicles told it to Eurylochus, brother of Epimenes. Eurylochus went to Alexander’s tent and related the whole affair to Ptolemy son of Lagus, one of the confidential body-guards. He told Alexander, who ordered those whose names had been mentioned by Eurylochus to be arrested. These, being put on the rack, confessed their own conspiracy, and mentioned the names of certain others.”

Execution of Callisthenes and Hermolaüs

Arrian wrote: “Aristobulus says that the youths asserted it was Callisthenes who instigated them to make the daring attempt; and Ptolemy says the same. Most writers, however, do not agree with this, but represent that Alexander readily believed the worst about Callisthenes, from the hatred which he already felt towards him, and because Hermolaüs was known to be exceedingly intimate with him. Some authors have also recorded the following particulars:—that Hermolaüs was brought before the Macedonians, to whom he confessed that he had conspired against the king’s life, because it was no longer possible for a free man to bear his insolent tyranny. He then recounted all his acts of despotism, the illegal execution of Philotas, the still more illegal one of his father Parmenio and of the others who were put to death at that time, the murder of Clitus in a fit of drunkenness, his assumption of the Median garb, the introduction of the ceremony of prostration, which had been planned and not yet relinquished, and the drinking-bouts and lethargic sleep arising from them, to which he was addicting himself. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

“He said that, being no longer able to bear these things, he wished to free both himself and the other Macedonians. These same authors say that Hermolaüs himself and those who had been arrested with him were stoned to death by those who were present. Aristobulus says that Callisthenes was carried about with the army bound with fetters, and afterwards died a natural death; but Ptolemy, son of Lagus, says that he was stretched upon the rack and then hanged. Thus not even did these authors, whose narratives are very trustworthy, and who at the time were in intimate association with Alexander, give accounts consistent with each other of events so well known, and the circumstances of which could not have escaped their notice. Other writers have given many various details of these same proceedings which are inconsistent with each other; but I think I have written quite sufficient on this subject. Though these events took place shortly after the death of Clitus, I have described them among those which happened to Alexander in reference to that General, because, for the purposes of narrative, I consider them very intimately connected with each other.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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